Poverty, war and football
by Julie Ryan
Reviewed by Neil Andrews
From WSC 317 July 2013
In and Out of the Lion's Den is a case for why you should never judge a book by its cover. Ostensibly a biography of former Millwall striker John Shepherd, author Julia Ryan – Shepherd's daughter – delves a bit deeper into her ancestry to explore the journey of her maternal grandparents and their flight from Franco's Spain to England. As such, this is a very personal account of many lives rather than one, offering a vivid and at times fascinating insight into the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath, as well as the life of a professional footballer in the 1950s.
The early part of Shepherd's story is a remarkable one. Recommended to the Lions by an insurance salesman who never saw him kick a ball, he overcame polio while on National Service to score four goals on his debut away to Leyton Orient – still a post-war record. Unfortunately for Shepherd a combination of injuries and bad luck meant he never fulfilled the early promise that saw him being courted by managers such as Matt Busby. More surprising still is his behaviour off the field.
In an age where many decry modern footballers and how they bear little resemblance to their predecessors, Ryan inadvertently proves that Shepherd and his team-mates have more in common with today's players than is often suggested. Bonuses are placed – and lost – on horses, cars are driven without a licence and FA Cup final tickets are sold on the black market. The striker also sulks and refuses to turn up for training when dropped from the first team. When left out for a second time Shepherd sells his story to a national newspaper. He is even arrested after playing stooge for a gambling ring, receiving a fine for his troubles (he escapes press attention after providing a false name to the courts). More sinisterly there is a hint of match-fixing, although it's a shame the author fails to press the matter further.
Ryan is clearly more comfortable writing about the war in Spain and handles the atrocities of the conflict and its aftermath, particularly the concentration camps in France, delicately. Her mother's acclimatisation to life in England as a young child is particularly touching, yet while she is prepared to tackle the awkward and unexpected reunion of her grandparents in London head on, she shies away from any scandal her father may have been involved in.
There is also a lack of attention to detail in the chapters on football. While census records, casualties of war and even the address of a toy company are recorded with impressive accuracy elsewhere, Millwall fans will be startled to discover that the Den was located in London's East End and that Neil Harris retired in 2011, while the date the club was formed is wrong by ten years.
Such errors could have been avoided with the help of an experienced editor. However this book is still worth a read, especially for manager Charlie Hewitt's programme notes, which are an unexpected delight. Remarks such as "when will people learn how and when to mind their own business?" prove that today's bosses haven't changed that much from their predecessors.
by Tony Cottee
Philip Evans Media, £14.99
Reviewed by Mark Segal
From WSC 317 July 2013
Back in the day when you could phone footballers out of the blue for an interview, Tony Cottee was one of the few who didn't hang up immediately or pretend they were busy and then turn their phone off at the time you were asked to phone back. Once he even gave me his home number. This, added to the fact he was a West Ham hero of mine, made him one of football's nice guys but this side of his personality is sadly lacking in The Inside Story.
His second autobiography, the story begins as Cottee is winding down his career. A return to West Ham and a League Cup winner's medal at Wembley with Leicester are the high points as he slowly slips down the leagues, ending up as player-manager at Barnet where it all went horribly wrong.
Like any centre-forward you've ever met or played with, Cottee is keen to let you know his scoring record but there seems little feeling behind the numbers. In fact the end of his career is not the real reason for the book, it's the thing he needs to get out of the way before the main part – his attempt, and ultimate failure, to become West Ham chairman.
It was on the drive home from the 2004 play-off final defeat to Crystal Palace in Cardiff that Cottee decided to act, and the reader is taken through his attempts to put together a consortium to oust hated chairman Terry Brown from Upton Park. At first it's a shambles, as he turns up to meetings without any kind of business plan, but slowly it begins to come together and each meeting, phone call and proposal is faithfully documented as the book becomes bogged down.
After realising he doesn't have the money among West Ham supporters he spreads his net further and begins talking to a group of Icelandic bankers who eventually go it alone, buy the club and almost run it into the ground. Cottee is desperate for the reader to understand the time and effort he put into trying to save "his" club, which is why the progress of his consortium is documented in such detail. But in doing this he only glosses over the other areas of his life which were clearly suffering. He admits part of the reason his marriage failed was because of the time he dedicated to his consortium.
In a chapter about his work for Sky's Soccer Saturday, Cottee claims his live reports are the next best thing to playing and perhaps it's this transition from player to ex-player which could have been explored more. Many former pros talk about missing the buzz of the dressing room and maybe it's even more acute for prolific strikers who are used to the adulation which comes with scoring goals. Cottee's tireless work in trying to oust Brown could be a way of replacing this buzz, but it's a shame the mechanics of his takeover are more in evidence than the human story.
by Ashley Williams with David Brayley
Y Lolfa, £14.95
Reviewed by Huw Richards
From WSC 316 June 2013
The first memory of Ashley Williams remains vivid. Late season 2008, driving a clearance down the right wing at the Liberty Stadium but checking his follow-through so that the ball dropped perfectly for a team-mate. This was clearly not your usual lower-league defender. Five years on he is vastly more familiar but retains the capacity to surprise. Prospective purchasers may (as this one did) quail at a 376-page diary and replace it on the shelves. Swansea fans or not, they should think again or miss something pretty impressive.
It is not that there is any single blinding revelation in his account of Swansea's 2011-12 season. Instead there is an accumulation of detail, anecdote and observation, forming a compellingly credible picture of footballing life. Credit to David Brayley, who clearly asked the right questions in assembling a book whose clarity and easy conversational flow make for great readability. But co-writers are only as good as their material. It is clear from a terrific opening passage recalling Swansea's promotion celebrations at Wembley Stadium – with champagne off-limits until Sky say so and Nathan Dyer absent until he does the necessary for a random drug test – that Ashley has the attributes of a good reporter.
He is thoughtful, acutely observant and perceptive. There's also a sharp self-awareness evident where, for instance, he moans about play-acting by former team-mate Jordi Gómez, then adds "but I have to own up to double standards", having been happy to accept the fruits of Gómez's misdemeanours when he played for Swansea.
There's sharper, clearer tactical analysis than in 100 editions of Match of the Day and intuitive observation of team-mates, notably a brilliant exposition of Leon Britton's role in Swansea's rise. No Manchester City fan can be shocked by his view of Scott Sinclair as a gifted player who "probably doesn't believe in himself enough and actually lacks a bit of confidence".
He's refreshingly frank about likes and dislikes, notably of referees. His thoughts on Phil Dowd as "a referee with empathy for the game and the battles that form part of a competitive match" are highlighted by a joyous description of his interaction across a match with Dowd and Kevin Davies. And while no player ever lost by praising his manager, there is little doubt of his genuine admiration for Brendan Rodgers, depicted as a meticulous organiser and superb man-manager who "developed me in so many ways, probably off the field as much as on".
He concludes by hinting at a sequel. And 2012-13 offers plenty of material: lifting Swansea's first major trophy, provoking perhaps the silliest post-match whinge of Alex Ferguson's career and getting tapped up, via the media, by Liverpool and Arsenal. It should be another decent read but still better would be the really good autobiography – taking in his early rejection by West Brom and climb to success via Hednesford, Stockport and Swansea – he clearly has within him.
The life of Stanley Matthews
by Jon Henderson
Yellow Jersey, £18.99
Reviewed by Harry Pearson
From WSC 316 June 2013
Stanley Matthews is one of those figures who looms so large in the consciousness of the nation there's a tendency to think we already know all there is to know about him. The truth, which becomes apparent while reading Jon Henderson's vivid biography, is that what most of us actually know about a player whose career spanned 29 seasons is confined to the salient facts about a couple of famous matches and a whole heap of the sort of cliches (including the one about how he always crossed the ball so that the laces didn't hit the forward's head) that were the 1960s equivalent of YouTube.
As you might expect, the truth, as it emerges in this well-researched and cannily written book, is more complex and interesting than the well-worn phrases about body swerve, dropping a cross on a postage stamp and the 1953 FA Cup final might have led us to expect. Matthews himself was a difficult character to read, on good terms with his team-mates yet always distant from them. Like many men of his generation and background he was not given to talking about his feelings, or to public displays of emotion. Even the obvious affection of football fans across the world could not draw him out. "He never interacted with the crowd," Blackpool team-mate Jimmy Armfield recalls. "It just wasn't his way."
Matthews's dribbling was so phenomenal that after one particularly spectacular run and goal against Belgium, the opposition players spontaneously applauded him as he ran back to the halfway line. Yet, for all the brightness he brought to the game, he was a rigid, almost Spartan figure – a non-drinker and non-smoker who sat quietly in the corner while his Stoke City team-mates were swigging beer from a hotel chamber pot, during surreptitious late-night sessions, and took cold showers before matches to help him focus. Locked in an unhappy marriage, frustrated by a succession of club and international managers who regarded him as a temperamental "show off" and by the financial constraints imposed by a job that, despite his celebrity, never paid him more than £20 a week, he clearly felt the strain. One day, sitting in a first-class railway carriage with his Stoke colleagues, he watched a luggage porter going about his work and remarked wistfully: "There's something about normal life, isn't there?"
As Henderson clearly demonstrates, whatever Matthews's wishes – whether he was dazzling Hitler's henchmen with a breathtaking display in Berlin following the shameful "Nazi salute" business, arguing bitterly over a loyalty bonus at Stoke, being reprimanded by the War Office for selling coffee on the black market in Brussels or eloping with "the true love of my life" Mila Winterova, a Czech who it emerged had once been a spy – his was a life that was destined never to be normal.
From Buenos Aires to Bramall Lane and back
by Matthew Bell
ACM Retro, £12.95
Reviewed by Sam Kelly
From WSC 315 May 2013
Today, Alejandro Sabella wears an Argentinian FA baseball cap to work, and is probably the international football manager most people would like to take under their arm and cuddle. He wasn't always a softly spoken, grandfather-like figure, though. In 1978, he was part of a transfer saga which transformed British football. Sabella's move from River Plate, where he was a fringe player, to Sheffield United is less well known than those of Ricardo Villa and Osvaldo Ardiles to Tottenham Hotspur (from Racing and Huracán, respectively). Viva Sabella! tells the story of how Sheffield United manager Harry Haslam brokered the Spurs deals, while making sure to return from his post-World Cup trip to Argentina with a player of his own.
The book goes into rather more detail about the 1978 World Cup than it really needs to, as it does with Estudiantes de La Plata's Copa Libertadores and Intercontinental Cup triumphs in the late 1960s (Sabella managed Estudiantes later in life, winning the Libertadores himself in 2009, but wasn't connected to them at that time). Not all of the Argentinian sections are quite on song – the stadium in which the author claims Estudiantes played home matches in the late 1960s wasn't opened until 2003 – and on a couple of occasions he attributes derisive interpretations to Argentinian nicknames for teams or people which are in fact meant fondly.
Unfortunately, we can only guess as to why Haslam was happy to let Tottenham in on the Ardiles and Villa deals with seemingly nothing to gain for himself – clearly football in the late 1970s was a different world. Antonio Rattín, who had a fixer's role in the transfers, is remembered exclusively in Britain for his red card against England during the 1966 World Cup. That makes it interesting to see him portrayed as the pleasant and charming gentleman he has a well-earned reputation for being in Argentina.
There are cameos from Carlos Bilardo, Don Revie and Juan Sebastián Verón among others and a good summary of Sabella's playing time in England; he impressed on a personal level but his team-mates didn't hit the same heights for Sheffield United and the club were relegated to Division Three in his first season. He then had a brief spell at Leeds United before returning to Argentina, where he played a few matches for the national team. Sabella's life on his return home is well treated, especially his coaching and managerial career as assistant to Daniel Passarella at River Plate, Argentina and Uruguay, and his step up to the number-one spot first with Estudiantes and then as manager of Argentina.
Although Sabella's name is in the title, and his face looks out from the cover, this isn't really a book about him – it is more to do with the difficulties players can run into when moving to a new country and culture. It also as a testament to Harry Haslam, a man whose vision of the direction football was going in proved correct, even if it didn't benefit his club.
A life in football
by Paul Fletcher MBE with Dave Thomas
Vertical Editions, £14.99
Reviewed by Alan Tomlinson
From WSC 315 May 2013
This is a book about life-changing moments, successful adaptations in life and survival in the football business, from player to executive. Paul Fletcher explains the title by saying that his "life and career has been magical; it's as simple as that". Fletcher's three moments of life-changing experience were seeing a small player head the ball, inspiring him to practise jumping and heading aged 16; meeting his wife-to-be at Bolton's Beachcomber Club; and attending a Dale Carnegie course in leadership training. The third Damascan moment was at the end of his playing career and, as a fan of Carnegie's book How to win friends and influence people, Fletcher enrolled on a 12-week course in Bark Street, Bolton. There's a deliberate evocation here of dead-end hopelessness, back in the stark, dark uncertainties of his early life in the town but now with a pair of worn-out knees and an unplanned future. The Carnegie programme changed all that for Fletcher, with the probing question: "Where do life's opportunities lie, inside or outside of your comfort zone?"
Fletcher was born in Bolton and played football for his hometown club then Burnley and Blackpool, all in a state of decline or at best static during his playing days, which peaked in the mid-1970s. But the Carnegie course gave him the urge and the confidence to branch out into after-dinner speaking, from World Cup events to the Bacup Wheeltappers, India to Ramsbottom and an appearance at the Cambridge Union. He also moved into photography, the property business and marketing, which got him the job of commercial manager at Colne Dynamoes, a non-League outfit threatening Burnley's local hegemony at the time.
After a year he was recommended for the commercial manager's job at Huddersfield Town, where a derelict plot alongside the club's old ground was available but undeveloped. He went there to introduce money-making ideas but found himself drawn into the process of modernisation of the game, by taking on responsibilities for the specifics of stadium design. The old Leeds Road ground was superseded by the modern McAlpine (now John Smith's) Stadium and suddenly Fletcher was a man in demand – a former player with commercial nous and a pedigree of successful project management.
Fletcher's is an engaging story with some good put-downs; Alan Ball, in charge at Blackpool, comes out as one of the worst managerial appointments of the era. But it's a bit laddish, cultivating the spirit of the dressing-room and stand-up/after-dinner circuit. I'd have liked to know more about the minutiae of his departures from top jobs at Huddersfield, Bolton, Coventry, Wembley and Burnley (covering their season in the Premier League). But he holds back on that and tells another anecdote or reminds us that he's a ukelele-playing stalwart of the George Formby Appreciation Society. "Magic" or "magical" gets a dozen or so mentions throughout the book and at the end "serendipity" too. Fletcher recognises that he was a chance-taker not just on the field; his life in football at his impressively wide levels of achievement is testimony to his determination, ambition, loyalty towards and sustained affiliation to his local roots.
by Brian Greenhoff
Reviewed by Joyce Woolridge
From WSC 315 May 2013
Rarely can five years have generated as much football print as Tommy Docherty's stint at Manchester United. Although Docherty's managerial skills and style continue to polarise opinion, no one has argued he was a defensive genius. The statistics bear that out: away from home his United team always let in more than they scored, apart from their one year sabbatical in Division Two. Brian Greenhoff's blunt autobiography, fully embracing the Yorkshire stereotype of never being afraid to call a spade a shovel, at least has the merit of bringing into focus what, especially in the mid-1970s, could be considered as one of the most cultured centre-half pairings in British football: himself and Martin Buchan. Sammy McIlroy here deems them "absolutely one of the great underrated defensive partnerships".
When Greenhoff signed for United as a schoolboy in August 1968 he was unimpressed by Old Trafford's shabby facilities and organisation, compared with what he had seen at Burnley. He credits coach and former player Bill Foulkes with stopping the apprentices cleaning the ground all afternoon and saving him from an unnecessary operation, by organising strength training after he broke his leg and was prescribed rehab of running up and down the Stretford End paddock.
An unashamed supporter of Docherty, Greenhoff was one of those young talents promoted by the manager, who found them far easier to deal with than the established names at Old Trafford. Accidentally, as he admits in the foreword, Docherty converted Greenhoff into an unlikely centre-half, given that he stood just over 5ft 10ins, and he went on to partner the only slightly taller Buchan for two seasons. Both were elegant ball players who countered their lack of height by pushing out quickly and pressing the opposition. United, claims Greenhoff, called this strategy "attack the ball", adding that today's Barcelona and Spain employ something similar.
If Greenhoff has nothing bad to say about Docherty, the same isn't true for his replacement Dave Sexton (boring, overly obsessed with systems, afraid to deal with players directly), nor Allan Clarke (nobody liked him, obsessed with running and weighing players) who took over at Leeds shortly after they bought Greenhoff for £350,000. The post-United and potentially more interesting section of Greenhoff's professional career is dealt with relatively brusquely. A stint in South Africa, initially as part of a "rebel tour", which ends prematurely because of protests, passes without dealing with any ethical considerations. Greenhoff famously became part of another United pairing when his brother Jimmy joined United in 1976 (as Buchan's brother George had done previously). The two brothers are reunited disastrously at Rochdale and Brian goes on to fulfil another stereotype by running a pub.
The book ends by "setting the record straight" on why the Greenhoff brothers haven't spoken for 20 years. Like the rest of the contents, the revelations are unsurprising. However, despite the often familiar material, Greenhoff tells his tale with the unvarnished directness you'd expect from someone who once told striking Barnsley miners that they had to get rid of Arthur Scargill.
by Stevie Chalmers with Graham McColl
Reviewed by Mark Poole
From WSC 314 April 2013
Stevie Chalmers scored the winning goal in the 1967 European Cup final. It's still the most important goal in Celtic's history: the goal that liberated club football's greatest prize from its Spanish-Italian-Portuguese stranglehold for the first time and that inspired Bill Shankly to call Jock Stein immortal.
Chalmers scored 230 other goals for Celtic – including the last hat-trick in an Old Firm derby – but his career has come to be defined solely by his tap-in (team-mate Bertie Auld's words) against Inter in Lisbon. His autobiography does nothing to change that. The middle two chapters, one for each half of that final, are where the book comes alive and Chalmers's detailed perspective of the match is compelling reading for Celtic fans.
There are other intriguing aspects to his life and career: he almost died from tuberculous meningitis when he was 20, he only played five times for Scotland (in spite of his clear talent and scoring against Brazil) and he had a long career at the club he supported but an uneasy relationship with its most successful manager.
His perspective on Stein is interesting but no more so than many others and, perhaps unsurprisingly for a renowned gentleman, Chalmers seems reluctant to complain directly about being overlooked or played out of position.
A lot remains unsaid, leaving readers to infer much of the story. Like many of his contemporaries, Chalmers repeatedly insists that he would always rather do what was best for the team than for himself. However, it's clear that some managers' and selectors' tactics and decisions (including Stein's) still rankle with him over 40 years later, particularly his omission from the Scotland team that beat England at Wembley in 1967.
It's a melancholy experience to intrude upon such a successful player's feelings of loss. Stein was a notoriously hard man to read – his players' feelings were rarely allowed to intrude on the business of winning matches – but his choices as a manager made it clear how much he valued Chalmers. The reader is left to wonder if Chalmers realises this and also if he would seem more content now if he'd made more of a fuss back then. This glimpse into a 1960s footballer's mind is one of the more interesting aspects of the book.
The Winning Touch could have provided more of an insight into what it was like to experience Chalmers's terrible illness, and to recover so remarkably from it. This presence of detail but absence of insight is symptomatic of other parts of the book, perhaps evidence of the adage that consummate professionals often produce mostly pedestrian autobiographies and typical of the emotional restraint of mid-century Scotsmen.
In his playing days Chalmers made the most of the chances that came his way, so it's surprising that parts of his autobiography seem like a missed opportunity. Although it is worth reading, at least for the insight into the day when he and ten other men from the edge of the football world shocked the game's aristocracy.
They don't make them like him any more
by Paul Firth
Reviewed by Jason McKeown
From WSC 314 April 2013
It's long been a mystery to me how people of a certain age will lament the behaviour of modern day footballers and then, within the same breath, romanticise the bad lads of decades earlier. The story of Bobby Campbell, Bradford City's all-time leading scorer in two spells between 1979 and 1986, features tales of drinking sessions, fighting and police run-ins that would prompt moralistic howls of derision were he playing today. Yet the book's tagline – "They don't make them like him any more" – invites us to consider that football is worse off today for the absence of someone whose off-field antics have become as much a part of Valley Parade folklore as his 131 Bantams goals.
Still there is an almost apologetic tone to some of the stories of punch-ups with bouncers and drinking in the dressing room before matches, with biographer Paul Firth focusing more on Campbell's many admirable qualities. Any footballer who recovers from a broken leg at 19, plays for nine different clubs across three continents and makes the Northern Ireland 1982 World Cup squad after a season in Division Four has quite a story to tell.
The book is a combination of Firth's narration and the views of Campbell himself, which are interwoven throughout. At times the switching back and forth into the subject's direct quotes feels awkward but the striker's blunt statements add a valuable layer of understanding into how his career unfolded. Campbell is brutally honest about the sectarian troubles he experienced growing up in Belfast ("I had a few friends who were assassinated, one just for courting a Catholic girl") and why his career, which started promisingly at Aston Villa, at one stage drifted into the relative obscurity of playing part-time in Australia.
Campbell's two spells at Bradford City, his heyday, take in two promotions, the club almost going bankrupt (he had to be sold to Derby to raise money) and the tragic Valley Parade fire of 1985. You get a sense that, although Campbell had something of a hardman reputation, he deeply cared about team-mates, supporters and the club. The book's most memorable moments are provided by interviewees who played alongside Campbell. They praise both his playing ability and caring nature, such as when he raced off a team bus that had crashed into a car to try to save the lives of two children: "It's typical of the person, going in and not being afraid of anything," former team-mate Stuart McCall says.
Following the Bradford fire, a City supporter tells of Campbell's regular hospital visits to various supporters' bedsides, as he and many others recovered. Despite a decent final spell at Wigan, Campbell was apparently fed up with football when he retired at the age of 32. Nonetheless, his biographer does an excellent job conveying the lasting legacy of this unlikely hero.
A History of the Goalkeeper
by Jonathan Wilson
Orion Books, £20
Reviewed by Jonathan O'Brien
From WSC 314 April 2013
Of all the "name" football writers on the merry-go-round today, Jonathan Wilson is arguably the best value, even if a few of his many theories and pet obsessions tend towards the overly self-indulgent. He's a busy man, too – running the quarterly Blizzard while producing columns for the Guardian and Sports Illustrated and roughly one book per year. The Outsider is his sixth tome since 2006, the kind of workrate that sees a lot of writers spread themselves too thinly. But Wilson's prodigious energy doesn't seem to dilute the quality of what he comes up with and this meticulous study of the goalkeeping art is characterised by the attention to detail that he brings to everything he writes.
Starting with a study of football in the 1800s, he demonstrates how the mere fact of being a goalkeeper has always carried with it the smell of the scapegoat. In Victorian times the position was occupied by small boys, "duffers" and "funk-sticks" (milksops who had failed to perform elsewhere on the pitch). As the years went on and the sport evolved at snail's pace, deaths were commonplace for keepers – Celtic's John Thomson, accidentally kicked in the head during a match in 1931, being an infamous example.
Wilson has put in plenty of air miles, heading for locales as far-flung as Brazil and Russia. The latter country, which once produced great keepers by the lorryload, has nursed a special obsession with the position since before the 1917 revolution (an assertion backed up with quotes from none other than novelist Vladimir Nabokov). Brazil, contrariwise, has had mostly white keepers due to some strange socio-racial issues – the odd exception such as Dida not withstanding. Although, as Wilson shows, English football has nurtured a similar instinctive distrust of black keepers.
African keepers, specifically, sit even lower down the food chain of perception. Two of the best, Cameroon's Thomas N'Kono and Joseph-Antoine Bell, enjoyed a (mostly) friendly 20-year rivalry after learning from Yugoslavian legend Vladimir Beara. N'Kono was the natural, Bell the hard worker. N'Kono shone at the 1982 World Cup, got a move to Spain out of it and became an Espanyol hero. Bell had to wait until the disastrous USA 94 campaign to play in the finals, by which time he was 39 and too far over the hill to do himself justice.
Wilson's fondness for idiosyncratic structuring sometimes weakens the book's sense of direction. The Brazilian chapter abruptly veers into Scotland for several pages, then heads back to Brazil. Not that the material therein isn't interesting or informative – the passages concerning the appalling bad luck that plagued Jim Leighton's long career are particularly vivid – but layering the material in such an odd way seems unnecessarily perverse.
In the main The Outsider is a terrific history of its subject. It wears its knowledgeable perspective lightly and deftly works its vast research into the text without battering you over the head with it. Wilson can always be relied upon to come up with something a little bit different and a little bit special, and this has plenty of both.