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.
Cardiff City and the Cup Winners Cup 1964-1993
by Mario Risoli
St David’s Press, £16.99
Reviewed by Huw Richards
From WSC 338 April 2015
Collective memory tends to privilege the ancient and modern at the expense of what came in between. For Cardiff City the FA Cup win in 1927 looms with the same symbolic weight as 1966 does for England fans, while recent recall summons up unwanted red shirts, thwarted promotion campaigns and misery last season.
Mario Risoli, an expert preserver of Welsh football’s past, aims here to reclaim a time when Cardiff combined being a lower-division club at home with redoubtable warriors in Europe. It needed recovering. That these achievements were in a tournament which no longer exists, and enabled by a route Cardiff can no longer take – winning the Welsh Cup – cuts institutional continuities. And while the last venture was in 1993, the core of this history (and two thirds of its length) is contained in the years between 1964 and 1971.
Risoli draws on press archives and an outstanding collection of interviews with former players. They offer a vivid picture of European competition before it was subsumed to club business plans, as a glorious break from mundane reality and, in a less travelled age, a venture into the unknown.
Even that future footballing cosmopolite John Toshack could recall of the food in Tashkent in 1968: “It was like dog food. The only thing that we could eat were these big bread rolls. We called them discuses.” Entrepreneurial players took chocolates, ties and socks to sell in Moscow, only as Bobby Ferguson recalls: “We ended up eating most of the chocolate and giving the rest away because the people were so nice.”
Along with the tales of Cardiff stalwarts such as Peter King, who contributes a fine foreword, and Don Murray are glimpses of more widely remembered careers, bracketed by John Charles’s last great display at Sporting Lisbon in 1965 and Robbie James’s final senior goal, scored in defeat by Standard Liege in 1993. At the book’s heart is a compelling warts-and-all picture of Jimmy Scoular, Cardiff’s manager from 1964 to 1973 – so competitive he would kick players in a Friday afternoon five-a-side, given to tirades of abuse and arbitrary decisions and paranoid about all foreigners, yet still cherished by many of his players.
And the title gets it right. Beating Real Madrid 1-0 in 1971 is the most remembered achievement of this whole period. Yet the truly historic feat was the extraordinary expedition of 1968, passing through Breda, Moscow, Tashkent and Augsburg en route to a semi-final defeat by Hamburg which ranks for heartbreak alongside the missed penalty that cost Cardiff the League title in 1924. Risoli might perhaps have made more of fan memories and put his excellent game-by-game narration more into the wider context of the club’s history. There should certainly have been an index included. But with all that, he has produced both a great read and a real contribution to football’s collective memory.
by Paul Brown
Goal Post, £10
Reviewed by Mark Brophy
From WSC 338 April 2015
Popularly, Newcastle United were founded in 1892 and in a way they were, for that was when the current name was adopted. But the club existed before that under other names, Stanley FC and Newcastle East End. This is their story from the beginnings 11 years earlier until the first FA Cup win in 1910. Though the facts are known, the first part especially has had little presence in the popular mythology of the club. Even the latter part, taking in three League titles as well as the aforementioned FA Cup win in the Edwardian era, has faded into history a little, certainly in the mind of this fan.
It’s a story which travels between two extremes, the club moving rapidly from a bunch of teenagers playing on sloping wasteground to professionals playing in the country’s top division. Along the way we learn the “United” name was pure PR. It’s commonly believed East End merged with their main local rivals West End to form Newcastle United, but East End merely took over West End’s lease on St James’ Park after they folded. The decision to change the name was meant to placate both sets of fans. There’s physical movement too, the club’s home shuffling around the city’s east end until finally settling at its present location.
The chronological tale is hung off the author’s visits in the present day to the club’s five home grounds and surrounding areas, various museums and a local theatre. The latter trip is to experience something like the atmosphere of watching the first footage filmed of the club in action, as spectators who attended the game against Liverpool in 1901 would have done later that evening, and there is atmosphere aplenty in this book. An effort is made to identify with the fans of the time, which perhaps is easy for a resident of the city and fan of the club to do. But it wouldn’t be impossible for anyone from an industrial city who supports their local team, such is the sense of community and shared experience.
This is a story about football though, with plenty of heroes. Outstanding players, shrewd secretary/managers, all spring to our attention, not least Colin Veitch, the long-serving captain of the club through their greatest days and a polymath in both the sporting and more conventional sense. He was an innovator as well as a truly versatile footballer, playing all over the pitch for Newcastle, and the book calls him “arguably the greatest player in the club’s history”. He was also a committed socialist, a founder of both the players’ union and a still-performing local theatre company, an actor and a musician.
It’s difficult in the circumstances not to contrast the drive for success in the first decade of the 20th century on display here, “boundless in its ambitious aims”, with the inertia and cynical refusal even to try for it today. For all that, this isn’t about glory. The most successful period of the club’s history is covered in only two chapters. More important is the journey, where the club came from and how they eventually got there.