‘Brave New World: Inside Pochettino’s Spurs’ by Guillem Balague (2018)

Brave New World is an in-depth account of Tottenham Hotspurs’ 2016-17 season.  It’s a biography written in the first person and a diary that isn’t really a diary.

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Balague was granted unprecedented access to Mauricio Pochettino and his backroom staff for the duration of the 2016-17 season.  He uses this insight to craft a biography of Pochettino that charts the remarkable transformation he has achieved in a very short time at Spurs.  Perennial bottlers who never live up to their potential, Spurs now are just a few steps (and winning trophies) away from truly belonging among the game’s elite.

The book also serves as a wider biography of  Pochettino’s life – detailing his childhood, his career in Argentina, his special times at Espanyol and his move to the English south coast at Southampton.  It also discusses in detail his close and vital bond with his assistants who form a vital part of his success.

Pochettino comes across as a passionate, motivated and likeable character.  He can but ruthless but for footballing reasons rather than a personal grudge.  He is portrayed as being dedicated, at potential personal cost, to doing everything he can to be successful and to forge a Ferguson-like legacy at Spurs.

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He is very well attuned to the psychological aspect of football – building incredibly close bonds with his players while still seemingly to keep an appropriate distance to enable him to judge their performance fairly. It’s clear that many of his players love him and see him as a vital part of their own ability to achieve greatness.

The book is a fantastic insight into a manager still very much on the up.  It’s a unique approach – putting words in Pochetttino’s own mouth creates great risk for him given he is writing about players still under his charge.  The prose and writing style felt like hard work at times – especially until I got used to it.  Balague is a very good writer however, so I’m inclined to believe that the style of prose was intentional to read more like Pochettino’s own voice.

Overall I would recommend Brave New World for anyone looking for an insight into one of English football’s most interesting coaches.

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‘A Season on the Brink: A Year with Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers’ by John Feinstein (1986)

I could spend months simply reading John Feinstein sports books such is quantity of high quality books he has produced over his career. Perhaps more than any, A Season on the Brink, is the book most would point to as both Feinstein’s breakthrough and most enjoyable work.a season

Feinstein followed the Indiana University basketball team through the entire 1985/86 season – the ups and the downs as the team sought to recover from a terrible performance the year before and regain their place at the top of NCAA rankings.

As Feinstein readily acknowledges, a large part of the brilliance of the book is due the intensely fascinating character of Bob Knight.   During the season covered, Knight had been at Indiana for 15 years, and would remain for another 15 more before his ignominious departure in 2000.

Already a two time national champion and Olympic gold medal winning coach, Knight remained intensely driven and passionate. Innovative and insanely successful, Knight was a controversial figure whose swearing and temper tantrums were already legendary.

Reading this book now, knowing how Knight’s story in Indiana ends, puts on interesting context on Feinstein’s coverage of Knight’s bad behaviour.  In this context, the recent ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, the Last Days of Knight, is a great companion piece for this book – especially to see how the standards of behaviour expected from a winning coach have clearly changed since Knight’s glory days.

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It is fascinating though how, far back in the mid-80’s, so many of Knight’s friends correctly predicted in comments to Feinstein that Knight’s reign would end badly because of his aggressive behaviour. Ultimately, details of physical abuse from ex players saw the Indiana leadership lose patience with Knight who ended up moving to the much lower profile Texas Tech and subsequently to ESPN’s basketball coverage.  Indeed, one of the players chronicled in the book, Todd Jadlow, has published his own book in recent years which includes specifics about the physical abuse he took from Knight – including getting punched in the back of the head with a closed fist.

Feinstein also captures the warm side of Knight – in particular his loyalty and his dedication to his friends.  It seems to me that Feinstein painted a very raw, but very honest portrait of a talented coach who constantly struggled with his temper and ego.

While Knight dominates the book, the players come across with a huge amount of credit, both for their talent and their ability to handle Knight’s abuse.  Steve Alford in particular is the leading man, who would achieve even more the following season by leading Indiana to Knight’s third national championship.

Make no mistake, this is a wonderful book.  Feinstein made the most of his incredible access to write a searing and insightful book that captures the highs and lows of high level amateur sport.  Its so well written that it grips you and is a page turning as any thriller. Feinstein has many great books but I don’t know if he has ever been able to top this genuine and deserved classic.

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‘The Draft: A Year Inside the NFL’s Search for Talent’ by Pete Williams (2006)

The concept of a professional sports draft has always been intensely fascinating to me.  In theory it offers an ideal method to ensure that competitive balance remains in a league, particularly when combined with a salary cap.  Seeing Juventus win their 7th Serie A title in a row recently makes you think what soccer in Europe would be like if youth development was handled by schools and not professional teams and the best players divided up by draft.  It’s clearly not possible, but it would sure be interesting!

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The Draft is a long and detailed account of the 2005 NFL draft told through the experiences of key people at every level – top 10 draft picks, lesser players, Atlanta Falcon’s General Manager, coaches and a whole host of sports agents. It’s a very thorough account that covers every aspect of draft day preparation by all those whose futures are heavily tied up with this two day extravaganza.

It is an interesting read and certainly achieves its goal of shining a light on the draft process.  Reading it at more than 10 years remove is fascinating with some players being instantly familiar from their subsequent achievements in the NFL – particularly someone like 49er’s great Frank Gore who didn’t get picked up until the 3rd round.

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The book’s length however becomes a weakness.  There is a lot of repetition gets tiresome if you read the book over a fairly short period.

The other big weakness of the book is the excessive focus on agents.  While the coverage of the role of agents and their interaction with players is interesting, there is far too much focus on which agents were successful in building their own rosters of players.  It’s very hard to care about which salesman managed to get himself a big payday and the book would have benefited from a lot of this material being cut.

All in all, however, it is an interesting and enjoyable read. It may inadvertently work best as a book to dip into – like a series of newspaper columns – otherwise the excessive detail and repetition could get annoying.

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‘Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game’ by Michael Lewis (2003)

‘Moneyball’ might be the most influential sports books of the last 20 years.  15 years since it was first published, Moneyball is still synonymous with the ever-growing movement to use big data to improve the performance of professional sports teams.

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Lewis set out to answer the question of why the Oakland A’s consistently outperformed teams with much higher budgets.  He found a much bigger and more fascinating story about a sub-culture of baseball nerds both inside, but mostly outside, the sport who were determined to see the game as it really was.

At the heart of the book is Billy Beane, a former player who never fulfilled what others believed was his potential.  Lewis was given incredible access behind the scenes of the A’s management team as they prepared for a draft and throughout the 2002 season as Beane wheeled and dealed his way to improving his team at every turn.

Beane is a fascinating character  – charismatic but ruthless, a baseball insider who thinks like an outsider, a man obsessed with his team who refuses to watch the team he runs actually play a game.

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The book is utterly engrossing.  Lewis is the master of explaining complex and insider ideas to a layperson.  Despite having a limited interest in baseball, I found the book easy to follow as Lewis leads the reader through the thought process of Beane and the various ‘sabermetricians’ who think more about baseball than anything else.

At the heart of the story is Bill James, a statisician who self published baseball statistics slowly building a fanbase and eventually influencing the next generation of General Managers.  Not being a baseball fan, its hard to grasp just how obsessive James and his followers are.  Being a fan of fantasy football does help me realise how obsessed a fan can become with watching certain players and being desperate to figure out what players are likely to outperfomr others.

Moneyball is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in the future of sport or anyone interested in a good story.  It’s the story of an underdog who out-thinks and therefore out-plays the bigger richer teams.   It’s a great book not just for sports fans, but for anyone who likes stories about disrption and people trying to shake up an established way of doing things.

As well as being a great read, Moneyball has had a significant impact on professional sports since its publication.  Many an article has been written on this over the last 15 years.

Reading Moneyball is a different experience than when I read it over 10 years ago.  Knowing broadly how the draft picks and other players mentioned in the book panned out changes how you experience the story.

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‘The Man Who Saved F.C. Barcelona: The Remarkable Life of Patrick O’Connell’ by Sue O’Connell (2016)

The Man Who Saved F.C. Barcelona is a very different book from what I was expecting.  It’s the story of a family far more than it is a football story.

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Patrick O’Connell was a forgotten figure of Irish football history until the sterling efforts of his family to ensure his legacy was remembered.   A former captain of Manchester United and Irish international, his achievements as a manager in Spain far surpass anything achieved by an Irish manager since then – he won La Liga with Real Betis, led Barcelona through the Spanish Civil War and the respect he was held in is speculated to be the reason why Spanish managers are today called “mister”.

His grandson’s wife, Sue O’Connell, has laboured to find the historical record of Patrick and his immediate family’s life.  The story is told largely through letters sent by Patrick, his second wife and his kids and diary entries of one of his daughters.  The rest of the story is filled in dialogue heavy prose which I found a bit mawkish and unnecessary – a more factual style of joining the dots would have worked better for me.

As O’Connell notes in the final paragraph of the book, “Patrick O’Connell was an outstanding sportsman, but as a husband and father he was a non-starter”.  The bulk of the book focuses on this later part – the wife and four kids he abandoned in Manchester.  No attempt is made to sugar-coat his behaviour.  In many ways is more a story of abandonment and emigration than a football book.  It also captures well the sense of time and place – in particular an outsider’s view of Spain and Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War.

His footballing legacy is not covered in the kind of detail I was expecting.  The saving of F.C. Barcelona involved the wise decision to bring the team to the America’s on tour and raise enough money to keep the team going.  However, after reading the book, I don’t know much more about just how he achieved success or how he contributed to the evolution of the game.

The book is a clear labour of love and I admire the efforts to promote O’Connell’s legacy while being honest about his failings as a man.  However, the book really wasn’t for me and isn’t one I would recommend for someone coming at as a sports book rather than a chronicle of the emigrant experience of an Irish family.

A documentary film about O’Connell’s life, Don Patricio, premiered in Dublin this week and I’m looking forward to checking it out.

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‘Puskas on Puskas: The Life and Times of a Footballing Legend’ edited by Rogan Taylor and Klara Jamrich (1997)

“Virtually his entire playing career – over twenty years – was spent not just at the top, but at the very top of his profession.  He never stepped down from that summit.  And whatever he touched in the footballing world turned to gold”. 

Ferenc Puskas sits alongside Alfredo di Stefano in being widely regarded as the best player in the pre-Pele football era.   His achievements were remarkable – as well as being a top player right up to his 40th birthday, he played in two of the most famous (non-World Cup) matches ever to take place on British soil, captained arguably the greatest international football team never to win a World Cup (Cruyff might have disagreed) and even coached Panathinaikos to the European Cup final. Add in 83 goals in 84 internationals, an Olympic gold medal and the fact that the FIFA Goal of the Season award is named after him, and you get some sense of his accomplishments. puskas 1

Puskas on Puskas is an oral history of Puskas’ career, told mainly in his own words.  Taylor and Jamrich supplement Puskas’ own memories with those of his contemporaries – players, coaches, administrators, and journalists.  These reflections are supplemented by the editors providing an overview of the times Puskas lived and played in.  It’s an interesting and informative approach to telling the story of Puskas, the Golden Squad and Hungary under Communist rule.

Puskas comes across as a lively, charming and determined figure. Away from football Puskas was a master smuggler, political rebel and not afraid to speak his mind. On the field he was not just a world-class player but also a charismatic leader, a committed team-mate and a tactical innovator.

Puskas starred in some of the most famous matches in history beginning with the England-Hungary 6-3 match of 1953 that is often (wrongly) portrayed as England’s first ever defeat on home soil (that honour goes to Ireland following a 2-0 win in 1949).  He also played in the controversial 1954 World Cup final (the so-called Miracle of Berne) where West Germany improbably inflicted the only defeat Hungary would suffer over a 6 year period with some help from the British ref and linesman.  If that wasn’t enough for one man, he scored 4 goals in the famous 1960 European Cup final in Glasgow, which saw Real Madrid beat Eintract Frankfurt 7-3 to win their 5th straight European Cup.

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The book, brings to life not only the achievements of the players but also the tactical innovations of the Hungarian team and the challenges of the totalitarian regime that controlled the country.  Puskas recognised and exploited the power he had, certainly before the 1954 World Cup, in a team which the Communist authorities were eager to use to demonstrate the superiority of the “Socialist Man”

There a few hints that we don’t see every side of the man – certainly some of the British players interviewed suggest he may have had a wandering eye.  But the book doesn’t claim to be a comprehensive biography – rather is an oral history told mostly in the great man’s own words.

What makes the book a real treasure is the lack of other English language comprehensive books on Puskas – Taylor and Jamrich did a superb job in capturing the great man’s memories and using them to pull together an entertaining, informative book that is a fantastic read.

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‘Tiger Woods’ by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian (2018)

Tiger Woods is the second collaboration by Benedict and Keteyian following on from their very enjoyable deep dive into US college football in The System.

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This book is a comprehensive, well researched, biography of the most famous sportsman on the planet.  Building on over 20 previous books and countless thousands of magazine profiles, the authors tell the comprehensive account of the rise and fall (and maybe redemption?) of Tiger Woods.  Woods impact on the game of golf is obvious and well known but his own personal story hasn’t before been told so comprehensively in one volume.

The advance coverage of the book focused on stories of Tiger’s notorious cheapness and rudeness.  In the book, Tiger comes across as a fascinating, if largely unlikable individual – but you get the feeling that the authors have attempted to be fair to Woods.

The book shines a light on the toxic influence of Tiger’s father Earl – the missed childhood as he focused on golf, the willingness to cut people out of his life on his father’s say-so and Tiger’s eventual mirroring of his father’s worst habits.  Tiger appears as a very intelligent introvert who would have been much better served without Earl’s constant boasting that he was going to change the world.  His difficulties with keeping long term relationships – largely through his own neglect of other’s emotional needs – makes me somewhat sympathetic for Tiger who clearly needs affection yet sabotages every important relationships in his life (bar his mother).

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Tiger’s focus and perfectionism are fascinating.  To be able to deal with the hype of being the highest rated and most scrutinised player immediately upon turning pro.  To seek to rebuild his swing almost immediately after his 1997 Masters win is the type of move a mere mortal wouldn’t even contemplate let alone attempt.  To be able to play the best golf of his life while his private life was unraveling behind the scenes was beyond remarkable.   His ability and determination to play through pain is mind boggling.

Tiger’s fall from grace has been well covered, and the stories are well told and set in context here – painting a clear picture of how Tiger managed to remain on the top even when he knew tabloids were on to his affairs.   His attempts since that fateful Thanksgiving to rebuild his career are set out in the last section of the book.  It seems that his DUI arrest and worldwide humiliation in 2017 has proved a catalyst for some actual changes in Tiger – which have coincided with improved health helping him to play golf again.  The book left me hoping that this redemption is real, and long lasting.

It was welcome to see a detailed discussion on the possibility of Woods using Performance Enhancing Drugs – no athlete with such an impressive physique and connections to dodgy doctors should be above suspicion.   There is only so much the author’s can say without any substantial evidence but it does highlight the need for better testing in professional golf.

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I was disappointed to see such little focus on team events like the Ryder Cup (less than a page) although maybe that’s a sign of how little the event meant to Tiger relative to individual honours.

Tiger’s story has always been about the golf first and foremast.  The celebrity off the course has always been secondary to the magic and drama of watching Woods at his best on the big occasion.  One passage best sums up Tiger and the world’s attitude towards him – “As a human being, he might not have been lovable – or even likable –but as a performer he possessed unsurpassed talents that he honed through a lifetime of practice .  On a Sunday afternoon, he shared his gifts with millions enabling them to forget reality and vicariously experience thrills that were more exhilarating than anything felt in a church pew.  Golf had never meant so much to so many”.

The book is well written and very enjoyable.  At times depressing, it is never anything but compelling. Highly recommended.

Chairman Hootie Johnson presents the green jacket to Tiger Woods