The footballer who survived the River Kwai death camps
by Johnny Sherwood
Hodder & Stoughton, £20
There is a recent surge of interest in British footballers at war which may have deep and complex roots. These two titles appear coincidentally at the same time about two men whose war and lives bore remarkable similarities. Only one survived to tell his tale.
Johnny Sherwood (Lucky Johnny) was an embryonic professional at Reading, came home to a curtailed career and wrote a memoir, partly for therapeutic reasons, in later life. The manuscript was discovered last year by his grandson. Eric Stephenson (The Happy Warrior) was an established First Division player at Leeds United with two caps and was a member of the last England touring party before the war. His daughter Jan Rippin was just three when she last saw him and his death left an immense void in family life. Her loving tribute also acts as a means of easing pain.
A modern football audience needs to be alert to the difference between war books about men who happened to be footballers, rather than milkmen or lathe operators, and books about footballers who fought. These titles tread that line rather awkwardly at times because they are constructed more from the war perspective and their football content is a little sketchy.
Rippin’s account of her father is plainly written but nonetheless emotional, particularly in the latter half which deals with his war and death. She creates a picture of the kind of man we no longer seem to have: working class, inspired by books, chapel and political discussion and now memorialised in stained glass. Every last drop of available personal detail is squeezed out of the Leeds match reports but little else is conveyed about his life as a footballer. He was posted to Burma in 1942, rose to the rank of major and fought there until his death in action in September 1944.
In the very same week Sherwood came closest to death, being torpedoed and afloat in the South China Sea for 17 hours. Having been captured just days after landing in Singapore in 1942 he spent most of the next two years working as slave labour for the Japanese building the “railway of death” by the River Kwai. His fitness and status as a footballer enabled him to survive several dangerous moments and his memoir is utterly harrowing, with comrades dying horribly on every other page.
There are some footballing nuggets here and there, notably actually playing matches against the guards who treated them so badly and cautiously not winning too well. This example of football as a bridge between men, more remarkable than the Christmas Day truce match of 1914, would benefit, as would other incidents, from being highlighted in an accompanying commentary. Sherwood survived to briefly pick up his League career with Aldershot but the trauma from having played his part in what literary folk called “the greater game” stayed with him until his death in 1985.
by Matt Dickinson
Yellow Jersey, £20
Reviewed by Mark Segal
From WSC 333 November 2014
When a modern-day footballer steps out of line, you don’t need to go far to find a sports writer of a certain vintage bemoaning today’s young millionaires and stating with utter certainty that this would not have happened in “Bobby’s day”.
The Bobby in question is of course late England captain Bobby Moore, whose legend and legacy has ascended to a higher place in the years following his untimely death from cancer in 1993 aged just 51.
According to legend, not only was Moore gifted with fantastic footballing skills but he was also a model professional who knew and understood the responsibilities of being captain of your country. It’s these assumptions about Moore which author Matt Dickinson sets out to investigate in this new book. And it’s a task he completes in some style.
Employing a straight chronological format, Dickinson guides the reader through Moore’s formative years as the shy youngster from Barking breaks into the West Ham first team. The book then centres on the middle years of the 1960s when Moore becomes a triple Wembley winner, first with West Ham in the FA Cup and Cup-Winners Cup and then finally with England in the World Cup final, before detailing his slow decline.
While Moore’s exploits on the pitch have been widely documented – except maybe for a bizarre nine-game stint for a small Danish team in 1978 – the strength of the book lies in the way Dickinson has been able to go beyond football and find Moore’s real character.
While Moore would often be the one instigating nights out with team-mates he was always more comfortable in the role as an observer rather than a performer. Former colleagues and friends alike describe a man who you thought you knew but actually didn’t. His private nature almost acted as a shield against whatever the world might throw at him. This detached nature is perfectly described in the beautifully written chapter about his death, as his second wife Stephanie speaks of the horror on his face as she broke down in tears after being told the disease had spread and there was no cure. Bobby never liked to make a scene.
While all the usual characters from his playing days turn up in the book, Dickinson also uses interviews with some of the journalists who followed Moore’s career at a time when players treated journalists as friends who they could confide in. He also speaks to both of Moore’s wives and also friends from outside football which all helps to provide a more rounded description of a difficult man to categorise.
The way he was ignored by football after his retirement is also discussed with the author believing a mixture of class snobbery, Moore’s lack of self-promotion and links with some of the East End’s more notorious characters all contributed to a managerial career which amounted to short spells at Oxford City and Southend.
Sadly, friends describe how as he entered his 50s Moore was finally beginning to come out of his shell and open up a bit more. Unfortunately, this new and relaxed Bobby was not given a chance to flourish. The passages about his final days make for difficult reading.
As a West Ham fan growing up just a few miles from where Bobby Moore was born, I was always going to have an interest in this book. Dickinson’s achievement has been to honour the memory of Moore while also allowing us to understand that he was far from perfect.
The story of
by John Harding
Empire Publications, £16.95
Reviewed by Mike Ticher
From WSC 332 October 2014
If you had to choose one player to encapsulate the Edwardian football world, you would be hard pressed to do better than Billy Meredith. In an extraordinary career, which ended in 1924 FA Cup semi-final defeat at the age of 49, the celebrated Welsh winger was central to many of the era's key moments.
He scored the winner for Manchester City in the 1904 FA Cup final, then won the League with Manchester United in 1908 and 1911, and claimed another Cup winner's medal in 1909. He was with United when Old Trafford opened in 1910, and back with City when they moved to Maine Road in 1923.
But Meredith's greater significance lies in his turbulent relationship with clubs and the football authorities, and his key role in setting up the Players' Union, the forerunner of the PFA. In 1905 he was suspended for a year after the FA found him guilty (in a closed inquiry) of trying to bribe an Aston Villa player to lose the final game of the season. Incensed by City's perceived failure to support him, Meredith spilled the beans on bonuses the club had been paying in breach of the recently introduced maximum wage. The case devastated City, sparking the departure of Meredith and several others to United, and cemented Meredith's hostility to the hypocrisy of the system, as well as personal bitterness over money that would last until he died, a poor man, in 1958.
The suspension helped drive Meredith to re-establish the union, which collided head-on with the FA in 1909, when the whole United team was suspended for refusing to sign contracts that effectively meant disowning the union. Its fledgling power was broken, but its structure survived to give birth to the PFA, which finally defeated the maximum wage and the iniquitous retain-and-transfer system in the early 1960s. As the postscript to John Harding's book notes, it was not until the Bosman ruling that Meredith's full vision of contract freedom was realised.
As if all that were not enough, Meredith was also involved, though not implicated, in the 1915 fixed match between Liverpool and Manchester United, for which eight players received life bans – the final scandalous blast of United's years as a "rebel" club of stubbornly confrontational players.
Harding's groundbreaking biography was first published in 1985, and has worn well with little amendment. Without over-elaborating, he sketches a rounded portrait of Meredith's complex personality, rooted in his Methodist upbringing in the mining village of Chirk. Meredith's rigorous attitudes to fitness, work, industrial solidarity, Welsh nationalism and alcohol (he was a teetotaller, despite running pubs in retirement) are neatly teased out in that context.
But there is still room for a fascinating broader picture of Manchester football in a tempestuous phase of its development, and thoughts on how Meredith's playing style meshed with the tactics of the day – in curmudgeonly old age he scorned the new-fangled ways of whippersnappers such as Stanley Matthews.
Meredith complained that the Edwardian FA treated the professional footballer as "a mere boy, or a sensible machine or a trained animal". Harding's work is far from a dry polemic or hagiography, but a timely reminder of how the players' struggle to overcome that contemptuous attitude began.
My life from left field
by Kevin Sheedy
Reviewed by Mark O'Brien
From WSC 332 October 2014
Paul McGrath and Tony Cascarino's autobiographies are renowned as two of the most caustic and revealing footballing books in recent times. Their former Republic of Ireland international team-mate Kevin Sheedy has written his life story now but anyone expecting soul searching in the same vein as Back From The Brink or Full Time is likely to be disappointed.
Sheedy's story is told in a fashion that could most politely be described as "breezy". From a youngster at Hereford to a bit-part player at Liverpool before becoming a key part in the all-conquering Everton side of the mid-1980s – then rounding off his playing career at Newcastle United and Blackpool – it's all dealt with in the same cheery, almost matter-of-fact fashion.
It's quite an old-school approach, even throwing in some "any other business" chapters near the end, where Sheedy gives his opinions on the perils of social media facing today's young players and picks a best XI from his former Everton and Ireland team-mates. Among that throwaway page-filler then it's a shock to come across a section which deals with his recent treatment for bowel cancer. A more modern style might have made that the touchstone for the whole book, reflecting on his career in the light of the grave news of his illness, but maintaining the light-hearted tone Sheedy concentrates instead on a nurse pulling back the sheets following his operation and declaring: "Oh my god, they've cut your cock off!"
He comes across as a thoroughly nice fella then, but it feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. While Evertonians have probably read just about everything it's possible to know about Rotterdam and the League wins under Howard Kendall, Sheedy was privy to the break-up of that great side and the start of the club's decline and it would have been illuminating to know more about that process. He was in fact part of an infamous incident that is seen as emblematic of the chaos that reigned at Goodison during Kendall's second spell in charge, when he had a fight with Martin Keown in a Chinese restaurant. He brushes it aside though, blaming his behaviour on the fact that he was unaware that the players had been buying him glasses of wine when normally he only drank it with soda. Seems plausible.
He tells his own collection of Jack Charlton anecdotes too – the Ireland manager left him out of a squad altogether for a match and then added insult to injury by trying to send him on as a sub – and the Italia 90 section is probably the best bit of the book.
The title, by the way, refers to an incident at Goodison in March 1985. Sheedy lashed a free-kick past Ipswich's Paul Cooper and into the top-right corner. When ordered to be retaken he simply placed it in the top left. So good he did it twice. Unfortunately though, once is more than enough when it comes to reading his book.
by Roy McFarland and Will Price
Reviewed by Charles Robinson
From WSC 331 September 2014
Following a home defeat to Reading and a couple of beers, the young Tranmere Rovers defender Roy McFarland goes to bed. A couple of hours later he is woken up by his mum with the news that "there's two men downstairs to see you, Roy, and one of them is Brian Clough". The other, of course, is Derby County assistant Peter Taylor. As McFarland enters the kitchen in his striped pyjamas, "looking like a convict", he finds that Clough has managed to charm Mr and Mrs McFarland, and the deal is already halfway done.
Roy is unconvinced and harbours hopes of playing for his boyhood club, Liverpool, but soon he will win two Championships with his new team, as well as 28 England caps in an international career cut short by injury. This is a player not unaware of his worth, not to mention stoical and unsentimental. Coming from a solidly affluent working-class background, McFarland initially rejects trials at Wolves and Tranmere, throwing away the invitation letters and instead taking up a job as a trainee accountant at a local tobacco company. The reader is left to wonder whether the game was in the young man's blood from the beginning, but any reflection has to wait as McFarland's career takes off.
And it really does take off. After signing as a professional with Tranmere on his 18th birthday, within a year he is captain of second-tier Derby, albeit for one initial game. In his second season the Rams are promoted and, already, McFarland can sense the "wind of change" blowing through the club. Soon, he is a Championship winner and England regular. Throughout, McFarland's affection for Clough and Taylor, but especially the former, is evident, even as Clough descends into alcoholism, a subject that McFarland doesn't shy away from and relates in the strictly matter-of-fact tone that characterises the whole book.
The event at the heart of McFarland's story is the resignation of Clough and Taylor in October 1973. His insider view gives a fresh perspective to an incident which still breaks the hearts of Derby supporters and, evidently, McFarland himself. As the news filters through, he admits that his emotions were "all over the place", thinking it "the end", only two days before England's 1-1 draw with Poland that meant they failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup. However, he simply resolves to get on with the job under new manager Dave Mackay, and soon after wins another Championship and more England caps.
The final chapters detail McFarland's rather unspectacular managerial career, the highlights being a play-off final with Derby in 1994 and promotion with Burton Albion in 2009, having taken over from a Derby-bound Nigel Clough. As well as the short paragraphs and tales of dressing room "banter" that pockmark such autobiographies, the cliches and constant footballer-speak do grate. Like many of the matches detailed here, even McFarland's wedding is "a great success", and wife Lin puts in "a monumental shift" while giving birth to their first child. Nonetheless, the fascinating story of McFarland's rise largely alongside Clough and Taylor is enough to see Derby fans and Cloughie completists through to the end.
by Andrea Pirlo with Alessandro Alciato
BackPage Press, £9.99
Reviewed by Joyce Woolridge
From WSC 329 July 2014
Reading this autobiography of a playmaker nicknamed "Mozart" is like going to the opera: some bloke comes on and sings very loudly in Italian at you for a couple of hours, it's all very dramatic and enjoyable, but you don't always know quite what's going on. In no discernible order, its voluble and intelligent subject, who "has an opinion about everything and I'm not ashamed to express it", launches into an erratic, extended and idiosyncratic monologue. There are even (mostly much needed) footnotes to explain some of the passing references, although glossing ultras as "the self-styled, most passionate, vocal and committed supporters" was probably unnecessary.
Many of Andrea Pirlo's lines do sound as if they could have come from, say, Don Giovanni. When his ten years with AC Milan end with the gift of a pen (how many domestic footballers are presented with something to write with when shown the door?) he declares: "Still, I raised a smile because I know how to laugh, long and loud." (Cue ear-splitting Rabelaisian guffaws.) Various club presidents and managers memorably strut the stage. Marcello Lippi theatrically denounces the Italian dressing room: "Bunch of bastards, bunch of spies"; Antonio Conte hurls water bottles at Juve bellowing: "It's time we stopped being crap."
The reader is never in doubt that the text was originally in Italian, making it refreshingly different from the prosaic platitudes of the standard British footballer's life. True, the highly charged style occasionally strays into Swiss Toni territory: "When you're in love, it's time you need. When the feeling's gone, having an excuse can help." Again, no British footballer could ever get away with statements such as Pirlo's lament after Alex Ferguson "unleashes" the ferocious Park Ji-Sung to shadow the Italian midfielder in a Champions League tie: "He's essentially a man without blemish, but he ruined that purity just for a moment… a fleeting shabbiness came over the legend that night."
However, usually the purple prose fits the subject matter perfectly. Pirlo's visceral reaction to losing the 2005 Champions League final in Istanbul will delight not only Liverpool supporters. Not for him the mealy mouthed "gutted". After this "mass suicide where we all jumped off the Bosphorus Bridge… I no longer felt like a player… But even worse, I no longer felt like a man." Walking up to take the first penalty in the 2006 World Cup final shootout is "barely 50 metres. But it's a truly terrible journey, right through the heart of your fear."
Certain footballers' preoccupations transcend nationalities. Pirlo's favourite pursuits, we learn, at some length, are mickey-taking, PlayStation ("after the wheel, the best invention of all time") and wine, albeit from his father's vineyards. With a grand flourish he turns down €40 million (£32m) to join Qatar's Al-Sadd, preferring instead one last bow for his country in the 2014 World Cup. As he says earlier: "Take someone like Antonio Cassano. He says he's slept with 700 women in his time, but he doesn't get picked for Italy any more. Deep down, can he really be happy?"
The short life and tragic death of Erich Schaedler
by Colin Leslie
Black & White, £17.99
Reviewed by Archie MacGregor
From WSC 328 June 2014
Erich Schaedler was the son of a former German POW who became an integral part of the swashbuckling, but ultimately fragile, Hibernian side of the early 1970s and was capped once by Scotland – as fate would have it against West Germany. To this day his death in December 1985 aged just 36 is surrounded by unresolved and unsettling questions. This biography sets out to find an answer to why his body was found in his car with a single shotgun wound to the head in countryside near his hometown in the Scottish Borders. Though a police investigation concluded there were "no suspicious circumstances" and it is generally regarded as having been suicide, some, including Schaedler's immediate family, could not accept that he would have taken his own life.
Colin Leslie, the author of this overdue and exhaustively researched appreciation, is in as good a position as any to try to get to some sort of closure on the tragedy, being both a lifelong Hibs fan and currently sports editor of the Scotsman newspaper. Yet even after scores of interviews with former colleagues, friends, acquaintances and Erich's older brother John he is forced to conclude that a definitive explanation for what happened remains
Though one of Leslie's aims may be left unfulfilled, his book also provides a telling reminder of what a genuinely fine footballer the unheralded Schaedler was. As a player with a ferocious dedication to his fitness regime as well as interests in physiotherapy and coaching that were well ahead of their time in the Scottish game, there is testimony after testimony of how, through hard work, he developed from a raw talent into an international class full-back. The "Turnbull's Tornadoes" Hibs side that he served so well really ought to have registered more major honours than a solitary League Cup final victory in 1972, but they had a gnawing propensity to fall away in their league campaigns and suffered painful defeats to Celtic, by scores of 6-1 and 6-3, in another couple of cup finals. In a later spell with Dundee Schaedler helped the club notch up a couple of promotions and again made it to a League Cup final.
Across the chapters the shadow of what was to ultimately transpire hangs heavily however. Leslie rightly gives space to reflect on the issue of mental health which football, like other areas in society, still struggles to address in a truly open and grown up way. Many of the interviewees mention that "Shades" could be quiet, withdrawn or "deep" but hardly any saw him as someone who might need help. Although attitudes and awareness may be changing it is a dreadful irony one of his team-mates at Dundee, Ian Redford, also recently committed suicide, as covered in WSC 325. Redford's own reflections on his former colleague's sometimes introspective moods – "There were a few demons I think, although I have no idea where they came from" – lend a final poignancy to the recurring theme of this thoughtful book.
Ledley King: My autobiography
by Ledley King and Mat Snow
Reviewed by Alan Fisher
From WSC 328 June 2014
The title of the opening chapter of Ledley King's autobiography sums it up in two little words: "What If?" He was the perfect contemporary centre-half, with pace, strength, total application and his trademark timing in the tackle as he eased the ball away from onrushing forwards. It was a talent that should have brought him worldwide fame. Instead he spent half his career on the treatment table.
His fortitude in pain and loyalty to the only club he has ever played for has earned him the enduring respect of Spurs fans. An unending saga of breakdown and comeback meant his hopes were rebuilt then crushed as often as his knee, yet King does not show a trace of self-pity; despite agony, disappointment and upheaval at his club, he was grateful for the chance to play.
For virtually half his career King did not train. When his knee was rebuilt, he remodelled his running style. One report suggested that toward the end, his knee was so bad he couldn't have a garden kickabout with his young son yet come matchday he was often a match for the very best.
Co-author, journalist and Spurs fan Mat Snow utilises a conversational style which gives the book a sense of authenticity, especially in the early passages about King's upbringing on an east London council estate by a single mother and surrounded by a supportive network of family friends. King has some interesting reflections on the fine margins between success and failure at this level, concluding that attitude and family stability are more significant than ability.
It seems to be out of character to be critical of those around him so expect few revelations. Nonetheless, King sheds some light on the footballing culture differences between Fabio Capello and his squad and confirms years of managerial turmoil at Tottenham, with Glenn Hoddle distant and unable to communicate while first-team coaches Martin Jol and Gus Poyet actively undermined their managers, Jacques Santini and Juande Ramos respectively.
While there's plenty of interest to Spurs supporters, King played during a largely undistinguished period in the history of club and country so other potential readers may be deterred by a book where the highlight is a League Cup final win and a world tour of physiotherapists. Gradually the dreary routine of daily treatment catches up on body and mind. He plays down the two nightclub altercations that thrust him uncharacteristically into the headlines but there's no doubt they were linked to the loss of what had mattered most to him since he was a boy – the realisation that he can't play on and the end of his camaraderie with team-mates. If King has regrets, he hides them well. It's left to the reader to speculate about those "what ifs?" on his behalf.
by The Secret Footballer
Guardian Faber, £12.99
Reviewed by John Earls
From WSC 328 June 2014
At the end of 2012's entertaining first volume, the Secret Footballer (TSF) was binge-eating in a deliberate attempt to end his career. Nearly 18 months later he's still playing, although the nature of his increasingly tiresome secret identity means it's hard to gauge at what level. This time round, he's still trying to fathom an alternative career, but his loathing of football's machinations is making it hard to pick one.
It's tricky to work out who TSF has most contempt for. He dismisses fans for being clueless about what really goes on in football (ironic, as his previous book was marketed as letting us rubes acquire such insider knowledge). But he also wants to avoid managing, as that involves dealing with annoying players who need constant mollycoddling "like me". Yet the book is at its best when discussing coaching, as our man eloquently explains various tactics while taking his badges. A section on the FA's centre of excellence is also revealing – it's superbly stocked but effectively useless as poor design means physios can't actually see injured players using the equipment.
Such nuggets mean it hurries along and mostly avoids feeling like offcuts not good enough for the first book, bar a pointless chapter on why his favourite player is Paul Gascoigne. Fairly conclusive evidence shortly before publication appeared to reveal TSF is Dave Kitson. So you feel conflicted when reading about an inept chairman trying to get players to waive their wages, wondering which of Kitson's clubs it's referring to. Or is it not Kitson, and we're unfair in assuming it's Portsmouth?
There is more about TSF's personal life than before, but his vague identity means it's hard to care about a relatively routine teenage MDMA comedown when you don't know who's enduring it. Whoever TSF is, he comes across as more boorish than the first book's apparently cultured aesthete. A tale about crashing a yacht with four newly met women on board is told in a spirit of laddish high-jinx, but is as crass and misogynistic as anything TSF's nemesis Ashley Cole could create. Nor do constant moans about paying tax make the reader think the author could be mistaken for Noam Chomsky. Every moving passage about depression is countered by one leering at players cheating on their partners. It would have been a more effective book if TSF had dropped the S, stopped trying to be a Popbitch-style nark and gone into more detail about his complex attitudes to football and his own driven nature.
If you're after further gossipy froth such as the League Two club who cry poverty every close season yet pay their manager three times more than the rest of the division, then TSF has triumphed again. But this book's main aftertaste is one of unease. This self-entitled author feels too liberal to bond with most of his fellow players, which paints a more undernourished image of football's culture than any number of tabloid splashes.
The autobiography of Kevin Kilbane
by Kevin Kilbane
Reviewed by Jonathan O'Brien
From WSC 327 May 2014
Sixteen and a half years on, it seems surreal to recall that when Kevin Kilbane initially broke into the Ireland squad, he was touted as a bright, shining young hope who could give Damien Duff a serious run for his money on the wing. Things didn't pan out that way, of course. But only one of them appeared in 66 competitive internationals in a row, and it wasn't Duffer.
That extraordinary stat (in the history of international football, only Billy Wright managed a longer streak) sums up Kilbane's entire career. Never more than ordinary on a technical level – I once saw him lose possession against Israel at Lansdowne Road by doing an inexplicable 360-degree pirouette while the ball trundled slowly towards him – he built himself a decent and rewarding career through sheer hard work and force of will.
Football memoirs don't always reflect the subject's own persona (read Gordon Strachan's for proof, or rather don't) but this one does. Killa is a stolid, honest and meticulous read. Generous-spirited, too, in more ways than one: all the proceeds go to a Down's Syndrome charity. Kilbane is the sort of player who can still remember what he had for breakfast on the morning of a game in Reykjavik in 1997, and who said what to whom after a match against Macedonia aeons ago. Either that or he kept a detailed diary.
His otherwise happy 1980s Preston childhood was darkened by an alcoholic father who "pissed away all his wages", and whose eventual departure from the family home "made no difference to my life". Kilbane himself briefly became something of a drunkard in 1994, a pattern which came to an abrupt end when he was caught stealing a car stereo and a police sergeant gave him "the longest bollocking of my life".
The tone is generally positive and sunny (I lost count of the number of times players or teams were referred to as "great lads"), but there are sporadic glints of anger. Cesc Fàbregas's reputation for arrogance is added to here as Kilbane relays his obnoxious comments during an Arsenal v Huddersfield cup tie ("This team are shit!"). Later in the book, a Coventry fan screams at Kilbane that he deserves to have a handicapped daughter (Elsie has Down's Syndrome). Kilbane tells him to fuck off, but is then pressurised by the club into making a public apology. Kilbane offers the fan the chance to hear the apology face to face, secretly hoping in vain that he turns up because "an apology was the last thing I was going to offer him".
A few more interesting nuggets pop up – David Moyes supposedly finds it near-impossible to relax even on squad getaway breaks; hard man Thomas Gravesen privately cringed at the idea of being tackled hard; and Kilbane claims that Ireland's players came up with the tactical gameplan for the fateful World Cup play-off in Paris behind Giovanni Trapattoni's back. In the main, however, Killa mirrors its subject almost exactly, taking few chances and diligently plugging away. It passes a few hours agreeably enough, but that's all.