‘Gazza in Italy’ by Daniel Storey (2018)

I’m not sure if this qualifies as a book as it is incredibly short at only 83 pages – the perils of buying an eBook and not checking how long it is in advance.

Gazza in Italy tells the story of England footballer’s Paul Gascoigne’s three-year spell at Italian club Lazio during the peak of Serie A’s reign as the best league in the world.  Gazza was young and relatively fresh from his famous tears at World Cup semi-final in Italia ’90 when Lazio began to show an interest.  The Italian club were flush with cash and seeking to build a Scuddetto winning team around the mercurial Geordie.

The move was delayed due injury but Lazio stayed committed  and Gazza eventually rocked up in Rome.  Storey recounts the highs and lows of Gazza’s time there – from brilliant goals to injury worries, from adoration from the fans to vilification in the media.  At its heart, Storey is trying to square the circle – why is Gazza seen as having failed in Italy but still absolutely adored by Lazio fans 20 years on.  It is a combination of individual

The most nostalgic part of the book for me was the background in how Channel 4 came to show live Serie A and Gazzetta Football Italia –  my absolute favourite tv show as a kid.  Storey poses the interesting theory that the coverage of Serie A in England helped shape the Premiership by exposing the British game to Italian football on a much more regular basis.  However, Storey also appears to use the arrival of Arsene Wenger as the turning point for the Premiership modernising which is probably giving the Frenchman a little too much credit!

Storey also questions whether the move was right for Gazza given his addiction issues.  The great ‘what if’ of Gazza’s career has always been whether there was an alternative path that he could have taken that would have seen him stay on top of his demons.  Given the nature of his addictions it does seem unlikely, but, as Storey sets out, being away from home and highly scrutinised by an invasive media certainly couldn’t have helped.

Storey read widely for the story and the bibliography would be a great starting point for a PhD in Gazzamania.  However, there don’t seem to be any original interviews of the kind that would help the book standout .  I appreciate it’s a very short book that maybe wouldn’t justify the expense – but it makes the €5 price a bit steep for such a quick read.  (I feel a bit bad complaining about price when authors struggle to make money but it would be remiss not to mention it my enjoyment was diminished by feeling I didn’t get a lot of book for my buck).

Overall, an enjoyable and insightful, if very short read.  Interestingly it was originally launched as an audiobook only – narrated by the brilliant James Richardson who hosted Gazzetta Football Italia.

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Frankly Speaking by Frank Stapleton (1991)

Published in 1991, Frankly Speaking is a (kind of) autobiography of former Arsenal, Man Utd and Ireland striker Frank Stapleton.

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Stapleton seemed to be coming to end of his career when the book came out and his international career was over having been on the fringes of the squad during Italia ’90 having previously captained the team during Euro ’88.  He ended up playing four more years in the English lower leagues.

The book feels like half of an autobiography – it covers his football career with each season covered in a chapter and his club and international careers covered in separate halves of the book.  It’s focus is on entirely on Stapleton’s football career with almost no discussion of his life outside of football. The version of the book I found in the library has no summary on the front or back cover, no forward, no acknowledgements or any scene setter at all.  It just goes straight into his first few years at Arsenal.

One of the striking things is the amount of focus on the FA Cup over the team’s performance in the league.  This seems to be partly because the FA Cup still maintained its elevated status in the game and partly because Stapleton played in five Cup finals but never in a team that competed for the league title right to the end of the season.  The amount of replays in the cup is also striking.  You can see why penalties were eventually preferred to so many extra games.

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Stapleton rarely expresses his opinion on the various people he played or worked with outside of commenting on what they added to the team.  Ron Atkinson, his manager at United is the clear exception with Stapleton being pretty critical of Big Ron’s ego, love of the media, and lack of tactical nous.  His biggest praise is for coach Don Howe – a figure who seems to pop up in any biography of footballers who played in England in the 80’s and 90’s.

The material on Ireland was definitely the most interesting for me.  Stapleton gives a bit more background colour on the Euro ’88 and Italia ’90 campaigns and a decent sense of Jack Charlton’s management style.  I’d actually read all the most interesting bits before in the excellent ‘The Team That Jack Built’ by Paul Rowan (1994)

It’s a quick and easy read that has some interesting bits for any Arsenal, United or Ireland fan.  It feels like a book from a bygone era and was designed to be read at the time, when any reader would have known the main people mentioned. It’s also the first book I’ve reviewed that I couldn’t find on Goodreads (until I added it), giving some sense of how obscure it is at this stage!

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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.

ThePope