From the gutter to the stars – the ad man who saved Brighton
by Dick Knight
Vision Sports, £20
Reviewed by Drew Whitworth
From WSC 325 March 2014
Dick Knight, chairman of Brighton and Hove Albion from 1997 to 2009, would never claim to have single-handedly saved the club. Yet in this autobiography he acknowledges that he was the "leader of an army" that rescued the Seagulls, an alliance of club and fans that not only won the right to build a new stadium, but saw the team win two divisional titles and a play-off final under Knight's tenure. The very existence and relative success of Albion in 2013 has earned him the right to tell his side of the story.
Knight can add little to the two fine books (Build A Bonfire and We Want Falmer) already written about the fight to oust former chairman Bill Archer and build a new stadium, though he does confirm the essential roles played by John Prescott, Brighton & Hove council and the Football Association's David Davies; the villains of the piece (including Archer, chief executive David Bellotti and Lewes District Council) are also familiar characters to those who know the history.
However, there is plenty of new insight within the book. Knight is a football fan but also a businessman or, more accurately, a man who knows business, having made his name in marketing (the "Hello Boys" Wonderbra ad being his most famous creation). These skills were constantly used to good effect during his time in charge of Brighton, including masterstrokes such as the nine-year Skint Records shirt sponsorship and Knight's direct input into fan-led campaigns.
He also offers a relatively rare insider view of club chairmanship, often amusingly. He openly tells other chairmen that the Albion player they are about to buy is injury-prone or has disciplinary problems, but the sales proceed anyway. He discusses how American Express, the current stadium and shirt sponsors, were sold the deal on its community and corporate social responsibility values, rather than as a way of increasing brand awareness – which as Knight points out, they do not need.
This commitment to the Brighton & Hove community was central to Knight's success as chairman, and it is clear in the book how he is as proud of the club's award-winning Albion in the Community programme as anything won the pitch. Towards the end of the book, excellently ghost-written by the Times' Nick Szczepanik and David Knight, there is a guarded but obvious critique of the new regime regarding how they view this part of the club's operations.
There is frustration in parts of Mad Man, particularly regarding how his time as Brighton's chairman ended, but generally Knight writes with the justified self-satisfaction of someone who took on a job at the worst possible moment and nevertheless saw his goals achieved. Via a form at the back of the book, Knight also offers Albion fans a chance to buy some of his remaining shares in the club to ensure they will always have a voice on the board. His "man of the people" credentials are firm and this book shows why he will never go short of a drink in Sussex.
The secret history of women's football
by Tim Tate
John Blake, £17.99
Reviewed by Georgina Turner
From WSC 324 February 2014
"The secret history of women's football" seems a tall promise for those of us who are interested in the women's game. The story of the pioneering team formed in the yard of the Dick, Kerr factory in Preston in 1917, which is the one the author highlights from the book's start, is not a "secret" to anyone who has read Gail Newsham or Barbara Jacobs' books on the subject. Happily, both authors are among those credited in later chapters – by which point Tim Tate's assurance that his is a "more rounded" account of the early days has been well met.
Told in 14 short chapters, the book hops this way and that across the globe. The episodic structure allows tales of social conditions – cotton famine, for example, class friction, suffrage, world war, factory life, Spanish flu, enduring misogyny – to sit alongside and contextualise the various attempts to establish women's football in the UK before the FA's outright ban in 1921 made things next to impossible.
The correlation between the FA's decision and Dick, Kerr's landmark match at Goodison Park on Boxing Day 1920 is probably one of the most well-known moments in this history. With the FA already irked at its billing as a cup final, the match attracted a crowd of 53,000, with at least 10,000 more out in the streets – at a time when some men's league matches were struggling for double figures. It was one in the eye, all right, but the book does a good job of fleshing out the FA's relationship with the women's game, one that bore the brunt of the FA's frustration at its own haplessness. Having been shown up by illegal payments and match-fixing in men's football, the FA set its jaw at signs that the Dick, Kerr manager might be taking home more than his expenses.
There are excerpts from contemporary records and write-ups throughout the book, whose cadence (not to mention their moral outrage) transports you back in time. "The husbands – what about them!" yelps a reporter from the Westminster Gazette in 1895, as the mythical Nettie Honeyball explains that several players at the British Ladies' Football Club are married. These curios allow the book to chart an interesting shift in press commentary, from the contemptible wagon circling ahead of BLFC's first fixture to the generally positive coverage of Dick, Kerr's charity matches, and sometimes thoughtful reaction to new developments. When a woman applied for a place on a referees' course, for instance, the papers thought it a question worth pondering. Alas they soon succumbed to the briefings of men concerned about the innards of the next generation of mothers, and the FA's refusal to accept female applicants settled in to fact.
Reading this book feels much like walking around an exhibition: Tate has curated a collection of artefacts that can be enjoyed for themselves but together offer the reader a real feel for the journey that women's football has been on. There is considerable overuse of the phrase "would come back to haunt the sport", but this probably says more about that journey, set back and off course by the same troubles over and again, than it does about the author. For an illustration of the suffocating habits of committees of "old farts", look no further.
The unknown story of football's true talent spotters
by Michael Calvin
Reviewed by Terry Staunton
From WSC 322 December 2013
Shaun O'Connor arrived at the Potters Bar pitches to check on the progress of some under-12 players who'd shown potential, but when the referee for a neighbouring game between teams of under-9s failed to show, he volunteered to officiate. He was about to start a new job with Arsenal's academy and one eight-year-old, playing on the wing for Luton, caught his eye.
"This kid was quick. His close control, running with the ball, was the best I'd ever seen. He had fantastic balance, and didn't mind leaving his foot in. He had that nasty streak you need, had such a will to win." The kid in question was Jack Wilshere, but while there's an obvious romanticism to O'Connor's right-place, right-time tale, it's hardly typical of the experiences of the scouts Michael Calvin, a writer for the Independent On Sunday, focuses on in this engrossing book.
True, there are equally fortuitous stories about the discoveries of the likes of Raheem Sterling and Jack Butland, but for the most part the author paints a picture of an aspect of the football world where the hours are long and lonely, while the rewards are few. More common are the examples of scouts dragging themselves to lower-league and youth matches for little more than petrol money and a half-time sandwich, the unsung shadows of the game where talent-spotters spend as much time watching each other for leads as they do the action on the pitch.
The bottom end of the business offers little in the way of job security, Calvin finds, as changes in the higher echelons of a club can result in new brooms bringing in their own people to scour the UK and beyond for the future Wilsheres of the game. He also draws intriguing contrasts between clubs' attitudes to scouting; whereas one unnamed old school manager has yet to embrace email, David Moyes went as far as setting up a "secret" room at Everton where sports scientists and strategists kept him updated via the internet on as many as 200 potential signings at any one time.
Calvin learns that this modern approach owes a lot to Billy Beane, the American baseball figure whose use of statistical analysis turned around the underperforming Oakland Athletics, a rags-to-riches story that became the Oscar-nominated film Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt as Beane. Arguably, the shift towards such practices has been propelled by the influx of US owners into the English game, but television and the internet play equally significant roles, the availability of matches to be watched and rewatched meaning clubs are less reliant on the humble bloke on the terraces scribbling away in a notebook.
Ultimately, The Nowhere Men scores on two fronts: as a history of scouting and its increasingly quaint and outdated traditions, and as a pointer towards the more scientific methods that look likely to determine how most future stars are found and nurtured, as the financial investments – and potential payoffs – grow ever larger.
The remarkable story of football on television
by Brian Barwick
Andre Deutsch, £18.99
Reviewed by Roger Titford
From WSC 321 November 2013
There's one memorable phrase in this book, describing the television pictures from the 1970 World Cup in Mexico as "blurred, almost like a watercolour painting caught in a rainstorm". There are also a fair smattering of interesting or half-forgotten facts: only 12 matches were televised live at the 1966 World Cup finals, the term "route one" came from the show Quiz Ball, and there is a reminder that TV folk generally do not produce great works in print. Efforts by John Motson, Jeff Stelling and Barry Davies come to mind.
To give Brian Barwick his due, this is an intentionally lightweight account for the less well-informed and written in a matey journalese liberally splashed with exclamation marks. It is the complete opposite of a misery memoir – everyone has a wonderful time, are great friends and meet famous people. Andy Gray's Sky career ends with an "alleged misdemeanour" and the ITV Digital fiasco of 2002 is glossed over in a single paragraph. The content is as uncontroversial and pro-establishment as a footballer's autobiography of the 1950s. Those who would question the structure of the Champions League are dubbed "purists and romantics". Such an approach is to be expected by a former chief executive of the FA and head of BBC and ITV Sport in a long and successful career which continues as a consultant.
Barwick's story follows a fairly straightforward chronological path from the first TV pictures in 1936 to the present day and is certainly more colourful on the 20th century era in which he was personally involved. He reminds us of what happened with a mix of social history-lite and obvious landmark matches. But he ignores his unique opportunity to reveal the story of how it was done – how the techniques of football coverage have adapted, or not, to audience demands.
He does make a couple of points about how TV commentary has evolved into a conversation between commentator and pundit and how there now can be too many action replays for his taste, to which he regrettably adds the words "I digress". Actually, this is potentially more interesting than a repetition of the value to Alex Ferguson of Mark Robins's Cup-winner at Forest in 1990. And it is certainly more interesting than the semi-macho accounts of scraps between BBC and ITV staff when trying to get inconsequential post-match interviews as players come off the Wembley pitch.
Perhaps there is value in the anecdotes. Roy Kinnear gets mistaken for Joe Kinnear. Jimmy Hill gets to take sex symbol Raquel Welch to Chelsea. George Best nearly doesn't turn up. After spending the morning at the British Grand Prix, Barwick flies by private plane to the World Cup final in Paris and gets locked in a stadium toilet while relieving himself of the champagne he drank on the way. My heart bleeds. Alas my sides do not ache. Maybe they are the kind of stories where you had to be there rather than just sitting at home watching TV.
The first season 1888/89
by Mark Metcalf
Reviewed by Paul Brown
From WSC 321 November 2013
In 1888, during the early days of professional football, clubs began to look for a way to secure a regular income beyond that generated by occasional cup ties and friendly matches. It was Aston Villa director William McGregor who proposed the solution, suggesting that "the most prominent clubs in England combine to arrange home and away fixtures each season". As the Football League celebrates its anniversary 125 year later, Mark Metcalf's extensively researched book examines the inaugural season of the game's oldest league competition.
The Origins Of The Football League opens with a brief but useful primer on the state of football in 1888. It was an evolving game in which there were no penalty kicks or goal nets, and goalkeepers could handle the ball anywhere within their own half. But growing interest and attendances allowed the League's 12 founder members to flourish. Indeed, 11 of the 12 still play League football today – the exception is Accrington (not to be confused with Accrington Stanley), who folded in 1896.
The book traces the 1888-89 season via a series of match reports, many of which are taken from contemporary newspapers. These early reports have, as Metcalf puts it, "a certain symmetry to them", typically detailing the weather and pitch conditions, while studiously recording who won the toss before presenting a fairly perfunctory account of the play. "The visiting right made an attack that was cleared by Bethell," reads an opening-day report for Bolton Wanderers v Derby County, "and in two minutes from the start Kenny had scored a fine goal for the Wanderers. A protest for offside was raised in vain." That Kenny Davenport goal was, the author reveals via some detective work involving kick-off times, the first League goal.
Without wishing to spoil the book's ending, the story of the 1888-89 season is also the story of Preston North End's "Invincibles", who won the League without losing a game. "The feat North End have accomplished, gaining 18 victories and four draws [is] a record for which no comparison can fairly be found," one reporter wrote. Preston also beat Wolves 3-0 in the FA Cup final to claim the first football "double". That was hard lines for the fearsome Preston full-back Nick Ross, who missed the triumph by moving for a single season to Everton.
Ross is profiled in the book's comprehensive gazetteer, alongside hundreds of other players ranging from the well known, such as Johnny "All Good" Goodall, who scored 21 goals in 21 games for Preston in that first season, to the virtually unknown, such as the mysterious W Mitchell, who played one game for Blackburn Rovers, scored two goals and was never heard of again.
The comprehensive nature of The Origins Of The Football League may be both a blessing and a curse. For the casual reader, a book that contains hundreds of consecutive match reports, many of which are relatively inconsequential, might not represent much of a page-turner. But as a book to dip into – and as a reference work – it's a valuable and timely record of the birth of one of football's most important institutions.
Travels through England's football provinces
by Daniel Gray
Reviewed by Charles Robinson
From WSC 321 November 2013
The ravaged post-industrial landscape of provincial England, with its boarded-up shops and disused factories, speaks of a working-class culture decimated by Thatcherism and modernism. Are we left with an endless hell of Nando's, pound shops and Westfield shopping centres stretching the length and breadth of the land? Yes, in a way, answers Daniel Gray, author of Hatters, Railwaymen And Knitters, his superlative new book. But there's hope in the oft-ignored footballing backwaters. Seeking to rediscover England and "Englishness" without attempting some sociological definition of it, Gray visits football grounds and their attendant communities in the hope of finding some commonality, some communalism, in this "alien, uncomfortable England". He finds it – sometimes.
Gray starts his travels in the comfortable environs of home, Middlesbrough, and thus begins a search for identity, something once found easily at Ayresome Park thanks partly to two childhood friends, the threesome hunting for the autographs of players and staff they often don't even recognise. From here we move on to Ipswich, Luton, Crewe, Burnley, Carlisle and beyond as Gray searches for the essence of English football.
Gray's search is constantly, by turns, furthered and frustrated by contradictions and paradoxes. In Luton, the surfeit of white faces and offensive chants of the Kenilworth Road crowd reflect the "segregation and suspicion" of the town itself, despite the vibrancy and ethnic diversity of its markets and sports clubs. There's a way forward here, Gray suggests, towards a more tolerant, inclusive and engaged community. A self-confessed reluctant patriot and leftie, Gray attempts to find the best in everything despite his occasional misgivings. It's OK to believe in England and English football, seems to be the message. This is despite the fact that Luton is the original home of the English Defence League, formerly known as the United Peoples of Luton.
Gray, thankfully, eschews the Premier League and heads straight for the smaller towns and cities that contributed so much to the Industrial Revolution, with poverty and injustice pervading almost every chapter. The story of Luton's Peace Day Riots of 1919, in which the town hall was burned down, is told with an historian's eye for detail and context. The hardships of the workers in the factories and mills of Bradford and Burnley are also beautifully related, leading the assumption, or prejudice, as Gray admits, that football existed, and still exists, as a "working-class release valve".
This prejudice is destroyed in part by a visit to Chester, home of a community-owned club in a prosperous part of England. Football can still surprise and the final chapter takes in a non-League game in Newquay, in which the barman safeguards Gray's half-drunk pint until he reappears at half time to finish it.
While cynical and critical, the book is beautifully written; pessimistic and damning, yet joyful and full of love for the game. Gray's journey is a personal search for the soul of English football but it's one that we can all deeply sympathise with in this age of mass consumption and soulless plastic bowl stadiums. The reality remains of football offering, in the words of JB Priestley, a "more splendid form of life". Daniel Gray's wonderful book is proof of that.
A year on the road
for Soccer Saturday
by Johnny Phillips
Bennion Kearny, £9.99
Reviewed by David Harrison
From WSC 320 October 2013
Johnny Phillips is a product of Sky's Soccer Saturday conveyor belt constructed to provide Jeff Stelling with a never-ending stock of earnest reporters, ready to update the nation with breathless goalflashes. That was until Phillips briefly lost it on-air at the end of last season and went from calmly "delivering his own brand of footballing brilliance", as Stelling's foreword generously describes our man's contribution, to a demented comedy figure screaming a match update in a ludicrous high-pitched falsetto. Those 20 seconds in May elevated him, we're told, to "an internet sensation with millions of hits".
To be fair that Watford v Leicester play-off semi-final did deliver the most extraordinary climax and Phillips performed manfully, albeit squeakily, to keep it together and provide any sort of factual assessment, what with flares going off and a fair old pitch invasion gathering pace behind him.
In many ways those Vicarage Road scenes served as a perfect bookend to the season Phillips had enjoyed as he travelled the land on behalf of Sky. The cynic might suggest that if you're about to release a season-long diary, national exposure along those lines does no harm. But whatever criticisms one may choose to level at this undemanding tome, cynicism would not feature.
Phillips has chronologically documented 24 trips he made during the course of last season, starting in August with a delightful little story about how celebrity Spireite the Duke of Devonshire invited his local team to train within the magnificent 100-acre gardens of his Derbyshire ancestral seat, Chatsworth House. What Capability Brown would have thought is anyone's guess but it's a charming tale with which to set the ball rolling.
What follows is distinctly mixed but this is the archetypal bedside book, in that the reader could happily flip from one month to the next and back. There are short stories based around key characters within smaller clubs who rarely make headlines – the likes of Fleetwood, Mansfield, Forest Green and Met Police – as well as tales of football people.
The chapter on Brentford's troubled goalkeeper Richard Lee is revealing if hardly original and the story of Port Talbot ambulance driver and former Swansea striker James Thomas is another pleasing read, while the piece on Lee Hendrie is refreshingly upbeat. The most interesting essay covers the rise and fall of Gretna, intertwined with the story of the club's late benefactor, the extraordinary Brooks Mileson.
Phillips is a Wolves fan and indulges himself to some degree with a reflective piece on his lengthy relationship with them but the section on finding his club and recollections of 1980's terrace life will strike a chord with many. This is no Sports Book of the Year contender. Some of the grammar is painful – "The esteem in which he [Benítez] is held by Liverpool fans is considerably high" is a particularly gruesome example – but it's nevertheless an engaging effort with nothing to dislike about the author. The book, we're told, was conceived on a train journey from South Wales to London. It could be read within a similar timespan – and there's nothing wrong with that.
by Giancarlo Rinaldi
Kindle via Amazon, £1.53
Reviewed by Matthew Barker
From WSC 318 August 2013
Giancarlo Rinaldi has been writing about Italian football since the late 1980s, initially in the Rigore! fanzine. This ebook is akin to a best-of; a simple enough framework, compiling reports on 20 games that the author has previously written about in various formats, the earliest dating back to 1961 (though not as an eye-witness) and the most recent from 2005, with an accent on the 1980s and 1990s. Some have a particular relevance for the outcome of a championship, though others have been chosen on more personal grounds.
Rinaldi has a nice and breezy, economic style, which keeps things moving along and works best when he's explaining the contexts of club rivalries, or the back stories of an individual player or coach at a crucial moment in their careers. For anyone looking for a decent primer on the history of post-war Italian football, there's much to enjoy here.
However, despite its slight size (less than 100 pages) this is definitely a book best dipped into. Those match reports soon start to blur a little and you could miss out on some nice details, especially when it comes to the quotes, the majority sourced from contemporary press cuttings. Inter's Sandro Mazzola remembering when, as an 18-year-old, a club car was sent around to pick him up after he sat his accountancy exams and drive him straight to the stadium for a game against Juventus; the claims that jars of "Berlsuconi's Tears" were sold on the streets of Naples after Napoli won the 1990 scudetto; Claudio Ranieri snapping at journalists after his Fiorentina team were on the receiving end of an 8-2 tonking from Zdenek Zeman's Lazio.
If I have any gripes, and with a £1.53 asking price it seems pretty churlish to have any at all, it would be the lack of match summaries – a couple of lines of which could sit underneath the chapter headings. There's no mention of the final score, let alone other stats (scorers, times, actual dates as opposed to simply the month, attendance figures), which can make things confusing when trying to follow the narrative of a report, especially if you are just dipping in. Some images would be nice too, though I appreciate we're still in the relatively early stages of ebook technology. Hopefully, along with a sympathetic editing job, we can get to enjoy a more fully rounded reading experience one fine day when a print edition appears.
by Paul Brown
Reviewed by Terry Staunton
From WSC 318 August 2013
Pre-empting the terrace chants of several future generations, the 1878 FA Cup final referee was, indeed, a Bastard. Racehorse owner and solicitor Segar Bastard was the man with the whistle, although just a few years earlier he might have been waving a handkerchief to signal foul play, before a bright spark hit on the idea that something which made a noise might more easily attract players' attention.
It sounds like an obvious tweaking of how the game should be played, along with the 1871 ruling that introduced dedicated goalkeepers – instead of anyone on the pitch being allowed to take a "fair catch" – although it would be another 40 years before keepers' powers were reined in to prevent them from picking the ball up anywhere in their own half. Likewise, the Victorian equivalent of goal-line technology was the 1870s introduction of solid crossbars, thus ending the confusion and controversy caused by balls striking the strip of tape tied between the tops of posts.
Paul Brown's miscellany doesn't attempt a straight chronology of how the game developed while Queen Victoria was on the throne, and that is to the book's advantage. The time-hopping scattergun collection of pivotal changes to the laws governing play is liberally peppered with tremendously trivial tales of Zulu warriors playing exhibition matches in Scarborough, newspaper reports of therapeutic games played between inmates of lunatic asylums and revelations about the health-conscious 1889 Sunderland team containing seven non-smokers.
The author's visits to press archives come up trumps time and again, recounting St Patrick's Day riots at an 1840 match in Edinburgh ("a reinforcement of the police soon dispersed the cowardly assailants; four of the ringleaders, we are happy to say, are in custody") or Derby Council's decision to ban the game outright in 1846, declaring it "a vestige of a semi-barbarous age". And who wouldn't have wanted to witness the game played in Windsor, when both teams had their ankles tied 15 inches apart and the winners were presented with a cheese?
Among these myriad curios, Brown offers potted biographies of pioneering teams, players and personalities. Modern-day fans of Notts County may already be well versed in the club's history but it's intriguing for the rest of us to learn that antagonisms with their Forest neighbours stretch back to the very first derby fixture, when the latter team sneakily fielded 17 players. Rightful space is afforded to such movers and shakers as first FA secretary Ebenezer Cobb Morley, aristocratic Arthur Kinnaird (a 19th-century David Beckham, suggests Brown) and poet Nevill "Nuts" Cobbold, regarded as the forefather of dribbling.
The rules may have varied from town to town, even factory to factory, before the FA sought workable unification, while outbreaks of violence meant football habitually filled as many column inches of the crime reports as it did the sports pages, but the colourful transitions the game went through to become the beast we know today are endlessly fascinating. This book doesn't set out to tell the story in dense, sober detail, opting instead to present itself as a hugely entertaining exercise in eavesdropping.
Why everything you know about football is wrong
by Chris Anderson and David Sally
Reviewed by Barney Ronay
From WSC 318 August 2013
This book didn't have an easy start in life. At first glance, and for the first 100 pages or so, it is hard to look beyond the instant wrong turn, the unhesitating literary hari-kari, of that terrible title. Yes. Everything you know about football is wrong. Everything. Wrong. All of it. Presumably this includes all the bits you may have picked up from reading Soccernomics and its imitators, not to mention the many articles, columns and blogs to have addressed already the central conceit of The Numbers Game – the idea that football is a sport still mummified by cliche, folk wisdom and superstition; and that it is only via the forensic scalpel of the insistent academic outsider that this tapestry of mediaeval idiocy can be swished away to reveal The Truth beneath.
It is an approach that speaks very clearly to the way football is now consumed, a sport that has long since evolved at its top level into a sprawlingly incontinent mass media event. To be interested in football is not so much to support a team, to seek the connections and consolations of old-school fandom, as to enter an ongoing and irresolvable mass argument. True understanding can only be reached through wider reading, more zingily up-to-date stats. So much so that at times modern football appears to be less a form of entertainment as a kind of strident shared academic discipline, a mob-handed codification of the pub bore dynamic, and the idea that what is important in all this is to be right.
If The Numbers Game suffers at points from the fact that it must gear itself towards its natural readership, the winning-an-argument-at-work group, then there is also a fascinating and highly readable book in here. The authors Chris Anderson and David Sally are described as "a football statistics guru" and "a baseball pitcher turned behavioural economist" (aren't we all darling) and together they have some interesting and original arguments to make, expertly illustrated with stats, graphs and a broad sphere of reference.
This is essentially a book about "the inner truth" of football's numbers, albeit the attempt to stretch this into an absolute truth is at times a little gauche. Why don't all teams attempt to perfect the long throw, given its statistical success, the book demands, suggesting an obsession with aesthetics and "beauty" is behind this omission, when in fact it is as much to do with the more tangible tactical demands of rhythm and speed, a coherent and non-wishy-washy requirement for quicker, less random restarts. Barcelona can also produce some pretty convincing stats on this point.
Quibbles aside The Numbers Game is an illuminating experience, with some excellent passages – the Darren Bent analysis (surprisingly effective) is fascinating, as is the deconstruction of Chelsea's hire and fire policy. And if there is some unintentional humour in the recurrent deification of the "heroic" Roberto Martínez – everything I know about football may be wrong but I do know that Wigan have since been relegated – then this is simply a reminder that football remains a game where the numbers, like the rest of us, must follow at one remove.