The lives and times of four captains of England
by Colin Shindler
Head Of Zeus, £18.99
Reviewed by John Earls
From WSC 356 October 2016
With barely a shrug at Wayne Rooney continuing as captain despite being an increasingly controversial choice for his club side, Cambridge University academic Colin Shindler has chosen an unfortunate time to launch his high-concept social history linking the state of the nation to England’s captains of the era.
Euro 96 and the last great British summer
by Paul Rees
Reviewed by Si Hawkins
From WSC 353 July 2016
There’s something oddly masochistic about our ongoing desire to wallow, at length, in massive disappointments. This book may well be one too, for those attracted by the title: 311 pages long, its Euro 96 coverage ends on page 189, which may come as a surprise. But then When We Were Lions isn’t strictly a football book.
The unseen story behind England’s World Cup glory
by John Rowlinson
Virgin Books, £20
Reviewed by David Stubbs
From WSC 352 June 2016
One of the recurring themes of this volume to commemorate the 50th anniversary of England’s sole international triumph is how relatively little was made of it at the time. Kenneth Wolstenholme’s famous “They think it’s all over; it is now” line epitomises the phlegmatic, English reserve that prevented too much of the sort of histrionic reaction that would prevail nowadays. Were England to win the World Cup today, you suspect Jonathan Pearce’s head would, literally, explode. Not then.
England, the English and Euro 96
by Michael Gibbons
Pitch Publishing, £12.99
Reviewed by Jonathan O’Brien
From WSC 352 June 2016
It’s now 20 years since Euro 96, a relentlessly mediocre, often sparsely attended tournament won by an unexceptional Germany team that stumbled over the line carrying a busload of walking wounded. Realistically, it should be best forgotten. Yet, oddly, it continues to exert a strong hold over English football’s folk memory. Not because of the standard of play, or because England achieved anything beyond a restoration of respectability, but... just because. For better or worse, its name has come to evoke an unrepeatable moment in time.
by Ian Passingham
Pitch Publishing, £14.99
Reviewed by Jon Matthias
From WSC 351 May 2016
The concept of this book is to help the reader “relive the finals as if they were happening today”. Broadly speaking it works, as Ian Passingham tells the story of the 1966 World Cup in modern journalistic style. That means lots of headlines, short sentences and picking the newsworthy angle out of the factual details. There are times when anachronisms grate, such as references to “WAGs”. “The Angels of the North” particularly stood out as a headline out of sync with the rest of the book, given the Angel was only erected in 1998. But minor quibbles apart, Passingham manages to make the source material fresh and interesting.
A World Cup story
by Richard Gordon
Black and White, £11.99
Reviewed by Archie MacGregor
From WSC 332 October 2014
With yet another World Cup having passed Scotland by, the fondness and esteem with which the squad led by Willie Ormond to the finals in West Germany all of 40 years ago are regarded seems to grow ever warmer. Not without some justification either, as although they were unable to progress beyond a group featuring holders Brazil, Yugoslavia and Zaire, they emerged unbeaten, something not even West Germany as eventual winners could lay claim to. Nothing captured this particular glorious failure more enduringly than the image of Billy Bremner clutching his head in his hands as he came within a bobbled ricochet of earning the Scots what would have been a dream-like, yet arguably deserved, victory over the Brazilians.
As nostalgia trips go it makes for an engaging story and Richard Gordon, the respected voice of BBC Radio Scotland's football coverage for many years, covers it in sure-footed and enjoyable fashion, relying heavily on a mix of interviews with surviving members of Ormond's 22-man squad and contemporary press coverage. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the entire 1974 campaign from qualification to its agonising denouement in the final match against Yugoslavia is just how shambolic Scotland's preparations had been on and off the field. While it was nothing compared the apocalyptic meltdown that was to come along four years later under Ally MacLeod in Argentina, this Scottish side and their entourage pretty much lived up to something of a Spinal Tap equivalent of the worst stereotypical behaviour of footballers on tour.
Most notorious was the Jimmy Johnstone "lost at sea" rowing boat incident at the squad's Largs training base for the Home Internationals. But this was just one ill-starred tale among many of broken curfews, boozing, disputes over commercial deals and rumours of team selections being not solely the preserve of the manager. Ironically it was probably Johnstone who had more reason than anyone to emerge with a sense of grievance from the maelstrom, as having apparently been forgiven by Ormond for his boating misdemeanour and yet another breach of discipline prior to a warm-up game in Oslo, he did not feature in any of the three group matches despite still being near the peak of his powers.
While saluting Scotland's valiant playing endeavours the theme of self-destruction just keeps on recurring. Depending on who you believe, the players either had a misplaced sense that victory alone over Zaire in the opening game was sufficient or they wanted to conserve their energy for the big one against Brazil. Either way it never looked like being enough, but there was to be a final unkind twist as their fate was sealed by an unfortunate fumble by Zairian goalkeeper Robert Kazadi which gifted the Brazilians a decisive third goal in the final round of group matches.
As the book reminds us there was however to be one lasting consolation for the players – uniquely among all of Scotland's squads to have participated in a World Cup finals they actually got a welcoming party when they arrived back at Glasgow airport.
The story of football's greatest cult team
by Rob Smyth, Lars Eriksen and Mike Gibbons
Reviewed by Jonathan O'Brien
From WSC 328 June 2014
If you wanted entertaining football from a European national side in the mid-1980s, the pickings on offer were slim. Spain were a shower of hackers, Germany ruthless but uninspired, Italy suffering a post-1982 hangover, Holland in the doldrums – and England were England. There were only three shows in town: France, the USSR and Denmark.
Michel Hidalgo's marvellous France team chiselled their names down in history by winning the 1984 European Championship, and the USSR lit up Mexico 86 in tremendous style. The Danes were left with nothing after a pair of traumatic defeats by Spain in Lyon and Querétaro. The memory of the sizzling football remains, though, and this reappraisal of them is long overdue. Despite its tendency to write subsequent Denmark teams out of history, Danish Dynamite, which grew out of a 2009 article on the Guardian's website, is largely terrific.
With the exceptions of Frank Arnesen and Jan Molby, all the players are interviewed, as is manager Sepp Piontek, now aged 74 and still full of combative vigour. A ruthless hatchet-man as a player in the Bundesliga, Piontek brought a dash of cold-water efficiency to Danish football's free-spirit mentality and coaxed results out of them that would have seemed utterly implausible just five or six years previously. The team was full of offbeat, off-kilter characters: Soren Lerby, so ferociously competitive that Morten Olsen dubbed him Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; Preben Elkjaer, the party animal who never drank beer; Ole Qvist, the goalkeeper who played out of his skin at Euro 84 and then went straight back to his job as a motorcycle police officer in Copenhagen; Ivan Nielsen, the easygoing centre-back who is now a plumber and conducted his interview while sitting on an upturned bucket in his garage.
And the football was never less than blinding. As is mentioned here, Denmark played as if it was always the 85th minute and they were a goal down. Watch one of their games on DVD today – the 5-0 thrashing of Yugoslavia at Euro 84, for example, or the extraordinarily action-packed 4-2 victory over the USSR in Copenhagen a year later – and the footage looks like an animated cartoon on fast-forward, with players flooding into the midfield from all areas of the pitch, joining up with the attack in their droves, and scoring goals from the craziest of angles. The party was too good to last.
Just ten days after dismembering Uruguay at the 1986 World Cup, the Danes exited the competition in shattering, and somehow tragic, fashion when a solid but unexceptional Spain happily picked them off on the counter-attack and beat them 5-1, scarcely credibly. And that's more or less where the story ends – Euro 88, where Piontek's ageing team lost all three matches, is barely mentioned, and the subsequent glory of Euro 92 is covered in just a couple of pages. This comes across as laziness and a bad call, but in all other respects Danish Dynamite is a wonderful read and an exhilarating nostalgia trip.
The story of Welsh football
by Phil Stead
Y Lolfa, £14.95
Reviewed by Huw Richards
From WSC 319 September 2013
The condition of Welsh football is often serious but never dull, and the same can be said of Phil Stead's engagingly readable chronicle. It is history as one thing after another, stronger on anecdote than analysis. The prose is more solid than stylish but with flourishes such as the characterisation of Jerry Sherman, briefly and disastrously Newport County's owner, as having "the shifty-eyed evasiveness of a potion seller at a wild west show".
Clubs are not neglected. We learn how Wrexham got their "Robins" nickname, that Cardiff possibly sacrificed the 1924 League title to Wales call-ups and that West Ham's "Bubbles" anthem may have been borrowed from Swansea – but this is essentially the story of the Wales team and the Football Association of Wales (FAW).
The anecdotal style works well in the early years. It introduces debonair goalkeeper Leigh Roose, who dated music hall star Marie Lloyd and conceded a Scottish winner because he was talking to a spectator, and an earlier keeper who played against England with his forearms in plaster. There are two one-armed players, a schoolmaster accidentally shot dead by a pupil and evidence of the national surname shortage, with different players called Oswald Davies on consecutive pages. One FAW secretary is imprisoned for forgery and its second president is sacked for providing insufficient support – he was the nephew of the MP and magistrate who became founding president after licensing a pub lock-in at the first meeting.
Running themes do emerge. The FAW are perennially skint, so opt for income over team priorities in locating key qualifiers. They are beset by English club obstructionism over player release, localised factionalism – Oswestry v Wrexham prefiguring Swansea v Cardiff – and they treat Llanelli's ambitions as unsympathetically in 1958 as in 2013.
They are baffled by foreign travel. Players routinely forget passports and it is hard to forgive the official who could have averted Vinnie Jones's Wales debut, but let him play with limited documentation. The infamous incident when player Gil Reece was bumped from a flight packed with committee men is merely the culmination of traditions exemplified by taking only 18 players, but 25 officials including the FAW secretary's sister, to the 1958 World Cup. And then there are the qualification near-misses, that litany of dodgy Scottish penalties and doped-up Russians for which the sad but inescapable explanation is that even good Wales teams are usually not quite good enough.
Red Dragons really should have an index but there are few factual glitches. Stead elevates Wrexham to Division Two 45 years too early, while the Trevor Ford who gave vital evidence at the manslaughter trial after a South Wales Transport player died on the pitch in 1934 was almost certainly not the rumbustious centre-forward, ten at the time, but his father.
But these are minor quibbles. Stead doubtless once dreamed of playing for Wales, but with this book serves his nation better than many who achieved that ambition.
The story of Irish football
by Peter Byrne & Matthew Murray
Carlton Books, £14.99
Reviewed by Ciaran McCauley
From WSC 305 July 2012
It is hardly surprising given the island's turbulent history, but football in Ireland has never been a simple matter. Just take the eligibility issue, which has dominated relations between football authorities north and south in the past few years. James McClean's selection for the Republic's Euro 2012 squad, and a few brainless morons issuing death threats on Twitter, made headline news once again and stirred up the usual hornets' nest.
The Irish who-can-play-for-who furore illustrates two key points. Firstly, relations between the Irish Football Association (IFA) and Football Association of Ireland (FAI) rarely appear anything other than frosty.
Secondly, what the hell happened for things to get this way? In a country where every other sport is happily played on an all-Ireland basis, why does football suffer the indignity of such tension?
Into this knowledge breach steps Peter Byrne's Green Is The Colour, perhaps the first authoritative overview of the history of the two associations.
Taking the origins of football in Ireland as its starting point, the book outlines the formation of the IFA in Belfast – the world's fourth oldest football association – and its running of the game in Ireland before the disgruntled Leinster Football Association broke away to form the FAI just days after the partition of Ireland in 1921.
Neatly illustrating the symmetry between Ireland's political strife and the football power struggle, Green Is The Colour goes on to outline nimbly decades of squabbling between the two associations over everything from who could pick what players (eligibility again) and even who had the right to call themselves Ireland in international games.
These early decades make up a large portion of the book, with Byrne's scrupulous research offering invaluable insight into the power plays at work between two associations fighting desperately for control of the game.
The writer clearly appreciates the difficulties in overseeing the growing sport in a country struck by sectarian divisions and never lets his academic eye for detail get in the way of a good anecdote – for instance, his eye-opening account of the Irish Free State taking on Germany in 1939, the Nazi state's final football match before the war.
If anything, the book is too ambitious. Despite being packed with information, it feels light in some areas and Byrne largely skips over the more well-known modern days. But he spends large chunks looking at the FAI's struggles, notably in taking on the fiercely nationalist Gaelic Athletic Association which was against "British" games. This is excellent material but it leaves this ostensible history of the game on both sides of the border with a distinct slant to the South.
Nonetheless, Green Is The Colour remains a fascinating account of how football related to one of the 20th century's most enduring local conflicts. A must-read for all Irish supporters and highly recommended for anyone with an interest in the tantalising contradictions of how football, the great unifier, has always been divided on the island.