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BUY> The Greatest Footballer You Never Saw:…

I had never heard of Robin Friday before I read this book, unfortunately he was a bit before my time. These days a player like him, even in the lower divisions would probably get a lot more media attention but it seems Robin Friday remained largely unknown to the national press. His story is however extraordinary and should appeal to all fans who appreciate pure footballing ability and the entertainment value of the game. Robin Friday’s casual approach to life on and off the field epitomises the showbiz style lives of more glamorous stars of the time such as Stan Bowles, Rodney Marsh, Frank Worthington and George Best. He was all of these and more, every bit as talented but far more tainted. Friday left an impression on everyone who met him, played against him or witnessed his outrageous skills. Sadly he had a professional career spanning only three years and died young without achieving the international recognition he could have gained.

This obviously leaves a story to tell but this book left me feeling the job was not quite adequate. Neither author saw or met Robin Friday or had any previous football writing experience. However, it is hard to see what creative input either had towards the book’s content. It is presented in a cold ‘here are the facts’ manner and takes the form of a compilation of quotes from various people who knew Friday. This is a pity as the tale is a tragic one and could be turned into a very moving and captivating story by an accomplished author. McGuigan and Hewitt don’t seem to dig much deeper than the words given to them by various interviewees and miss the opportunity to look closer at various episodes in his life. Two of these: why did he quit football, and, the reasons for his untimely death are dismissively glossed over although credit must be given for the meticulous research and tracking down of family, friends and team mates that obviously went into the writing of the book. It seems a shame that someone such as Eamon Dunphy, an ex-teammate of Friday’s did not have more input. Himself a respected football writer, he could have brought valuable first hand recollections of what it was like to play and live alongside such a colourful and carefree character.

The book developed an interest in a player I had not previously heard of but left me wanting to know more which was slightly dissatisfying. Despite being broken into short passages and not flowing very well I enjoyed it and found it hard to put down. Overall verdict: A great story, not such a good book.

BUY> Left Foot Forward: A Year in the Life of…

The first of Garry Nelson’s best-selling auto biographic brace is a truly informative read looking back over the whole of his career to date as well as the 1994-’95 season which it chronicles. Its diary format makes it easy to read and helps you to follow the day to day nature of the highs and lows of a footballer’s career. Far too many football books focus on the game’s stars, its colourful characters and its trophy winning teams; this book is a welcome change as it shows what the game is really like for 99% of the players.

Nelson’s career, if not glamorous has been far from dull and these pages contain many humorous episodes, daring deeds and tales of tragedy. Oh, and there’s an appearance by the villain of the plot at Ashton Gate, but our hero takes it all in his stride to survive another year doing what we’d all love to be paid to to. What we don’t realise is the pressure professional players are under facing up to injuries, getting new contracts and hours of slogging it out along motorways. Nelson is sufficiently good an author to be able to express the season’s emotions well enough for you or I to understand and he could have a viable football writing career ahead of him.

It’s not just a personal account of his season as he also contemplates the problems of his team-mates, as well as commenting on all the major issues of the time: match-fixing, bungs, managerial sackings, crowd violence, drugs and the infamous Cantona – Selhurst Park incident. Also brought to light are parts of the game often ignored by the press, such as the transfer tribunal system, of which I discovered, I knew next to nothing. The other aspect of Nelson’s book is his life away from football. Take any player, however famous, what do you actually know about his family life, his holidays, his leisure pursuits? This is perhaps the area in which the book is most informative and it should leave you with a different view of a footballer’s life. I thoroughly recommend it to all football fans.

BUY> Left Foot in the Grave?

Once again we are given a frank and honest insight into the goings on at a professional club, and this time the focus falls more on the scouting system, arranging transfers and dealing with players’ different attitudes. Much is revealed about training sessions, half time rollickings and internal disputes that is usually hidden from the public. It’s incredible to find out exactly how much of a manager’s life is taken up by his club: evenings spent watching reserve games, hours on the phone to other managers, getting home in the early hours and in Garry Nelson’s case, time spent away from his family. The despair of a cash strapped club’s fruitless search for new talent and the exasperation of repeatedly drilling the same things into your players’ heads come across strong as Nelson and Kevin Hodges feel the pressure at the bottom. The hardest part of the job is undoubtedly telling players when they’re not wanted, which at Torquay usually means the end of the road. This is a recurring theme throughout the book as it must also be in third division management. All in all this is a good book although not quite as enjoyable as the first. However, anyone who has read that book will want to continue the story and should find this a good read.

BUY> Odd Man Out

Like many people this year I was lucky enough to receive the Christmas present of 1997 – the book “Odd Man Out” by Brian McClair, perhaps the greatest footballer of all time. An enthralling read, I had finished it by Boxing Day, this book is surely destined to become an all time classic. It’s a masterful work of contemporary literature which gives a fascinating insight into a season in the life of a Premiership substitute. ‘Choccy’ focuses mainly on last season when United won the league and came close to European success although there are many sections when he looks back over some of the more interesting events in his distinguished career. When you’ve read this book you will really feel you know Brian, his family and many of his Old Trafford team-mates, and you’ll learn much about the way a successful football club is run. It’s witty, informative and gripping; this book is a must for all choccaholics, football fans and anyone else.

On a more serious note, I do genuinely recommend this book. It is written in a very similar style to Garry Nelson’s books, in particular Left Foot Forward, and McClair has many similar things to write about. Of course McClair has achieved much more in the game than Nelson and can write about some of the sport’s bigger occasions including international football, foreign away trips and winning trophies. The two players also have many things in common, both were PFA representatives, they played in similar positions and they both wrote books in the twilight of their careers when they were no longer first choice. Interestingly, they both went on to form half of a management duo.

BUY> Tor! The Story of German Football

Here in England we know all about the German national team thanks to a long and healthy rivalry spanning many decades of triumphs, controversy and bitter disappointments. But how many of us know anything about domestic football in Germany: the players, the clubs, the competitions, the origins and development of the game from the 19th century to the present day?

What makes this story so fascinating is that German football has followed a very different path to that taken by the game in most neighbouring countries. Many clubs had their origins as multisport organisations, founded well before the arrival of football in Germany, and the championship was decided on a knockout basis right up to the 1963-64 season when a national league was created for the first time. Full professionalism came even later. These circumstances, combined with a cast of colourful characters, have turned the story of German football into a unique and intriguing tale of regionalism, corruption and resistance to change set against a background of some of the most momentous events in world history.

For me, the most interesting periods were the years of fascism under Hitler and the years of communism in East Germany. Both ideologies had thier own agendas concerning the organisation and importance of sport under their regime and in each case the consequences for club and international football are well worth exploring. This book covers all these issues with many more besides as it flicks between the domestic game and the story of the national team (including a lot of success between two 5-1 defeats at home to England!).

BUY> Morbo – The Story of Spanish Football

Morbo explores the history of Spanish football from its origins in the late 19th century up to the present day. The story is recounted by the author as he travels around Spain’s major football destinations seeking out local people who can provide a first hand perspective on the issues and themes that have shaped the development of football in their town or region. His main theme is the morbo that has given the book its title and indeed this book is less a history of football in Spain than a history of morbo itself.

Unlike a conventional football history following a chronological path from beginning to present, Ball chooses to focus on a different aspect of the Spanish game in each chapter, the first of which attempts to define the aforementioned morbo. He then proceeds to examine the history of the game in different cities, starting from Huelva – the birthplace of Spanish football – and passing through Bilbao, Barcelona and Madrid on his way to Seville. He then takes a somewhat dismissive look at a few of the other clubs before focusing on the underachievement of the national team.

The book is well written, packed with fascinating anecdotes and an entertaining read throughout. However, one feels that it could easily have been two or even three times longer than it is, such is the wealth of interesting material on the Spanish game. The author largely ignores Valencia, as they have no major rivalry to speak of, and Atletico Madrid get precious little attention. Perhaps it is unfair to criticise Phil Ball for being too concise, as most of his chapters could be expanded into sizeable volumes in their own right, so he had to draw the line somewhere. His book is very successful in giving a general overview of Spanish football, particularly from a sociological perspective, looking at the impact of the major clubs on society, culture and politics. The reader is never in danger of being bored by statistics, records and results, in fact, the on-field action is quite incidental to much of this story as we are introduced to a series of colourful characters and traditions, all with a unique Spanish flavour. If you want to discover the meaning of ‘morbo’ you’ll have to buy this book – it comes highly recommended

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