As a Bolton supporter, I have a fairly uneasy relationship with Sam Allardyce. Without question, he brought my club some of the greatest days in our history, and took us to places I could never have imagined when I was watching him plod through his second spell as a player at Burnden Park in the mid-1980s. Still, there’s something about him I just don’t like.
by John Cross
Simon & Schuster, £20
Reviewed by David Stubbs
From WSC 346 December 2015
Supporters of one of the Big Four Or Five teams each have different ideas why their club, overbearingly large as it might seem, actually has some core value. For Arsenal, there was once a sense of shame even among their own fans that they were one-nil blaggers who added little to the overall value of the game. That has turned round completely under Arsène Wenger.
Although, as many interviewed by John Cross in this latest biography testify, he is perhaps an even worse loser than Alex Ferguson, Wenger holds fast to what is vaguely described as his “philosophy”, which has traditionally consisted of valuing attack over defence, maintaining aesthetic values rather than grinding out victories, imposing your own style of play rather than merely reacting to your opponents.
This is a source of pride to Arsenal fans but also, increasingly, exasperation, one only partly stemmed by the recent two trophies and a softening of said philosophy. His baffling reluctance to spend available funds has also led to some stormy AGMs, with fans suspicious at the amounts they must today shell out to watch their fitfully aesthetic but too often brittle also-rans.
Mirror journalist Cross is not to able to answer the question of whether Arsenal’s relative lack of spending is down to Wenger himself or the club, who have become complacently happy with their cash cow. From the earliest pages, we know from Cross’s admiring tone towards Wenger not to expect any scathing, incisive critiques of his subject; he is far too valuable a contact in the author’s day job.
He begins with an account of how he visited Pope Francis rather than attend to transfer deadline day, in terms inviting us to marvel at the manager’s spirituality and indifference to the mammon of the modern game. The text is similarly lavished with borderline sycophantic tributes to Wenger’s intellect, erudition and integrity, lest this sometimes thin-skinned man take the slightest offence.
The book, however, does yield some intriguing facets of his time at Arsenal, where he arrived in 1996 to bewilderment from its core of bibulous, hard-bitten professionals, whose careers and habits he turned upside down, generally for their own good. Cross is decent on Wenger’s golden years, and details of the new regimen he instilled, drawing on interviews with ex-players such as John Hartson and Nigel Winterburn.
For a man whose hobby as an escape from watching football is generally assumed to be watching football, Cross reveals one or two fun details about the private Wenger; his interest in politics, and his belief that both communism and capitalism are failed systems; his love and aptitude for dancing, which would probably see him progress a long way on a future series of Strictly, for example. He also reveals less palatable aspects of Wenger, such as his occasionally short way with staff, and his snubbing of Gaël Clichy, or examples of his loss of temper with players, such as the time Nicklas Bendtner was taking the piss out of X Factor: “You think there is something funny about losing?” He also reveals how close Arsenal came to not being able to pay their wage bill during a cash flow crisis in 2004.
While Cross’s prose is not exactly silvery, this is about as revealing an account of Wenger’s career as we’re likely to get in his lifetime.
Managing Man Utd in the shadow of Sir Alex Ferguson
by Jamie Jackson
Aurum Press, £18.99
Reviewed by Joyce Woolridge
From WSC 345 November 2015
As Louis van Gaal celebrated his 50th game in charge of Manchester United with yet another defeat by Swansea, and the annual farce that marks United’s summer transfer window dealings escalated with the “failed” David de Gea sale, A Season In The Red may have been better written at the end (or however far the Dutchman makes it) rather than the beginning of this season. Although the book surveys both David Moyes’ and Van Gaal’s attempts to manage the “impossible job… in the shadow of Sir Alex Ferguson”, the lion’s share of the pages goes to the present incumbent and as his stock, and United’s fortunes, continue to yo-yo wildly, the tale remains half told.
The most interesting and illuminating, but all too brief, chapter deals with neither of Ferguson’s two main successors, but is about Ed Woodward, executive vice-chairman. He is the man perceived to be responsible both for uncovering vast new sources of income through worldwide regional sponsorship deals and United’s continual embarrassment in the transfer market. Jamie Jackson, the Manchester football correspondent for the Guardian and the Observer, describes Woodward’s very existence as “a cause for curiosity and celebration in the joyless, lacking-piss-and-vinegar world of elite football” and characterises him deftly as someone who appears determined to enjoy every minute, bustling with energy, unusually approachable in “a trapeze-wire act that he manages to portray like a Sunday morning stroll for coffee”.
However, both the accounts of Moyes and Van Gaal fail to spark. This is partly because of what the book is – a series of observations gathered by Jackson while attending press conferences, reporting on matches, accompanying last year’s pre-season tour in the US when Van Gaal took over the reins and in the few “intimate meet-and-greets” with the press which United’s managers deign to allow. What it doesn’t, and indeed in all fairness can’t, draw upon are personal interviews with the protagonists. So Jackson fills the gaps by imagining what it is like to be David Moyes in his office, waiting to be given the coup de grâce, what it is like to be Moyes on his first day and so on.
There are revealing sections such as when Moyes relaxes talking to the Manchester press over dinner, letting his guard slip, and a perceptive analysis of Ferguson’s replacement’s penchant for choosing the wrong words so often, hoping for, rather than expecting results. Van Gaal’s entertaining performances for the press are also well observed. But Jackson is prone to rambling and to say the same thing, wearingly, in several different ways. Moyes is “the number one around here, numero uno, the gaffer, Le Grand Fromage”. Plus the Splitting. Sentences up. Into sections and inserting interludes which are possibly meant as poetry: “Sir Alex Ferguson, David Moyes, Shadows falling, Shadows falling.”
Stylistic tics aside this is a serviceable, if premature, rendition of the story so far, though without much detailed analysis (particularly needed in the case of Moyes, accused by some of tactical ineptitude) of what happened on, rather than off the field. Ryan Giggs’s brief tenure, potentially so revealing, merits far more than the single sentence devoted to it.
The Alex Totten story
by Alex Totten with Jeff Holmes
Pitch Publshing, £18.99
Reviewed by Gavin Saxton
From WSC 344 October 2015
A book whose cover proudly boasts forewords by both “Sir Alex Ferguson and Walter Smith OBE” does not inspire a huge amount of enthusiasm, but this ghost-written autobiography of journeyman Scottish manager Alex Totten is, at least intermittently, more interesting than I might have given it credit for. Ferguson and Smith may have been among the most famous and successful of the remarkable crop of managers that came out of the tenements of Scotland’s post-war years, but below them were a whole battalion of irascible, gruff-voiced men who dominated the game while I was growing up. Among this next rank, Totten was one of the more successful.
His playing career was modest – as a youngster in the early 1960s he had been on the books at Bill Shankly’s Liverpool but, having failed to make the first team there, he returned to Scotland. There he enjoyed a worthy enough career with, among others, Dundee and Dunfermline, where he played alongside Ferguson, of whom he speaks well. Indeed he speaks well of pretty much everyone, especially at this stage of his career, and projects an affability as a man who is not always easy to reconcile with memories of the perpetually furious manager we used to see arguing with referees on Sportscene. This might just reflect journalistic platitudes, or a degree of self-editing, but by and large he persuaded me that underneath the hard-nosed bluster, his likeability is genuine.
Perhaps managerial success depends in part on being able to produce this disconnect, to be able to separate the personal from the professional in that fashion. And sure enough, on being given his first management job, at Alloa at the age of 34, the first cross words appear. An unfortunate young man called Colin McIntosh becomes the first target if his ire, having been deemed not to have put in sufficient effort during a defeat by Forfar. Within a couple of pages he’s confessing to having thrown a pie at a referee in the tunnel after the match – for which he escaped punishment because, as at Old Trafford in latter years, the perpetrator remained unknown. Totten claims, rather unconvincingly, that it was meant in jest. (“I wanted him to enjoy the pie.”)
After a brief first spell at Falkirk, Totten became assistant to Jock Wallace at Rangers. As he tells it, he was being groomed to be the next manager, but then the Graeme Souness revolution happened, and Totten followed Wallace out. Unsurprisingly he believes they could have done much more had he been given Souness’s funds, but instead he went on to be better known for subsequent creditable spells at St Johnstone, Kilmarnock and Falkirk. During his time at the Saints, a touchline barney with Walter Smith resulted in ejection from the ground and a conviction for breach of the peace (Smith’s own charge was found not proven). He continues to protest his innocence.
Totten’s book reflects the man: it’s not a deep analysis of the problems of the game, nor is it a character study in self-doubt. But despite everything, I mostly warmed to him.
The secrets of surviving as a football manager
by Michael Calvin
Century Books, £16.99
Reviewed by Huw Richards
From WSC 344 October 2015
Football uses managers as defining figures much as old-style history employed monarchs, to the extent of describing often pathetically short periods in office as “reigns”. Michael Calvin’s labelling of this phenomenon “Gaffer as Godhead” typifies an eye for the neat, aphoristic turn of phrase. He sees Roberto Martínez as “an undercover pragmatist” and identifies Ian Holloway as a “man of contradiction and impulse”. Such one-liners stud a book built on long interviews with its subjects, among which Holloway’s stream of consciousness stands out along with a sympathetic account of Alan Irvine’s travails and an intriguing portrait of Paul Tisdale.
Anyone wanting the long view of football management still needs to read Neil Carter’s historical study (The Football Manager, published in 2006). But as a picture of how it is now, this will be hard to beat. Those seeking the “how to” guide implied in the subtitle will find plenty of ideas, but must look hard since they are located within the wealth of insight and anecdote throughout the interviews rather than any grand overarching exposition. “Survival” implies retaining health, sanity and self-respect, rather than avoiding the all-but inevitable sack, although on either count your chances are better at Swansea, Exeter or Everton than QPR or Leeds.
This is a job which demands unshakeable self-confidence, but at the same time is designed to erode and ultimately destroy it. The toll it can take is shown at its most extreme by Martin Ling’s description of depression and electro-convulsive therapy, but there is plenty of testimony elsewhere, such as Brian McDermott’s belief that: “There are a lot of depressed people in football, but they probably do not even know it, because they are conditioned by the game.”
Calvin’s questioning evokes a sense of men who are confident and reflective, with credentials and hinterlands beyond their coaching badges. Some, such as Brendan Rodgers, are adepts in neuro-linguistic programming (no, me neither before I read this book), while Chris Hughton did a corporate management course and many have benefited from the League Managers Association’s training.
Aidy Boothroyd may still periodically punch a wall at half time, but sensitivity has replaced rage as a default setting. It is not just innate decency that explains Eddie Howe’s practice of “being a shoulder” for players, but that it “can only help you”.
They are also supportive of each other. Rodgers and Alan Pardew in particular emerge as willing to assist others, while Pardew also generates the best piece of trivia with his pride, from his past as a glazier, at having installed windows on the Natwest Tower and Sea Containers House.
Calvin is no soft touch, but the overwhelming impression he conveys is a sympathetic one – of largely decent, if driven men working in a world where, as Mick McCarthy says, “common sense is not very common”. The problem is not the managers, but the people who appoint them and the hysterical atmosphere in which they must try to function.
The untold story
of a football great
by Rob Sawyer
De Coubertin Books, £18.99
Reviewed by Simon Hart
From WSC 340 June 2015
It was 30 years ago in March that Harry Catterick died after suffering a heart attack at Everton’s FA Cup quarter-final against Ipswich Town. Five years earlier, Dixie Dean had also died at Goodison Park yet unlike the nationally famous striker, Catterick’s achievements – building two League title-winning teams – are today largely ignored beyond Merseyside.
Rob Sawyer has sought to redress the balance in a well-crafted biography that begins with a foreword from Colin Harvey, part of Catterick’s 1970 Championship side. “Don Revie, Bill Shankly, Bill Nicholson and Sir Matt Busby all get mentioned as being the great managers of the era while Harry doesn’t,” says Harvey of a man who won as many Leagues and FA Cups as Revie.
It is with Shankly, though, that Harvey makes the most telling comparison. For half of his 12-year reign, Catterick’s Everton drew the bigger crowds on Merseyside yet as Harvey recalls: “The press enjoyed being courted by Bill Shankly, but Harry was an introvert and snubbed them.” This is the crux of his image problem. Here was somebody who refused to allow the BBC cameras in to film Match of the Day until 1967 and had none of the charisma of his rival. Catterick was an aloof figure more akin to a modern-day director of football who – as his players would joke – put on a tracksuit only when the TV cameras or chairman John Moores appeared.
To achieve this insightful portrait, Sawyer pieced together interviews given by Catterick himself along with reminiscences of players and journalists and contemporary press cuttings. Alex Young recalls the coldness of a man not interested in courting popularity, saying: “I never got a pat on my head.” He had a devious side too, lying to the press and his own players; he told midfielder Brian Harris, for instance, that rumours of Tony Kay joining were false, only to swoop later that day for a player who had helped his Sheffield Wednesday side finish Division One runners-up in 1960-61.
Yet while his 1963 title-winners, built with the largesse of Littlewoods tycoon Moores, were dubbed “cheque-book champions”, the vision behind his youthful 1970 team would fit most current ideas of how to play the game. It was a 4-3-3 formation with the “holy trinity” of midfielders Howard Kendall, Harvey and Alan Ball at its heart. Dave Sexton, then Chelsea manager, applauded him for succeeding with a “set of small players up front” and Catterick’s own view was: “When it comes to the creation of something in tight corners, which midfield men have to do, give me the little ones.”
His players might have endured an old-fashioned factory-style clocking-in system but his planning of Everton’s Bellefield training ground – with an indoor pitch for small-sided matches – was another demonstration of foresight. Indeed in October 1970 Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly magazine dubbed the then 50-year-old “a manager for the Seventies”.
Sadly for Catterick – and his legacy – his Everton team soon fell apart. Sawyer recalls a pivotal week in March 1971 when they lost a European Cup quarter-final to Panathinaikos and FA Cup semi-final to Liverpool. After Ball left in controversial circumstances and Catterick himself suffered a heart attack, he was sacked in 1973. Not until 1985, two months after his death, would Everton win the League title again.
The triumph and tragedy of football’s forgotten pioneer
by Dominic Bliss
Blizzard Books, £10
Reviewed by Jonathan O’Brien
From WSC 340 June 2015
Erno Erbstein is a deeply niche subject for a book, the first to be published by Jonathan Wilson’s quarterly which has won a deserved reputation for quality output over the last few years. Though the incident in which Erbstein perished – the 1949 Superga air disaster that wiped out the entire Torino squad – is one of the defining moments of Italian football history, his own story has slipped through the cracks of memory until now. And though he came from the same central European Jewish coaching lineage as Hugo Meisl and Bela Guttmann, he’s far less well known than either of them (as the title of this book implies).
Five years in the writing, Dominic Bliss’s biography is a hugely well-researched and elegantly written study of a man whose life was punctuated with innumerable dangers and hardships (he served briefly in the First World War and later survived the Holocaust). Perhaps unsurprisingly in view of this, as a player Erbstein gained a reputation for a robust style: a particularly poor challenge on an opponent during a match was one of the two reasons he got out of Budapest in the 1920s. The other was the dark shadow of encroaching anti-Semitism.
In 1928, Erbstein began coaching in Italy, where he assembled a series of tightly organised teams from seemingly unpromising materials, like a proto-Otto Rehhagel. He put the emphasis on quick-fire passing and subjected his players to relentless drills, so that they would be able to pass to each other in their sleep. And the results, initially unspectacular, soon flowed easily: he got the tiny Lucchese club up to a seventh-place finish in Serie A, for example. “He conceived a mode of football 30 years ahead of its time,” says one Sardinian journalist whose father was in the Cagliari youth team while Erbstein was manager there.
Sadly, like so many other Jews, Erbstein spent all too much of his life frantically moving around Europe in search of sanctuary. Benito Mussolini’s 1938 Manifesto of Race forced him to flee again, this time back to Hungary, where he went into business with his brother. He narrowly saved his wife and daughters from death at the hands of the Nazis by utilising one of his innumerable connections (a story recounted in gripping detail here by his daughter Susanna, who’s now in her 80s). Meanwhile, he himself, along with future Benfica manager Guttmann, jumped off a train taking them to a concentration camp in Germany.
After the war, Erbstein came back to Torino, where he had been coaching before Mussolini’s reign of terror. They had won the league twice in his eight-year absence, but now he and club president Ferruccio Novo made them an even better team who cruised to two more championships. Had the European Cup existed at the time, they would undoubtedly have won it at least once. And then, on May 4, 1949, came Superga. This is a sad book in many ways, unashamedly esoteric, and also a fine one.
by Iain McCartney
Amberley Publishing, £16.99
Reviewed by Charles Morris
From WSC 339 May 2015
A book about managerial succession and how a club attempts to replace an outstanding, long-serving supremo is timely, particularly in Manchester United’s case. Iain McCartney’s book follows his Rising from the Wreckage: Manchester United 1958-1968, which charted the club’s recovery from the Munich air tragedy to become the first English team to win the European Cup.
Rapid decline, however, is the theme of his sequel as he relates the club’s dismal failure to replace Matt Busby between 1968 and 1974 – when they were relegated from Division One – and to replenish the team of George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton.
As a history of those six seasons it succeeds, but it seems a missed opportunity not to have broadened the format and considered other cases of managerial succession, particularly as United currently remain in a troubled transition from Alex Ferguson’s reign. Busby’s Legacy does, however, provide a case study in how not to handle such a handover. A tired Busby quit in 1969 after nearly 24 years that also included five domestic championships and two FA Cups. But he fatally remained as general manager and was allowed to choose his successor.
His choice of Wilf McGuinness proved disastrous – a history lesson ignored when Ferguson was allowed to select David Moyes. McGuinness, aged only 31, was Busby’s reserve team coach. He had no experience of managing a first team and was younger than some in an ageing United side, such as Charlton, Bill Foulkes and Shay Brennan. His authority was further undermined by initially being appointed only as “club coach” for an “unspecified probationary period”, and by the presence of Busby. The Scot kept the manager’s office while his successor was given a “corner cupboard”, and he later secretly tried to replace the hapless McGuinness with Celtic’s Jock Stein.
After McGuinness’s inevitable failure and removal in December 1970, Busby played a major part in the hiring of Frank O’Farrell from Leicester City. Although more experienced than his predecessor, O’Farrell’s record was “not trophy strewn”, including only one promotion with Torquay and an FA Cup runners-up and relegation with Leicester. Busby unsuccessfully tried the office belittlement trick on O’Farrell, too, and subsequently interfered in team matters.
One is tempted to conclude from these appointments that Busby, unconsciously, could not bear the idea of handing over to someone who might emulate his feats. After a disappointing 18 months O’Farrell was also sacked and replaced by Scottish national manager Tommy Docherty, who was unable to save the club from relegation before quickly restoring their fortunes back in Division One.
McCartney’s tale of a great team in decline for the most part rattles along, reminding us vividly of Best’s genius and his sad early fall into alcoholism, the complacency and ineptitude of United’s directors and the onset of two decades of appalling football hooliganism. It suffers, however, from an over-reliance on match reports, sticking only to the historic facts and dreadful editing. The book is littered with spelling errors and misused words, all of which are irritating and only one amusing: where the team’s performance is said to be “bisected with a fine toothcomb”. Readers paying £16.99 deserve better.
How Britain’s greatest football manager was made at Aberdeen
by Michael Grant
Aurum Press, £18.99
Reviewed by Keith Davidson
From WSC 338 April 2015
In September 1985, Aberdeen manager Alex Ferguson was among the coaching staff when Scotland played Wales at Ninian Park in a tense World Cup qualifier. He was sitting next to national team boss Jock Stein on the bench. The paths of Stein and Ferguson had crossed many times over the previous couple of decades; as a friend and mentor Stein was a huge influence on Ferguson’s professional life. When the senior man collapsed towards the end of that game, then died in the stadium’s medical room shortly afterwards, it had a profound effect. It was Ferguson who shouldered the responsibility of calling Stein’s family.
This is not the only death to feature in Michael Grant’s book on Ferguson’s formative years. His first season as manager at Aberdeen was turbulent both on the field and off. Sacked by St Mirren in May 1978, he joined the Dons, launched an unfair dismissal claim against his former employer which he lost, had disagreements with some of the established players at Pittodrie and, crucially, his father was diagnosed with lung cancer.
During a bad-tempered away game at St Mirren, of all places, in February 1979 Ferguson’s father died in a Glasgow hospital. The news was broken to him after the final whistle. At the time the Aberdeen manager was still only 37 years old. This kind of detail is the strength of Grant’s book. There is evidence of Ferguson’s pathological competitive streak, there are quotes from his former players – sometimes revealing, sometimes funny – and an inevitable warm glow for any Dons-supporting readers as domestic and European successes provide staging points in the narrative.
What Fergie Rises provides more than anything else however is an explanation of what he had learned, and endured, by the time he joined Manchester United in 1986. When the call came from Old Trafford Ferguson had more than 12 years under his belt in football management with East Stirlingshire, St Mirren and Aberdeen. He achieved his greatest successes in Scottish football by instilling the belief in the Dons players that they could beat Celtic and Rangers in Glasgow, something Grant demonstrates comprehensively. Three League titles and other domestic trophies followed. When Liverpool humbled Aberdeen in the European Cup in 1980, Ferguson made notes. In 1981, holders Ipswich Town were dumped out of the UEFA Cup. By 1983, the European Cup-Winners Cup and European Super Cup had both been secured.
For those who have a one-dimensional view of Ferguson as the red-nosed grandee of the Sky era, Grant’s stories about his pragmatism and his willingness to learn from his mistakes – even to admit them – paint a fuller picture. An argument in the wake of a Scottish Cup tie in March 1985, for example, saw striker Frank McDougall punch Ferguson to the ground. The manager was canny enough to realise that the club’s top scorer had to stay in the side irrespective; a matter of weeks later the Dons retained the League title. Long before he joined Manchester United, Ferguson knew what it took to be a winner.
In search of
Louis van Gaal
by Hugo Borst
Yellow Jersey Press, £9.99
Reviewed by Jonathan O’Brien
From WSC 337 March 2015
Hugo Borst was supposed to analyse the 2014 World Cup for viewers of Dutch television. Instead, however, he spent the tournament lazing around on a sofa in the NOS studios, petting his dog and quaffing bottles of red wine, while saying hardly anything in the entire month. Not so much punditry as performance art – and a penny for the thoughts of whoever signs NOS’s cheques.
Borst and Louis van Gaal used to be close friends – the way Borst tells it, anyway – but fell out when Van Gaal accused Borst of giving his mobile phone number to another journalist. Borst’s long-standing obsession with his former pal has now reached its deranged apotheosis in this ludicrous but strangely compelling book, which has been translated from the original Dutch in the wake of Van Gaal’s move to Manchester United. Determined to saw his way through the layers of obstinacy and arrogance in order to unearth the “real” Van Gaal, he decides to analyse his hero/nemesis through the prism of psychology – and to get other people to do it.
So Borst ropes in a succession of Dutch experts in their own fields to make sense of the managerial martinet. If you’ve ever wanted to know what a stand-up comedian makes of Van Gaal (“He goes against the grain of the times we’re living in”), or how a politician regards him (“There are signs that he’s mellowing”), fill your boots. Luckily, some of the contributions are more illuminating. A priest, pondering Van Gaal’s publicly stated renunciation of God and all religion after his wife died of cancer, muses: “It’s understandable, of course. Who else are you going to hold responsible? It’s a mystery. The mystery of suffering. Where does it come from, and why? And why am I the one to suffer?” The cleric concludes that Van Gaal finds salvation in “unrelenting hard work [and] achieving results”.
There are times when Borst wanders onto somewhat dubious ground. Hiring a psychiatrist to analyse a third party who they’ve never even met is fatuous at best, and deeply crass at worst. The bit where he rings up Ronald de Boer to ask if Van Gaal uses Botox makes you feel embarrassed for him. And was it really necessary to pick over the contents of a long-ago phone conversation between Van Gaal and the doomed Robert Enke, when the latter was about to sign for Barcelona?
Borst just about gets away with all this because his way with words is undeniably very entertaining (either that or the translator did an extraordinary job with the raw material). His authorial voice, gently sarky and sardonic without ever quite overdoing it, puts you in mind of another Dutch writer, Herman Koch, whose deceptively serene tales of middle-class viciousness have found a wide audience both in the Netherlands and outside it. Sure enough, it comes as little surprise when Koch himself turns up on page 100, musing on how Van Gaal reminds him of one of his old teachers at school. A weird book, but despite its numerous lapses of good taste a fun one.