‘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

‘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.

Fergie

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.

wahl.jpg

‘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.

gazza

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.

‘The Miracle of Castel di Sangro’ by Joe McGinniss (2000)

(This review is a bit spoilery so avoid if you are sensitive to such things – even for non-fiction books).

When asked to name my favourite football book, I immediately jump to 4 or 5 books I read in my late teens or early twenties – Football Against the Enemy, The Hand of God, Brillant Orange, Morbo, or The Miracle of Castel di Sangro.  These were among the books that opened my eyes to the joys of great sports-writing that went beyond players autobiographies and told you as much about a time or a place as they did about the sport/player.

I first read The Miracle of Castel di Sangro in 2002 in the booze filled summer between finishing school and starting university.  I was totally captivated by the story and devoured the book, reading it twice within a couple of weeks and recommending it to everyone I could think of.  I’ve hesitated to reread it in recent years due to a nagging fear that maybe, just maybe, it wouldn’t live up to my memory.

Re-reading it now, 16 years later, I still found the story as wonderful, absurd and brilliant but found myself disliking McGinniss, the author and narrator, who sets himself right at the centre of the story.

The Miracle of Castel di Sangro tells of the story of the 1996/97 Serie B campaign of tiny Castel Di Sangro after they had achieved an unexpected promotion (the ‘Miracle’) to the second division in Italian football.  McGinniss, a successful American writer in his 50’s, spends the season with the team sharing their meals, the dressing room and eventually their secrets.   McGinniss was a recent convert to football (soccer) having fallen in love with the game during USA ’94 and developing an obsession with the Divine Ponytail Roberto Baggio.  He also goes to great lengths to highlight his lack of Italian, while it was seemingly of a high enough standard that he was reading Italian newspapers from the very beginning.

Castel di Sangro is a tiny town in the Abruzzo region with a population of just 5,000 people among whom reside all of the traditional Italian stereotypes – the shady businessman, the playboys, the matronly restaurant owner etc.

The story that unfolds over the season is truly remarkable – deaths, arrests, drug scandals, corruption and all the more usual drama that football brings.  McGinniss really draws the reader in and creates a clear portrait of the players, the manager and the rest of the supporting cast.  He also captures well the frustration of the fanatic – each game feeling like life or death, the entire mood of a week being set by what happens over 90 minutes.

Eventually however McGinniss began to irritate me – his tactical analysis and player evaluations would be a lot more convincing had he been watching football for more than two years.  While he makes fun of his own attempts to influence team selection, he seems to still believe he knew better than the manager.  In many ways he plays up to the boorish American stereotype – throwing tantrums at the club officials and the manager and picking fights with the local mafia boss (we assume) for no apparent reason.

Ultimately the book runs into the issue of what obligation McGinniss has to tell the whole truth or whether he should keep certain things he sees out of the book.  When I first read the book, I shared McGinniss’s outrage at certain events but reading now in my mid-30’s with a bit more life experience, I found McGinniss to ultimately be disloyal and duplicitous.   If this had been an objective chronicle of the season, I would understand the obligation to expose everything he saw but that isn’t what this book was.  McGinniss became a central part of the story, turning players into close friends and being their confidant – trying to do both things at once leaves a sour taste.

Even with his choice to expose certain things at the end of the book, McGinniss does so in a self-centred and frankly childish manner.  He acts as the victim of some grand injustice when someone with a bit more empathy would clearly have focussed on the impact on the players and the town of living in the shadow of corruption.  Rather than look to explain things he doesn’t like, McGinniss acts like a spoiled child.

The ending is more McGinniss-centric than you would expect from a sports story, and in some ways explains why so much of the book centres on the author.  But it doesn’t justify the excessive indulgence of McGinniss focusing so much of the narrative on himself and not on the team.

Despite that serious flaw, I still love the book.  It’s a brilliant story and written in a gripping and engaging manner.  McGinniss is a quality writer and uou get caught up in his passion and develop a real affection for the players and the town.  It’s deservedly a classic but rereading it now I can’t help but feel there was an even better version that sadly ended up buried under the author’s ego.

miracle

‘The Barcelona Legacy: Guardiola, Mourinho and the Fight For Football’s Soul’ by Jonathan Wilson (2018)

In my early twenties I spent a two week holiday in Thailand with friends.  Typically such holidays involve full moon parties, buckets with mystery booze, and magic mushrooms on ‘Mushie Mountain’. While I was there I spent more time reading Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson’s seminal book on the history of football tactics than I did doing basically anything else.  I say this to provide the context that I’m not an objective reviewer of Wilson’s work as I probably enjoy his broad stroke analysis of football’s evolution more than your average reader.

More than the Barcelona Legacy, Wilson tells the story of Johan Cruyff’s legacy and how the modern game has been shaped by coaches who were at Barcelona in some capacity in the early 90’s.   The book traces the tactical evolution of Pep Guardiola, Louis van Gaal, José Mourinho  Ronald Koeman, Luis Enrique, and Frank de Boer, and the impact those coaches have had on the game’s overall evolution.  It’s a story of football philosophy and what it means to play football “the right way”.

The clash of Pep and José in Spain is the box office centrepiece of the story – Pep’s Cruyffian ideals versus vs Mourinho ‘s cynical counter attacking football.   Wilson avoids taking sides and presents an unbiased assessment of how the game has developed across Europe.  This is perhaps the best thing about the book as the most popular books to present on any of these figures are generally very biased either in favour of their subject (like Marti Peraneu’s books on Pep) or against (like Diego Torres trashy, brilliant and totally unreliable book on Jose).   Given their current fortunes, it would have been very easy to fall into the trap of declaring Pep the victor in a battle of good vs evil.

Many of the individual details of the book will be familiar to the type of person who generally reads Wilson’s books (i.e. football nerds) who will likely have read many of the books Wilson cities throughout.  However, the book is very well researched with Wilson adding the views of key players like Javier Zanetti or Ricardo Carvalho either from interviews or from biographies that aren’t available in English.  It ensures some fresh and interesting material even for those of us who have devoured the many biographies of the key figures and clubs at the centre of the story.

I enjoyed particuarly the bits of the book that I hadn’t read about elsewhere – Mourinho’s origin story (well he is basically a super-villian), Van Gaal’s post Barca evolution and the turmoil at Ajax were all areas I was less familiar with that are covered well.

Like all of Wilson’s books he can’t resist showing off his literary knowledge with the occasional digression showing how well read he is.  I quite like this about Wilson’s writing – and The Outsider shows this side of his work off the best – but I can imagine it will alienate some readers.  Those interludes are brief and the book quickly gets back to more familiar territory.

What this book excels at is providing a clear joining of the dots by setting Pep, Jose and the others in the context of Cruyff.  Above all it is a testament to Cruyff’s influence on the game and how his approach shaped 25 years of tactical evolution.

Like all Wilson’s work, its a very enjoyable, interesting and thought provoking read.  It leads immediately to a YouTube binge as you try track down some of the more memorable matches and moments.  I think you can tell if you’ll like this book by your response to someone using the phrase post-Cruyffian.  If it makes you think of Guardiola’s possession based football this is the book for you.  If it makes you think ‘tosser’ then it might not be the book for you!

One thing the book left me wondering about is Athletico Madrid’s rise which is noted but not quite explained.  I’ve since ordered Hijacking Laliga by Evan McTear which promises to answer that very question!

The book is accompanied by a 6 part podcast which narrows in on 6 key games covered in the book.  An interesting, and to my mind successful, way of promoting the book while also enhancing the experience for readers.  Hopefully something that catches on.

Barca Legacy.jpg