‘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.

Frank Gore

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 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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‘Soccernomics – 2018 World Cup edition’ by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski (2018)

I read the first version of this book, then called Why England Lose, when it was first published and really enjoyed it.  The latest edition is even better. The authors avoided simply re-publishing the same old book, instead re-examining their conclusions and ensuring this edition is fresh and up to date.

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The book is essentially Freakonomics applied to football, with some Moneyball thrown in.  The authors use statistics to disprove the prevailing wisdom on how football functions and how to be successful in the game. It covers a wide gambit of football related issues – ranging from how to play the transfer market well, what national teams overperform and how loyal fans really are.

The authors attempt to look globally in scope but the book focuses on European football largely because that is where the best data sources are found.  It is a long read and covers a huge amount of detail.  It is best enjoyed in chapter sized chunks to leave time to think about it rather than flying through and finding yourself overwhelmed in the detail.   Some chapters are better than others – discussions on which national team over performs got tiring, and felt like a repeat of the discussion on why England lose.  By contrast, the chapter on penalty shootouts and game theory was brilliant and insightful.

In particular, the book left me wanting to find a good book on the rise of Olympique Lyonnais and how they used clever transfers to dominate French football before the oil baron PSG took over.   The “wisdom of crowds” theory put forward in the book doesn’t really seem convincing to me as transfer committees at other clubs have been anything but successful. Any recommendations would be greatly welcome.

I enjoyed the book but in some ways I would hesitate to recommend it for everyone.  I’m not sure how much a non-nerdy fan would enjoy it.  It’s probably safe to say that if you think a “statistical look at football” sounds like fun, you’ll enjoy this book a lot.  Given its huge sales numbers there must be more of us football nerds out their than I thought!

‘No Hunger in Paradise: The Players. The Journey. The Dream.’ by Michael Calvin (2017)

“It is impossible not to be struck by the sense of sadness, underpinned by anger.  The venality and vitriol of the senior game is a running sore, an open wound which seeps into youth football”.

Michael Calvin’s recent trilogy of books have established him as the great chronicler of modern British football.  He investigates the human stories of English football, shining a light on the real life experiences of those for whom the game is their actual or potential livelihood.

No Hunger in Paradise follows on from Living on the Volcano which focused on managers and The Nowhere Men which examined scouts.  This time it is youth football that is under the spotlight.

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This is an important book which shines a light on a system which fundamentally fails thousands of children.  Calvin interviews a wide range of people – from coaches and agents to parents and players.  Many of the chapters would make excellent stand alone stories – combined, they paint a depressing portrait of an industry in which children are seen as assets and often quickly discarded when they lose their perceived value.

Calvin, a very experienced journalist, is clearly a very talented interviewer who draws out the complexity of the stories of those he speaks to.  His own voice in the book is mainly one of empathy – its clear he cares passionately about the game and the people he meets.  Calvin also made a documentary with BT Sport based on his book which is well worth checking out.

The most striking fact presented is the young age at which players start to be recruited – Calvin repeatedly paints scenes that seem normal for adults or teenagers until he explains the players are 6 or 7 years old.  More than anything, if the book has a central thesis, its that this chasing of players at a younger and younger age is fundamentally wrong.

There is also an interesting contrast between old school and new school ways of thinking about youth coaching.  While better processes and procedures are undoubtedly important and necessary for safeguarding, you get a sense that Calvin and many of his interviewees feel the use of technology for technology’s sake hasn’t necessarily improved coaching outcomes.

While Calvin’s writing is very readable, this is not an easy read. Calvin constantly, rightly, reminds the reader of the problems in the game.  However, the book does focus on the good guys in a bad industry which gives some hope. Calvin highlights the good work done by many clubs, organisations and coaches who he sees as role models for how things could be improved across football.

At a time when there have been so much coverage of historic abuse within English football, reading this book you cannot help feeling that the football authorities in England have gotten their priorities all wrong.  Welfare must come first and outcomes second.   With the scale of money involved, its unlikely that message will be heard anytime soon.  Large scale change has proven possible when designed to improve the English national team – whether it could again prove possible to implement change designed to help those who ultimately don’t make the grade remains to be seen.

‘The Deal: Inside the World of a Super-Agent’ by Jon Smith & James Olley (2016)

“Is it wrong? By the law of the written word, yes. But questioning the morality of conducting deals in a certain way involving third parties or agents is a completely outmoded and backward way of thinking.”

Jon Smith is a self-described ‘Super Agent’ – a key figure in, and beneficiary of, the commercialisation of English, and global, football.  The Deal is part biography of Smith, part history of football’s commercialisation and part defence of the role of football agents.  It’s doubtful though whether it lives up to its sales pitch of being a “scintillating exposé” of how the football industry really functions.

the deal

The first few chapters operate almost as stand alone stories that could work better as magazine articles – an ill-fated trip to the Ukraine in an attempt to sell Sheffield Wednesday, a look behind-the-scenes on deadline day, a discussion of how agents generally operate and a justification of football agents and their “morality”.  These chapters contain interesting insights into how the business of football works, which is the real appeal of the book (and the reason I picked it up).  However, I get a very strong sense that the book only scratches the surface of what really goes on inside football.

These early chapters also include detailed, and repetitive attempts to justify the need for, and role of, agents.  Some of Smith’s views – particularly around structuring things in a tax efficient manner until Revenue shut them down or the need to make payoffs to players family and friends because it’s the “culture” – leave a bad taste in the mouth.  Obviously it would be totally naive to not expect this stuff to go on and it is admirable that Smith at least addresses the issue.  Lets just say I found his defence of plenty of the activities wholly unconvincing.

Like most businessmen, Smith is generally opposed to any piece of regulation he talks about, yet bemoans the fact that FIFA decided to step away and leave the industry largely unregulated (because it increased the competition presumably) – there is a definite sense of having his cake/5% and eating it too.

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The rest of the book is mainly a biography of a very successful career in business – made glamorous by the connection to sport and entertainment.  Smith’s own life story is engaging – he struggled with his speech as a child and suffered personal tragedy while still in his 20s.  The stories of how he made his name with the England team and creative marketing are fascinating as are his ventures into other sports.  However, having come for an exposé on the business of sport, I was ultimately left a bit bored and unengaged in the rise and potential fall of a mutlimillionaire with a prizate zoo and homes around the world.

The best parts of the book contain  interesting insights into the business side of the game. As well as the first few chapters, these insights are sprinkled across the book. Smith discusses some well-known personalities and includes a lot of anecdotes about individual players and transfers.

Ultimately, the books biggest flaw is that it’s too much about the Super-Agent himself and not enough about the game.  Pretty quickly, Smith’s ego begins to grate – and its gets annoying reading about how successful and great Smith is.  There is a way of recounting how well you have done without quite saying it so baldly.  It’s understandable that any such book will exalt the author’s successes but often it feels like the line between telling and boasting is crossed.  Then again, if I had been Maradona’s agent and achieved nothing else in life I’d probably have no shortage of ego!

Overall The Deal suffers from trying to be too much in one.  It does contain an interesting behind the scenes look at the business side of professional football.  Smith has had a very interesting career and football fans will find much of the book enjoyable.   It has its flaws, but is a decent, if overlong, read.

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