‘Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen’ by Christopher McDougall (2009)

Born to Run was a huge hit when it was published in 2009.  Part manifesto, part love letter to running, the book is built around a secret race that the author took part in alongside the reclusive Tarahumara Native Mexican tribe and the legendary ultra-marathoner Scott Jurek.

McDougall becomes enthralled by stories of the Tarahumara who can run amazing distances without shoes and without injury.   McDougall intersperses the story of him tracking down and the secret race being organised with his own musings on how running has moved away from its original origins.

The book has gained most of its attention for its exploration of barefoot running and the (surprising) impact running shoes have had on injury rates.  Spoiler alert: as technology improves, injuries have gone up, not down.

McDougall also explores the hypothesis that gives the book its title – that humans have evolved as a running animal.  The theory goes that humans developed the ability to run long distances in order to literally run down prey.

The book is exceptionally readable and packed with a cast of fascinating entertaining characters.  McDougall’s passion and enthusiasm shines through.  He may not be the most neutral of narrators at times – he clearly had a blast and really liked the people he met along the way – but he manages to tell the story and make his points in a fast paced and entertaining way.

I first read Born to Run at a time when I 4 or 5 times a week and devouring every book on running I could find.  I was totally gripped and totally unquestioningly accepted McDougall’s hypothesis.  Reading it again now at a much more sedentary phase of my life  (I really need to get back running!), I found myself much more skeptical of the barefoot running theory and the pop-evolutionary anthropology.  However I still really enjoyed the book and McDougall’s writing style.

Born to Run has gone down as a classic sports book and it definitely deserves its place on your book shelf.  Highly recommend for anyone who has ever wondered just how far they could run.

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‘Fergie Rises: How Britain’s Greatest Football Manager was Made at Aberdeen’ by Michael Grant (2014)

Alex Ferguson’s legacy continues to grow everyday as, over 5 years after his retirement,  Man Utd fail to live up to the standards set during the ‘Fergie era’.  Ferguson stands almost unquestioned as the greatest manager of the Premier League era with his consistent success placing above rivals like Arsene Wenger.

Fergie Rises is an in-depth look at the job which made Ferguson’s reputation and made him the obvious choice as Man Utd manager.  After a relative successful, if at times frustrating playing career, Ferguson took over East Stirlingshire for a year before a 4 year spell at St. Mirren.   Losing his job there, largely due to personal differences rather than the team’s performance, worked out exceptionally well as he was free when Aberdeen needed to replace the Celtic-bound Billy McNeill.

The scale of Ferguson’s achievement at Aberdeen is probably overlooked by many fans.  He won three Scottish League titles, four Scottish Cups, a League Cup and most remarkably the European Cup Winners Cup and the European Super Cup.  Since he left 34 years ago they have never again won the league – although this partly relates to the rising financial dominance of the Old Firm as Celtic and Rangers benefited disproportionately from the growing commercialisation of the game.

While Ferguson inherited a very strong team, his initial genius was to recognise that fact and limit his changes in the early days.  While he struggled to win over some players in his first season, he had the support of key dressing room figures and was able to mould the team in his own image through introducing young players like Alex McCleish.  Ferguson also seems to have been able to learn from mistakes – he came close to losing the dressing room on occasion but always managed to bring the team back together.

All of the characteristics that the world would see in Ferguson as Man Utd manager are evident from his time at Aberdeen – man management skills, use of youth team talent, selective use of praise, creating a siege mentality, displays of extreme anger, an eye for talent players, and above all, a relentless need to win.

Fergie Rises is brilliantly written and a great read.  Grant has read widely and picked up various of discrepancies among how certain events are remembered.  He also appears to have conducted countless interviews with seemingly every major character from the book who are open and frank in their memories of the period.   From the detailed quotes from the players it really struck me that, looking back, they all see their years under Ferguson at Aberdeen as a key period in their lives.

Overall, I highly recommend Fergie Rises for any football fan.  It works as a standalone brilliant story of the rise of a provincial football team to national and international glory.  It’s also a brilliant insight into the formation of one of modern football’s greatest managers. Grant gives a real sense of who Ferguson was at this time in his life and the influences that shaped him before he embarked on the job that would come to define him.

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P.S. Fergie has written a fair few books himself, including one covering this period called A Light in the North – I’m hoping to track down a copy and add some further thoughts to this review.  I have read his two autobiographies – one from 1999 and another from 2013.  I loved the 1999 book but found his much-hyped later book almost unreadably bad.

‘The Beckham Experiment: How the World’s Most Famous Athlete Tried to Conquer America’ by Grant Wahl (2009)

When David Beckham signed for LA Galaxy in Major League Soccer in 2007 it was big news.  Wall to wall coverage on Sky Sports News and hundreds of newspaper articles pontificating on what this meant for the further of soccer in the US of A.   The whole thing seemed to be hyped beyond all measure largely due to Beckham’s celebrity profile rather than his footballing ability.

Looking back now, my gut feeling was that Beckham was partly successful.  Everyone became a little bit interested, further big names followed – including the legendary Robbie Keane – but no-one in Europe actually watched any MLS apart from the odd youtube highlight. Whether the game has grown in the US, I have no idea – but the recent failure to qualify for the Russia World Cup suggests any benefits are been seen by the national team.

For The Beckham Experiment Grant Wahl was given great access to follow Beckham’s first two seasons at the Galaxy.  Reading the book, I was shocked to realise how spectacular a failure those first few seasons were, from a sporting sense at least.  Injuries, fatigue, lack of effort all played a part in the Galaxy having their worst two seasons in the club’s (I can never call a team a ‘franchise’) history.

Wahl paints the picture of an experiment that was a commercial success but – at that point – a sporting failure.  Beckham’s management team were given way too much influence over club affairs, Beckham was made captain despite not having a desire to be the team’s actual leader, and the approach of blowing the budget on Beckham and Landon Donovan left the team hopelessness unbalanced.  Indeed, I was shocked to see just how little some of his teammates earned, with one promising teammate even quitting the game to make more money in a ‘real’ job.

USA 94 legend Alexi Lalas is very much at the centre of the book – the former General Manager was clearly happy to use the book to vent his feelings about how his tenure at the Galaxy went.   The most interesting insights for me were just how different Major League Soccer is from the game played elsewhere with drafts, salary caps and squad limits that make it a unique coaching and management challenge.

Beckham is painted as either secretly manipulative or willfully naive as his team effectively took over the club, ensuring he was made captain and installing Ruud Guilit as manager.  We never get a strong sense of who Beckham is but this is no fault of Wahl’s who gets the other key protagonists to open up in great detail.  Indeed, Donovan may have regretted how open he was when he ultimately had to apologise to Beckham for the candid views he expressed in the book.  On balance, his teammates are reported to have viewed Beckham as a good teammate but a bad captain – a hard worker who wanted to win but someone who was distant from them by virtue of his fame and his wealth.

Overall the book provides a great insight into the state of MLS at the time.  While I’ve attended a couple of MLS games whenever I’m in the States and watched plenty of Robbie Keane highlights over the years, I don’t know enough to know whether the league has progressed.  It has whet my appetite for other books on the modern game in the US (I love books on the old NASL days such as Once in A Lifetime on the New York Cosmos).

Overall, it’s probably a little out of date to be of major interest to most readers still.  But it’s a highly readable, well-written and well-reported book and I’m looking forward to checking out Wahl’s most recent book Football 2.0.  I definitely have a natural bias against US based soccer journalists given the use of different terminology instantly jars, but this book was definitely well worth checking out.

I’ve also recently checked out Wahl’s podcast Planet Futbol which has some really interesting episodes.

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“All-American Murder: The Rise and Fall of Aaron Hernandez, the Superstar Whose Life Ended on Murderers’ Row” (2018) by James Patterson, Alex Abramovich & Mike Harvkey

All-American Murder is a rare non-fiction book churned out by the world’s best-selling author/book-factory James Patterson.   It tells the tragic tale of the late Aaron Hernandez, the young New England Patriot tight end who was found guilty of murder and eventually took his own life in prison.

Hernandez story is a tragic one.  It ultimately is the story of a young man who never recovered from the loss of his father and made terrible violent choices.  It may also be another piece of evidence on the growing story of the brain damage caused by constant hits being taken by American Football players.   His behavior was bizarre and paranoid and this aspect of the story merits further exploration in time.

Reading the book, I was left baffled by Hernandez’s decisions.  Was he really as stupid as his behaviour seems, was he already brain damaged, or was he so damaged by his father’s passing and so used to being lauded as a hero that he lost the ability to understand that actions have consequences?  Ultimately these questions may never be answerable.

The book reads like a mix of newspaper reporting and Patterson’s trademark style of short sharp chapters that finish with a hook to make you want to keep reading.  While this works well for fiction, it dilutes the quality of a non-fiction book for me – putting storytelling above the story itself.

At times there is a fair bit of speculation – for example, the authors appear convinced that Hernandez was also guilty of an earlier double murder for which he was acquitted.  The book appears to be heavily researched – it certainly goes into a lot of detail about characters motivations – but there aren’t any sources cited in the book, which is always a concern with non-fiction.  However, looking online, Abramovich has commented about the extensive levels of research, interviews and FOI requests that fed into the book which is good to see.

Ultimately, this feels more of a true crime book than a sports book.  It’s easily readable but not an easy read given the events.  There is probably a more in-depth analysis of Hernandez and the relevance that his brain injury had to be written with the benefit of more time passing but as an act of reporting and story-telling, this book is pretty good.

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‘Gazza in Italy’ by Daniel Storey (2018)

I’m not sure if this qualifies as a book as it is incredibly short at only 83 pages – the perils of buying an eBook and not checking how long it is in advance.

Gazza in Italy tells the story of England footballer’s Paul Gascoigne’s three-year spell at Italian club Lazio during the peak of Serie A’s reign as the best league in the world.  Gazza was young and relatively fresh from his famous tears at World Cup semi-final in Italia ’90 when Lazio began to show an interest.  The Italian club were flush with cash and seeking to build a Scuddetto winning team around the mercurial Geordie.

The move was delayed due injury but Lazio stayed committed  and Gazza eventually rocked up in Rome.  Storey recounts the highs and lows of Gazza’s time there – from brilliant goals to injury worries, from adoration from the fans to vilification in the media.  At its heart, Storey is trying to square the circle – why is Gazza seen as having failed in Italy but still absolutely adored by Lazio fans 20 years on.  It is a combination of individual

The most nostalgic part of the book for me was the background in how Channel 4 came to show live Serie A and Gazzetta Football Italia –  my absolute favourite tv show as a kid.  Storey poses the interesting theory that the coverage of Serie A in England helped shape the Premiership by exposing the British game to Italian football on a much more regular basis.  However, Storey also appears to use the arrival of Arsene Wenger as the turning point for the Premiership modernising which is probably giving the Frenchman a little too much credit!

Storey also questions whether the move was right for Gazza given his addiction issues.  The great ‘what if’ of Gazza’s career has always been whether there was an alternative path that he could have taken that would have seen him stay on top of his demons.  Given the nature of his addictions it does seem unlikely, but, as Storey sets out, being away from home and highly scrutinised by an invasive media certainly couldn’t have helped.

Storey read widely for the story and the bibliography would be a great starting point for a PhD in Gazzamania.  However, there don’t seem to be any original interviews of the kind that would help the book standout .  I appreciate it’s a very short book that maybe wouldn’t justify the expense – but it makes the €5 price a bit steep for such a quick read.  (I feel a bit bad complaining about price when authors struggle to make money but it would be remiss not to mention it my enjoyment was diminished by feeling I didn’t get a lot of book for my buck).

Overall, an enjoyable and insightful, if very short read.  Interestingly it was originally launched as an audiobook only – narrated by the brilliant James Richardson who hosted Gazzetta Football Italia.

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One Career, Two Books – Tony Adams. Addicted (1999) and Sober (2017) written with Ian Ridley

The titles of former footballer Tony Adams’ two books make clear how his struggles with addiction have shaped large part of his life.

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Addicted was published in 1999 when Adams was still Arsenal and England captain, and less than 3 years after he had revealed his alcoholism and stopped drinking.  At the time it garnered a lot of attention as Adams discussed his career and his battles with alcoholism in stark detail.  It was a striking honest book from a footballer still playing at the highest level.

Addicted covers all of the key aspects of Adams life in different chapters – his addiction battles, his Arsenal career, his England career, the managers he worked with, and the players he played with are all given their own space rather than following a more straightforward chronology.  It works well but does mean there is some repetition – particularly of his England career which inevitably is also discussed as he goes through his Arsenal days season by season.

Adams portrays his younger self as fairly self-involved and oblivious to the world around him.  He shudders to recall how little the Hillsborough tragedy affected him and acknowledges he hypocritically judged players like Charlie Nicholas who, like Adams, enjoyed life outside football a bit too much.

Don Howe and George Graham emerge as the key figures of influence on Adams career – Howe as coach from his early days and Graham as the manager who made him captain and under whom Adams won two Championship titles as well as 4 cup competitions.

However, more than football, addiction and alcohol are at the centre of the book.  It reads largely as Adams’ own attempt to figure himself out. which makes it more interesting than a standard football biography.   It’s a fascinating and at times harrowing read.

I first read it back when I was 17 and shortly to start out on my own booze filled college days.  At the time I had no real appreciation of alcohol but remember being shocked at how an alcoholic could play football to such a high level.

Re-reading it now, aged 34, and one year after giving up booze myself, I experienced the book quite differently – there is the relief of knowing Adams did manage to stay off the booze for the last 20 years combined with a much greater empathy for the attraction that booze had for him.  I enjoyed the book even more this time.

Sober, published last year, picks up where Addicted left off and covers the last 5 years of Adams playing career and his life thereafter.  Sharing the same ghostwriter, Ian Ridley, means that both books have the same voice.  There are some clear differences however.  Sober is more open about family and personal relationships with family members being much more fleshed out in the second book.

Sober

Sober uses the language of AA and recovery much more regularly as Adams has spent the last 20 years maintaining his sobriety.  It can feel a little much at times but it wouldn’t be Adams own voice if it didn’t.   Adams major post career achievement is the founding and ongoing survival of Sporting Chance, a charity dedicated to helping sportsmen and women with addictions.

The end of his playing career is told fairly quickly as Adams moves on to focus on the transition to his post-playing career.  While Addicted told the story of the Arsenal and England captain at the peak of his powers, Sober is mostly the story of an ex-player struggling to find the next step in his career.  It’s interesting to see how a former superstar deals with being less successful in the next phase of his career.

Adams took various courses and coaching badges before trying his hand at management with Wycome. After resigning there, he returned to education before joining Portsmouth as Harry Redknapp’s assistant during their high spending days that included an FA Cup victory.  He ultimately became manager after Harry left but appears to never had had much of a chance due to budget cuts before asking to be fired to save himself from resigning.

From here, Adams career took an odd, international turn.  After briefly coaching in Azerbaijan, he stepped into a general manager / consultant type role in building a small Azerbaijani team from the ground up.    This was followed by a connection with a Chinese football investor as Adams took on a general consulting role for Jiang Lizhang who owned a club in China and purchased Granada in Spain.  He even briefly became Granada manager for a while.

It’s clear Adams feels somewhat unfulfilled with his coaching and management career.  Sober gave me a much better impression of Adam’s post playing career than the easy narrative of failed manager which I suspect many fans of English football have.

Late in the book Sober becomes a series of musings about Arsenal, England, Wenger and the state of British football.  At times it becomes a bit boring and simply the musings of an ex footballer who is annoyed that he isn’t able to contribute more to the game in England at the highest levels.  Ultimately, the book ends as it begins with a reflection on addiction, recovery and staying sober.

Sober makes an excellent companion piece to Addicted but as a stand-alone book it’s good without being great.  While it is equally honest, particularly about Adams mental health struggles, it doesn’t reach the difficult task of living up to its predecessor.  The general musings on the game ultimately let the book down by going on that bit too long.

Overall, the two books together give an incredibly honest and interesting account of a man who achieved great things in the game, but none greater than achieving his sobriety and helping others achieve theirs.

‘Gunslinger: The Remarkable, Improbable, Iconic Life of Brett Favre’ by Jeff Pearlman (2016)

I’ve written before of my fondness for Jeff Pearlman’s books and recently reviewed his new excellent USFL book.  But unknowingly, I’ve only read his books that cover a group of people – a team or a league but not read any of his biographies.  So I picked up Gunslinger hoping it lived up to the other Pearlman books I’ve read and loved despite having a narrower focus.

Not living in the US, my engagement with NFL varies year on year  – in college, and my heavy gambling phases after college, I watched loads but some years I’d see very little.  The three years I watched the most NFL coincided with Favre’s amazing last year at Green Bay, his temporary time at the Jets and his incredible first year at the Vikings.  So I’m much more familiar with the end days of Favre rather than his origin story and Superbowl success.

Favre’s story is the classic sports narrative of the overlooked kid nearly didn’t make it but the right coach/scout believed in him and took a chance.  After spending his high school career handing off to a star running back, Favre very nearly didn’t get a Division 1 college scholarship.   After a pretty successful collegiate career  – where the relatively tame high-schooler turned into a party animal – Favre was overlooked in the first round of the NFL draft.

After an uneventful year on the bench of the Falcons, he was traded to Green Bay where he very soon became a legend.  Setting all sorts of NFL career records, and leading the Packers to two Superbowls (winning one), Favre was adored by Packers fans and seemed to have a home their for life. Despite hard drinking, womanising and stays in rehab, he never missed a game and had many more successful seasons than bad ones.

After seeming to be on the downhill slide, Favre’s form improved remarkably and he cam agonisingly close to getting back to Superbowl.   While flirting with retirement, he forced his way out of the Packers and, after a poor year in NYC, did the one thing guaranteed to piss off his former fans and sign for Green Bays greatest rivals.

Pearlman, as is his trademark, interviewed an astonishing amount of people for the book.  The level of detail in his research is reflected in the incredibly comprehensive nature of the book.

Favre comes across as a man who is both likable and dislikable in almost equal measure.  For long parts of his career he put his own addictions, desires and career well ahead of his family life.  However, his wife ultimately stayed with him and he seems to have somewhat mended his ways in later years.  The intro to the book sums up Favre very well  by highlighting conflicting stories that show both the good and the bad.   It feels like an objective account of a complicated man who will long be remembered as one of the great NFL quarterbacks.

Overall, Gunslinger is a really enjoyable read.  Pearlman’s ability to take a huge volume of information and condense it into a fast paced and gripping narrative is on full display.  It’s an interesting, fun and really good book that I’d recommend for anyone with even a passing interest in NFL.

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(I’m writing this review as I have NFL Redzone on in the background and Drew Breese has just passed Favre’s NFL record for most completed throws in a career – an interesting bit of symmetry).