Reviews from When Saturday Comes. Follow the link to buy the book from Amazon.

335 KeaneMy autobiography
by Roy Keane and Roddy Doyle
W&N, £20
Reviewed by Dave Hannigan
From WSC 335 January 2015

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Near the very end of this book, Roy Keane fondly remembers a night at Nottingham Forest when Brian Clough gifted him a £50 note for accompanying him to a charity event. For a 19-year-old neophyte in 1990, that was a substantial sum and the memory stuck with him. Yet, earlier in the narrative, he talks about telling his family they would all have to cut back after he departed Manchester United, by which time his personal fortune was, according to Sunday newspaper rich lists, well north of £20 million.

That sort of inconsistency is rife in these pages, as rife it would seem as it is in Keane’s personality. He hates publicity and craves anonymity yet for the past decade of his life, he has spoken out so often about so many topics that he’s the footballing equivalent of singer/shock merchant Sinead O’Connor. He’s livid at Alex Ferguson for criticising players and being disloyal but, as he trawls through his own managerial stints at Sunderland and Ipswich, he sticks the boot into those who he believes let him down.

If those sort of double-standards are infuriating, this is still a very entertaining account of the subject’s life since the publication of his first autobiography in 2002. Keane is forthright about most (crucially not all) subjects and, as fans of his fast-paced fiction will already know, ghostwriter Roddy Doyle has a wonderful light, comic touch. His handling ensures that this fairly crackles along while offering glimpses of life behind the scenes at Old Trafford, the Stadium of Light and Portman Road.

For all that though there’s something terribly dissatisfying here. Firstly, all the best gags lose their impact because you’ve already read them somewhere else. Secondly, several times you think Keane is finally going to open up about the demons that drive and torment him. Yet he doesn’t. Drink is discussed more than once but by the end of the book you are no nearer understanding the exact nature of his troubled relationship with alcohol.

Strangely for a memoir, he also swerves away from discussing his family. That may be his prerogative but when he makes references to the adverse impact of controversies on his wife and kids, you expect a little more substance about that side of his life. Surely, the very purpose of a serious autobiography is to show the man behind the lazy tabloid caricature.

Even if it is getting tiresome, Keane is still to be commended for having the guts to rail about Ferguson, the game’s most sacred sacred cow. Yet Irish readers in particular will be disappointed he hasn’t a single thing, positive or negative, to say about John Delaney, chief executive of the FAI, and beyond Keane himself, the most controversial figure in the sport in Ireland. Did the current Ireland assistant-manager pull his punches? Or is he learning to be smart when it comes to staying gainfully employed? Like so much else in this book, there remain more questions than answers.

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334 UnthinkableRaith Rovers’ improbable journey from the bottom to the top of Scottish football
by Steven Lawther
Pitch Publishing, £14.99
Reviewed by Gavin Saxton
From WSC 334 December 2014

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In November 1994, Raith Rovers beat Celtic in the League Cup final to win the first and only major trophy of the club’s history. This book commemorates the 20th anniversary and charts the club’s progress to Hampden from their low-point as a third-tier part-time team in the mid-1980s, via interviews with many of the players and backroom staff.

It’s a feelgood story, but while there might have been a danger of veering into cliche (there is much talk of “team spirit”) you are instead carried along by the enthusiasm of both the author and his interviewees. Because this was not just a special day for the fans, for so many of the players too it was their professional highlight. Dave Narey and manager Jimmy Nicholl had more illustrious playing days behind them (notably with Dundee United and Manchester United respectively) and youngsters such as Colin Cameron and Steve Crawford had good international careers to come. The rest of the squad, however, was a mishmash of local lads, rejects and journeymen, who came together to give the club the finest period in their history: they won the cup as a Division One side, but were also to go on and take the league title. Their UEFA Cup campaign the following season (although not covered here) gave them a tie against Bayern Munich, during which they led 1-0 in the Olympic Stadium at half time before losing 4-1 on aggregate. Accordingly almost all of the squad have been happy to talk, and author Steven Lawther succeeds by, for the most part, allowing them to tell the story, intervening only to provide linking narrative and fill in the necessary detail.

The stories include the bad days as well as the great ones, some entertaining insights into the minds of middle-ranking footballers – such as Gordon Dalziel’s efforts to avoid having to work too hard in a training session – and of course all the on-field heroics. Among the most improbable is the tale of Brian Potter, the 17-year-old goalkeeper who came on as sub after Scott Thomson’s red card and made the vital save to win the penalty shootout in the semi-final against Airdrie.

In the final Thomson himself became the hero, again in a penalty shootout after a late equaliser gave Rovers a well-earned 2-2 draw. Celtic captain Paul McStay was the man whose penalty Thomson saved (the book’s title comes from Jock Brown’s TV commentary at the time: “Unthinkable surely for the skipper to miss”), and McStay deserves huge credit for putting the bad memories aside and also allowing himself to be interviewed.

For those like myself who were following Raith at the time the book brings back wonderful memories. But for others too, it’s a great story and an evocation of a time when lower-league clubs could have such days in the sun. As the game in both England and Scotland polarises all the more between haves and have-nots, one suspects it’s a tale that, just two decades on, would now be impossible. Unthinkable, even.

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334 PepThe inside story of Pep Guardiola’s first season at Bayern Munich
by Marti Perarnau
Arena Sport, £14.99
Reviewed by Dermot Corrigan
From WSC 334 December 2014

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During the 2013-14 season Bayern Munich had 279 training sessions over 326 days, while also playing 56 official matches and 14 friendlies. The team won four of six trophies entered, but the season was not seen as a success. All this was witnessed by author Marti Perarnau while writing this book. It begins as a typical enough season diary. Perarnau is a former Olympic high-jumper and now friend of Guardiola’s, allowed daily access to Bayern’s private training sessions. The inside story includes lots of previously unpublicised detail on the tactical exercises, choreographed group moves and regular video sessions Pep uses to introduce his “game philosophy” to his new team.

The concepts involved are meticulously described in a way sure to interest tactical buffs, and probably opposition coaches, but the language sometimes goes too far. Phrases like “belief system”, “innovation” and “mission” appear regularly. His assistant calls Guardiola a “football revolutionary” who “deconstructs ideas”. The biggest tactical innovation of the season is using full-backs as “false midfielders”.

But Perarnau has not just written a book about cutting-edge football tactics or training methods. Pep Confidential works best as a character study of a worryingly obsessive individual, who appears to be driven mostly by a fear of failure. Just a month into the season Guardiola is “depressed, silent, brooding” at home, frustrated at an inability to get the players to understand his ideas. He regularly changes his mind on tactics and line-ups while preparing for big games, and gets so nervous on matchday that he cannot eat anything even before evening kick-offs. Guardiola leaves the post-match dinner late one night with his sleeping young daughter in his arms, while asking Perarnau to remind him in the morning to talk to Thomas Müller about his positioning. “I have so many doubts, I worry about everything and am secure about nothing,” he tells the author in one of many such awkward moments.

Perarnau writes that Guardiola’s “deep fear of coming under attack… was probably born during his playing career. He was physically fragile and lacked athleticism – rather on the puny side.” His friend claims such “anxiety” is overcome through “audacity”, arguing that “Pep has developed enormous courage precisely because of this fear”. But it is the fear which dominates this book.

Even Guardiola’s players appear to be concerned about their coach. Philipp Lahm says: “He’s such a perfectionist… he can never allow himself to sit back and say ‘this is brilliant’.” Thiago Alcantara says similarly: “Pep will never enjoy football because he is always looking for what has gone wrong in order to correct it.” The book ends with Perarnau saying “Guardiola’s second year [at Bayern] promises to be even more intense”. But it never seems to question whether so much intensity is positive for either Pep or his teams.

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334 RioMy autobiography
by Rio Ferdinand
Blink Publishing, £20
Reviewed by Jonathan O’Brien
From WSC 334 December 2014

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At the time of writing, media speculation was rife that Rio Ferdinand’s brief spell at Loftus Road would soon be brought to an end, with QPR reportedly left cold by the 35-year-old’s efforts since he joined them from Manchester United last July. Should the press scuttlebutt be true, it will be a somewhat shabby end to what’s been an excellent career. For all his intermittent inanity off the pitch, Ferdinand remains, alongside Tony Adams, the best centre-half produced by English football since Bobby Moore.

It’s hard to tell whether #2Sides would have been a superior book had Ferdinand employed a different ghostwriter (the one he did hire, David Winner, has taken an unconventional approach to the form, as we shall see). The title, a nod to his fondness for spending hours on Twitter, immediately makes the heart sink – and for the most part, the contents are similarly disappointing. In fact, it’s less a memoir and more a succession of disparate polemics on Ferdinand’s most cherished (or, in the case of John Terry, least cherished) topics, presented with few concessions to the concept of basic chronology.

Ferdinand has been a sufficiently voluble presence in the media over the years for you to more or less know in advance what his take on each subject will be. Fabio Capello and Roy Hodgson are duly slammed. So is David Moyes for his miserable ten months as Manchester United manager, though in this case Ferdinand does leaven the harsh criticism with unstinting praise for Moyes as a person (as well as revealing that the alleged “Do it like Phil Jagielka would” exchange on the training ground never actually happened). The details of his now-terminal rift with Ashley Cole, ignited when Cole gave evidence in favour of Terry, are rendered in almost sorrowful terms.

But #2Sides suffers woefully from its utter absence of structure. No sooner has Ferdinand finished talking about the Terry racist abuse trial or the 2008 Champions League final or a title race, than we’re off into a digression about the restaurant he co-owns, or his favourite music (grime and corporate rock), or something equally thrilling. There’s even a chapter devoted solely to that Twitter account, entitled “5.7 Million And Counting”. It’s not up to much.

If you’re wondering why #2Sides has little discernible structure or cohesion, it’s worth mentioning that Winner has form for this approach. In Brilliant Orange, his award-winning 2001 study of Dutch football, the author gave the chapters random “squad numbers” for whimsical reasons. It worked very well on that occasion, but a number of his more recent books – Those Feet, Around The World In 90 Minutes – have been misfires, and so is this. Winner ghostwrote #2Sides immediately after finishing Dennis Bergkamp’s memoir Stillness And Speed, so there may or may not have been an element of racing to beat the clock.

By far the most substantial chapter comes early on, where Ferdinand explains his approach to the art of defending, going into fascinating detail about how he could “smell out” one kind of attacking danger and his long-time partner Nemanja Vidic could scent another. A penny for Tony Fernandes and Harry Redknapp’s thoughts if they read it.

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334 UpThereThe north-east, football, boom & bust
by Michael Walker
DeCoubertin Books, £16.99
Reviewed by Paul Brown
From WSC 334 December 2014

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In 1960 the BBC journalist Arthur Appleton wrote a still-admired portrait of north-east football called Hotbed of Soccer. The title was apt, the book being published between Jackie Milburn’s Newcastle winning the FA Cup three times in the 1950s, and Bobby and Jack Charlton’s England winning the World Cup in 1966. The north-east had long been regarded as football’s great nursery, producing a succession of fine players and 
influential managers.

Yet Appleton recognised that the area’s influence on British football was waning. Its clubs were in decline and its players were leaving the region. As cases in point, Newcastle have not won a domestic trophy since the 1950s, and neither Charlton brother played for a north-east team. Even from his 1960 vantage point, Appleton was inclined to look back. “When the present has been temporarily exhausted, there is the rich past to be peeped into,” he wrote.

Fifty-four years later, Michael Walker explores that rich past, and the unavoidably depressed present, in Up There, an excellent and long-overdue social history of north-east football. From the game’s earliest years, Walker shows how the industrial north-east established itself as a football powerhouse. Cash-rich Sunderland won the Football League four times by 1902 and innovative Newcastle won the League three times, and the FA Cup, by 1910. There was a seemingly infinite stream of great players, from Colin Veitch, Raich Carter and Wilf Mannion to Stan Mortensen, George Camsell and Stan Anderson (who, uniquely, captained Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough).

Some became great managers. Brian Clough and Don Revie both grew up in terraced houses in Middlesbrough. Bob Paisley and Bobby Robson, like many of the region’s most prominent football characters, came from mining communities. As Walker discovers via a series of insightful interviews, mining and other industries were central to the success of north-east football, providing structure and stability for community teams and local players. When north-east industry took hits, so did north-east football, particularly after the wars, and then, fatally, during the brutal 1980s.

The 1990 World Cup represented something of a last hurrah. England’s starting XI included four north-east players in captain Bryan Robson, Paul Gascoigne, Peter Beardsley and Chris Waddle, plus manager Bobby Robson. By the 2014 World Cup, England’s sole north-east-born starter was Jordan Henderson. Henderson is one of the few remaining north-east players in the Premier League, with Steve Bruce the only north-east manager.

The decline of north-east football at all levels is well illustrated when Walker presents Durham FA secretary John Topping with a 1983-84 yearbook, and asks what has happened to its list of 16 youth leagues. “Gone. Gone. Gone…” replies Topping. Only two of the 16, he explains, are still around.

Walker does manage to find some causes for optimism. The pioneering Northern League is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, Gateshead are pushing for a return to the Football League and Middlesbrough are challenging for promotion to the Premier League. At junior level, Northumberland’s Pinpoint League is thriving, catering for 12,500 young players. “It’s a mini-revival,” the Pinpoint League’s Ian Coates tells Walker. “In five years’ time I think what you’ll see are more local boys and better local boys playing for the big 
north-east clubs.”

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333 LuckyLucky Johnny
The footballer who survived the River 
Kwai death camps
by Johnny Sherwood
Hodder & Stoughton, £20

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The Happy Warrior
From Leeds United 
to Burma
by Jan Rippin
Tricorn Books £9.50
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333 Happy
Reviewed by Roger Titford
From WSC 333 November 2014

 

There is a recent surge of interest in British footballers at war which may have deep and complex roots. These two titles appear coincidentally at the same time about two men whose war and lives bore remarkable similarities. Only one survived to tell his tale.

Johnny Sherwood (Lucky Johnny) was an embryonic professional at Reading, came home to a curtailed career and wrote a memoir, partly for therapeutic reasons, in later life. The manuscript was discovered last year by his grandson. Eric Stephenson (The Happy Warrior) was an established First Division player at Leeds United with two caps and was a member of the last England touring party before the war. His daughter Jan Rippin was just three when she last saw him and his death left an immense void in family life. Her loving tribute also acts as a means of easing pain.

A modern football audience needs to be alert to the difference between war books about men who happened to be footballers, rather than milkmen or lathe operators, and books about footballers who fought. These titles tread that line rather awkwardly at times because they are constructed more from the war perspective and their football content is a little sketchy.

Rippin’s account of her father is plainly written but nonetheless emotional, particularly in the latter half which deals with his war and death. She creates a picture of the kind of man we no longer seem to have: working class, inspired by books, chapel and political discussion and now memorialised in stained glass. Every last drop of available personal detail is squeezed out of the Leeds match reports but little else is conveyed about his life as a footballer. He was posted to Burma in 1942, rose to the rank of major and fought there until his death in action in September 1944.

In the very same week Sherwood came closest to death, being torpedoed and afloat in the South China Sea for 17 hours. Having been captured just days after landing in Singapore in 1942 he spent most of the next two years working as slave labour for the Japanese building the “railway of death” by the River Kwai. His fitness and status as a footballer enabled him to survive several dangerous moments and his memoir is utterly harrowing, with comrades dying horribly on every other page.

There are some footballing nuggets here and there, notably actually playing matches against the guards who treated them so badly and cautiously not winning too well. This example of football as a bridge between men, more remarkable than the Christmas Day truce match of 1914, would benefit, as would other incidents, from being highlighted in an accompanying commentary. Sherwood survived to briefly pick up his League career with Aldershot but the trauma from having played his part in what literary folk called “the greater game” stayed with him until his death in 1985.

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333 TwelveThe art & psychology of the perfect penalty
by Ben Lyttleton
Bantam Press, £14.99
Reviewed by Jonathan O’Brien
From WSC 333 November 2014

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The glib explanation for the English fascination with penalties is because they lose so many shootouts and are thus mesmerised by the idea of actually being good at them, somewhat like a gormless youth trying to work out the secret of successfully conversing with an attractive woman. Of course, just as a confident man is likely to have more success in a nightclub than a self-conscious one, if they (by which I mean England players) spent less time thinking about penalties, they’d probably fare a little better at them.

Ben Lyttleton explores this theme at length in Twelve Yards, a book which covers much the same ground as Andrew Anthony’s 2000 effort On Penalties (though it’s roughly twice as long). His conversation with Ricardo Pereira, the former Portugal goalkeeper whose penalty saves knocked England out of two different tournaments, soon becomes a faintly farcical catalogue of neurosis, jittery body language and general mental collapse.

Ricardo – who memorably took off the gloves to save Darius Vassell’s effort at Euro 2004 and then blasted in the winner himself – describes Vassell as “very nervous” in the run-up, notes that Steven Gerrard couldn’t look him in the eye and claims that Jamie Carragher’s “mind was fucked up” when the defender took what transpired to be his team’s final penalty in Gelsenkirchen in 2006. He finishes by giving three simple tips to England penalty-takers: focus on the positive, don’t think about the media and forget about the history. One of these might be easier to execute than the other two.

Lyttleton’s scope is nothing if not wide. He travels to South America to interview two penalty-taking keepers, José Luis Chilavert and Rogério Ceni, who ended their careers with well over 100 goals between them. “I was always calm,” Chilavert tells him with no discernible sarcasm. “I was playing a role on the pitch… Look, I could hardly be the hero with this face!”

He meets up with Antonin Panenka, scorer of the most famous penalty ever, outside a village pub near Prague, and discovers that while the legendary midfielder is justifiably proud of the clever little chip which won Euro 76, he also feels it has overshadowed everything else in his long career. Panenka theorises that the main reason for his worldwide fame is because his name “sounds the same in any language”.

But at times, you can sense Lyttleton straining to reach the word count (the book may have had more impact at a shorter length). One entire chapter is a retelling of the France v West Germany match in Seville in 1982, translated directly from a feature in France Football – it’s a very good read, admittedly, but relatively little of it has anything to do with penalties. There’s also a small handful of very bad mistakes – to pick one at random, Spain’s legendary keeper in the 1930s was named Ricardo Zamora, not Schavio Zamora. But this is a readable study of an almost unknowable art, as long as you don’t mind stumbling over yet another graph or table of stats every ten pages or so.

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333 Mooreby Matt Dickinson
Yellow Jersey, £20
Reviewed by Mark Segal
From WSC 333 November 2014

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When a modern-day footballer steps out of line, you don’t need to go far to find a sports writer of a certain vintage bemoaning today’s young millionaires and stating with utter certainty that this would not have happened in “Bobby’s day”.

The Bobby in question is of course late England captain Bobby Moore, whose legend and legacy has ascended to a higher place in the years following his untimely death from cancer in 1993 aged just 51.

According to legend, not only was Moore gifted with fantastic footballing skills but he was also a model professional who knew and understood the responsibilities of being captain of your country. It’s these assumptions about Moore which author Matt Dickinson sets out to investigate in this new book. And it’s a task he completes in some style.

Employing a straight chronological format, Dickinson guides the reader through Moore’s formative years as the shy youngster from Barking breaks into the West Ham first team. The book then centres on the middle years of the 1960s when Moore becomes a triple Wembley winner, first with West Ham in the FA Cup and Cup-Winners Cup and then finally with England in the World Cup final, before detailing his slow decline.

While Moore’s exploits on the pitch have been widely documented – except maybe for a bizarre nine-game stint for a small Danish team in 1978 – the strength of the book lies in the way Dickinson has been able to go beyond football and find Moore’s real character.

While Moore would often be the one instigating nights out with team-mates he was always more comfortable in the role as an observer rather than a performer. Former colleagues and friends alike describe a man who you thought you knew but actually didn’t. His private nature almost acted as a shield against whatever the world might throw at him. This detached nature is perfectly described in the beautifully written chapter about his death, as his second wife Stephanie speaks of the horror on his face as she broke down in tears after being told the disease had spread and there was no cure. Bobby never liked to make a scene.

While all the usual characters from his playing days turn up in the book, Dickinson also uses interviews with some of the journalists who followed Moore’s career at a time when players treated journalists as friends who they could confide in. He also speaks to both of Moore’s wives and also friends from outside football which all helps to provide a more rounded description of a difficult man to categorise.

The way he was ignored by football after his retirement is also discussed with the author believing a mixture of class snobbery, Moore’s lack of self-promotion and links with some of the East End’s more notorious characters all contributed to a managerial career which amounted to short spells at Oxford City and Southend.

Sadly, friends describe how as he entered his 50s Moore was finally beginning to come out of his shell and open up a bit more. Unfortunately, this new and relaxed Bobby was not given a chance to flourish. The passages about his final days make for difficult reading.

As a West Ham fan growing up just a few miles from where Bobby Moore was born, I was always going to have an interest in this book. Dickinson’s achievement has been to honour the memory of Moore while also allowing us to understand that he was far from perfect.

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333 VanGaalby Maarten Meijer
Ebury Press, £14.99
Reviewed by Joyce Woolridge
From WSC 333 November 2014

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“When you traced the roots of the successful teams at the 2010 World Cup, every clue pointed back to one man: Louis van Gaal.” Maarten Meijer’s carefully researched biography is not afraid to make big claims for its subject. While conceding that credit is also due to Joachim Löw, Bert van Marwijk and Vicente del Bosque, Meijer argues that the controversial coach’s influence, through his work at Bayern Munich, Ajax and Barcelona, principally shaped the personnel, playing style and tactics of three of the four semi-finalists in South Africa. The book was finished before Holland’s unexpectedly barnstorming campaign in Brazil this summer and Germany’s victory (albeit also the Spanish collapse), which might serve as additional support for Meijer’s thesis on the extent of Van Gaal’s impact on European football.

It remains to be seen whether Van Gaal’s tenure at Old Trafford will provide further proof of the genius of “one of football’s most gifted architects”. The brief coda which deals with his United appointment, while stating the obvious that the £200 million “war chest” supposedly on offer “may have been an additional attraction” for Van Gaal, goes on to make the equally obvious observation that “he needs a new defence and a new midfield”. The final paragraph speculates that United will be his last management job and “he will want to go out with a bang, knowing that this is how he will be remembered not only in Manchester but in the entire world of football”, but reserves judgment on what sort of explosion Van Gaal will cause.

Meijer’s primary purpose in writing this heavyweight, thoughtful study, following his two previous biographies of Dick Advocaat and Guus Hiddink, is to balance the media caricature of Van Gaal, the crude stereotype of a lumbering, bombastic, dictatorial ex-PE teacher, ranting at the press and indulging in eccentric and bizarre behaviour (trouser-dropping, self-penned, excruciating poetry-reading) occasionally deemed akin to madness. Like Alex Ferguson, Meijer argues, Van Gaal is a man so out of style that he has become a “poster boy for the old-school, omnipotent, teacher-knows-best style of management”. So often following the boots of Johan Cruyff, as both player and coach, he has been cast as the anti-Cruyff, whereas his work should often be seen as complementary, Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Barcelona being an amalgam of the philosophy of both coaches. In consequence there has been serious underestimation, if not misrepresentation, of Van Gaal’s talents and achievements. The real Van Gaal is more flexible and democratic in management and tactics, more humane and caring one-to-one.

Not that Meijer’s generally sympathetic account whitewashes over Van Gaal’s failings, or the barrage of criticism he has received, dealing with both at length. The most entertaining chapter predictably concerns Van Gaal’s fractious relations with the press. As boss of Ajax, he received a deliciously pompous letter from the Dutch Reporters’ Association, complaining press conferences were being “disgraced by vulgar shouting matches. This aggressive approach perhaps guarantees success with young, docile players but it is inappropriate at a press conference at which adult people are present”. At the next conference, in classic teacher mode, he asked those who signed it to put up their hands. Not one “adult” person did.

As a compatriot, Meijer could perhaps be forgiven his own excursions into national stereotypes. Van Gaal, he says, must be fundamentally understood as a typical Amsterdamer and Dutchman – hardnosed, unshakeably convinced he is right, highly focused, pig-headed, difficult to get along with and rebellious. Or as one journalist put it more succinctly: “An asshole, but certainly a competent asshole.”

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332 WizardThe story of 
Billy Meredith
by John Harding
Empire Publications, £16.95
Reviewed by Mike Ticher
From WSC 332 October 2014

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If you had to choose one player to encapsulate the Edwardian football world, you would be hard pressed to do better than Billy Meredith. In an extraordinary career, which ended in 1924 FA Cup semi-final defeat at the age of 49, the celebrated Welsh winger was central to many of the era's key moments.

He scored the winner for Manchester City in the 1904 FA Cup final, then won the League with Manchester United in 1908 and 1911, and claimed another Cup winner's medal in 1909. He was with United when Old Trafford opened in 1910, and back with City when they moved to Maine Road in 1923.

But Meredith's greater significance lies in his turbulent relationship with clubs and the football authorities, and his key role in setting up the Players' Union, the forerunner of the PFA. In 1905 he was suspended for a year after the FA found him guilty (in a closed inquiry) of trying to bribe an Aston Villa player to lose the final game of the season. Incensed by City's perceived failure to support him, Meredith spilled the beans on bonuses the club had been paying in breach of the recently introduced maximum wage. The case devastated City, sparking the departure of Meredith and several others to United, and cemented Meredith's hostility to the hypocrisy of the system, as well as personal bitterness over money that would last until he died, a poor man, in 1958.

The suspension helped drive Meredith to re-establish the union, which collided head-on with the FA in 1909, when the whole United team was suspended for refusing to sign contracts that effectively meant disowning the union. Its fledgling power was broken, but its structure survived to give birth to the PFA, which finally defeated the maximum wage and the iniquitous retain-and-transfer system in the early 1960s. As the postscript to John Harding's book notes, it was not until the Bosman ruling that Meredith's full vision of contract freedom was realised.

As if all that were not enough, Meredith was also involved, though not implicated, in the 1915 fixed match between Liverpool and Manchester United, for which eight players received life bans – the final scandalous blast of United's years as a "rebel" club of stubbornly confrontational players.

Harding's groundbreaking biography was first published in 1985, and has worn well with little amendment. Without over-elaborating, he sketches a rounded portrait of Meredith's complex personality, rooted in his Methodist upbringing in the mining village of Chirk. Meredith's rigorous attitudes to fitness, work, industrial solidarity, Welsh nationalism and alcohol (he was a teetotaller, despite running pubs in retirement) are neatly teased out in that context.

But there is still room for a fascinating broader picture of Manchester football in a tempestuous phase of its development, and thoughts on how Meredith's playing style meshed with the tactics of the day – in curmudgeonly old age he scorned the new-fangled ways of whippersnappers such as Stanley Matthews.

Meredith complained that the Edwardian FA treated the professional footballer as "a mere boy, or a sensible machine or a trained animal". Harding's work is far from a dry polemic or hagiography, but a timely reminder of how the players' struggle to overcome that contemptuous attitude began.

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