We Are Sunday League

We are Sunday League: A Bittersweet, Real-Life Story from Football’s Grass Roots

By Ewan Flynn

Pitch Publishing, 2017

We Are Sunday League

With Sunday League numbers dwindling year after year, it’s a good time for a reminder of the gruelling glory of amateur football. Sure, there are the injuries, the insults, the wet weekends, the panics of last-minute pull-outs, but it’s all worth it when you win that grudge match, that cup final, that league title. Right?

We Are Sunday League puts forward a strong case. North Londoner Ewan Flynn founded ‘The Wizards’ with school friends and roped in a rolling cast of extras over the years. In true Roy of the Rovers style, they battled all the way to the Edmonton Sunday League title. With a nice balance of charm, heart and humour, Flynn charts the team’s magnificent adventure, through hangovers, sloping pitches and angry opponents.

So far, so good, but pretty familiar. It’s the personal stories of Flynn’s teammates that make We Are Sunday League so engaging. The nearly-made-it midfielder now playing for fun, the winger desperate to make his sport-mad father proud, the goalkeeper who briefly lived his professional football dream and then returned. Amateur football is all about the characters. Who wouldn’t want to read about the captain of Gibraltar and the Tottenham fan who stole Tim Sherwood’s gilet?

The Invincibles

Preston North End – The Rise of the Invincibles

Written by Michael Barrett, Illustrated by David Sque

Invincible Books, 2016

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The football fates haven’t been particularly kind to Preston North End. The 1888-89 Football League Division One and FA Cup double winners are yet to feature in the modern Premier League. In fact, during the 2011-12 season, PNE were in danger of dropping down into the fourth tier of English football. Their fortunes have improved since then but many football fans, especially outside of the North West, will have little idea of the club’s prestigious past.

Which is where Preston North End – The Rise of The Invincibles comes into this. Local author Michael Barrett has teamed up with Roy of the Rovers illustrator David Que to produce a beautiful graphic history of the successful early days of North End. The 152 full-colour pages offer an accessible and informative look at the founding years of Preston, but also English association football as a whole. So you can leave your club allegiances behind on the first page.

For a comic book, The Invincibles feels a little narrative-heavy and dialogue-light, but there is little else to fault in this charming history. Delivered with helpings of humour, intrigue, heroes and happy endings, the amazing rise of Preston North End is recommended reading for football fans young and old.

The Fall of the House of Fifa

The Fall of the House of Fifa

By David Conn

Yellow Jersey Press, 2017

Fall of the House of FIFA

Where did it all go so wrong for Fifa? In his excellent new book, Guardian journalist David Conn argues that there were two major turning points in the descent into corruption and scandal. The first was 1974, the year that Conn watched his very first World Cup tournament at the age of nine. It was the year of Johann Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer, but it was also the year that Brazilian João Havelange took over from Englishman Sir Stanley Rous as Fifa President. It spelt the end of conservatism and the beginning of lucrative globalisation.

The second turning point came 36 years later, 2nd December 2010 to be precise. On that day in Zurich, the Fifa executive committee awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. Once this shocking decision and its origins were revealed, the Fifa house of cards began to fall, crook by crook. First Mohamed bin Hammam, Jack Warner and Chuck Blazer in 2011, then João Havelange, Nicolás Leoz and Jeff Webb in 2015 and finally Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini in 2016. Fifa’s dramatic downfall is described in at times overwhelming detail; every date, every figure, every committee report.

When it comes to Fifa’s main characters, Conn paints admirably balanced portraits. This is easier for Rous and Havelange but more difficult for Warner, Blazer and Blatter. ‘Blatter was a master of playing the electorate, and the Fifa system’, one of the interviewees explains. But as the charges build up, Conn grows bolder. Fifa becomes ‘a granite headquarters of delusion and bluster’, where ‘journalists were denounced as liars for writing the truth about a corruption scandal’. Like the rest of us, he is disgusted by the ‘multiple layers of shame…the awful, stinking truths’.

Yet Conn is far from the first writer to investigate the Fifa corruption. So much is already known about the organisation’s endemic culture of bribery, so what does The Fall of the House of Fifa add to the conversation? Firstly, genuine insight. Despite rejections from the likes of Platini, Warner and Webb, Conn’s book includes direct quotes from key figures including Chuck Blazer, Independent Governance Committee Chairman Mark Pieth and, best of all, Sepp Blatter. Other highlights include revealing details about England’s 2018 World Cup bid.

Secondly, Conn’s book explores a couple of very important conflicts within Fifa. The first of these is between Europe and the rest of the world. Blatter and co courted the developing countries for votes but then happily hung them out to dry. Faced with the scandals, Fifa for a long time played up to their victim status, blaming the bribery on football federations from ‘another world, another morality’, notably Africa and the Americas. However, the fall of Blatter and Platini revealed ‘the truth that the corruption of Fifa was secured in Europe, in Zurich, Switzerland’.

The second conflict is between the football chiefs and football people. The book draws attention to the lavish lifestyles of Fifa’s executive committee members, ‘the whole shameless, excessive, different planet these football chiefs inhabited and helped themselves to, from exploiting the people’s game’. Conn has contempt for these greedy businessmen. But he is most disappointed about Platini and Beckenbauer, the heroes of the game, the men who are supposed to be football people like us.

London Festival of Football Writing

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In May 2017, an exciting new football writing festival is coming to London. From Tuesday 16th – Saturday 20th, enjoy five nights of football fun with the likes of Jonathan Wilson, Philippe Auclair, Michael Cox and Anna Kessel. I spoke to Kieran The Organiser (consider his rap name coined) to get the full low-down.

Q1. What are the origins of the festival? Is it being run in association with the Manchester Football Writing Festival?

In late 2016, I was running a bookstall for my work at a tedious academic conference and on the bus back home, I drifted in and out of tiredness-induced reverie.  In true cartoon lightbulb fashion, an idea pinged into my brain – a festival of football writing with some writers and authors I want to see in a nice bookshop that also sells cold, delicious beer.  I was basically dreaming after being ground down to a husk by 12+ hours at the stuffy, drab, dry conference venue.  I slept on it for a couple of days and it remained a great idea. And thus London Festival of Football Writing was born!

It’s not affiliated with Manchester Football Writing Festival but the amazing year-on-year growth of the festival has been an inspiration, showing that there is room for reasonably niche festivals on the literary circus.  The MFWF has also been very generous in reaching out, offering solidarity and advice.

Q2. Do you have a specific aim or focus for this festival?

If I’m honest, the aim for this inaugural festival is just to see if it can be done. At the moment, I’m undertaking this without any sponsorship or financial backing but I would be looking to build on this to make next year’s festival bigger and better.

The overarching focus has changed somewhat since I first started putting things together but it still showcases a variety of very fine authors and journalists and that is, above all, the most important thing.

Q3. It’s an amazing line-up of events. Was it difficult to bring together big names like Jonathan Wilson, Philippe Auclair, Rory Smith, Michael Cox and Anna Kessel?

Each and every one of the authors have made putting this together relatively painless.  Anthony Clavane, Philippe Auclair and Anna Kessel in particular have been so generous with their time, offering invaluable advice, encouragement and contacts.

I was also touched by the enthusiasm of Barney Ronay, David Goldblatt, Amy Lawrence, Alex Bellos, Heidi Blake and Ronald Reng, who couldn’t make it for this year’s festival.

Q4. Can you pick one of the events that you’re particularly looking forward to?

I couldn’t possibly do that!  I’m genuinely excited about all of them.  If you pushed me, I’d be tempted to say Anthony Clavane – he’s one of my absolute favourite writers and his recent book, looking at the erosion of working class identity through the prism of sport is arguably his best yet.

Q5. Waterstones Tottenham Court Road is a great location for the festival. It feels like Waterstones are doing more and more to promote sports books. Do you think this is a particularly rich period for football literature?

Waterstones Tottenham Court Road is possibly my favourite bookshop in London, even though it’s only been open for less than 18 months. It’s got bags of character and its events programme is unparalleled in its variety and the big names it pulls in.  The event space is so atmospheric too, a real rarity.

The fact that Waterstones has its own dedicated sports books Twitter page (@wstonessport) is probably more down to the passion of the person in the company who manages it.

I would say the last ten years has seen football writing flourish, and you could probably trace it back to the release of Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid and the advent of blogs.  Now, it is a genre where literary, cerebral books on football fit nicely alongside the big-name biographies and publications like The Blizzard, Nutmeg and Mundial are pushing it into different directions, offering the opportunity for unpublished writers to get their work in print where previously that door would have been firmly shut.

Q6. The literary world tends to exclude or marginalise sports writing. Do you think that’s why the genre needs its own separate festivals like this?

Yes, I think there is an embedded elitism from the literary establishment regarding football writing and maybe that won’t change.  Despite the millions going to football each week, football writing may always be a niche interest.  You’ll always have the big-name biographies published for Christmas and maybe one or two books that cross over into the mainstream.

I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem though – there’s definitely an appetite for intelligent football writing and people are savvy enough to seek these oout outside of the mainstream, through independent publishers, social media, blogs and word-of-mouth.

The success of Manchester Football Writing Festival and, hopefully, London Festival of Football Writing, is a celebration of this and it shows how comfortable the genre is existing separately on its own terms.

Q7. Finally, give us your best 140-character pitch for football fans who are thinking about attending.

LFFW brings together some of the best names in football writing for five nights of analysis, humour and insight on the beautiful game!

For event listings, tickets and more info, visit the London Festival of Football Writing website

No Hunger in Paradise

No Hunger in Paradise: The Players. The Journey. The Dream.

By Michael Calvin

Century, 2017

No Hunger in Paradise

When it comes to youth football, Michael Calvin is worried and frustrated. Pushy parents, ego-driven coaches, money-driven agents, data-driven academies, the Premier League promoting inequality through its Elite Player Performance Plan – it’s an ugly, vicious world. ‘England, it seems, remains a province of closed minds and short attention spans’, he states before describing ‘a system suffocating on stardust and sycophancy’. No Hunger in Paradise is the most political and personal of Calvin’s brilliant football trilogy, but he’s far from alone in his thoughts.

To prove it, he has assembled another all-star cast, from a grassroots organisation at Brixton Recreation Centre to the Head of Performance at Manchester City’s £200million academy to England manager Gareth Southgate. No Hunger in Paradise contains the depth and breadth of insight that you’d expect from Calvin’s work. And his passion for the subject never gets in the way of the words of his interviewees. The 19 case studies could perhaps be reduced to 15 but there would be some difficult decisions to make. The cautionary tales of Zak Brunt and Kieran Bywater are fascinating, but so are the success stories of England Under-21 internationals James Ward-Prowse and Duncan Watmore.

‘Growth mindset’ and ‘personal development’ may just sound like today’s buzz phrases but the book makes their importance abundantly clear. The coach’s role is a delicate balancing act. Young players must first learn to enjoy the game in an encouraging, pressure-free environment, long before they become an ‘asset value’. Patience and safeguarding are required to nurture character. The kids need life skills as well as football skills; they need to be prepared for Plan B. As Crawley Town manager Dermot Drummy asserts, ‘The best coach is a community worker, whose best interests are kids’.

But at a certain stage, players must also learn to cope with fame and pressure, rejection and criticism. With ‘Generation Snowflake’ playing on pristine pitches and hiding behind merchandise and social media, Doncaster Rovers Lead Youth Development Phase Coach Tony Mee asks, ‘at what point are we allowed to make kids uncomfortable?’ The resilience to play first-team Premier League football can only be developed through tough, real-game experience. In a world where only 0.012% reach the top, we mustn’t over-indulge. As he prepares for the 2018 World Cup and beyond, Southgate agrees that England’s current young players are not ‘battle-hardened’.

So what next? The cast of No Hunger in Paradise reach consensus on several potential improvements: players shouldn’t be allowed to join academies at the age of 7; players should be encouraged to stay at their local clubs; youth salaries should be capped; youngsters need better support networks, and agents should be fined heavily for ‘selling the dream’ to vulnerable children. Changes won’t happen overnight but this book opens up the discussion.

No Hunger in Paradise has the most universal appeal of all of Calvin’s work. An interest in football helps but so does an interest in young lives. This is a culturally significant book, a considered look at a moral and emotional minefield. Glory, rejection, money, self-interest, success, failure; only the level-headed will survive. Middlesbrough’s Academy Director Dave Parnaby sums it up perfectly: ‘great game, shit industry’.