‘The Next Big Thing: How Football’s Wonderkids Get Left Behind’ by Ryan Baldi (2019)

Every football fan remembers those prodigies they pinned their future dreams on only for their apparent potential to never be realised.  As an Ireland fan, I was overly excited when Anthony Stokes scored nine goals in just four games for Falkirk and again when 16 year old Terry Dixon was called up to the senior Ireland squad.  Even now I can’t resist getting giddy at the potential of young strikers Troy Parrott, Michael Obafemi and Aaron Connolly all of whom I’ve barely seen play yet whom I am certain will be world beaters.

So while we are all familiar with the hope, hype and unrealised dreams, little consideration is given by most to the fact the the young men who don’t make the big time have to find a way to get on with their lives. The Next Big Thing tells the stories of 15 highly-touted players who never quite reached the levels that was once predicted for them.  Some enjoyed decent careers, others were out of the game by the end of their teens.  The book covers a fascinating mix of players including Championship Manager legend Cherno Samba, Dutch international winger Andy Van der Mede and one time Beckham-rival Ben Thornley.

Baldi conducted interviews with the 15 players profiled and many others who knew them or coached them during their formative years.  Each one brings an interesting perspective as to why they didn’t quite make it at the highest (or in some cases, any) level.  The reasons range from injuries to changing managers, from ill-advised transfers to simple bad luck, from addiction to poor attitude.  Each player is fairly forthright and honest in accounting for their failures (to the extent that not making it against ridiculously long odds can actually be considered a failure!).  There may be some self-selection to this – those willing to talk to the author for a book like this may be those who have best been able to come to terms with how their career panned out.

Each chapter would work well as a stand-alone article as each is an entertaining and interesting story in its own right..   The book broadly lets the stories stand on their own with some attempt to tie the pieces together in the concluding chapter.  If, like me, you read the book over a very short space of time it can get a little repetitive but that in itself is indicative of how similar the players’ stories ultimately are.  It think it may work best as a book to dip in an out of and read a chapter at a time.

The book ultimately serves as a reminder of the perils of forgetting that young footballers are children or young adults first and footballers second.  It also suggests that, while improvements have definitely been made over time in how clubs treat their youngsters, a lot of care is needed to ensure that the end of professional football career does not result in significant life problems.  Overall, The Next Big Thing is well written, well researched and a welcome addition the English football library.

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‘Hijacking LaLiga: How Atlético Madrid Broke Barcelona and Real Madrid’s Duopoloy on Spanish Football’ by Euan McTear (2018)

When David Beckham signed for Real Madrid, the average English-speaking football fan  became exposed to a lot more coverage and commentary on Spanish football.   The addition of Beckham to the Galactico project made La Liga the hottest property in global football.   By the time Beckham left Leo Messi was on the rise, Spain would soon win Euro 2008, and Cristiano Ronaldo would arrive the following year.  The Messi and Ronaldo era, combined with Spanish dominance in international football, saw a continued rise in the interest of the English speaking world in Spanish football.

Once consequence of this greater interest has been the proliferation of English language books on Spanish football.   A number of great English language books on Spanish football do predate the Beckham era – most notably for me, Barca by Jimmy Burns and Morbo by Phil Ball.  But the majority of such books in recent years focus especially on Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Euan McTear has wisely decided to look elsewhere in the fascinating landscape of Spanish football.  His first book, Eibar the Brave, was about tiny Eibar and this book, Hijacking LaLiga focuses on the rise of Atlético Madrid in recent years.

Hijacking LaLiga is a comprehensive look at the origins and modern history of Atlético who have achieved remarkable success under manager Diego Simeone.  McTear traces the history of the club, highlighting the key moments the enabled to club to survive and thrive through the 20th Century.  It’s a fascinating history but less politically charged that those of Barca and Real.   There is also really interesting details on the chaotic reign of Jesús Gil, the President who somehow seized ownership of the club away from the fans.

The main focus of the book is on the period since Atheli’s relegation in 2000 and how the club rebuilt to break the seeming impenetrable duopoly of Barca and Real.  McTear credits a number of factors – the first Europa League triumph shattered the myth that Athleico were cursed, better TV deals improved their financial ability to compete, the combination of youth team products like Koke, tough battling players like Diego Godin and superstars like Costa and Greizmann provided ideal, and above all the coaching of Diego Simeone and his staff was the perfect match for the players and the club.

The book provides a very interesting and detailed insight into the most interesting story in modern Spanish football.  It’s well written and an enjoyable read.  My only compliant is that it jumps around in time and topic quite dramatically at times and a cursory knowledge of the timeline of events is a big help as you read – I kept forgetting which year they won which tournament and was left slightly confused as the narrative jumped between different seasons.

Overall highly recommended and great to see English language books focus on the wider story of Spanish football.

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‘Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association’ by Terry Pluto (1990)

The American Basketball Association was as an upstart professional league which lasted 9 years before eventually merging with the NBA in 1976.  Well, 4 teams were absorbed into the NBA –  the other 2 teams were left to die (a well-compensated death) and 4 other ABA teams had already folded.

Loose Balls is an oral history of the ABA, the crazy stories, and the impact it ultimately had on the NBA.  It’s remarkable that the ABA survived 9 years with almost no television exposure and very scant newspaper coverage.  The lack of a strong written or video record meant that Pluto wisely chose to write an oral history detailing the often contradictory but always entertaining memories of the key characters in the ABA story.

The ABA’s formation seemed to have been quite haphazard.  In many ways it came into existence because of one man, Dennis Murphy’s, determination to set up a sports league.  Key decisions such as the use of a red-white-and-blue ball and the introduction of a 3 point shot were made on whim rather than being part of a grand design.

The book is exceptionally funny because the characters involved and the shenanigans they got up to funny, bizarre and entertaining.  The story is a wild ride of crazy characters, marketing stunts and, importantly, some very good basketball players.  The business side of the story is also fascinating as teams scrambled to survive and to try and pressure the NBA into a merger.

All of those interviewed by Pluto share the view that the ABA fundamentally changed professional basketball.  These changes included the move to a faster paced game, the 3 point shot, the drafting of younger players and the overall focus on entertainment.   It’s also remarkable just how successful many of the ex-ABA players were after crossing over to the NBA.

There is something I find incredibly interesting about attempts to create a new sports league rivaling a well-established league.  It seems like a crazy idea doomed to fail.  Jeff Pearlman’s recent Football for a Buck brilliantly told the crazy story of the failed United States Football League. And Vince McMahon’s determination to bring back the XFL in 2020 shows there will always be dreamers willing to risk big bucks to break the monopoly of major sports leagues.

Loose Balls covers all 9 seasons, all 10 teams and most of the major players involved in the ABA.  It’s the definitive history of the ABA told by those who lived and loved it.  It is a classic sports book that deserves its place on the list of the all time greats.

As a companion piece, I’d highly recommend the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Free Spirits which interviews many of those who spoke to Pluto, as well as Pluto himself.  It focuses on the Spirit of St. Louis team who lasted only two years, had a crazy cast of characters and whose owners secured the best financial deal in sports history when being denied a place in the NBA.

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‘Sex, Lies, and Headlocks: The Real Story of Vince McMahon and World Wrestling Entertainment’ by Shaun Assael and Mike Mooneyham (2004)

I loved WWF (as it then was) as a kid, staying up all night to watch the Royal Rumble, refusing to fully accept it was scripted and staging highly dangerous wrestling matches with friends.  I don’t think I’ve seen 5 minutes of wrestling in the last 10 years or more.

When starting this blog I started hunting for books on sports stories I wanted to know more about.  Near the top of the search list was a biography of Vince McMahon, the legendary owner of World Wresting Entertainment.  The one book I could find that promised to cover McMahon’s life in any detail was Sex, Lies, and Headlocks from 2004.  I’ve enjoyed (and reviewed here and here) Assael’s other books and was looking forward to this trip down nostalgia lane.

Sex, Lies, and Headlocks gives a historical overview of the business of wrestling.  It’s very much about the business – the tv deals, the corporate takeovers, the court cases.  At its heart it’s the story of how wrestling became a billion dollar commodity.  A big focus is put on the various television networks and the role they played in the development of wrestling.  I have to admit, I would’ve enjoyed a bit more focus on some of the wrestlers personal stories.

The book also serves as a biography of Vince McMahon.  It covers his expansion of WWF after buying out his father, the controversy around steroids and sexual assault allegations and, in particular, the Monday Night Wars between WWF and rival WCW to be the dominant wrestling brand in the USA.

It is not a flattering portrayal of McMahon.  It’s clear that the McMahon family did not engage with the authors and it’s likely that those who were willing to speak were among the many who bore grudges against Vince.

Vince McMahon is a fascinating character.  He clearly has a keen sense of what sells and an absolute willingness to cross any boundary necessary to ensure his business is successful.  I always thought his decision to insert himself as the bad guy character in the show was utter genius – the blending of fact and fiction helping fans willfully suspend their disbelief and buy fully into the story-lines.  There are plenty of frankly bizarre anecdotes in the book which paint a picture of a slightly unhinged man with a genius for marketing and a love of risk taking.

There’s a good section on the XFL and McMahon’s ultimately doomed attempt to launch his own American Football league.  It’s particularly interesting given that XFL is now due to return in 2020.  I’m very interested in how XFL version 2 will fare, especially having recently read Jeff Pearlman’s excellent ‘Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL’ which captures the challenges and possibilities of a spring football league.

The book is definitely aimed at readers who may have been casual wrestling fans rather than at hardcore fans who will be well familiar with the stories told in the book.

I enjoyed the book a lot.  It’s well written, interesting and entertaining.  Vince McMahon is a fascinating character and I’d love to read a book updating on what has happened in the last 15 years!

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(I can’t write about Vince McMahon with expressing my childhood frustration with how the name McMahon is pronounced in the USA – it’s an Irish name and in the Irish pronunciation the H is not silent. –  it’s pronounced with three syllables- MAC-MA-HON, not MAC-MANN)

 

 

‘The Barcelona Legacy: Guardiola, Mourinho and the Fight For Football’s Soul’ by Jonathan Wilson (2018)

In my early twenties I spent a two week holiday in Thailand with friends.  Typically such holidays involve full moon parties, buckets with mystery booze, and magic mushrooms on ‘Mushie Mountain’. While I was there I spent more time reading Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson’s seminal book on the history of football tactics than I did doing basically anything else.  I say this to provide the context that I’m not an objective reviewer of Wilson’s work as I probably enjoy his broad stroke analysis of football’s evolution more than your average reader.

More than the Barcelona Legacy, Wilson tells the story of Johan Cruyff’s legacy and how the modern game has been shaped by coaches who were at Barcelona in some capacity in the early 90’s.   The book traces the tactical evolution of Pep Guardiola, Louis van Gaal, José Mourinho  Ronald Koeman, Luis Enrique, and Frank de Boer, and the impact those coaches have had on the game’s overall evolution.  It’s a story of football philosophy and what it means to play football “the right way”.

The clash of Pep and José in Spain is the box office centrepiece of the story – Pep’s Cruyffian ideals versus vs Mourinho ‘s cynical counter attacking football.   Wilson avoids taking sides and presents an unbiased assessment of how the game has developed across Europe.  This is perhaps the best thing about the book as the most popular books to present on any of these figures are generally very biased either in favour of their subject (like Marti Peraneu’s books on Pep) or against (like Diego Torres trashy, brilliant and totally unreliable book on Jose).   Given their current fortunes, it would have been very easy to fall into the trap of declaring Pep the victor in a battle of good vs evil.

Many of the individual details of the book will be familiar to the type of person who generally reads Wilson’s books (i.e. football nerds) who will likely have read many of the books Wilson cities throughout.  However, the book is very well researched with Wilson adding the views of key players like Javier Zanetti or Ricardo Carvalho either from interviews or from biographies that aren’t available in English.  It ensures some fresh and interesting material even for those of us who have devoured the many biographies of the key figures and clubs at the centre of the story.

I enjoyed particuarly the bits of the book that I hadn’t read about elsewhere – Mourinho’s origin story (well he is basically a super-villian), Van Gaal’s post Barca evolution and the turmoil at Ajax were all areas I was less familiar with that are covered well.

Like all of Wilson’s books he can’t resist showing off his literary knowledge with the occasional digression showing how well read he is.  I quite like this about Wilson’s writing – and The Outsider shows this side of his work off the best – but I can imagine it will alienate some readers.  Those interludes are brief and the book quickly gets back to more familiar territory.

What this book excels at is providing a clear joining of the dots by setting Pep, Jose and the others in the context of Cruyff.  Above all it is a testament to Cruyff’s influence on the game and how his approach shaped 25 years of tactical evolution.

Like all Wilson’s work, its a very enjoyable, interesting and thought provoking read.  It leads immediately to a YouTube binge as you try track down some of the more memorable matches and moments.  I think you can tell if you’ll like this book by your response to someone using the phrase post-Cruyffian.  If it makes you think of Guardiola’s possession based football this is the book for you.  If it makes you think ‘tosser’ then it might not be the book for you!

One thing the book left me wondering about is Athletico Madrid’s rise which is noted but not quite explained.  I’ve since ordered Hijacking Laliga by Evan McTear which promises to answer that very question!

The book is accompanied by a 6 part podcast which narrows in on 6 key games covered in the book.  An interesting, and to my mind successful, way of promoting the book while also enhancing the experience for readers.  Hopefully something that catches on.

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