Spring 2017 – The Best Football Paperbacks

MARCH

Soccermatics: Mathematical Adventures in the Beautiful Game (Pro Edition) by David Sumpter

Maths doesn’t have to be boring and pointless. Instead, it can teach us fun and fascinating things, even about football. Especially about football, according to applied mathematician David Sumpter. Whether you’re a player, a coach or a fan (or all of the above), you’ll never look at statistics, tactics and analytics in the same way again. The Pro Edition paperback has updated content and a great new cover.

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APRIL

Quiet Leadership: Winning Hearts, Minds and Matches by Carlo Ancelotti (with Chris Brady and Mike Forde)

As Bayern Munich’s recent demolition of Arsenal showed, Ancelotti is still a manager at the very top of his game. Quiet Leadership combines Carlo’s own stories with the reflections of many of the biggest names in football including Cristiano Ronaldo, Paolo Maldini and Sir Alex Ferguson. Like Sir Alex’s Leading, this is a book with a massive dual market: sports fans and business people.

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Mister: The Men Who Taught The World How To Beat England At Their Own Game by Rory Smith

The British invented football in the 19th century and messengers spread the word to other nations around the world, who quickly became better at the sport than us. It’s a familiar story but no-one has written about those first football pioneers with as much style, craft and detail as New York Times Chief Soccer Correspondent Rory Smith. A new cover for the paperback would have been nice but Mister is a highly-recommended read.

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Ring of Fire: Liverpool into the 21st Century: The Players’ Stories by Simon Hughes

First Red Machine looked at the 80s, then Men in White Suits looked at the 90s and now Ring of Fire looks at Liverpool in the 2000s. Simon Hughes’ journalism is exceptional, bringing together insightful stories from Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso, Gérard Houllier and many more. You don’t have to be a Liverpool fan to enjoy this book but it certainly helps.

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MAY

Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty, Football’s Lost Genius by Oliver Kay

This was my favourite football book of 2016 and one of the William Hill Sports Books of the Year. Forever Young is a surprising, enthralling and emotional tale about talent, ambition, disappointment and personality. Trust me – Manchester United’s Adrian Doherty will soon be your new favourite player. In a world of agent-controlled Twitter accounts and bland player interviews, this is a real breath of fresh air.

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And The Sun Shines Now: How Hillsborough and the Premier League Changed Britain by Adrian Tempany

This hugely significant book explores the sporting and political environment that led up to the Hillsborough Disaster in April 1989, as well as the aftermath and the ground-breaking rise of Premier League football. Above all, it’s a book about the fans and how gentrification and commercialisation has affected their experience of football. The new paperback cover is fantastic and should help to bring And The Sun Shines Now to an even bigger audience.

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Above Head Height

Above Head Height: A Five-a-side Life

James Brown

Quercus, 2017

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It’s a pretty clear sign that something has really caught on when people are writing memoirs about it. Five-a-side football has never been so popular and it just keeps growing. At this rate, the 2020-21 Premier League season will be played at Power League venues with head height rules. In these boom years, former NME, loaded and GQ journalist James Brown’s book Above Head Height: A Five-a-Side Life arrives with plenty of press attention and a Tony Parsons quote calling it ‘The Fever Pitch of five-a-side’.

Inspired by the death of James Kyllo, his friend and football organiser, Brown wrote a brilliant Telegraph piece last year called ‘Goodbye, my five-a-side friend’. That really struck a chord with the nation and so now, here is Above Head Height, his full-scale exploration of five-a-side football – the players, the psyche, the phenomena. The coverage is comprehensive, with chapters on everything from the history of commercial five-a-side to the various temper types found on the field. Haribo, colonic irrigation, Tony Yeboah – you’ll find it all here.

Above Head Height contains a neat blend of personal nostalgia and universal truths, as well as collected anecdotes from the likes of ‘Orrible Ives, the result of a clever call to social media. Brown brings it all together with passion, self-deprecation and, importantly, humour: ‘Fat people were old, thin people were young and fat young people were goalies’, ‘the no-weather pitch’, ‘any adult who arrives for a five-a-side game in plimsolls could well be a nutter’. Warning: the observational quips about black pellets in shoes, odd kit and getting fat may wear a little thin for the 1% who don’t love Michael McIntyre.

For all the fun football tales in Above Head Height, Brown is arguably at his best when describing the human, emotional side of the five-a-side obsession. He writes powerfully about his own recovery from addiction, the ‘loop of life’ that sees young men becoming dads and their sons becoming young men, as well as the strange relationship that exists between teammates who often don’t ever see each other in normal clothes. ‘I think you can learn more from playing football with someone for an hour than by talking to them or working with them for years,’ one of his teammates tells him.

Like your classic five-a-side player, Above Head Height deserves a lot of praise but there’s always room for a moan or two. Early on, Brown talks about ‘the howling gale of distraction that makes up my head’ and at times, the writing does feel unstructured. ‘What Are We Doing When We Play Five-a-side?’ one chapter begins and after thirteen pages of swirling ideas, it ends ‘In short: we play five-a-side football because we like it.’ A clearer, thematic approach works better in chapters like ‘On The Subject of Violence’ and ‘Shorts, Socks and Coats’.

As I read – and greatly enjoyed – Above Head Height, I couldn’t help thinking it might have been better as a smaller, more focused book of amusing, themed, five-a-side essays, reminiscent of Daniel Gray’s recent book Saturday, 3pm. Wishful thinking, I know, just like James Brown scoring goals like Allan ‘Sniffer’ Clarke.

Fantastic Mr Ruel Fox

On a slope above Newcastle city centre there was a stadium called St James’ Park.

In the stadium there was a football pitch. On the football pitch lived ‘The Magpies’ and their tricky winger Mr Ruel Fox, ‘the best player in his position in the country’ according to his manager, Mr Kevin Keegan.

Every Saturday before kick-off, Mr Fox would say to Mr Keegan, ‘Well, my darling, what shall it be this time? A mazy dribble down the wing past the full-back? A cross to Mr Rob Lee? A pull-back to Mr Peter Beardsley? Or a thunder blaster of my own?’ And when Mr Keegan had told him what he wanted, Mr Fox would creep out onto the pitch at St James’ Park and help himself.

The defenders knew very well what was going on, and it made them wild with rage. When he played for Norwich City, even Bayern Munich couldn’t stop Mr Fox.

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So what could decidedly average Premier League defenders do about him? Kenny Cunningham, Des Lyttle and John Wark were not men who liked to give anything away.

But Mr Fox was too clever for them. When Wimbledon came to town, the harsh North-Eastern winds carried the smell of Cunningham to Mr Fox’s nose as he twisted and turned towards goal. He quickly changed direction and slammed a pile-driver into the top corner. Goal!

‘Dang and blast him!’ cried Cunningham.

‘I’d like to rip his guts out!’ said Wark. ‘How on earth can we stop the blighter?’

Lyttle picked his nose delicately with a long finger. ‘I have a plan,’ he said.

11th February 1995, Newcastle United vs Nottingham Forest

‘Well, my darling,’ said Mr Fox. ‘What shall it be tonight?’

‘I’d like another goal please,’ said Mr Keegan. ‘Now do be careful – you know they’ll be waiting for you.’

‘I can smell those goons a mile away,’ said Mr Fox. ‘Don’t you worry about me.’

But in the first half, Mr Fox barely got a sniff of the ball. Mr Andy Cole had moved away to Manchester United and so The Magpies needed goals, goals, goals. New signing Mr Keith Gillespie wasn’t going to get many; Mr Keegan was relying on Mr Fox, even if he did wear the Number 5 shirt. But whenever he cut inside, Lyttle was there to stop him and he had help from his midfield. His plan was working.

In the second half, Mr Fox inched forward a little more. He passed the ball from the left wing to the right wing and made a clever run into the box for the cross. He wasn’t the tallest but Lyttle wasn’t prepared for his leap. Mr Fox’s header crept past the goalkeeper. Goal!

‘Dang and blast!’ said Lyttle, putting his hands on his head. ‘I should have just fouled him the moment he came out on to the pitch.’

‘Don’t worry, I’ll make sure that Mr Fox won’t be causing trouble again in a hurry,’ Wark said.

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28th February 1995, Ipswich Town vs Newcastle United

‘I’ll tell you what we don’t do,’ Wark told his teammates as they walked out to face The Magpies. ‘We don’t let him go!’

‘Never never never!’ cried Frank Yallop.

‘Did you hear that, Mr Fox!’ yelled David Linighan. ‘It’s not over yet, Mr Fox!’

The Ipswich defenders were about as nasty and mean as any moustachioed men you could meet. On the touchline, Mr Keegan began to cry. He gathered his substitutes close to him and held them tight.

Suddenly there was an especially loud crunch as Wark sent Mr Peter Beardsley flying through the air. The sight of this awful thing seemed to have an electric effect upon Mr Fox. ‘I’ve got it!’ he shouted. ‘Nobody in the world is as deadly from long range as a Fox!’

Mr Fox pretended to take the free-kick but it was Mr John Beresford who swung the ball into the box. Yallop cleared but it fell straight to Mr Fox. In a flash, he sent another thirty-yard screamer flying towards the top corner. Goal!

After the match, The Magpies sat down, panting for breath. Mr Keegan said to them, ‘If it wasn’t for Ruel, we might have lost that game. Ruel is a fantastic Fox.’

Meanwhile, outside St James’ Park, the defenders were all very tired and cross.

‘Whose rotten idea was that?’ asked Cunningham as they watched the highlights on Match of the Day.

‘Wark’s idea,’ replied Lyttle, looking glum.

‘It was a good idea but we weren’t good enough,’ said Wark. ‘There’s only one thing to do – starve him of the ball.’

They quickly passed the message on to other defenders – Southampton’s Jason Dodd, Leeds United’s Gary Kelly, Manchester City’s Terry Phelan. They marked Mr Fox very closely and refused to let him escape.

‘Ruel, couldn’t you try just one little dribble or shot?’ asked Mr Beardsley in the St James’ Park dressing room.

‘No, that’s just what they want him to do,’ said Mr Keegan.

‘But we’re so hungry for goals!’ Mr Paul Kitson cried. ‘How long will it be till we get a decent cross?’

Mr Keegan had no answer to give.

‘How long can a Fox go without touching the ball?’ Wark asked the other defenders.

‘Not much longer now,’ Cunningham told him. ‘Keegan took him off at half-time against Tottenham. I hear he’s thinking about bringing in some foreign flair for next season.’

14th May 1995, Newcastle United vs Crystal Palace

At St James’ Park, The Magpies were slowly but surely dropping down the Premier League table.

Mr Fox had not spoken for a long time. Mr Keegan knew that he was trying to think of a way out of their slide. Suddenly, as they prepared for the final game of the season, there was a little spark of excitement dancing in Mr Fox’s eyes.

Mr Darren Peacock dribbled forward from defence, with his luscious locks flowing in the North-Eastern wind. Then he passed to Mr Fox, who was just inside the Crystal Palace half.

The defenders had told Gareth Southgate how to stop Mr Fox but when he was at his mazy, jinky best, it was impossible to stop him. As Mr Fox cut inside, a Palace player flew in for the tackle but he was too late. Mr Fox shot for goal and it cannoned off a Palace player and looped over the goalkeeper’s head. Goal!

He let out a shriek of excitement and punched the air. ‘I’ve done it!’ he yelled.

Twenty minutes later, Mr Fox put a perfect cross on to Mr Lee’s head.

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‘Oh, what a fantastic Fox you are!’ Mr Keegan told him at full-time.

But soon lovely Mr David Ginola arrived at St James’ Park and Mr Fox had to move away to ‘The Spurs’ in London.

‘We’re starving for goals too!’ said Mr Teddy Sheringham when he arrived at White Hart Lane. ‘Darren Anderton is always injured. We’re done for.’

‘There’ll be plenty of goals to go round, I can assure you,’ said Mr Fox.

‘You mean it?’ cried Teddy. ‘You really mean it?’

Mr Fox nodded confidently.

When Nottingham Forest came to White Hart Lane, Little was waiting for Mr Fox. He refused to let him escape and The Spurs lost 1-0.

When The Spurs travelled to Wimbledon, Cunningham was waiting for Mr Fox. For 85 minutes, Cunningham starved him of the ball but right at the end, Mr Fox crept in to steal the win for The Spurs.

At the post-match meal, Teddy stood up. ‘A toast! To our dear friend who has saved us this day – Mr Fox!’

‘To Mr Fox!’ The Spurs all shouted, standing up and raising their glasses. ‘Long may he live!’

Then Mr Gerry Francis, their manager, got to his feet. ‘I just want to say one thing, and it is this: RUEL IS A FANTASTIC FOX.’

After a few great years, Mr Fox moved on to West Brom and then to the Montserrat national team. He is now retired and runs Ipswich Bootcamps.

Cunningham, Little and Wark joined Masters Football, waiting for Mr Fox to return. And as far as I know, they are still waiting.

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Four Football Books to Read in Early 2017

1. Above Head Height: A Five-A-Side Life by James Brown (Quercus, Feb 2017)

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In December 2015, former NME and GQ journalist James Brown wrote a very moving tribute to one of his teammates who passed away. The article struck a real nerve with the ever-growing five-a-side fraternity and this book will surely expand on the weird and wonderful camaraderie that exists between people who only meet for an hour every week. Novelist Tony Parsons has gone so far as to call it ‘The Fever Pitch of five-a-side’.

2. Shades of Blue: My Life in Football and the Shadow Within by David White and Joanne Lake (Michael O’Mara, Feb 2017)

David White played for Manchester City for eight years, between 1985 and 1993. He’s always been a club legend but in the last few months, he’s entered the national spotlight as one of the first brave men to go public about sexual abuse at the hands of former Crewe Alexandra youth coach, Barry Bennell. This promises to be a groundbreaking account and in Joanne Lake (co-author of I’m Not Really Here, a groundbreaking account of depression in football), White has the perfect support.

3. Doctor Socrates: Footballer, Philosopher, Legend by Andrew Downie (Simon & Schuster, March 2017)

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I’ll be honest – I was a little sceptical about this one at first. Sure, it’s got a great cover but do we need another book on a Brazilian legend? The answer, as it turns out, is absolutely yes because this is an unusual biography about an unusual player. Downie is in possession of unparalleled insight; ‘he has had exclusive access to Socrates’s unpublished memoir and many of the tape recordings left by Socrates’. So I think this will be a special book indeed.

4. Nolberto Solano: Blowing My Own Trumpet (Mojo Risin’ Publishing, March 2017)

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I’m a big fan of cult footballers and they don’t get much bigger than Sir Nobby of Newcastle. Judging by his Twitter account, I reckon the little Peruvian has plenty of tales to tell about his time on Tyneside. ‘Armed with a lifetime of memories and his trusty trumpet,’ the publisher website states, ‘Solano reveals all in a story filled with hope and punctuated by painful life lessons.’ I can’t wait for this one.

Football writers on the Best Books of 2016

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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