309 SecretFootballerLifting the lid on the beautiful game
Guardian Books, £12.99
Reviewed by Taylor Parkes
From WSC 309 November 2012

Buy this book


Who is the Secret Footballer? Does anybody really, truly give a toss? When the weekly column first appeared in the Guardian, offering insights into the life of an especially bright and articulate player, it was hard not to speculate on who exactly was writing this stuff but that was pretty much a side-issue. Lately, thanks to the magic of the internet, this dull masquerade has become the greater part of the point. A dedicated website examines the "clues"; hours of televised football are trawled for clips corresponding to events from the column, which are uploaded solemnly to YouTube. On the Guardian site you can watch a promotional video where someone in a hoodie sits with their back to the camera while a voice intones "Who am I? I'm the secret footballer..." Surely this is the point at which any reasonable human being rolls their eyes and ceases to care?

Maybe not. Football's own Bruce Wayne has a best-selling book out now and for what it is, it's actually not bad at all. There's very little here – about pressure, decadence, the culture of the dressing room – which you wouldn't have been able to guess, but it's fairly well written and rarely boring and sometimes genuinely funny. There's even a proper ending: past the unlikely quotes from Proust and Pink Floyd (and the many jabs at Robbie Savage) is an unsettling final chapter in which TSF discusses his depression, and claims to be overeating and drinking deliberately in an effort to finish his career: "I don't want to go back. Don't make me go back." It's all very convincing, particularly as letting go of the reins like this can be a side-effect of the antidepressants he's taking (a fact of which he seems blissfully unaware).

The trouble is, it's hard to trust a man with a brown paper bag on his head. You feel like you're being messed with somehow, even if you're not. Is this really a footballer, you wonder, or a journalist writing up insider stories collected from contacts and colleagues? He has to keep his identity secret to avoid being "ostracised", he says – but so much detail is given away about overseas trips, Christmas parties and various incidents on the pitch that anyone who knew this bloke would recognise him instantly from skim-reading a couple of chapters. Then again, there does seem to be an awful lot of evidence pointing at one player in particular...

There you go. Before you even know it, you've fallen into a trap. But so has The Secret Footballer – all this infantile, hucksterish hoo-ha detracts greatly from the content of a book which will be widely read and enjoyed but will, I'd have thought, be used as a kind of riddle, a puzzle without a prize. Whoever The Secret Footballer might be, he/she/it deserves better than that.

Buy this book

309 RedCardSex, booze and sendings off: The life of Britain's wildest footballer
by Roy McDonough with Bernie Friend
Vision Sports, £12.99
Reviewed by Tom Lines
From WSC 309 November 2012

Buy this book


The football hard man is still a familiar figure, even if he is receding increasingly quickly into the game's recent past. Popular culture tends to remember those who played at the highest level, where violent tackles and unsavoury moustaches were brought to a national television audience. For every Graeme Souness or Tommy Smith there were less well-known contemporaries in the the lower leagues. One such player was Roy McDonough, who accumulated a British record 22 early baths.

Apparently assembled from a bin of spare "Soccer's Hard Men" tropes (the mullet and tache, the drinking and womanising, the failed marriage, the distant father he's desperate to impress) McDonough is such an unrelenting stereotype that the obligatory career photos have presumably been included to reassure readers that they are not the victims of an elaborate spoof. Driven by limitless quantities of self-belief and an almost psychotic relish for physical confrontation, McDonough played just two first-team games during unhappy spells as a centre-forward at Aston Villa, Birmingham City and Chelsea. At the age of 22 he claims to have made a conscious decision to cruise through lower-league football as a way of funding his fondness for nightclubs.

A man who once promised a horrified physio that he would cut down to "just" 70 pints a week should be heading for a spectacular fall but it is the tragic suicide of Colchester team-mate John Lyons that, briefly, throws the boozing and one-night stands into stark relief. Alcohol permeates almost every page of this book but alcoholism is mentioned only once – when McDonough categorically rejects it as a description of his own drinking.

He is more honest in recounting the football side of his career, with team-mates, opponents, referees, supporters, managers and boardroom "suits" all subjected to withering assessments. There's also a refreshing lack of dressing room omerta. It's doubtful that Mark Kinsella will thank him for revealing a teenage fling with his landlady, though McDonough stops short of naming the team-mate who goaded Ian Holloway on the pitch by insulting his cancer-stricken wife.

He's generous to those he respects too, without ever allowing it to affect his behaviour during a game. He idolises Southend boss Bobby Moore and when the manager gets wind of an unsettled score with Newport County's Tony Pulis he pleads with McDonough not to let the team down. He is duly sent off after just seven minutes following a self-confessed attempt to decapitate the future Stoke manager.

Ghostwriter Bernie Friend has a great eye for period detail (there has surely never been a more evocatively named central-defensive partnership than Peterborough's Neil Firm and Trevor Slack) and there are hilarious insights into some of the more eccentric characters of the era: Exeter boss Jim Iley's fondness for games of hide and seek during training, for instance. In describing McDonough's nocturnal activities the book occasionally slips into the kind of graphic detail that wouldn't be out of place on the top shelf of a backstreet 1980s newsagent but this is still a fascinating voyage through a career described as "a violent trawl through the rough seas of the lower divisions".

Buy this book

308 SahaReflections on life as a Premier League footballer
by Louis Saha
Vision Sports, £14.99
Reviewed by Simon Hart
From WSC 308 October 2012

Buy this book


It was in the wake of the darkest hour of his life in football, when injury robbed him of the chance to play in the 2008 Champions League final, that Louis Saha began writing down the thoughts filling his troubled mind. Saha wept in his wife's arms in the Luzhniki Stadium that night and would soon leave Manchester United for Everton, yet his writing became a crutch and eventually led to a book that is quite unlike your usual footballer's offering.

"Eclectic" is how Saha describes his approach in the preface to Thinking Inside The Box, in which he combines memoir with musings on a range of football-related topics: media, money, racism, fans, music. And eclectic is a fitting word for a book that does not list medals won or goals scored but instead references Sir Trevor McDonald, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the Leveson Inquiry, quotes Sean Penn, questions the French education system, praises the Bakewell tart, and cites statistics about CCTV cameras and anorexia sufferers.

It starts with Saha's wry observation that his name means health in Arabic. "Me: plagued by injury," he notes. It is certainly ironic that a player who acquired a reputation as injury-prone, even work-shy, should provide two poignant passages on the pain of missing matches. As well as the 2008 Champions League final, when his asthma meant he could not take the painkilling injection administered to Nemanja Vidic, he recalls his nausea after the booking that ruled him out of the 2006 World Cup final, adding lyrically: "My throbbing head was trapped in the referee's pocket."

Saha, with his evident love of the "paradise" of English football, denudes any notions about himself "not caring". He does the same for the one-dimensional image of the footballer, writing with empathy about team-mates yet acknowledging their weaknesses. Wayne Rooney is capable of smashing a mobile phone in anger on the team bus yet also of answering every question in a quiz. Nicolas Anelka, a contemporary at the Clairefontaine national academy, had "tenacity, tinged with a touch of madness". There is even understanding for young players who use prostitutes rather than risk kiss-and-tells.

The book's French title, Du Quartier Aux Etoiles – "From the streets to the stars" is a rough translation – evokes his journey from a poor district of Paris under the guiding hand of his disciplinarian father, an immigrant from Guadeloupe, but while retelling his rise Saha provides a broader scope by including the thoughts of old team-mates like Patrice Evra, Thierry Henry, Zinédine Zidane and Phil Neville, and his manager at Old Trafford, Alex Ferguson.

Translated from French, the book has an idiosyncratic style – "bro" and "lol" crop up a lot while a chapter on money introduces an imagined "Mam'zelle Starfucker" and "Mr Bling". Saha's approach to money betrays an ambivalence – he lists his expensive cars yet worries his children are spoiled. Meanwhile, he gives his wife Aurélie a chapter to offer a WAG's perspective, laments the demise of traditional values and yet declares that total honesty is the wrong approach with a woman "because what you say goes in one ear and comes out through her mouth, with added ammo".

This ambivalence is a virtue of a book that asks questions while seeking no easy answers. It is not something you heard every week at Goodison Park, but full marks to Saha for trying.

Buy this book

307 Fash The biography
by Jim Read
DB Publishing, £14.99
Reviewed by Al Needham
From WSC 307 September 2012

Buy this book


By all accounts, and even by the standards of the pre-AIDS gay subculture of the early 1980s, Nottingham's La Chic: Part Two was a hell of a club. According to an article in Notts magazine LeftLion: "On a typical night, you might find Su Pollard whooping it up to the latest American imports, while a regal Noelle Gordon wafted around, flanked by stage-door johnnies. You could even avail yourself of the services of a resident chaplain, after you'd made use of the pitch-black sex room."

The most shocking aspect of the club, however, was that for over two years, it was patronised by one of the country's best-known young footballers – and it never crossed anyone's mind to tell the newspapers about it.

Justin Fashanu's life would have been a seething melange of contradiction even if he'd had the sexual tastes of George Best. Fashanu was a black child raised in a staunchly white community, a born-again Christian (converted in a Nottingham car showroom) in a country that saw that sort of thing as a bit American and odd, and a teetotaller at a workplace where everyone from the boss down went out and got battered. So discovering that he actually preferred other men to the fiancée he'd brought up from Norwich reads like just another contradiction to add to the pile.

As this meticulously researched book spells out, Fashanu was (and is) impossible to pigeonhole. For starters, like his brother, he wasn't afraid to put himself about, and there's a great story of him confronting a group of National Front supporters in a pub and breaking the jaw of one of them.

On the other hand, if you're looking for a stoic sexual-equality pioneer, he wasn't your man, displaying an arrogant sense of entitlement that put noses severely out of joint, making up affairs with Julie Goodyear and Tory MP Steven Milligan, and using his sexuality to cash in whenever possible.

Crucially, the author could have laid on accusations of institutionalised homophobia with a trowel, but – while making it clear that things are much better now than then – he also points out that the majority of Fashanu's peers didn't give a toss who he was shagging, as long as he was playing well. The book also gets as near to the truth of the circumstances surrounding Fashanu's rape charge in the United States and subsequent suicide in London as readers are ever likely to get.

After you've read this extraordinary story – and you should – you can't help wondering what a 20-year-old Justin Fashanu would be like today. He wouldn't be the only non-boozer or born-again Christian in the dressing room, he'd be allowed to be as petulant as he liked, and a Twitter feed, invitations to celebrity game shows and Hello and OK sniffing round his house would sate his need for publicity.

But you can't shake the feeling that there would still be an agent in his ear putting a monetary value on keeping his mouth shut and his trousers on, and a forest of arms brandishing iPhones greeting him outside NG1, Nottingham's barn-sized gay club. We like to think that, as a society, we're ready for the next openly gay footballer, but this book spells out exactly why we've been waiting so long since the last one.

Buy this book

306 Tommy Boyle The story of a football legend
by Mike Smith
Grosvenor House, £11.99
Reviewed by Alan Tomlinson
From WSC 306 August 2012

Buy this book


Until 2004, when Arsenal's "Invincibles" went unbeaten through a full Premier League season, Burnley held the record for the longest undefeated run in a single season of England's top tier. This small-town Lancashire club avoided defeat for 30 successive League games, going on to take their first championship in 1921. At the heart of this achievement was a gritty, combative Yorkshire-born midfield dynamo of Irish Catholic parentage, Tommy Boyle.

Mike Smith's compellingly related and minutely researched biography of Boyle makes some of Burnley's championship-winning heroes of 1960 look like pampered softies alongside this tough player, who dominated Burnley's fortunes either side of the Great War. Boyle was a mere 5ft 7in but dominated the teams he led with a physical and psychological presence that willed his team-mates to victory. He cajoled, bullied and consistently inspired the players at Burnley, and before that at Barnsley, to the highest levels of competitive performance.

Boyle worked as a miner from the ages of 12 to 20, before signing professional terms for Barnsley. He took them to an FA Cup final against Newcastle, before a move to Burnley, who he led to Cup and League success. He was wounded in service in France, called back into action, then resumed the captaincy at Burnley, where eight of the 1914 Cup-winning team reunited for the 1920-21 triumph. For a time, Boyle had it all: the adulation of the "lasses" of the Lancashire mill-town (one of whom he married), money way beyond the reach of working men, the status of the local hero, acceptance and patronage of the local elite.

But the peak of 1921 was achieved in a climate of post-war industrial decline, and as his ageing body became less able to cope with the wear and tear of the top-flight game, his world fell apart. Fiery and brief spells as a trainer at Wrexham and then in Berlin were followed by the collapse of his marriage (after the tragic loss of an only child), unemployment and drink-fuelled aggression and violence. Boyle was committed to the local asylum under the new Mental Health Act of 1930, where he died after almost eight years of incarceration, aged 53.

This is a tragic story told well and with much revealing detail. Smith draws on an impressive range of sources in conveying this connection between the life of a community and the decline of one of its local heroes. The attribution of thoughts and reflections to Boyle is not always convincing, and some parts of the narrative are, as Smith concedes in a disclaimer, based on anecdote and the author's imagination.

It is a long read, with match reports and lists of names that can jar the narrative flow. But Smith is to be congratulated for bringing alive a figure so typical of the fluctuating fortunes of early professional footballers, for whom the problems of adjustment after the glories of playing days so often proved insurmountable. Boyle's story is no mere historical curiosity; reading this haunting tale, I was repeatedly reminded of Paul Gascoigne's life after the magic was gone.

Buy this book

306 Black Flash The Albert Johanneson story
by Paul Harrison
Vertical, £15.99
Reviewed by Ashley Clark
From WSC 306 August 2012

Buy this book


Paul Harrison's The Black Flash attempts, through a combination of autobiography, oral history and the author's own observation, to unspool the tragic tale of Albert Johanneson. The South African-born Leeds United forward endured racism on and off the field, became the first black footballer to play in an FA Cup final (in 1965), and eventually succumbed to alcoholism and an early death in 1995.

The meat of this frequently depressing but compelling book is comprised of large chunks of unexpurgated testimony from Johanneson, framed by explanatory passages from Harrison. It is at its best when its subject's voice is at the forefront.

Johanneson, looking back on his life following the collapse of his career, paints a vividly evocative picture of his youth in a divided South Africa, where racist violence was commonplace and police were viewed as little more than "paid killers".

Johanneson was scouted and offered the opportunity to play in England but as soon as he stepped off the plane he was branded a "nigger" by a passerby at London Airport. Though team-mates Billy Bremner and Grenville Hair looked out for him, and he found a friend in fellow black South African Gerry Francis, the impression is of a lonely, shy soul thrown to the wolves.

It is harrowing to read about the constant abuse Johanneson received. It is not difficult to imagine how the deep psychological scars from this continued mistreatment might have contributed to his eventual fate.

Though Harrison is clearly reluctant to demonise his Leeds heroes – including Don Revie, who comes across as a cold bully – The Black Flash paints a grim picture of a wider footballing community who hadn't the first idea how to engage seriously with the pressures faced by Johanneson.

Sadly, the book is beset by structural problems. Harrison is inclined to interject with his own largely irrelevant opinions on the state of modern football and subjects such as political correctness. Key elements of Johanneson's experience (his marriage, divorce, descent into alcoholism and early death) are sprinted through in a matter of mere pages toward the book's conclusion.

Though obtaining information must have been difficult – Johanneson was essentially a homeless drunk by the time of his death – and the man's wishes not to discuss his family should be respected, the book feels as though it is missing a sizeable, vital element.

There is also a conspicuous lack of attention to detail. In one particularly flagrant case, a significant passage of Johanneson's testimony is repeated twice within the space of 16 pages. The Black Flash feels like it has missed out on a final edit.

Despite its flaws, the books is a worthwhile, instructive and often shocking read, especially in the context of a challenging year for football, when racism has once again made headlines. Harrison's decency and commitment shine through in a tale that adds flesh to the bones of the story of a key figure in British football history – a man who slipped through the cracks, but helped to pave the way for future black footballers.

Buy this book

by Matt Le Tissier
by Writers Name
Harper Sport, £18.99
Reviewed by Tim Springett
From WSC 279 May 2010

Buy this book


In keeping with his career, Matt Le Tissier’s autobiography is an interesting read but doesn’t truly satisfy. One reason for this is that both the front and back covers, as well as the internal layout,
look appalling.

My Story
by Paul Scholes
Simon & Schuster, £19.99
Reviewed by Paul Campbell
From WSC 299 January 2012

Buy this book


In the first sentence of his foreword to Paul Scholes's autobiography, Alex Ferguson calls the player dour. You can only assume Ferguson has read the book. The United manager doesn't publish his players' autobiographies, but if he did, they would all read like this – like a press release from MUTV. Scholes spends 300 pages telling us things we already know.

From Hitler Youth to FA Cup Legend
by Catrine Clay
Yellow Jersey, £16.99
Reviewed by Mike Ticher
From WSC 279 May 2010

Buy this book


Bert Trautmann was born in the worst possible year for a 20th century German, 1923. At ten he was eligible for the Hitler Youth just as the Nazis came to power. At 17 he was ready for war. Most of his contemporaries did not make it to 25, let alone quiet retirement in Spain.

The Autobiography
by Dwight Yorke
Pan Books, £7.99
Reviewed by Damon Green
From WSC 280 June 2010

Buy this book


Tits. He's seen a few. Especially in the latter days of his career. Graeme Souness tried – he says – to break his leg during a five-a-side game. Roy Keane has the management skills of a psychopathic Mr Bean. And Peter Andre has no idea how close he came to being strangled to death.

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