309 SwansThe history of Swansea City AFC
by Geraint H Jenkins
Yr Lolfa, £14.95
Reviewed by Huw Richards
From WSC 309 November 2012

Buy this book

 

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.

Buy this book

308 CityWinning club. Losing faith
by Colin Shindler
Headline, £16.99
Reviewed by Ian Farrell
From WSC 308 October 2012

Buy this book

 

Of all the nostalgic How-I-fell-in-love-with-my-club books that followed in the wake of Fever Pitch, Colin Shindler's Manchester United Ruined My Life was perhaps the most notable and fondly remembered. Charming and amusing as it was, the reason for its popularity and success can undoubtedly be traced to its subject: Manchester City. They were the quintessential underdog back then, well liked and sympathetically regarded beyond fans of their few natural enemies. Fourteen years on, they are seen as football's new supervillains and it is time for the sequel: the considerably rarer How-I-fell-out-of-love-with-my-club book.

The newfound disenchantment that has given Shindler his title is only an issue in the last third, with most of the book taking the form of a straight autobiography. City's fortunes of the time may weave in and out, occasionally taking centre stage, but this is really the story of the last decade and a half of the author's life, as he copes with the breakdown of his marriage, bereavement, ageing and the search for a new partner. What it is emphatically not – and does not claim to be – is A History of Manchester City 1998-2012. Anyone expecting that is likely to be bemused by what they get, much in the manner of someone reading The Origins of the Second World War and finding AJP Taylor going off on a lengthy digression about a dating agency he has signed up to.

How interesting you will find Manchester City Ruined My Life largely comes down to how interesting you find Colin Shindler. His concerns, when we finally get to them, about the money, the club's desire to globalise its previously parochial image, the character of the last two owners and the crass arrogance of former CEO Garry Cook are all legitimate but hardly original. You begin to ask yourself why he felt the need to write this book. Financial considerations aside, perhaps the answer is that the football side is the selling point, there to enable the writing of a cathartic autobiography.

Though it had its downbeat moments Shindler's first book was essentially optimistic in tone, so it is a strange experience to read such a negative follow-up. The lack of enthusiasm over recent (pre-title) successes is particularly jarring and supports his claim to have fallen out of love with the club. Had City won 6-1 at Old Trafford 40 years ago it would probably have merited a whole chapter in the first book. Here it is given the briefest of mentions, as if it had been achieved by someone else's team. It seems that in a sense, for Shindler, it was.

Buy this book

308 ClasicoFootball's greatest rivalry
by Richard Fitzpatrick
Bloomsbury, £12.99
Reviewed by Andy Brassell
From WSC 308 October 2012

Buy this book

 

If there is a sign that Barcelona and Real Madrid's gradual colonisation of the summit of world football is inexorable, then the fact that the pair are beginning to take a grip on the world of sports book publishing is it. El Clásico enters a crowded marketplace, with Graham Hunter's fascinating access-all-areas portrait of Pep Guardiola's Barcelona recently released and Sid Lowe's tome on the rivalry to come.

Fortunately, it stands up very well on its own merits. Joining the dots between the historical genesis of the rivalry between Spain's two biggest clubs and El Clásico's current position as the pinnacle showpiece of the club game, Richard Fitzpatrick chips away at a few myths, while maintaining genuine balance throughout.

Carefully positioning himself as an outsider, the author never lets ego get in the way of exploring the subject matter as thoroughly as possible. There is no streak of self-righteousness in an attempt to sound authoritative. Instead, Fitzpatrick gives voice to a huge range of opinions and personal stories from both sides of the fence.

One of El Clásico's main strengths is that it resists tired stereotypes in describing key figures such as José Mourinho and Guardiola. The Real Madrid boss is neither canonised nor demonised but presented as a rounded character – sometimes laudable, sometimes needlessly cruel. His erstwhile Barça counterpart is portrayed within his historical context at the club, from arriving as a skinny teenager at La Masia in 1984 through his development into Johan Cruyff's on-pitch leader. Similarly, Fitzpatrick looks deep into the characters of Luís Figo and Vicente del Bosque, two figures often presented in cliche.

A lot of time is spent discussing the clubs' present-day relationship but the author's efforts in scratching beneath the modern marketing sheen to unearth the subculture of the two clubs are highly laudable. A chapter is spent analysing the main hooligan groups of the two clubs, Real Madrid's Ultras Sur and Barça's Boixos Nois. They may be niche – as the book acknowledges, partly due to the fact that away support is far less numerous in Spain than England, where the groups draw much of their inspiration from – but both still have a foothold in their respective clubs.

In the case of the Ultras Sur, this extends to tacit endorsement by current management and players, while Fitzpatrick gives a detailed description of Boixos Nois terrorising "normal" Barça fans at away matches, as well as the serious criminality within the group. As well as providing compelling reading on its own, it works well in further blurring widespread presumptions about political lines being the overriding definition
between the two clubs.  

The leaps between concepts can be a little jarring and abrupt but this is generally a skillfully woven narrative of the clubs' rivalry from assumed political opposition to global commercial competition. "This is a hypocritical world," Mourinho says to begin a rant in one chapter. That Fitzpatrick acknowledges the nature of Real Madrid and Barcelona's world as such is what makes El Clásico such a satisfying read.

Buy this book

307 Class Of 92The official story of the team that transformed United
by Ian Marshall
Simon & Schuster £18.99
Reviewed by Joyce Woolridge
From WSC 307 September 2012

Buy this book

 

"He's only tiny; he's got ginger hair – you'll probably have a bit of a laugh. But he can't half play." Thus Brian Kidd prepared Eric Harrison, Manchester United's celebrated youth team coach, for the less than auspicious arrival of the young Paul Scholes at the Cliff training ground. Scholes's success and longevity is perhaps the most remarkable of all the luminaries of the 1992 FA Youth Cup-winning side, which also included Giggs, Beckham, Neville, Butt... and Robbie Savage.
 
Scholes's hair colour proved no great problem, but he was tiny, suffering from bronchitis and Osgood Schlatter's disease which gave him bad knees, and had no real pace and strength. Despite his abundant and obvious skills, just one of these disadvantages should have been enough to ensure that he joined the ranks of the 500 or so boys joining Premier League and Football League clubs at the age of 16 who, according to the PFA's Gordon Taylor, are out of the game by the time they are 21.

That he was taken on and made it into the first team is testament to the patience and foresight of Harrison, Kidd, Nobby Stiles and Alex Ferguson, though even they would probably have rejected Lionel Messi for being too small.

Few things are as intoxicating for a football fan than the promise of youth. Last season, stories of the emergence of another brood of Fergie's Fledglings generated the traditional, heady expectations of more "golden apples" among United's support, providing a welcome distraction from the head-splitting absurdities of Glazernomics.

Ian Marshall's account duly begins at Moss Lane, Altrincham this January, wondering, with appropriate caution, whether the current crop can follow in the footsteps of their illustrious predecessors – the Busby Babes and the "Class of 92". Subsequent interesting chapters detail how Stanley Rous inaugurated the Youth Cup in 1952 and how United's youth "system" pre-dated the war and Busby, who became youth's most high-profile promoter.

An official United book for sale in the club megastore is hardly going to be shot through with radical revisionism and searing comment, but nevertheless Marshall handles the material skilfully, interweaving the fortunes of the 17 players who made up the squad with a match-by-match account of the 1992 campaign.

Only four of these players dropped out of professional football without making a senior appearance, a remarkable statistic given the high wastage rate which persists in England and demonstrated by an instructive comparison with Crystal Palace, United's opponents in the final. The ones that got away are inevitably more intriguing, none more so than "local hero" and crowd favourite, Salfordian George Switzer, whose name has become a pub quiz staple.
 
Concluding chapters take those who survived through to the present, whether to the Treble, global superstardom, down the divisions, into coaching and management or career-ending injuries, revealing a little of the darker side and the many scandalous cruelties of youth football in this country lurking beneath every glittering tale of triumph.

Buy this book

307 Richer Than God Manchester City, modern football and growing up
by David Conn
Quercus, £16.99
Reviewed by David Stubbs
From WSC 307 September 2012

Buy this book

 

Guardian contributor David Conn is one of the foremost UK journalists when it comes to football and finance, bringing his legal expertise to bear on the murky and often dubious relationship between the two. In 2008, Manchester City were controversially taken over by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi, with the club suddenly benefiting from the hundreds of millions he decided to invest in them from afar, despite rarely visiting the Etihad Stadium. The money he has dropped into the game has, many argue, affected it for the worse. David Conn is a Manchester City fan. This book exists within that somewhat awkward triangle.

Richer Than God is not an exposé of dirty, hidden dealings, not least because the Mansour's takeover is in plain sight. There are no anonymous consortiums or obscure issues of leverage. Nor are there suspicions that the club's new owner is a chancer, lacking in true financial clout and looking to milk the club or sell off the ground for property development. The Sheikh's fortunes are too huge for such petty vice.

When Conn puts forward objections to the desirability of a club becoming such a rich man's plaything, the Sheikh's representative Khaldoon al-Mubarak "did not so much defend what they were doing as fail to understand the question", especially with the precedents of Jack Walker and Roman Abramovich already established. What's the problem?

Conn is further disarmed by the accommodation of the PR-canny new owners. Although he does not get to interview the Sheikh (no one does), there is no attempt to suppress or blank Conn, despite his prominence as an investigative journalist. He's invited to interview Al-Mubarak, who fields all his questions politely, and to enjoy the lavish hospitality of the "inner sanctum" of the Etihad Stadium.

Conn does not temper his objections, particularly to the social inequality that enabled the Sheikh, and City, to enjoy such largesse. He does, however, find himself concluding that in terms of their provision for the club, their investment not just in players like Carlos Tevez but in its facilities and corporate structure, they are the best owners of the club he has known in his lifetime.

If this sounds disappointing to WSC readers, it should be observed that Richer Than God is an excellent book, which covers a vast range of subject matter, all bolted together with Conn's typically pertinent grasp of relevant facts and figures. It takes in many things: the often luckless history of Manchester City and the city itself; Conn's own autobiography as a football fan; the effects of Conservative austerity measures on the city; and, following a terse five-minute interview with ex-chairman Francis Lee, a disillusionment that comes with the knowledge of the chasm between football as a modern-day business and its romantic origins.

Lee taking over City should have been the unifying of these opposites; when he revealed he'd not watched a football game in five years and fired club legends Tony Book and Colin Bell en route to driving the club down two divisions, it turned out otherwise. Although Conn distances himself from some of the more craven gratitude to Mansour, he does identify with a fellow fan, contemplating the club currently: "It isn't the City I love – but if all this were to happen to anybody, I'm glad it's happened to us."

Buy this book

306 Underdogs The unlikely story of football's first FA Cup heroes
by Keith Dewhurst
Yellow Jersey Press, £16.99
Reviewed by Huw Richards
From WSC 306 August 2012

Buy this book

 

Keith Dewhurst has already quarried personal memories as a young journalist catapulted into the Manchester Evening News's United beat by the death of his predecessor at Munich to produce a memoir acclaimed in WSC 302 as "one of the best football books of its type ever written".

Now he digs further, into family heritage in the Lancashire mill town of Darwen, to tell the story of the team that, in 1879, shook the still-nascent football world by twice holding the heavily favoured Old Etonians in an FA Cup quarter-final, before succumbing in the second replay.

All three games, thanks to FA rules and the refusal of the Etonians to either play extra-time or travel to Lancashire, were played at The Oval – then English sport's national stadium – forcing Darwen into a succession of long, expensive and ultimately exhausting journeys.

A different outcome might have changed the title. Darwen, mostly millhands, gave away inches and stones per man to better-fed opponents. "Giantkiller" would have had a literal element.

The story, often bracketed with nearby Blackburn Olympic's defeat of the Old Etonians in the 1883 final as a key marker in the game's democratisation, is well known. Dewhurst, though, aims to put flesh on bare bones, to give life to the silent figures in team photographs and explain why this corner of Lancashire adopted football so passionately.

He puts both teams – he also looks closely at the Etonians – into the context of the early development of football and of wider social currents. This is a multifaceted story with regional and tactical dimensions – the Etonians played a very different game to the fluid, Scottish-inflected style of Darwen – as well as the obvious class aspects.

Dewhurst has dug widely and clearly enjoyed the archives. The outcome has a certain picaresque charm. A large cast of characters includes William Gladstone, an escaped gorilla and mad mill magnates. How can you not love a book that contrives to use "Antidisestablishmentarianism" as a chapter title?

As befits a well-established playwright, Dewhurst handles his large cast with skill. Individuals such as team captain James Knowles, who emigrated to the US before the end of the season, and the remarkable Dr James Gledhill, a tantalising link to the great Preston team of a decade later, emerge from the fog of history.

Along with this are subtle, thoughtful examinations of issues such as why Darwen went to such lengths to deny that their Scottish imports, Fergus Suter and Jimmy Love, were professionals – they almost certainly were – even though payments were not illegal until 1882.

It is, Dewhurst points out, part of the arbitrariness of history that Suter is memorialised in the Dictionary of National Biography as the first professional while Love disappeared so completely that nobody is sure even when he died. Dewhurst, typically, has found a credible answer. Now, though, this entire team has the memorial that it richly deserves.

Buy this book

305LastChampions Leeds United and the year that football changed forever
by Dave Simpson
Bantam Press, £16.99
Reviewed by Simon Creasey
From WSC 305 July 2012

Buy this book



Twenty years ago a ragtag bunch of journeymen footballers, raw youngsters, non-League players plucked from obscurity and a mercurial Frenchman achieved the seemingly impossible. Assembled for just £8 million, the 1991-92 Leeds United team created by Howard Wilkinson became the last side to win the old Division One title. The following season the Premier League was born.

What this team achieved in a short space of time was unprecedented. In just three and a half seasons, following almost a decade in the wilderness, Wilkinson transformed a relegation-threatened second-level side into League winners. The sheer size of the achievement has finally been given the recognition it deserves in The Last Champions.

Author Dave Simpson tracked down members of the title-winning side to find out what it was like in the inner sanctum of the club during this momentous period. Featuring interviews with former players including Lee Chapman, Tony Dorigo and a touching chat with Gary Speed shortly before his untimely death, Simpson pieces together what made this team such a cohesive, well oiled machine.

The book starts by revealing that Wilkinson pioneered many of the sports science techniques common in today's game. From the dietary advice and special vitamin drinks he prescribed, through to the extreme, military-style fitness regime that earned him the "Sergeant" moniker, Wilkinson was acutely aware that physical conditioning could make up for a shortfall in technical ability.

It also charts Wilkinson's sometimes suspect man-management skills and his ability to cut players loose without seeming to give any thought to their feelings. Among many others, Vinnie Jones and Chris Kamara were ruthlessly released when Wilkinson decided they had served their purpose by helping the club return to the top flight.

The interviewees provide plenty of eye-opening stories about former team-mates. While Simpson failed to make contact with the reclusive David Batty, who turned his back on the game after retiring, there are plenty of colourful anecdotes about the midfielder. Such as the time an inebriated Jones took his car for a spin – with some "birds" in tow – around Batty's front lawn before breaking into the house to frighten his team-mate, only to find Batty wielding a Bowie knife that he hid in his bed.

Amid the usual revelations that are common to all contemporary football biographies, Simpson's story captures the pathos of the many players who narrowly missed out on the Premier League cash cow. While some leading lights from the squad forged lucrative post-retirement careers, such as Eric Cantona, Jones and Kamara, many of the title winners are still holding down ordinary jobs to pay the bills. Former striker Carl Shutt works as a travel agent and towering centre-half John McClelland provides regular tours of Elland Road when not working as a postman. McClelland best sums up the sheer magnitude of the team's achievement, which he likens to "climbing Everest". To put it into context, imagine Southampton winning the Premier League title in 2013-14. That is what Wilkinson and his players achieved and it is what makes this story so special and worthy of Simpson's insightful homage.

Buy this book

304barca The making of the greatest team in the world
by Graham Hunter
BackPage Press, £12.99
Reviewed by Jonathan O'Brien 
From WSC 304 June 2012

Buy this book

 


Graham Hunter's new book about Barcelona arrives at a moment when the European and Spanish champions have been looking noticeably shaky for the first time in almost four years, dropping some very cheap points against La Liga's minnows and going out of the Champions League to Chelsea. The 2005 publication of a similar book about Real Madrid, John Carlin's White Angels, was immediately followed by the Merengues embarking on one of the worst runs in their history, so the club will not thank Hunter for his timing.

Like Carlin's book, this one adopts a distinctly obsequious and worshipful attitude to its subject. Barcelona might play the most satisfying football witnessed on European fields since the days of Michel Hidalgo's France, but they have a habit of reducing those who write about them to mushy superlatives and awestruck religious conversions. There is a fair bit of that here too, the details of which I will spare you.

Still, Hunter is not purporting to offer up a warts-and-all exposé, though plenty of dirt is dished about the decay that enveloped Joan Laporta's presidency after the 2006 Champions League triumph. He can be partly excused on the grounds that there is so much about Barcelona that can be praised: the breathtaking football, the far-sighted youth policy and, not least, their charismatic yet contemplative outgoing manager.

The summer of 2008, when Guardiola was appointed, is shown to be a pivotal point in Barcelona's history, not just because of his subsequent extraordinary feats, but also because the club came very close to giving the job to José Mourinho, who was then, as he remains now, the club's sourest foe. When interviewed by board members Txiki Begiristain and Marc Ingla, Mourinho gave a "dazzling" presentation, but blew it by scoffing at the idea he would have to water down his behaviour at Barcelona. "I just don't like him," Ingla said to Begiristain afterwards.

So Guardiola it was. A scarcely credible run of nine major trophies out of a possible 12 ensued. Hunter centres the book on this "man of vision", who sits up all night watch- ing football videos, never drinks, cries after important wins and lost his remaining hair rapidly after taking the manager's job, yet shows utter ruthlessness when panning players who are not up to it (such as the hapless Aliaksandr Hleb, Dmytro Chygrynskyi and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who, for all his flicks and tricks, proved horribly ill-suited to Barcelona's dizzyingly complex system).

This is not a biography of Guardiola, but he dominates the book. The chapters on the star players are much shorter and relatively unrevealing. Hunter based those chapters on face-to-face interviews, which sounds great in theory, but modern footballers give little away at the best of times. So you are left with a flawed but fascinating study of a team moulded very much in its manager's image – a team that, its recent stumbles notwithstanding, has reshaped the technical limits of modern football in a way that scarcely seemed possible beforehand.

Buy this book

304johndennis The Oakwell years
by John Dennis and Matthew Murray
Wharncliffe Books, £12.99
Reviewed by Richard Darn 
From WSC 304 June 2012

Buy this book

 


I met John Dennis once, in 1989. He was standing at the Oakwell office door wearing a moth-eaten wool jumper. At first I mistook him for the groundsman. He went on to defend Barnsley's decision to sack manager Allan Clarke, the issue that had resulted in me writing an angry letter to the local paper and subsequently receiving a phonecall from the club. "Come down to the ground and we'll have a chat," they suggested. No words said then or written now in this autobiography by the ex-Barnsley chairman have altered my opinion on that question. Clarke was sacked for being an awkward guy to deal with, rather than for footballing reasons. But the incident was pivotal.

304celticA biography in nine lives
by Kevin McCarra
Faber & Faber, £16.99
Reviewed by Mark Poole 
From WSC 304 June 2012

Buy this book

 


Most club histories are too dry. Anything but the longest book can only scrape the surface of over a century in the life of an institution that means so much to so many people. Presumably that problem inspired the format of Kevin McCarra's biography of Celtic. Choosing to structure the book around the lives of eight key men in Celtic's history – and the relatively unheralded Flax Flaherty – lets him examine the soul of a club that he describes, in the first line of his introduction, as like no other.

It is a line that would irritate most fans of other Scottish teams, but it is one he immediately justifies in his description of the remarkable mass-migration of fans to Seville for the UEFA Cup final in 2003. McCarra is not shy to praise Celtic where he sees fit: the 1967 European Cup victory, Seville, and Fergus McCann and Martin O'Neill re-establishing the club as Rangers' equals off and on the pitch. He is equally clear about his opinions on fans who romanticise the IRA or wallow in persecution complexes. Perhaps his absence from Scotland helps him discuss Scottish football objectively without worrying about how his opinions will be received.

The "nine lives" structure lends the book more depth than the majority of club histories, but McCarra does not let that restrict him from going beyond each of his subjects to cover other ground. The result, particularly in the early chapters, is like the pleasant reminiscences of a benevolent grandfather.

Among other things, the Jock Stein chapter is a reminder of how limited Celtic's resources were when they won the European Cup in 1967. Has any other club ever paraded that trophy on a lorry they have borrowed from a builder? The McCann chapter reads like an extended love letter to the man who enabled Celtic to realise their potential. Great anecdotes and facts are scattered throughout.

In spite of the structure, McCarra seems to feel obliged to provide a full history of the club. This can be a slight disappointment at times, particularly in the chapter on Flaherty, the newspaper seller who was also Jock Stein's best friend. Flaherty brought the players their papers each day and his relationship with the club was so close that he regularly accom- panied the club secretary, Irene McDonald, to pick up the players' wages from the bank. This relationship reflects a time, particularly in Glasgow, when clubs were tied closely to their local communities. The prospect of this chapter was intriguing, but it left Flaherty behind and moved on far too soon.

The book is not perfect, but it comes far closer than most to capturing the essence of the club. As a supplementary book for those already well served with Celtic literature, it is worth a look. For those starting out on their Celtic library, it is a must-buy. Mark Poole

Buy this book

Sign up to the WSC Weekly Howl - a small portion of despair and enlightenment delivered to your inbox every Friday