by Paul McVeigh
Reviewed by Ashley Clark
From WSC 319 September 2013
Since his retirement from football in 2010, diminutive former Norwich City midfielder and Northern Ireland international Paul McVeigh has worked hard to create a brand for himself. A regular pundit on TV and radio, he also treads the speaker's circuit and has co-founded the company ThinkPro alongside sports psychologist Gavin Drake, which trails itself on its website as an "Elite Performance Development Programme". It's all a long way from the days when ex-pros simply bought pubs when their playing days were done.
McVeigh's first book – the alarmingly titled (but largely uncontroversial) The Stupid Footballer Is Dead – is constructed as a 12-step guide for professional and aspiring footballers aiming to realise their potential and develop successful careers. Based largely around McVeigh's thesis that mental strength is gradually replacing the need for physical strength in modern football, it is clearly structured and easy to follow, as each chapter concludes with a case study and a capsule summary of its key points. However, it is sometimes repetitive and better consumed in chunks rather than one sitting.
Though one's overall enjoyment and appreciation of The Stupid Footballer will likely hinge on their level of tolerance for the near-messianic tone and buzzword-heavy language of the self-help industry (when McVeigh glowingly mentions Paul McKenna, he's not talking about the ex-Preston North End midfielder), much of the book's content is undeniably salient. In chapters with titles such as "Define and follow goals", "Create a helpful self-image", and "Think about thinking" he offers a host of practical suggestions filtered through his own wealth of professional experience. McVeigh is not shy of the occasional critique, either – he is particularly scathing of England's 2010 World Cup squad, who he castigates for their lack of positivity, and has some choice words regarding Joey Barton's perceived lack of professionalism.
McVeigh comes across as likeable enough but he often lapses into cliche, while an occasional lack of self-awareness in his choice of language bleeds through. When, in the final chapter ("There is life after football"), he boasts of having "delivered stand-up comedy", it's impossible not to think of David Brent. Another unintentional laugh-out-loud moment arrives when McVeigh describes Pisa FC as having "failed to sign him", rather than him "failing to secure a contract"; this kind of lacuna in logic is perhaps a corollary of the bulletproof self-confidence he's engendered in himself through practising what his book preaches. That said, McVeigh is candid about some of his earlier career mistakes (often involving a drink or two) and offers welcome slivers of personal information about his upbringing in Belfast against the backdrop of the Troubles.
Ultimately, even though its content is hardly revolutionary, it's not too much of a leap to say that The Stupid Footballer Is Dead, with its neatly pedagogical structure, could come to be used as a key text for coaches looking to help focus the minds of young players across the country. However, it remains to be seen whether the current generation of English footballers, who McVeigh characterises as being hooked on Xbox, will pay it much attention.
1953: Cup, Coronation and Stanley Matthews
by David Tossell
Reviewed by Charles Robinson
From WSC 319 September 2013
Sixty years on, no cup final has yet matched the game in 1953 in which Blackpool beat Bolton 4-3 with a late intervention from the incomparable Stanley Matthews. In The Great English Final author David Tossell relates the full story of this famous day, weaving social and economic history with the tale of the game to great effect.
Aside from the match reports which bookend the chapters, not just of the game itself but of the rounds leading up to the final, Tossell expertly discusses a range of issues which touch on the modern game. In one chapter, he addresses players' wages and the challenges that big-name stars, such as Stan Mortensen – scorer of a hat-trick in the 1953 final – went through to secure a decent wage and to protect themselves against their inevitable and oncoming retirement. Although, in Matthews's case, that wouldn't happen for a few years yet.
Another topic that exercises Tossell is that of the supposed tactical naivety of British football in the post-war period. As he explains, 1953 was the year not only of the coronation of Elizabeth II but also the year of England's famous and chastening defeat by Hungary. This disastrous result could have heralded a period of deep introspection, of the kind wished for by many England fans today. However, the author argues that English football fans were more concerned with entertainment than with sophisticated displays of tactical ingenuity after many years of war, hardship and suffering.
Despite that, Tossell also highlights the reckless attacking philosophy of the Blackpool manager Joe Smith, at the same time revealing the profound differences between the methods of managers in that post-war period to our own. The captain of the team was much more significant in those days and a delightful early chapter on Blackpool skipper Harry Johnston demonstrates this.
Of course, the book leans towards Blackpool, Matthews and his incredible achievements. The narrative is compelling, as the 38-year-old Matthews, a defeated Wembley finalist twice before, defies age to claim the medal that he promised his father on his deathbed. Interestingly, Tossell also uses contemporary analysis of the game, using Opta statistics to show that Matthews was, in fact, not the most effective player on the field. Ernie Taylor, Mortensen and Bolton's Willie Moir, among others, were all more productive according to the modern analysis.
Nonetheless, the final is fittingly described as the Matthews Final. Tossell derides the contemporary media for skewing and distorting any soundbite from players and managers so as to fit in to some predetermined story. But the Matthews tale gripped the nation and even the Bolton players and supporters celebrated with him. Matthews was a genuine star before the media obsession with football and the cult of celebrity that blights the modern game. Tossell, rightly shortlisted many times for the British Sports Book awards, tells a riveting story of social and sporting history, weaving his narrative strands inwards towards that famous late goal scored not by Matthews, but by one Bill Perry, another forgotten hero of that famous day.
by Terry Curran
with John Brindley
Vertical Editions £16.99
Reviewed by Andy Hockley
From WSC 317 July 2013
The blurb on the inside cover of this book ends with the words "Warning: Terry Curran's story may offend the politically correct". This, coupled with the dreaded word "Maverick" in the title, meant that I approached the book with trepidation.
Happily, I can report that in this case first impressions are wrong. Terry Curran is an engaging story-teller, who chooses to focus on a few interesting periods of his career rather than just launch into a tedious retelling of the whole. He's perhaps best remembered for his spell at Sheffield Wednesday and especially for his role in the legendary 1979 "Boxing Day Massacre", when a record 49,309 turned up for a Third Division match at Hillsborough to see top-of-the-league Sheffield United dispatched 4-0, in a match which Curran dominated, scoring one and setting up another. But ultimately he was a journeyman, playing at 16 different clubs in his all-too-short career. Twice he even managed what few do once, transferring between bitter rivals – from Nottingham Forest to Derby County and from Wednesday to United.
Such was his promiscuousness that he ended up playing under a virtual who's who of late 1970s and early 1980s management. Brian Clough, Tommy Docherty, Lawrie McMenemy, Jack Charlton, Howard Kendall and a considerable number of others had what would appear to be the dubious pleasure of attempting to get the best out of the talented but lippy Curran, the self-styled "poor man's George Best".
In many ways this is where the book succeeds – providing a glimpse into the experiences of playing under all those managers with their vastly different playing styles and approaches to man management. The chapter on Clough is particularly rich and it's clear that Curran had a huge amount of time for him. This didn't stop the headstrong (sorry, maverick) Curran walking out on Forest just when they got to the First Division. Other former bosses are described significantly less positively, most notably McMenemy.
Curran is not averse to listing his mistakes, though since most of the titular regrets are related to walking out on clubs where he felt he was not getting enough playing time, it is notable that he never really addresses the question of why that might have been. You didn't necessarily have to be a top manager to find him a frustrating player at times.
In case you were wondering about that initial warning, it's actually quite difficult to know what exactly we are being alerted to. I can only suppose that it relates to Curran's womanising and "PC" is being used to mean "prudish". But there's nothing here that could be described as offensive, even to those of us with a sensitive disposition.
It's hard not to warm to Curran, despite his admitted failings, and by the end of the book it's gratifying to find him happy and fulfilled and working as a youth coach at Doncaster Rovers, musing on England's lack of success. Rather than, say, following in the footsteps of the real George Best.
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.