‘The Man Who Saved F.C. Barcelona: The Remarkable Life of Patrick O’Connell’ by Sue O’Connell (2016)

The Man Who Saved F.C. Barcelona is a very different book from what I was expecting.  It’s the story of a family far more than it is a football story.

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Patrick O’Connell was a forgotten figure of Irish football history until the sterling efforts of his family to ensure his legacy was remembered.   A former captain of Manchester United and Irish international, his achievements as a manager in Spain far surpass anything achieved by an Irish manager since then – he won La Liga with Real Betis, led Barcelona through the Spanish Civil War and the respect he was held in is speculated to be the reason why Spanish managers are today called “mister”.

His grandson’s wife, Sue O’Connell, has laboured to find the historical record of Patrick and his immediate family’s life.  The story is told largely through letters sent by Patrick, his second wife and his kids and diary entries of one of his daughters.  The rest of the story is filled in dialogue heavy prose which I found a bit mawkish and unnecessary – a more factual style of joining the dots would have worked better for me.

As O’Connell notes in the final paragraph of the book, “Patrick O’Connell was an outstanding sportsman, but as a husband and father he was a non-starter”.  The bulk of the book focuses on this later part – the wife and four kids he abandoned in Manchester.  No attempt is made to sugar-coat his behaviour.  In many ways is more a story of abandonment and emigration than a football book.  It also captures well the sense of time and place – in particular an outsider’s view of Spain and Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War.

His footballing legacy is not covered in the kind of detail I was expecting.  The saving of F.C. Barcelona involved the wise decision to bring the team to the America’s on tour and raise enough money to keep the team going.  However, after reading the book, I don’t know much more about just how he achieved success or how he contributed to the evolution of the game.

The book is a clear labour of love and I admire the efforts to promote O’Connell’s legacy while being honest about his failings as a man.  However, the book really wasn’t for me and isn’t one I would recommend for someone coming at as a sports book rather than a chronicle of the emigrant experience of an Irish family.

A documentary film about O’Connell’s life, Don Patricio, premiered in Dublin this week and I’m looking forward to checking it out.

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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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‘The Big Fight: Muhammad Ali v Al “Blue” Lewis’ by Dave Hannigan (2002)

“When you call somebody up to talk about their experience with Ali, whether fleeting or long-standing, you are asking them to revisit one of the genuinely epic moments from their own life” 

For nearly 20 years, Dave Hannigan has been Ireland’s sportswriter in residence in the United States.  First with the Sunday Tribune through to his ongoing America at Large column in the Irish Times, Hannigan’s articles are a must read for Irish sports fans (unless you’re a UFC or Conor McGregor fan in which case you probably won’t like him!)

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Written in 2002, The Big Fight, chronicles a week that Muhammad Ali spent in Dublin and his fight with fight Al “Blue” Lewis in Croke Park in July 1972.  Hannigan tells the story of Ali in Ireland through the experiences of those who saw, met and interacted with him in Dublin.

At the time, Ali was on the comeback trail following his first fight, and loss, to Joe Frazier.  Given his long lay off while he refused to be drafted into the U.S. Army, it was unclear whether Ali would ever be the same fighter he once was.  He was still just 30 years of age however and it would turn out that his biggest days remained ahead of him.  He was, and would remain for a long time, the single biggest and best known figure in world sport.

The Big Fight captures the magic and charisma of Ali while also capturing some of the magic and uniqueness of Ireland. It is hard to imagine any figure capturing quite the same attention and affection that Ali did – perhaps only the reception achieved by another famous African-American with distant Irish heritage, Barack Obama, compares.

Some of the anecdotes are quintessentially Irish – thousands jumping the wall at the stadium to get into the fight free, old ladies inviting Ali in for cups of tea and the sheer excitement of any global celebrity being in little ole Dublin.  Ali took great delight in being invited to meet the Taoiseach, noting that Western countries usually didn’t invite him to meet the Prime Minister.

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This book is a joyous, uplifting and entertaining read.  It is full of fun and brilliant anecdotes that capture the people, the time and the place.  It’s surreal to imagine the most famous black man in the world walking through Dublin at a time when any scale of immigration was in the very distant future.  Hannigan captures a clear sense of a particular time in Dublin with the Troubles never far from anyone’s mind.

Those who spoke to Hannigan clearly cherished the memories of their interactions with Ali.  In particular, the book will make you want to seek out Paddy Monaghan’s own book – a London-born Irishman adopted into Ali’s entourage like so many other strays.  Hannigan also tells the fascinating stories of the promoters, Harold Conrod and Butty Sugrue, and Ali’s opponent in the fight, the reformed Al “Blue” Lewis whose own life story is fascinating.

There are some interesting thoughts on what impact Ireland may have had on Ali – did the love of an almost entirely white country help Ali to see that not all whites were “devils”?  Ali was clearly interested in the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the idea of the Irish as an oppressed people.  It couldn’t have hurt at least!

Hannigan recounts an interview Ali did on RTE One which captures Ali’s worldview at his time.  The entire interview is well worth checking out and can be viewed in full at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8QWvBBMtRak

Over a decade later, Hannigan would revisit another Ali fight – his final fight – in Drama in the Bahamas (2016).  This later book is a grimmer, less joyful, tale that captures a fighter unable to say goodbye to the fame and adulation – that fame and adulation that is captured so well in The Big Fight which makes them an interesting pair of excellent books to read together.

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‘Where have all the Irish gone? The sad demise of Ireland’s once relevant footballers’ by Kevin O’Neill (2017)

It goes without question that no player on the current Irish national football team are likely to get signed by Juventus or Inter Milan.  Or earn the nickname ‘God’ at a club that has won the European Cup.  Or even smash the British transfer record.

Kevin O’Neill’s book, Where have all the Irish gone? The sad demise of Ireland’s once relevant footballers, starts with the important (to Irish football fans) question of why this is the case?  Why do we not have players like Liam Brady, Robbie Keane, Paul McGrath, or Roy Keane?Irish.jpg

O’Neill appears to be very similar to me – Ireland fan, child of the 80’s, who spends too much time thinking about the Ireland team.  Unfortunately, at times it feels like O’Neill is a bit too much like me in that he at times comes off as a man shouting at the clouds rather than a serious thinker about the game.

Without reading the book, most sports fans will guess quite easily at the likely answers to the central question – more competition in the Premier League and the total lack of investment in the Irish game/coaches. This makes it tricky to build a book out of answering those questions.

Most of all, O’Neill could have done with better editing. The first few chapters jump around from diagnosing the causes of the problem to reliving the glorious past. The book jumps too much – with Liam Brady’s career, for example, talked about in two completely different segments.  While parts of the nostalgia trip are enjoyable, it feels a bit too much like reading the wikipedia entries on the careers of Keane, Quinn etc. The chapters are reasonably long and paragraphs flow into each other in a way that jars.  A few breaks for new segments would have helped put some structure on what can be a slightly rambling narrative.  brady2.png

The book picks up in Chapter 3 and 4 when O’Neill interviews a series of people connected to the game who don’t normally get the spotlight shined on them – players who never made it and youth coaches in particular. These chapters add genuine insight in to the challenges for young Irish players and are the best part of the book.

When O’Neill turns his gaze to the FAI and the structures to improve the game, he makes a simple diagnosis – bring back Brian Kerr (most successful underage manager in our history and a man steeped in the Irish game).  However, he then doesn’t point out anything that the man in the job, the wonderfully named Ruud Docktor, is actually doing wrong.  It seems O’Neill would just feel more confident if Kerr had the job.  While I agree its a disgrace that Kerr is not involved in some capacity with the FAI, I think its a bit too simplistic to point to him as such a major part of any solution. The comparisons to Iceland and Belgium are justified – but so well known that the book adds little extra insight. kerr

The book turns to wistful nostalgia of days gone by – when kids played ball on the streets (is it better to be poor but have better footballers to cheer on?).  O’Neill talks about some of the great South American players as examples of how street football (poverty?) helps create great players.  In reality though, it should probably be pointed out that a continent with more than 400 million people where football is a very popular sport is likely to produce 100 great players for every 1 Irish star.

At times, the book feels like a series of articles that might appear on Irish sports website the42,ie, chronicling the lives of young Irish players in England albeit not as well written as Eoin O’Callaghan’s excellent articles on football history.  I haven’t read any of O’Neill’s work on Pundit Arena but will check some out in due course.

O’Neill’s passion for Irish football is evident and his worries are genuine. The book gives a good insight into the lives of those who made it and those who didn’t. It doesn’t offer too much in terms of where we should go (beyond Kerr and summer football) – its instead a realistic chronicling of the woes rather than much of a diagnosis for where to go from here.

The interviews in the book capturing many previous unheard voices make it a welcome addition to the library of football books in Ireland.  However, I can’t help feeling there is a better book in there waiting to get out (maybe something akin to Michael Calvin’s chronicling of the English game).

The book was nominated for the eir Sports Book of the Year award so what do I know…

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