Garry Nelson – ex Charlton Player (Definitely!) and ex-neighbour of mine at Rochford Lofts in Essex (Possibly!!!!)
………A couple of weeks ago, the chance discovery that Egmont Publishing are going to issue new Roy Of The Rovers stories through iBooks led me to reminiscing and pondering the link between football and books, the two things I love most (after my beautiful family and the dog of course!)
Now there may be some who think football and literature are incompatible – mutually exclusive even! I disagree. It’s true that the link between good fiction and football is almost non-existent, but I’d suggest Nick Hornby’s brilliant Fever Pitch is enough to prevent a footballing fiction whitewash!
But in non-fiction I can think of several really good books about football I’ve read ( even though I’d have to admit most footballer biographies are rubbish with only the odd exception here and there – in particular, hang your head in shame Graeme Souness and take a bow Roy Keane!)
I’d reckon the audience for a series of full length book reviews of football non-fiction is pretty narrow (and the stats for my blog show I get precious few visits at the best of times!!) So I’m keen to avoid alienating any potential visitor to these pages with weeks of posts about footballing gems like ‘The History of Greenock Morton FC” or “Jack Charlton’s American World Cup Diary”!!!!!!! (Both great reads though – if you are anorak-ish about football and like that sort of thing!)
So as I mentioned in that post about Roy Of The Rovers, I decided to compile a short summary review of the best footballing non-fiction books I’ve read. Here it is then!
TheOnlyWayIsReading Guide To 10 Great Non-Fiction Football Books
1. Left Foot Forward: A Year In The Life Of A Journeyman Footballer by Garry Nelson
Without any doubt the best book by a footballer I’ve ever read. Garry Nelson was a very good footballer, without ever reaching what we might call superstar status. However he played up front for Charlton at a time when they were a good side but perhaps at a time before the potential income for footballers reached the stratospheric proportions of today. His book is a warts-and-all look at the life of the football professional – it comes across as honest and humourous and gives it a much more ordinary, understandable feel. It’s not about fast cars and the jet set lifestyle, it’s about training and injuries and the anxieties of wondering whether or not you’ll make the team and so on. It’s also shot through with a real sadness and uncertainty about the future for it tells the story of what is likely to be Nelson’s last year as a pro before he retires.
It was followed up with an equally good sequel, ‘Left Foot In The Grave’ which picks up the story 18 months later when Garry Nelson takes the thankless and almost impossible task of being player-coach at Torquay United – at that point the bottom club in the whole of the Football League. The two books were bestsellers, and rightly so, for they are a wonderful look at the reality of being a footballer and/or a manager at what you might call the “coal face” of the game – a million miles from the world of Manchester United or Liverpool, but in many ways the heart of the game itself!
2. The Miracle Of Castel di Sangro by Joe McGinniss
Joe McGinniss was a bit of a rarity himself, for he was an American writer and journalist with a deep love and passion for football. On the back of the triumphant hosting of the World Cup in the USA in 94, McGinniss became friends with one of the stars of that American team from 94, Alexei Lalas. Lalas himself had attracted the attention of European club sides because of his displays as a rugged but flamboyant centre-back and had signed for Padua to play in Italy’s Serie A, at that time arguably the best league in the world. McGinniss became intrigued by the story of the team from Castel di Sangro. The small village team in Southern Italy had risen from the lowest levels of amateur football to the unbelievable height of Serie B – one rung on the ladder off playing against some of the greatest players in the world like Maldini, Baresi and Roberto Baggio!
McGinniss spent the year living in the village and charting the exploits of the team and it’s players, administrators, managers and fervent supporters throughout that season at the dizzying heights of Serie B. The book captures the passion and the madness of football brilliantly. Equally when events take a tragic turn, the book is moving and warm and demonstrates the dignity of the people at a time of unimaginable sadness. Throughout, it’s a delight to read. This might not be the best book ever written about football, though in my view it’s up there in the top ten of course, but it’s without doubt the most emotional and romantic story you’ll ever read about football!
3. The Beautiful Team: In Search Of Pele And The 1970 Brazilians by Garry Jenkins
The 1970 Brazilians were perhaps the most brilliant football team ever. Only now are we debating whether or not the current Spanish team may be as good and possibly better – I think the Spanish may well be the best team ever – collectively – but for me nothing will take the place in my heart of the names of Pele, Rivelino, Gerson, Tostao, Carlos Alberto, Clodoaldo, Jairzhino. They won that place in my heart for two reasons – firstly the Mexico World Cup they took by storm was the first time I ever saw colour TV and secondly they played football like I’d never seen it played before! It was powerful, beautiful, graceful and above all joyous. Their fourth goal in the 1970 final will forever by my favourite goal of all time. There’s a flow to it that’s almost balletic!
Garry Jenkins set out in the mid 1990′s to trace every member of that 1970 team and to reminisce and reflect on the team, their role in it, what they’d achieved and what had happened to them since. The journey flows from a Chapter about Pele, interviewed in his then role as Minister for Sport in the Brazilian Government to Felix the eccentric Brazilian goalkeeper, interviewed in the garage where he worked as a mechanic. Through their recollections and opinions you get a strong sense of their togetherness as a group and above all of their confidence in themselves and each other – this was a team of great players and they knew it!
The book is a wonderful journey and more than does justice to the skill and beauty of the 1970 team in yellow and blue that were to change the world of football for ever!
4. Barca: A People’s Passion by Jimmy Burns
When you live in Scotland, most people make a choice between Rangers and Celtic – even though you may fervently support your local team – as I do with Greenock Morton – there’s still a choice to be made between the two Glasgow Giants! When I went to live in Spain in the mid-eighties I discovered that a similar thing happens there – even though you might support your local team (mine was Tenerife, then in Segunda B but promoted to La Primera the year I left Spain), most people make a choice between Barcelona and Real Madrid. For me the choice was never in doubt – the Catalan history, the role of the club as an anti-Franco force during the Civil War and then under Franco’s rule, and the flamboyance of their players through the years meant that I was instantly attracted to Barcelona and my love of them has never wavered.
Jimmy Burns’ books about football are sharp, incisive and illuminating. I loved his biography of Maradona, but above that is his history of Barca. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book so aptly subtitled – “…a people’s passion” and that is exactly what shines through in this book. The book traces the history, the clubs struggles particularly during the Franco years, and some of the great players that graced the Camp Nou down the years and above all, it looks at what the club means to the people who live in Barcelona, who support the team and what the club means to the city itself. If you have any interest in Barca, it’s a wonderful read!
5. My Father And Other Working Class Heroes by Gary Imlach
My partner is from Liverpool and, unfortunately she and all of her family are all mad-keen Liverpool fans – the malaise has spread to my daughter much to my horror and dismay. The exception however is my partner’s father – he’s a blue, and a passionate one. Whenever we’re together we talk three things – politics, football in general and Everton in particular! I bought this book purely on the strength of it being about an Everton player – and uncovered a gem of a book!
Stewart Imlach was a Scotsman who played for Everton in the 50′s and his son Gary tells his father’s story which was so typical of other working class men at that time, who entered the world of professional football before the pots of gold were placed at the ends of rainbows by people like Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour.
It’s a wonderful and moving tribute to his father, detailing the joys, challenges and uncertainties of life as a footballer, and for a footballers family, in those years after the war. The cavalier attitude of clubs towards their players is difficult to comprehend when we read it today with player-power at its height. The slave-like conditions of contract they faced makes you realise that, for all the talk now of the obscene salaries earned by some top players, the moves to gain freedom of contract and the abolition of the maximum wage in football were huge victories for football and for the people who played it and watched it, for no more was the game a mechanism for lining the pockets of rich men exploiting the players and the people who paid to watch them!
This makes it sound like a revolutionary manifesto – it isn’t – Gary Imlach tells his fathers’ story with honesty but it’s never overly sentimental. What’s great about this book is that it never loses sight of the fact that at the time his father was still luckier than most working class people. Stewart Imlach comes across as a hard-working, decent, thoughtful man – and according to my partners Dad, who remembers him with huge affection, he was a bloody good footballer too!
6. Ajax, Barcelona, Cruyff: The ABC Of An Obstinate Maestro by Frits Barend and Henk Van Dorp
Aristotle said “There was never a genius, without a tincture of madness!”. While ‘madness’ might be overstating it a bit, what comes across in Barend and Dorp’s book about the mercurial and magnificent Johann Cruyff are all the unusual and slightly different parts of his personality – I guess it’s the price to pay for having the gift that Cruff had.
The book is a slightly unusual read as it was put together from a huge number of interviews and articles which Barend and Van Dorp had conducted with Cruyff over a period of 23 years!!!! The book came out in Holland to mark the occasion of Cruyff’s fiftieth birthday. He is of course such a huge figure in Dutch football that there were several books which came out to mark the occasion – this was the only one that had Cruyff’s blessing and indeed he wrote the foreward himself. With his involvement and approval you’d understandbly be forgiven for thinking that this will be one of those white-washed football biographies that are trotted out continually – but it isn’t. Some of the articles are incisive, the questioning is sharp and to the point, and they draw out Cruyff, faults and all. I loved this book. I loved Cruyff. I’d watched enthralled as a kid when he lit up football, first with Ajax, then the Dutch team in 1974, and then at Barca. I was lucky enough to live in Spain at the same time as Cruyff was developing the “golden era” at Barca in his role as manager – it was a joy to watch him play, a joy to watch the team he managed and a joy to read this book!
7. Garrincha – The Triumph And Tragedy Of Brazil’s Forgotten Footballing Hero by Ruy Castro
If Aristotles words about genius and madness could be argued to apply to Cruyff, there’s no doubt at all that they could be applied to Garrincha. This is perhaps the most tragic and sad of all the football books I’ve read so far. The similarity of the talents shown by Garrincha and Pele is in sharp contrast to the lives they led – Pele the statesman-like great footballer, revered in his country and around the world, Garrincha, drunk and virtually penniless, who died tragically at 49.
The book mixes together the ingredients that made Garrincha such an unlikely but wonderful footballer along with the ingredients in his personality that caused him to lead a life outside the game that seemed almost hell-bent on self – destruction. It never over-romanticises Garrincha and yet it’s clear that for all his faults, everyone who came into contact with him liked him and admired him. As I read it, I couldn’t help but make comparisons between Garrincha and Paul Gascoigne. There’s something about both of their cavalier, unpredicable, approaches on the pitch that spills over into their lives. Reading Garrincha’s story you get the sense of a man whose personality on the pitch made him the genius he was as a footballer but that same personality also made him a wild and tortured soul as a man. It’s a desperately sad story, beautifully and loving told by Ruy Castro and by everyone who seems to have come under Garrincha’s spell.
8. The Bootsy Egan Letters by Colin Ward
This book is hilariously funny. It’s a spoof by the journalist, Colin Ward, who wrote a series of outrageous letters to footballers and football managers and then collected those letters and their replies in this wonderful book! The letters probe at their motives, their attitudes, their wealth and in some cases, their morals! What’s great about them is that they are sharp and clever and very witty and often their humour is enhanced by replies from the great and the good of the footballing world who are split into different camps – those who are outraged and indignant, those who are disinterested and send the blandest of replies, and those who either see through the ruse or rise to the challenge and respond with humourous letters of their own! My personal favourites were his correspondence with Sir Alex, Howard Wilkinson, and his wonderful spats with the then FA Chief exec Graham Kelly!
A work of genius!
9. Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius Of Dutch Football by David Winner
Dutch football has become a byword for technique, passing and movement, skill, and invention. Yet it wasn’t always this way. “Total Football” as it was known was born in the 60′s, driven by Rinus Michels in particular and was brought to the worlds attention by the Cruyff – inspired Ajax and Dutch teams of the mid to late 1970′s. The book charts not only some of the history of Dutch football but also how the idea of Dutch football developed and took shape over a number of years. In some ways it’s a book about Holland and the Dutch and from there how that’s influenced, and been influenced by, Dutch football. And of course, along the way there’s a roll call of the great and the good of Dutch football – all players I’ve loved and admired, Cruyff himself, Johann Neeskens (my favourite player as a boy!), Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullitt, Johnny Rep, Robbie Resenbrink, Wim Van Hanegem, Ruud Krol …..I could go on and on but suffice to say this was a pleasure to read about one of my favourite things in the world!
10. Cantona by Rob Wightman
Eric. The one and only Eric.
There have been several books about him and I think I’ve read all of them. But this is the one I enjoyed most. It’s a comprehensive narrative in terms of its breadth and detail about Eric’s career, especially with Manchester United. It’s not only well researched on the facts, it’s been well-researched into Eric’s relationships and attitudes, into what others thought of Eric’s contribution and into Eric’s impact, again particularly at United. It recounts the turbulent and the difficult times for Eric and those of us who took him to our hearts, especially the incident and aftermath at Crystal Palace. It doesn’t spare Eric in its laying out of the facts around this and other incidents, but thankfully it avoids the moralising and sanctimonious nonsense that infects some of the other books about Eric.
It’s a book that does justice to a legend in every sense. You know a player is special when fans still songs in praise of him – and it’s 15 years since Eric left Man Utd! – but to this day you won’t get through a Utd game without hearing “”Ooh Ah Cantona” or “The Twelve Days Of Eric”!! For me a book is special when I re-read it – and although I admit to quite a large helping of bias when it comes to anything Eric, I’ve re-read this several times and will read it again no doubt!
I love football and I love books about football – sadly there aren’t that many good ones. But there are some, whether histories of teams, biographies of the well-known and the not-so-well known, and books that celebrate and understand what makes the game or a player that bit special. And none are for me more special than Eric, so no football book is more special for me than Rob Wightman’s straightforward honest assessment of a genius! The last word goes to Rob Wightman and by implication of course it goes to Eric – why wouldn’t it!!!!
“And then there was Cantona.
Quite simply he was the magic ingredient,
the extra element that transformed a good team into a brilliant one…….”