Football Book Reviews

Soccer booksLooking for a good football book to read? Soccerphile reviews some of our favourite books on soccer.

World Cup books, Japanese soccer and World Cup 2002 Korea/Japan, England national team, football hooligans, player autobiographies, European football, football fiction, Non-League Football, David Beckham, academic, Dutch football, Arsenal, Liverpool FC, Manchester United.

Titles reviewed include Why England Lose & and Other Curious Phenomena Explained, The Beckham Experiment, Devil Worship - A Fan's Voyage, Comrade Jim - The Spy Who Played For Spartak, The Pitch: Business Lessons Learned on the Soccer Field, Football's Giant Killers - 50 Great Cup Upsets and more.

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England Lose

Why England Lose & and Other Curious Phenomena Explained

Simon Kuper & Stefan Szymanski

ISBN: 0007301111
HarperSport; Hardback, 352pp

After Football Against the Enemy announced his arrival with a bang in 1994, every Simon Kuper book carries a huge weight of expectation.
Why England Lose & Other Curious Football Phenomena Explained keeps his reputation intact as one of the most groundbreaking football writers around. But Kuper is primarily a financial journalist and here he has teamed up with economist Stefan Szymanski to produce a unique take on the game, based on the cold truth of hard data.
Conventional football wisdom is the enemy this time, and the pair apply statistics to explode what they feel are popularly-held myths about the game, starting with the belief that England under-perform. Their conclusion is that England actually over-achieve, based on their measure of success which takes population, GDP and soccer experience into account. They could do better, they argue, by encouraging more middle-class children to play football and controversially, reducing, not increasing the numbers of Englishmen in the Premier League.
Another tenet of football belief they contest is that changing a losing manager is a wise move, while other chapters take fascinating angles - a transfer policy works best by selling your best players at the peak of their value, regional cities out-perform capital ones at club level for a reason, how the big clubs are anything but big businesses, why teams at the centre of Europe have an in-built advantage and why Japan will one day win the World Cup.
Much is provocative and some of the minutiae fascinating e.g. blond players are consistently overvalued, but the book lacks cohesion, not helped by the graphic design and at times sounds a little smug. In style it resembles popular science hits of recent years like Freakonomics (the US title is Soccernomics) and The Tipping Point, but though you will find yourself picking many holes in their theories, you will be hard-pushed to find a more thought-provoking football book.
Their overall thesis that the received wisdom is unreliable while the figures don't lie may be true, but what a grey sport football would be without its magic, the blind faith and passion of its fans and the possibility of a Denmark (Euro '92) or Greece (Euro '04) coming from nowhere to win a major tournament. Read this book and keep the facts in mind, but keep hoping David still has some stones left in his slingshot.

Sean O'Conor

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The Beckham

The Beckham Experiment

Grant Wahl

ISBN: 030740787X
Crown Publishing Group; Hardback, 304pp

The Beckham Experiment charts Goldenballs' US adventure from its stirrings in 2006 to his loan move to AC Milan in the winter of 2008. Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl writes skillfully and provides a telling insight into the misadventures of trying to run a football club on purely commercial, or more accurately celebrity lines.
The sniping from across the Atlantic had a point: LA Galaxy was commandeered by media types with no feel for the game but who could waive enough loot in the face of a league desperate for acceptance.
The hangers-on of 19 Entertainment ended up trying to run a football club for the benefit of one player and met their Waterloo when the team suffered and the star man upped sticks. Elusive former cabbie turned Beckham-confidant Terry Byrne, whom Wahl failed to nail down, emerges as the key to the farrago. Byrne's Chelsea connections were key to the misguided hiring of Ruud Gullit, whose personality and lack of preparation meant he lasted only nine months.
While the PR events were stage-managed to perfection, the meat and drink of the club were neglected so much that the Galaxy, Beckham included, were reduced to dining on fried chicken in cheap hotels, while office staff filled in for the reserves on one occasion. Gasp if you did not already know Becks, who lives in Hollywood luxury and rakes in around $30 million a year, plays alongside guys who share flats and earn only $13,000 per annum.
We learn far less about Beckham than we do about his colleagues, understandably since his media appearances undergo Pravda-esque vetting, but it is clear he is a quiet and unremarkable personality who soon realised he had erred in coming to America. Wahl scores highly by providing hitherto missing information and interviews which fill in the background to this global media event.
No soccer book has ever had so much publicity in the US, although its timing remains unsatisfactory, released just before Beckham's run-ins with beered-up fans made headline news. An updated edition is required when the Beckham Experiment is finally over, but for an in-depth low-down on what has happened thus far, this is the book.

Sean O'Conor

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Bromley Boys

The Bromley Boys

Dave Roberts

ISBN: 1906032246
Portico; Paperback, 272pp

Non-league football, the heart of the game, where only true fans live and breathe. I used to be one of them, but remember thinking as I stood frozen on the crumbling terraces of another middle-of-nowhere 'stadium', slurping thermonuclear hot chocolate the taste of sewer water, that it helps if you support a winning team in these circumstances.
My team Woking was one of the best, which made my teenage odyssey through England's decrepit amateur arenas a joy. In 1969, Dave Roberts however, followed not only a losing team but a hopeless one. Roberts chronicles his support across a season of almost unmitigated disaster, as Bromley cave in to one team after another and he searches in vain for love and identity.
A hymn to the intrinsic comedy of British football fandom in the spirit of Harry Pearson, The Bromley Boys, if never quite as hilarious as The Far Corner, is charming and humorous throughout and an easy page-turner. His utterly inept heroes who lose, lose and lose again as they stumble to a rock-bottom finish in the Isthmian League are centre stage, with every calamity meticulously recorded. But the funniest parts of the book are his wry recollections of his own angst and misadventure as a hormonal teenager, which should have formed the core of the book instead of the matches.
It is a charming read and a very British one. I can't think of another country which not only tolerates such ineptitude and naffness, but actually revels in it and celebrates it as a badge of cultural honour. It is healthy to laugh at yourself, but following a losing team is actually the heart of most fans' experience as only one team end up champions each season. When your team is a bigger loser than all the others, your loyalty becomes a thing of true pride non-fans will never understand.

Sean O'Conor

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Comrade Jim

Comrade Jim - The Spy Who Played For Spartak

Jim Riordan

ISBN: 0007251149
Fourth Estate; Paperback, 240pp

A few years ago a man pretending to be George Weah's cousin hoodwinked Graeme Souness into giving him a run-out for Southampton.
Portsmouth-born Jim Riordan's appearance for Moscow Spartak in 1963 was equally amazing, given he was in Russia not as a footballer but as a translator and communist activist, yet unlike the fake Saint, he was called back by the club to play for them again.
Imagine taking part in a Sunday league game and later that day arriving at a stadium as one of 50,000 fans, only to discover you are going to be on the field!
While that is an amazing tale in itself, this engrossing and touching memoir is far more a valuable document of the failed communist dream. Like many others from across the globe, Riordan travelled to Moscow fuelled by the desire to forge a better world from the ashes of the war.
Football does not get much of a mention until halfway in and despite the title, does not form the centerpiece of this engaging autobiography, but the author's vivid recollections of Soviet life, and the famous faces he mixed with make this the most enjoyable book I have read this year.

Sean O'Conor

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The Damned Utd

The Damned Utd

David Peace

ISBN: 0571224334
Faber and Faber; Paperback, 368pp

David Peace's 'The Damned Utd' is a landmark book in the soccer canon because it hauls football into the domain of the historical novel. Lavished with praise from the literati, this will appeal just as much to any fan ever touched by the entrancing madness of King Brian Clough. David Peace impersonates 'Ole Big 'Ead' during his 44 days of hell at Leeds United in 1974, to recount one of the most bizarre and enigmatic episodes of post-war English football. Despite sitting on the fiction shelves, this reads throughout like Cloughie himself is speaking, unbeatable in the fortress of his own ego, desperate to get his revenge on life's slings and arrows, but doomed once more to go down in merciless flames when he steps into the lair of his demons. Peace has scoured the history books, newspaper cuttings and player biographies of the period to produce what is really a new departure for soccer literature, a novel which feels uncannily like a real testament of sporting history. 2009 sees the release of the feature film version of 'The Damned Utd', surely one of the greatest football books yet written.

Sean O'Conor

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The Manager

The Manager: The Absurd Ascent of the Most Important Man in Football

Barney Ronay

ISBN: 1847442501
Sphere; Paperback, 304pp

When it comes to English football, the manager is the totem, greater than the ball wizard or even the star striker. In The Manager, Guardian writer Barney Ronay charts the evolution of this idol from the Corinthian Victorian schoolmaster through Herbert Chapman's 1920s empire-building at Arsenal through the larger-than-life showmen of the 1970s to today's cosmopolitan coaches.
The title is a little misleading as Ronay explains in his introduction: "This is a very English kind of story". The metamorphosis of manager into coach is not addressed at length and the newly invasive factors of the director of football and interfering owner are largely ignored, even though they may well have signalled the end of the manager as we know it. Mirroring the off-field changes of recent years, the story seems to peter out prematurely in the final chapters as foreigners from outside the native folk-culture come to dominate the upper strata of England's game.
But as entertainment this is at times a rollicking read which finds its feet in the 1970s heyday of English eccentrics like Malcolm Allison, Brian Clough, Tommy Docherty and Jimmy Hill, a tutti-frutti cast list of music-hall turns who enchanted a generation of followers and carved out a celebrity job descrption.
Ronay carefully draws parallels with social changes, although often it is the manager who is being dragged along by the world outside. He has unearthed some delightful gems in his research. From now on it will be hard for me to think of Sir Alf Ramsey as England's World Cup winner without also recalling him telling his England men to 'Go and beat those Scots f***ers' as well.

Sean O'Conor

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London Football

The London Football Companion: A Site-by-site Celebration of the Capital's Favourite Sport

Ed Glinert

ISBN: 074759516X
Bloomsbury; Paperback, 304pp

The London Football Companion is a studiously-researched guide to the historic football sites of England's capital, planting flags where Dulwich Hamlet play, the Corinthian Casuals were born, the World Cup was stolen and then found by a dog, where Roman Abramovich started the Chel$ki revolution and where Gazza commandeered a double-decker bus on a night out.
If you are unfamiliar with Ed Glinert, he writes breathtakingly encyclopedic but accessible books about London, a street-by-street historical X-Raying of the Smoke. London has never struck me as a dyed-in-the-wool football hotbed like Glasgow, Liverpool or Newcastle for instance, but amongst the myriad of competing attractions in the metropolis, football lives and breathes enough, and the city remains probably the most important one in the game's annals. London is the birthplace of football administration and home to more professional teams than anywhere else.
Pinpointing the Victorian locales and revealing the stories of football's formative years is illuminating, but the more recent tales of player shenanigans and transient managers seem far less significant alongside them. At times, Glinert's professorial cap slips as he indulges in reams of apparently un-edited opinion, such as a diatribe on the travails of England's recent managers, which while proving he is a real fan and not just an arriviste soccerato, sits oddly with the sober chronicling.
He manages to mis-quote on a couple of occasions but many of his anecdotes are funny and jaw-dropping such as Fulham under Malcolm MacDonald making the worst player in training each week run across Putney Bridge wearing a t-shirt saying 'tosser of the week'! Anoraky at times but mightily impressive this book is too and a welcome addition to fans' bookshelves and the game's chronicles.

Sean O'Conor

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Devil Worship - A Fan's Voyage

Kevin Leyland

World Audience, Inc.
ISBN: 9781935444824; 186pp

The internet has spawned a new type of fan, one who never goes to matches but still calls themself a die-hard, and here is the evidence.
'Devil Worship', a recounting of Manchester United's 2008-'09 season, is subtitled 'A Fan's Voyage', but the only travelling Kevin Leyland does is to the nearest sports bar or his laptop. He lives in Georgia, USA you see, and chose to support Man U having watched them in the Champions League on ESPN - they're not so much in his blood as on his iPhone.
His devotion to their televised games is impressive, as his vivid descriptions of the action confirm, but you do start wondering why he does not just emigrate to England if he goes to such lengths never to miss a minute in the soccer-illiterate surroundings of the Deep South.
Leyland's crazy love sadly does not extend beyond an online relationship. There is no mention of Malcolm Glazer, FC United and the ownership saga, but then why should that affect a TV viewer thousands of miles away? Nor is there any reflection on the inequality of the Premier League, the glory-hunter accusation levelled at Man U fans worldwide, or why teams like Stoke and Wigan still have followers. It is just too easy to pick the richest and most successful team to cheer for isn't it, or has the underdog had its day?
Perhaps this is just a read for fellow US Man U fans rather than a 'Fever Pitch' for the digital generation. Only when Leyland leaves the TV soccer routine did I find myself hooked, as I am saturated with the Red Devils at the best of times.
You feel some warmth in 'Devil Worship' for a man's naive love for a faraway football team, but we still learn little of his innermost thoughts , which means that when it concludes with an unapologetically teenage outburst of 'Glory, glory..', it sadly wears its arriviste badge with pride.

Sean O'Conor

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Giant Killers

Football's Giant Killers - 50 Great Cup Upsets

Derek Watts

ISBN: 1846242819
The Book Guild; Paperback, 384pp

Giant-killing moments are never-to-be-forgotten tsunamis of supporter ecstasy, one-off flying visits to heaven for fans otherwise condemned to purgatory. Whenever such once in a lifetime dreams become reality, a cornerstone of football's popularity is forged.
England's special cup tradition is thus fertile territory for a book, but at first glance this looks like a humdrum attempt by a small publisher to cash in on football's current popularity, unimaginatively designed and lacking photos. Soon enough it becomes clear however that this is a real gem replete with literate delights for the thinking fan. Derek Watt's masterful approach to his 50 chosen shocks is to delve into the folklore of the teams involved, placing them lyrically in the context of their local history and spicing up the backdrop to the day of the giant-slaying.
The usual suspects are here - Yeovil downing Sunderland in 1949,  Wrexham embarassing Arsenal in  '92 and Ronnie Radford's missile against Newcastle in 1972 as well as some unsung heroes of yesteryear - Darlington, Newport, Walton & Hersham and Worcester.
Half of the examples chosen are from the 1970s onwards, presumably for ease of research, and for some reason the North Korea v Italy match from the 1966 World Cup is thrown in randomly when there are a handful of shocks from outside the home of football which could have been included, not least the USA's win over England in 1950.
Watts admits he is 'unashamedly nostalgic' in his introduction, which heralds the tone to come with references to Alex James, the Freemasons' Tavern, Glanville, Pathe News and crumpets & jam. But nods to history coupled with an informed understanding of the insane infatuation shared by fans of small teams binds these stories to the reader so wonderfully.
This book springs from the heart of the English game and as a fan of one of the minnows whose finest hour Watts chronicles, I can vouch for the assiduous research. Derek Watts writes with such warmth and with such a grasp of the country's traditional football culture, I truly hope his first book is not his last.

Sean O'Conor

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The Pitch

The Pitch: Business Lessons Learned on the Soccer Field

Linda J. Lord

ISBN: 9781440174537
iUniverse; Paperback, 131pp

'The Pitch' is a business book written by a soccer mom, that peculiarly North American character which has entered the vocabulary and become a point of social and political discussion.
Linda Lord's book of lessons from the football field takes the form of a narrative, presumably autobiographical tale of a single mother struggling to run a business while ferrying her son to and from football.
Initially seeing the sport as a distraction from the important business of her life, she begins to eavesdrop on the manager's teamtalks and realises there are lessons she can apply to her enterprise.
Winning a match and running a firm are not immediately obvious bedfellows but football has such a simple format it is open to myriad interpretations and it is easy to see how the basics of hard work, desire, talent and team work are as much at home in the office as on the pitch.
The book reverts to type by the end with a bullet-point of lessons learned and while the choice of soccer inspirations remains debatable, 'The Pitch' follows in the tradition of American soccer books stressing the game's application to one's off-field life, and in terms of business, starts to mine a seam as yet largely unexploited.

Sean O'Conor

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