Reviews from When Saturday Comes. Follow the link to buy the book from Amazon.
One man’s odyssey through the lower reaches of English football
by Ben Smith
Biteback Publishing, £12.99
Reviewed by Tim Springett
From WSC 342 August 2015
The template for autobiographical tales of journeyman footballers was Eamon Dunphy’s Only A Game?, published nearly 40 years ago, although the most celebrated examples were the two books by Garry Nelson. The reason why these were successful was because they took the reader into the dressing room, onto the training ground, into the manager’s office, down the tunnel for a match and into the players’ lounge. Ben Smith’s effort does this only sporadically and remains, for the most part, inside his own mind. The result is a chronological account of Smith’s career with a large dose of soul-searching but too many unnecessary details to make for a compelling read.
The first half of this 360-page tome documents Smith’s nomadic progress through seven clubs. The narrative, however, does not change appreciably – everywhere he goes it seems Smith agrees terms, trains hard, has a bad game, gets dropped, demands reasons, wins his place back, plays well, enjoys being named “man of the match”, gets injured, is shown the door. We learn about Smith’s own perceptions of his ability and form, as well as his club’s fixture list for the season in question, but very little else. While he remarks about management styles and training at each club, his on- and off-field relationships with other players are hardly mentioned. For a story about life as a lower-league pro, this is a glaring deficiency.
Things improve with a chapter entitled, prophetically, “Finally getting somewhere” which focuses on Hereford’s promotion season in 2007-08, when there is at last some insight into the atmosphere of the club and even a few snatches of humour. The most interesting section chronicles his years with Crawley Town under the idiosyncratic management of Steve Evans. Smith’s opinion of Evans does not come as a surprise even if some of the man’s methods still manage to – such as telling the squad that the club will cease supplying training kit and announcing a session two hours afterwards, forcing several players to head for Sports Direct to kit themselves out. Smith eventually learns to let the regular vicious personal bollockings wash over him and is amused that, prior to each of Crawley’s appearances in a televised match, Evans would refresh the highlights in his hair.
Interspersed with the historical are snapshots of Smith’s new life as he comes to terms with no longer making his living from full-time football. It’s hard not to feel sympathy as he struggles in the world of education before finding a niche. Some of the sympathy dissipates when we learn that, aged nearly 34, Smith was offered the position of head of youth at Crawley as they prepared for their first season in League One. He rejected the role, believing he could continue playing despite having struggled to get a game the preceding season. One is left with the impression of somebody who, while showing commendable honesty, liked to be treated with kid gloves and never mastered the art of making his own luck.
The story of the mysterious Marco
by Marco Negri with Jeff Holmes
Pitch Publishing, £20
Reviewed by Jonathan O’Brien
From WSC 342 August 2015
Oleh Kuznetsov, Alan McLaren, Seb Rozental, Daniel Prodan: Rangers had more than their fair share of expensive crocks in the 1990s. But easily the strangest tale was that of Marco Negri, who started off as a superhuman goal-machine and ended up as a Winston Bogarde-like byword for lethargy as his contract slowly dribbled away. Moody Blue is his sporadically diverting attempt to set the record straight.
Readably ghostwritten by a Scottish journalist, Moody Blue is dominated by Negri’s time at Rangers, even though he only played 42 times for them. Signed by Walter Smith for £3.75 million along with several other Italians, his stats for the first half of 1997-98 were fairly special, even in a lopsided SPL. From August to December, he averaged more than a goal a game, scoring 33 times in 29 matches. Then it all abruptly ended when he suffered an eye injury during a game of squash with team-mate Sergio Porrini. Hospital treatment didn’t prevent him being out for months, and his irresistible momentum faded away overnight.
Moody Blue is good on the grotesque culture-clash stuff that characterises books by foreign imports in British football. On one occasion, Negri and Gennaro Gattuso decided to “eat like the Scots before a match, just once”. A few hours later, during the game, Gattuso found himself incapable of belching, and thus unable “to dislodge the rock inside our stomachs”. Negri also couldn’t get used to the uninterrupted flow of SPL matches, remarking that he played in games during which “the referee intervene[d] fewer than ten times”.
Negri got on well with Smith (until the end), but not with assistant coach Archie Knox, who he says picked on him in training. After Rangers were routed by IFK Gothenburg in a Champions League qualifier, Knox hairdryered him in the dressing-room in front of everyone: “Ten minutes of hell, as the attack was aimed especially at me.” To return to the belching theme, he also accuses Knox of often burping loudly while speaking, the polar opposite of Smith, who was apparently “always the epitome of elegance”.
Another nemesis was Ian Ferguson, who regularly addressed him as “fucking Italian”. The feeling was mutual. Negri nicknamed the midfielder “piedi di padella” – which meant pan-feet, or iron-feet, as I didn’t consider him a player of great class”. Lorenzo Amoruso was a much bigger enemy, “the type of person who would travel around the world so that it could see him”. Negri accuses the defender of meddling in his private life, and of backstabbing him by passing comments made in confidence on to the unamused Smith.
Negri doesn’t heap all the blame for his stop-stop career on others. Now 44, he admits that his 27-year-old self was bursting with “conceit and arrogance”. He scores just three goals in the second half of 1997-98, falls out with Smith over the manager’s “no beards or stubble” rule and, with zero interest in playing alongside Amoruso (whom he realises will be the captain for 1998-99), slides into a physical torpor. Rangers owner David Murray rings him at home one evening to resolve the situation, cops a mouthful of abuse – an incident which Negri recounts here with obvious mortification – and stops his wages there and then.
And that’s more or less that, apart from a loan spell at Vicenza, more injuries, three appearances in three years and a bizarre HIV scare after a blood test turns up some unexpected results. Fifteen minutes against Sturm Graz in October 2000, his only ever appearance in the Champions League, are how he signs off. “Looking back, I am proud of the career I made for myself,” he says near the end, though you wonder if he truly believes it himself.
When the FA Cup really mattered Vol 3
by Matthew Eastley
Pitch Publishing, £14.99
Reviewed by Jonathan Paxton
From WSC 342 August 2015
It’s hard to imagine Aston Villa or even Arsenal fans looking back on this year’s FA Cup final with much nostalgia but a dip into Matthew Eastley’s entertaining trip through finals from the 1980s is a pleasant reminder of why the competition’s heritage means so much to fans of a certain age. This was a time when Cup runs excited whole communities and smaller clubs had genuine hopes of reaching Wembley and lifting the famous trophy.
The stories, told chronologically from West Ham’s win over Arsenal in 1980, are recalled by fans in their own words and the absence of journalistic hyperbole is welcome. Interviews with supporters at Wembley on the day gives the stories a down-to-earth quality and fans of all clubs will understand quirks such as the West Ham fan who stuffs his Wembley ticket in his Y-fronts for safe keeping. Referencing hit singles and news stories of the day is a standard, if predictable way of placing the events in time but, by having fans recall the horrendous fashions of the era, we identify closely with them.
The other device used by Eastley is to revisit TV coverage of the day’s build-up and match. Cup final editions of Mastermind and It’s A Knockout are recalled with little affection and one wonders how Michael Barrymore blacking up to greet John Barnes at the Watford team hotel in 1984 was ever considered appropriate. Yes, we’ve all seen Ricky Villa’s goal and Gordon Smith’s miss but Eastley still manages to maintain some tension when describing matches and even the dire 1982 final is injected with drama. Some match reports (particularly from earlier rounds) do get a little stat heavy however and transcripts of John Motson’s commentary and basic descriptions of well-known action don’t add much to our knowledge of the matches. The occasional nugget does appear though: the tragic story of Welsh international winger Alan Davies (a winner in 1983 with Manchester United) is briefly touched upon and feels like it deserves its own book.
While there is no nostalgia for hooliganism, anecdotes of fans sneaking onto the opposing terraces are written with a sense of cheeky fun but descriptions of a dilapidated Wembley and crowd congestion are ominous. For those who fail to get tickets through the official channels, going directly to touts is seen as a perfectly viable option at the time and poor policing and stewarding is the norm. The author deserves great credit for his handling of the 1989 final.
Whether a supporter of the clubs involved or not, most fans will find something to identify with here. Those around at the time will enjoy the evocative memories but for younger fans, brought up on Sky coverage and all-seat stadiums, the sport may be unrecognisable. While it will probably find more warmth in Brighton and Coventry than in Liverpool or Manchester, this is an enjoyable retrospective of a time when Cup finals did actually stay long in the memory.
The story of black
by Emy Onuora
Biteback Publishing, £16.99
Reviewed by Paul Rees
From WSC 341 July 2015
The issue of racism in football remains sadly pertinent, as indicated by serial incidents at games in eastern Europe and the taunting of a black man by Chelsea supporters ahead of a Champions League fixture in Paris earlier this year. As such, there is a requirement for a definitive history covering the emergence and ultimate triumph of black footballers in the British game. Emy Onuora would seem to be well-placed to produce it. Brother of erstwhile Huddersfield, Gillingham and Swindon striker Iffy Onuora and a race relations scholar, he promises to bring a unique perspective to his subject but never manages to mould that into a gripping narrative.
Pitch Black is strong on basic detail. It capably charts the rise through the 1970s of players such as Clyde Best at West Ham and West Brom’s so-called Three Degrees, Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham and Brendon Batson, relating the vile abuse these early trailblazers were routinely subjected to at grounds across the country. Similarly, Onuora sheds light on the tales of less familiar names. Among them are those of Bradford City’s Ces Podd, the first black British footballer to be granted a testimonial, and Calvin Plummer, a promising young forward with Nottingham Forest press-ganged onto a tour of apartheid-era South Africa by his manager, Brian Clough. However, Pitch Black is undone by the author’s dry writing style, often reading like an academic dissertation, and his unfortunate tendency to continually repeat the same facts.
Onuora’s book also suffers from his apparent lack of access. He recounts the chastening experiences of one black footballer after another, but the reader is deprived of first-hand accounts. As a result Regis, Batson, Garth Crooks, Ian Wright and others pass through Pitch Black like ciphers and with no new flesh being put on the bones of their stories. Onuora is scant on the contemporary game too. The likes of Danny Welbeck, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling are all but invisible and he skips over the Luis Suárez and John Terry controversies with undue haste.
Frustratingly, there are the beginnings of a more rounded book here. Onuora touches upon such disparate but integral themes as the upsurge of the National Front, the role taken by football fanzines in confronting racism on the terraces head-on and the paucity of black managers and Asian footballers in the British game, but without burrowing down to extract deeper truths. Other than passing references to evolving hairstyles and “high-five” goal celebrations, he is remiss in tracing the strong influence black culture has had on football and the wider society in this country. Reggae, ska and hip-hop, to name but three black musical forms of incalculable significance, barely rate a mention.
Doubtless, there is a fascinating and important book to be written on this subject, one that is as much a social and cultural document of record on post-war Britain as it is about football. It is a shame that Pitch Black isn’t it.
The hidden story
of the Bundesliga
by Ronald Reng
Simon & Schuster, £18.99
Reviewed by John Van Laer
From WSC 341 July 2015
Its front cover shows three members of the all-conquering Bayern Munich and Germany teams of 2014, but Matchdays is not an exposé of the machinations of the modern football industry. Instead, author Ronald Reng recounts the life and experiences of Heinz Höher, a winger who played in the first seasons of the Bundesliga and went on to manage a series of clubs without ever enjoying any lasting success.
Growing up in post-war Germany, Höher had seemed to epitomise a new generation of sportsmen in the land of the economic miracle. Breaking with accepted tactical wisdom and daring to grow his hair long, he came close to playing for the national team aged 20. However, a knee injury caused by a foolhardy skiing trip in the final winter break before the start of the Bundesliga robbed him of the acceleration that had been his trademark. Unable to express himself on the field, Höher was only able to overcome his taciturn nature off it with “two beers and a shot”, on a regular basis. He was not alone in this – being able to take a drink was part of what was expected of this first generation of professional sportsmen in the new Bundesliga.
Despite his tactical innovations, modern training methods and acceptance of the role of the new medium of television in his sport, Höher was never able to reach the pinnacle of the game, whether in Germany or at his various jobs in Greece or Saudi Arabia. He remains Bochum’s longest-serving trainer, and is also the only Bundesliga manager to have survived a players’ revolt, as the president of Nuremberg chose to sack half the first-team and support Höher in a 1984 dispute. The critical problem seems to have been his inability to articulate his thoughts and ideas verbally: over the years, Höher wrote to managers, players and journalists but could not discuss problems face to face. This lack of communication cost him dearly after he moved up to the role of general manager in Nuremberg, an unsuccessful tenure that remains his last role at the top level of German football.
Höher’s later years have been a mixture of obsessive support and training of promising young players and a constant search for gainful employment to ward off the temptations of online gambling, property speculation and alcohol, all of which have cost him a large proportion of his earnings. However, now dry since 2010, the 76-year-old Höher can look back lucidly, recognising his failings as a person and as a professional. Meanwhile, he is also able to see that his beloved football is constantly reinventing itself – and can prove that modern “game-changing” innovations such as Spain playing without an out-and-out striker were in fact tried out by his VfL Bochum side in 1977.
Matchdays was awarded a major prize for non-fiction in 2013 and James Hawes’s translation from German is sometimes rather literal but retains much of the easy style of the original. If a little long at over 400 pages, this is a fascinating look back over the last 50 years of the Bundesliga, and of the changing role football continues to play in Germany.
How football lost its magic and what it could learn from the NFL
by Martin Calladine
Reviewed by Roger Titford
From WSC 341 July 2015
Martin Calladine is a disillusioned football fan who is going over to the ugly game that is American football. On his way out he offers observations on the differences between the two sports in 20 loosely connected short essays. He is an intelligent consumer of the sports, rather than a business insider or supporter activist, and brings some interesting perspectives to bear on the current failings of football. But The Ugly Game is not even a wish list, let alone a manifesto for change. There is no rigour in the comparisons; he uses the Premier League, English football and football in general interchangeably. The hugely differing structures and contexts that surround the NFL and Premier League are ignored. Calladine has a desirable destination in mind but no means of direction towards it.
The value of The Ugly Game is the fuel he provides for a more actively minded reformer. In particular there is a helpful analysis of what makes that curious billionaires’ socialist collective called the NFL tick. In entertaining fashion he unpicks the virtues of the salary cap, the draft transfer system, regulated ownership and the Rooney rule that enhances the chances of ethnic minority coaches. All of this helps to create a far more level playing field in the NFL than we see in the Premier League.
The concept of fairness is at the heart of Calladine’s thinking and he illustrates the lack of it and the need for it in apt ways. There is no prize money for winning the Superbowl but the cumulative effect of decades of prize money in the Champions League has distanced a few clubs from all the rest. Kids in the park having a pick-up game would never put all the best players on one side.
But there is more than one kind of fairness. There is no room in the NFL’s cartel of 32 clubs for a fast-rising Swansea, Hull City or Bournemouth. England and Wales support and give access to over 100 professional clubs for a population of 50 million, a sixth of the size of the US. While Calladine looks forward to more American football at Wembley he makes no reference to the, perhaps larger, trade going the other way – the strong and recent growth of soccer in the US.
There are strong chapters on the misuse of statistics and the weak analysis proffered by Alan Hansen and Alan Shearer compared with what US audiences receive and he has the occasional arresting phrase, such as “identikit tattooed greyhounds” to describe the modern footballer. Yet despite taking this high ground the whole work is disfigured by a peppering of snide asides about Pelé’s potency, Peter Beardsley’s looks, Titus Bramble’s brains and so on. Random photos with lame captions that drift like tumbleweed undermine what is an insightful work on fairness and power. One expects there will be more in this canon of “modern football is rubbish” from those freshly deserting the game. Indeed this is not the only football book with this title currently on sale.
Great Britons who took the game to the world
by Keith Baker
Pitch Publishing, £12.99
Reviewed by Paul Brown
From WSC 341 July 2015
Britain did not invent football, as Sepp Blatter would no doubt remind us, but it did knock it into shape, drawing up rules, forming clubs, organising competitions and sending the association version out into the world. British migrants, travelling with Laws of the Game pamphlets and deflated leather casers in their suitcases, became football missionaries, teaching and inspiring new converts, and sowing the seeds for what would become an international obsession.
In Fathers Of Football, Keith Baker profiles several of these pioneers of the world game, many of whom remain relatively unknown in their home country. Take James Spensley, who left Britain in 1896 to work for an insurance company in Genoa. Today, Spensley has an Italian park, street and junior football tournament named in his honour. His great contribution to football in Italy began when he persuaded the expat Genoa Cricket and Athletic Club to take up the association game (and to admit non-British members).
Spensley became the club’s goalkeeper, captain and de facto manager, leading Genoa to six Italian championships between 1898 and 1904. Their success saw the club renamed the Genoa Cricket and Football Club – a name they retain today. The influence of British pioneers can be seen in the Anglicised names of several international football clubs: Genoa rather than Genova; Milan rather than Milano; Athletic rather than Atlético.
Some of the individuals profiled here may already be familiar to football readers. Charles Miller is popularly regarded as the father of football in Brazil, and was the subject of various colour pieces during last summer’s World Cup. Alexander Hutton is similarly regarded in Argentina. Meanwhile Jimmy Hogan’s incredibly influential contribution to the development of football in Austria and Hungary (via the Netherlands, Switzerland, France and Germany) is well documented, although it remains a remarkable story.
More obscure are the Charnock brothers, Clement and Harry, who do not have so much as a Wikipedia entry between them, despite the role they played in the development of football in Russia. The brothers, from Lancashire, travelled to Moscow around 1890 to manage textile factories. Both men encouraged their employees to take up football and inspired the formation of several clubs, despite state opposition to organised activities involving workers. Harry’s OKS (Orekhovo Sports Club) were a founding member of the Moscow League, and won five consecutive championships between 1910 and 1914, playing in front of crowds of around 15,000. However, after the Revolution in 1917, OKS were placed under the control of the Cheka – a forerunner of the KGB. The club were renamed Dynamo Moscow, and the Charnocks were expunged from their history. They deserve to be better remembered.
Baker makes it clear that his “Great Britons” were not solely responsible for the spread of association football around the world, and he places the growth of the game into wider historical and social context. But his concise and informative book pays tribute to their individual achievements, and provides an illuminating record of their contributions to the world game.
Liverpool FC in the 1990s – the players’ stories
by Simon Hughes
Reviewed by Rob Hughes
From WSC 340 June 2015
Among the insightful voices in Simon Hughes’s book, John Scales cuts to the issue most succinctly. “Money changed the game and it’s no surprise that a club with socialist principles was the first to fall by the wayside,” he says, referring to the ethos promoted by Bill Shankly, the manager who revolutionised the club in the 1960s. The 1990s was a time of rapid change in English football, where big clubs became global businesses, revenue flooded in from international TV deals and wages ballooned. This increased market competition, however, was just one of the many factors in Liverpool’s decline.
Much like its predecessor, 2013’s Red Machine: Liverpool FC In The 1980s, Hughes’s tome tells the story through interviews with a number of former players and managers. Alongside Scales we have Jan Molby, Jamie Redknapp, Jason McAteer, Graeme Souness and Roy Evans, among others, all of whom look back on their Liverpool tenure with a variable mixture of pride, regret and, occasionally, a little bitterness.
The title of Men In White Suits recalls the team’s ill-advised Wembley walkabout before the 1996 FA Cup final, decked out in flashy Armani gear, and provides the ready metaphor for Liverpool’s failings under Evans. Here was a team capable of the most flamboyant football, but who seemed to lack the required focus and discipline to win trophies: all silk and no steel.
What quickly becomes clear, sifting through the various testimony, is that Liverpool were undone by their own past success. Coaches and management still relied on the same procedures, diets and training methods (even continuing to use the rotting wooden boards at the Melwood training ground for shooting practice) that had sustained the club throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Other clubs, meanwhile, had moved with the times and had adopted a more sophisticated ideology. And when it came to the transfer market (shipping out Peter Beardsley and others before their prime; investing in the likes of Julian Dicks, Paul Stewart and Nigel Clough) it all got pretty embarrassing.
The conclusions of those involved are often fascinating. Both Redknapp and Molby agree that Souness’s management style was unnecessarily aggressive, intent on changing too much too soon. Souness himself, with engaging candour, concedes that he blew his chance and that it was the right job at the wrong time. Evans, too, is big enough to admit some shortcomings, not least the gung-ho attitude to attacking football when grinding out results was often the better option. Although he bristles at the suggestion that he was too much of a nice guy to rule effectively.
The potential to reclaim old glories was certainly there, assert McAteer and Scales, but they attribute Liverpool’s inconsistency to the lack of experienced, “streetwise” leaders on the pitch. And, for fans such as myself, it makes me wince to read how Souness turned down the chance to sign both Peter Schmeichel and Eric Cantona before they were anywhere near Manchester United’s radar. Inconstancy, woeful transfer dealings, lack of leadership and an inability to compete with the top clubs around them. Thank God those days are over.
The untold story
of a football great
by Rob Sawyer
De Coubertin Books, £18.99
Reviewed by Simon Hart
From WSC 340 June 2015
It was 30 years ago in March that Harry Catterick died after suffering a heart attack at Everton’s FA Cup quarter-final against Ipswich Town. Five years earlier, Dixie Dean had also died at Goodison Park yet unlike the nationally famous striker, Catterick’s achievements – building two League title-winning teams – are today largely ignored beyond Merseyside.
Rob Sawyer has sought to redress the balance in a well-crafted biography that begins with a foreword from Colin Harvey, part of Catterick’s 1970 Championship side. “Don Revie, Bill Shankly, Bill Nicholson and Sir Matt Busby all get mentioned as being the great managers of the era while Harry doesn’t,” says Harvey of a man who won as many Leagues and FA Cups as Revie.
It is with Shankly, though, that Harvey makes the most telling comparison. For half of his 12-year reign, Catterick’s Everton drew the bigger crowds on Merseyside yet as Harvey recalls: “The press enjoyed being courted by Bill Shankly, but Harry was an introvert and snubbed them.” This is the crux of his image problem. Here was somebody who refused to allow the BBC cameras in to film Match of the Day until 1967 and had none of the charisma of his rival. Catterick was an aloof figure more akin to a modern-day director of football who – as his players would joke – put on a tracksuit only when the TV cameras or chairman John Moores appeared.
To achieve this insightful portrait, Sawyer pieced together interviews given by Catterick himself along with reminiscences of players and journalists and contemporary press cuttings. Alex Young recalls the coldness of a man not interested in courting popularity, saying: “I never got a pat on my head.” He had a devious side too, lying to the press and his own players; he told midfielder Brian Harris, for instance, that rumours of Tony Kay joining were false, only to swoop later that day for a player who had helped his Sheffield Wednesday side finish Division One runners-up in 1960-61.
Yet while his 1963 title-winners, built with the largesse of Littlewoods tycoon Moores, were dubbed “cheque-book champions”, the vision behind his youthful 1970 team would fit most current ideas of how to play the game. It was a 4-3-3 formation with the “holy trinity” of midfielders Howard Kendall, Harvey and Alan Ball at its heart. Dave Sexton, then Chelsea manager, applauded him for succeeding with a “set of small players up front” and Catterick’s own view was: “When it comes to the creation of something in tight corners, which midfield men have to do, give me the little ones.”
His players might have endured an old-fashioned factory-style clocking-in system but his planning of Everton’s Bellefield training ground – with an indoor pitch for small-sided matches – was another demonstration of foresight. Indeed in October 1970 Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly magazine dubbed the then 50-year-old “a manager for the Seventies”.
Sadly for Catterick – and his legacy – his Everton team soon fell apart. Sawyer recalls a pivotal week in March 1971 when they lost a European Cup quarter-final to Panathinaikos and FA Cup semi-final to Liverpool. After Ball left in controversial circumstances and Catterick himself suffered a heart attack, he was sacked in 1973. Not until 1985, two months after his death, would Everton win the League title again.
by Philip Kerr
Head of Zeus, £14.99
Reviewed by Robbie Meredith
From WSC 340 June 2015
Despite the relatively recent success of David Peace’s The Damned United, football, given its prominent position in many people’s lives, has always been under-represented in fiction. Partly this is due to most of the extensive media coverage of the game being a form of story-telling itself, but it’s also the fact that the collision of the two worlds often feels so unsatisfactory on the page. Peace, successfully if somewhat controversially, wrote a fictional interpretation of actual people and events, but Philip Kerr decides to insert his central character and an imagined team – London City – within the existing reality of away games in Newcastle and tactical battles against Sam Allardyce.
Kerr is best known for a long, and very good, series of thrillers set in Nazi Germany, but he has a specific set of problems to tackle in using modern football as a backdrop. His flawed hero is Scott Manson, a rising coach at City, who are themselves a franchise team, a high-flying Premier League version of MK Dons. When manager Joao Zarco – a charismatic, aggressive, lyrical Portuguese – is found dead in City’s east London stadium, Manson is invited by the club’s hard-nosed Ukrainian owner both to take over the team and to investigate Zarco’s killing. The Arsenal Stadium Mystery is mentioned twice in the novel, and there’s more than a hint of a Gunners fan’s – which Kerr is – fantasy in imagining such turmoil at a fictional parallel of the Chelsea of José Mourinho and Roman Abramovich.
There are some obvious tensions in the narrative. Manson is a black, former top player with Arsenal and Southampton, whose playing career ended prematurely after he was wrongly convicted of rape. He is occasionally misogynistic, but is also educated to degree level, has a detailed knowledge of modern art, is fond of quoting Aristotle after sex and, in his fledgling coaching career, has already worked at Barcelona and under Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich. If anything, he’s too rounded a character.
This is presumably because Kerr has decided that his audience are either going to be devotees of his previous work who know little of football and view it with distaste, or fans drawn to a rare novel about their passion. As a result, there are regular, and sometimes grating, narrative digressions, especially in the first half of the book, so that Kerr can explain some facet of the game to a reader who knows little of football or its history.
Despite this, January Window just about carries it off, mainly because Kerr is such an adept plotter and because he’s on surer ground as the quest to find Zarco’s killer comes to dominate the narrative. It’s an effective thriller, with numerous potential suspects, red herrings and a seemingly insignificant detail which leads to the case being solved, while revealing little about football that a literate supporter will not already know.