‘Rebound: From Pain to Passion – Leadership Lessons Learned’ by Matt Doherty (2021)

Part biography, part motivational guidebook, college basketball coach Matt Doherty’s Rebound is a interesting, wise and entertaining read.

Doherty is best known as head coach of the men’s basketball programs at Notre Dame and the University of North Carolina. In his playing days, he was a teammate of Michael Jordan on UNC’s National Championship winning team. He also coached SMU among other teams, worked as an NBA scout and a college basketball conference official.

Rebound isn’t a straightforward biography as throughout the book Doherty carefully analyses his own experience with a view to both understanding what happened and distilling his motivations, actions and lessons learned along the way. Doherty took it upon himself to go to business school and learn about the academic side of leadership. This book is his attempt to apply those lessons to his own life and impart some of his hard won wisdom along the way.

His career is best defined by the title of the book ‘Rebound’ as Doherty experienced many highs and lows along the way. It is the moments of derailment or setback where the book is at its strongest – Doherty dealing with his realization he wouldn’t make the pros as a player or losing his dream coaching job. Doherty’s personal renewal is a core part of his identity and his leadership style.

Combining biography with trying to impart lessons on life and leadership is a difficult task. The book is very similar in style to soccer manager Carlo Ancelloti’s book Quiet Leadership. Like that book, Rebound works very well largely because of the genuineness of the writing and the passion of the writer.

‘Achieving the Impossible – the Remarkable Story of Greece’s EURO 2004 Victory’ by George Tsitsonis (2020)

In 2004, Greece won the European Championships. Greece. The men’s football European Championship.

It bears repeating as even now, 16 years on, it still doesn’t sound quite right. Denmark winning in 1992 was odd enough, but they had players that either had, or would go on to, achieve fame within the sport. Greece were, well, Greece.

Achieving the Impossible is the first full length book in English about this remarkable modern football fairytale. The book traces the modern history of the Greek team and Greek football. Blessed with a relatively strong domestic league for its size, the national team was traditionally held back by the lack of players playing abroad and club rivalries being carried over to the national team. While the country had occasionally developed great players they would never have imagined scaling the top of the European game.

Tsitsonis, a Greek-American, tells the story in fascinating detail. The story inevitably centres heavily around the coach Otto Rehhagel whose appointment marked the real beginning of the story. A German former player, Rehhagel’s coaching career was nothing short of remarkable. As a coach, he made his name twice winning the Bundesliga with Werder Bremen and, astonishingly, winning it again with newly-promoted Kaiserslautern. After a few years out of the game, he ultimately landed the Greek job because his salary expectations were lower than the other candidates!

Rehhagel was secure enough in himself to drop Greece’s then best known player, identify the players he liked and then stick with them through injuries and loss of form. He built a team spirit and identity which was the bedrock of the eventual success.

As fans of any mid-level national team will know, simply qualifying for a major tournament is an ordeal. Tsitsonis wisely gives as much time in the book to the qualifying journey (which began with back to back defeats) as he does to the tournament itself. Qualifying was a rollercoaster beginning with two defeats and ending with a game versus England that most readers will remember for David Beckham’s heroics.

Those of us old enough to have watched probably remember, as I do, a tournament that was high on upsets but low on quality. For Greek fans however it was something very different – a roller-coaster ride of tension, drama and triumph and Tsitsonis captures those emotions excellently.

Achieving the Impossible is an entertaining and well-written account of one of sports great underdog stories. As we look forward to the long delayed Euro 2020 finally taking place in 2021, its a timely reminder of why there is nothing quite as wonderful as a summer of international football.

Your never gonna believe us…….

‘Wings of Change: How the World’s Biggest Energy Drink Manufacturer Made a Mark in Football’ by Karan Tejwani (2020)

Red Bull is a marketing phenonium. How an energy drink became a global giant on the back of innovative marketing is a fascinating business story. One small piece of that story is the interaction of the brand and football. As the company took over (or influenced) more and more clubs, the more interesting story became not the impact of the game on Red Bull, but rather Red Bull’s influence on the game of football.

Wings of Change is a detailed look at the relationship between football and Red Bull. After initially focusing on extreme sports, Red Bull took over the nearest team to their global headquarters in Salzburg, Austria. Similar projects followed in New York, Leipzig, São Paulo, and Ghana.

Horrifyingly to many, they proceeded to change the names, crest, and colours of the clubs. However what felt like a marketing stunt has become something much more tangible as the company have shown an aptitude for running a footballing empire and developing exciting young talent around the world.

After setting the broad background of the company and it’s initial steps into the world of football, the book zooms in and out as the story progresses. Generally the various club’s results and seasons are sketched at a high level as part of deep dives into the key personnel across the organization. The book is at its best when focusing on the fascinating stories of the young coaches, Julian Nagelsmann and Jesse Marsch, who have become among the most coveted in European football and the grand overseer of the football project, Ralf Rangnick. The section on New York Red Bull’s is also a fascinating insight into the club and MLS.

Tejwani is clearly an admirer of the results Red Bull have achieved, especially in developing coaches and players. At times there can be a bit too much praise, and a more critical eye on the impact of the organization on the wider leagues they operate in would have been welcome (there is some but it gets a little lost).

Overall this is a fascinating overview of Red Bull’s engagement in football and the key characters involved. The impact of their investment is only likely to grow overtime and this book offers a welcome focus on the type of corporate investment in a global football organization which is only likely to grow over time.

‘My Life in Red and White’ by Arsène Wenger (2020)

I rarely bother to post negative reviews. If I don’t like a book I generally don’t finish it or take the time to order my thoughts. I’m making an exception this time because of just how disappointed I was by the recent autobiography of former Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger.

Wenger is widely considered one of the most intelligent and thoughtful figures in football. A trained economist, developer of young talent and winner of multiple premiership titles, he presented an intellectual image that was unique to English football. A proper insight into his life, his thought process and his view of football would make a great book. This is not that book.

Picking up the hardcopy, I expected a 300 plus page deep dive into Wenger’s life and career. However, the first thing you notice is the comically large font and ridiculous margin which probably doubled the number of pages that were actually needed for the book. It also didn’t help that the last 60+ pages of the book are a series of charts and tables with a ridiculous amount of statistical detail of Wenger’s career.

So to the book itself. One major error of this type of book was avoided – it largely eschews an over-detailed game-by-game season by season narrative. Unfortunately however, it also failed to include much of substance at all. While Wenger’s childhood is covered an appropriate surface level, his playing career remains fuzzy and unclear – you have to check the chart at the back to realise he played less than 100 games throughout his career.

But we are all buying this book for his management career so surely there’s loads of detail there? Sadly, the chapters on his time at Monaco, in Japan and mostly Arsenal stay at a very surface level. He alludes to a dark time in French football as part of reason for leaving but gives no detail at all on the scandals engulfing the French and European game at the time.

Major players in Wenger’s teams get a few paragraphs but we gain no insight into who those players are, what Wenger’s relationships with them were like, why they were pivotal players. No idea if he liked them, how he developed them, why he sold them. At one point laziness kicks in and he just gives a bullet-point list of some key players and a one line description of them.

We learn bits and pieces about his views on the phycological side of the game but there is no coherent attempt to explain Wenger’s philosophy of the game. No comments on his love of youth development, no mention at all of tactics.

Of the entire book, only the first chapter felt like it was genuinely written by Wenger. The last few chapters are basically a FIFA press release for his new job.

The book is a real missed opportunity, a deeply disappointing effort and its hard not to see it as a cynical cash-in.

The most disappointing book of 2020

‘The Point After’ How One Resilient Kicker Learned there was More to Life than the NFL’ by Sean Conley

Sean Conley is a former professional football kicker who was signed by three different NFL teams. Due to injuries, mostly from overtraining, he never made it past a few NFL pre-season games and a season in NFL Europe.

The fact he made it to NFL training camps at all is quite remarkable given he never played American football in high school and after two years of college he had an appalling record for his Division III college team (he describes himself as statistically the worst place kicker in the country that season!)

The Point After is Conley’s account of his kicking career and coming to terms with retiring from the game without having scaled the heights he believed were possible. It is a story of resilience, determination, ambition, love, heartbreak and ultimately the realisation of what truly matters.

As well as detailing the trials and tribulations of life as a collegiate and professional football player, Conley also touches on his relationships, particularly with his wife and his late father. You get a very real sense of Conley as a person in a way which many memoirs fail to achieve.

The book has an honesty and an authenticity which lift it from being a routine sports memoir into a memorable, poignant and entertaining read. The fact that it’s not ghostwritten contributes to this genuineness. It’s also clear that Conley is a talented writer and the book has been superbly edited as the narrative flows easily and consistently.

The Point After captures something very real about life, ambition, family and the expectations we place on ourselves. While it has fascinating insights into life at the lower rung of professional sport, the real strength of the book is how relatable Conley’s emotional journey is.

‘1982 Brazil: The Glorious Failure’ by Stuart Horsfield

What is success in football? It seems that there is an obvious answer. Winning. But if this book was titled 2002 Brazil I wouldn’t have felt the giddy anticipation when beginning it. The 1982 Brazil side didn’t even make the World Cup semi-final. Yet, despite the fact I didn’t arrive in the world until 2 years later, they hold a mystique and allure for me that their more successful successors lack.

1982 Brazil tells the story the of the (arguably) best side not to win the World Cup. This is a definitive account of a team stocked with legendary players who captured the world’s imagination if not its ultimate prize.

The detail is fascinating and Horsfield brilliantly sets the broader context of Brazilian football and society at the time. He traces the development of the team from the 1970 winning team through Pele’s retirement and the preparations for the tournament.

If that was all this book was it would still be a really good read. The book stands out however for the personal context in which it is set. Because as much as it is about the 1982 Brazil team, it’s also very much about the author’s personal experience as a young boy of watching them. Horsfield captures the magic, the awe, the sheer giddiness of the World Cup seen through a young fan’s eyes. All football fans have the first World Cup they truly remember experiencing. It usually happened around 8 to 12 years old when, for 3 or 4 weeks, you got to experience the indescribable magic of watching the best footballers play in a competition which meant more than anything else you could imagine. Very few writers have the skill to capture that magic in the way Horsfield has.

1982 Brazil is simply a joy to read. Packed with nostalgia, insight, and trivia, it fully lived up to my exceedingly high expectations. Beware the list of YouTube links at the end of the book though. Click just one highlights video and it sucks you in and consumes hours and hours and hours!

Also worth a mention that Horsfield is a senior writer for These Football Times, a website and magazine I absolutely love. On moving country recently I left my collection of their magazines with a friend and I really miss them!

Magical

‘From the Jaws of Victory: A History of Football’s Nearly Men’ compiled and edited by Adam Bushby and Rob MacDonald (2020)

‘History is written by the victors’ is one of those many quotes that gets attributed to Winston Churchill. History is written about the victors might by more accurate when it comes to sport. It’s the stories of winners that we remember and that get the most books, articles and attention.

As with every other aspect of life, 2020 refuses to follow the normal rules. So it’s only fitting that this year should see the publication of a football book celebrating those occasions when great teams fell short of their ultimate ambitions whether by bad luck, bad planning or because the team ceased to exist!

From the Jaws of Victory is a collection of essays from a variety of excellent football writers each one focusing on particular team which fell short of their ultimate goal. The essays range in style from deeply personal reflections to historical inquiry and wistful thoughts of what might have been. They range in time from Bolton Wanderers in 1953 to Steven Gerard’s slip for Liverpool in 2013/14.

I particularly enjoyed the essays that looked beyond British football including a very personal piece on the Fiorentina 98/99 team (glorious memories of Football Italia), the treble runner-up’s Bayer Leverkusen team of 2001-02, the Romanian team of USA 1994 (Hagi!) and my favourite essay on what may have been had Yugoslavia remained a single country until after USA ’94.

The quality of the writers shines through and like the best collections, the sum of the book is even greater than its parts (a testament to the editors, who are the team behind @magicspongers on twitter). Overall, this is a very enjoyable read that collectively captures some of the magic of football. As an fan of the Ireland football teams knows, its those moments of hope, just as much as the exceedingly rare moments of actual joy, that keep us coming back for more.

This is also a great companion piece to a separate essay collection published this year, Losers, which reflected on the meaning of defeat in sport.

Don’t worry it’s not just about England 🙂

‘The Breath of Sadness: On Love, Grief and Cricket’ by Ian Ridley (2020)

I genuinely do not know how to review this book.

The Breath of Sadness is a book about grief. While it’s also about country cricket – the domestic multi-day format of cricket which has been gradually declining as shorter forms gain in popularity – it is mostly about Ian Ridley dealing with the loss of his wife Vikki Orvice, a talented and much loved sports writer.

Ostensibly the book is about the role cricket played in Ridley trying to deal with his grief. As the book says, attending the sport gave Ridley a destination, an activity, a peaceful place where he could grieve. As he put it, it allowed him to be “in solitude with but humanity still at hand. If I wanted, I could be distracted by the game going on in front of me, by its subtleties unfolding”.

Mostly however the book is a love letter to Ridley’s wife Vikki. I have to confess not being hugely familiar with her work (I don’t read the Sun newspaper which she worked for). While reading the book I regularly searched for previous pieces of her work and it is clear that the tributes she was paid for her writing talent are thoroughly deserved. It’s also clear from Ridley’s words that she was even more remarkable as a person.

I really feel I’m not doing the book justice here. It brought tears to my eyes at least 3 times while reading it. More than once I had to put it down. It is raw in the truest sense of the word. It is raw in a way that is difficult to read at times but written with a style and a talent that makes you eager to continue. It is also honest in a way that is as rare as it is refreshing.

We read books for lots of reasons – entertainment, light relief, intellectual curiosity and so much more. It is a rare book that makes you look at your loved ones a little differently, makes you appreciate them that little bit more, makes you grateful for them that little bit more.

The Breath of Sadness is not the type of book I normally read. While it captures something special about the shared experience of sport it is much more than that. It’s a heartbreaking book but a remarkable one.

‘Jack Dempsey and the Roaring Twenties: The Life and Times of a Boxing Icon’ by Thomas Myler (2020)

Despite reading a (possibly worryingly) large number of boxing books, the life of Jack Dempsey was one I hadn’t read about in any great depth. While the name is intimately to familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in boxing, the details of his life and career are likely less well known.

In Jack Dempsey and the Roaring Twenties Thomas Myler recounts Dempsey’s story. It really is a remarkable tale with Dempsey beginning as a homeless bar fighter traversing the country by railway. Eventually he would punch his way to the top of the sport and become an iconic figure at a time when the heavyweight champion of the world was one of the most famous men alive. As the title suggests, the book does a superb job of placing Dempsey in his time and place and brings both the era and the man vividly to life.

Myler is a well-known and talented boxing writer and historian who has interviewed pretty much everyone there is to interview in boxing. What makes this book a great combination of subject and writer is that Myler had the privilege of interviewing Dempsey before he died which adds an authenticity to the book which is rare in one looking back so far into the past. Many of Dempsey’s fights are subject to conspiracy theories and rumours, none more so than his first title fight in 1919 and his last fight against Gene Tunney. Myler does a great job in separating fact from fiction and presenting Dempsey’s story as he sees it. A fine addition to any boxing fan’s library.

‘The Man of All Talents: The Extraordinary Life of Douglas Duggy Clark’ by Steven Bell (2020)

Outside the realm of die-hard rugby league and wrestling history buffs, Duggy Clark is an unknown figure. Within the history of those sports in Britain Clark is a legend. He was among the pioneers of rugby league, championships with Huddersfield and England, and earning a place in the sports Hall of Fame. He was also a champion wrestler (the grappling kind, not the WWE kind!).

Steven Bell, a Huddersfield native, has colourfully and entertainingly brought Clark’s remarkable story to life. The level of research is remarkable, including significant contemporaneous sources and Clark’s own diaries and memoirs. Bell paints a colourful story piece by piece while also placing events in their historical context.

The writing style is unusual for non-fiction, often reading in the style of historical fiction rather than a classic biography. At times I did find myself wondering where the line between pure history and creative licence was exactly but this does nothing to take away from the enjoyment of the book.

Overall this is a fascinating, unique book with a particular appeal to fans of both sports in which Clark excelled. More broadly however it is also a fascinating story told in a captivating manner.

I haven’t read Bell’s previous sports book From Triumph to Tragedy: The Chapecoense Story, about the Brazilian soccer team left devastated by a plane crash, but am definitely adding it to the to read pile!