‘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.

st nation

‘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.

wahl.jpg

One Career, Two Books – Tony Adams. Addicted (1999) and Sober (2017) written with Ian Ridley

The titles of former footballer Tony Adams’ two books make clear how his struggles with addiction have shaped large part of his life.

addicted

Addicted was published in 1999 when Adams was still Arsenal and England captain, and less than 3 years after he had revealed his alcoholism and stopped drinking.  At the time it garnered a lot of attention as Adams discussed his career and his battles with alcoholism in stark detail.  It was a striking honest book from a footballer still playing at the highest level.

Addicted covers all of the key aspects of Adams life in different chapters – his addiction battles, his Arsenal career, his England career, the managers he worked with, and the players he played with are all given their own space rather than following a more straightforward chronology.  It works well but does mean there is some repetition – particularly of his England career which inevitably is also discussed as he goes through his Arsenal days season by season.

Adams portrays his younger self as fairly self-involved and oblivious to the world around him.  He shudders to recall how little the Hillsborough tragedy affected him and acknowledges he hypocritically judged players like Charlie Nicholas who, like Adams, enjoyed life outside football a bit too much.

Don Howe and George Graham emerge as the key figures of influence on Adams career – Howe as coach from his early days and Graham as the manager who made him captain and under whom Adams won two Championship titles as well as 4 cup competitions.

However, more than football, addiction and alcohol are at the centre of the book.  It reads largely as Adams’ own attempt to figure himself out. which makes it more interesting than a standard football biography.   It’s a fascinating and at times harrowing read.

I first read it back when I was 17 and shortly to start out on my own booze filled college days.  At the time I had no real appreciation of alcohol but remember being shocked at how an alcoholic could play football to such a high level.

Re-reading it now, aged 34, and one year after giving up booze myself, I experienced the book quite differently – there is the relief of knowing Adams did manage to stay off the booze for the last 20 years combined with a much greater empathy for the attraction that booze had for him.  I enjoyed the book even more this time.

Sober, published last year, picks up where Addicted left off and covers the last 5 years of Adams playing career and his life thereafter.  Sharing the same ghostwriter, Ian Ridley, means that both books have the same voice.  There are some clear differences however.  Sober is more open about family and personal relationships with family members being much more fleshed out in the second book.

Sober

Sober uses the language of AA and recovery much more regularly as Adams has spent the last 20 years maintaining his sobriety.  It can feel a little much at times but it wouldn’t be Adams own voice if it didn’t.   Adams major post career achievement is the founding and ongoing survival of Sporting Chance, a charity dedicated to helping sportsmen and women with addictions.

The end of his playing career is told fairly quickly as Adams moves on to focus on the transition to his post-playing career.  While Addicted told the story of the Arsenal and England captain at the peak of his powers, Sober is mostly the story of an ex-player struggling to find the next step in his career.  It’s interesting to see how a former superstar deals with being less successful in the next phase of his career.

Adams took various courses and coaching badges before trying his hand at management with Wycome. After resigning there, he returned to education before joining Portsmouth as Harry Redknapp’s assistant during their high spending days that included an FA Cup victory.  He ultimately became manager after Harry left but appears to never had had much of a chance due to budget cuts before asking to be fired to save himself from resigning.

From here, Adams career took an odd, international turn.  After briefly coaching in Azerbaijan, he stepped into a general manager / consultant type role in building a small Azerbaijani team from the ground up.    This was followed by a connection with a Chinese football investor as Adams took on a general consulting role for Jiang Lizhang who owned a club in China and purchased Granada in Spain.  He even briefly became Granada manager for a while.

It’s clear Adams feels somewhat unfulfilled with his coaching and management career.  Sober gave me a much better impression of Adam’s post playing career than the easy narrative of failed manager which I suspect many fans of English football have.

Late in the book Sober becomes a series of musings about Arsenal, England, Wenger and the state of British football.  At times it becomes a bit boring and simply the musings of an ex footballer who is annoyed that he isn’t able to contribute more to the game in England at the highest levels.  Ultimately, the book ends as it begins with a reflection on addiction, recovery and staying sober.

Sober makes an excellent companion piece to Addicted but as a stand-alone book it’s good without being great.  While it is equally honest, particularly about Adams mental health struggles, it doesn’t reach the difficult task of living up to its predecessor.  The general musings on the game ultimately let the book down by going on that bit too long.

Overall, the two books together give an incredibly honest and interesting account of a man who achieved great things in the game, but none greater than achieving his sobriety and helping others achieve theirs.

‘Keeper Of Dreams: One Man’s Controversial Story of Life in the English Premiership’ by Ronald Reng & translated by Shaun Whiteside (2002)

Ronald Reng will be best known to English readers for ‘A Life Too Short’ his excellent and heart-breaking biography of the late Robert Enke.

Keeper of Dreams is his much lesser known first book (first translated into English at least) about the brief professional career of Lars Leese, a German goalkeeper who was catapulted from lower league German football to become a Premier League goalkeeper during Barnsley’s one season in the top flight.

Lesse looked like he had missed his chance to be a professional before, at the age of 26, getting taken on as Leverkuson’s third choice goalkeeper.  A bit of luck and the right connection resulted in a surprise transfer to Barnsely where Lesse briefly became a starting Premier League goalie in only his second year as a pro.

Barnsley’s year in the top flight was in 1997/1998 – when I was 13 and utterly obsessed with football and Championship Manager.  That obsession can only explain why I have vivid memories of that Barnsely team and of Lars Lesse when I can barely remember matches I watched last week.

lars

Leese was something of a celebrity in Barnsley as the town went football crazy.   In the book he is very candid with his opinions on British life and Reng captures the bemusement of a foreigner in a British town as Lesse and his wife come to really enjoy their lives there.

Keeper of Dreams is ultimately the story of a dream temporarily lived and the frustration of coming to terms with the reality that the dream ended all too soon.  After eventually securing a starting spot and playing fanstically to secure a famous win at Anfield, Lesse lost his place due to illness and couldn’t get back into the team due to David Wagner’s great form.   As Barnsley dropped to Division 1, John Hendrie took over from Danny Wilson and Lesse found his face no longer fit with Hendrie’s plans for the club.  Released after his second year, Lesse struggled in vain to find a new club before eventually seeking normal work and stability back in Germany.

Reng is excellent at capturing the more difficult side of life in football – the personal struggle players experience behind closed doors.  It is impossible to read this book now without seeing the writing of this story as part of Reng’s development as a writer and his experiences with Reng can only have helped him to so brilliantly capture the tragic story of Robert Enke in his universally admired A Life Too Short –  a book I thought was just superb but am hesitating to reread and review given the sad subject matter.

Keeper of Dreams is a pretty quick and easy read that captures a fairly unique football journey and an interesting and honest character in Lars Lesse.  Well worth picking up.

keeper

 

 

‘Bayern: Creating a Global Superclub’ by Uli Hesse (2016)

When I first started reading sports books that weren’t just focused on Irish or British stories, Tor!: The Story of German Football was one of the first that opened my eyes to the wider world of sports writing.  A detailed and engrossing history of German football, it’s definitely one for the sports history nerd rather than the casual premier league fan (needless to say I loved it).

Surprisingly, Uli Hesse didn’t publish his next book on German football for 13 more years.  Bayern: Creating a Global Superclub tells the history of Bayern Munich, the undisputed biggest club in Germany and one of the true global superclubs that competes for the Champions League (almost) every season.

The club’s origin story is interesting and well-told.  Disgruntled players broke away from the local gymnastics club to ensure football got the attention they felt it deserved.  Of most interest is the clubs early openness to foreigners and its Jewish connections which saw it suffer during Hitler’s reign.  This could have been covered in more detail – especially as it’s not a short book.  Hesse alludes to mixed views on whether Bayern were victims or not and I would definitely like to read more about that period in the clubs history.

Its remarkable to think that Bayern weren’t invited into the inaugural Bundesliga in 1963 but within 10 years had won it 3 times and be about embark on an incredible run of 3 successive European Cups.

Throughout the book, Hesse tracks the key figures who helped turn the club from a normal Bavarian team into a global institution – players, coaches and administrators, and the likes of Uli Hoeness and Franz Beckenbauer who played multiple roles with such impact.

One fact that jumps out from the book is the relatively small impact that individual managers/coaches have had on Bayern’s historical development and achievements than players and administrators have had.  For instance, no-one would consider 2 time European Cup winner Dettmar Cramer in the same category as Brian Clough, Pep Guardiola, Alex Ferguson or Arrigo Sacchi – all fellow 2 time European Cup winners who had much greater personal influence and impact on the clubs that they managed.

Hesse approaches the book with the stated aim of being dispassionate about a club that German football fans either love or hate.  He definitely achieves this, and a lot more.  Bayern is meticulously researched and packed full of detail.  It’s a really interesting and enjoyable read.  Like Tor! however it may too full of detail for many readers (and incomprehensibly detailed for those without any past knowledge of Bayern).  Some readers may find there is too much emphasis on match report style recounts of long forgotten matches and others may wish there was more coverage of the recent era.  However, I definitely recommend it for anyone who likes a bit of football history.

Hesse’s latest book, Building the Yellow Wall: The Incredible Rise and Cult Appeal of Borussia Dortmund was just published (in English at least) this week and is one I’ll be picking up. 

Bayern

‘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!