After reading the back cover blurb, where this account of footballers’ lives is described as “the ultimate where are they now”, one is prepared for a horrifying catalogue of alcohol and drug addiction, marriage break-ups, disability, bankruptcy, prison sentences and suicides. Perhaps fortunately, the content doesn’t truly warrant this apocalyptic preview.
How Chuck Blazer got rich from – and sold out – the most powerful cabal in world sports
by Mary Papenfuss & Teri Thompson
Reviewed by Alan Tomlinson
From WSC 353 July 2016
Chuck Blazer: the Father Christmas lookalike whose weight had mushroomed to 450lbs by the time the FBI and the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS) nobbled him on the Manhattan pavement outside his Trump Tower base in November 2011. This was just under a year after FIFA’s decision to award the next two World Cups to Russia and Qatar, and while a generation of FIFA powerbrokers and crooks was beginning to shatter the silence of a long-held code of omertà.
The men who taught the world how to beat England at their own game
by Rory Smith
Simon & Schuster, £18.99
Reviewed by Andy Brassell
From WSC 353 July 2016
Mister is the story of England’s (and its coaches’) role as a football missionary, spreading the gospel across the continent and beyond until the point when the pupils overtake the master – and keep going until the latter is a mere dot in the distance.
Simple or sublime?
by Jack Rollin
Reviewed by Roger Titford
From WSC 351 May 2016
What a curious book this is. At first I thought it was a reprint but it is a new offering from Jack Rollin (of Rothmans Football Yearbook fame) and published by Soccerdata, the imprint of another revered statto, Tony Brown. It may have taken as its model and inspiration Geoffrey Green’s classic Soccer In The Fifties but it reads rather less fluently. Imagine a decade’s worth of the Rothmans Yearbook condensed and set to workaday prose. It’s hours of fact, the whole gamut of the game – internationals, England, Scotland, Amateurs, the Army Cup and the Varsity match – comprehensively covered. If you are about 95 years old you may well get some of those “Ah, I remember that” moments.
Football at the
by Richard Gordon
Black and White, £9.99
Reviewed by Gordon Cairns
From WSC 349 March 2016
“Tales From The Technical Area” may have been a more pleasingly alliterative title, but the stories author Richard Gordon elicits from his subjects are generally of the more humble variety; summoning the sense of a damp bus shelter rather than a Perspex conservatory. The author is better known as the reasonable anchor man on Radio Scotland’s Sportsound among more excitable colleagues. Drawing on these radio connections he has amassed 48 interviews with a range of figures in the Scottish game. What is refreshing is that stories about Celtic and Rangers are minimal, allowing backroom staff and managers from smaller teams to tell their tales with a remarkable degree of candour.
A football commentator’s journey
by Ian Crocker
Pitch Publishing, £12.99
Reviewed by John Earls
From WSC 346 December 2015
Now in his second spell covering Scottish football for Sky Sports, Ian Crocker’s career is a potentially fascinating story of being one of commentating’s nearly men. Crocker says he was aware of his place in the hierarchy at Sky, in the rung below the channel’s big four commentators, but his defection to the ill-fated Setanta to become their top dog lasted just one season.
When the FA Cup really mattered Vol 3
by Matthew Eastley
Pitch Publishing, £14.99
Reviewed by Jonathan Paxton
From WSC 342 August 2015
It’s hard to imagine Aston Villa or even Arsenal fans looking back on this year’s FA Cup final with much nostalgia but a dip into Matthew Eastley’s entertaining trip through finals from the 1980s is a pleasant reminder of why the competition’s heritage means so much to fans of a certain age. This was a time when Cup runs excited whole communities and smaller clubs had genuine hopes of reaching Wembley and lifting the famous trophy.
The stories, told chronologically from West Ham’s win over Arsenal in 1980, are recalled by fans in their own words and the absence of journalistic hyperbole is welcome. Interviews with supporters at Wembley on the day gives the stories a down-to-earth quality and fans of all clubs will understand quirks such as the West Ham fan who stuffs his Wembley ticket in his Y-fronts for safe keeping. Referencing hit singles and news stories of the day is a standard, if predictable way of placing the events in time but, by having fans recall the horrendous fashions of the era, we identify closely with them.
The other device used by Eastley is to revisit TV coverage of the day’s build-up and match. Cup final editions of Mastermind and It’s A Knockout are recalled with little affection and one wonders how Michael Barrymore blacking up to greet John Barnes at the Watford team hotel in 1984 was ever considered appropriate. Yes, we’ve all seen Ricky Villa’s goal and Gordon Smith’s miss but Eastley still manages to maintain some tension when describing matches and even the dire 1982 final is injected with drama. Some match reports (particularly from earlier rounds) do get a little stat heavy however and transcripts of John Motson’s commentary and basic descriptions of well-known action don’t add much to our knowledge of the matches. The occasional nugget does appear though: the tragic story of Welsh international winger Alan Davies (a winner in 1983 with Manchester United) is briefly touched upon and feels like it deserves its own book.
While there is no nostalgia for hooliganism, anecdotes of fans sneaking onto the opposing terraces are written with a sense of cheeky fun but descriptions of a dilapidated Wembley and crowd congestion are ominous. For those who fail to get tickets through the official channels, going directly to touts is seen as a perfectly viable option at the time and poor policing and stewarding is the norm. The author deserves great credit for his handling of the 1989 final.
Whether a supporter of the clubs involved or not, most fans will find something to identify with here. Those around at the time will enjoy the evocative memories but for younger fans, brought up on Sky coverage and all-seat stadiums, the sport may be unrecognisable. While it will probably find more warmth in Brighton and Coventry than in Liverpool or Manchester, this is an enjoyable retrospective of a time when Cup finals did actually stay long in the memory.
The hidden story
of the Bundesliga
by Ronald Reng
Simon & Schuster, £18.99
Reviewed by John Van Laer
From WSC 341 July 2015
Its front cover shows three members of the all-conquering Bayern Munich and Germany teams of 2014, but Matchdays is not an exposé of the machinations of the modern football industry. Instead, author Ronald Reng recounts the life and experiences of Heinz Höher, a winger who played in the first seasons of the Bundesliga and went on to manage a series of clubs without ever enjoying any lasting success.
Growing up in post-war Germany, Höher had seemed to epitomise a new generation of sportsmen in the land of the economic miracle. Breaking with accepted tactical wisdom and daring to grow his hair long, he came close to playing for the national team aged 20. However, a knee injury caused by a foolhardy skiing trip in the final winter break before the start of the Bundesliga robbed him of the acceleration that had been his trademark. Unable to express himself on the field, Höher was only able to overcome his taciturn nature off it with “two beers and a shot”, on a regular basis. He was not alone in this – being able to take a drink was part of what was expected of this first generation of professional sportsmen in the new Bundesliga.
Despite his tactical innovations, modern training methods and acceptance of the role of the new medium of television in his sport, Höher was never able to reach the pinnacle of the game, whether in Germany or at his various jobs in Greece or Saudi Arabia. He remains Bochum’s longest-serving trainer, and is also the only Bundesliga manager to have survived a players’ revolt, as the president of Nuremberg chose to sack half the first-team and support Höher in a 1984 dispute. The critical problem seems to have been his inability to articulate his thoughts and ideas verbally: over the years, Höher wrote to managers, players and journalists but could not discuss problems face to face. This lack of communication cost him dearly after he moved up to the role of general manager in Nuremberg, an unsuccessful tenure that remains his last role at the top level of German football.
Höher’s later years have been a mixture of obsessive support and training of promising young players and a constant search for gainful employment to ward off the temptations of online gambling, property speculation and alcohol, all of which have cost him a large proportion of his earnings. However, now dry since 2010, the 76-year-old Höher can look back lucidly, recognising his failings as a person and as a professional. Meanwhile, he is also able to see that his beloved football is constantly reinventing itself – and can prove that modern “game-changing” innovations such as Spain playing without an out-and-out striker were in fact tried out by his VfL Bochum side in 1977.
Matchdays was awarded a major prize for non-fiction in 2013 and James Hawes’s translation from German is sometimes rather literal but retains much of the easy style of the original. If a little long at over 400 pages, this is a fascinating look back over the last 50 years of the Bundesliga, and of the changing role football continues to play in Germany.
How football lost its magic and what it could learn from the NFL
by Martin Calladine
Reviewed by Roger Titford
From WSC 341 July 2015
Martin Calladine is a disillusioned football fan who is going over to the ugly game that is American football. On his way out he offers observations on the differences between the two sports in 20 loosely connected short essays. He is an intelligent consumer of the sports, rather than a business insider or supporter activist, and brings some interesting perspectives to bear on the current failings of football. But The Ugly Game is not even a wish list, let alone a manifesto for change. There is no rigour in the comparisons; he uses the Premier League, English football and football in general interchangeably. The hugely differing structures and contexts that surround the NFL and Premier League are ignored. Calladine has a desirable destination in mind but no means of direction towards it.
The value of The Ugly Game is the fuel he provides for a more actively minded reformer. In particular there is a helpful analysis of what makes that curious billionaires’ socialist collective called the NFL tick. In entertaining fashion he unpicks the virtues of the salary cap, the draft transfer system, regulated ownership and the Rooney rule that enhances the chances of ethnic minority coaches. All of this helps to create a far more level playing field in the NFL than we see in the Premier League.
The concept of fairness is at the heart of Calladine’s thinking and he illustrates the lack of it and the need for it in apt ways. There is no prize money for winning the Superbowl but the cumulative effect of decades of prize money in the Champions League has distanced a few clubs from all the rest. Kids in the park having a pick-up game would never put all the best players on one side.
But there is more than one kind of fairness. There is no room in the NFL’s cartel of 32 clubs for a fast-rising Swansea, Hull City or Bournemouth. England and Wales support and give access to over 100 professional clubs for a population of 50 million, a sixth of the size of the US. While Calladine looks forward to more American football at Wembley he makes no reference to the, perhaps larger, trade going the other way – the strong and recent growth of soccer in the US.
There are strong chapters on the misuse of statistics and the weak analysis proffered by Alan Hansen and Alan Shearer compared with what US audiences receive and he has the occasional arresting phrase, such as “identikit tattooed greyhounds” to describe the modern footballer. Yet despite taking this high ground the whole work is disfigured by a peppering of snide asides about Pelé’s potency, Peter Beardsley’s looks, Titus Bramble’s brains and so on. Random photos with lame captions that drift like tumbleweed undermine what is an insightful work on fairness and power. One expects there will be more in this canon of “modern football is rubbish” from those freshly deserting the game. Indeed this is not the only football book with this title currently on sale.