Nige Tassell, Writer for FourFourTwo and The Guardian, and author of The Bottom Corner: A Season With The Dreamers Of Non-League Football
In a year when writing and promoting a book has removed most of the time otherwise given over to reading, the short essays that make up Daniel Gray’s joyful Saturday, 3pm were a godsend. Stripping away the bullshit and bluster that suffocates much of modern football, Gray offers up 50 reasons why the game we’re still so obsessed with remains resilient to whatever nonsense the authorities and marketing men throw at it. Gray beautifully articulates the pleasure offered by such pursuits as jeering passes that go out of play, listening to the results in the car, and spying a ground from the train window (the floodlights “like four beckoning fingers … painting bright a vanilla hour”). Gray’s prose is exquisite – as is the Neil Stevens illustration on the jacket. A physically slim but spiritually hefty treat.
David Sumpter, Applied mathematician and author of Soccermatics: Mathematical Adventures in the Beautiful Game
It has to be My Turn for me. I love the way Johann Cruyff sees all the details of his career – the goals and the trophies – as pretty much irrelevant. He is always trying to identify the patterns and plan for the next stage. This is how I think as a researcher: individual moments aren’t important, it is about how we make sense of information. It was also nice to find out he was good at maths. That makes a lot of sense: you have to be a mathematician to create Barcelona.
Adam Hurrey, Freelance football writer for The Telegraph and ESPN, and author of Football Clichés
The Bottom Corner by Nige Tassell. Accounts of the less glamorous end of the football pyramid are nothing new, but growing disillusionment with the elite game has generated new enthusiasm for a more “authentic” experience, in which fans feel a closer connection to the club to which they give their time, money and patience. That, in turn, can lead to unhelpfully rose-tinted, self-indulgent views of non-league football. Thankfully, neither of those are the case with Nige Tassell’s pleasantly honest voyage through the more humble outposts of the English league system. Rather than dwelling on the infrastuctural challenges of being a provincial part-time operation, which often drag down books like this, Tassell focuses on the individuals who represent the clubs’ lifeblood.
There are obvious destinations – Hackney Marshes, Dulwich Hamlet – but also some curious and unlikely figures. There’s the 44-year-old Barry Hayles, once of Fulham and the Premier League, and now with lowly Chesham United. Julio Arca, who played 300 times for Sunderland and Middlesbrough, is unearthed playing in the second tier of the Northern League – nine floors down from the goldfish bowl of the top flight. You don’t have to abandon billion-pound football to appreciate the amateur game, and this book is no manifesto for doing so – more a pleasant peer down the rabbit hole. Plus, any book with a recommendation from Barry Davies on the back has to be worth a go.
Ben Lyttleton, Football writer and author of Twelve Yards and Football School
Forever Young by Oliver Kay. The story of Adrien Doherty is brought to life brilliantly in this excellent book, which is as much about memories, dreams and loss as it is about football. Our football heroes today are one-dimensional, either hero or zero, but Oliver Kay paints Doherty as nuanced and conflicted, and someone for whom football was not the be-all and end-all. If, like me, you hadn’t heard of Doherty, you should; his life was extraordinary, as is this telling of it.
Ian Ridley, Football writer and publisher at Floodlit Dreams
Ghost-writing for a footballer is easy, right? You just point a tape recorder – even a phone these days – at the bloke, ask a few standard questions about the ups and downs and then get someone to transcribe it… Wrong. It actually takes craft. You are delving deep, structuring, looking for nuances that will bring your character to rounded life. You are looking to tell a readership much more than they can discover from the sports pages or clipped media interviews. The versatile Mike Calvin, writer of some of the most perceptive football books of recent years, has done just that with Joey Barton: No Nonsense. The result is the collaboration Barton was seeking after rejecting previous more self-oriented writers and one that has resulted in a worthy addition to proper sporting literature.
Alex Stewart, Freelance journalist and presenter of BBC One’s Thief Trackers
It’s been a great year for football books as far as I’m concerned: Beyond the Turnstiles by Leon Gladwell is a sumptuous photo collection, and Karl Ove Knausgaard and Fredrik Ekelund’s Home and Away is literary and lyrical. The winner, though, has to be Duncan Alexander’s OptaJoe’s Football Yearbook. It’s a superbly accessible look at how data and metrics, both event-based and historical trends, can explain aspects of the game and challenge preconceptions. He also leaves little specks of statistical gold littered through the season-long tale, which are engaging and thought provoking in equal measure. Football statistics needed something like this, structured around one year as well as answering longer-term questions, to aid accessibility and enjoyment. Alexander has managed just that, and it’s a treat for geeks like me and (hopefully) everyone else.
Oliver Kay, Chief Football Correspondent for The Times and author of Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty, Football’s Lost Genius
Mister by Rory Smith. When Rory told me he was writing a book about the English football coaches who taught the rest of the world how to play, I had two thoughts: 1) it sounded like an extraordinary amount of work and b) it sounded rather dry as a subject matter. Well, I was half-right. The depth of Rory’s research is indeed enormous, as he uncovers the stories of men such as Steve Bloomer and Jimmy Hogan, but the story-telling is absolutely wonderful too — and, crucially, I think, it all links together to tell the broader story of English football’s abject failure, over many decades, to practise what its most enlightened minds were preaching to the rest of the world. In all my many hours lamenting the stupidity behind English football’s fall from (imagined or genuine) grace, this was something I had never considered. It’s a hugely informative book and, as with everything Rory does, it is superbly written.
Martin Cloake, Football writer and author of A People’s History of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club
The outstanding football book of the last year was, without doubt, Adrian Tempany’s And The Sun Shines Now. Tempany, a survivor of the central Pen 3 at Hillsborough, has produced a moving and powerful work. The opening description of that fateful day is harrowing, the subsequent examination of what has happened to the game insightful. Those expecting a polemic will be disappointed. Tempany does not hold back with criticism, but he eschews easy conclusions. There’s anger here, for sure, and regret for what has been lost, but above all it is the humanity that infuses this fine read that elevates it. Unrivalled.
Sachin Nakrani, Football writer and editor for The Guardian
Ring of Fire: Liverpool into the 21st century: The Players’ Stories by Simon Hughes. The third instalment of Simon Hughes’s chronicle of Liverpool’s recent history through the stories of those who were at the heart of the action is the best of the lot. As was the case with Red Machine and Men In White Suits, Hughes chose an eclectic group of people to interview and once again through a combination of the author’s crisp writing and the subjects’ captivating stories, the reader is given a wonderful insight of how Liverpool developed, thrived and ultimately fragmented during the first decade of the new century. Each chapter is a treat, with a personal favourite being the one with Fernando Torres. The Spaniard sets the record straight on his controversial departure from Anfield in 2011 in a manner, thanks to Hughes wonderfully honed ability to tell the stories of others, that grips the senses from first page to last. It is movie-like in its sense of intrigue and overall this is a book which all football fans will be moved by, intellectually and emotionally.
Adrian Tempany, Author of And the Sun Shines Now: How Hillsborough and the Premier League Changed Britain
The best football book I’ve read this year was Anthony Clavane’s Promised Land: A Northern Love Story (2010). Clavane is Jewish, and a Leeds fan self-exiled to the south, and explores through his love of Revie, Bremner, McKenzie et al his sense of identity, belonging, and wider issues of tribalism. The skull cap is worn lightly here, for the themes are universal. Clavane is an elegant writer, and sheds a fascinating light on that unique blend of pride and paranoia that shaped the great Leeds side of the early 70s, and why – in its rise and fall – that club could only have been born of that city.