‘Mental – Bad Behaviour, Ugly Truths and the Beautiful Game’ by Jermaine Pennant with John Cross (2018)

I remember Pennant as the much hyped teenager who was signed by Arsenal for £2million at 15 but never lived up to his potential largely due to his off-field behaviour that included a spell in prison – a cross between Theo Walcott and Ravel Morrison.   He ultimately had a journeyman career that included a Champions League final for Liverpool and stops at Stoke, Birmingham and Real Zaragoza among other, but never played more than 60 league games for any one club.

Mental opens with a detailed description of Pennant’s turbulent childhood – born to a mother who faked her own death to abandon her ‘black baby’ and a father who kept guns and Class A drugs in the house.   This context is vital as Pennant can only be judged through the lens of what he lived through and it puts much of his bad behavior in context.  It’s easy to criticise him for not making the most of undoubted talent when its arguable he deserves praise for making anything of himself at all given where he came from.

Notwithstanding this, its very hard to read constant references to his driving offences (driving while banned and drink driving) without getting increasing annoyed at his reckless attitude that clearly posed a risk to others.  It’s one thing risking your own career, it’s another putting innocent lives at risk and it’s not clear from this book that Pennant can fully tell the difference.

His account of his move from Notts County to Arsenal at 15 is a damning indictment of how kids are exploited in football and particularly damning of Sam Allardyce and his pal and agent Mark Curtis (who arranged the meeting that ultimately got Allardyce fired from his England gig).  Pennant is full of regret that he was moved against his will and ultimately denied the chance to develop outside of the intense media spotlight.

The book is peppered with extracts from others who are or have been close to Pennant – his dad,  his agent, his friends which give anther, and at times contradictory, view of instances that Pennant describes.  It works well and at times appears to give a truer reflection of the player than his own words.  There is a fair bit of repetition and the style of repeating points in the same paragraph can get a bit annoying – but it seems to be a stylistic choice from the ghostwriter, presumably to try and capture Pennant’s own voice./style of communicating.

pennant

There is actually very little football in the book – a few big games mentioned but no discussion on where the clubs he played for finished most seasons which is slightly unusual for a footballer’s autobiography.  But given stories of finishing 5th or 15th in the league aren’t the most interesting its probably a good idea.

A lot more coverage is included of nights out and one night stands.  Some stories are interesting insights into his attitude and behaviour – being drunk/hungover when he scored a hattrick early in his Southampton career – and others are ‘lad banter’ – threesomes with Ashley Cole, comparing women to monopoly properties – which will definitely add to the books sales while giving probably the most open account to date of what footballers get up to on nights out.  It’s hard to imagine Ashely Cole will be thrilled to see his own name come up so often.

The chapter on women is already getting heavily shared/criticised on social media – I’d suspect it was a key ingredient in getting a deal for the book in the first place though.  The final chapter on the book does put these stories in an interesting context – Pennant seeks therapy to understand why he cheats and flirts with so many women, ultimately tracing his behaviour back to being abandoned by his Mum.

Overall, Pennant seems to be relatively content with how his career went.  Given his talent, he could have matched his friend and contemporary Ashley Cole and achieved much more, but given his childhood he easily could have crashed out of the game and achieved nothing.  He achieved his boyhood dream of playing for Liverpool, played in a Champions League final and was pretty unlucky to never be capped by England.

And, remarkably, Pennant’s book conforms with ‘Howe’s law’ – the apparently unbreakable rule that any autobiography by a footballer who played in Britain in the last 40 years has to, at some point, mention how good the late Don Howe was as a coach.  It’s definitely the only thing this book and Frankly Speaking by Frank Stapleton (1991) have in common!

Overall, it feels like the story the book wanted to tell – overcoming a troubled childhood to achieve pretty decent career – is totally overshadowed by the stories of excess, women and drink driving.

mental

‘Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon’ by Ed Caesar (2015)

Two Hours is a comprehensive look at the world of men’s elite marathon running framed around the question of whether any man can run 26 miles and 365 yards in under two hours.

Two Hours is first and foremost a celebration of elite men’s marathon running.  While I expected the book to focus more heavily on the quest for lower and lower times, its actually much broader than that, and probably a better book for this broadness.  It combines the history of the marathon, a comprehensive look at the marathons raced between 2010 and 2013 and an in-depth focus on the career of 4 time major marathon winner Geoffery Mutai.  While it touches on all of the key things being considered in efforts to run a 2 hour marathon – shoe technology, genetics, doping etc – it doesn’t cover these in massive detail.

mutai

The years covered by Caesar ended up being really fascinating for marathon running – with the emergence of new superstars, world records and doping scandals – and the book benefits from the amazing access Caesar had to the athletes.  It’s pleasing that doping is addressed and Caesar’s insights into how doping appears to operate (at least for some athletes) in Kenya are interesting.  The insights gleaned from in-depth interviews with Mutai about his state of mind during races was also enlightening.  There are also interesting doubts cast on the ‘barefoot running’ craze popularised by the excellent Born to Run – Caesar observes that elites marathoners have been asking for more cushioning not less.

The one thing that I think was missing from the book was consideration of women’s marathon records – I think the fact that Paula Radcliffe held the women’s world record for so long (and still held it at the time of writing the book) would have been an interesting topic to consider when looking at both the progression of the men’s record during this time and the dominance of East African’s.

The book was finished before the launch of the academic led Sub2hrs project and was published before the launch of Nike’s Breaking2 Project which in 2017 saw Eliud Kipchoge run the distance in 2 hours and 25 seconds.  Caesar had speculated about the possibility of just such an attempt – but there is almost no mention of Nike in the book which talks much more about Adidas (as people from Adidas must have been willing to speak to Caesar). It is particularly interesting that the men’s world record, that must be set during an actual marathon meeting certain conditions, has not improved in the last 4 years – suggesting that a plateau has been reached for now?

Overall its a very enjoyable and easy read.  Caesar writes very well and is clearly passionate about the subject and fascinated by the athletes he meets. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in distance running.

two hours

‘The European Game: An Adventure to Explore Football on the Continent and its Methods for Succes’ by Dan Fieldsend (2017)

The European Game is a journey behind the scenes of  how European football operates.  Fieldsend, formerly a staff member at Liverpool, spent three months travelling to the best and most famous football teams across Europe learning along the way about the club’s history, key figures, tactical developments, and place in their society.

It’s a book that celebrates the uniqueness and specialness of every football club which shifts between understanding why how clubs impact their environment and how environment’s shape their clubs.  It’s part exploration of what makes a club successful and part exploration of what makes a club magical.

The book can be dipped into chapter by chapter which each adventure heavily shaped by the people Fieldsend was able to meet and interview.  Overall, the cast of characters is suitably diverse and interesting to ensure that the book avoids repetition.   Some chapters have a heavy travelogue feel as Fieldsend connects with the people and the place as much as the football club.  At times the book suffers from a slight identity crisis as it shifts between very different types of stories.

It merits some comparison’s to the peerless Inverting the Pyramid or the excellent Football Against Enemy – a very different book from those but one that contains a similar desire to understand football at a deeper level.

It is clear the book is a real labour of love.  While some of the chapters contain fairly familiar material, overall it me feeling I understood more about some of the major European clubs and kept me entertained and engaged throughout.  Some tighter editing of slightly flowery prose wouldn’t have gone a miss – but I can’t begrudge the author attempting to show a bit of literary flair at times.

Overall, highly recommended for those who haven’t devoured countless books on European football while still worth a read for those among us who like to reread Inverting the Pyramid every summer!

‘The Billionaires Club: The Unstoppable Rise of Football’s Super-rich Owners’ by James Montague (2017)

“The question is, at what point do we accept some culpability for humanising those who have played a role in dismantling the freedoms we hold dear, or even dismantling whole countries”

The Billionaires’ Club is an investigation into the new class of super rich owners who have snapped up many of the world’s biggest football clubs.  Rather than being about the football business, the book is about the business interests of those billionaires who have been using their vast resources to reshape global football.

Billionaire's

Montague digs deep into the business histories of a string of recognisable names questioning their motives for buying into football and at times our own culpability as football fans for ignoring their character and misdeeds.

Starting with Roman Abramovich at Chelsea, Montague examines the Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs who have used investments in football to increase their visibility and profile, largely as an insurance policy against the consequences if they lose favour of their political allies back home.  Possibly more troubling is the rising influence of Gazprom, the Russian natural gas giant, whose investments in football seem inextricably linked to the politics of the energy industry.

The book also covers the influx of owners in European football from the US, the Middle East and Asia.

The American owners are portrayed as arch capitalists who seek to make money and couldn’t care less about the fans or anyone else for that matter.  It says a lot that they appear less troubling than many of the other owners.  It was also interesting to see how much more liked Liverpool’s current owners were than Hicks and Gillett at a time when they are starting to make more and more noises for a European or

The Middle Eastern owners appear more troubling.  The phrase “reputation laundering” seems very apt to describe the intentions of much of the investment in European football.  Football clubs like Man City have become vehicles of foreign policy for members of Middle Eastern ruling families with questionable human rights records. Montague covers the abuses of migrant workers in some detail.  He highlights the personal stories of poor Bangladeshi’s and the horrific ordeals they face trying to earn enough money to send home to their families.

The Asian owners covered appear more like the Russians – buying major clubs to appease their own political masters and to increase their political visibility abroad.  The coverage of China’s changing relationship with football in the books really interesting – I had no idea the Chinese Premier’s passion for the game was directly responsible for the huge investment in the Chinese Super League.

I’ve been a huge fan of James Montague’s since I read his 2014 book Thirty-One Nil: The Amazing Story of World Cup Qualification.  It’s clear he is a very good writer with an intense curiosity about the world which informs is work.  The global nature of his writing makes him the ideal person to chronicle the global power shifts in football politics.  The Billionaires’ Club is a sobering examination of modern football and those who shape it, but its a riveting, insightful and brilliant read.

Putin infantino.jpg

Frankly Speaking by Frank Stapleton (1991)

Published in 1991, Frankly Speaking is a (kind of) autobiography of former Arsenal, Man Utd and Ireland striker Frank Stapleton.

fankly-speaking

Stapleton seemed to be coming to end of his career when the book came out and his international career was over having been on the fringes of the squad during Italia ’90 having previously captained the team during Euro ’88.  He ended up playing four more years in the English lower leagues.

The book feels like half of an autobiography – it covers his football career with each season covered in a chapter and his club and international careers covered in separate halves of the book.  It’s focus is on entirely on Stapleton’s football career with almost no discussion of his life outside of football. The version of the book I found in the library has no summary on the front or back cover, no forward, no acknowledgements or any scene setter at all.  It just goes straight into his first few years at Arsenal.

One of the striking things is the amount of focus on the FA Cup over the team’s performance in the league.  This seems to be partly because the FA Cup still maintained its elevated status in the game and partly because Stapleton played in five Cup finals but never in a team that competed for the league title right to the end of the season.  The amount of replays in the cup is also striking.  You can see why penalties were eventually preferred to so many extra games.

frank 3

Stapleton rarely expresses his opinion on the various people he played or worked with outside of commenting on what they added to the team.  Ron Atkinson, his manager at United is the clear exception with Stapleton being pretty critical of Big Ron’s ego, love of the media, and lack of tactical nous.  His biggest praise is for coach Don Howe – a figure who seems to pop up in any biography of footballers who played in England in the 80’s and 90’s.

The material on Ireland was definitely the most interesting for me.  Stapleton gives a bit more background colour on the Euro ’88 and Italia ’90 campaigns and a decent sense of Jack Charlton’s management style.  I’d actually read all the most interesting bits before in the excellent ‘The Team That Jack Built’ by Paul Rowan (1994)

It’s a quick and easy read that has some interesting bits for any Arsenal, United or Ireland fan.  It feels like a book from a bygone era and was designed to be read at the time, when any reader would have none the main people mentioned. It’s also the first book I’ve reviewed that I couldn’t find on Goodreads (until I added it), giving some sense of how obscure it is at this stage!

Panini-Italia-90-Frank-Stapleton-Ireland

‘Garrincha: the triumph and tragedy of Brazilian’s forgotten footballing hero’ by Ruy Castro & translated by Andrew Downie (2004)

“The most amateur footballer professionial football ever produced”

Garrincha was the epitome of the flawed sporting hero – the genius player whose personal demons led to an early death. Garrincha, the book, details his life from his childhood in Pau Grande through the length of his career and his eventual death from alcholism.  It captures his amazing talent, his playful charisma, his colourful personal life and his unique place in the hearts of Brazilian football fans.

Garrincha

Born with crooked legs, he defied all expectations and became one of the most successful players in international football history, winning two World Cups and only once losing in a Brazilian shirt in 60 appearances.  Winning two world cups he became a cult legend in Brazil.

His life was incredible.  He lost his virginity to a goat, slept with hundreds of women and sired at least 14 children – his affair and subsequent marriage to the singer Elza Soares that caught the imagination of a nation and led to them both being vilified.  He was profligate with money, uninterested in football that he wasn’t playing in and totally incapable of being faithful.

By the age of forty-nine, Garrincha was dead, destroyed by the excesses that made him such a fascinating figure.  His downfall makes for depressing, but gripping reading.

z_p17-Garrincha

There is something that draws us to those genius sports stars who can’t conquer their demons and don’t get the change to live the post-retirement life they deserve.  Their flaws make them more relatable and more human. As an Irishman, you read the book feeling like its an alternate world story of George Best’s life or even how the great Paul McGrath’s life may have gone had he been born in Brazil.

Ruy Castro has written a thoroughly enjoyable and fascinating biography which is excellently translated by Andrew Downie.  It is a brilliant and detailed insight into a fascinating life of a genius player.  It is a comprehensive and worthy tribute to a footballer who had he played a few years later in the television era would be remembered as one of the all time greats.  The only downside for me was the lack of more detail on the social and cultural environment in which Garrincha lived – I feel I learned an incredible amount about Garrincha, but less than I expected about the Brazil of the 50’s and 60’s.

I first the read the book when the English translation came out in 2004 and I thoroughly enjoyed this reread.  I highly recommend it for any football fan and is a great companion book for watching Russia 2018.

garrincha 3

‘Kicks: The Great American Story of Sneakers’ by Nicholas Smith (2018)

While I’m no ‘sneakerhead’ and have appalling fashion sense, runners are the one item of clothing that I  can actually enjoy shopping for.  I’m also the kind of guy who wears black Asics walking to work and doesn’t bother putting on suit shoes unless a meeting is very important so my views on anything shoes or fashion related should probably be ignored. Kicks

I had to ask myself if Kicks qualified as a sports book but given the heavy focus on the history of sport and sports companies, it definitely does.  Kicks traces the story of how sneakers (the American term for runners, trainers, sports shoes or tackies) were first developed and grew from being a sports specific shoe to the ever-present default footwear choice of billions.

In telling the story, Smith traces the origins of numerous sports and even more sport shoe companies.  In particular he captures the rivalries that drove advances in technology and marketing as the sneaker business crossed over from sports wear to mainstream everyday wear.  From Converse v Keds, Addidas v Puma to Nike v Reebok, the battle to be number led to some much innovation and change in an ever growing market.   Each company would at some hit a gold mine – whether the Converse All-Star, the Reebok athletic shoe or Nike Air Jordan – before losing the lead as a competitor signed the next big name or launched the next must have shoe.

The book weaves together a lot of stories I already knew or was vaguely aware of.  I was surprised by how much of the source material I had read including Kenny Moore’s book on Bill Bowerman and the Men of Oregon, Phil Knight’s autobiography Shoe Dog (about Nike) and Pitch Invasion by Barbara Smit on the founding of Adidas and Puma.

airjordan

It also touches on the role non-sport elements popular culture, in particular Run DMC’s promoting of Adidas which landed them a $1 million endorsement deal, had on the marketing of sneakers. Finally, it talks about sneakerhead culture and the fan culture that the internet has enabled resulting in shoes selling for thousands online and sneaker theft becoming a worrying source of crime in US inner-cities. While it seems crazy to think of someone buying shoes they will likely never wear, I’m writing this looking at my library of 100’s of books I’m yet to read while I buy way more new books every year than I read.  I guess we all have a passion and for some people that passion is sneakers.

Overall it is a very interesting dive into the world of American sports shoes that becomes more interesting as you keep reading.  While the book could easily have become a boring repetition of facts, Smith’s writing style keeps it light and entertaining.

sneaker-shopping-addiction-000