‘The Pyjama Game: A Journey into Judo’ by Mark Law (2007)

I was lucky enough to be in Rio during the 2016 Olympics and got to see a huge amount of events live.  But the sport I saw most of during those 2 weeks was judo – simply because at all times it was on at least 4 Brazilian TV channels 24/7 during the Games.  After plenty of hours watching without any knowledge of Portuguese, I felt only a little the wiser as to what went on but strangely fascinated nonetheless.

So I approached The Pyjama Game with a keen interest in figuring out a little more about the sport that seemed second only to soccer in the Brazilians’ hearts.  Mark Law is a journalist who took up judo as he approached 50 and became obsessed with the sport.  This book is a fascinating in-depth look at the world of judo both as a competitive sport and as a martial art practiced for love rather than competition.

Law moves deftly between telling judo’s origin story and more modern history together with his own musings on what judo is, what made it spread around the world and what it means to him.  The history of judo is fascinating and told really well.  The game developed largely as one remarkable Japanese man’s efforts to make jujitsu safer and more effective.  It was spread by its disciples largely through their ability to beat all-comers from other disciplines.

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Women’s judo is also given pretty decent coverage and it was fascinating to see that the women’s game developed more in the West before the Japanese got their act together and became dominant.  Japan and Japanese culture are also central to the story and the book offers interesting insights into that remarkable and fascinating country.

Law remains steadfastly immune to the philosophical accompaniments that come with judo – given its Buddhist origins – but this doesn’t stop him waxing lyrical about how much judo has given him and how much joy he derives from practicing it.  At times this can be a bit repetitive and at times he felt the need to make negative comparisons of football (a pet hate of mine) but these are very minor irritations. Overall it is a really enjoyable and entertaining read that makes you want to seek out a judo club and try it out for yourself.

It should also be said that the Aurum Sports Classic edition of the book is quite beautiful and looks great on the bookshelf.  It looks like that imprint has gone out of business which is a real shame.

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‘Mental – Bad Behaviour, Ugly Truths and the Beautiful Game’ by Jermaine Pennant with John Cross (2018)

I remember Pennant as the much hyped teenager who was signed by Arsenal for £2million at 15 but never lived up to his potential largely due to his off-field behaviour that included a spell in prison – a cross between Theo Walcott and Ravel Morrison.   He ultimately had a journeyman career that included a Champions League final for Liverpool and stops at Stoke, Birmingham and Real Zaragoza among other, but never played more than 60 league games for any one club.

Mental opens with a detailed description of Pennant’s turbulent childhood – born to a mother who faked her own death to abandon her ‘black baby’ and a father who kept guns and Class A drugs in the house.   This context is vital as Pennant can only be judged through the lens of what he lived through and it puts much of his bad behavior in context.  It’s easy to criticise him for not making the most of undoubted talent when its arguable he deserves praise for making anything of himself at all given where he came from.

Notwithstanding this, its very hard to read constant references to his driving offences (driving while banned and drink driving) without getting increasing annoyed at his reckless attitude that clearly posed a risk to others.  It’s one thing risking your own career, it’s another putting innocent lives at risk and it’s not clear from this book that Pennant can fully tell the difference.

His account of his move from Notts County to Arsenal at 15 is a damning indictment of how kids are exploited in football and particularly damning of Sam Allardyce and his pal and agent Mark Curtis (who arranged the meeting that ultimately got Allardyce fired from his England gig).  Pennant is full of regret that he was moved against his will and ultimately denied the chance to develop outside of the intense media spotlight.

The book is peppered with extracts from others who are or have been close to Pennant – his dad,  his agent, his friends which give anther, and at times contradictory, view of instances that Pennant describes.  It works well and at times appears to give a truer reflection of the player than his own words.  There is a fair bit of repetition and the style of repeating points in the same paragraph can get a bit annoying – but it seems to be a stylistic choice from the ghostwriter, presumably to try and capture Pennant’s own voice./style of communicating.

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There is actually very little football in the book – a few big games mentioned but no discussion on where the clubs he played for finished most seasons which is slightly unusual for a footballer’s autobiography.  But given stories of finishing 5th or 15th in the league aren’t the most interesting its probably a good idea.

A lot more coverage is included of nights out and one night stands.  Some stories are interesting insights into his attitude and behaviour – being drunk/hungover when he scored a hattrick early in his Southampton career – and others are ‘lad banter’ – threesomes with Ashley Cole, comparing women to monopoly properties – which will definitely add to the books sales while giving probably the most open account to date of what footballers get up to on nights out.  It’s hard to imagine Ashely Cole will be thrilled to see his own name come up so often.

The chapter on women is already getting heavily shared/criticised on social media – I’d suspect it was a key ingredient in getting a deal for the book in the first place though.  The final chapter on the book does put these stories in an interesting context – Pennant seeks therapy to understand why he cheats and flirts with so many women, ultimately tracing his behaviour back to being abandoned by his Mum.

Overall, Pennant seems to be relatively content with how his career went.  Given his talent, he could have matched his friend and contemporary Ashley Cole and achieved much more, but given his childhood he easily could have crashed out of the game and achieved nothing.  He achieved his boyhood dream of playing for Liverpool, played in a Champions League final and was pretty unlucky to never be capped by England.

And, remarkably, Pennant’s book conforms with ‘Howe’s law’ – the apparently unbreakable rule that any autobiography by a footballer who played in Britain in the last 40 years has to, at some point, mention how good the late Don Howe was as a coach.  It’s definitely the only thing this book and Frankly Speaking by Frank Stapleton (1991) have in common!

Overall, it feels like the story the book wanted to tell – overcoming a troubled childhood to achieve pretty decent career – is totally overshadowed by the stories of excess, women and drink driving.

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‘Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon’ by Ed Caesar (2015)

Two Hours is a comprehensive look at the world of men’s elite marathon running framed around the question of whether any man can run 26 miles and 365 yards in under two hours.

Two Hours is first and foremost a celebration of elite men’s marathon running.  While I expected the book to focus more heavily on the quest for lower and lower times, its actually much broader than that, and probably a better book for this broadness.  It combines the history of the marathon, a comprehensive look at the marathons raced between 2010 and 2013 and an in-depth focus on the career of 4 time major marathon winner Geoffery Mutai.  While it touches on all of the key things being considered in efforts to run a 2 hour marathon – shoe technology, genetics, doping etc – it doesn’t cover these in massive detail.

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The years covered by Caesar ended up being really fascinating for marathon running – with the emergence of new superstars, world records and doping scandals – and the book benefits from the amazing access Caesar had to the athletes.  It’s pleasing that doping is addressed and Caesar’s insights into how doping appears to operate (at least for some athletes) in Kenya are interesting.  The insights gleaned from in-depth interviews with Mutai about his state of mind during races was also enlightening.  There are also interesting doubts cast on the ‘barefoot running’ craze popularised by the excellent Born to Run – Caesar observes that elites marathoners have been asking for more cushioning not less.

The one thing that I think was missing from the book was consideration of women’s marathon records – I think the fact that Paula Radcliffe held the women’s world record for so long (and still held it at the time of writing the book) would have been an interesting topic to consider when looking at both the progression of the men’s record during this time and the dominance of East African’s.

The book was finished before the launch of the academic led Sub2hrs project and was published before the launch of Nike’s Breaking2 Project which in 2017 saw Eliud Kipchoge run the distance in 2 hours and 25 seconds.  Caesar had speculated about the possibility of just such an attempt – but there is almost no mention of Nike in the book which talks much more about Adidas (as people from Adidas must have been willing to speak to Caesar). It is particularly interesting that the men’s world record, that must be set during an actual marathon meeting certain conditions, has not improved in the last 4 years – suggesting that a plateau has been reached for now?

Overall its a very enjoyable and easy read.  Caesar writes very well and is clearly passionate about the subject and fascinated by the athletes he meets. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in distance running.

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‘Moment of Glory: The Year Tiger Lost This Swing and Underdogs Ruled the Majors’ by John Feinstein (2010)

Moment of Glory recounts the story of golf’s major championships in 2003 – a year with four first-time major champions. From the vantage point of 2010, Feinstein looks back at the 2003 season and chronicles the careers of the those 4 champions – Ben Curtis, Mike Weir, Jim Furyk and Shaun Micheel.

In 2003, Tiger Woods began work on a complete remodelling of his swing resulting in a dip in performance to the extent that he didn’t seriously compete in any of that year’s majors.  This left a vacuum which was filled by 4 first time winners whose lives would all change.

The most fascinating part of the book was the focus on what major victories meant for the 4 and the comparison with how the runners up fared after the tournaments.  Feinstein also pays close attention to the nearly-men who came so close to winning those 4 majors – none of whom had won a major and all who would be heavily impacted by the experience of coming so close but missing out.  The insight into how a single putt could change two different golfers’ lives really helped to put the stakes at play into perspective.

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For me the book suffers from the fact I have already read, and really enjoyed, two of Feinstein’s other golf books – A Good Walk Spoiled and Q School.  In a lot of ways this felt overly similar in chronicling the challenges of professional golfers outside the very very top rung.  The book is well written and a very enjoyable easy read that benefits from Feinstein’s accessible writing and clear ability to put to interviewees at ease.  I just feel like I’d already read the book before in some ways.

Overall, I’d recommend it.  I think it actually works even better reading it now in 2018 when we have more info at our fingertips on how the players careers have progressed since 2010 as well.  Amazingly, after this book was published, both 2011 and 2016 also saw 4 different first time major winners crowned.

While it isn’t Feinstein’s best book, it’s well worth picking up as the long wait for next season’s Masters begins post Ryder Cup.

Moment of Glory

‘Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL’ by Jeff Pearlman (2018)

I’m a huge fan of Jeff Pearlman’s books so was delighted to get an advance review copy of Football for a Buck which is due to be published this September.  It tells the story of the short-lived United States Football League, an upstart rival American Football league set up to try and capture fans attention during the NFL off-season.

An ambitious and slightly crazy plan, the USFL looked to have a real chance of success before a disastrous decision was made to try compete directly with the NFL in autumn time.  The league was made up of journeyman pros, college standouts who couldn’t make the NFL, and most excitingly, up and coming superstars who were lured by outrageous paydays – including future NFL Hall of Famers Steve Young and Jim Kelly.

The USFL was before my time, but I really enjoyed the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary ‘Small Potatoes’ on its rise and fall.  Pearlman’s book covers the story in much greater detail and has interviews with a very wide range of characters. Pearlman captures what the league meant to a lot of people – fans, players, coaches and owners.   He also captures the real influence the USFL had on the NFL, with a number of USFL initiatives, such as the 2 point conversation and replay challenges, being introduced into NFL not long after.

Pearlman has carved a bit of a niche in chronicling the bad guys in sport – with previous books Boys will be Boys and the Bad Guys Won covering the questionably behaved Cowboys and Mets.  His books are at times gossipy and entertaining but also meticulously well researched and always brilliant.  Similarly in Showtime, Pearlman did a great job of bringing the the 80’s era Lakers to life – through many interesting and sensational anecdotes. Who wants to read about a well behaved team after all?  It’s not surprising then that some of the highlights of Football for a Buck are those stories of parties, outrageous behaviour and the wild sense of fun that accompanied many of the teams.

However, the book is at it’s best when it chronicles the behind the scenes story of how teams were formed, how decisions regarding the league were made and the court case that ultimately lead to its demise.  A clear villain emerges in the form of Donald J. Trump  – a man who sadly needs no introduction.  Pearlman is pretty active on twitter including very often strongly condemning Trump’s Presidency.  No matter your politics, it would be hard for even the most myopic MAGA enthusiast to read Football for a Buck and think anything favourable of how Trump behaved and influenced the USFL.  The book does capture Trump’s remarkable ability to influence and get people on board with him –  even, or especially, when his motives are anything but pure – an ability that ultimately took him way further than anyone would have imagined.   It also shines a fascinating light on Trump’s feud which seems motivated by resentment towards the NFL as much as by the opportunity to rile up the militaristic instincts of his base.

Overall, this is an entertaining and brilliant read.  Pearlman’s nostalgia for the USFL, his meticulous research and his genuine warmth towards many of its remarkable cast of characters shines throughout this excellent book.   Pearlman clearly had a great time doing the research and I had a great time reading the book.

Pearlman’s writing podcast ‘Two Writer’s Slinging Yang’ is well worth checking out for fascinating interviews with very interesting writers who discuss their craft in detail.  The fact that Pearlman advertises a classic sports jersey website on the podcast purely in exchange for free sports gear for him and his kids is simply wonderful and speaks to Pearlman’s passion for the USFL and great sports stories.

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‘The European Game: An Adventure to Explore Football on the Continent and its Methods for Succes’ by Dan Fieldsend (2017)

The European Game is a journey behind the scenes of  how European football operates.  Fieldsend, formerly a staff member at Liverpool, spent three months travelling to the best and most famous football teams across Europe learning along the way about the club’s history, key figures, tactical developments, and place in their society.

It’s a book that celebrates the uniqueness and specialness of every football club which shifts between understanding why how clubs impact their environment and how environment’s shape their clubs.  It’s part exploration of what makes a club successful and part exploration of what makes a club magical.

The book can be dipped into chapter by chapter which each adventure heavily shaped by the people Fieldsend was able to meet and interview.  Overall, the cast of characters is suitably diverse and interesting to ensure that the book avoids repetition.   Some chapters have a heavy travelogue feel as Fieldsend connects with the people and the place as much as the football club.  At times the book suffers from a slight identity crisis as it shifts between very different types of stories.

It merits some comparison’s to the peerless Inverting the Pyramid or the excellent Football Against Enemy – a very different book from those but one that contains a similar desire to understand football at a deeper level.

It is clear the book is a real labour of love.  While some of the chapters contain fairly familiar material, overall it me feeling I understood more about some of the major European clubs and kept me entertained and engaged throughout.  Some tighter editing of slightly flowery prose wouldn’t have gone a miss – but I can’t begrudge the author attempting to show a bit of literary flair at times.

Overall, highly recommended for those who haven’t devoured countless books on European football while still worth a read for those among us who like to reread Inverting the Pyramid every summer!

‘Red: My Autobiography’ by Gary Neville (2011)

Red is the story of Gary Neville’s long and distinguished career for Manchester United and his less distinguished England career.  It’s a reasonably enjoyable quick read that will be particularly enjoyed by United fans.

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Neville appears to be a man defined by his passion for Manchester United. I’m sure he likes his family, but you would barely know his wife and kids exist. While you appreciate he wants his privacy, you’d expect getting married and having kids to impact your view of the game and your career enough to merit more of a mention.

The famous Class of ’92 is covered in a fair bit of detail.  It was a remarkable generation of players to come through the ranks at Man Utd at the same time but something about the fact they have developed their own brand annoys me no end.  This part of the book works well as a lesson in the importance of commitment and level of dedication needed to make it to the top.

His time at Man Utd is the main topic of the book, but at times it feels like a repetition of what happened combined with repeated references to how great Sir Alex Ferguson is.  There are some good insights into some of the most interesting Man Utd personalities, but nearly not enough of these.

He covers his England career with a chapter about the reign on each of the mangers he played for.  It’s clear he really rated Venables, felt Keegan and Hoddle were out of their depth and had a lot of time for Sven before it started to fall apart. The England material is definitely the best part of the book.  Neville opens up about his dislike of playing for England and gives an honest assessment that it meant a lot less to him than Utd.

Overall the book feels honest without ever being particularly controversial.  It’s an interesting read for anyone who followed English football during Neville’s career and especially for Man Utd fans.

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