The art & psychology of the perfect penalty
by Ben Lyttleton
Bantam Press, £14.99
Reviewed by Jonathan O’Brien
From WSC 333 November 2014
The glib explanation for the English fascination with penalties is because they lose so many shootouts and are thus mesmerised by the idea of actually being good at them, somewhat like a gormless youth trying to work out the secret of successfully conversing with an attractive woman. Of course, just as a confident man is likely to have more success in a nightclub than a self-conscious one, if they (by which I mean England players) spent less time thinking about penalties, they’d probably fare a little better at them.
Ben Lyttleton explores this theme at length in Twelve Yards, a book which covers much the same ground as Andrew Anthony’s 2000 effort On Penalties (though it’s roughly twice as long). His conversation with Ricardo Pereira, the former Portugal goalkeeper whose penalty saves knocked England out of two different tournaments, soon becomes a faintly farcical catalogue of neurosis, jittery body language and general mental collapse.
Ricardo – who memorably took off the gloves to save Darius Vassell’s effort at Euro 2004 and then blasted in the winner himself – describes Vassell as “very nervous” in the run-up, notes that Steven Gerrard couldn’t look him in the eye and claims that Jamie Carragher’s “mind was fucked up” when the defender took what transpired to be his team’s final penalty in Gelsenkirchen in 2006. He finishes by giving three simple tips to England penalty-takers: focus on the positive, don’t think about the media and forget about the history. One of these might be easier to execute than the other two.
Lyttleton’s scope is nothing if not wide. He travels to South America to interview two penalty-taking keepers, José Luis Chilavert and Rogério Ceni, who ended their careers with well over 100 goals between them. “I was always calm,” Chilavert tells him with no discernible sarcasm. “I was playing a role on the pitch… Look, I could hardly be the hero with this face!”
He meets up with Antonin Panenka, scorer of the most famous penalty ever, outside a village pub near Prague, and discovers that while the legendary midfielder is justifiably proud of the clever little chip which won Euro 76, he also feels it has overshadowed everything else in his long career. Panenka theorises that the main reason for his worldwide fame is because his name “sounds the same in any language”.
But at times, you can sense Lyttleton straining to reach the word count (the book may have had more impact at a shorter length). One entire chapter is a retelling of the France v West Germany match in Seville in 1982, translated directly from a feature in France Football – it’s a very good read, admittedly, but relatively little of it has anything to do with penalties. There’s also a small handful of very bad mistakes – to pick one at random, Spain’s legendary keeper in the 1930s was named Ricardo Zamora, not Schavio Zamora. But this is a readable study of an almost unknowable art, as long as you don’t mind stumbling over yet another graph or table of stats every ten pages or so.
by James Ruppert
Foresight Publications, £9.99
Reviewed by Tom Lines
From WSC 329 July 2014
In 1970 the Ford Motor Company loaned every member of the England World Cup squad a car ahead of the forthcoming Mexico World Cup. With the exception of Jack Charlton – who requested a Ford Zodiac because he needed a bigger boot for his fishing tackle – they each received a Cortina 1600E. This is the story of how motoring journalist James Ruppert sets out to track down the 24 original "World Cup Cortinas".
Except it isn't. That element takes up a single chapter. The rest of the book involves something far more remarkable: someone who confesses to knowing very little about football writing quite a long book about football. Alarm bells begin to ring as early as the contents page ("it's end-to-end stuff!") while by the introduction the author appears to be having a full-blown crisis of confidence, admitting: "If you like football, there isn't nearly enough detail, informed comment, or analysis about the game. If you like cars, well there is far too much football not nearly enough nitty gritty about camshafts… I'm not sure who will enjoy it really."
The problem is that while Ruppert's quest is a perfectly good idea for an article or photo essay there is nowhere near enough material for a book. His solution is a 200-page digression – a "social history" of football viewed through the cars that players drive. His conclusion? As footballers became better paid they could afford more expensive cars.
This might not be such an issue if the book was engagingly written but the prose is pitched awkwardly between lads'-mag insouciance and the nostalgic banality of a Saint & Greavsie annual. So while readers will be unsurprised to discover that George Best had "brooding good looks" but was "deeply flawed", some bits simply make no sense at all. "Mark Hughes was a great leader on the pitch and he certainly needed a commanding one off it, hence the Range Rover Vogue SE." Eh? At one point he questions the reliability of a source because they spell Nobby Stiles's name incorrectly. In a book that introduces us to "Cristano Renaldo" that takes a certain amount of nerve.
Occasionally the author moves disastrously into the world of opinion. So we learn that "if fate had not intervened it is more than likely that Duncan Edwards would have been part of an England victory in the 1962 World Cup, led them to the title again in 1966 and made it a hat-trick in 1970". Even this starts to sound like a trenchant insight compared to his baffling description of the "supremely talented" Jody Morris.
As if to reinforce the lightweight nature of the concept, Ruppert manages to sell it to The One Show as a five-minute TV feature. In the big finale, Franny Lee is reunited with his restored car in front of an expectant camera crew, before spoiling things by admitting that it was actually his wife who drove the Cortina because he had a Jag. It's a fitting end to a book that is fatally underpowered from start to finish.
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.