The inside stories of Albion's amazing 21st century odyssey
by Chris Lepkowski
Shareholders for Albion, £16.99
Reviewed by James Baxter
From WSC 315 May 2013
Written by West Bromwich Albion's Birmingham Mail correspondent Chris Lepkowski, this book uses in-depth interviews with 12 players to present the inside line on "Albion's amazing 21st century odyssey". While the last 12 years have delivered four promotions, three relegations and the 2004-05 "great escape", they have also seen Albion transformed from a chaotically run institution who gave Wolves fans something to joke about into one of the Premier League's most forward-thinking clubs.
In its way, In Pastures Green reflects this transformation. The earlier interviews, especially those dealing with Gary Megson's time, are genuinely revelatory in places. Dutch midfielder Richard Sneekes doesn't bother to conceal his contempt for the manager, describing his style of football as requiring "running for the sake of running". Striker Bob Taylor, meanwhile, was brought back to The Hawthorns by Megson in 2000 but, by the end of his final season three years later, he had been frozen out. He believes that Megson's decision to allow him a start in the last fixture, at home to Newcastle, was made purely to humiliate him since he was nowhere near match fit. Taylor is further convinced that, as he was being helped off the field after sustaining an early injury, Megson was laughing and joking – "milking the situation" – on the touchline. "As a person," Taylor concludes, "[Megson] is a shithouse."
At the end of the book there are further criticisms of a manager (or rather head coach) but Robert Koren and Paul Scharner are far more restrained in what they have to say about Roberto di Matteo, who "kept his distance" and "didn't like to get too close to his players" according to Koren. Scharner's chapter offers Albion fans little beyond a story most will recall from local media reports of January 2011. This was a period when the team were going through a poor run of form and Scharner suggested that the abandonment of the players' self-policed system of fines for minor acts of indiscipline was among the reasons.
Cancer sufferer John Hartson, who left Albion in 2008 as his health went into decline, gives by far the most moving interview, expressing regret at ignoring an appointment with a specialist that was made for him by Albion's club doctor, Kevin Conod. "Kevin did everything in his power to help me… but doctors aren't going to hold your hand and take you to the specialist." There is more to In Pastures Green, including a few throwaway, if entertaining, tales of dressing-room high-jinks. For his own part, Lepkowski is a discreet narrator who allows his interviewees to tell their stories without the need for too many interjections. Shareholders for Albion, who commissioned the book, break up the narrative with regular accounts of the state of the club's finances. Those not interested in the intricacies of share issues and the like can safely skip the passages concerned. They certainly do not detract from a fine read – one you don't need to be an Albion fan to appreciate.
by Julie Welch
Vision Sports, £20
Reviewed by Alan Fisher
From WSC 314 April 2013
The Twitter hashtag #againstmodernfootball is hardly a scientific dissection of the faults of the modern game but it has become an outpouring of genuine frustration and growing disenchantment: exorbitant ticket prices, alienated and marginalised fans, an obsession with the here and now and instant success. Julie Welch's Biography Of Tottenham Hotspur is not only a revealing insight into the club, it could well restore your faith in football.
Welch traces the development of the club's character and personality, showing there is more to a football club's history than a list of players, matches and trophies. Her beloved Danny Blanchflower's statement that it's not just about winning, it's about glory and doing things in style, articulates a culture and identity that dates back to the club's formation in the 1880s, when three schoolboys met under a lamp-post 100 yards from the current ground.
Harry Redknapp and André Villas-Boas come from different schools of management but both talked of the need to play good football the Spurs way. Arthur Rowe's pioneering "push and run" won a League title in 1951. He was influenced by another innovator, Peter McWilliam, Spurs boss in the 1920s, and in turn inspired the incomparable Bill Nicholson to bring unparalleled success in the 1960s and early 1970s. The familiar mixture of flamboyance and exasperation, the sublime and erratic, would be instantly recognisable to successive generations of Spurs fans.
We deny history at our peril. Alan Sugar saved the club but he understood the balance sheet better than his heritage, hence the crushing mediocrity of the 1990s with Christian Gross, Gerry Francis and George Graham. Then again, there's nothing new under the sun. Financial crises, businessmen wanting to profit by moving the ground, an ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory: any decade at Spurs, not just the last one.
Welch is an author and screenwriter, the first woman football reporter in Fleet Street to have her own byline. She is a beguiling storyteller who tells the tale with a curiosity and style that sweeps the reader along. The air of artistry and magic seduced her as a schoolgirl but it's not quite right to suggest they entice fans these days. Peer pressure, family ties or blind accident are more common factors. However once committed it keeps us there, becoming part of who we are.
The nature of Spurs' identity as a Jewish club is the only omission, perhaps because although it's an independent publication, unusually the club have co-operated and are shy of potential controversy. The absence of statistics and tables may dismay lovers of detail, who will point to several proof-reading errors.
It's a beautiful book, wonderfully written, that is essential for Spurs fans and deserves to be widely read because it is about perspective, culture and identity, precious to fans everywhere yet under attack. Read it and I defy you to tell me that finishing fourth in the Premier League is what truly matters.
How the Arsenal became l'Arsenal
by Fred Atkins
GCR Books, £18.99
Reviewed by Damian Hall
From WSC 313 March 2013
There can't be many football clubs that have a stronger connection to a foreign country than Arsenal do with France. Since Arsène Wenger took over, 23 French footballers have played for the Gunners – often in teams without an Englishman. Between September 10, 1996 and November 1, 2011 the club played only two competitive fixtures without a Frenchman in the team, both of which were experimental line-ups for relatively meaningless fixtures (and one included an unused French sub).
There's a story to be told here and Fred Atkins is in a good position to tell it, having lived in France and studied at university in Strasbourg, the city where Wenger grew up and gained his oft-mentioned economics degree.
The book is logically divided into a chapter for each player and lengths wisely vary – you wouldn't expect Patrick Vieira to get the same amount of coverage as Gilles Sunu. There's a foreword by Gilles Grimandi, in which he self-deprecatingly confesses his one Arsenal goal was a mishit cross, but unfortunately there are no fresh interviews. Though tracking down all 23 men would have been a huge job, it means there's little new here about the players' times at Arsenal, bar occasional quotes translated from interviews with the French press.
The book's interest comes largely from the players' pre-Arsenal careers, such as the comical litany of bureaucratic errors by French football officials, one of which meant William Gallas couldn't play first-team football for half a season at Marseille. No wonder his tantrums started long before his move to Arsenal. Many chapters are reminders that players' foibles – Abou Diaby's injuries, Mathieu Flamini's perceived disloyalty – were there before they moved across the Channel. Some may enjoy the news that, while playing for Lorient against Bordeaux, Laurent Koscielny was once sent off for fouling future team-mate Marouane Chamakh and the obvious quips it encourages.
The Emmanuel Petit chapter stands out. His life has not been that of the average footballer: he's struggled to deal with the death of his brother, depression, the USA 94 qualification failure (he played left-back in the defeat to Bulgaria) and periods of debauchery. Atkins also claims Petit drank and smoked throughout France 98. Perhaps more startlingly, after joining Barcelona, manager Lorenzo Serra Ferrer asked him what position he played. Petit almost joined Manchester United instead of Chelsea – and wishes he had.
However, Atkins's tone is unashamedly parochial. There are puerile digs at Alex Ferguson, a tedious and paranoid rant about refereeing decisions and, apparently, Jacques Santini's judgment should be questioned simply because he managed Tottenham, while crass speculation on Thierry Henry's marriage breakdown belongs to the worst of the tabloid press.
Some bigger questions, too, go begging. Has Wenger systematically favoured French players over English players? If so, why? Should Le Prof still be recruiting heavily from Ligue 1 when the French national team are no longer pre-eminent – and when Alan Pardew seems better at it. And how has Wenger's English seemingly got worse, "a little bit", over the years?
The AFC Wimbledon story
by Niall Couper
Cherry Red Books, £14.99
Reviewed by Andy Brassell
From WSC 313 March 2013
Author Niall Couper wrote in the Independent that his "stomach turned over" when AFC Wimbledon were drawn against Milton Keynes in the FA Cup second round this season. Nevertheless, it made his latest work all the more germane. This Is Our Time is Couper's second book on Wimbledon, following 2003's The Spirit Of Wimbledon which traced the area's footballing lineage from 1922 through to the formation of AFC Wimbledon in 2002. You don't necessarily need to have read that to grasp the thread of events for the sequel, though the opening pages of the book give a potted history of the club's evolution from the 19th century to the brink of the Milton Keynes move.
The nuts and bolts of the story are well known to most regular football fans, from the three-man appeal commission that ratified the Milton Keynes move in late May 2002 to the open trials on Wimbledon Common that helped to find players for the first AFC Wimbledon team. Yet the book is plugging a significant gap – not just because of the detail contained in its 608 pages. The problem with any fan-based discourse surrounding AFC Wimbledon since their formation has been obvious. How do you establish an anti-establishment view when the fans themselves are that establishment?
There's no whitewashing of opinion here (as anti-Milton Keynes voices have often been accused of doing) or even an author's "this is how it happened" party line. Instead, Couper hands over the right to be heard to the people, with the story told by a succession of talking heads, from players and managers to board members, trust volunteers and those who pay at the turnstiles each week.
What emerges is not one linear truth but several versions of it, an account of the growing pains inherent in a protest movement becoming a semi-professional (and later professional) football club. So we hear about the dismissal of the club's first manager, Terry Eames, through board members who became sick of him and fans who felt as if the club sold out "one of us". There's also the tale of how the club's very ethos was questioned, with businessman Darragh MacAnthony's attempt to buy the club out in 2006 before he assumed control of Peterborough United. Recently fired boss Terry Brown even offers a window into his own downfall, admitting he thought he may have "made a mistake" in signing defender Callum McNaughton from West Ham.
The format does occasionally spill over the line from thorough into exhaustive, such as in the section on reaction to the Conference play-off final win when it feels as if half the game's attendees are canvassed for opinion. Yet This Is Our Time is a commendable, thorough and honest piece of work. Even if history is told by the winners, there's nothing to say they can't be objective and that's what Couper does so well here.
The day the promises had to stop
by Denis Cassidy
Amberly Publishing, £9.99
Reviewed by Mark Brophy
From WSC 312 February 2013
As calls for improved governance of football clubs continue to be made, Denis Cassidy's experiences after being appointed a non-executive director of Newcastle United in 1997 give an illustration of just what can go wrong. He remained in position for 20 months, during a period which spanned the removal of Kenny Dalglish and appointment of Ruud Gullit as well as the News of the World undercover sting which forced the owners Freddy Shepherd and Douglas Hall to leave the board for a short time.
Despite the inside track he can provide, the book itself is a mixed bag. Though it's styled as an attempt to show how the creation of the Premier League has affected the game in England, much of the book sets the scene for the section describing events during the short period Cassidy was on the board, and concludes with a run down of his thoughts on how to ensure success. Alex Ferguson's views on success might prick up a few more ears, of course.
That's not to say that there isn't interest in the rest of the book. Cassidy's insider knowledge isn't limited to the period of his tenure on the board and his excellent contacts mean the reader is often left wanting to hear more. At one point, he reports meeting Lord Taylor just after the delivery of the report which changed English football post-Hillsborough, frustratingly without any record of the conversation.
It's that 20-month period in the boardroom where the book comes to life, however. Though current owner Mike Ashley doesn't escape criticism, Cassidy clearly disapproves of the way the Shepherds and Halls ran Newcastle; he calls them "vandals" at the point they are trying to force their way back into control of the plc board. He suggests John Hall used the club first as a promotional vehicle for his own regional interests then later as a cash cow for his other businesses. Cassidy points out that Newcastle abandoned corporate governance best practice when they removed independent directors from the board in favour of the majority shareholders' nominees. The Shepherds and Halls are painted as draining the club to the point of financial chaos, to their own personal benefit.
The final implied criticism, left to an appendix on the last page, is both the largest and via its format least open to argument. Without commentary, it's an account detailing how much was taken from the club by the Hall and Shepherd families in their time at the club between 1996 and 2007. The total comes to nearly £144 million. As Cassidy succinctly puts it earlier: "Did their performance over that period justify such rewards?"
by Gary James
James Ward, £25
Reviewed by Ian Farrell
From WSC 312 February 2013
Meteoric success in any area, be it sport, show business or politics, is guaranteed to bring a glut of books within six months and sure enough there has been a recent explosion in the number of Manchester City titles on the market. Any new additions to the list are inevitably going to be viewed with ever-increasing cynicism, but Manchester: The City Years can't de derided as a cash-in. Its author has been writing about the club since before Sergio Agüero was born and this is clearly a book several years in the making. From the first stirrings of organised football in Manchester through to the drama of last May, this is as detailed a history as anyone could conceivably want.
Season by season, over the course of 600 pages, City's up and downs are brought to life through a truly staggering level of research. Add in several hundred photographs, press clippings, newspaper cartoons, programme covers and cigarette cards and it's difficult to pinpoint anything more that could have been done to chronicle the club's successes, failures, or even the relatively uneventful bits in between.
There is also plenty of opinion and spin to go with the facts and figures. This is a book written by a hardcore fan rather than an impartial historian and Gary James never misses an opportunity to defend the club, criticise its critics and highlight any occasions where he feels they've been the victim of unfair treatment or media bias. He is particularly sensitive to any negative reaction to the new order of the last five years and any fans nostalgic for the old ways might feel uncomfortable with the blanket praise he has for the current regime.
Readers of more delicate sensibilities might also blanch at the glowing portrayal of former CEO Garry Cook, the ex-Nike executive notorious for conducting interviews with all the dignified humility of Don King. Cook left his position after he accidentally sent a mocking email to Nedum Onuoha's cancer-stricken mother, something he initially denied by claiming his account had been hacked by someone out to frame him. Here, he receives the very lightest admonishment for his actions, with the media subject to considerably greater scrutiny for the manner of its reporting of the story.
But whether you buy into the author's worldview or not, Manchester: The City Years is a hugely impressive piece of work. Whatever your view of Manchester City, whether you've always liked them, always disliked them or have switched your opinion in recent times, it would be difficult to deny that they're one of English football's most interesting institutions and James may well have produced the definitive account of their story.
by Richard Purden
Hachette Scotland, £8.99
Reviewed by Jonathan O'Brien
From WSC 311 January 2013
Even Celtic supporters – some of us, anyway – are often irritated by the self-mythologising flannel regularly parped out by sections of the club's fanbase. "A cause", "a rebel club", "different": all these claims are routinely made, with not very much at all to back them up. At face value, Richard Purden's collection of interviews with Celtic fans – some famous, some not – looks like an attempt to perpetuate this sort of empty puffery. There's more to it than that, though, and Purden shows plenty of imagination in his choices of interviewee. One of the best chapters in the book is a conversation with Roberto Longobardi, a longstanding Celtic fan from Rome who is so dedicated he visited the grave of Johnny Doyle, a winger who died aged 30 in 1981, during an away trip to Kilmarnock.
Longobardi cannot stress enough how much he detests the "shameful" Paolo di Canio, who is still held in high regard by a lot of Celts. "The only thing worse than a mercenary is a fascist," he says. "We shouldn't celebrate Di Canio's time at Celtic because the Nazis and the Holocaust still hang over us." He also tells Purden that Enrico Annoni, a "very good servant", took the time to learn about the club's history; unlike Massimo Donati, who, when unable to answer Longobardi's questions about Celtic, mumbled sheepishly: "I don't live in Glasgow."
Simple Minds frontman Jim Kerr contributes a predictable but entertaining fusillade against the commercialisation of modern football, noting that "we know far too much" about the players' wage packets and wives. He likens a pre-game ritual to a pre-gig one, not wanting to let the people down. Eddi Reader of Fairground Attraction tells how she tracked down her father's old Rangers-supporting friends in a hardcore Bluenose pub. Composer James Macmillan's heartfelt declaration that Catholicism is intrinsic to understanding the whole Celtic thing might raise eyebrows among those who regard the club as open to all.
Pat Nevin's is the most distanced perspective, having started off as a Bhoys fan and ended up following Hibs. For some reason, he detests Martin O'Neill's hugely successful 2000-05 side, deriding them as unwatchable and a "slightly more sophisticated version of [Wimbledon]". Nevin claims incorrectly that the gifted Lubo Moravcik was frozen out: in fact, Moravcik played in two-thirds of league games under O'Neill then retired, not because he had been pushed to the margins by beefy-thighed warriors, but because he was 36 years old.
A few errors have slipped through, such as when Purden writes that Dermot "the Kaiser" Desmond is worth "145 billion euro", a decimal point having vanished two points to the east at the crucial moment. He goes on to say that a "financial stake in Celtic isn't just business". Gordon Strachan, who was crucially denied the £800,000 required to sign Steven Fletcher in 2009, might disagree. Those aside, this is a diverting enough read, even if a number of the contributions stray the wrong side of maudlin, uncritical adoration.
by Michael Blackburn
Grosvenor House, £7.99
Reviewed by Tom Greene
From WSC 310 December 2012
I was 100 pages into reading Agents, Rovers and Cricket Loving Owners when Steve Kean resigned from Blackburn Rovers. The author, Michael Blackburn, pours so much of his heart and soul into describing the pain both Kean and Venky's have caused the club's support that my first thought on hearing the news was for him. His book is a history of Venky's takeover from the perspective of an exasperated fan living through it.
The story is certainly there to be told – Rovers have gone from one of the best run clubs in the League, operating successfully on very little external funding in one of the poorest parts of the UK, to an utter shambles. The catalogue of mismanagement, PR embarrassments and total lack of direction described in the book continues to this day. At the time of writing, despite Kean's resignation almost a month ago, there is still no new manager in place. When Venky's took over Kean was Sam Allardyce's first-team coach. Currently in charge is Kean's assistant, Eric Black: anyone is in with a chance of the manager's job at Ewood Park.
The book is a chronological story from the day the Venky's took over in November 2010 to eventual relegation last May. The structure is both a strength and weakness. On the positive side, no detail of the fans' experience has gone undocumented and almost every game of Kean's reign is described in painstaking detail. However, his poor team selection, delusional post-match analysis and never-ending optimism about his own and the team's position is not enough to engage the reader throughout.
My favourite sections of the book are where we get pure unadulterated Kean. Although the author is scornful of Kean's playing and managerial experience, this was not what made him a disastrous manager. His Comical Ali-style post-match debriefs are catalogued with some verve, although I was disappointed that a personal favourite – where Kean blamed a David Dunn shot hitting the post on a lack of dew on the grass – was not included in the author's top ten. However, because we do not hear from Venky's or their ex-manager directly (no doubt not for want of trying by the author) we are left with the same longing for the true story as Rovers fans will have felt living through it.
This book will not shed any new light on the Venky's debacle for anybody who has followed the era closely. However, you could not get a more comprehensive account of what it has felt like to be a Rovers fan over the last two years. For those fans of Premier League teams not content with mid- to lower-table obscurity, read this book and it will show you that things could be worse. A lot worse.
My life watching
West Ham through
a camera lens
by Steve Bacon & Kirk Blows
Reviewed by Neil Fairchild
From WSC 310 December 2012
When Steve Bacon was appointed West Ham club photographer in 1980, John Lyall was only the fifth West Ham manager of the 20th century. In the 23 years since Lyall's departure, there have been nine different permanent managers and almost as many promotions and relegations. For Hammers fans the familiar rotund figure of Bacon waddling across the pitch on matchdays has become a reassuring constant in an uncertain world.
Until Alan Pardew arrived in 2003 Bacon would travel to away matches on the team coach. He would even be present in the dressing room during team talks. There's Only One Stevie Bacon is a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the dysfunctional world of West Ham over three decades, with a chapter dedicated to the tenure of each manager from Lyall to Gianfranco Zola.
Although Bacon's subjectivity gives the book a partial and at times spiteful feel – Paul Kitson is a "weasel", Brian Kidd a "horrible little shit" – his refusal to pander to fans' preconceptions makes for a refreshing viewpoint. Ron Greenwood is an "awkward bugger" and Pardew, who was the last manager to have his name sung by West Ham fans, is repeatedly dismissed as arrogant and mocked for his use of psychology and motivational techniques. Lou Macari, loved by neither fans nor players, is portrayed in a surprisingly compassionate light. Others are depicted in exactly the way you would expect: old-fashioned Billy Bonds, for example, struggles with the modern world. Following rumours about the close relationship between Ian Bishop and Trevor Morley, Bonds calls both players into his office and asks: "Well, are you or ain't you?" It turns out they ain't.
Kirk Blows, author of various books on West Ham, has been enlisted to bring a sense of cohesion to these anecdotes. Blows appears to have viewed his role as that of articulating Bacon's thoughts rather than challenging them. At times some editing would have been kind. Bacon's bafflement at the poor quality of televisions in a department store in 1980s communist Romania ("the arsehole of the universe" as he charmingly calls it) would have been a useful omission.
Bacon is the first to admit that he is no football expert and this book sheds little light on why the FA Cup that was won just before his arrival was the club's last piece of major silverware. Nevertheless there are plenty of interesting and funny tales: the team coach stopping on the way to a match at Stoke to allow the kit manager to put a bet on for Macari; a naked John Moncur jumping out of a locker during one of Harry Redknapp's team talks; a frightened Paolo di Canio telling a stewardess "I don't want to die" before getting off a plane that is about to take off.
Far too often the tone of the book is brought down by stories that would be better left in the pub. His fondness of Mark Ward's wife's "big boobs" and a players' masturbation competition on the team coach (yes, really) are two examples. Then again, given the niche target market for this book, perhaps Bacon simply has a good understanding of his audience.
The history of Swansea City AFC
by Geraint H Jenkins
Yr Lolfa, £14.95
Reviewed by Huw Richards
From WSC 309 November 2012
Whatever else can be said about Swansea City, it cannot be denied that we attract a decent class of club historian. The centenary biography is by Geraint Jenkins, a Professor of Welsh History. It follows in the 30-year-old footprints of the club's previous chronicler David Farmer, a Professor of Management Studies. Proud to be a Swan has the virtues of that academic provenance. It is well and widely researched – to the point of penance, judging by some of the titles in the bibliography – factually reliable and judicious rather than hyperbolic.
Jenkins ranges more widely than Farmer, whose dogged season-by-season account rarely looked beyond the preoccupations and content of the back page of the South Wales Evening Post. The club's history is related to the context formed by the progress of its host community and the fortunes of its economy and society. Swansea's copper and tinplate industries and the 1941 blitz take their place alongside the Vetch Field, Robbie James and the FA Cup semi-finals of 1926 and 1964. If you are one of many fans the Swans have gained in recent years, or a supporter of another club wanting to know more about an opponent which has compelled attention, this is a decent introduction.
Jenkins obeys the injunction to leave readers wanting more but not entirely in a way that they might want. He is largely cliche-averse but may have found himself muttering the one about quarts and pint pots. Given 30 more years and a wider frame of reference than Farmer, he is forced to tell the story in little more than three-quarters of the length.
One hundred and eighty-six pages is not remotely enough to do real justice to the first 100 years of any club, never mind one whose fortunes encompass the extremes of two periods of extraordinary upward mobility, a post-war era that included an exceptionally fertile generation of talent and at least three near-death experiences.
Jenkins is too scrupulous a historian to deny that the bad years have far outweighed the good. He ensures that they and their personalities receive proper weight alongside the peaks attained in recent years as well as under John Toshack and the achievements of giants like Ivor Allchurch and Cliff Jones. Perhaps the best passage in the book describes Herbie Williams – "The unlikeliest of soccer idols. Tall, gangling and unprepossessing" – a gifted player who was preternaturally unlucky in the timing of his career.
Those constraints of space force Jenkins to maintain a brisk tempo which leaves only limited scope for reflection or the wealth of anecdote generated by a club which abounds in idiosyncrasy. The result is an account which describes rather than evokes and seems slightly monochrome given the rich colour at its disposal.
He is perhaps unlucky that another centenary project – the online club archive at Swansea University – was under construction rather than fully available while he was writing. That promises to be a rich resource for any future historian – so long, of course, as they get enough space.