‘The Draft: A Year Inside the NFL’s Search for Talent’ by Pete Williams (2006)

The concept of a professional sports draft has always been intensely fascinating to me.  In theory it offers an ideal method to ensure that competitive balance remains in a league, particularly when combined with a salary cap.  Seeing Juventus win their 7th Serie A title in a row recently makes you think what soccer in Europe would be like if youth development was handled by schools and not professional teams and the best players divided up by draft.  It’s clearly not possible, but it would sure be interesting!

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The Draft is a long and detailed account of the 2005 NFL draft told through the experiences of key people at every level – top 10 draft picks, lesser players, Atlanta Falcon’s General Manager, coaches and a whole host of sports agents. It’s a very thorough account that covers every aspect of draft day preparation by all those whose futures are heavily tied up with this two day extravaganza.

It is an interesting read and certainly achieves its goal of shining a light on the draft process.  Reading it at more than 10 years remove is fascinating with some players being instantly familiar from their subsequent achievements in the NFL – particularly someone like 49er’s great Frank Gore who didn’t get picked up until the 3rd round.

Frank Gore

The book’s length however becomes a weakness.  There is a lot of repetition gets tiresome if you read the book over a fairly short period.

The other big weakness of the book is the excessive focus on agents.  While the coverage of the role of agents and their interaction with players is interesting, there is far too much focus on which agents were successful in building their own rosters of players.  It’s very hard to care about which salesman managed to get himself a big payday and the book would have benefited from a lot of this material being cut.

All in all, however, it is an interesting and enjoyable read. It may inadvertently work best as a book to dip into – like a series of newspaper columns – otherwise the excessive detail and repetition could get annoying.

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‘The Team That Jack Built’ by Paul Rowan (1994)

The Team That Jack Built was first published in 1994 shortly following Ireland’s second appearance in the World Cup finals – a level Ireland have only once returned to.

This isn’t a book about Ireland’s performances in the three major tournaments that the team played during Jack Charlton’s reign.  Indeed, the actual games at Euro 88 are covered in less than a page. Instead is about the how – how did Ireland go from nearly-rans to qualifying for back to back World Cups.  The book is all the better for the focus on the off-field aspects.  The team that jack

Rowan recounts the series of managers who had led the Irish team prior to Charlton’s appointment and this third of the book was really interesting for me as someone who was too young to remember any of the pre-Charlton era. Rowan also entertainingly details the backroom shenanigans in the FAI.  The constant jolies to Poland, the bizarre voting process and the battles with the players over money and endorsement rights.   Rowan paints a picture of the FAI that is not flattering and will be depressingly familiar to Irish fans of any era.

The highlight of the book is when Rowan lets Charlton describe his tactical approach in his own words – its a great, simple overview of the style which brought great success while boring the rest of the world.

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The main issue addressed in the book is FIFAs laws of eligibility -allowing non-Irish-born players to qualify for the Irish team because Ireland was the birthplace of a parent or grandparent.  Rowan addresses the conflicting views that Ireland had (and largely still has) about our relationship with the Brits and the Irish diaspora that identifies as both British and Irish.  He doesn’t come down on either side – but it is interesting to see how open many of the players were about England being their first choice.  It remains a highly relevant issue when we see players like Jack Grealish switch back to England, and fans fretting over whether Declan Rice would follow suit.

Overall, The Team That Jack Built is a hugely interesting, entertaining and well written account of the Irish football team in the 30 years leading up to 1994.  Its the off-field story of how a team built around the Irish diaspora came together under a charismatic manager to really shake ’em up.

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‘Klopp: Bring the Noise’ by Raphael Honigstein (2017)

It’s also fascinated me how a manager’s character can shape the neutral fan’s perception of a football team.  Under previous Liverpool managers (especially Houlier) I found Liverpool quite dis-likable and certainly not a team I would root for.  Yet under Klopp its hard not to  have a soft spot for the free-flowing Liverpool team that plays in a manner

Klopp

Klopp: Bring the Noise is a fun and detailed biogrpahy of the most charismatic manager in football – Jurgen “Kloppo” Klopp.  Honigstein details the key influences on Klopp’s career including his own limitations as a player and his one-time coach Wolfgang Frank.

Klopp comes across in the book in the same way he does on TV.  He clearly has a huge work ethic and builds a very  strong connection with his players.  The access that Honigstein had to so many people close to Klopp at different times of his life and career gives a great insight into his tactics and his management.

A clear pattern emerges – builds a fantastic team with meagre resources, performs well above expectations only to see a decline – either due to star players being headhunted or the rest of the league adopting his tactics.  It remains to be seen if his Liverpool team can compete in the Premier League and become more than a very good cup team.

I’m a big fan of Raphael Honigstein’s writing – in particular his book Das Reboot.  Like his other work, this book is well written, well researched and a very enjoyable read.

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There are a few areas in the book where more detail would have been interesting.  The section on the type of player Klopp looked to sign was very interesting but I would have like more detail on why certain players were signed – what was it about Lewandawski that made Dortmund pull the trigger for example when he was overlooked by other clubs?

I found the ordering of chapters a bit frustrating.  I understand what Honigstein was trying to achieve – linking his first days at each club together to enable the reader to make comparisons between his time at Mainz, Dortmund and Liverpool.  But for a reader not all that familiar with Klopp’s time at Mainz, the jumps back and forth were a bit disorientating.

Overall, I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in Klopp – and I can’t imagine why any football fan wouldn’t be interested in him!

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‘Soccernomics – 2018 World Cup edition’ by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski (2018)

I read the first version of this book, then called Why England Lose, when it was first published and really enjoyed it.  The latest edition is even better. The authors avoided simply re-publishing the same old book, instead re-examining their conclusions and ensuring this edition is fresh and up to date.

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The book is essentially Freakonomics applied to football, with some Moneyball thrown in.  The authors use statistics to disprove the prevailing wisdom on how football functions and how to be successful in the game. It covers a wide gambit of football related issues – ranging from how to play the transfer market well, what national teams overperform and how loyal fans really are.

The authors attempt to look globally in scope but the book focuses on European football largely because that is where the best data sources are found.  It is a long read and covers a huge amount of detail.  It is best enjoyed in chapter sized chunks to leave time to think about it rather than flying through and finding yourself overwhelmed in the detail.   Some chapters are better than others – discussions on which national team over performs got tiring, and felt like a repeat of the discussion on why England lose.  By contrast, the chapter on penalty shootouts and game theory was brilliant and insightful.

In particular, the book left me wanting to find a good book on the rise of Olympique Lyonnais and how they used clever transfers to dominate French football before the oil baron PSG took over.   The “wisdom of crowds” theory put forward in the book doesn’t really seem convincing to me as transfer committees at other clubs have been anything but successful. Any recommendations would be greatly welcome.

I enjoyed the book but in some ways I would hesitate to recommend it for everyone.  I’m not sure how much a non-nerdy fan would enjoy it.  It’s probably safe to say that if you think a “statistical look at football” sounds like fun, you’ll enjoy this book a lot.  Given its huge sales numbers there must be more of us football nerds out their than I thought!

‘The Blind Side: The Evolution of the Game’ by Michael Lewis (2016)

You have probably already read this book or seen the movie.  If you haven’t then stop reading and go get the book.blind side

The Blind Side interweaves two stories. The first story is the evolution of American football towards a passing game where quarterbacks rose in value, became targets and finally needed greater protection.  The second is the story of a lost boy taken in by a white Southern family and given an opportunity to pursue his gifts that he seemed destined to be denied.  Those gifts just happened to make him ideally suited to provide the now much more valued quarter back protection.

Lewis is a wonderful writer whose books are informed, accessible and entertaining.   The Blind Side works brilliantly as football history – Lewis traces the journey from Bill Walsh’s 49ers, through Lawrence Taylor and the rise of great linebackers to the realisation on the launch of free agency that teams would pay a lot more money for a left tackle than they were paying so far.  It’s the type of narrative that, as a casual NFL fan, I was unaware of and one I had not seen captured in the wonderful NFL / America’s Game TV series. Lewis is able to tell a compelling story and educate the less knowledgeable football fan without coming off as condescending,

Oilers v Giants

The heart of the book however is the story of Michael Oher – a kid who seemed destined to be a lost cause, born in a place and a system that was destined to fail him.  The Tuohy’s, who adopted Oher into their lives, emerge as a kind and loving family who belie the worst stereotypes of southern wealthy evangelicals.  While the book could be read as an uplifting tale of the difference that kindness can make in the life of someone less fortunate. For me however, the fact that it took such an unusual interest from a white family to give Oher any chance in life paints the United States economic system as the villain of the piece  –  a shocking state of affairs for the richest country in the world where inter-generational poverty is both expected and accepted.

The cynic in me can’t help but wonder about the motives of Sean Tuohy in taking Oher in.  Lewis is friends with Tuohy which makes him a less than objective judge.  However, on balance I choose to accept Lewis interpretation of the Tuohy’s motivations in taking Oher in.  It certainly seems evident that Leigh-Ann Tuohy went above and beyond in how she cared for Oher while he was in her care.

Overall, The Blind Side is simply a thoroughly enjoyable book and well deserves its regular placing on lists of the greatest sports books of all time.  While less influential than Lewis’ other great sports book Moneyball, it’s a more entertaining read for non-die hard fans of the relevant sport.  I can’t help feeling however that Lewis had an opportunity to go deeper into the reasons – socioeconomic, education, and the collegiate and professional sports system operating in the USA – why the outcome for Oher was different from the outcome for so many others.  Lewis touches on the key damning statistic around how many great athlete fail to take their lifeline due to the education system failing them.   Some deeper exploration would have been a welcome addition.

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‘Days of Heaven: Italia 90 and the Charlton Years’ by Declan Lynch (2010)

“Look back on those days, on Euro 88 on Italia 90 and the rest of what we call the Charlton era, it certainly wasn’t about football.  It was an overwhelming combination of so many things, a journey the like of which we had never made before, and all we know for sure, is that very few of us made it entirely sober“.

I’m a huge fan of Declan Lynch’s writing.  I first read Days of Heaven not long after it came out in 2010 expecting a more standard telling of the Charlton era – an updated  version of Paul Rowan’s excellent Team That Jack Built. Instead, I found myself devouring an immensely well written look in the Irish psyche, our relationship with success, failure, alcohol and the world.  With some football in it.

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I was 6 during Italia 90, too young to fully grasp what has happening.  By the time USA 94 came around I was 10, and nothing had ever been as wonderful as that tournament.  I’m always amazed that anyone my age, or particularly slightly older, could have grown up in Ireland and not have an irrational obsession with the Irish international team.

So while I was too young to really remember the period Lynch writes about, the portrait of Irishness Lynch paints is instant recognisable to anyone who calls Ireland home.   Lynch looks into the soul of Irish people – and hits on home truths we all know, but maybe can’t or don’t want to admit.

Lynch evaluates the Celtic Tiger creation myth that Italia ’90 was the catalyst for Ireland’s emergence into the world and the boom era.  He recognises the role that failure, emigration and outsiders also had in our success.  In many ways, Lynch also extends the narrative to consider how Italia ’90 and the changes in Ireland at the time, also laid the seeds for the crash that would follow the Celtic Tiger.

As the book jacket says, Lynch considers the sporting, the social and the autobiographical as he paints a picture of a special time to be Irish and the lessons that time teaches us about ourselves.God

Alcohol plays a key part in the story – both in how it happened, and in how Lynch feels we should view it.  I’ve been reflecting on alcohol a lot of late and have given it up for 2018 to get a proper sense of when and why I would drink and the impact on my mental health. Lynch’s comments on alcohol really struck a chord with me.  Any look back on this period, or maybe any period, of modern Irish history would be incomplete without consideration of the role of alcohol.  Ultimately Lynch links the national drink problem with an immaturity as a country, the same immaturity to leads to bad political decision both on the part of politicians and the electorate.  Its a hard view to dispute.

Lynch captures so much of what it means to be an Ireland fan –  the dread, the worry, the hope and the brief unbelievable moments of joy.   He also captures the Ole Ole nature of away trips where its as much about the journey and the story as it is the football – although he is probably more critical of such jollies than I am.

Although I disagree with his lack of trust for those who identify as Ireland fans – you can love football without being overly attached to any one club side – for the most part Lynch is spot on in his observations – about our nation’s immaturity, our relationship with alcohol, and with our sense of ourselves in the world.

Overall, this a must read for any Irish sports fan or anyone seeking to understand how modern Ireland came to be.

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‘No Hunger in Paradise: The Players. The Journey. The Dream.’ by Michael Calvin (2017)

“It is impossible not to be struck by the sense of sadness, underpinned by anger.  The venality and vitriol of the senior game is a running sore, an open wound which seeps into youth football”.

Michael Calvin’s recent trilogy of books have established him as the great chronicler of modern British football.  He investigates the human stories of English football, shining a light on the real life experiences of those for whom the game is their actual or potential livelihood.

No Hunger in Paradise follows on from Living on the Volcano which focused on managers and The Nowhere Men which examined scouts.  This time it is youth football that is under the spotlight.

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This is an important book which shines a light on a system which fundamentally fails thousands of children.  Calvin interviews a wide range of people – from coaches and agents to parents and players.  Many of the chapters would make excellent stand alone stories – combined, they paint a depressing portrait of an industry in which children are seen as assets and often quickly discarded when they lose their perceived value.

Calvin, a very experienced journalist, is clearly a very talented interviewer who draws out the complexity of the stories of those he speaks to.  His own voice in the book is mainly one of empathy – its clear he cares passionately about the game and the people he meets.  Calvin also made a documentary with BT Sport based on his book which is well worth checking out.

The most striking fact presented is the young age at which players start to be recruited – Calvin repeatedly paints scenes that seem normal for adults or teenagers until he explains the players are 6 or 7 years old.  More than anything, if the book has a central thesis, its that this chasing of players at a younger and younger age is fundamentally wrong.

There is also an interesting contrast between old school and new school ways of thinking about youth coaching.  While better processes and procedures are undoubtedly important and necessary for safeguarding, you get a sense that Calvin and many of his interviewees feel the use of technology for technology’s sake hasn’t necessarily improved coaching outcomes.

While Calvin’s writing is very readable, this is not an easy read. Calvin constantly, rightly, reminds the reader of the problems in the game.  However, the book does focus on the good guys in a bad industry which gives some hope. Calvin highlights the good work done by many clubs, organisations and coaches who he sees as role models for how things could be improved across football.

At a time when there have been so much coverage of historic abuse within English football, reading this book you cannot help feeling that the football authorities in England have gotten their priorities all wrong.  Welfare must come first and outcomes second.   With the scale of money involved, its unlikely that message will be heard anytime soon.  Large scale change has proven possible when designed to improve the English national team – whether it could again prove possible to implement change designed to help those who ultimately don’t make the grade remains to be seen.