Reviews from When Saturday Comes. If you've liked – or disliked – any of the books, add your comments to those of our reviewers. Follow the link to buy the book from Amazon.
The days of
Citizens & heroes
by James Lawton
Reviewed by Ian Farrell
From WSC 346 December 2015
Manchester City’s dynamic, highly successful but long-underappreciated side of the late 1960s has finally started to become a familiar literary subject over the last decade. The title- and multi-cup-winning team’s brilliance, camaraderie and innovation have been comprehensively dissected in several fan-written books, autobiographies by Colin Bell, Mike Summerbee and Mike Doyle, individual biographies of genial boss Joe Mercer and charismatic coach Malcolm Allison, and even a novelisation of the managerial relationship.
A football commentator’s journey
by Ian Crocker
Pitch Publishing, £12.99
Reviewed by John Earls
From WSC 346 December 2015
Now in his second spell covering Scottish football for Sky Sports, Ian Crocker’s career is a potentially fascinating story of being one of commentating’s nearly men. Crocker says he was aware of his place in the hierarchy at Sky, in the rung below the channel’s big four commentators, but his defection to the ill-fated Setanta to become their top dog lasted just one season.
by John Cross
Simon & Schuster, £20
Reviewed by David Stubbs
From WSC 346 December 2015
Supporters of one of the Big Four Or Five teams each have different ideas why their club, overbearingly large as it might seem, actually has some core value. For Arsenal, there was once a sense of shame even among their own fans that they were one-nil blaggers who added little to the overall value of the game. That has turned round completely under Arsène Wenger.
Although, as many interviewed by John Cross in this latest biography testify, he is perhaps an even worse loser than Alex Ferguson, Wenger holds fast to what is vaguely described as his “philosophy”, which has traditionally consisted of valuing attack over defence, maintaining aesthetic values rather than grinding out victories, imposing your own style of play rather than merely reacting to your opponents.
This is a source of pride to Arsenal fans but also, increasingly, exasperation, one only partly stemmed by the recent two trophies and a softening of said philosophy. His baffling reluctance to spend available funds has also led to some stormy AGMs, with fans suspicious at the amounts they must today shell out to watch their fitfully aesthetic but too often brittle also-rans.
Mirror journalist Cross is not to able to answer the question of whether Arsenal’s relative lack of spending is down to Wenger himself or the club, who have become complacently happy with their cash cow. From the earliest pages, we know from Cross’s admiring tone towards Wenger not to expect any scathing, incisive critiques of his subject; he is far too valuable a contact in the author’s day job.
He begins with an account of how he visited Pope Francis rather than attend to transfer deadline day, in terms inviting us to marvel at the manager’s spirituality and indifference to the mammon of the modern game. The text is similarly lavished with borderline sycophantic tributes to Wenger’s intellect, erudition and integrity, lest this sometimes thin-skinned man take the slightest offence.
The book, however, does yield some intriguing facets of his time at Arsenal, where he arrived in 1996 to bewilderment from its core of bibulous, hard-bitten professionals, whose careers and habits he turned upside down, generally for their own good. Cross is decent on Wenger’s golden years, and details of the new regimen he instilled, drawing on interviews with ex-players such as John Hartson and Nigel Winterburn.
For a man whose hobby as an escape from watching football is generally assumed to be watching football, Cross reveals one or two fun details about the private Wenger; his interest in politics, and his belief that both communism and capitalism are failed systems; his love and aptitude for dancing, which would probably see him progress a long way on a future series of Strictly, for example. He also reveals less palatable aspects of Wenger, such as his occasionally short way with staff, and his snubbing of Gaël Clichy, or examples of his loss of temper with players, such as the time Nicklas Bendtner was taking the piss out of X Factor: “You think there is something funny about losing?” He also reveals how close Arsenal came to not being able to pay their wage bill during a cash flow crisis in 2004.
While Cross’s prose is not exactly silvery, this is about as revealing an account of Wenger’s career as we’re likely to get in his lifetime.
Between making his first team debut in November 1975 and playing his last game for the club in April 1982, David Fairclough made just 92 starts for Liverpool. He was named as substitute, more often than not the only substitute, in a further 137 matches and came off the bench in 62 of them – a club record he currently has the dubious distinction of sharing with Danny Murphy, Vladimir Smicer and Ryan Babel.
If this does not sound like particularly fertile territory for an autobiography, it should be pointed out that 18 of the forward’s 55 goals for the most successful club in Europe at the time were scored as a substitute, the most famous being the winner against Saint-Étienne in the second leg of a European Cup quarter-final at Anfield in 1977, the year Liverpool went on to lift the trophy for the first time.
This happy knack earned the local boy a nickname he came to detest and which defined his career. It is Fairclough’s honest appraisal of the 72 occasions he was an unused substitute, however, which provide the book’s most telling insights. “Even getting a shower brought with it a sense of guilt,” he writes, before admitting that as the years went by and a regular starting spot continued to elude him, he began to think only of himself: “To me, every game Liverpool won, or even played, without me was a slight on my ability and setback for my career.” He maintains that “everyone was out for themselves”, with first team regulars routinely concealing injuries because they feared if they dropped out of the team they might never be able to get back in again.
From the first chapter, it is clear who Fairclough blames for the “sense of resentment” he now feels at the way his career panned out. Bob Paisley is variously described as “cowardly” and “pathetic”, despite Fairclough winning four League titles, two European Cups (one as an unused sub), a UEFA Cup and League Cup under Anfield’s most successful ever manager.
The most vehement criticism for Paisley is reserved for way he broke the news to Fairclough that he would not be figuring in the 1977 FA Cup final, a decision that upset the boyhood Liverpool supporter so much he admits there were times in the game he wasn’t sure he wanted his team to win. The disappointment was compounded by Paisley’s “false promise” that he was being saved for the European Cup final in Rome a few days later. “I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it moulded me as a person,” Fairclough reflects, “but it certainly instilled a sense of cynicism in me.”
Whether Paisley was right to harbour doubts about Fairclough, who made more appearances for Liverpool’s reserves than he did for the first team, is a moot point. The second half of the book, in which his career peters out in a series of short-lived spells in America, Switzerland, Belgium and the lower reaches of the Football League, is characterised by further criticisms of managers who failed to pick him regularly.
The final stop was Wigan Athletic, where he fell out with manager Bryan Hamilton. “You’ve never fulfilled your potential,” said Hamilton as Fairclough walked out of his office. It’s a verdict, Fairclough readily admits, that has haunted him ever since.
Tips and tactics from the ultimate insider
Guardian Books, £7.99
Reviewed by Roger Titford
From WSC 345 November 2015
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.
Kevin Keegan, the entertainers & Newcastle’s impossible dream
by Martin Hardy
De Coubertin Books, £18.99
Reviewed by Paul Brown
From WSC 345 November 2015
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?”
Managing 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
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.
The art of war
by Fran Guillen
Arena Books, £9.99
Reviewed by Dermot Corrigan
From WSC 344 October 2015
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.
The Alex Totten story
by Alex Totten with Jeff Holmes
Pitch Publshing, £18.99
Reviewed by Gavin Saxton
From WSC 344 October 2015
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.
by Lutz Pfannenstiel
Vision Sports, £12.99
Reviewed by Jon Matthias
From WSC 344 October 2015
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.