‘The Next Big Thing: How Football’s Wonderkids Get Left Behind’ by Ryan Baldi (2019)

Every football fan remembers those prodigies they pinned their future dreams on only for their apparent potential to never be realised.  As an Ireland fan, I was overly excited when Anthony Stokes scored nine goals in just four games for Falkirk and again when 16 year old Terry Dixon was called up to the senior Ireland squad.  Even now I can’t resist getting giddy at the potential of young strikers Troy Parrott, Michael Obafemi and Aaron Connolly all of whom I’ve barely seen play yet whom I am certain will be world beaters.

So while we are all familiar with the hope, hype and unrealised dreams, little consideration is given by most to the fact the the young men who don’t make the big time have to find a way to get on with their lives. The Next Big Thing tells the stories of 15 highly-touted players who never quite reached the levels that was once predicted for them.  Some enjoyed decent careers, others were out of the game by the end of their teens.  The book covers a fascinating mix of players including Championship Manager legend Cherno Samba, Dutch international winger Andy Van der Mede and one time Beckham-rival Ben Thornley.

Baldi conducted interviews with the 15 players profiled and many others who knew them or coached them during their formative years.  Each one brings an interesting perspective as to why they didn’t quite make it at the highest (or in some cases, any) level.  The reasons range from injuries to changing managers, from ill-advised transfers to simple bad luck, from addiction to poor attitude.  Each player is fairly forthright and honest in accounting for their failures (to the extent that not making it against ridiculously long odds can actually be considered a failure!).  There may be some self-selection to this – those willing to talk to the author for a book like this may be those who have best been able to come to terms with how their career panned out.

Each chapter would work well as a stand-alone article as each is an entertaining and interesting story in its own right..   The book broadly lets the stories stand on their own with some attempt to tie the pieces together in the concluding chapter.  If, like me, you read the book over a very short space of time it can get a little repetitive but that in itself is indicative of how similar the players’ stories ultimately are.  It think it may work best as a book to dip in an out of and read a chapter at a time.

The book ultimately serves as a reminder of the perils of forgetting that young footballers are children or young adults first and footballers second.  It also suggests that, while improvements have definitely been made over time in how clubs treat their youngsters, a lot of care is needed to ensure that the end of professional football career does not result in significant life problems.  Overall, The Next Big Thing is well written, well researched and a welcome addition the English football library.

Baldi

 

‘Bottled: English Football’s Boozy Story” by Benjamin Roberts (2019)

For much of my adult life, football and booze have been very closely linked.  Pints after 5-a-side on a Friday night, watching matches in pubs when a student who couldn’t afford sky sports (yet could always somehow afford pints), pints on a Wednesday night watching the Champions League and cans in front of the TV watching Match of the Day.  Having given up booze 21 months ago, I rarely miss drinking apart from when surrounded by friends with a big match on the TV.   Given this, I was particularly interested to read Bottled by Benjamin Roberts outlining the relationship between my favourite thing and the thing I’ve vowed to give up for ever.

Bottled looks at the complicated relationship between football in England and alcohol.  Roberts traces the remarkable influence that breweries had on the formation and early years of many well known teams.  It’s a side of English football history I haven’t seen covered elsewhere and sets the scene well for the inter-connection of the beautiful game and the demon drink.

In addition to this history, Bottled book covers a wide range of more recent teams and players.  Roberts examines the drinking culture at Man Utd as Ferguson arrived and the steps he felt were necessary to turn the club around.  He also looks at a number of high profile players who have been public in their struggles with alcohol including George Best, Paul Gascoigne, Tony Adams, Paul Merson and God himself, Paul McGrath.  Bottled also highlights the excellent work being done by many to help those players afflicted with addictions and the better steps being taken by clubs to encourage players to find help.  He also touches on the changes that helped to break the connection as Arsene Wenger et al. modernised football. 

It’s clear that alcohol (and recreational drugs) played a huge role in all professional sports in the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and beyond.   The state of Manchester United’s drinking culture when Ferguson joined is very similar to the state of the Chicago Bulls when they drafted Jordan in ’84.  It’s also hard to imagine any modern NFL team drinking or partying in the manner of John Madden’s Oakland Raiders.  I’d suspect English football’s relationship was likely much more widespread (every team drank a lot rather than just a few) and much more connected to the nation’s wider boozy culture.

As the book progresses, Roberts becomes a little bit more open about his own relationship with alcohol, seeing similarities in his own AA experiences and those of Merson, Adams and others.   This is a real strength of the book.  There is no judgement from Roberts, but he has clearly been inspired to write the book by his own love of football and troubled relationship with booze.

Overall, Boozed is a very interesting and readable examination of the relationship between English football and alcohol.

bottled

‘Only in America: The Life and Crimes of Don King’ by Jack Newfield (1995)

Watching boxing as a kid, I was always fascinated by Don King and his larger than life manner. I mainly started watching boxing during Tyson’s post-prison fights – a time that would be the beginning of the end of Don King’s long reign atop the boxing world.

King is undoubtedly a fascinating character. Only in America presents an aggressively reported look at the dark side of King’s empire.  For Newfield, this book is personal and it’s clear he feels compelled to draw attention to the hurt and harm King has caused to boxers and the sport of boxing.

Newfield paints King as an intensely smart and charismatic man, one whose talents could have led him to more legitimate success.  Instead, King could never leave the underhand corrupt world he grew up in and never missed an opportunity to enrich himself under the table.

Prior to entering boxing, King had been a major player in illegal gambling and been sentenced to prison for beating to death a gambler who owed him money.  Newfield strongly suggests that the judge was paid off to reduce his conviction to manslaughter from murder in the second-degree.

Emerging from prison, King sought fame and fortune through boxing promotion.  His friendship with the famous singer Lloyd Price seemed to play a significant role in opening doors.  Ultimately, his break into the big time came with the Forman v. Frazier fight in Kingston, Jamaica where he where he famously arrived in Frazier’s corner but left with the victorious Foreman.   Subsequently, he would go on to have a hand in the legendary Rumble in the Jungle and most of the big heavyweight fights for 20 more years.

King used his charisma, his race and underhand contractual arrangements to tie up most of the up and coming black boxers to long term contracts.  These usually included excessive compensation to King’s son for acting as the fighter’s manager and clauses giving King rights to promote all of the fighter’s future fights.

Newfield sets out in details the significant damage King did to a whole generation of heavyweights.  He clearly stole millions from his fighters through billing excess expenses and excess fees. Among the lives he severely impacted is Buster Douglas – the journeyman boxer who beat an ill-prepared Tyson to become heavyweight champion.  King spent months trying to get the result overturned and subsequently scammed Douglas out of the majority of his purses each time he defended his title.

Overall, King is presented as a villain who uses his cunning to take advantage of multiple boxers before discarding each one as soon as they lose their value to him.  It’s remarkable that even in the world of boxing, such a character was able to service and thrive for so long.

Only in America is a damning indictment of King.  As Newfield says, the book is part biography, part investigative reporting, part memoir and part essay.  Newfield’s priority was to tell the story of those boxers King exploited and to shine a light on King’s misdeeds.  The book achieves this and more.  It’s a gripping and shocking read.

I don’t know a huge amount about how King ultimately lost his grip on boxing but, within 3 years of this book being published, King’s last great fighter, Mike Tyson, sued him for $100 million for cheating him out of money over a decade. The lawsuit was later settled out of court with Tyson receiving $14 million.

King

 

 

 

‘Done Deal: An Insider’s Guide to Football Contracts, Multi-Million Pound Transfers and Premier League Big Business’ by Daniel Geey (2019)

Done Deal is an interesting, comprehensive and well written overview of the business and legal side of the beautiful game.  Its author Daniel Geey is a lawyer and a regular online commentator on the legal side of the football business.  It covers contract deals, television rights negotiations, club takeovers, and all the legal and commercial sides of football.

It’s clear that Geey is very knowledgeable and experienced in his field.  The book also shows he is an excellent communicator as he presents what can be dry or technical information in a very clear and engaging manner.

For the nerdier among us who regularly read about the business side of sport or who regularly read blogs like the excellent Swiss Ramble, a lot of the material in the book will be quite familiar.

Overall, Geey does a very good job of communicating a lot of information.  However, it’s easy to imagine that a lot of readers will ultimately find the in-depth nature of some of the subject matter boring or uninteresting.   It’s not a book to read through in a few sittings but rather one worth dipping into chapter by chapter.   What is clear is you won’t find a better book on the finer details of the commercial and legal aspects of professional football.  An interesting and informative book.

done deal

 

‘Building the Yellow Wall: The Incredible Rise and Cult Appeal of Borussia Dortmund’ by Uli Hesse (2018)

Uli Hesse is the great English language chronicler of German football history.  His book Tor!: The Story of German Football, a detailed and engrossing history of the game in Germany, is a regular on any list of the best European football books. His more recent books take a deep dive into particular clubs with Bayern: Creating a Global Superclub) examining the Bavarian super-power and now Building the Yellow Wall which tells the story of every football hipster’s favourite Bundesliga team, Borussia Dortmund.

In recent years, Dortmund have taken on a cult appeal with fans around the world – to such an extent that Ryanair put on match-day special flights from London to cater for the demand.  Hesse traces the history of the club from its humble origins in a Dortmund beerhall, through to it’s 1997 Champions League win and its more recent period of glory under the charismatic Jurgen Klopp.

The club’s origin story is quite interesting with the founding father’s risking their social standing by rejecting the Church’s insistence that football should not be played on Sundays. Throughout the book, Hesse tracks the key figures from each generation.  One remarkable feature is how often prominent fans ultimately end up being employed by the club, showing the close connection between the team and its’ city.

Hesse details the lowest moments of the club both its relegation to Bundesliga 2 and its near financial collapse in the 2000’s. As with many sports books, these moments of crisis and peril are often more interesting than the success.  Hesse brilliantly captures the tension felt by fans as they waited to hear whether creditors had approved a deal that would allow the club to survive.

The book is packed full of nuggets of history and trivia that you are unlikely to find anywhere.  Hesse grew up in Dortmund but also interviews a wide range of players, club officials and ordinary fans.

Hesse is an engaging writer who manages to find the right level of detail to tell the story while keeping readers engaged.   This book has less match report style recounts of long forgotten matches than his earlier book on Bayern and instead wisely focuses more on the cultural impact of Borussia for its fans, its city and football in general.

Overall, Building the Yellow Wall is a really enjoyable read for any football fan.

Building the Yellow

 

‘The Away Game: The Epic Search for Football’s Next Superstars’ by Sebastian Abbot (2018)

I’m not sure spoilers are a thing for non-fiction books, but this review feels a bit spoilerish to me.  Ultimately, it’s impossible to talk about the book without reflecting on what happened the young players in broad terms.  If you want to read the book with absolutely no knowledge of what happens, just know it’s well-written and tells an important story.  Well worth picking up.

The Away Game tells the story of an attempt by Qatar to undercover the next Leo Messi by searching for hidden gems of potential in Africa.   In 2007, Josep Colomer, a former youth coach at Barcelona, was hired to organise trials for 13 year old boys across Africa in what the book describes as the largest sports talent search in history.  Those successful at trials would be brought to Qatar to train in the Aspire Academy with the ultimate aim of becoming a professional footballer.

Abbot zooms in on a few select players with seemingly endless potential and details their journey from local trial, to the Aspire Academy and beyond. At first glance, it appears to be a story of hope and opportunity.  Abbot lure the reader in with this hope, and almost expectation, given how talented the players appear.  Unfortunately, it soon emerges that this isn’t a story with happy endings.  Initially, I felt annoyed that the book had led me on, but I suspect this was a deliberate choice to mirror the journey the players and coaches travelled of unrealistic hope ultimately being crushed by the realities of life and modern football.

So why did it not work out?  Most obviously, the players simply were much older than they claimed and therefore not phenom 13 year olds but decent 17 or 18 year olds.  Secondly, the inability for the Qatari’s to use the players in their national team following FIFA rule changes, clearly dampened some enthusiasm for the project.  The ends arguably no longer justified the means for the Qatar backers if it couldn’t ultimately bring glory to the state.

I really enjoyed the book and it tells an important story about exploitation in youth sports on a global level.  Abbot presents these young men as individuals with their own personalities and dreams whose  own happiness matters, not just pawns in the global business of football.  Ultimately, they all take different paths with various degrees of heartbreak along the way.

The coaches and others who run the Football Dreams aren’t painted as villains however.  They seem to believe in their mission and are passionate about developing players. I felt Abbot may have been a bit gentle on the ultimate backers of the programme (the Qatari state) but that may been journalistic reserve to not infer negative motivations that aren’t provable.

The Away Game is  well written and highly readable.  There is probably a bit too much repetition of the players backstory each time they are reintroduced which is unnecessary if you read the book in a reasonably short period of time.  Notwithstanding this, it grips you from beginning to end as you root desperately for the players despite knowing ultimately the Dream is unlikely to come true.

The Away Game

‘The Cost of These Dreams: Sports Stories and Other Serious Business’ by Wright Thompson (2019)

Wright Thompson is a long time senior writer for ESPN covering multiple sports.  His profile is relatively low in Europe given ESPN’s American focus but his excellent 2016 article on Tiger Woods was shared widely in Ireland at least.  It gave the best insight into how Woods’ life and career unravelled until the excellent  ‘Tiger Woods’ by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian was published last year.

The Cost of These Dreams collects many of Thompson’s best articles but with a central theme running through them – the price and struggles that come with seeking and achieving success.  The stories collected here are mostly about the off pitch lives of those involved in sports.  It includes some of the greatest figures in their sports (including Michael Jordan, Pat Riley and Bear Bryant) and some relatively unknown characters most notably Tony Harris, a college basketball star who had a mental breakdown that led him to an untimely demise in the jungles of Brazil.  The highlight for me is a moving piece about the Ole Miss (University of Mississippi) football program during the ugly time of de-segregation in US education.

Unlike many anthologies, the preface for this book goes beyond the usual platitudes about how lucky he has been to write for X or Y over the years.  Instead it is a very reflective and emotional piece about the costs to Thompson’s own personal life of his method of reporting, his constant travel and the resultant time missed with family.

The articles collected here are superbly well written. The book reveals two of Thompson’s great strengths – as a determined researcher/investigator and as a remarkable interviewer. Thompson’s commitment to research is shown most clearly by his dogged pursuit of on of Muhammad Ali’s early opponents who has gone off the grid.  He becomes obsessed with finding him and the resulting article is beautifully written.  As an interviewer, he achieves remarkable insight into the inner worlds of his subjects who often just happen to be among the greatest sports stars in history.   

Many of Thompson’s best articles are also available online and well worth checking out.  I’ve linked below to a few, most of which aren’t included in this excellent book:

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