‘Puskas on Puskas: The Life and Times of a Footballing Legend’ edited by Rogan Taylor and Klara Jamrich (1997)

“Virtually his entire playing career – over twenty years – was spent not just at the top, but at the very top of his profession.  He never stepped down from that summit.  And whatever he touched in the footballing world turned to gold”. 

Ferenc Puskas sits alongside Alfredo di Stefano in being widely regarded as the best player in the pre-Pele football era.   His achievements were remarkable – as well as being a top player right up to his 40th birthday, he played in two of the most famous (non-World Cup) matches ever to take place on British soil, captained arguably the greatest international football team never to win a World Cup (Cruyff might have disagreed) and even coached Panathinaikos to the European Cup final. Add in 83 goals in 84 internationals, an Olympic gold medal and the fact that the FIFA Goal of the Season award is named after him, and you get some sense of his accomplishments. puskas 1

Puskas on Puskas is an oral history of Puskas’ career, told mainly in his own words.  Taylor and Jamrich supplement Puskas’ own memories with those of his contemporaries – players, coaches, administrators, and journalists.  These reflections are supplemented by the editors providing an overview of the times Puskas lived and played in.  It’s an interesting and informative approach to telling the story of Puskas, the Golden Squad and Hungary under Communist rule.

Puskas comes across as a lively, charming and determined figure. Away from football Puskas was a master smuggler, political rebel and not afraid to speak his mind. On the field he was not just a world-class player but also a charismatic leader, a committed team-mate and a tactical innovator.

Puskas starred in some of the most famous matches in history beginning with the England-Hungary 6-3 match of 1953 that is often (wrongly) portrayed as England’s first ever defeat on home soil (that honour goes to Ireland following a 2-0 win in 1949).  He also played in the controversial 1954 World Cup final (the so-called Miracle of Berne) where West Germany improbably inflicted the only defeat Hungary would suffer over a 6 year period with some help from the British ref and linesman.  If that wasn’t enough for one man, he scored 4 goals in the famous 1960 European Cup final in Glasgow, which saw Real Madrid beat Eintract Frankfurt 7-3 to win their 5th straight European Cup.

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The book, brings to life not only the achievements of the players but also the tactical innovations of the Hungarian team and the challenges of the totalitarian regime that controlled the country.  Puskas recognised and exploited the power he had, certainly before the 1954 World Cup, in a team which the Communist authorities were eager to use to demonstrate the superiority of the “Socialist Man”

There a few hints that we don’t see every side of the man – certainly some of the British players interviewed suggest he may have had a wandering eye.  But the book doesn’t claim to be a comprehensive biography – rather is an oral history told mostly in the great man’s own words.

What makes the book a real treasure is the lack of other English language comprehensive books on Puskas – Taylor and Jamrich did a superb job in capturing the great man’s memories and using them to pull together an entertaining, informative book that is a fantastic read.

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‘The Team That Jack Built’ by Paul Rowan (1994)

The Team That Jack Built was first published in 1994 shortly following Ireland’s second appearance in the World Cup finals – a level Ireland have only once returned to.

This isn’t a book about Ireland’s performances in the three major tournaments that the team played during Jack Charlton’s reign.  Indeed, the actual games at Euro 88 are covered in less than a page. Instead is about the how – how did Ireland go from nearly-rans to qualifying for back to back World Cups.  The book is all the better for the focus on the off-field aspects.  The team that jack

Rowan recounts the series of managers who had led the Irish team prior to Charlton’s appointment and this third of the book was really interesting for me as someone who was too young to remember any of the pre-Charlton era. Rowan also entertainingly details the backroom shenanigans in the FAI.  The constant jolies to Poland, the bizarre voting process and the battles with the players over money and endorsement rights.   Rowan paints a picture of the FAI that is not flattering and will be depressingly familiar to Irish fans of any era.

The highlight of the book is when Rowan lets Charlton describe his tactical approach in his own words – its a great, simple overview of the style which brought great success while boring the rest of the world.

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The main issue addressed in the book is FIFAs laws of eligibility -allowing non-Irish-born players to qualify for the Irish team because Ireland was the birthplace of a parent or grandparent.  Rowan addresses the conflicting views that Ireland had (and largely still has) about our relationship with the Brits and the Irish diaspora that identifies as both British and Irish.  He doesn’t come down on either side – but it is interesting to see how open many of the players were about England being their first choice.  It remains a highly relevant issue when we see players like Jack Grealish switch back to England, and fans fretting over whether Declan Rice would follow suit.

Overall, The Team That Jack Built is a hugely interesting, entertaining and well written account of the Irish football team in the 30 years leading up to 1994.  Its the off-field story of how a team built around the Irish diaspora came together under a charismatic manager to really shake ’em up.

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‘Days of Heaven: Italia 90 and the Charlton Years’ by Declan Lynch (2010)

“Look back on those days, on Euro 88 on Italia 90 and the rest of what we call the Charlton era, it certainly wasn’t about football.  It was an overwhelming combination of so many things, a journey the like of which we had never made before, and all we know for sure, is that very few of us made it entirely sober“.

I’m a huge fan of Declan Lynch’s writing.  I first read Days of Heaven not long after it came out in 2010 expecting a more standard telling of the Charlton era – an updated  version of Paul Rowan’s excellent Team That Jack Built. Instead, I found myself devouring an immensely well written look in the Irish psyche, our relationship with success, failure, alcohol and the world.  With some football in it.

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I was 6 during Italia 90, too young to fully grasp what has happening.  By the time USA 94 came around I was 10, and nothing had ever been as wonderful as that tournament.  I’m always amazed that anyone my age, or particularly slightly older, could have grown up in Ireland and not have an irrational obsession with the Irish international team.

So while I was too young to really remember the period Lynch writes about, the portrait of Irishness Lynch paints is instant recognisable to anyone who calls Ireland home.   Lynch looks into the soul of Irish people – and hits on home truths we all know, but maybe can’t or don’t want to admit.

Lynch evaluates the Celtic Tiger creation myth that Italia ’90 was the catalyst for Ireland’s emergence into the world and the boom era.  He recognises the role that failure, emigration and outsiders also had in our success.  In many ways, Lynch also extends the narrative to consider how Italia ’90 and the changes in Ireland at the time, also laid the seeds for the crash that would follow the Celtic Tiger.

As the book jacket says, Lynch considers the sporting, the social and the autobiographical as he paints a picture of a special time to be Irish and the lessons that time teaches us about ourselves.God

Alcohol plays a key part in the story – both in how it happened, and in how Lynch feels we should view it.  I’ve been reflecting on alcohol a lot of late and have given it up for 2018 to get a proper sense of when and why I would drink and the impact on my mental health. Lynch’s comments on alcohol really struck a chord with me.  Any look back on this period, or maybe any period, of modern Irish history would be incomplete without consideration of the role of alcohol.  Ultimately Lynch links the national drink problem with an immaturity as a country, the same immaturity to leads to bad political decision both on the part of politicians and the electorate.  Its a hard view to dispute.

Lynch captures so much of what it means to be an Ireland fan –  the dread, the worry, the hope and the brief unbelievable moments of joy.   He also captures the Ole Ole nature of away trips where its as much about the journey and the story as it is the football – although he is probably more critical of such jollies than I am.

Although I disagree with his lack of trust for those who identify as Ireland fans – you can love football without being overly attached to any one club side – for the most part Lynch is spot on in his observations – about our nation’s immaturity, our relationship with alcohol, and with our sense of ourselves in the world.

Overall, this a must read for any Irish sports fan or anyone seeking to understand how modern Ireland came to be.

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And here’s 12 I prepared earlier

Before starting this blog, I very occasionally reviewed books on Goodreads.  This post captures 12 long ago, and in many cases forgotten, musings on a wide selection of sports books.  Some of these are in the re-read pile and will get a fuller, updated review when I get to enjoy them again.  These 12 cover a range of topics including: Boxing’s 4 Kings, Brazilian and German football, Irish cycling and drugs in sport.

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1) ‘A Ringside Affair: Boxing’s Last Golden Age’ by James Lawton

A Ringside Affair is a love letter to boxing from one of the UK’s great sportswriters. Each chapter covers one of the great fights or fighters that Lawton had the immense pleasure of witnessing throughout his career. It’s clear that the era of the Four Kings
(Leonard, Hearns, Hagler and Duran) stands out as the golden age of the title, but it’s the career of Iron Mike Tyson which clearly shines through in the book. Lawton’s admiration for young Tyson’s talent is only topped by his disappointment at the Tyson’s eventual troubles and crimes.

Lawton’s accounts really bring the fights to life as well as placing them clearly in their time and place. His passion and love for the sport shines through. Its a work of remembrance and of celebration as Lawton reflects on his career.

For all fight fans the book is a fantastic summary of 30 years of top level boxing. It’s excellently written and will make you want to pull out the you tube videos and track down the great boxing books.  I highly recommend it.

2) ‘Drama in the Bahamas’ by Dave Hannigan

An entertaining and in-depth look at Ali’s last fight and the sad spectacle it was. The book is best enjoyed by someone well versed in Ali’s life story – it paints some characters a bit too thinly for anyone coming to Ali;s story without a reasonable knowledge of the cast of characters that surrounded the Champ.

Hannigan paints a picture of an Ali who is his own worst enemy.  It is apparent that there is no is villain guiding Ali to fight one last time. It really appears to be Ali himself and his own desire for attention and love that motivates him to take one more totally unnecessary and disproportionate risk.

Like all Hannigan’s work, it’s an enjoyable read and a welcome addition to the library of Ali books.

3) ‘The Fall of the House of Fifa: The Multimillion-Dollar Corruption at the Heart of Global Soccer’ by David Conn

I greatly enjoyed this book on FIFA’s troubled history. Its extensively researched and well written. As a follower of David’s writing in the Guardian the book lives up to expectations.

Its a sad reminder of the scale of corruption and the breath of individuals involved. Blatter emerges as not quite the villain but rather the enabler and master politician. There is plenty of new material even for those following FIFA closely, especially a fascinating interview with a post retirement Blatter.

The only criticism is that it is a bit too detailed at times. Sometimes the narrative could be shortened and there is a bit of repetition at times.

All in all its a highly recommend for anyone interest in football politics or just good journalism.

4) ‘Shocking Brazil: Six Games That Shook the World Cup’ by Fernando Duarte

Very enjoyable history of Brazilian football. Examining the most successful team in history by focusing on their lowest moments, Durate paints a convincing narrative of the impact each of these games had on shaping the team.

One of many books to come out in the lead up to the Brazil World Cup, Durate captured a lessor seen angle of the 5 times champions.   Considering that the worst defeat of all was yet to come – who will ever forget that 7 – 1 – its a timely book and one that will remain relevant as Brazil try to rise again in Russia.

The writer is also a very entertaining journalist and great as a guest on football podcasts.

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5) ‘Das Reboot: How German Football Reinvented Itself and Conquered the World’ by Raphael Honigstein

A really enjoyable read with great insight into the rise and rise of German football.  At times the narrative jumps between time periods and between the national team and domestic games in a confusing manner.   A good companion piece to ‘Tor! The Story of German Football’ by Ulrich Hesse to complete the picture of how the world champions became the world champions.

6)’Matchdays: The Hidden Story of the Bundesliga’ by Ronald Reng

Ronald Reng is the author of the heart-breaking, beautiful book ‘A Life Too Short’ about the late Robert Enke.

His second book to be translated to English, Matchdays, is a biography of Heinz Hoher – a real journeyman of German football – a bit of a Wes Hoolihan as a player (talented but often stuck as a flair player in second division) and a bit of an Alan Pardew as a manager (decent at bottom half/middle table teams) but a complete ****.  Hoher is quite the character – quitting jobs on a whim, drinking to the point of collapsing on first day of a new job, just missing out on Dortmund job to Hitzfeld.

Reng uses Hoher’s story to tell the story of the Bundesliga from its inception in the 60’s to current day – how it has changed and how the German public’s attitude towards it evolved.

All round an enjoyable, if slightly overlong, read.  The style takes a bit of getting use to – although I’m not sure if it that is the author’s style or a result of the translation.

7) ‘Living on the Volcano: The Secrets of Surviving as a Football Manager’ by Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin is modern footballer’s great chronicler.  He examines the less beautiful side of English football shining a light on the real life experiences of those who live and breath the game.  Living on the Volcano focuses on the stresses of football management – showing the cost, the emotion and the real lived experience of managers at almost every level of the game.  It is an interesting and enjoyable read that offers a unique perspective of the job we all love to try on a computer game.

The book does suffer from Calvin at times being a bit too close to some of the subjects.  Its hard not to get the sense that he lets the fact he grows to like many of his interviewees/subjects as people get in the way of his objectivity as a football journalist.

8) ‘The Nowhere Men’ by Michael Calvin

Before data, analytics and youtube, talent needed to be scouted. Calvin’s book offers a fascinating insight into the enclosed world of football scouts in the UK

It chronicles a profession teetering on the edge – slowly being replaced by technology (and those who use it) yet a profession that continues to prove that data alone can’t tell you everything.

Above all, the love of football some of the scouts who work for mileage only is amazing, inspiring and heart-breaking all at the same time.

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9) ‘Born to Ride’ by Stephen Roche

Very interesting and enjoyable book. A chronicle of a time when Irish cyclists ruled the world.  Roche really was some rider had an incredible career and I wish I had been older in 1987 to have been swept up in the Roche/Kelly era.  Roche’s book is well worth a read for any cycling fan.

As with all cycling books, the issue of drugs hangs over every story like a bad smell.  Roche does at least address the drugs controversy which emerged after he retired.  His position is not entirely convincing and it is very hard not to believe his accusers.  Roche may have been part of the problem, and is definitely not willing to be part of the solution, but his achievements should not be underesimated.  If he was clean, its doubtful there has ever been a greater Irish sportsman.

Hunger by Sean Kelly is a very good companion book to give Kelly’s perspective of days that Irish cycling will never see again.

10) ‘The Dirtiest Race in History’ by Richard Moore

Moore is better known as a cycling journalist and writer.  Here, he moves away from cycling to the other sport dominated by drugs.  He crafts the story of the 1988 Olympic 100m final where Ben Johnson smashed the world record then dramatically failed a drug test.  Will there ever be another Olympic final where so many competitors had their legacies tarnished as the testers caught up with the cheats?

The book provides an in-depth look at Johnson’s rivalry with Carl Lewis and both of their journey’s to Seoul.  Johnson’s assertion that, while he was on lots of drugs, he never actually took the drug that the test found creates a bizarre and intriguing story.

It is well written, well researched and entertaining.  It provides an interesting look at drugs in sport in general – although Moore’s eagerness to believe in Team Sky over the years totally unfairly taints his comments on drugs in sport in my eyes.   Highly recommend.

11) ‘Running with Fire: The True Story of Harold Abrahams’ by Manterrk Ryan 

Very enjoyable biography of the 100m Olympic gold medalist and legend of athletics officialdom. Charts the prejudice he faced for being Jewish, his fantastic athletic career and even more successful (and interesting) administration career after he retired.

A must read for any fans of Chariots of Fire.

12) ‘Shoe Dog’ by Phil Knight.

Every long lasting company needs its origin myth.  What is unusual is the founder telling his story so long after the fact. Shoe Dog is both a sports book and a business book.  It is much better than I would have expected.

Knight tells the story of the founding of Nike and its early years before it broke into the big time.  It ticks the usual boxes of near disaster, dramatic recovery and eventually incredible growth.

What becomes clear is that for Knight, the early years are where is heart remains. It is a loving reflection on the days before he became a bazillionaire and a love letter to Steve Prefontaine.

I would have liked it to go a little further and look at the signing of Jordan and the groundbreaking nature of that change for Nike and for sport.

Bowerman and the Men of Oregon by Kenny Moore is a great companion piece to round out the story of the technical genius that combined with Knight’s business brain to change the sporting world.

 

 

‘My Turn’ by Johan Cruyff (2016)

Cruyff was a genius who played a huge role in reinventing football both as a player and a coach. His death rightly prompted a wave of remembrance and reflection on his achievements.

I was too young to see Cruyff play, or to really remember his greatest teams as a coach.  But his influence has loomed large over my football watching – none more so than Pep Guardiola’s magnificent career at Barca, Bayern and Man City.   In the 90’s Eurosport used to show replays of the best World Cup matches from the 70’s and 80’s with modern commentators acting as if the game was live, yet the players had somehow lived another 20 years. Can’t beat lines like “What will Cruyff do next, oh what a pass, it is such a shame that he doesn’t play in the next World Cup”.

One the first great football books I read was Ajax, Barcelona, Cruyff by Frits-Barend and Henk Van Dorp.  This unusual, intriguing book is the closest we have come to a footballing biography / autobiography of Cruyff before My Turn.  Indeed my early football reading was heavily Dutch/Ajax/Cruyff influenced with Simon Kuper’s Ajax, the Dutch, the War and David Winner’s Brilliant Orange also among the books I read in my late teens/early 20’s – all three books deserve a reread and a separate blog post.   I also have a keen picture of Cruyff from the various Barcelona books I’ve read over the years, none more so than the excellent Barca: A People’s Passion by Jimmy Burns.  What is clear is that almost everyone reading My Turn will have a preconceived notion of Cruyff – brilliant, arrogant, temperamental, power hungry and lots lots more.

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What is clear is that My Turn could not have been written at any other time in Cruyff’s life.  It is inevitable that his diagnosis with lung cancer led to a period of reflection and consideration of his life’s work.   This book is not a typical footballer’s autobiography.  The book seems to reflect what was on Cruyff’s mind in the years before he died, with more space given over to both the politicking behind the scenes at Ajax from 2010 to 2015 and to Cruyff’s general worldview than is given to the great Ajax side that won 3 European Cups.

His childhood is very much the story of his relationship with Ajax and the many surrogate fathers he found along the way.  He dwells very little on the key matches or moments of his playing career – instead focusing on his relationship with his coaches – the legendary Rinus Michels and the equally important (to Cruyff) Jany Van Der Veen.

The various slights that have led Cruyff to abruptly depart both Barca and Ajax more than once are both covered.  While Cruyff recognises he can be difficult, it is clear Cruyff felt wronged on each occasion and still believes his own actions were the inevitable result of others actions.  He certainly had a sense of his own importance – but then many us are plenty arrogant without 1% of Cruyff’s achievements to back it up.

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His discussion on family is fairly limited – with a focus being on Jordi’s playing career and the impact Cruyff’s own moves had on his son – until the final chapter, but his relationship with his wife is clearly the most significant of his life.   At every point, Cruyff describes events through the prism of his relationships with others though  – Nunez at Barcelona, the board at Ajax, the directors at Washington Diplomats etc.

What shines through most of all is Cruyff’s vision of football.  I felt this was a bit lacking in the book until the last 50 pages when Total Football and how to play it is given the space it deserves.  Anyone who has watched Man City play this season (or Guardiola’s previous teams) will clearly recognise the template. His commitment to this style of play and his willingness to fall out with everyone when it is not achieved is somewhat endearing to me.  Having gone to an Ajax game in 2013 and nearly fallen asleep during a 0-0 draw, I certainty understand where he is coming from in his later discussions on the fall of the Ajax he knew and helped to build.

There are some great and slightly odd anecdotes throughout the book – from his desire to sign Cyril Regis at Ajax, to his involvement with the proposal to move Wimbledon to Dublin (as a peace initiative apparently!).

Part of the book is clearly Cruyff’s attempt to shape his legacy.  But is endearing is that to him the Cruyff Foundation is what counts – he shows less interest in reshaping the narrative of his career than I would have expected other than correcting ‘fake news’ as we would call it today.

Its a book that jumps from the story of a great footballer, to that of a great coach, to that of a celebrity searching for a legacy.  Overall, the book is an insight into the mind of one of arguably football’s greatest genius.  Like the man it probably gets too caught up in personality clashes – I’d have loved more detail on the three European Cup winning team – but is also singular in its vision.  In many ways, the book is Cruyff’s last call to action – play football and play it the right way.

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