As I hinted back in April, May was a great month for football book releases. Here are my thoughts on two of those titles, plus an earlier gem:
When Football Came Home by Michael Gibbons (Pitch Publishing)
Reading this book ahead of Euro 2016 was like watching Christmas music videos in early December. The tales of Terry Venables, Gazza and co filled me with naïve hope once again that football might indeed come home. It’s a story that many of us are very familiar with but Gibbons gets the content just right. Old favourites like the dentist chair are wheeled out once again, alongside less famous details. England’s matches are explored in detail but not too much detail and the myths surrounding the team’s performances are neatly dispelled. ‘Euro 96 became a sugar-coated memory…The 4-1 win over the Netherlands was the high point, but they could easily have gone into that game under the pressure of having two points or less.’
The cultural backdrop of Tony Blair, Oasis, Blur and Northern Ireland is neatly tied in without taking the focus away from the boozy brilliance of the football itself. In terms of tone, the book reaches for Pete Davies’ witty reportage in All Played Out and gets close. It’s a very enjoyable whizz down memory lane. Now that England’s tournament is over and in such spectacularly underwhelming fashion, When Football Came Home reads like beautiful chaos, which beats limp resignation any day.
Football by Jean-Philippe Toussaint (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
First of all, Fitzcarraldo Editions make truly gorgeous books and this is no exception. Now for the ‘but’. To start a book with ‘This is a book that no one will like, not intellectuals, who aren’t interested in football, or football-lovers, who will find it too intellectual’ is a very bold move. It takes a perceived divide and attempts to widen it. Having finished the book, I can agree with the author but not for the reason offered. Football-lovers won’t like this book because Toussaint isn’t much of a football fan and this book isn’t really about football.
Instead, Football is a book about ‘melancholy, time and childhood’ that happens to touch on the beautiful game from time to time. And when it does, it is dismissive and offensive. There is some eloquent, philosophical writing in the book, especially ‘Zidane’s Melancholy’, but take the following statements: ‘the football of adults leaves me cold’, ‘in Europe, most football supporters are male, violent, racist, full of beer or wine’, and ‘I’m starting to get a bit fed up with football. I prefer poetry’. For Toussaint, it is ‘vulgar, coarse and perishable matter’. In my experience, football fans welcome intellectual writing that takes a deep and critical look at the sport. Too much of this, on the other hand, is shallow and offensive.
Forever Young by Oliver Kay (Quercus)
I know it’s early to talk about the Best of 2016 but I’ll be surprised if many books this year can compete with this exceptional story of ‘football’s lost genius’, Adrian Doherty. Doherty was an Irish wing wizard some thought was better than Ryan Giggs, who loved poetry and music as much as, if not more than, football. But just as he was on the verge of the Manchester United first team, Doherty’s career was tragically ended by injury.
Kay narrates this extraordinary tale with warmth and care, offering fascinating detail about Manchester United’s youth team during the late 1980s-early 1990s revival, as well as the treatment of injuries during this time. Kay deserves real credit for his brave, investigative style; no stone is left unturned and he refuses to cower in the long shadows cast by Manchester United’s modern empire.
If there must be a criticism, mine would be that at over 400 pages, the book is a little long. In trying to include so many different player testimonies, Forever Young becomes repetitive in its conclusions: Doherty was an incredible and unique talent, an outsider that everyone liked but few really knew. But ultimately, like the player himself, Forever Young is an extremely welcome breath of fresh, eccentric air.