THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Reviews from When Saturday Comes. Follow the link to buy the book from Amazon.

 

345 SecretTips and tactics from the ultimate insider
Guardian Books, £7.99
Reviewed by Roger Titford
From WSC 345 November 2015

Buy this book

 

We are in the era of 3G pitches and perhaps also 3G football biographies. In the beginning there were gentle offerings such as Goals Galore by Nat Lofthouse which told us who was there but not really how they did it. Then came the grittier school of Eamon Dunphy, Tony Cascarino, Gary Nelson et al who told us both who was there and what it was like, but not at an elevated level in the game and in a milieu that was light years away from today’s Premier League. And now we have the Secret Footballer – an artificial construct I would contend – who purports, credibly enough, to tell us what it’s like today at the top without naming many names.

This is the fourth in the Secret Footballer series or franchise, all allegedly by “the same author”. I have my doubts about that because, like many fans, I have tried to suss the identity from the clues left and hints dropped in previous books and come to the conclusion that the Secret Footballer is a composite character, a screen behind which several can hide. In this volume he even has a mate called the Secret Physio to tell us all about hamstrings and individual training programmes and another, the Secret Psycho, to offer a devastating tip on what to do if you are the fourth penalty taker in a shootout. With this formula the possibilities are as endless as the playing time on a 3G pitch.

Despite this confection I do find the Secret Footballer franchise interesting and valuable as an aid to understanding the environment in which the top players operate nowadays. This volume focuses on the aspects of fitness and playing, with chapters on psychology, formations, nutrition and equipment. Even the chapter entitled “Fashion in football” stays firmly on the pitch with a helpful analysis of the boom and bust in Claude Makélélé-alikes. The examples and arguments are current, covering the decline of 4-4-2 and the 50-50 tackle and a plausible, if mind-boggling, explanation of how Wayne Rooney’s wages are justifiable.

The writing is crisp, slick and businesslike without that edge of awfulness that belongs to the self-help business book genre, and is doubtless helped by the copywriting skills of Guardian Books. While the Secret Footballer is an experienced player I cannot see “him” retiring for a good while yet. Hunter Davies’s The Glory Game (1972) was a classic fly-on-the-wall look at the Spurs team of that era. The dressing-room chatter and the off-the-field personalities of the Premier League player today are more remote to me than that. The Secret Footballer could usefully provide another in the series that deals with all the personal, family, relationship, divorce, money, vendetta, foreign language, agent, commuting and social media pressures that the top player has to deal with – and a full list of what he actually spends all that money on.

Buy this book

345 NewcastleKevin Keegan, the entertainers & Newcastle’s impossible dream
by Martin Hardy  
De Coubertin Books, £18.99
Reviewed by Paul Brown
From WSC 345 November 2015

Buy this book

 

The 1995-96 Premier League season should not be fondly remembered on Tyneside. This was the year that Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United raced to a seemingly unconquerable 12-point lead, only to be ruthlessly overhauled by a formidable Manchester United. Yet it remains an enduringly popular “what if?” subject of conversation among Newcastle fans. It was the closest Newcastle have come to winning the League since 1927 and the team, labelled the Entertainers, were the best the club have had since the 1950s.

Martin Hardy’s Touching Distance is an oral history of Newcastle’s nearly season, 20 years on, built around a series of interviews with Keegan and his Entertainers, including Peter Beardsley, Les Ferdinand, Rob Lee and Philippe Albert. It’s a bittersweet story – and some Newcastle fans may choose to stop reading shortly before the end. But it’s also a celebration of a team and a manager that restored pride and belief in a club who were, when Keegan arrived as manager in 1992, on the verge of relegation to the third tier.

Keegan was raised by a Newcastle-supporting father, and wore the black-and-white stripes during the early 1980s. “Having played there for two years I knew exactly what they wanted,” he says. “It’s very simple really. They work hard all week, they have a couple of brown ales and they want to go to the match and they want to see a team in black and white give everything they’ve got to win a football match and entertain them.”

Such romanticism is typical of Keegan, and viewed by critics as a flaw. But a lot of criticism aimed at Keegan is revisionist and unwarranted. The perception that his attacking team was defensively naive seems particularly unfair, perhaps exaggerated by reruns of the extraordinary 4-3 defeat at Anfield. Over the course of the season, Newcastle conceded only two goals more than Manchester United.

Terry McDermott, Keegan’s assistant, describes the Anfield defeat as “fucking sickening”. “It scarred Kevin,” he says. “I’m convinced of that. It scarred him.” Then came Keegan’s famous “I will love it if we beat them” outburst, aimed at Alex Ferguson. Pundits said Keegan had cracked, a victim of Ferguson’s mind games. “Load of bollocks, absolute bollocks,” says McDermott, who phoned Keegan afterwards. “I said, ‘What the fuck was that?’ He said, ‘Ah, sod him.’ At the time he didn’t really like Ferguson.”

Although the title race remained open until the last day of the season, a home draw for Newcastle and an away win for Manchester United gave the latter a four-point advantage, and meant Newcastle finished second. Popular opinion says Newcastle “blew it”, but Keegan provides a more reasonable explanation: “Man United were the better team.” Winning isn’t everything in football, and Newcastle fans should enjoy this entertaining account of a season in which their team ultimately fell short. “With a bit more luck we might have won it,” McDermott says, “and Man United wouldn’t have missed one trophy, would they?”

Buy this book

345 RedManaging Man Utd in the shadow of Sir Alex Ferguson
by Jamie Jackson
Aurum Press, £18.99
Reviewed by Joyce Woolridge
From WSC 345 November 2015

Buy this book

 

As Louis van Gaal celebrated his 50th game in charge of Manchester United with yet another defeat by Swansea, and the annual farce that marks United’s summer transfer window dealings escalated with the “failed” David de Gea sale, A Season In The Red may have been better written at the end (or however far the Dutchman makes it) rather than the beginning of this season. Although the book surveys both David Moyes’ and Van Gaal’s attempts to manage the “impossible job… in the shadow of Sir Alex Ferguson”, the lion’s share of the pages goes to the present incumbent and as his stock, and United’s fortunes, continue to yo-yo wildly, the tale remains half told.

The most interesting and illuminating, but all too brief, chapter deals with neither of Ferguson’s two main successors, but is about Ed Woodward, executive vice-chairman. He is the man perceived to be responsible both for uncovering vast new sources of income through worldwide regional sponsorship deals and United’s continual embarrassment in the transfer market. Jamie Jackson, the Manchester football correspondent for the Guardian and the Observer, describes Woodward’s very existence as “a cause for curiosity and celebration in the joyless, lacking-piss-and-vinegar world of elite football” and characterises him deftly as someone who appears determined to enjoy every minute, bustling with energy, unusually approachable in “a trapeze-wire act that he manages to portray like a Sunday morning stroll for coffee”.

However, both the accounts of Moyes and Van Gaal fail to spark. This is partly because of what the book is – a series of observations gathered by Jackson while attending press conferences, reporting on matches, accompanying last year’s pre-season tour in the US when Van Gaal took over the reins and in the few “intimate meet-and-greets” with the press which United’s managers deign to allow. What it doesn’t, and indeed in all fairness can’t, draw upon are personal interviews with the protagonists. So Jackson fills the gaps by imagining what it is like to be David Moyes in his office, waiting to be given the coup de grâce, what it is like to be Moyes on his first day and so on.

There are revealing sections such as when Moyes relaxes talking to the Manchester press over dinner, letting his guard slip, and a perceptive analysis of Ferguson’s replacement’s penchant for choosing the wrong words so often, hoping for, rather than expecting results. Van Gaal’s entertaining performances for the press are also well observed. But Jackson is prone to rambling and to say the same thing, wearingly, in several different ways. Moyes is “the number one around here, numero uno, the gaffer, Le Grand Fromage”. Plus the Splitting. Sentences up. Into sections and inserting interludes which are possibly meant as poetry: “Sir Alex Ferguson, David Moyes, Shadows falling, Shadows falling.”

Stylistic tics aside this is a serviceable, if premature, rendition of the story so far, though without much detailed analysis (particularly needed in the case of Moyes, accused by some of tactical ineptitude) of what happened on, rather than off the field. Ryan Giggs’s brief tenure, potentially so revealing, merits far more than the single sentence devoted to it.

Buy this book

344 CostaThe art of war
by Fran Guillen
Arena Books, £9.99
Reviewed by Dermot Corrigan
From WSC 344 October 2015

Buy this book

 

The worst thing about this new biography of Diego Costa is the subtitle, and the faux-inspirational Sun Tzu quotes which start each chapter, giving the immediate and unfortunate feel of a popular business bestseller.

This packaging, also a feature of the original Spanish book published in 2014, is a pity. Because beneath the guff about the “warrior centre-forward” and the “what happens on the pitch stays on the pitch” posturing, this unauthorised but very well researched biography does a very good job of explaining how Costa nearly never made it only to burst onto the scene almost fully formed as a world-class centre-forward at the age of 23.

Portuguese super-agent Jorge Mendes enters the story early – apparently as he personally noticed the 16-year-old playing (and getting sent off) in a youth tournament in Brazil. Former Atlético Madrid sporting director Jesús García Pitarch then appears with some entertainingly open talk about how the relationship between Mendes and Atlético worked in those days, and also what he calls the “smoke and mirrors” aspect of the deals that get done.

The travails of Costa’s early career are also well described – especially the seasons on loan at Celta Vigo, Real Valladolid and Albacete – where a teenage Costa is apparently amazed to see snow for the first time. He and his team-mates enjoy late night poker games, watch pornographic movies in hotel rooms and get into rows at motor service stations. The many former team-mates and coaches who spoke to Guillen, a well-connected Marca reporter, all seemed to have been equally impressed by Costa’s ability to both score goals and get 
into scrapes.

Through these years nobody seems to have tried too hard to put into place a structure that would help the “overgrown kid” to grow up and reach his potential. At various times Mendes and Atlético tried to sell him (to Besiktas and Real Betis) in cut-price deals which fell through at the last minute. Even Diego Simeone didn’t really rate the still raw 23-year-old when they started working together in summer 2012.

A matter of months later, Costa was maybe the best centre-forward in the world, the key player as Atlético became a better team than both Real Madrid and Barcelona. His own less than convincing explanation of the transformation is that “something just clicked”. Pitarch reckons the late development was mostly down to “bad luck”, but haphazard career management by his elders seems more 
to blame.

Guillen’s telling of Costa’s more recent story, with Atlético’s successes, his switch to represent Spain at the World Cup in 2014, and his first year Chelsea, will hold few surprises for readers who follow the game day to day. You do notice, however, how even all Costa’s most recent coaches – Simeone, Vicente del Bosque and José Mourinho – have put short-term gains ahead of his long-term fitness. Even now, nobody within the game really cares what’s best for Costa himself.

Buy this book

344 TottThe Alex Totten story
by Alex Totten with 
Jeff Holmes
Pitch Publshing, £18.99
Reviewed by Gavin Saxton
From WSC 344 October 2015

Buy this book

 

A book whose cover proudly boasts forewords by both “Sir Alex Ferguson and Walter Smith OBE” does not inspire a huge amount of enthusiasm, but this ghost-written autobiography of journeyman Scottish manager Alex Totten is, at least intermittently, more interesting than I might have given it credit for. Ferguson and Smith may have been among the most famous and successful of the remarkable crop of managers that came out of the tenements of Scotland’s post-war years, but below them were a whole battalion of irascible, gruff-voiced men who dominated the game while I was growing up. Among this next rank, Totten was one of the more successful.

His playing career was modest – as a youngster in the early 1960s he had been on the books at Bill Shankly’s Liverpool but, having failed to make the first team there, he returned to Scotland. There he enjoyed a worthy enough career with, among others, Dundee and Dunfermline, where he played alongside Ferguson, of whom he speaks well. Indeed he speaks well of pretty much everyone, especially at this stage of his career, and projects an affability as a man who is not always easy to reconcile with memories of the perpetually furious manager we used to see arguing with referees on Sportscene. This might just reflect journalistic platitudes, or a degree of self-editing, but by and large he persuaded me that underneath the hard-nosed bluster, his likeability is genuine.

Perhaps managerial success depends in part on being able to produce this disconnect, to be able to separate the personal from the professional in that fashion. And sure enough, on being given his first management job, at Alloa at the age of 34, the first cross words appear. An unfortunate young man called Colin McIntosh becomes the first target if his ire, having been deemed not to have put in sufficient effort during a defeat by Forfar. Within a couple of pages he’s confessing to having thrown a pie at a referee in the tunnel after the match – for which he escaped punishment because, as at Old Trafford in latter years, the perpetrator remained unknown. Totten claims, rather unconvincingly, that it was meant in jest. (“I wanted him to enjoy the pie.”)

After a brief first spell at Falkirk, Totten became assistant to Jock Wallace at Rangers. As he tells it, he was being groomed to be the next manager, but then the Graeme Souness revolution happened, and Totten followed Wallace out. Unsurprisingly he believes they could have done much more had he been given Souness’s funds, but instead he went on to be better known for subsequent creditable spells at St Johnstone, Kilmarnock and Falkirk. During his time at the Saints, a touchline barney with Walter Smith resulted in ejection from the ground and a conviction for breach of the peace (Smith’s own charge was found not proven). He continues to protest his innocence.

Totten’s book reflects the man: it’s not a deep analysis of the problems of the game, nor is it a character study in self-doubt. But despite everything, I mostly warmed to him.

Buy this book

344 Keeperby Lutz Pfannenstiel
Vision Sports, £12.99
Reviewed by Jon Matthias
From WSC 344 October 2015

Buy this book

 

The slogans on the cover indicate that this is more than a journeyman footballer’s lifestory. “Died on the pitch”, “Kidnapped a penguin”, “Played on six continents”, “Wrongly jailed for match-fixing”, “Lived in an igloo”, “Played against Beckham” and so on. The igloo, it turns out, is a throwaway reference about a stunt to raise awareness of climate change.

What really stands out throughout Lutz Pfannenstiel’s story is his naivety, which seems undiminished after several years. Born in Bavaria in 1973, his globetrotting career began aged 19 when he met an “agent” and flew to Malaysia for a pro contract that never materialised. Fifteen years later he is recruited for a new super-club in Armenia, but the money runs out before the season starts.

Being overly trusting led to his match-fixing conviction and five-month prison sentence in Singapore. One night he was followed home by a fan who had recognised him in a restaurant. Normal people might be suspicious of that but Pfannestiel befriended the fan, who almost inevitably worked for a betting syndicate. Pfannestiel thought they had just been chatting about football, but when the friend gets busted by the Singaporean Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau he says Pfannenstiel was supplying information. The experience of prison is not overly elaborated, but the bare details are horrible enough.

The book is reasonably well written (possibly due to the assistance of journalist Christian Putsch), but padded out by cliches and familiar facts about places he has visited. It only takes eight pages before he says you have to be mad to be a goalkeeper. The Premier League, meanwhile, is every professional’s “utopian dream”, even though Pfannenstiel was barely connected to it, barring a season without playing at Nottingham Forest. With a charming lack of self-awareness, he gives a potted history of legendary German goalkeeper Bert Trautmann’s experience in England before saying he couldn’t possibly compare himself to Trautmann. Of course, he promptly then goes on to do exactly that.

Pfannenstiel has been through trauma. His heart stopped three times after a hefty challenge in a game for Bradford Park Avenue (for whom he played 14 games in 2002-03) – he copes with it by going back to training a week later. He is less affected by his failed marriage and other relationships and there are some seedy womanising tales, including helping an English under-21 team avoid police charges of rape while on tour in Asia. His lack of awareness prevents him from realising how these stories implicate him.

Still, Pfannenstiel has plenty of interesting observations to make. He reckons at least a dozen Bundesliga players are gay; North American soccer crowds “just came to the stadium to eat” – one game in Calgary is ignored by the crowd, who are watching a Stanley Cup ice hockey game on the big screen instead. Everywhere, though, has “lovely people”, the fans are great and he’d love to go back. Recently Pfannenstiel set up Global FC, a charity highlighting the threat of climate change which he hopes will get people seriously addressing the issue. Sadly, it’s hard not to think this is his trademark naivety on display again.

Buy this book

344 VolacanoThe secrets of surviving as a football manager
by Michael Calvin
Century Books, £16.99
Reviewed by Huw Richards
From WSC 344 October 2015

Buy this book

 

Football uses managers as defining figures much as old-style history employed monarchs, to the extent of describing often pathetically short periods in office as “reigns”. Michael Calvin’s labelling of this phenomenon “Gaffer as Godhead” typifies an eye for the neat, aphoristic turn of phrase. He sees Roberto Martínez as “an undercover pragmatist” and identifies Ian Holloway as a “man of contradiction and impulse”. Such one-liners stud a book built on long interviews with its subjects, among which Holloway’s stream of consciousness stands out along with a sympathetic account of Alan Irvine’s travails and an intriguing portrait of Paul Tisdale.

Anyone wanting the long view of football management still needs to read Neil Carter’s historical study (The Football Manager, published in 2006). But as a picture of how it is now, this will be hard to beat. Those seeking the “how to” guide implied in the subtitle will find plenty of ideas, but must look hard since they are located within the wealth of insight and anecdote throughout the interviews rather than any grand overarching exposition. “Survival” implies retaining health, sanity and self-respect, rather than avoiding the all-but inevitable sack, although on either count your chances are better at Swansea, Exeter or Everton than QPR or Leeds.

This is a job which demands unshakeable self-confidence, but at the same time is designed to erode and ultimately destroy it. The toll it can take is shown at its most extreme by Martin Ling’s description of depression and electro-convulsive therapy, but there is plenty of testimony elsewhere, such as Brian McDermott’s belief that: “There are a lot of depressed people in football, but they probably do not even know it, because they are conditioned by the game.”

Calvin’s questioning evokes a sense of men who are confident and reflective, with credentials and hinterlands beyond their coaching badges. Some, such as Brendan Rodgers, are adepts in neuro-linguistic programming (no, me neither before I read this book), while Chris Hughton did a corporate management course and many have benefited from the League Managers Association’s training.

Aidy Boothroyd may still periodically punch a wall at half time, but sensitivity has replaced rage as a default setting. It is not just innate decency that explains Eddie Howe’s practice of “being a shoulder” for players, but that it “can only help you”.

They are also supportive of each other. Rodgers and Alan Pardew in particular emerge as willing to assist others, while Pardew also generates the best piece of trivia with his pride, from his past as a glazier, at having installed windows on the Natwest Tower and Sea Containers House.

Calvin is no soft touch, but the overwhelming impression he conveys is a sympathetic one – of largely decent, if driven men working in a world where, as Mick McCarthy says, “common sense is not very common”. The problem is not the managers, but the people who appoint them and the hysterical atmosphere in which they must try to function.

Buy this book

343 Gradeby Stan Osborne
Legends Publishing, £12.99
Reviewed by Julian McDougall
From WSC 343 September 2015

Buy this book

 

Making the Grade was published in 2012 but without the critical reception it deserved. Stan Osborne has had two careers, footballer and teacher. Here, he shares his memories of the first, spanning just two years (1969-71) as an Everton youth player and alludes to its impact on the much longer second. This is most striking when he accounts for his own time at school: “This was the 1960s and there was no hue and cry about physical punishment... we accepted [it] without complaint, in the knowledge that it was invariably administered justly and fairly.” The author never says this directly, but there is a strong implication that he laments not only today’s player power but also the shifts in school discipline.

On the cover, Joe Royle says he read the book in one night, and certainly any reader with an interest in the vein of unsung football insight previously attributed to the likes of Eamon Dunphy, Gary Nelson and Gary Imlach (whose father Stewart, then an Everton coach, plays a prominent role here) won’t labour over this.

Osborne writes directly and with precision, dispensing with the need for reflective flourish – the order of things was as it was, and the better for it. The book reflects on the social and hierarchical function of “banter” at a football club and the pervading insecurity of that world – much of the bullying is carried out by those with the most to lose, the younger pros keeping apprentices in their place, while the first-team stars are benign and aloof.

Has Osborne observed a parallel in education, you wonder? But the central theme – of this being a harsh world for working-class men, from school to football to the outside world – ultimately turns the author into a victim as he is released and bluntly asked by Everton manager Harry Catterick to “close the door on the way out”. His playing days will continue at semi-pro level, but within weeks he is at college training for PE teaching. Never, though, does Osborne lay blame, he accepts this cruel fate as harsh but fair, as with the pain inflicted by his teachers.

This sense of undeveloped implication ultimately frustrates as the book might have been even more fascinating had Osborne described life as a PE teacher in the Black Country. Every day must, we’d assume, be inflected with the experiences of his first career. Teaching is full of exes: artists, musicians, athletes and these days, thanks to Michael Gove’s scheme, soldiers, all carrying the weight of the past. When Osborne tells us “I walked out a hard bitten angry young man with a chip on his shoulder the size of the Liver Buildings who was determined never to feel the pain of failure again”, I want to know how this impacted on his teaching, and how he feels about his students’ attitudes.

In the final pages he returns to Everton’s training ground, Finch Farm having replaced Bellefield, now a “relic from a different time and place”, and casts another stoical gaze on the inevitability of heartbreak for most of today’s academy hopefuls, still envious of their slim chance despite his own experience – “gosh, the tears hurt… even now”.  Leaving the reader wanting more is, of course, the hallmark of a great book, and this reader hopes Osborne writes a sequel about his second career.

Buy this book

343 HigginbothamMy life inside football
by Danny Higginbotham
Trinity Mirror, £16.99
Reviewed by Andy Thorley
From WSC 343 September 2015

Buy this book

 

There was always a lot to like about Danny Higginbotham. As a fan, he was a player that you warmed to because there were never any half measures. He seemed to love football, and always gave the impression that he rather enjoyed playing it. It’s perhaps fitting, then, that Rise of the Underdog begins right at the end of his career, when in a desire to get his buzz for the game back he pitches up at his hometown team of Altrincham. He’s honest about his retirement – as refreshingly he is throughout the book – and basically, he just hasn’t got the heart anymore.

It’s not meant as a criticism of either the player or the book to call both him and it workmanlike. It’s a tale of a kid on the estates who has a little bit of talent (with admirable self-deprecation he claims his brother was a better footballer), and supportive parents who nurture and to an extent bully their offspring until he gets a break at Manchester United.

This working-class ethos is shown in a perhaps unremarkable career that doesn’t quite hit the heights. By his own admission Higginbotham was never a top player. He’s also one that evidently still feels a touch insecure, refusing to play for a United team in one of those “legends” style six-a-side tournaments as he doesn’t feel he belongs in such company.  

It’s moments like that which lift this tome from the usual humdrum hinterland of “banter with the lads” and at its best Rise of the Underdog is very good indeed. The interesting stuff usually comes when Higginbotham faces losing everything, such as when on loan in Belgium he is given a lifetime ban – wrongly – or when he prints extracts from his own diaries after the injury that essentially brings to an end his top-level career and robs him of a chance to play in the FA Cup final when at Stoke. Poignantly he admits to jealousy at his team-mates being at Wembley. Things end on a happy note, when he’s given an unexpected opportunity to play for Gibraltar thanks to family connections, and the moving account of what that meant to the country is excellent.

Interspersed with this are some genuinely funny passages about life under Alex Ferguson and Roy Keane, as well as a bizarre team meeting at Southampton which rather shows the relationship between Harry Redknapp and Clive Woodward in a different light to the media portrayal.

While you could never call it an explosive blockbuster – there is very little in the way of controversy here and even less about his personal life – Higginbotham does name names when he needs to. He’s also prepared to give his opinions on modern football in general and the academy system in particular. The biggest compliment you can pay Rise of the Underdog is that it’s better than you thought it was going to be. In that respect it’s exactly like its author. 

Buy this book

343 Exposedby Arild Stavrum
Freight Books, £14.99
Reviewed by Mark Sanderson
From WSC 343 September 2015

Buy this book

 

Perhaps the biggest criticism of ex-footballers working in the media today is that they don’t provide nearly enough insight into what life as a professional footballer is really like. If former Norway and Aberdeen striker Arild Stavrum’s football crime novel is anything to go by then that’s just as well.

Having played for eight clubs in several different countries, as well as working as a manager over a five-year period, Stavrum can offer a telling insight into the various goings on when a player moves clubs. In the book’s case those details tend to involve vast amounts of corruption.

Stavrum’s writing career began while still a player in his early 20s when the local paper asked him to write a column. This, his second novel, but his first to be printed in English, is based upon the murder of the most powerful man in Norwegian football: agent Arild Golden – a man whose ruthless pragmatism compels him to use any means to justify his desired ends. Golden has no moral objection to exploiting teenage African footballers and manipulating his way to earning hugely disproportionate margins on the player sales he negotiates.

Although he spent a few seasons at Pittodrie at the turn of the century, Stavrum’s critique is very clearly aimed at his home country, although the themes of ambition, greed, corruption and jealousy are universal. The murder has already happened as the book begins. Golden’s corrupt ways are revealed in a series of flashbacks, well demonstrated in his dealings with (a clearly fictitious) Everton chairman James Stirling, who he refers to privately as “Mr Gastric Bypass”. The agent’s hand in a particular transfer is strengthened considerably by incriminating photographs he has of Stirling with several Ukrainian women who turn out to be under-age. Golden blackmails Stirling to buy a certain player, as well as paying the full fee to a private bank account in Guernsey.

The plot brings together a young TV sports reporter and a recently retired former Ajax player,  Steinar Brunsvik, who try to solve the case. The reason for Brunsvik’s retirement is the source of his motivation to uncover the killer. In the hands of a lesser writer this may have sounded as far-fetched as Brunsvik’s new career as a lawyer, but the characters are so well sketched out, and the dialogue so convincing, you put the book down trying to remember where you saw him play.

Stavrum excels in creating an environment highlighting the leading characters’ growing paranoia, but he doesn’t hang about: the book moves in rapid-fire chapters that manage to address homophobia, racially divided changing rooms, doping, the culture of celebrity, and what it is to be a single parent, in an insightful way. The book is brought to a satisfying conclusion; the only negative aspect is that it might trigger a trend for publishers to go looking for ex-footballers to become novelists. Stavrum has earned the right to be described as the latter and the book deserves a wide readership.

Buy this book