‘Brave New World: Inside Pochettino’s Spurs’ by Guillem Balague (2018)

Brave New World is an in-depth account of Tottenham Hotspurs’ 2016-17 season.  It’s a biography written in the first person and a diary that isn’t really a diary.

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Balague was granted unprecedented access to Mauricio Pochettino and his backroom staff for the duration of the 2016-17 season.  He uses this insight to craft a biography of Pochettino that charts the remarkable transformation he has achieved in a very short time at Spurs.  Perennial bottlers who never live up to their potential, Spurs now are just a few steps (and winning trophies) away from truly belonging among the game’s elite.

The book also serves as a wider biography of  Pochettino’s life – detailing his childhood, his career in Argentina, his special times at Espanyol and his move to the English south coast at Southampton.  It also discusses in detail his close and vital bond with his assistants who form a vital part of his success.

Pochettino comes across as a passionate, motivated and likeable character.  He can but ruthless but for footballing reasons rather than a personal grudge.  He is portrayed as being dedicated, at potential personal cost, to doing everything he can to be successful and to forge a Ferguson-like legacy at Spurs.

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He is very well attuned to the psychological aspect of football – building incredibly close bonds with his players while still seemingly to keep an appropriate distance to enable him to judge their performance fairly. It’s clear that many of his players love him and see him as a vital part of their own ability to achieve greatness.

The book is a fantastic insight into a manager still very much on the up.  It’s a unique approach – putting words in Pochetttino’s own mouth creates great risk for him given he is writing about players still under his charge.  The prose and writing style felt like hard work at times – especially until I got used to it.  Balague is a very good writer however, so I’m inclined to believe that the style of prose was intentional to read more like Pochettino’s own voice.

Overall I would recommend Brave New World for anyone looking for an insight into one of English football’s most interesting coaches.

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‘The Draft: A Year Inside the NFL’s Search for Talent’ by Pete Williams (2006)

The concept of a professional sports draft has always been intensely fascinating to me.  In theory it offers an ideal method to ensure that competitive balance remains in a league, particularly when combined with a salary cap.  Seeing Juventus win their 7th Serie A title in a row recently makes you think what soccer in Europe would be like if youth development was handled by schools and not professional teams and the best players divided up by draft.  It’s clearly not possible, but it would sure be interesting!

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The Draft is a long and detailed account of the 2005 NFL draft told through the experiences of key people at every level – top 10 draft picks, lesser players, Atlanta Falcon’s General Manager, coaches and a whole host of sports agents. It’s a very thorough account that covers every aspect of draft day preparation by all those whose futures are heavily tied up with this two day extravaganza.

It is an interesting read and certainly achieves its goal of shining a light on the draft process.  Reading it at more than 10 years remove is fascinating with some players being instantly familiar from their subsequent achievements in the NFL – particularly someone like 49er’s great Frank Gore who didn’t get picked up until the 3rd round.

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The book’s length however becomes a weakness.  There is a lot of repetition gets tiresome if you read the book over a fairly short period.

The other big weakness of the book is the excessive focus on agents.  While the coverage of the role of agents and their interaction with players is interesting, there is far too much focus on which agents were successful in building their own rosters of players.  It’s very hard to care about which salesman managed to get himself a big payday and the book would have benefited from a lot of this material being cut.

All in all, however, it is an interesting and enjoyable read. It may inadvertently work best as a book to dip into – like a series of newspaper columns – otherwise the excessive detail and repetition could get annoying.

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‘Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game’ by Michael Lewis (2003)

‘Moneyball’ might be the most influential sports books of the last 20 years.  15 years since it was first published, Moneyball is still synonymous with the ever-growing movement to use big data to improve the performance of professional sports teams.

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Lewis set out to answer the question of why the Oakland A’s consistently outperformed teams with much higher budgets.  He found a much bigger and more fascinating story about a sub-culture of baseball nerds both inside, but mostly outside, the sport who were determined to see the game as it really was.

At the heart of the book is Billy Beane, a former player who never fulfilled what others believed was his potential.  Lewis was given incredible access behind the scenes of the A’s management team as they prepared for a draft and throughout the 2002 season as Beane wheeled and dealed his way to improving his team at every turn.

Beane is a fascinating character  – charismatic but ruthless, a baseball insider who thinks like an outsider, a man obsessed with his team who refuses to watch the team he runs actually play a game.

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The book is utterly engrossing.  Lewis is the master of explaining complex and insider ideas to a layperson.  Despite having a limited interest in baseball, I found the book easy to follow as Lewis leads the reader through the thought process of Beane and the various ‘sabermetricians’ who think more about baseball than anything else.

At the heart of the story is Bill James, a statisician who self published baseball statistics slowly building a fanbase and eventually influencing the next generation of General Managers.  Not being a baseball fan, its hard to grasp just how obsessive James and his followers are.  Being a fan of fantasy football does help me realise how obsessed a fan can become with watching certain players and being desperate to figure out what players are likely to outperfomr others.

Moneyball is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in the future of sport or anyone interested in a good story.  It’s the story of an underdog who out-thinks and therefore out-plays the bigger richer teams.   It’s a great book not just for sports fans, but for anyone who likes stories about disrption and people trying to shake up an established way of doing things.

As well as being a great read, Moneyball has had a significant impact on professional sports since its publication.  Many an article has been written on this over the last 15 years.

Reading Moneyball is a different experience than when I read it over 10 years ago.  Knowing broadly how the draft picks and other players mentioned in the book panned out changes how you experience the story.

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‘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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‘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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‘Klopp: Bring the Noise’ by Raphael Honigstein (2017)

It’s also fascinated me how a manager’s character can shape the neutral fan’s perception of a football team.  Under previous Liverpool managers (especially Houlier) I found Liverpool quite dis-likable and certainly not a team I would root for.  Yet under Klopp its hard not to  have a soft spot for the free-flowing Liverpool team that plays in a manner

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Klopp: Bring the Noise is a fun and detailed biogrpahy of the most charismatic manager in football – Jurgen “Kloppo” Klopp.  Honigstein details the key influences on Klopp’s career including his own limitations as a player and his one-time coach Wolfgang Frank.

Klopp comes across in the book in the same way he does on TV.  He clearly has a huge work ethic and builds a very  strong connection with his players.  The access that Honigstein had to so many people close to Klopp at different times of his life and career gives a great insight into his tactics and his management.

A clear pattern emerges – builds a fantastic team with meagre resources, performs well above expectations only to see a decline – either due to star players being headhunted or the rest of the league adopting his tactics.  It remains to be seen if his Liverpool team can compete in the Premier League and become more than a very good cup team.

I’m a big fan of Raphael Honigstein’s writing – in particular his book Das Reboot.  Like his other work, this book is well written, well researched and a very enjoyable read.

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There are a few areas in the book where more detail would have been interesting.  The section on the type of player Klopp looked to sign was very interesting but I would have like more detail on why certain players were signed – what was it about Lewandawski that made Dortmund pull the trigger for example when he was overlooked by other clubs?

I found the ordering of chapters a bit frustrating.  I understand what Honigstein was trying to achieve – linking his first days at each club together to enable the reader to make comparisons between his time at Mainz, Dortmund and Liverpool.  But for a reader not all that familiar with Klopp’s time at Mainz, the jumps back and forth were a bit disorientating.

Overall, I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in Klopp – and I can’t imagine why any football fan wouldn’t be interested in him!

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