333 VanGaalby Maarten Meijer
Ebury Press, £14.99
Reviewed by Joyce Woolridge
From WSC 333 November 2014

Buy this book

 

“When you traced the roots of the successful teams at the 2010 World Cup, every clue pointed back to one man: Louis van Gaal.” Maarten Meijer’s carefully researched biography is not afraid to make big claims for its subject. While conceding that credit is also due to Joachim Löw, Bert van Marwijk and Vicente del Bosque, Meijer argues that the controversial coach’s influence, through his work at Bayern Munich, Ajax and Barcelona, principally shaped the personnel, playing style and tactics of three of the four semi-finalists in South Africa. The book was finished before Holland’s unexpectedly barnstorming campaign in Brazil this summer and Germany’s victory (albeit also the Spanish collapse), which might serve as additional support for Meijer’s thesis on the extent of Van Gaal’s impact on European football.

It remains to be seen whether Van Gaal’s tenure at Old Trafford will provide further proof of the genius of “one of football’s most gifted architects”. The brief coda which deals with his United appointment, while stating the obvious that the £200 million “war chest” supposedly on offer “may have been an additional attraction” for Van Gaal, goes on to make the equally obvious observation that “he needs a new defence and a new midfield”. The final paragraph speculates that United will be his last management job and “he will want to go out with a bang, knowing that this is how he will be remembered not only in Manchester but in the entire world of football”, but reserves judgment on what sort of explosion Van Gaal will cause.

Meijer’s primary purpose in writing this heavyweight, thoughtful study, following his two previous biographies of Dick Advocaat and Guus Hiddink, is to balance the media caricature of Van Gaal, the crude stereotype of a lumbering, bombastic, dictatorial ex-PE teacher, ranting at the press and indulging in eccentric and bizarre behaviour (trouser-dropping, self-penned, excruciating poetry-reading) occasionally deemed akin to madness. Like Alex Ferguson, Meijer argues, Van Gaal is a man so out of style that he has become a “poster boy for the old-school, omnipotent, teacher-knows-best style of management”. So often following the boots of Johan Cruyff, as both player and coach, he has been cast as the anti-Cruyff, whereas his work should often be seen as complementary, Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Barcelona being an amalgam of the philosophy of both coaches. In consequence there has been serious underestimation, if not misrepresentation, of Van Gaal’s talents and achievements. The real Van Gaal is more flexible and democratic in management and tactics, more humane and caring one-to-one.

Not that Meijer’s generally sympathetic account whitewashes over Van Gaal’s failings, or the barrage of criticism he has received, dealing with both at length. The most entertaining chapter predictably concerns Van Gaal’s fractious relations with the press. As boss of Ajax, he received a deliciously pompous letter from the Dutch Reporters’ Association, complaining press conferences were being “disgraced by vulgar shouting matches. This aggressive approach perhaps guarantees success with young, docile players but it is inappropriate at a press conference at which adult people are present”. At the next conference, in classic teacher mode, he asked those who signed it to put up their hands. Not one “adult” person did.

As a compatriot, Meijer could perhaps be forgiven his own excursions into national stereotypes. Van Gaal, he says, must be fundamentally understood as a typical Amsterdamer and Dutchman – hardnosed, unshakeably convinced he is right, highly focused, pig-headed, difficult to get along with and rebellious. Or as one journalist put it more succinctly: “An asshole, but certainly a competent asshole.”

Buy this book

329 MourinhoThe secret world 
of José Mourinho
by Diego Torres (translated by Pete Jenson)
Harper Sport, £12.99
Reviewed by David Stubbs
From WSC 329 July 2014

Buy this book

 

José Mourinho is a strange, as well as a special, one. He seems quite consciously and gleefully to play up to the stereo-type of a conniving practitioner of cunning tricks and brazen gamesmanship – a living affirmation of the lower morals of the southern European sort, with decent Englishmen being advised to be on their guard and lock up their wives and daughters should he attempt to beguile them with his oily ways. He revels in obnoxiousness, in his fist-pumping touchline displays, his churlish barbs against officials and fellow colleagues. His "specialist in failure" sneer about Arsène Wenger was particularly lacking in grace. Yet, get past his poor etiquette and you have to admire the fine honing of that particular verbal dagger – the word "specialist" had a particular genius when applied to the professorial yet long-time trophyless Arsenal manager.

Behind this mischievous smokescreen of public hullabaloo, you suspect a genius is at work; a master of tactics, albeit that systematically squeeze the joy out of football as an attacking, free-flowing spectacle, as well as a certain psychological understanding of how to handle players, despite never having been one himself at the top level.

This, you would assume, is Mourinho's secret world and the secret to his success. There's very little of that, however, in Diego Torres's exposé of his time as manager at Real Madrid, the period covered exclusively by this book. The author's contempt for Mourinho bristles on every page – a Machiavellian operator more obsessed with his self-image than the club he happens to be managing at any particular time, at odds with his key players, with too close and unhealthy a relationship with the agent Jorge Mendes, over-promoting players in his fold, alienating those represented elsewhere, unsportsmanlike, disrespectful to his fellow professionals (including a sneaky poke in the eye of an opposite number during a Barcelona game) and ultimately a person with far too high an opinion of himself and his tactical skills.

The book begins with Mourinho in floods of tears when he learns that he's been passed over for the job of Manchester United manager in favour of David Moyes. Disastrous as that decision was for United, could it be that Ferguson cannily envisaged catastrophe of a similar sort had Mourinho and his ego landed at Old Trafford, with Mendes not far behind? Maybe he had some inkling of the behind-the-scenes goings-on related in Torres's account.

We read that Mourinho's tactic was to turn "the control of information into a fine art" – whether to the press, with players briefed heavily on what they were to say in interviews, or to the players themselves, exploiting their fear of being marginalised in the team. However, this only served to create dressing room divisions at Real Madrid, most importantly of all with his captain Iker Casillas. Moreover, his insistence on applying his customised "high pressure triangle" formation regardless of the players he had at his disposal, who he regarded as mere "assembly line" components, frequently backfired, as in a 5-0 thrashing against Barcelona in the 2010-11 season.

There's an element of literary licence at work; Torres recounts entire, paragraph-long dressing room tirades from the manager verbatim, filled with hysterical insults like "traitors" and "sons of bitches", clearly fed to him by players on the receiving end of them (there is no shortage of suspects) but which no one could possibly remember word for word. For all that, and the partiality of the author, this account rings and reads true.

Buy this book

327 RoslerMy autobiography
by Uwe Rösler & David Clayton
Trinity Mirror, £16.99
Reviewed by John Van Laer
From WSC 327 May 2014

Buy this book

 

Uwe Rösler is one of the best-known German footballers to have played in England but is widely regarded in his homeland as nothing more than a journeyman striker. Somewhat injury-prone and sporadically effective at various clubs in Germany before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Rösler's cult status among Manchester City fans remains a mystery to those whose only memory of him is for playing in East Germany's last-ever international fixture in 1990.

His autobiography is yet to appear in German (although each chapter has a title in his native language) but is certainly not just aimed at diehard City fans. As the title suggests, much of Knocking Down Walls deals with his childhood in East Germany and the opportunities afforded by the collapse of the communist system after 1989. He seems keenly aware of the important role in his personal development played by his years in the East German sporting system. Remarkably, neither of his parents were Communist Party members but that didn't prevent the young Rösler from being offered a prized place in the academy system at Lokomotive Leipzig, one of the biggest names in East German football. Rigid discipline and pressure to succeed became part of daily life for all trainees, in a world where seniority was defined by the canteen tokens their performance merited rather than financial rewards.

However, Rösler's temper and unwillingness to accept gradual progression to the first team in Leipzig resulted in his first managerial bust-up and a subsequent transfer to a lower-division team. Such impulsive behaviour became something of a feature of his career, colouring his image in Germany and flaring up most publicly in his outburst at then City manager Alan Ball, who had dropped Rösler from the starting XI for a Manchester derby.

His time in England certainly never featured anything as intimidating as being interviewed by the Stasi (East Germany's secret police), who threatened to end his footballing career if he refused to become an informant. After this experience, Rösler rarely seems to have been fazed by any negative developments, not even the aggressive tumour in his chest that ended his playing career in Norway and left him with just a five per cent chance of survival.

Since recovering from cancer, his managerial career has described a gradual ascent – first at three clubs in the Norwegian top flight before being given the chance to return to English football at Brentford, a club for which Rösler seemed to have developed a real, and reciprocated, affection. One of the quirks of footballers' autobiographies is that they often end on phrases such as "hopefully, we can really make things happen over the next few seasons" only for the author to move on shortly after publication. This book is no exception but Rösler's departure was not acrimonious and his genial personality and professionalism won him many friends during his tenure at Griffin Park.

Indeed, the majority of chapters about his time playing and managing in England and Norway are written with great affection for his adopted homes. While much of his early career was very different to anything experienced by young professionals in England, there are sections of the book that follow a pattern common to many footballing autobiographies: anecdotes about favourite team-mates and unpopular managers, big matches and training ground incidents. However, the historical context and Rösler's willingness to embrace challenges give Knocking Down Walls something a little different, and it will be interesting to see where his ambition and attitude can take him.

Buy this book

325 BuckleyMy story
by Alan Buckley with Paul Thundercliffe
Matador, £18.99
Reviewed by Tom Lines
From WSC 325 March 2014

Buy this book

 

Alan Buckley sits just above Matt Busby in the League Managers Association's Hall of Fame. Admittedly the list is organised alphabetically (it recognises the 18 managers who have taken charge of over 1,000 games in England) but Buckley's story is certainly worthy of closer examination. Not simply because of his record – he took Third Division Walsall to a League Cup semi-final against Liverpool and achieved back-to-back promotions at Grimsby – but the manner in which his teams played. Buckley was a sort of anti-John Beck, achieving success at unfashionable clubs on shoestring budgets by playing an unusually attractive brand of passing football.

From his early days as an apprentice at Nottingham Forest it is clear that Buckley has one eye on his long-term future and he recounts the bafflement of Forest's coaching staff when, at the age of 16, he casually announces that he has enrolled on an FA coaching course.Unable to establish himself at the City Ground, Buckley made his name as a prolific lower-league striker at Walsall, scoring over 20 goals in five consecutive seasons and earning a move to the First Division with Birmingham City in 1978. Persuaded to return to Fellows Park the following year, he became player-manager aged just 28, embarking on a 30-year career in management that included successful spells at Walsall and Grimsby as well as unhappier times at West Brom (his one shot at managing a "big" club), Lincoln and Rochdale.

Buckley is, by his own admission, an awkward character. Spiky, quick to anger and with little interest in what he dismisses as "the PR side of football" he spends a fair bit of time here recalling his bad behaviour and then apologising to those who were on the receiving end.

Many of the book's best moments involve the late Walsall chairman Ken Wheldon. A scrap metal dealer by trade, Wheldon has a mysterious padlocked phone in his office and is described as looking "exactly like Poirot", something confirmed by the inclusion of a photograph of him standing next to a man dressed as Elton John. The fact that, on closer inspection, it actually is Elton John reminds you what a reassuringly strange place football was in the 1980s. When Dave Mackay is linked with the Walsall job, Buckley demands to know whether there is any truth in the rumour. Wheldon spends half an hour rubbishing the stories and, suitably reassured, Buckley leaves his office – only to pass Mackay sitting in reception.

Buckley's time at Grimsby is more successful on the pitch but not as entertaining off it and the closing chapters are the most personal; his career enters a flat spin and he writes eloquently about the turmoil of being unable to turn around a failing team. For his longevity Buckley deserves his place in managerial history. But it's his dogged commitment to playing "the right way" that marks him out as one of the game's more intriguing characters.

Buy this book

324 Chapmanby Patrick Barclay
Orion, £20
Reviewed by David Stubbs
From WSC 324 February 2014

Buy this book

 

Herbert Chapman is, with some justification, known as the great moderniser of English football – the old Highbury stadium with its art deco features was a monument to his forward thinking, in keeping with broader developments in the earlier 20th century. Chapman it was who insisted that the manager, rather than the directors, pick the team, who imagined the role of floodlights in games and numbers on shirts, who adapted quickest tactically to changes in the rules of football in the way he balanced attack and defence, who picked a black player. Of course, modernisation is a double-edged blade – he also took a dim view of union membership among players and early on proposed that Orient be used as a "feeder" club for Arsenal, a notion that doubtless appalled their fans then as much as it would today.

His status as a visionary is indisputable, however, given that he grew up in a footballing era when crossbars were still optional, when goalkeepers were allowed to handle, though not hold, the ball anywhere in their own half, and "hacking" or kicking on the shins was only just dying out as one of the manly characteristics of the less than beautiful game.

Having achieved triple League success with Huddersfield Town, Chapman turned his attention south – he dreamt of making then-trophy-less Arsenal the "Newcastle of the South", which sounded very thrilling and far fetched in the 1920s. He repeated his triple League success at Highbury before his premature death in 1934, contracting pneumonia before penicillin was widely available – one aspect of modernity that came too late to save the grand old man.

Patrick Barclay tells Chapman's story with capable thoroughness, noting that he was harshly handed a life ban for the illegal payments scandal that led to the disbanding of Leeds City, whom he managed between 1912 and 1918, but rather luckier to get away with the underhand "bungs" he offered to Charlie Buchan as compensation for losses on his sports shop business while at Arsenal. He also retells the saga of his getting representatives from Bolton Wanderers nicely drunk enough to drop their asking price for David Jack.

However, one gets the impression Barclay was hoping to discover more about Chapman from the archives than he is able to unearth. Chapman, you sense, was a man who played his cards close to his chest and didn't testify more about this methods, his thinking, his philosophy, than he needed to. We have more evidence of his works than his inner workings. Despite Barclay's efforts, he remains an elusive biographical subject. Consequently, there's a lot of "Chapman would presumably have felt" this and "Chapman would most likely have thought" that. Barclay makes up the shortfall with diverting but at times bizarrely lengthy, tenuous digressions about Marie Lloyd, Edward Elgar and the First World War.

Still, this is probably as good an account as could be expected of the life of one of football's cornerstone figures, the first great example of what a strong manager can do, given time, a free hand and his head.

Buy this book

323 WarnockThe trials and tribulations of a football manager
by Neil Warnock
Headline £16.99
Reviewed by Roger Titford
From WSC 323 January 2014

Buy this book

 

Outside Yorkshire people would call Neil Warnock's bluntness "refreshing", but I had enough relatives from the county to realise he is just talking normally, apart from the strange absence of any swearing. Warnock takes us well beyond the angry and abusive figure he was on the touchline to give perhaps one of the last accounts of being a manager from an English, old-school perspective, stretching across all the divisions.

He is prepared to name those he does not like, bears a few grievances (and why not after 33 years as a manager) and offers a few telling insights into the managerial mind. Some clubs have apparently switched the position of the home and away dug-outs, the better to berate the linesman running the right wing – no stone left unturned in the modern game.

Warnock has aired his views by means of a weekly column in the Independent (which I have not read and therefore cannot tell how much, if any, is rehashed). For The Gaffer he has employed the Independent's Glenn Moore to bring some polish to his thoughts. The pleasing result is an unusual structure, more reminiscent of fiction than biography. At times it reads like the musings of an after-dinner speaker reviewing his whole career through the prism of his current and recent jobs. The benefit to the well-informed fan is that you do not know what is going to come next, as you would with a more chronological approach.

The disadvantage, of course, is the reader might not get what they expect. I would have preferred more on his time at Bramall Lane. For me, and for the football world in general I think, this was the apotheosis of Warnock: ardent supporter turned successful manager and tragically undone in 2007 by managerial "friends" Alex Ferguson and Rafa Benítez, who picked weakened teams against Sheffield United's relegation rivals, and the dodgy Carlos Tévez deal.

Instead the focus is very much on later years with unstinting praise for Simon Jordan, once chairman of Crystal Palace, and the club's fans. This is followed by a detailed account of life at Loftus Road under the auspices of various uncontrollable international business moguls and in charge of difficult talents such as Joey Barton and Adel Taarabt. The job did not get any easier with the Anton Ferdinand and John Terry affair, which gets a close and dispassionate examination.

Warnock conveys a very strong sense of the manager's role being invaded and undermined by non-football issues inconceivable when he started at Scarborough and Notts County, hence the sub-title of this book. Nevertheless he remains hooked on the thrills and changing fortunes of football management. After QPR he took on Leeds, Ken Bates and a foreign takeover and the final few pages read more like another job application than a farewell to a boisterous 33 years of hurt.

Buy this book

323 KendallMy life in football
by Howard Kendall
De Coubertin Books, £20
Reviewed by Simon Hart
From WSC 323 January 2014

Buy this book

 

There is a lovely anecdote in Howard Kendall's new autobiography about the day he signed Dave Watson for Everton from Norwich City. It was two days before the start of the 1986-87 season and Kendall's attempt to complete the deal by five o'clock, so ensuring Watson's availability for the opening fixture, had failed. Undeterred, he had the clock on the wall turned back an hour and got Watson to pose for a photo beneath it. "The Football League accepted it and Dave made his debut," he writes.

Timing is a recurring theme in this recounting of Kendall's career. He was ahead of his time as both a player and manager. He became the youngest player in an FA Cup final when, at 17 years and 345 days, he appeared for Preston against West Ham in 1964. At 20 he was wanted by Bill Shankly but joined Everton instead. He entered management with Blackburn at 33, winning promotion immediately. With Everton, he won the League, FA Cup and European Cup-Winners Cup before his 39th birthday.

So much so young, yet Kendall's timing was out in one crucial respect: the post-Heysel ban denied Everton European Cup football and he cites this as the reason he left for Athletic Bilbao in 1987 (as a 45-year-old Alex Ferguson was still settling in at Old Trafford). Familiar stuff but what is new here is the revelation that an unnamed "Liverpool executive" had recommended him to Athletic after blocking their move for Kenny Dalglish – a "grim irony" indeed for Evertonians.

Written with James Corbett, who collaborated on Neville Southall's autobiography, Love Affairs & Marriage: My Life in Football is very much what the second part of the title tells us. As befits an old-school gentleman, Kendall barely mentions his private life and dwells only briefly on potential controversies such as his departure from Notts County amid "ridiculous allegations" (unspecified here but drink-related). Yet there is much to enjoy nonetheless, not least the account of how he assembled his great Everton side in an era when a manager could create something special with a combination of homegrown talents, astute transfer dealings (he recalls the gambles taken on the injury-prone Peter Reid and Andy Gray), a trusting chairman – and morale-building Chinese dinners.

Kendall, with his man-management skills and love of the training pitch, differed so much from his own Everton boss Harry Catterick – from whom, he notes, he learned just one football lesson in six and a half years – yet the big question mark of his career is why after so much early success, his only subsequent trophy was an Anglo-Italian Cup with Notts County in 1995. Kendall reflects on his two less happy spells at Goodison in the 1990s, noting the lack of boardroom support and arguing that the influx of big money into the game meant it was no longer possible to build success on a budget. "Players were harder to sign," laments the man whose first Everton buy, Southall, was recommended by a friend who ran a Llandudno pub. The end result is he was effectively finished as a manager at just 52 – a man out of time once more.

Buy this book

323 Svenby Sven-Göran Eriksson
Headline, £20
Reviewed by Barney Ronay
From WSC 323 January 2014

Buy this book

 

When it comes to blockbusting autumn autobiographies this was always destined to be the Other One. Ah, Sven. Is there a more glazed, jaded and – here at least – unexpectedly fascinating major player in English football's most recent decade of plenty? Sven-Göran Eriksson may not have Alex Ferguson's trophy haul, planetary-scale publisher's advance or enduring sense of heft. He may have spent the last five seasons in retreat from the years of Peak Sven, when he seemed permanently ensconced among the sober suited managerial elite, catnip to the billionaire, darling of the tabloids, golden-handshaked by assorted FAs and fossil-fuel newbie-powers.

He may have emerged at the end of it all, at least judging by Sven: My Story, as an oddly chastened and soulful one-time master of the universe, assailed not just by law suits and malevolent ex-girlfriends but by doubts, fears and regrets. But he definitely has the more interesting book, and by some distance too. In fact My Story is a genuine treat from its oddly fractured opening pages, all present tense and angsty, existential regret – "it is early December and the first snow has just arrived" – the football manager's autobiography as reimagined by Bret Easton Ellis.

As early as page six we find Sven being swindled out of his fortune by a financial adviser and dismissing Nancy Dell'Olio with "We met in Rome during my time at Lazio. She was irresistible, then". This is the familiar softly spoken, equivocal Sven, but fretted now with melancholy and producing after some delicately sketched lines on his childhood ("I was born into secrecy") one of the more memorable football books of recent years.

There is a brilliant, and at times rather forgotten, managerial story in here: from the rise to precocious success at IFK Gothenburg, to glory in Portugal and Italy, to the initially giddy England years. There are plenty of laughs, many of them unintentional (as a young man Sven wrote a doctoral thesis on the 4-4-2 formation, and its unbending application in all circumstances). And there is footballing insight too, from the "revolution against individualism" of Sweden's tactical awakening in the 1970s (sped by the young Roy Hodgson), through Sven's dealings with Boniek, Baggio, Beckham and the rest.

Plus there is of course lots of sex. Before long we're hearing about Sven's first girlfriend whose father "ran a support group for people who had been caught shooting moose illegally". Later indiscretions include the occasion Sven was discovered reclining nude on the sofa of a cuckolded husband and ended up walking home through the streets of Stockholm without his trousers, through the familiar tabloid narrative of Nancy, Ulrika Jonsson and assorted others.

Throughout it is a strangely taut and vulnerable account, with a jarring skin of honesty. This is not so much a football book as the story of a man trapped in a series of scenes, a machinery of desire and ambition that seems at times to have overwhelmed him. Towards the end, while coaching in China, Sven describes going out for a bicycle ride on his own just after reading the proofs of My Story for the first time. "I felt depressed. Where had the years gone? My children? Friends? The women? Time? It hurt to think back."

Buy this book

321 ManagerInside the minds of football's leaders
by Mike Carson
Bloomsbury in association with the League Managers Association, £16.99
Reviewed by Barney Ronay
From WSC 321 November 2013

Buy this book

 

Often when reviewing a book it is customary to quote one of the best bits at the start to give a little flavour of what treats can be found within its pages. This isn't an easy thing to do with The Manager. Mainly because there aren't any best bits, or even any good bits to speak of – apart from occasional unintentionally good bits, such as the passage that starts off by quoting St Francis of Assisi and Stephen Covey "best-selling author of The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People" (me neither) before ploughing into a passage on the philosophy of Neil Warnock (yes that one).

On the other hand despite its lack of good bits, its muscular banality – the literary equivalent of a long and tedious game of squash – The Manager is also a considerable achievement in its own right. Most notably it takes one of the more mercurial and thrillingly baroque aspects of English football and turns it into something so unrelentingly laborious that this book, which is sponsored by the League Managers Association and the Premier League, should come with a warning not to operate heavy machinery or drive late at night should you accidentally find yourself reading more than a paragraph or two.

Yet this is perhaps a little unfair. In reality The Manager is barely a book at all, more a kind of how-to guide aimed not at football fans but at business-minded people: leaders, rain-makers, ladder-climbers, even football managers themselves. This lumping together of football and corporate managerdom is a process that has been in train for some time, but it is given a fresh twist here. The first secretary-mangers would often borrow the mannerisms and vocabulary of clerks or factory foremen.

In the 1950s a socially mobile breed of manager took up the coat and hat of the ambitious junior sales manager. The 1980s brought with them a breed of Thatcherite manager-made-good, the Big Ron-ish notion of the manager as self-made man and flash git. With the celebrification of the modern manager – and with football generally bleeding into every other walk of life – this is now a process that has increasingly been reversed. The corporate world looks to football, borrowing the manager's habits, mannerisms and – as here – musings on success, the leadership of men and the rest of it.

Perhaps for this reason the book seems to describe an unfamiliar footballing world. In part this is because it presents a version of football completely robbed of any humour, becoming in the process at times quite funny – favourite chapter heading: "Seeing The Bigger Picture (Harry Redknapp)" – and in part this is because it is simply very dull.

Poring over the cracker motto banalities ("if there is a lesson to take from this it is the tendency of great leaders to take ownership of their situations. In the words of Mick McCarthy...") it is tempting to conclude that the real problem with The Manager is managers themselves. When they talk about football English managers just aren't very interesting. Instead they are famously dull, anti-academic and light on any coherent management theory. Particularly when, as here, what they have to say is presented unquestioningly, without context, irony, analysis or any of the things most people who like football like about football.

Buy this book

318 HarryInside the mind of Harry Redknapp
by John Crace
Constable Books, £18.99
Reviewed by Jonathan O'Brien
From WSC 318 August 2013

Buy this book

 

A little over a year ago, Harry Redknapp had it all. Spurs were well on course for a Champions League place, Redknapp himself had won his courtroom battle with the taxman and he was in pole position for the England job. And if he didn't get the latter, he had a contingency plan for the summer: a lucrative and cushy slot analysing Euro 2012 for the BBC.

Other than the tax case, none of it worked out. Spurs tumbled into the Europa League for another year, Roy Hodgson took England to Ukraine and Redknapp is out of the top flight entirely, facing a season in the Championship with a dreadful QPR team. Even the Euro 2012 gig turned sour when Redknapp sheepishly stood down from the BBC panel after Daniel Levy called his bluff over a pay rise.

Harry's Games, a generally positive (and occasionally adoring) biography, would have seemed well timed at another moment, but parts of it read a little strangely in the summer of 2013. Redknapp sharply divides opinion among the public: some lap up his man-of-the-people clubbability, while others see him as shady and having too many fingers in pies. John Crace writes here that the aim is to find an accurate midpoint between the two extremes, though it's obvious the author cleaves more to the former than the latter.

A Guardian journalist and Spurs fan, Crace has been dealt a slightly awkward hand, with none of Redknapp's friends or confidantes willing to speak to him on the record. So a lot – though not all – of the book is a cuttings job, albeit a thorough and solidly written one. The problem is that he lays his cards on the table early on and keeps them there, announcing that he's "not ashamed to love" Redknapp and talking at length about the man's charisma and common touch. The words "national treasure" are used, and not sarcastically. You wonder exactly how much you can trust a biographer who openly admits to being in lust with his subject.

Crace's strengths are his thoroughness and prosecraft, and Harry's Game is an easy, diverting read if nothing else. Redknapp's first couple of decades in football were resolutely unglamorous: his time as an injury-plagued winger for West Ham is analysed through the prism of the fear he would have felt whenever another caveman full-back was lunging in to clatter him. Retiring early, he fetched up at Bournemouth, where his first match in charge ended in a 9-0 defeat.

The West Ham years, where Redknapp seemed to be signing four players a week at one stage, were chaotic. "Harry just loved a deal," an anonymous former West Ham board member tells Crace. "It was almost as if it were a drug." Crace notes later that while Redknapp has a tendency to "stay in the black" when trading players, it has a bad effect on the players themselves, who don't like being passed around like pieces of meat.

With QPR down, few expect Redknapp to hang around for long. Crace finished the book just before the relegation and rounds it off by speculating on Redknapp's chances of pulling off another Houdini act, to cement his reputation as "one of football's greatest ever survivors". Perhaps, but mere survival isn't the kind of thing that a man like Redknapp settles for.

Buy this book

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