‘The Club: How the English Premier League Became the Wildest, Richest, Most Disruptive Force in Sports’ by Joshua Robinson & Jonathan Clegg (2019)

The English Premier League (or EPL) has for 20 plus years been the highest profile football league in the world.  Serie A may have been better in the 90’s, La Liga may have the world’s greatest players in the 2010’s but for sheer visibility, interest and commercial success the EPL has reigned supreme for over 20 years.

The Club tells the business side of the Premier League’s rise and continued success.   It’s a tale of TV broadcast deals, merchandising strategies and corporate takeovers.  It chronicles the various decisive moments that turned the EPL into the marketing, financial, cultural and entertainment behemoth it is today.

This book tells the story chronologically from how Sky won the pivotal TV rights contracts, through the rise of Man Utd and Arsenal, the era of the oligarchs and finally its look forward to the future (spoiler alert, the EPL is likely to still dominate unless we end up with a European Super League).

The book zooms in on a variety of different clubs at different times since 1992.  Many of the stories will be familiar to long-time football fans.  These vignettes are at their most interesting when they detail failures like Randy Lerner’s ill-fated spell in charge of Aston Villa, and Hicks & Gillett’s best forgotten time in charge of Liverpool.

Its main characters are Richard Scudamore, the long serving chairman of the Premier League, and Manchester United, the team who have long led the way commercially.  As the fates of others rise and fall, Scudamore and Utd remain ever present at the top controlling things.  As Scudamore steps aside (and the EPL fail to find a replacement), and Utd continue to fall from grace, it starts to look like this may truly be a new era for the EPL off the pitch!

The book is extremely well-researched.  Robinson and Clegg, both Wall Street Journal reporters, have clearly conducted a significant amount of interviews with anyone and everyone in the world of football. With the benefit of hindsight, it is fascinating to look back at those pivotal moments and decisions when the world’s most popular football league was unalterably changed.

Overall, The Club is extremely readable.  It’s got enough new information for long time  fans of English football while remaining accessible enough for more casual soccer fans.  There are some stories I would have liked it to examine in more detail, but narrowing the business story of the last 25+ years of top-flight English football down to a single book was always going to require some editorial judgement!

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‘Cristiano and Leo: The Race to Become the Greatest Football Player of All Time’ by Jimmy Burns (2018)

Unsurprisingly, there have been plenty of biographies and books written about both Cristiano Ronaldo and Leo Messi, the two greatest footballers of the modern era.  I’ve never been tempted to read any of them.  Both players are so familiar, their back stories widely reported, their playing highlights both vividly memorable and re-watchable.

I picked up Cristiano and Leo purely because it was written by Jimmy Burns.  Hand of God by Burns was the first football book I became obsessed about.  Having generally only read player autobiographies till then, I was blown away by the warts-and-all depiction of Maradona’s flawed genius.   The only book that rivaled it for me was Burns other book Barca, which I devoured when it was published in 1999.

A dual-biography, Cristiano and Leo details the background and career of the two best football players in the world.  Their childhood is explored as Burns builds a picture of the key influences on their lives and the experiences and family dynamics that helped shape both men.   There are no surprises and both men come across broadly similarly to their public persona – Cristiano as vain, selfish, but determined to work harder and better than anybody else, Mess as less interested in publicity but unafraid to exercise his own considerable power.

The strength of the book is Burns’ own reporting. Burns interviews a vast number of people getting fascinating insight from big names like Florentino Perez, but also from people who knew both men during their childhood.  Burns own analysis is interesting and adds some colour to what is generally a fairly conventional biography (albeit a dual one).

The book suffers from being a bit too detailed about games, seasons and goals which many readers will be intimately familiar with.  It’s a peril of any biography of a player who is still active and even more so when it’s covering the two most watched players in the world.

Ultimately, I enjoyed the book and Burns’ insights, interviews and analysis.  I suspect the book will age well and is one I’ll enjoy even more many years from now when I want to reflect on how privileged I am to have been able to see both Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi play live in person and 100’s of times on TV.

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‘Astroball: The New Way to Win It All’ by Ben Reiter (2018)

A 2014 Sports Illustrated cover which declared that the worst team in baseball, the Houston Astros, would win the World Series in 2017 has gone down in legend.  It would almost have been more believable to pick Leicester City to win the Premier League the year earlier.   Improbably, Ben Reiter’s prediction came through as the ambitious blueprint for rebuilding a baseball club set out in his SI article came to fruition on schedule.

Reiter therefore is the ideal writer to chronicle just how the Astro’s rose to success.  Astroball is the story of how a farsighted owners and executives learned from Moneyball and went on to find a new path to success.

The stars of the book are Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and his top analyst, Sig Mejdal. Both came to the Astro’s in 2011 having had some success in Arizona.  Both were determined to figure out how to combine stats with instinct and get the best results.

Reiter highlights three main improvements – better draft picks through understanding stats in a new way, coaching improvements for individual players by focusing on their form and tendencies and a recognition of the intangible role that veteran players have in bringing the team together at crucial moments.  There were some bumps along the road – such as failure to sign an injury prone first draft pick – but the faith in ‘the Process’ proved justified.

Reiter clearly had exceptional access and the trust of those he spoke with.  It’s a very well written book which captures the balance of appealing to baseball fanatics and non-fanatics alike.   It’s a fascinating account of team building in the post-Moneyball era.   A really enjoyable read.

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‘Jacobs Beach: The Mob, the Garden and the Golden Age of Boxing’ by Kevin Mitchell (2010, republished in 2019)

This is a review of the new US edition of Jacobs Beach published by Hamilcar.  The original book was published in 2010.  Some online reviews of earlier versions refer to factual errors but it appears to me that any of these have been resolved in this new US edition.    

For me, King of the World by David Remnick first illuminated the shady world of gangsters and crime that lay under the surface of professional boxing.  Since reading Remnick’s masterpiece and Nick Tosches Night Train, I’ve always been fascinated by the underbelly of professional boxing’s past and felt that a true history of the fight game can only be one which considers this underbelly in depth.

Jacob’s Beach sets out to tell the story of the behind-the-scenes powers in boxing in the USA (and effectively the world) from the 1930’s onwards.  It covers boxing’s golden era when top fighters were global figures and title fights commanded universal public attention.

The book centres around Madison Square Garden and the powers that controlled that fabled arena. Jacob’s Beach refers to a famous strip of pavement across the road from Madison Square Garden, the home of a legendary ticket tout named Mike Jacobs.  However, the real villain of the piece is Frankie Carbo, a mobster who dominated professional boxing for years.  The level of corruption is still shocking to see in black-and-white, from fixed fights to blacklisted managers and the right connections being far more important than right hooks.

If Carbo is the main villain, the book’s hero is the unlikely figure of US Senator and failed Presidential candidate Estes Kefauver.  The Senator’s attempts to shine a light on corruption through public hearings was the first serious dent on the mobs ability to operate in the shadows.  Ultimately, mob influence would fade as the spotlight on their activities grew brighter.

Mitchell holds no punches throughout the book with scathing comments on a whole range of characters. He is particularly scornful of the boxing writers who were on the take and wrote stories to suit their mob paymasters.   Mitchell also seek to skewer a few myths, in particular the Hollywood narrative of James ‘Cinderella Man’ Braddock.

Mitchell, perhaps unconsciously, appears to mimic the stylised writing of the legendary golden era boxing writers (of whom the book is sometimes scathing).  At times it reads like sections of the book were written in a previous era, with a punchy and colorful style, but they are written well and always an interesting read. The book zooms in and out on various characters and I found I naturally consumed it in bitesize chunks.

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‘Hijacking LaLiga: How Atlético Madrid Broke Barcelona and Real Madrid’s Duopoloy on Spanish Football’ by Euan McTear (2018)

When David Beckham signed for Real Madrid, the average English-speaking football fan  became exposed to a lot more coverage and commentary on Spanish football.   The addition of Beckham to the Galactico project made La Liga the hottest property in global football.   By the time Beckham left Leo Messi was on the rise, Spain would soon win Euro 2008, and Cristiano Ronaldo would arrive the following year.  The Messi and Ronaldo era, combined with Spanish dominance in international football, saw a continued rise in the interest of the English speaking world in Spanish football.

Once consequence of this greater interest has been the proliferation of English language books on Spanish football.   A number of great English language books on Spanish football do predate the Beckham era – most notably for me, Barca by Jimmy Burns and Morbo by Phil Ball.  But the majority of such books in recent years focus especially on Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Euan McTear has wisely decided to look elsewhere in the fascinating landscape of Spanish football.  His first book, Eibar the Brave, was about tiny Eibar and this book, Hijacking LaLiga focuses on the rise of Atlético Madrid in recent years.

Hijacking LaLiga is a comprehensive look at the origins and modern history of Atlético who have achieved remarkable success under manager Diego Simeone.  McTear traces the history of the club, highlighting the key moments the enabled to club to survive and thrive through the 20th Century.  It’s a fascinating history but less politically charged that those of Barca and Real.   There is also really interesting details on the chaotic reign of Jesús Gil, the President who somehow seized ownership of the club away from the fans.

The main focus of the book is on the period since Atheli’s relegation in 2000 and how the club rebuilt to break the seeming impenetrable duopoly of Barca and Real.  McTear credits a number of factors – the first Europa League triumph shattered the myth that Athleico were cursed, better TV deals improved their financial ability to compete, the combination of youth team products like Koke, tough battling players like Diego Godin and superstars like Costa and Greizmann provided ideal, and above all the coaching of Diego Simeone and his staff was the perfect match for the players and the club.

The book provides a very interesting and detailed insight into the most interesting story in modern Spanish football.  It’s well written and an enjoyable read.  My only compliant is that it jumps around in time and topic quite dramatically at times and a cursory knowledge of the timeline of events is a big help as you read – I kept forgetting which year they won which tournament and was left slightly confused as the narrative jumped between different seasons.

Overall highly recommended and great to see English language books focus on the wider story of Spanish football.

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‘Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association’ by Terry Pluto (1990)

The American Basketball Association was as an upstart professional league which lasted 9 years before eventually merging with the NBA in 1976.  Well, 4 teams were absorbed into the NBA –  the other 2 teams were left to die (a well-compensated death) and 4 other ABA teams had already folded.

Loose Balls is an oral history of the ABA, the crazy stories, and the impact it ultimately had on the NBA.  It’s remarkable that the ABA survived 9 years with almost no television exposure and very scant newspaper coverage.  The lack of a strong written or video record meant that Pluto wisely chose to write an oral history detailing the often contradictory but always entertaining memories of the key characters in the ABA story.

The ABA’s formation seemed to have been quite haphazard.  In many ways it came into existence because of one man, Dennis Murphy’s, determination to set up a sports league.  Key decisions such as the use of a red-white-and-blue ball and the introduction of a 3 point shot were made on whim rather than being part of a grand design.

The book is exceptionally funny because the characters involved and the shenanigans they got up to funny, bizarre and entertaining.  The story is a wild ride of crazy characters, marketing stunts and, importantly, some very good basketball players.  The business side of the story is also fascinating as teams scrambled to survive and to try and pressure the NBA into a merger.

All of those interviewed by Pluto share the view that the ABA fundamentally changed professional basketball.  These changes included the move to a faster paced game, the 3 point shot, the drafting of younger players and the overall focus on entertainment.   It’s also remarkable just how successful many of the ex-ABA players were after crossing over to the NBA.

There is something I find incredibly interesting about attempts to create a new sports league rivaling a well-established league.  It seems like a crazy idea doomed to fail.  Jeff Pearlman’s recent Football for a Buck brilliantly told the crazy story of the failed United States Football League. And Vince McMahon’s determination to bring back the XFL in 2020 shows there will always be dreamers willing to risk big bucks to break the monopoly of major sports leagues.

Loose Balls covers all 9 seasons, all 10 teams and most of the major players involved in the ABA.  It’s the definitive history of the ABA told by those who lived and loved it.  It is a classic sports book that deserves its place on the list of the all time greats.

As a companion piece, I’d highly recommend the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Free Spirits which interviews many of those who spoke to Pluto, as well as Pluto himself.  It focuses on the Spirit of St. Louis team who lasted only two years, had a crazy cast of characters and whose owners secured the best financial deal in sports history when being denied a place in the NBA.

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‘University of Nike: How Corporate Cash Bought American Higher Education’ by Joshua Hunt (2018)

Having read ‘Shoe Dog’ by Phil Knight and ‘Bowerman and the Men of Oregon’ by Kenny Moore, I have a good understanding of the Nike origin story. One thing that always struck me was just how comfortable Phil Knight was with taking risks and with screwing over business partners.

University of Nike shines a light on the dark side of Nike’s growth – the money it pumps into US schools and universities to ensure that the Nike brand is closely associated with collegiate sports. Hunt uses the relationship between Nike, Knight and his alma matter, the University of Oregon, to shine a light on the troubling commercialisation of public education in the US.

Hunt traces the rise of this commercialisation back to the reduction in public funding in US academic institutions. Unsurprisingly corporations began to fill the void but the money often comes with strings attached. Some of the background to corporate influence in US education is shocking. Hunt highlights, in particular, stories of school districts signing exclusive deals with Coke or Pepsi which rewarded the school district for every drink sold on their premises.

Knight made huge personal donations to the University of Oregon to build a wide range of facilities – both academic and sporting. Nike also provided huge resources in terms of PR and marketing to building the Oregon Ducks brand. It appears that the line between the University and Nike often became quite blurred.

Oregon used the money to build their sporting profile. They then used sporting success as a brand builder to encourage out of States students to apply to study there as such student pay more in tuition than Oregon native students pay.

Hunt outlines the downside of this commercial support. In a sporting sense, the aims of the University became twisted towards sport rather than learning. In non sporting situations limits can be placed on the publication of research that doesn’t align with the interests of corporate donors. This ultimately calls into question the very essence of what a public university should be. Additionally, Hunt shows how unforgivable behaviour by student athletes can be swept under the carpet to avoid embarrassment being caused lest the money tap be turned off.

University of Nike is a well researched, well written and extremely interesting read. Hunt has done an excellent job in highlighting really serious issues that go well beyond sporting concerns.   This book is an excellent case study in the need for public funding of public goods – of which education may be the most important.

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