The life and career
of Tony Currie
by EJ Huntley
Pitch Publishing, £12.99
Reviewed by David Stubbs
From WSC 349 March 2016
There’s a strange fascination about Tony Currie that runs in parallel with the late David Bowie, or even the school of provocatively effeminate wrestlers of the early 1970s such as Adrian Street – glam Englishmen whose apparent purpose was to raise the hackles of a more stolid, crewcut older generation with their flamboyant, long-haired antics.
Perhaps to its detriment, but thoroughly in keeping with its subject, Bob Latchford’s thoughtful, detailed autobiography shies away from drama and sensationalism and tells the story of a modest, unassuming Birmingham boy who became the most expensive player in British football.
by Didier Drogba
Hodder & Stoughton, £20
Reviewed by Si Hawkins
From WSC 348 February 2016
A couple of lines late in Didier Drogba’s autobiography really drive home that this isn’t your average burly striker life story. “On November 2009 I teamed up with Bono to help launch an initiative with Nike on the eve of World Aids Day,” Drogba recalls, before rattling through his UN work, including “mobilising people to eradicate the use of cluster bombs/munitions”. Clearly we’re in a different ballpark to, say, Micky Quinn’s Who Ate All The Pies.
of Terry Conroy
by Terry Conroy
Pitch Publishing, £18.99
Reviewed by Andy Thorley
From WSC 346 December 2015
It’s a reflection on both the career of Gerard “Terry” Conroy and Stoke City (the club with whom he played nearly all his professional football and where he still works part time) that for large parts of the country the title of this book might be apt.
Between making his first team debut in November 1975 and playing his last game for the club in April 1982, David Fairclough made just 92 starts for Liverpool. He was named as substitute, more often than not the only substitute, in a further 137 matches and came off the bench in 62 of them – a club record he currently has the dubious distinction of sharing with Danny Murphy, Vladimir Smicer and Ryan Babel.
If this does not sound like particularly fertile territory for an autobiography, it should be pointed out that 18 of the forward’s 55 goals for the most successful club in Europe at the time were scored as a substitute, the most famous being the winner against Saint-Étienne in the second leg of a European Cup quarter-final at Anfield in 1977, the year Liverpool went on to lift the trophy for the first time.
This happy knack earned the local boy a nickname he came to detest and which defined his career. It is Fairclough’s honest appraisal of the 72 occasions he was an unused substitute, however, which provide the book’s most telling insights. “Even getting a shower brought with it a sense of guilt,” he writes, before admitting that as the years went by and a regular starting spot continued to elude him, he began to think only of himself: “To me, every game Liverpool won, or even played, without me was a slight on my ability and setback for my career.” He maintains that “everyone was out for themselves”, with first team regulars routinely concealing injuries because they feared if they dropped out of the team they might never be able to get back in again.
From the first chapter, it is clear who Fairclough blames for the “sense of resentment” he now feels at the way his career panned out. Bob Paisley is variously described as “cowardly” and “pathetic”, despite Fairclough winning four League titles, two European Cups (one as an unused sub), a UEFA Cup and League Cup under Anfield’s most successful ever manager.
The most vehement criticism for Paisley is reserved for way he broke the news to Fairclough that he would not be figuring in the 1977 FA Cup final, a decision that upset the boyhood Liverpool supporter so much he admits there were times in the game he wasn’t sure he wanted his team to win. The disappointment was compounded by Paisley’s “false promise” that he was being saved for the European Cup final in Rome a few days later. “I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it moulded me as a person,” Fairclough reflects, “but it certainly instilled a sense of cynicism in me.”
Whether Paisley was right to harbour doubts about Fairclough, who made more appearances for Liverpool’s reserves than he did for the first team, is a moot point. The second half of the book, in which his career peters out in a series of short-lived spells in America, Switzerland, Belgium and the lower reaches of the Football League, is characterised by further criticisms of managers who failed to pick him regularly.
The final stop was Wigan Athletic, where he fell out with manager Bryan Hamilton. “You’ve never fulfilled your potential,” said Hamilton as Fairclough walked out of his office. It’s a verdict, Fairclough readily admits, that has haunted him ever since.
Tips and tactics from the ultimate insider
Guardian Books, £7.99
Reviewed by Roger Titford
From WSC 345 November 2015
We are in the era of 3G pitches and perhaps also 3G football biographies. In the beginning there were gentle offerings such as Goals Galore by Nat Lofthouse which told us who was there but not really how they did it. Then came the grittier school of Eamon Dunphy, Tony Cascarino, Gary Nelson et al who told us both who was there and what it was like, but not at an elevated level in the game and in a milieu that was light years away from today’s Premier League. And now we have the Secret Footballer – an artificial construct I would contend – who purports, credibly enough, to tell us what it’s like today at the top without naming many names.
This is the fourth in the Secret Footballer series or franchise, all allegedly by “the same author”. I have my doubts about that because, like many fans, I have tried to suss the identity from the clues left and hints dropped in previous books and come to the conclusion that the Secret Footballer is a composite character, a screen behind which several can hide. In this volume he even has a mate called the Secret Physio to tell us all about hamstrings and individual training programmes and another, the Secret Psycho, to offer a devastating tip on what to do if you are the fourth penalty taker in a shootout. With this formula the possibilities are as endless as the playing time on a 3G pitch.
Despite this confection I do find the Secret Footballer franchise interesting and valuable as an aid to understanding the environment in which the top players operate nowadays. This volume focuses on the aspects of fitness and playing, with chapters on psychology, formations, nutrition and equipment. Even the chapter entitled “Fashion in football” stays firmly on the pitch with a helpful analysis of the boom and bust in Claude Makélélé-alikes. The examples and arguments are current, covering the decline of 4-4-2 and the 50-50 tackle and a plausible, if mind-boggling, explanation of how Wayne Rooney’s wages are justifiable.
The writing is crisp, slick and businesslike without that edge of awfulness that belongs to the self-help business book genre, and is doubtless helped by the copywriting skills of Guardian Books. While the Secret Footballer is an experienced player I cannot see “him” retiring for a good while yet. Hunter Davies’s The Glory Game (1972) was a classic fly-on-the-wall look at the Spurs team of that era. The dressing-room chatter and the off-the-field personalities of the Premier League player today are more remote to me than that. The Secret Footballer could usefully provide another in the series that deals with all the personal, family, relationship, divorce, money, vendetta, foreign language, agent, commuting and social media pressures that the top player has to deal with – and a full list of what he actually spends all that money on.
The art of war
by Fran Guillen
Arena Books, £9.99
Reviewed by Dermot Corrigan
From WSC 344 October 2015
The worst thing about this new biography of Diego Costa is the subtitle, and the faux-inspirational Sun Tzu quotes which start each chapter, giving the immediate and unfortunate feel of a popular business bestseller.
This packaging, also a feature of the original Spanish book published in 2014, is a pity. Because beneath the guff about the “warrior centre-forward” and the “what happens on the pitch stays on the pitch” posturing, this unauthorised but very well researched biography does a very good job of explaining how Costa nearly never made it only to burst onto the scene almost fully formed as a world-class centre-forward at the age of 23.
Portuguese super-agent Jorge Mendes enters the story early – apparently as he personally noticed the 16-year-old playing (and getting sent off) in a youth tournament in Brazil. Former Atlético Madrid sporting director Jesús García Pitarch then appears with some entertainingly open talk about how the relationship between Mendes and Atlético worked in those days, and also what he calls the “smoke and mirrors” aspect of the deals that get done.
The travails of Costa’s early career are also well described – especially the seasons on loan at Celta Vigo, Real Valladolid and Albacete – where a teenage Costa is apparently amazed to see snow for the first time. He and his team-mates enjoy late night poker games, watch pornographic movies in hotel rooms and get into rows at motor service stations. The many former team-mates and coaches who spoke to Guillen, a well-connected Marca reporter, all seemed to have been equally impressed by Costa’s ability to both score goals and get into scrapes.
Through these years nobody seems to have tried too hard to put into place a structure that would help the “overgrown kid” to grow up and reach his potential. At various times Mendes and Atlético tried to sell him (to Besiktas and Real Betis) in cut-price deals which fell through at the last minute. Even Diego Simeone didn’t really rate the still raw 23-year-old when they started working together in summer 2012.
A matter of months later, Costa was maybe the best centre-forward in the world, the key player as Atlético became a better team than both Real Madrid and Barcelona. His own less than convincing explanation of the transformation is that “something just clicked”. Pitarch reckons the late development was mostly down to “bad luck”, but haphazard career management by his elders seems more to blame.
Guillen’s telling of Costa’s more recent story, with Atlético’s successes, his switch to represent Spain at the World Cup in 2014, and his first year Chelsea, will hold few surprises for readers who follow the game day to day. You do notice, however, how even all Costa’s most recent coaches – Simeone, Vicente del Bosque and José Mourinho – have put short-term gains ahead of his long-term fitness. Even now, nobody within the game really cares what’s best for Costa himself.
by Lutz Pfannenstiel
Vision Sports, £12.99
Reviewed by Jon Matthias
From WSC 344 October 2015
The slogans on the cover indicate that this is more than a journeyman footballer’s lifestory. “Died on the pitch”, “Kidnapped a penguin”, “Played on six continents”, “Wrongly jailed for match-fixing”, “Lived in an igloo”, “Played against Beckham” and so on. The igloo, it turns out, is a throwaway reference about a stunt to raise awareness of climate change.
What really stands out throughout Lutz Pfannenstiel’s story is his naivety, which seems undiminished after several years. Born in Bavaria in 1973, his globetrotting career began aged 19 when he met an “agent” and flew to Malaysia for a pro contract that never materialised. Fifteen years later he is recruited for a new super-club in Armenia, but the money runs out before the season starts.
Being overly trusting led to his match-fixing conviction and five-month prison sentence in Singapore. One night he was followed home by a fan who had recognised him in a restaurant. Normal people might be suspicious of that but Pfannestiel befriended the fan, who almost inevitably worked for a betting syndicate. Pfannestiel thought they had just been chatting about football, but when the friend gets busted by the Singaporean Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau he says Pfannenstiel was supplying information. The experience of prison is not overly elaborated, but the bare details are horrible enough.
The book is reasonably well written (possibly due to the assistance of journalist Christian Putsch), but padded out by cliches and familiar facts about places he has visited. It only takes eight pages before he says you have to be mad to be a goalkeeper. The Premier League, meanwhile, is every professional’s “utopian dream”, even though Pfannenstiel was barely connected to it, barring a season without playing at Nottingham Forest. With a charming lack of self-awareness, he gives a potted history of legendary German goalkeeper Bert Trautmann’s experience in England before saying he couldn’t possibly compare himself to Trautmann. Of course, he promptly then goes on to do exactly that.
Pfannenstiel has been through trauma. His heart stopped three times after a hefty challenge in a game for Bradford Park Avenue (for whom he played 14 games in 2002-03) – he copes with it by going back to training a week later. He is less affected by his failed marriage and other relationships and there are some seedy womanising tales, including helping an English under-21 team avoid police charges of rape while on tour in Asia. His lack of awareness prevents him from realising how these stories implicate him.
Still, Pfannenstiel has plenty of interesting observations to make. He reckons at least a dozen Bundesliga players are gay; North American soccer crowds “just came to the stadium to eat” – one game in Calgary is ignored by the crowd, who are watching a Stanley Cup ice hockey game on the big screen instead. Everywhere, though, has “lovely people”, the fans are great and he’d love to go back. Recently Pfannenstiel set up Global FC, a charity highlighting the threat of climate change which he hopes will get people seriously addressing the issue. Sadly, it’s hard not to think this is his trademark naivety on display again.
by Stan Osborne
Legends Publishing, £12.99
Reviewed by Julian McDougall
From WSC 343 September 2015
Making the Grade was published in 2012 but without the critical reception it deserved. Stan Osborne has had two careers, footballer and teacher. Here, he shares his memories of the first, spanning just two years (1969-71) as an Everton youth player and alludes to its impact on the much longer second. This is most striking when he accounts for his own time at school: “This was the 1960s and there was no hue and cry about physical punishment... we accepted [it] without complaint, in the knowledge that it was invariably administered justly and fairly.” The author never says this directly, but there is a strong implication that he laments not only today’s player power but also the shifts in school discipline.
On the cover, Joe Royle says he read the book in one night, and certainly any reader with an interest in the vein of unsung football insight previously attributed to the likes of Eamon Dunphy, Gary Nelson and Gary Imlach (whose father Stewart, then an Everton coach, plays a prominent role here) won’t labour over this.
Osborne writes directly and with precision, dispensing with the need for reflective flourish – the order of things was as it was, and the better for it. The book reflects on the social and hierarchical function of “banter” at a football club and the pervading insecurity of that world – much of the bullying is carried out by those with the most to lose, the younger pros keeping apprentices in their place, while the first-team stars are benign and aloof.
Has Osborne observed a parallel in education, you wonder? But the central theme – of this being a harsh world for working-class men, from school to football to the outside world – ultimately turns the author into a victim as he is released and bluntly asked by Everton manager Harry Catterick to “close the door on the way out”. His playing days will continue at semi-pro level, but within weeks he is at college training for PE teaching. Never, though, does Osborne lay blame, he accepts this cruel fate as harsh but fair, as with the pain inflicted by his teachers.
This sense of undeveloped implication ultimately frustrates as the book might have been even more fascinating had Osborne described life as a PE teacher in the Black Country. Every day must, we’d assume, be inflected with the experiences of his first career. Teaching is full of exes: artists, musicians, athletes and these days, thanks to Michael Gove’s scheme, soldiers, all carrying the weight of the past. When Osborne tells us “I walked out a hard bitten angry young man with a chip on his shoulder the size of the Liver Buildings who was determined never to feel the pain of failure again”, I want to know how this impacted on his teaching, and how he feels about his students’ attitudes.
In the final pages he returns to Everton’s training ground, Finch Farm having replaced Bellefield, now a “relic from a different time and place”, and casts another stoical gaze on the inevitability of heartbreak for most of today’s academy hopefuls, still envious of their slim chance despite his own experience – “gosh, the tears hurt… even now”. Leaving the reader wanting more is, of course, the hallmark of a great book, and this reader hopes Osborne writes a sequel about his second career.
My life inside football
by Danny Higginbotham
Trinity Mirror, £16.99
Reviewed by Andy Thorley
From WSC 343 September 2015
There was always a lot to like about Danny Higginbotham. As a fan, he was a player that you warmed to because there were never any half measures. He seemed to love football, and always gave the impression that he rather enjoyed playing it. It’s perhaps fitting, then, that Rise of the Underdog begins right at the end of his career, when in a desire to get his buzz for the game back he pitches up at his hometown team of Altrincham. He’s honest about his retirement – as refreshingly he is throughout the book – and basically, he just hasn’t got the heart anymore.
It’s not meant as a criticism of either the player or the book to call both him and it workmanlike. It’s a tale of a kid on the estates who has a little bit of talent (with admirable self-deprecation he claims his brother was a better footballer), and supportive parents who nurture and to an extent bully their offspring until he gets a break at Manchester United.
This working-class ethos is shown in a perhaps unremarkable career that doesn’t quite hit the heights. By his own admission Higginbotham was never a top player. He’s also one that evidently still feels a touch insecure, refusing to play for a United team in one of those “legends” style six-a-side tournaments as he doesn’t feel he belongs in such company.
It’s moments like that which lift this tome from the usual humdrum hinterland of “banter with the lads” and at its best Rise of the Underdog is very good indeed. The interesting stuff usually comes when Higginbotham faces losing everything, such as when on loan in Belgium he is given a lifetime ban – wrongly – or when he prints extracts from his own diaries after the injury that essentially brings to an end his top-level career and robs him of a chance to play in the FA Cup final when at Stoke. Poignantly he admits to jealousy at his team-mates being at Wembley. Things end on a happy note, when he’s given an unexpected opportunity to play for Gibraltar thanks to family connections, and the moving account of what that meant to the country is excellent.
Interspersed with this are some genuinely funny passages about life under Alex Ferguson and Roy Keane, as well as a bizarre team meeting at Southampton which rather shows the relationship between Harry Redknapp and Clive Woodward in a different light to the media portrayal.
While you could never call it an explosive blockbuster – there is very little in the way of controversy here and even less about his personal life – Higginbotham does name names when he needs to. He’s also prepared to give his opinions on modern football in general and the academy system in particular. The biggest compliment you can pay Rise of the Underdog is that it’s better than you thought it was going to be. In that respect it’s exactly like its author.