‘Chasing Points: A Season on the Pro Tennis Circuit’ by Gregory Howe (2018)

I think we all have fantasies about our dream careers.  Something we showed a little bit of aptitude and passion for, but were never realistically going to get paid to do.   The rise of reality talent shows suggests this question – could I have made it? – sits inside an awful lot of us.

For me, I did some stand-up comedy in college alongside a few people who have gone on to make a living in the comedy/entertainment world.   I was good but I knew I’d never have enough strings to my bow to achieve much more than getting laughs from a crowd of peers who shared all of my cultural references.  But getting the opportunity to tell jokes while giving speeches at weddings over the last few years, and getting brilliant feedback stirred up the old feelings of  – could I have made it? Or at least, should I have tried?

This long-winded introduction is all to make the point that when reading Chasing Point, the story of a 34 year old man’s attempts to play professional tennis, I cannot emphasis enough how much I wanted Howe to succeed.   I wanted to stop reading after each loss – and unsurprisingly there are a hell of a lot of them – and I genuinely smiled at each moment of success.

Howe had been a very good tennis player but, by his own account, not good enough that a career in the game seemed inevitable or even likely.   He continued to play in tournaments into adulthood and used tennis as a way to see the world – combining holidays with entering some local tournament.

At 34 however, Howe decided to give the game one last shot.  The book covers a year spent mostly on the Futures tour, the third rung of professional tennis, where players fight it out for a tiny number of ATP Tour points with a view to moving on to Challenger Tour and ATP Tour tournaments.   Howe set himself the challenge of winning a solitary ATP Tour point that would give him a World Ranking and access to the ATP Tour.  To achieve this, he would need to win at least three consecutive games against typically much younger players who were trying to launch a career in the game.

Chasing Points exposes the incredibly unglamorous life of the majority of players who try to play tennis professionally.  Trailing across Continent’s, sleeping in crappy hotels, paying to enter tournaments and having to win three consecutive games to see any return (either financially or in Tour points), Howe paints a picture of young men unable to let go of a dream until they had no other choice.  It’s the dual nature of the story that makes Chasing Points so interesting – it’s not just Howe’s journey but also an insight into the struggles of thousands of others on the way up or the way down as they try and try to make it as professional tennis players.

The book has been published 10 years after the season it chronicles.  It’s therefore really interesting to be able to know what eventually happened the various characters Howe meets along the way.   The majority end up drifting into obscurity with some never playing another professional game after Howe beats them.

Howe’s ambitions were relatively modest and highly personal in nature – there’s almost no reward for being ranked the 1,200th best player in the world.  But it’s this personal satisfaction that makes the challenge worthwhile – Howe set his sights on something and commits to trying whatever he can to achieve it.  It’s not a tale of extreme sacrifice – Howe spends a bit of money on the quest but he isn’t poor. It’s not a tale of extreme obsession – Howe doesn’t destroy relationships or his health (in a major way) to achieve his goal.  It’s not a tale of life changing moments or triumph against all the odds.  Instead it’s the story of what success means to each of us and the satisfaction of the journey.  It speaks to that desire to never give up on our dreams and never stop doing what you love.

Chasing Points is a really enjoyable read.  Howe tells an interesting story and he tells it well.  There is a real risk of repetition as each tournament blends into another but Howe gets the balance right – sometimes telling a game in lots of details, sometimes simply mentioning that he lost 6-2 6-2.  Overall I’d highly recommend it for any sports fan or anybody who asks themselves am ‘I too old to try and live my dream?’.

As a 34 year old man who is writing this review in Brussels Airport on the way home from a work trip, in the breaks between taking work related phone calls, I can’t help but reflect on those long-ago dreams of stand-up comedy.  If I end up attempting an open-mic night anytime in the next few months, Greg Howe is getting the blame.

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‘Lionel Messi and the Art of Living’ by Andy West (2018)

Every book has a target audience.  For sports books, it’s always a question as to what ‘fandoms’ the book will appeal to, what’s the Venn diagram of people who would like this.  Do you have to follow the sport? Do you have to be a fan of that team? Would a non-sports fan enjoy it?

About half-way through reading Lionel Messi and the Art of Living, I realised that, for this book, the target audience is me.  I love Messi, I’ve read plenty of philosophy, and plenty of pop social-science books.  I read the book during my commutes to and from the office during the toughest week in work I’ve ever had.  I read it while also in a very reflective mood having spent the weekend buying baby clothes for the first time (my wife is heavily pregnant with our first child).  I’ll never be in a more receptive place for some insights into how to live and never more willing to learn than from the greatest footballer of all time.

Did I mention that I love Messi?  I’ve loved him from the first time I saw him play. I sound like one of the 5 million Liverpool fans who claim to have been in Istanbul but I was boring enough to have watched almost all of the U20 World Cup in 2005 when he first emerged.  My brother’s childhood sweetheart had just broken his heart the day we both finished undergrad and, being freshly graduated and jobless, I spent 6 weeks trying to cheer him up with a diet of rented movies and sport on TV.  I probably don’t love Messi as much as my friend who has ‘Messi 10’ tattooed on his arse, but for me, he is the footballer that defines the last 10 plus years of my enjoyment of the game.

Returning to the book, it is very hard to categorise.  It’s part biography, part philosophy, part self-help book, part Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In some ways it could be read as the foundational book for the Church of Messi – a New Testament built around our one true saviour (from the evils of CR7).  But that may just be by me.

A more balanced, less emotional, review it’s that the book is an interesting approach to examining the factors that breed success in life – by whatever metric you judge that.  West seeks to examine Messi’s football career as a potential guide for how to live – he explores the characteristics which Messi displays and are essential to his success and, by analogy, to success in life in general.

West took the approach of interviewing just 7 people – some in football, some who knew Messi and others with interesting things to say.  Each chapter interweaves these interviews with a study of how Messi demonstrated one of the key characteristics needed to be successful.   The format works really well, the writing is very readable and it’s a book you could easily dip in and out of.

If you want a flavour of what the book is about, West has a great twitter thread (@andywest01) that gives a summary of each chapter.  If you like the sound it from that summary, you’ll love the book.  While I think the overall approach of the book might alienate some readers looking for something more traditional, West has gone for something different and he executes his vision brilliantly.

In summary, I loved it.  You might not like it quite as much but you should definitely give it a shot.

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‘The Binman Chronicles’ by Neville Southall (2012)

I’ve always liked Neville Southall – the legendary Everton and Wales goalkeeper who played into his 40’s.   By the time I was a football obsessive 8 year old, he was already in the later years of his Everton career and the team were a long way away from the League and FA Cup winning teams of the mid-80’s.  Southall appeared to be a throwback to an earlier era as football became increasingly commercially driven.

The Binman Chronicles is a fairly standard ex-footballers autobiography.  It follows an old-school format of focusing heavily on his playing career and, after covering his early years and how he got into professional football, chronologically detailing season-by-season.   The book reads in Southall’s voice but the book could have done with tighter editing with a bit too much repetition – every off-season was boring, he doesn’t like holidays, just loves playing football etc.  It feels too much like interviews with Southall were transcribed directly rather than a ghostwriter editing to capture Southall’s voice and story.

While the book can at times be a bit bland, Southall himself is an interesting character – as anyone who follows him on twitter will know.  Arguably the best goalkeeper in the world during the mid-80’s, he never pushed for big money or a glamours move abroad. A tee-totaller but a piss-taker, he seems to have somehow been both a loner and a senior figure in the Everton dressing room.  Never one to follow the crowd, Southall wears his differences as a badge of pride and seemed to have totally resisted any pressure/temptations to be ‘one of the lads’.   There is a limited amount of detail on his own personal life – apart from his love of Wales and his daughter – but he is ultimately open about his failings and his affairs during his first marriage.

From a footballing perspective, any Everton or Wales fan will be fascinated by the insights into those teams at the times Southall played.  He is open in both his praise and criticism for coaches and fellow players – he has warm words for Howard Kendall and Joe Royle despite some pretty negative experiences with both them, bit is damning in his criticism of Mike Walker’s ill-fated time as Everton manager.   For those who are too young to have experienced English football in the 80’s, the book paints an interesting picture of Everton’s rise to rival Liverpool without really detailing what exactly led to the remarkable improvements during Kendall’s first spell in charge – it seems simply have been better players and good man-management.

I would have enjoyed more about his present work which involves teaching troubled young people.  His own early struggles in education seem to help him build relationships with those who are struggling to find a place in society.  It’s clear that Southall has found a passion that rivals football and is committed to helping.

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‘Steroid Nation: Juiced Home Run Totals, Anti-aging Miracles, and a Hercules in Every High School: The Secret History of America’s True Drug Addiction’ by Shaun Assael (2007)

Steroid Nation sets out to tell the story of how steroids and steroid use became a significant part of sporting life in the USA.  Assael paints a broad canvas that stretches from the mavericks that started an underground steroid movement to the very highest levels of professional sport.  The book follows a chronological timeline from Gold’s gym in LA in the 80’s right up to the BALCO case in 2007.

This is the second of Assael’s books I have read, and like ‘The Murder of Sonny Liston’ it contains a cast of characters that at times seem too unbelievable to be true.   The book is at it’s best when it tells the untold story of the likes of Dan Duchaine and the underground bodybuilding scene of the 1970’s and 80’s.  At times these chapters reminded me of movies like Blow that focus on the emergence of a drug empire from a largely unexpected source.   Assael paints an intoxicating picture of excess, greed, muscles and risk – young men embarking on a journey with a self-righteousness that left them blind to the inevitable tragedies that would befall them.

Some of the other material deserves (and has received) full length books of their own and Assael can understandably only scratch the surface of Ben Johnson, Mark McGwire and BALCO for example.  What it does do brilliantly is tie the various streams together and paint the wider cultural issue of steroids-  it’s a problem at every level of sport – from gym users, to high school to the major leagues and Olympics. The political background of how supplements/steroids became (badly) regulated in the US is also really interesting.    Overall, the book is a brilliant introduction to the world of sports doping and would send a curious reader towards other really good books like The Dirtiest Race in History or League of Denial 

Assael also shines a light on the crusading drug enforcement officials – if anything the focus on the likes of Travis Taggart has gotten even brighter since this book was published. The book paints the origins of the USDA’s move to start to ban people on the basis of documentary evidence rather than relying on a failed test – the approach that ultimately led to Lance Armstrong confessing.  These parts of the book flow less smoothly or quickly than the rest – I found them very interesting though and it’s clear that Assael has enormous respect for those law enforcement officers who dedicated their careers to this fight. It’s slightly depressing reading about these guys at a time when WADA is being discredited for its favourable treatment of Russia and an apparent lack of objectivity.

I really enjoyed Steroid Nation. I’m conscious that I’ve just read this book 10 years after it first came out.  It feels like a sequel (or a revised and updated edition) would be a similarly fascinating read with Lance Armstrong now exposed, the Russian doping scandal and plenty of additional material available.  If anything, I would suspect that the term Steroid Nation remains as apt and relevant to describe sporting culture as it did a decade ago.

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‘Fergie Rises: How Britain’s Greatest Football Manager was Made at Aberdeen’ by Michael Grant (2014)

Alex Ferguson’s legacy continues to grow everyday as, over 5 years after his retirement,  Man Utd fail to live up to the standards set during the ‘Fergie era’.  Ferguson stands almost unquestioned as the greatest manager of the Premier League era with his consistent success placing above rivals like Arsene Wenger.

Fergie Rises is an in-depth look at the job which made Ferguson’s reputation and made him the obvious choice as Man Utd manager.  After a relative successful, if at times frustrating playing career, Ferguson took over East Stirlingshire for a year before a 4 year spell at St. Mirren.   Losing his job there, largely due to personal differences rather than the team’s performance, worked out exceptionally well as he was free when Aberdeen needed to replace the Celtic-bound Billy McNeill.

The scale of Ferguson’s achievement at Aberdeen is probably overlooked by many fans.  He won three Scottish League titles, four Scottish Cups, a League Cup and most remarkably the European Cup Winners Cup and the European Super Cup.  Since he left 34 years ago they have never again won the league – although this partly relates to the rising financial dominance of the Old Firm as Celtic and Rangers benefited disproportionately from the growing commercialisation of the game.

While Ferguson inherited a very strong team, his initial genius was to recognise that fact and limit his changes in the early days.  While he struggled to win over some players in his first season, he had the support of key dressing room figures and was able to mould the team in his own image through introducing young players like Alex McCleish.  Ferguson also seems to have been able to learn from mistakes – he came close to losing the dressing room on occasion but always managed to bring the team back together.

All of the characteristics that the world would see in Ferguson as Man Utd manager are evident from his time at Aberdeen – man management skills, use of youth team talent, selective use of praise, creating a siege mentality, displays of extreme anger, an eye for talent players, and above all, a relentless need to win.

Fergie Rises is brilliantly written and a great read.  Grant has read widely and picked up various of discrepancies among how certain events are remembered.  He also appears to have conducted countless interviews with seemingly every major character from the book who are open and frank in their memories of the period.   From the detailed quotes from the players it really struck me that, looking back, they all see their years under Ferguson at Aberdeen as a key period in their lives.

Overall, I highly recommend Fergie Rises for any football fan.  It works as a standalone brilliant story of the rise of a provincial football team to national and international glory.  It’s also a brilliant insight into the formation of one of modern football’s greatest managers. Grant gives a real sense of who Ferguson was at this time in his life and the influences that shaped him before he embarked on the job that would come to define him.

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P.S. Fergie has written a fair few books himself, including one covering this period called A Light in the North – I’m hoping to track down a copy and add some further thoughts to this review.  I have read his two autobiographies – one from 1999 and another from 2013.  I loved the 1999 book but found his much-hyped later book almost unreadably bad.

‘The Beckham Experiment: How the World’s Most Famous Athlete Tried to Conquer America’ by Grant Wahl (2009)

When David Beckham signed for LA Galaxy in Major League Soccer in 2007 it was big news.  Wall to wall coverage on Sky Sports News and hundreds of newspaper articles pontificating on what this meant for the further of soccer in the US of A.   The whole thing seemed to be hyped beyond all measure largely due to Beckham’s celebrity profile rather than his footballing ability.

Looking back now, my gut feeling was that Beckham was partly successful.  Everyone became a little bit interested, further big names followed – including the legendary Robbie Keane – but no-one in Europe actually watched any MLS apart from the odd youtube highlight. Whether the game has grown in the US, I have no idea – but the recent failure to qualify for the Russia World Cup suggests any benefits are been seen by the national team.

For The Beckham Experiment Grant Wahl was given great access to follow Beckham’s first two seasons at the Galaxy.  Reading the book, I was shocked to realise how spectacular a failure those first few seasons were, from a sporting sense at least.  Injuries, fatigue, lack of effort all played a part in the Galaxy having their worst two seasons in the club’s (I can never call a team a ‘franchise’) history.

Wahl paints the picture of an experiment that was a commercial success but – at that point – a sporting failure.  Beckham’s management team were given way too much influence over club affairs, Beckham was made captain despite not having a desire to be the team’s actual leader, and the approach of blowing the budget on Beckham and Landon Donovan left the team hopelessness unbalanced.  Indeed, I was shocked to see just how little some of his teammates earned, with one promising teammate even quitting the game to make more money in a ‘real’ job.

USA 94 legend Alexi Lalas is very much at the centre of the book – the former General Manager was clearly happy to use the book to vent his feelings about how his tenure at the Galaxy went.   The most interesting insights for me were just how different Major League Soccer is from the game played elsewhere with drafts, salary caps and squad limits that make it a unique coaching and management challenge.

Beckham is painted as either secretly manipulative or willfully naive as his team effectively took over the club, ensuring he was made captain and installing Ruud Guilit as manager.  We never get a strong sense of who Beckham is but this is no fault of Wahl’s who gets the other key protagonists to open up in great detail.  Indeed, Donovan may have regretted how open he was when he ultimately had to apologise to Beckham for the candid views he expressed in the book.  On balance, his teammates are reported to have viewed Beckham as a good teammate but a bad captain – a hard worker who wanted to win but someone who was distant from them by virtue of his fame and his wealth.

Overall the book provides a great insight into the state of MLS at the time.  While I’ve attended a couple of MLS games whenever I’m in the States and watched plenty of Robbie Keane highlights over the years, I don’t know enough to know whether the league has progressed.  It has whet my appetite for other books on the modern game in the US (I love books on the old NASL days such as Once in A Lifetime on the New York Cosmos).

Overall, it’s probably a little out of date to be of major interest to most readers still.  But it’s a highly readable, well-written and well-reported book and I’m looking forward to checking out Wahl’s most recent book Football 2.0.  I definitely have a natural bias against US based soccer journalists given the use of different terminology instantly jars, but this book was definitely well worth checking out.

I’ve also recently checked out Wahl’s podcast Planet Futbol which has some really interesting episodes.

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‘Gazza in Italy’ by Daniel Storey (2018)

I’m not sure if this qualifies as a book as it is incredibly short at only 83 pages – the perils of buying an eBook and not checking how long it is in advance.

Gazza in Italy tells the story of England footballer’s Paul Gascoigne’s three-year spell at Italian club Lazio during the peak of Serie A’s reign as the best league in the world.  Gazza was young and relatively fresh from his famous tears at World Cup semi-final in Italia ’90 when Lazio began to show an interest.  The Italian club were flush with cash and seeking to build a Scuddetto winning team around the mercurial Geordie.

The move was delayed due injury but Lazio stayed committed  and Gazza eventually rocked up in Rome.  Storey recounts the highs and lows of Gazza’s time there – from brilliant goals to injury worries, from adoration from the fans to vilification in the media.  At its heart, Storey is trying to square the circle – why is Gazza seen as having failed in Italy but still absolutely adored by Lazio fans 20 years on.  It is a combination of individual

The most nostalgic part of the book for me was the background in how Channel 4 came to show live Serie A and Gazzetta Football Italia –  my absolute favourite tv show as a kid.  Storey poses the interesting theory that the coverage of Serie A in England helped shape the Premiership by exposing the British game to Italian football on a much more regular basis.  However, Storey also appears to use the arrival of Arsene Wenger as the turning point for the Premiership modernising which is probably giving the Frenchman a little too much credit!

Storey also questions whether the move was right for Gazza given his addiction issues.  The great ‘what if’ of Gazza’s career has always been whether there was an alternative path that he could have taken that would have seen him stay on top of his demons.  Given the nature of his addictions it does seem unlikely, but, as Storey sets out, being away from home and highly scrutinised by an invasive media certainly couldn’t have helped.

Storey read widely for the story and the bibliography would be a great starting point for a PhD in Gazzamania.  However, there don’t seem to be any original interviews of the kind that would help the book standout .  I appreciate it’s a very short book that maybe wouldn’t justify the expense – but it makes the €5 price a bit steep for such a quick read.  (I feel a bit bad complaining about price when authors struggle to make money but it would be remiss not to mention it my enjoyment was diminished by feeling I didn’t get a lot of book for my buck).

Overall, an enjoyable and insightful, if very short read.  Interestingly it was originally launched as an audiobook only – narrated by the brilliant James Richardson who hosted Gazzetta Football Italia.

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