‘King Eric: Portrait of the Artist Who Changed English Football’ by Wayne Barton (2020)

I’ve written before about my love of legendary French footballer Eric Cantona.   Cantona was the kind of player who could make a kid fall in love with a team and a sport simply by turning up his collar and chipping the goalkeeper. He was one of the most influential figures in Manchester United’s, and indeed British football’s, history.

Author Wayne Barton is Man Utd’s unofficial historian having written multiple books on the club.  King Eric focuses in particular on Cantona’s short, successful and controversial years at Man Utd while also giving fascinating insight into his broader career for both club and country. Barton does a great job of recounting just how transformative Cantona’s impact was on English football.

King Eric’s best goals for Man Utd

Barton blends together accounts from the key figures at Man Utd into a compelling narrative of a period when United became the dominant force in modern British football. Barton has clearly read and absorbed a huge amount of material covering United and Cantona during that time but also includes original reporting including interviews some key personnel. For those sad people, like myself, who have read more than half the bibliography, the book still manages to feel fresh with some particular insights on the circumstances of Cantona’s arrival at the club fresh from winning the title with Leeds. 

Barton expertly blends the accounts of key figures, Cantona’s own insights (from his great book Cantona on Cantona) and details of key goals, assists, matches and kung fu kicks into a compelling narrative. I thoroughly enjoyed reliving some of the most memorable goals from my childhood. Highly recommended for anyone who wants a reminder of just what made King Eric so special.

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‘Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports’ by Yaron Weitzman (2020)

Having spent a huge amount of time in Philadelphia in the last decade, I gradually, and without realising, became a fan of all of the Philly sports teams. Yet of all the local teams, the hardest to love has always been the Sixers. It’s one thing watching a team that is terrible, but a very different one watching one that is deliberately terrible.

I did however become fascinated with ‘The Process’ – the name given to the multiyear project to rejuvenate the Sixers and make them relevant again.  Tanking to the Top is the story of ‘The Process’ as new owners and a unique General Manager looked to rekindle the 76ers after years of mediocrity.

Tanking is a well known strategy in US sports where teams prefer to be terrible than just mediocre in order to secure a better draft pick the following year.  In basketball, one or two players can make such a difference, and the top 2 or 3 players in the draft can be so much better than the rest, that a weighted lottery system applies to first few draft picks to discourage tanking.

The Sixers, and GM Sam Hinkie, persuaded a strategy of accumulating draft picks, through losing games and trading their best players, with more commitment than maybe any team previously.  The team was so terrible for so long that the owners ultimately lost faith and Hinkie left before he saw the fruits of his labour.

Weitzman recounts the various trades, drafts and moves which the Sixers made to try and build a team that could potentially compete for a championship.  Hinkie would draft injured players who fell down the draft, happy that they would miss a full season so the team would continue to lose.   Along the way, there were plenty of missteps, including drafting a player at number 1 who very soon forgot how to shoot a basketball.

Hinkie is undoubtedly the centrepiece of the book.  A very smart guy, who on paper probably has the worst win-loss record of any GM in history, Hinkie remains totally uninterested in defending his own reputation.  This indifference to his own coverage, and utter commitment to ‘The Process’, helped to generate remarkable loyalty in a cohort of fans, and even some players, who became Hinkie devotees.

While The Process has so far only led to a couple of playoff series wins, and that incredible Game 7 against the Raptors last year, the book’s consensus is ultimately that The Process has been a success.  It remains to be seen whether the current team can ultimately go a step or two further in the current superteam era when the NBA eventually returns.

The book is engaging and entertaining throughout with Weitzman giving great insight into the careers, lives, and thoughts of all of the key players in the story.   A book that would be enjoyed by any NBA fan.

#TrustTheProcess

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‘I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You: Growing Up as a Football Addict’ by Greg Whitaker (2019)

I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You is a personal account of Greg Whitaker’s relationship with football fandom.  A die hard fan of Hull City and England, Whitaker recounts the highs and lows of his 20 years as a football fan.

The years covered were quite the roller-coaster ride for Hull with multiple promotions and relegations mixed with managerial changes and star signings.

Whitaker uses his experiences as a fan to reflect more broadly on the modern game.  Ultimately he finds himself impossibly drawn to the game even when he isn’t enjoying the experience.  He describes himself during this phase as a football addict, because why else would you spend time and money engaging in a hobby you aren’t enjoying?

The book works best when it captures the excitement, the glee, the sheer wonder of football when your a kid.  Whitaker vividly recalls the sensations of that time in your life when sport means so so much and the adult world is yet to intrude with its boring non-football concerns. As a coming-of-age memoir of life as a football fan it’s a very enjoyable read.

At times the ‘football addict’ theme is stretched a little too far.   I suspect Whitaker may underestimate how much his apparent falling out of love with the game is related to simply growing up and finding more (objectively) important things in life to take up his time. Perhaps the book tries to be too many things at once and may have been better served with a tighter edit.

I must admit that on realising how young Whitaker is (mid to late 20’s) I found myself being a bit cynical. Sure what does anyone know at that age! This obviously is my own  failing rather than any issue with the content of the book!  Subjectively it did influence my opinion though.  Ultimately the quality of the writing and the passion and conviction of the author overcame my (mid 30’s) cynicism.

Overall it’s a welcome addition to the library of football fan memoirs following in the footsteps of Nick Hornby’s masterpiece Fever Pitch.  I look forward to reading whatever Whitaker does next.

‘LeBron, Inc.: The Making of a Billion-Dollar Athlete’ by by Brian Windhorst (2019)

LeBron, Inc is a behind-the-scenes look at the business that is LeBron James. The book assumes a fairly detailed knowledge of LeBron’s basketball career and successes and provides a reasonably deep dive into the commercial decisions that have shaped LeBron’s brand and his wealth.

What makes LeBron’s story unique is his decision to trust his friends and inner circle with important business decisions.  His friend, Maverick Carter, emerges as the dominant influence in LeBron’s commercial ventures and a hugely impressive businessman who demonstrated strong commercial acumen and proved his doubters wrong. Surprisingly, there is much less coverage in the book about LeBron’s other close friend and adviser Rich Paul whose sports agency business is having a huge impact on basketball.

One of the most significant decisions LeBron and his team made was not to sign typical sponsorship deals and instead seek an ownership stake for any products he backed.  The book details his involvement with Beats by Dre headphones and the brilliant marketing results achieved by LeBron simply gifting the headphones to friends and other famous athletes.  Another major feature in LeBron’s success has been his ability to wisely pick his professional advisers and choose people who could open up significant doors for him.  He has ended up getting involved in an incredibly wide array of ventures including a share in Liverpool FC and his own mulitmedia platform.

Importantly the book also shines a light on LeBron’s philanthropic endeavours, and his I Promise schools which are an incredible initiative. Much like Andre Agassi has done, LeBron has put a focus on improving education and opportunity for under privileged kids.

The book is pretty short but at times a little repetitive and could maybe have used a tighter edit.  The author, Brian Windhorst, clearly has significant access and contacts with LeBron’s team which gives an inside track on the reasons and motivations for different decisions.  I do wonder if the book might be a bit too positive and lauding of LeBron.  While it does recount some mistakes, the tone is undoubtedly very pro-LeBron and perhaps it could have been a little more objective.  That said, I’m not aware of anything negative that has been left out that should have been included.

Overall however this is a short, fascinating read and a relatively rare insight to the commercial life of a global superstar.

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‘Boot Sale: Inside the Strange and Secret World of Football’s Transfer Window’ by Nige Tassell (2019)

Watching sport (or reading sports books!) is really just one small part of the package of being a sports fan.  For many, the gossip, the rumours, the transfer news, is almost as much a part of the fun as the games.

For soccer fans, the off the pitch drama heightens twice a year – over the Summer and again in January when the transfer window is open.   Boot Sale is a behind the scenes look at the football transfer window to examine both how it works and why fans are so drawn to what is essentially 24 hour slow-moving recruitment news.

The book works really well because of the breath of people Tassell interviews.   He talks to a vast range of people whose working lives are heavily impacted by the transfer window – lawyers, players, managers, chairmen, agents, scouts, analysts, journalists, broadcasters, and bookie as well as to fans who get caught up in the drama of it all.

Tassell is a very good  interviewer who gets real insights from those working behind the scenes on transfers.   A lot of the stories he tells are quite familiar to me as someone who watches a disturbing amount of sky sports news on deadline day.  However, Tassell has made excellent choices in who he interviews for the book ensuring each section contains loads of fascinating detail and insight for any reader.

A few sections on the book particularly stand out.  The interview with Benik Afobe, a player who has made multiple deadline day moves, is insightful about the ups and downs of life for a player always maybe just one move away from realising his potential.  The section with a bookie discussing how the odds for betting on transfers are set and fluctuate is really interesting.

Overall this a very entertaining and enjoyable read for any football fan.  It’s definitely got me looking forward to this Friday’s transfer deadline day.

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‘The Frying Pan of Spain: Sevilla v Real Betis, Spain’s Hottest Football Rivalry’ by Colin Millar (2019)

Ever since David Beckham signed for Real Madrid, there has been a proliferation of English language coverage of on Spanish football.  As well as podcasts and newspaper articles, there have been some great books., the majority focus on Barcelona and Real Madrid. 

However, for those interested in Spanish football outside of El Classico, there a few gems. I reviewed Euan McTear’s excellent ‘Hijacking LaLiga’ here and he has also written a great book on Eibar.  Colin Millar has now done the same for football in Seville with a comprehensive, and very enjoyable, account of the history of Sevilla and Real Betis.

The Frying Pan of Spain traces the origins, history, key personality and modern development of both football clubs.  In doing so, it also tells the story of the city and its evolving place in Spanish life.

Millar clearly has a deep love for the city and for Spain.  The opening few chapters of the book provide an excellent scene setter – for both football and life in the city of Seville and also in Spain more generally.  He frequently quotes Phil Ball’s excellent book ‘Morbo’ which so brilliantly captures the unique rivalries of the Spanish game and is probably my favourite book on Spanish football.  The opening chapters are a great primer before the book heads back in time to trace the often-disputed origins of both teams.

Millar highlights that the rivalry between the two clubs isn’t ideological in the way some rivalries are, like that between Barca-Real Madrid.  Instead, it’s an intra-city rivalry more akin to a Liverpool v Everton.  The dual-biography nature of the book works quite well.  It is fascinating how often the fortunes of the clubs rose and fell in contrast to the other.

I have to admit, as a kid, I disliked all clubs with ‘Real’ in their title – part love of Barcelona, part my natural Irish anti-Monarchist tendencies.  However, when Real Betis signed Denilson for a world record fee in 1998.  I couldn’t get enough of his step-overs and have had a soft spot for Betis every since.  So I was pretty happy to learn the ‘Real’ title was never really seen as a sign of particular monarchist tendencies!

It’s a relatively long book, but a very easy read.  Full of fascinating insights into the city – its politics, its people and its football – it’s a book that is a very welcome addition to the growing library of great English language books on Spanish football.

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‘Europe United: 1 football fan. 1 crazy season. 55 UEFA nations’ by Matt Walker (2019)

I love going to random football matches whenever I’m abroad.  It has always been hard to explain that the real highlight of a 2 week holiday in Eastern Europe was the 0-0 Champions League second qualifying round 1st leg match between Ferencváros and Sparta Prague.  Little did I realise there is a huge football subculture of ground-hoppers who travel the world solely to go to football games of teams they have no particular connection to.

Matt Walker, a British civil servant, took the idea of ground-hopping to a whole new level and spent a year travelling Europe to attend a league game in all 55 UEFA nations.  Why, you ask?  Why not!  As soon as I saw the book I was immediately jealous and curious to see how he got on.

Europe United is Walker’s account of his travels.  Essentially it’s the story of more than 70 different random football matches in 55 different countries.  As a statistician Walker couldn’t help but keep detailed notes of every game, goal, yellow card etc.  But the heart of the book is the conversations he had along the way.

Walker managed to drum up some media attention for his adventure which led to meeting local fans in almost every destination to share the journey with.  He met a variety of different people along the way all united by their passion for their local team. The book therefore becomes a love letter to football’s place in communities across Europe. Each of the teams he watched are a significant part of their many fans’ lives.  Each game matters to a select group of people who share a common, irrational but wonderful love of their football team .

There is always a risk of a book like this getting repetitive as games and countries blend into each other.  Wisely, Walker broke up the chapters with general collective observations from his travels.

Overall, I really loved this book.  The football team in my hometown folded very recently (RIP Limerick FC) and football more widely in Ireland is on the verge of financial collapse amid corruption and incompetence. If ever a reminder was needed of the importance of the beautiful game, Europe United provides it.

Europe United

‘Masters of Modern Soccer: How the World’s Best Play the Twenty-First-Century’ by Grant Wahl (2018)

In Masters of Modern Soccer US journalist Grant Wahl interviews a broad range of figures from across the beautiful game to get a deep insight into how they approach the sport.  Wahl interviews leading players in different positions both on and off the pitch including Vincent Kompany, Xabi Alonso, Manuel Neur, Roberto Martinez, and Michael Zorc.

The book provides a lot of fascinating insight and Wahl has clearly picked exceptionally intelligent interviewees.  It is clear that Wahl put a tremendous amount of time and thought into the interviews and this is reflected in the quality of the book. I particularly liked the sections where he watched highlights of key moments with a player and let them explain their thinking at the time in a level of detail I’ve not seen elsewhere.

For me, the book really shines a light on the intensity and detail that goes into training and preparing for games at the highest level.  The old British football stereotype of managers naming an XI and letting them figure it out on the pitch is well and truly dead. A number of the interviews are fascinating in their focus on set patterns that teams seek to repeat during a game.

I particularly enjoyed the interviews with Christian Pulisic, who is just now making waves with Chelsea, and with Dortmund legend Michael Zorc.  I’m not a fan of Roberto Martinez (and especially his unwillingness to release Irish players for international duty!) but even I have to admit the interview with him is fascinating.

Some of the chapters could have been more tightly edited and a lot of the linking back to American Football was unnecessary in my view.   Any book on soccer aimed at the US market, the use of ‘Americanisms’ can jar with a reader raised on British football – even the phrase ‘masters of modern soccer’ is just not one a non-American would ever use (although being Irish I refer to the sport as soccer a lot of the time!).   Overall however each chapter provides some unique insights and overall is a very welcome addition to any sports book shelf.

Masters of Modern SOccer

‘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.

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