‘My Life in Red and White’ by Arsène Wenger (2020)

I rarely bother to post negative reviews. If I don’t like a book I generally don’t finish it or take the time to order my thoughts. I’m making an exception this time because of just how disappointed I was by the recent autobiography of former Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger.

Wenger is widely considered one of the most intelligent and thoughtful figures in football. A trained economist, developer of young talent and winner of multiple premiership titles, he presented an intellectual image that was unique to English football. A proper insight into his life, his thought process and his view of football would make a great book. This is not that book.

Picking up the hardcopy, I expected a 300 plus page deep dive into Wenger’s life and career. However, the first thing you notice is the comically large font and ridiculous margin which probably doubled the number of pages that were actually needed for the book. It also didn’t help that the last 60+ pages of the book are a series of charts and tables with a ridiculous amount of statistical detail of Wenger’s career.

So to the book itself. One major error of this type of book was avoided – it largely eschews an over-detailed game-by-game season by season narrative. Unfortunately however, it also failed to include much of substance at all. While Wenger’s childhood is covered an appropriate surface level, his playing career remains fuzzy and unclear – you have to check the chart at the back to realise he played less than 100 games throughout his career.

But we are all buying this book for his management career so surely there’s loads of detail there? Sadly, the chapters on his time at Monaco, in Japan and mostly Arsenal stay at a very surface level. He alludes to a dark time in French football as part of reason for leaving but gives no detail at all on the scandals engulfing the French and European game at the time.

Major players in Wenger’s teams get a few paragraphs but we gain no insight into who those players are, what Wenger’s relationships with them were like, why they were pivotal players. No idea if he liked them, how he developed them, why he sold them. At one point laziness kicks in and he just gives a bullet-point list of some key players and a one line description of them.

We learn bits and pieces about his views on the phycological side of the game but there is no coherent attempt to explain Wenger’s philosophy of the game. No comments on his love of youth development, no mention at all of tactics.

Of the entire book, only the first chapter felt like it was genuinely written by Wenger. The last few chapters are basically a FIFA press release for his new job.

The book is a real missed opportunity, a deeply disappointing effort and its hard not to see it as a cynical cash-in.

The most disappointing book of 2020

‘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. This was largely due to his off-field behaviour that included a spell in prison. He feels like 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 his 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. It’s gets very frustrating though and a good edit should have sorted that out.

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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.  They don’t present a particularly flattering picture of Pennant. The final chapter of 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.

It’s a quick and easy read. If your looking for the scandalous stuff you’ve probably read it all before on social media. The more interesting story is the one of beating the odds.

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