The extraordinary rise of La Liga’s smallest team
by Euan McTear
Pitch Publishing, £9.99
Reviewed by Phil Ball
From WSC 352 June 2016
The Eibar story is de facto a wonderful one, easy pickings for a half-decent author. Euan McTear, an ardent young blogger now resident in Belfast, had dabbled with journalism in Scotland and then spent time in Barcelona, using his residency there as the springboard for documenting Eibar’s maiden season in Spain’s top flight. McTear goes on to demonstrate with unbridled affection the vicissitudes of his adopted club’s foray into the limelight, and although the book was published with somewhat indecent haste (three months after the conclusion of the 2014-15 season), the rookie author comes over as genuine.
Dave Bassett, and co-author Wally Downes, make it clear that this book has been written in response to those involved in the BT Sport documentary The Crazy Gang, who Bassett feels “had not done their homework on the years before the 1988 Cup final… [having] an agenda whereby they wanted to sensationalise some of the stories that Vinnie and Fash had, and made them the centre of attention when the film was released”.
How Bury triumphed
in British football’s worst year
by James Bentley
SilverWood Books, £14.99
Reviewed by Charles Morris
From WSC 350 April 2016
The story of how a hard-up Fourth Division club succeeded against the odds and won promotion in 1984-85 using just 15 players has immediate appeal to fans of smaller clubs. The underdog theme also chimes with the present, as Leicester, Bournemouth and Burton confound expectations this season. The tale’s backdrop is compelling, too, because 1984-85 was a nadir for British football, a period besmirched by appalling hooliganism and the tragedies of the Bradford fire and the Heysel stadium.
The rise, fall and rebirth of Gretna football
by Anton Hodge
Chequered Flag, £11.99
Reviewed by Paul Brown
From WSC 347 January 2016
The rise and fall of Gretna FC is one of the most fascinating football stories of recent times. After swapping English non-League for the Scottish Third Division in 2002, the border-town club won three successive promotions, reaching the Premier League and a Scottish Cup final, plus the UEFA Cup qualifying rounds. But, after just six years in League football, the club fell into administration and folded. Then came the rebirth, the tale of which Anton Hodge is well placed to tell, as he was the first chairman of phoenix club Gretna 2008.
The inside story of Coventry City’s 1987 FA Cup win
by Steve Phelps
Pitch Publishing, £18.99
Reviewed by Ed Wilson
From WSC 347 January 2016
For the relative newcomer to football, the fact of Coventry City’s victory in the 1987 FA Cup final, 3-2 against Spurs in one of the most dramatic games in the history of the competition, may come as a surprise. The longer the club spend in the lower reaches of the League, the more improbable the event seems. For success-starved fans, it has acquired quasi-mythical status, conferring a credibility and pride that the club’s current incarnation fails to provide. In Sky Blue Heroes, Steve Phelps offers a hit of nostalgia for those who witnessed this story unfold, and a detailed account of the triumph for those too young to remember it.
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.
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?”
Liverpool’s unforgettable 1983-84 season
by Tony Evans
Reviewed by Jonathan Paxton
From WSC 343 September 2015
On paper Liverpool’s 1984 treble winners were a surprisingly ordinary side. Even with Graeme Souness, Ian Rush and an occasionally fit Kenny Dalglish, this was a team in transition under new manager Joe Fagan, one that could lose 4-0 at Coventry and in which Michael Robinson could hold down a regular place. Tony Evans, a Liverpool fan who attended nearly all the games that season, holds them in higher regard than the statistically superior and more skilful sides of either 1979 or 1988 and his adoration shines through, if sometimes a little too brightly.
An experienced journalist, at the Times until recently, Evans writes from the perspective of an ardent fan of both club and city. The book’s title (an obscure Chris Rea track, apparently popular only in the Anfield dressing room) and the cover artwork suggest a nostalgic, feel good story but despite the team’s success, attendances are low and the city is struggling economically. Some interesting social and political asides featuring Derek Hatton and Margaret Thatcher are touched upon but the book’s focus never strays far from football.
Through interviews with team members, we find a mainly happy squad but a social group with a heavy drinking culture that new signings and reserve players find daunting. The much eulogised bootroom is presented as dingy with paint flaking off the walls and around the training ground there is an atmosphere of intimidation that sometimes approaches bullying. New boy Craig Johnston is ridiculed for his diet and fitness regime and, in one of the book’s most interesting sections, his failure to hold down a first-team place pushes him close to a breakdown. Meanwhile, Alan Kennedy’s happy-go-lucky attitude seems to be what cements his position in the side and Fagan struggles to shape a midfield to cover the clumsy defender without ever considering a replacement left-back.
Fagan himself remains an elusive enigma, mainly because the manager was so private and reluctant to speak to the media. His is clearly respected by his players and a good motivator, yet we don’t get the impression he had the wit or tactical insight to compare with his predecessors Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley. Even through quotes from his diary we struggle to get to know Fagan the man. Entries such as “Well the lads did it, each one deserved a medal” suggest that he was dull and unimaginative.
Evans does tell a good story and undoubtedly loves his subject. Sometimes though rambling quotes from players can be overlong and struggle to explain a point clearly, and when the squad travel to Denmark the journalist in Evans can’t resist a Hans Christian Andersen/fairytale analogy. At points it reads like a hagiography of the team, particularly Souness who kicks and punches his way through matches but is lifted to the status of demi-god by the author. Like Souness, this book may not be universally popular outside of Anfield but it stands as an interesting if rose-tinted review of what was a very successful team.
Liverpool FC in the 1990s – the players’ stories
by Simon Hughes
Reviewed by Rob Hughes
From WSC 340 June 2015
Among the insightful voices in Simon Hughes’s book, John Scales cuts to the issue most succinctly. “Money changed the game and it’s no surprise that a club with socialist principles was the first to fall by the wayside,” he says, referring to the ethos promoted by Bill Shankly, the manager who revolutionised the club in the 1960s. The 1990s was a time of rapid change in English football, where big clubs became global businesses, revenue flooded in from international TV deals and wages ballooned. This increased market competition, however, was just one of the many factors in Liverpool’s decline.
Much like its predecessor, 2013’s Red Machine: Liverpool FC In The 1980s, Hughes’s tome tells the story through interviews with a number of former players and managers. Alongside Scales we have Jan Molby, Jamie Redknapp, Jason McAteer, Graeme Souness and Roy Evans, among others, all of whom look back on their Liverpool tenure with a variable mixture of pride, regret and, occasionally, a little bitterness.
The title of Men In White Suits recalls the team’s ill-advised Wembley walkabout before the 1996 FA Cup final, decked out in flashy Armani gear, and provides the ready metaphor for Liverpool’s failings under Evans. Here was a team capable of the most flamboyant football, but who seemed to lack the required focus and discipline to win trophies: all silk and no steel.
What quickly becomes clear, sifting through the various testimony, is that Liverpool were undone by their own past success. Coaches and management still relied on the same procedures, diets and training methods (even continuing to use the rotting wooden boards at the Melwood training ground for shooting practice) that had sustained the club throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Other clubs, meanwhile, had moved with the times and had adopted a more sophisticated ideology. And when it came to the transfer market (shipping out Peter Beardsley and others before their prime; investing in the likes of Julian Dicks, Paul Stewart and Nigel Clough) it all got pretty embarrassing.
The conclusions of those involved are often fascinating. Both Redknapp and Molby agree that Souness’s management style was unnecessarily aggressive, intent on changing too much too soon. Souness himself, with engaging candour, concedes that he blew his chance and that it was the right job at the wrong time. Evans, too, is big enough to admit some shortcomings, not least the gung-ho attitude to attacking football when grinding out results was often the better option. Although he bristles at the suggestion that he was too much of a nice guy to rule effectively.
The potential to reclaim old glories was certainly there, assert McAteer and Scales, but they attribute Liverpool’s inconsistency to the lack of experienced, “streetwise” leaders on the pitch. And, for fans such as myself, it makes me wince to read how Souness turned down the chance to sign both Peter Schmeichel and Eric Cantona before they were anywhere near Manchester United’s radar. Inconstancy, woeful transfer dealings, lack of leadership and an inability to compete with the top clubs around them. Thank God those days are over.
The rise and fall of Carson Yeung
by Daniel Ivery & Will Giles
GHI HK Ltd, £20
Reviewed by Chris Sanderson
From WSC 339 May 2015
English football’s wholehearted embrace of the free market has meant that the sense of place and identity that clubs once provided their fans is increasingly meaningless to owners and administrators. Of course, the game here has always been dominated by a handful of wealthy clubs and provided a platform for the likes of Bob Lord, Robert Maxwell, Doug Ellis et al to use clubs as their personal playthings. But as the history of English football since 1992 has been one of untold riches and a wholehearted embrace of laissez-faire economics, so it has likewise seen a wholesale loosening of the links between the clubs and their communities. And as fans of teams as diverse as Leeds, Portsmouth and Coventry can testify, their acquisition by owners who have little regard for their club’s history or supporters has rarely been positive.
Haircuts & League Cups tells the cautionary tale of how Carson Yeung, a former Hong Kong hair stylist who made a personal fortune through gambling and stock market speculation, came to purchase the heroically underachieving Birmingham City.
As the sum Yeung’s consortium paid – a frankly ridiculous £81.5 million – was hardly questioned at the time, so the book is less a narrative of one man’s ownership of a club but more an exposé of the willingness of the football authorities, media and initially Blues fans themselves to wilfully ignore his financial shortcomings. Meticulously written by Daniel Ivery, whose excellent Often Partisan website is regularly the sole source of reliable and verifiable information on the club, and Hong Kong solicitor Will Giles, the story throws light on the murky nature of football finances and the profound effect that decisions made thousands of miles away can have on fans.
Yeung aside, the book includes a cast of pantomime villains that range from Birmingham’s previous owners (Davids Gold and Sullivan), the Premier and Football Leagues and above all Yeung’s acolyte Peter Pannu. Indeed since publication, this litigious former Hong Kong policeman has posted a series of offensive, rambling posts on Often Partisan, that may well be the catalyst for the change in ownership that Blues fans so desperately desire.
When sentenced to six years in prison for money laundering, Yeung was described as someone who was “prepared to, and did, lie whenever he felt the need to”. It is to Ivery’s credit that his single-handed and determined work has unravelled his story and produced a factual document that exposes not just the current plight of Birmingham City but the shortcomings of English football more generally. As Ivery and Giles say: “The Football League will not even talk to the media about how they police the game, preferring to hide behind soundbites. Football has become a honeypot for investors looking for a quick buck. Add in the additional element of international transfers which involve numerous unregulated intermediaries, then you can easily understand why it is attractive to money launderers.” It’s a cautionary tale of which fans of all clubs should be mindful.