‘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.

dave roberts

‘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

‘Chaos is a Friend of Mine: The Life and Crimes of Conor McGregor’ by Ewan MacKenna (2019)

‘Chaos is a Friend of Mine’ is a Bob Dylan quote from a famous interview with Nora Ephron that he gave in 1965.  Dylan’s view was that chaos existed and all we could do was accept and acknowledge its presence.  Conor McGregor probably hasn’t thought quite as deeply about chaos but he certainty has caused it – good, bad and otherwise.

Chaos is a Friend of Mine is a really interesting book that examines the phenomenon of Conor McGregor.  Irish journalist Ewan MacKenna considers how McGregor has used, helped to shape and in turn been shaped by modern society from the populist rise of racism/Islamaphobia to the growing obsession with fame and celebrity.

MacKenna is a journalist with many fans and possibly just as many  critics.  Totally unafraid to call bullshit, he has wound up pretty much every die hard sports fandom on the internet by calling it as he sees it.  He seems particularly disliked for his attempts to shine a focus on the dark side of Man City’s wealthy owners.  I must admit, I’m a huge fan of MacKenna and share much of his scepticism about modern sport. I’m much less of a fan of UFC and MMA. While I appreciate the talent, work ethic and bravery of the fighters, the brutality of seeing someone get hit repeatedly in the face as they lay on the floor of the octagon just too much for me to enjoy.  

Many of McGregors inner circle refused to speak to the author, a clear sign of McGregor’s need to control his own narrative. Instead MacKenna takes a much broader view than a paint by numbers biography.  Ultimately he tells how a charming young man of immense confidence and no little talent achieved beyond his wildest dreams but seems to have found it difficult to separate who he was from the boarish, racist public character he began to portray.

Chaos is a Friend of Mine is a really interesting read by a very talented writer.  MacKenna’s dislike of the cultish followers of McGregor is well known to anyone who follows him on twitter.  Beware the 1 star reviews of trolls and fan boys that are already apparent on amazon and goodreads.  The book is as objective as it is possible to be unless you believe someone can, or should, be neutral on racism and Islamophobia as legitimate tactics to sell tickets.

chaos

 

‘What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen’ by Kate Fagan (2017)

Madison Holleran, a promising young American athlete and student, died by suicide in January 2014.  In What Made Maddy Run, Kate Fagan attempts to shed light on why a beautiful, bright and athletic girl seemingly with the world at her fingertips would ultimately take such tragic action.

Sport was a huge part of Madison’s life and her identity.  She excelled at soccer and athletics.  Her decision to focus on athletics and her anxiety about wanting to quit both played major roles in her unhappiness. Her whole identity was wrapped up in her classification as an athlete

Fagan does a lot of deep diving into possible factors leading to Madison’s suicide, from mental illness to the enormous amount of pressure that student athletes endure.  Social media and the impact on users emotional development is suggested as a potential factor in Madison’s difficulties. 

The book began life as a magazine article.  When articles get extended into full length books they can often suffer from a feeling that some of the new material is filler.  I recently read The Coddling of the American Mind about the need to expose kids like Madison to challenges suffers from the same problem of extending insightful shorter work into a longer from book.

At times the overly personal style can be grating as can the constant switching of names from Madison to Maddy and back.  However, it’s clear that Fagan was deeply affected by this story and built a strong relationship with Madison’s family.   Overall, the book works  very well in giving the read a strong sense of who Madison was, the issues she dealt with and the impact she had on those around her.

The book ultimately isn’t about sport.  It’s about the life of a young sportswoman ended tragically early and the lessons that we can learn from Madison.  It’s a difficult read but an important book.

maddy

 

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‘Michael Jordan: The Life’ by Roland Lazenby (2014)

Michael Jordan may be the most analysed sportsmen of all time.   He is already the subject of one of the all time great sports books Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made by the late, great David Halberstam.  The darker side of his personality had already been brilliantly exposed in The Jordan Rules by Sam Smith.  And countless other books have told the story of his career and his life.

I must admit, that given this extensive coverage, I wasn’t sure there was much to interest me in a full Jordan bio.  Michael Jordan: The Life sat on my shelf unread for more than 3 years.  Once I picked it up however, I couldn’t put it down.

While most other books tend to focus on a specific season or specific aspect of his life,  Lazenby does a great job of telling the fuller picture of his life and playing career.

The first part of the book detailing his background, the history of his parents and ancestors is particularly strong with Lazenby’s skill as a biographer shining through. The strength of the book is the intense focus on Jordan’s relationships – with his coaches, family, friends, other players and the numerous other people whose crossed his path.  The story is told largely through the stories of those who accompanied Jordan through the various phases of his life..

His parents are presented as complex characters and the darker, but still unproven, side of the Jordan family history is touched on.  In particular, I was left with even greater admiration for Bulls coach Phil Jackson’s leadership and management ability.  Getting Jordan to work for the greater good of the team took a special coach and Jackson was clearly the right man for the job.

It’s a big book yet I would have liked a bit more on Jordan’s life/career post playing.  Being a run-of-the mill owner isn’t quite as interesting as winning 6 rings, but it felt like the book ran out of steam a little bit.

It’s a study of Jordan the man as much as Jordan the icon yet Lazenby wisely avoids over analysing Jordan or guessing as to his motives.  But by the end of the book, I was left with a pretty negative view of the man yet the a recognition that such unimaginable wealth, fame and public pressure would be hard for anyone to emerge from unscathed.

I highly recommend Michael Jordan: The Life.  Be careful though, it’s a book that can easily send you down a YouTube rabbit hole of Jordan clips.

michael

‘The Ghost of Johnny Tapia’ by Paul Zanon (2019)

Johnny Tapia was a force of nature.  A five time, three weight, world champion, Hall of Fame, boxer.  A drug addict who served time in prison. A much-loved husband and father.  A man whose charisma and talent earned him countless friends and fans.    Tapia lived ten lifetimes in his one and survived multiple near death experiences before his body finally gave up aged just 47.

The Ghost of Johnny Tapia is a short, sharp and entertaining read. At just 96 pages it naturally gives a pretty high level overview of Tapia’s life and career but there is more than enough there to capture the craziness, the charisma and the talent of a very unique man.  In particular it gives a fascinating insight into the tragedies of his young life which gave rise to the demons he could never fully overcome.

While tragic, some of the stories in the book are mind-blowing.  Tapia had the kind of charisma that draws people to him coupled with the talent to reach the very top of boxing.  Sadly, he had demons, borne from a childhood of intense tragedy, and he simply couldn’t shake his addictions.  There is something incredibly compelling about that kind of character, that intriguing mix of charisma and vulnerability ensuring that draws people in.

The book’s key strength is the co-operation of Johnny’s wife Teresa who gives a remarkably candid insight into their life together.  Teresa is clearly a remarkable woman who put up with incredibly difficult behaviour from the man who she married aged 20 after knowing for just 2 weeks.   .

I’d definitely love to read a fuller length biography of Tapia’s remarkable life.  As an intro to his story, and a great excuse for a YouTube binge of his best moments, I’d definitely recommend The Ghost of Johnny Tapia.

Johnny Tapia