‘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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‘Running with Sherman: The Donkey with the Heart of a Hero’ by Christopher McDougall (2019)

Christopher McDougall’s first book, Born to Run, became a huge bestseller and sent the barefoot running movement into the mainstream.  He used the story of the Tahamara runners to explain how humans were born to run (and run barefoot).

His second book ‘Natural Born Heroes’ used the story of Greek resistance fighters on Crete to explain how humans have vast unused athletic potential and to take a deeper look at the parkour movement.

I loved both these books.  Despite this, on seeing that McDougall’s new book, Running with Sherman, was about a rescue donkey named Sherman, I hesitated, thinking this wouldn’t be for me.  I was wrong.  Running with Sherman fully lives up to McDougall’s incredibly high standards.

McDougall beautifully tells the story of how, together with friends and family, he rehabilitated a neglected injured donkey. The narrative builds around a unique adventure race where participants team up donkeys to cross miles of difficult terrain.  It is an uplifting, inspiring and heart-warming tale of triumph over adversity.

It’s a beautiful story told exceptionally well.  McDougall sucks you in as your come to passionately care for this poor donkey and become invested in the outcome of the adventure race.  All the while, in his trademark style, McDougall uses Sherman’s story to explore a much deeper truth – how the relationship between animals and humans is fundamental to the human condition.  Animals make us happier, healthier, fitter, and all round better off.  The bond between Sherman and some of the team working with McDougall made a huge difference in improving their mental health and general well-being.

I’ve always found McDougall’s books incredibly inspiring.  While getting and caring for a rescue animal is beyond my capabilities sadly, I am going to be in Pennsylvania in September 2020 when the Bird-in-Hand half marathon that features at one point in the book is on so…. I’ve signed up for it as motivation – 7 months to build up to 13 miles!

Thanks for the inspiration Chris!

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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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‘Berserk: The Shocking Life and Death of Edwin Valero’ by Don Stradley (2019)

Valero was a Venezuelan boxer with a growing profile on a seemingly inevitable track to fight Manny Pacquiao and to potentially become a superstar.  He was a knockout king and won all of his first 18 fights with a first round knockdown.  He had a career record of 27-0 (all by knockout) and was a 2-weight world champion when he died in 2010.

Tragically however, Valero could never escape his demons.  He turned to cocaine and booze.  His paranoia took over and he murdered his young wife in cold blood.  Not long after being arrested, he took his own life while in prison.

In Berserk, Don Stradley recounts the story of Valero’s rise, the bumps along the way and his ultimate descent.  Different versions of Valero are presented with conflicts  emerging between accounts of how he treated his wife in particular. Stradley does well to separate fact from fiction and to dismiss conspiracy theories while recognising the limits of what we can really know about Valero and his relationships.

It is a short sharp captivating read and one any boxing fan will find interesting.   The punchy style of the book neatly matches Valero’s own relentless fighting style.  I found watching the many YouTube clips of Valero’s fights a great accompaniment to the book.

The book is published by relatively new boxing publisher Hamilcar books as part of it’s true crime imprint.  I’ve been really impressed by their work – both reprinting US editions of boxing classics like Dark Trade and these new short books.  I’m really looking forward to their publication in 2020 of a book by Tris Dixon on brain damage and boxing.

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‘The Long, Long Road to Wembley’ by Dave Roberts (2019)

The happiest I’ve ever been in one single moment, apart from when I first held my daughter, was when Ireland scored a 4th goal in Tallinn to all but guarantee a place in Euro 2012.   I knew I was going to be able to watch Ireland play in a major international tournament – my footballing dream since I had watched every minute possible of USA’94 as a 10 year old.

For Dave Roberts, his dream was to see his beloved Bromley FC play at Wembley, the English national football stadium.  The Long, Long Road to Wembley is Roberts account of his love affair with his local non-league football team.  From the age of 13, he fantasised about his local team making it to a cup final and living up to the previous legendary Bromley teams that had won the FA Amateur Cup.

The book focuses on two phases in Roberts and the club’s lives.  Firstly, Roberts recounts with brilliant humour the period when he was 13 to 20ish and attending every game.  When Bromley was the centre of his universe as he tried to figure out who he was.  He recounts the characters, fashion trends and most of all the defeats as Bromley crashed out of the cup every year.  It captures the essence both of being a fan and of growing up.  It also wonderfully captures the sense of community that football can bring when its not being played in 80,000 seater stadiums where tickets cost £80.

Inevitably, real life eventually gets in the way and Roberts goes more than 30 years without seeing Bromley play.   He remains a fan, getting sent the local paper by his Mum so he could stay in touch with results.   The second half of the book focuses on his return to watching Bromley live after returning to the UK and the eventual Cup run that Roberts had fantasised about for more than 40 years.  Roberts gets sucked right back into his devoted fandom, and obsessive collecting of programmes and club mugs.

The book is brilliantly funny throughout.  Roberts has a wonderful way with words and a self-depreciating yet still joyful take on life.  The Long, Long Road to Wembley is a joy to read and a beautiful take on the meaning of football, fandom and friendship.

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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