‘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.

Baldi

 

‘Boys Among Men: How the Prep-To-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution’ by Jonathan Abrams (2017)

It’s always been an interesting quirk that the uber-capitalist, free-marketing loving, USA have the most socialist sports financial arrangements with salary caps, minimum pay rates and other restrictons.  As part of collective bargaining between team owners and player unions, rules have often been accepted which prevent athletes from playing in a major league until a set period of time has passed since they graduated from high school.  Even then, the player can’t sign for whoever he likes, but rather is assigned a team through a draft!  Great for preserving competitive balance, not so good for the guy who has no choice but move his life to a random city.

Prior to 2005, the NBA didn’t have any post high-school restriction (other than an age minimum of 18) and therefore high-school students were eligible to declare for the NBA draft without attending college.  Despite a few high profile cases in the 1970’s, no players followed this route for 20 years until Kevin Garnett was drafted with the fifth overall pick in the 1995 NBA draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Over the next few years, a number of future legends would follow in Garnett’s footsteps with Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Amar’e Stoudemire, LeBron James and Dwight Howard among them.   There were also plenty of players however who never made it and whose lives never quite recovered from the failure to live up to the hype.

Boys Among Men takes a detailed look at the careers and lives of many of the high school players who jumped straight into the NBA – both the successes and failures – and those who tried to do so but went undrafted.  Abrams describes how Garnett broke the mould and how his success led other teams to overcome their initial reluctance to draft direct from high school.   In particular, after Kobe Bryant dropped to 13th pick, a number of teams realised they had missed out on a Hall of Fame level talent and were determined not to repeat their mistake.

Abrams makes clear that there was no one factor which could determine whether an 18 year old would be able to make it in the NBA.  It could be that players overestimated their own talents or lacked the work ethic to reach the standard or had been exploited by unscrupulous adults.  Some came from such difficult backgrounds that the money and fame was too much for them to handle.  Others simply didn’t mature physically as they may have expected or hoped.   Those players that did succeed often came from equally difficult backgrounds but had usually gotten, and accepted, much better advice and managed to adapt quicker to the higher level of play.

In telling the story of the ‘prep-to-pro’ generation, Abrams also tells the story of the NBA’s transition from the Jordan era to the LeBron era.   The generation of players that arrived in the NBA during this period would go on to dominate the sport with many having incredibly long careers.  Howard even managed to play in the NBA in his teens, 20s, 30s and 40s!   They were instrumental in helping the NBA recover from its post-Jordon slump (in attendance and viewing figures), and again becoming a major league on a par with the NFL.

The book is exceptionally well researched and its clear that Abrams interviewed a vast number of players, agents, coaches and other insiders like the legendary Nike and Addias executive Sonny Vaccaro (subject of the great 30 for 30 film Sole Man).  As an experienced beat writer, Abrams is brilliant at recounting on-court details but the key focus on the book is the mindset of the players – what factors go into their decisions, how did they approach the step up to the NBA and why do they believe they succeeded or failed.  

As well as telling the story of the players, Abrams also considers how both the pro and college game have responded since the age limit was increased to 19.  He includes a range of viewpoints – both positive and negative – and avoids reaching a firm conclusion.  What’s clear is that the decision had a profound impact on college basketball with one-and-done players becoming ever more common and certain colleges, like Kentucky, responding much better to that trend.

The book is at its best when chronicling the stories of those who never quite made it.  The exploits of Garnett, LeBron and Kobe Bryant are well known.  The stories of  Lenny Cooke, Korleone Young, and Leon Smith were unfamiliar to me but just as interesting.  I suspect had I been given millions of dollars at 18 years of age, I’d have had a pretty hard time doing anything but partying!

Boys to Men is a really interesting and enjoyable book.  Abrams doesn’t take sides, but simply tells the story from a range of viewpoints and perspectives.  It’s a book that would be enjoyed by any basketball fan.

boysamongmen

 

‘Tackled: The Class of ’92 Star Who Never Got to Graduate’ by Ben Thornley & Dan Poole (2018)

Ben Thornley was a professional footballer who played for the same Manchester United youth team as the fabled Class of ’92 – David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville etc.

With Beckham-esque looks and Giggs-esque skill, Thornley was tipped for greatness by many. However, a horror tackle in a reserve game, just weeks after his first team debut, severely damaged his knee and ultimately his chances of making it to the very top.  Thornley recovered and played for a number of years but was never able to fulfill his vast potential.

Tackled tells the story of Thornley’s life in football.  The book jumps back and forward between the time before his injury and the time afterwards.  The earlier periods are told through many voices including his family members the likes of Beckham, Giggs, Scholes etc.  The later periods are told in a more orthodox autobiographical style.

The format works very well.  The book feels really genuine and the style captures the interaction among friends and family really well.   There is a lot of humour in the banter among friends and many of the anecdotes may not have been told to a more traditional biographer.

Thornley is pretty open about his own failings in particular his fondness for booze and his constant cheating on his partners.  At times the stories are a bit laddish – and Thornley seems to relish the retelling of some of his less than polite behaviour.  However, the telling of his off-field life while a player is necessary to fully appreciate how difficult it must have been to come to terms with his reduced status in the game.

The attitude to booze is interesting.  Thornley is open about enjoying a drink but there isn’t a close look at whether he might have had addiction issues – overall the treatment of booze leans more to the “pints are great fun” direction (which they are) than the role booze likely played in hampering Ben to do as well as he possibly could post injury. I’m conscious I’ve just hit a year without a drink so my attention naturally more drawn to boozy stories.

Football wise, the book contains some interesting insights into the English game of the late 90’s.  In particular Thornley was fairly scathing of the short-lived Lilleshall model which saw the FA try to mimic the French Bluefontaine academy with very little success.  Most of all, it gives quite a lot of insight into the Man Utd set up at the time, with a particular focus on the youth coach Eric Harrison.

Thornley is not the first or last footballer to have his potential cut down by injury.  Thornley’s association to the famous Class of ’92 – that remarkable generation of players to come through the ranks at Man Utd at the same time – helps add some glamour and celebrity to the story.  There is something about the fact that the players have developed their own group brand annoys me no end, but it’s good to see one the less successful members able to cash in on it.

You might find yourself wondering why bother to read an autobiography by a player whose career highlight is winning an underage tournament.  But any sports book is never solely about the results on the pitch – Thornley shows a different side of the game, the side of potential unfulfilled, of hopes dashed and the challenges of nonetheless building a life.  It is a very honest and candid account of the life of the superstar that never was.

Thornley comes across as a likeable guy (unless you were his ex girlfriend) who has matured and come to appreciate what he achieved rather than what he didn’t. Overall Tackled is an enjoyable read and one that Man Utd fans in particular would enjoy.

‘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!

‘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.

no hunger

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.