The Premier League in Books – Part One

Arsenal

With such rich literary connections, Arsenal is a nice easy place to start. For historical accounts, try Patrick Barclay’s The Life and Times of Herbert Chapman, or Nick Hornby’s 90s classic Fever Pitch. If it’s modern player portraits you’re after, you’ll find few better than Tony Adams’ Addicted (with Ian Ridley), Dennis Bergkamp’s Stillness and Speed (with David Winner), and Lonely at the Top, Philippe Auclair’s biography of Thierry Henry. And if all that’s not enough, Amy Lawrence’s Invincible: Inside Arsenal’s Unbeaten 2003-2004 Season is undoubtedly one of 2014’s best Christmas gifts.

Invincible

Aston Villa

Despite being one of the Premier League’s perennial few, the Villains have made little contribution to the literary canon. In my humble opinion, that’s because the likes of Mark Draper, Julian Joachim and Alan Wright have so far steered clear of the confessional. A few, however, such as Gareth Southgate (Woody and Nord), Stan Collymore (Tackling My Demons) and Dwight Yorke (Born To Score), have been more communicative. Paul McGrath’s candid Back From The Brink is the pick of an average bunch. Perhaps Gabby Agbonlahor will one day right this wrong.

McGrath

Burnley

Same colours, same dearth of books. Thank goodness for Clarke Carlisle. His You Don’t Know Me, But… is an excellent, warts-and-all look at the realities of lower league football. Carlisle’s happiest and most successful years were at Turf Moor: ‘Owen [Coyle] came in and completely shifted the dynamic. His focus was on total enjoyment. It was fun at training, something a lot of the squad hadn’t encountered for a few years. This change led to a happy workforce, and a happy workforce is a productive one…We were definitely a classic example of a team whose total was greater than the sum of its parts.’

fc7a9-97814711288442b1

Chelsea

It always surprises me how little of note has been written about the Russian revolution at Stamford Bridge. Until the arrival of beige autobiographies from John Terry and Frank Lampard, we’ll have to make do with the managers. Ruud Gullit: The Chelsea Diary and Mourinho on Football are entertaining reads, but Carlo Ancelotti: The Beautiful Games of an Ordinary Genius is the pick of the bunch. Although largely based around his time in Italy, the book ends with the brilliantly named chapter ‘Summoned by Abramovich’.

Ancelotti

Crystal Palace

Where the Eagles are concerned, Simon Jordan’s Be Careful What You Wish For soars head and shoulders above the rest. Mobile phone entrepreneur Jordan bought Palace in 2000 at the tender age of 36 and took them back to the Premier League. Ten years later, he was bankrupt and his club was in administration. This explosive and revelatory book will appeal to all football fans with an interest in what goes on behind the scenes, but it will mean the most to the long-suffering Selhurst Park faithful.

Jordan

Everton

This year has seen the publication of four books about Toffees heroes: Kevin Kilbane’s Killa, How Football Saved My Life by Alan Stubbs, Ossie by Leon Osman and best of all, In Search of Duncan Ferguson by Alan Pattullo. Here’s a juicy sample from the beginning: ‘Everton got under his skin. He would never ever forget how it felt to soar into the air, to head that first goal against Liverpool, before sinking to his knees with joy and relief in front of the Gwladys Street End; the legend before the player, the rise before the fall. On the same date 12 months later, he was languishing in jail.’

a2033-in-search-of-duncan-ferguson-9781845963927

Hull City

If a book could ever be said to sum up a football club, it would probably be Bend it like Bullard, nearly 300 pages of cult, no-frills entertainment. Here’s Jimmy on his motorway-side scrap with teammate Nicky Barmby: ‘I’d love to be able to say that I sorted him out, but the truth is that it was little more than explosive grappling for a few seconds. As the gaffer said later, it was hardly Ali-Frazier. We both ended up lying on a bush with no real leverage to get out of it.’

Bullard

Leicester City

The Foxes are back in the top flight again but it’s their 90s heyday under Martin O’Neill that provides the literary goldmine. Steve Claridge’s Tales From the Boot Camps is an underrated gem, while Savage! is as entertaining as you’d expect. Apparently, everything slotted into place when he joined Neil Lennon and Muzzy Izzet in the centre of the park: ‘With those two at my side, I produced my best forty-five minutes in a Leicester shirt…At the final whistle, everyone came over and hugged me. Martin had his arms around my shoulder. “Thank Robbie for getting us to the final”, he said to the others…That was the day I became Robbie Savage, Leicester City footballer. I was accepted by the lads from that moment on, and I still believe we were the best midfield that Leicester have ever had.’

Savage

Liverpool

As befits a club with such history, there’s a long list of options here. For the nostalgics, I’d recommend David Peace’s Shankly epic Red or Dead and Tony Evans’ I Don’t Know What It Is But I Love It: Liverpool’s Unforgettable 1983-84. But this Christmas, it’s all about the controversial ex-strikers: Craig Bellamy’s GoodFella (featuring the winning combo of John Arne Riise and a golfclub) and Luis Suarez: Crossing The Line. The Uruguayan’s story promises to be as explosive as his finishing.

Suarez

Manchester City

Unlike Chelsea, City have an excellent book on their recent rise: David Conn’s Richer Than God: Manchester City, Modern Football and Growing Up is a brilliant look at how the football times are a changing, for better or for worse. Beyond that, there’s Blue Moon by Mark Hodkinson about the 98-99 promotion season, and Paul Lake’s I’m Not Really Here, a powerful and cautionary tale which you really don’t need to be a Sky Blue to enjoy.

Conn

Sol Campbell: The Authorised Biography

Sol Campbell: The Authorised Biography

By Simon Astaire

Spellbinding Media, 2014

‘Sulzeer Jeremiah ‘Sol’ Campbell. Is there a finer English footballer over the last fifty years who has been eyed so suspiciously?’ Simon Astaire’s astute biography of Sol Campbell ends with this most pertinent of semi-rhetorical questions. The former Tottenham and Arsenal centre back is hardly the first footballer to shy away from the limelight; in fact, another famous example was born in that same year of 1974. But whereas Paul Scholes is readily accepted as a quiet, unassuming family man, Sol has always been seen – by friends, teammates and managers – as a man of depth. He is also, through largely no fault of his own, a man of controversy. A claim of assault, a North London betrayal, an episode of depression and an ill-fated stint in League Two all made the headlines, alongside recurring slurs against his race and sexuality. For a private man, Sol Campbell has had a very public career.

Like subject, like book, Sol Campbell: The Authorised Biographyhas had an eventful life so far. Press attention has sadly centred on one sensationalist claim; that racism within the FA prevented Sol from being ‘England captain for more than 10 years’. Appearing to undermine the strong leadership qualities of teammates such as Tony Adams, David Beckham and John Terry, the remark suggested a bitter ex-player voicing long-held grievances now that retirement hadn’t resulted in the kind of opportunities he felt his accolades merited. But thankfully, as Matt Dickinson wrote in his excellent review in The Times, ‘The book deserves far better than to be known for one reckless outburst.’

That ‘outburst’ aside, Sol Campbell offers a considered look at a highly distinguished career. Very few direct criticisms are levelled and even these are mild and reasoned. Wayne Rooney, for example, is condemned for diving but praised for having ‘the imagination to change things’. When it comes to discussing the worst of the Tottenham years, Sol takes no prisoners but names no names: ‘I had muppets as team-mates who were on treble the money.’ Respect is given to both performers and professionals, from half-time smoker David Ginola through to veteran captain Gary Mabbutt. England managers, Arsenal and Portsmouth teammates – all are acknowledged with polite appreciation, if not always overt affection. Present tense narration lends a nice sense of drama to scenes like the historic unveiling at Arsenal but the many high-profile decisions of Campbell’s career are also explained openly and judiciously, from Tottenham’s insufficient ambition (‘I wanted Spurs to show me that they were going to challenge’) to the allure of the Notts County project (‘I liked the idea of being part of the renaissance’).

Penetrating Campbell’s tough football shell, however, is no easy task; he’s not a man who naturally confides his feelings to others, least of all teammates. Lee Dixon sums it up well – ‘I didn’t get to know him and I don’t think anyone really did.’ Life-changing decisions are shared – if at all – with his mother Wilhelmina and his agent and friend Sky Andrew. Until now, that is. ‘Sometimes he would stare at me with a seriously blank expression when I asked something difficult’, biographer Astaire admits in the prologue, ‘but he would eventually open up’. Sol Campbell reveals a man with a deep-rooted emotional fragility. Pressure and hurt build and build inside him until they eventually overflow, as on the night he famously disappeared during half-time of a nightmare performance against West Ham in 2006. ‘The accumulation of storms in his life had finally combined and on that evening hit him so hard and unexpectedly that he had only one choice left. Escape.’

What Astaire does brilliantly is to trace this sensitivity all the way from its roots. Five years younger than the next of his eleven siblings, Campbell was largely left to his own devices as a child, ‘adrift’ as he puts it. Two significant and competing elements of Sol’s character emerge from this upbringing: a fierce independence and a recurring need for appreciation. Whether kicking a tennis ball against the wall in his street or sitting quietly in his front room, Sol’s childhood is dominated by solitude; ‘The calm made me happy. Since then, I’ve always been in search of it’, he confesses. The impact of his father’s very distant parenting style is also felt throughout the story. The care and attention he failed to find at home from Sewell, he held out hope for at Tottenham but while George Graham ‘knew I was a top-notch player…I never felt he rooted for me’. Expressed a different way, ‘The fans may have believed in me but I felt the club didn’t, otherwise they would have done more.’ At Arsenal, Campbell joined a winning mentality but also a family environment with protection and praise from David Dein and Arsene Wenger. Later on, Portsmouth proved another good fit, in part because Harry Redknapp is ‘someone who he felt would manage him in a fatherly way’.

Confidence, determination and focus – in the 21stcentury, the myth of the steadfast sporting mindset is finally being questioned. With this book, Campbell deservedly joins the likes of Robert Enke, Andre Agassi and Marcus Trescothick in a very significant subgenre of sports writing. Yes, key matches are analysed and records are set straight, but the real triumph of Sol Campbell is that ‘The Rock’ is revealed as human after all.

Thierry Henry: Lonely at the Top

Thierry Henry: Lonely at the Top: A Biography

By Philippe Auclair

Pan Macmillan, 2013

A sports biography that strays beyond the sporting facts is something to celebrate. A sports biography that prefers to call itself ‘a biographical essay’ and sets out ‘to try to understand how and why such a magnificent footballer…has inspired such extremes of feeling’ deserves a piñata and party bags. For Auclair, this is no empty threat; what he did for Eric Cantona (The Rebel Who Would Be King), he’s now done for Thierry Henry, the classy King of Highbury but also ‘the selfless egotist, the insufferable charmer, a walking oxymoron in shorts’. It’s another fascinating subject matter for a brilliantly incisive biographer, especially one who happens to be an Arsenal-supporting Frenchman living in London.

Yes, Philippe and Titi are a match made in heaven, even if, despite years of interviews and conversations, the journalist is ‘not a friend of his, and could never have become one’. Does distance make the heart grow fonder? In Auclair’s case, it makes the heart grow fairer, and more intrigued. Rightly or wrongly, Henry’s every word, gesture and decision is scrutinised here, from Les Ulis prospect all the way through to New York celebrity. Lonely at the Top addresses the need for an objective judgement of France’s highest ever goalscorer, an examination of the myths side by side: Henry the player and Henry the person.

1 French, 2 English and 2 Spanish league titles, 1 Champions League, 1 World Cup and 1 European Championship. Surely the trophy cabinet of a true footballing legend? And yet, Henry remains a ‘nearly man’ in many eyes; no ‘single moment’ to define him, no Ballon D’Or win and famously only 1 goal in the 9 major senior finals he played in, that one being the 2003 Confederations Cup. ‘He still owned them [the trophies] but he didn’t seem to ‘own’ them, somehow’. As Auclair’s chronology demonstrates, either side of the dizzy heights of his Arsenal career, Titi never quite lived up to expectations at Monaco, Juventus and even Barcelona (a ‘parenthesis’ according to his biographer). For France, Henry’s goal record hid the disappointing fact that he and Zidane failed to gel during their peak period, at the 2002 World Cup in particular. In terms of the ‘genius’ tag, an adopted nonchalance disguised a footballer working hard to get the most out of a raw blend of pace and power.

And yet, between 2001 and 2004, Henry was unstoppable. As the focal (and significantly central) point of Wenger’s ‘Invincibles’, Titi led the Gunners to 2 Premier League and 2 FA Cup trophies, winning back-to-back PFA Player of the Year awards. In these 3 seasons, he scored a phenomenal 103 goals in 155 matches, including many that were crucial and/or breath-taking. He won the French Player of the Year award four years in a row (2003-6), and was runner-up in the FIFA World Footballer of the Year in both 2003 and 2004. Paradox Number One: Henry the footballer.

Paradox Number Two: Henry the man. The infamous ‘Hand of Gaul’ against Ireland in 2010 only served to reinforce his reputation as an arrogant and unlovable individual. Auclair and others speak of ‘a many-sided man’ with a ‘calculating streak’, ‘increasingly aloof’ and renowned for his ‘essential remoteness’. No-one argues with Monaco and Arsenal teammate Gilles Grimandi’s assertion that Henry has no real friends in football. Patrice Evra, Robert Pires and David Trezeguet come close but don’t quite make his very exclusive inner circle. Lonely at the Topastutely traces Henry’s near-universal distrust back to a difficult relationship with his demanding father and a botched transfer to Real Madrid in 1996. This early betrayal, Auclair argues, ‘hardened him’.

And yet, Henry has never shied away from the cameras. He gave regular interviews throughout his time in England and, like most footballers, what he said was always polite, usually humble and occasionally insightful. In 2008, Premier League fans voted him their most popular player ever. So how does this all add up? What we have, Auclair argues, is a highly insecure figure who ‘craved assent and praise as no other footballer I have come across did’. In his dogged pursuit of greatness, Henry adopted a public mask, surrounding himself with propagandists and ‘starfuckers’ in an attempt to control his image. A very convincing argument indeed.

While Henry is, of course, the focus of Lonely at the Top, the bigger picture is always intricately filled in. The Clarefontaine, Monaco and Barcelona set-ups are discussed in detail, while the ebb and flow of Henry’s time at Arsenal is given the attention it deserves, as he graduates from struggling misfit, to leader of champions, and finally to one-man team. Arguably the book’s most fascinating sections, though, cover Titi’s rollercoaster ride with Les Bleus, from World Cup winners to shamed, first-round knockouts in the space of 12 years. Auclair lays out the national context boldly and succinctly; ‘a fractured society ridden with post-colonial guilt and neuroses, which had desperately wanted to believe in the 1998 black-blanc-beur utopia and was now forced to smell its own shit.’ Biography this may be, but like Henry at his pinnacle, it’s a few cuts above the rest.

Buy it here

Stillness and Speed: My Story

Stillness and Speed: My Story

By Dennis Bergkamp

Simon & Schuster, 2013

In his introduction to this excellent study of the Dutch master, David Winner suggests that ‘A footballer like no other ought to have a book no less distinctive’. And distinctive this book is, although you feel its winning format could very soon become the norm. Footballing autobiographies have long been a cause for mockery and/or scepticism. Much hinges on the unspecified role of the ghost writer; is this shadowy figure sticking faithfully to the player’s words, or taking all manner of artistic license? Stillness and Speed negates that question and the question of ghost writers altogether. ‘My Story’ may be the subtitle and ‘Dennis Bergkamp’ may grace the spine, but this is very much a collaborative project. Instead of ‘assisting’ with a standard autobiography, Winner builds a brilliant biography around in-depth interviews with The Non-flying Dutchman. Would he have come to life in the way he does in conversation, if he’d written his own story? It’s unlikely.

The levels of interaction are the greatest strength of the format. Winner is a terrific interrogator, fun, fierce and provocative, always ready to ask the difficult question and persist with it, chipping away at the cool reserve. When discussing penalties, for example, Bergkamp finds himself firmly on the back foot, fending off criticisms of his national team’s shoot-out performances.

DB: ‘You’re telling me he [Frank de Boer, Euro 2000] took the penalty wrong?’

DW: He did take the penalty wrong. It was terrible.

DB: ‘No, it was a miss.’

DW: It was a terrible penalty.

DB: ‘He missed the penalty, therefore it’s not good. You can’t have a good penalty that is saved. I’ve tried to explain that…’

The professional that he is, Bergkamp fully commits to Winner’s innovative style, even responding to what others have said about him earlier in the chapter. In ‘Intermezzo’, covering his unhappy spell at Inter Milan, he advises Winner on who to speak to, saying ‘We need an opinion, don’t we? … I don’t mind, as long as I get a chance to react.’ And after ‘Their Truth’ (three cautiously critical interviews with the manager and two teammates), we get ‘My Truth’, the carefully considered retort. It’s the football writing equivalent of Lars Von Trier directing an episode of Eastenders.

So what do we learn? Bergkamp’s dogged pursuit of footballing perfection extends to a keen interest in both physiology and geometry (‘you have to get all angles and the maths correct…It’s like solving the puzzle’). The Dutch legend is as eloquent as you’d expect on the subjects of touch, time, passing and space. Have YouTube at the ready, as we’re treated to in-depth studies of key assists and goals, including that one against Newcastle. And it turns out there’s warmth beneath the ice; while he was never too bothered about making friends in football, once he’d settled at Arsenal he became the team prankster, putting Martin Keown’s clothes up step-ladders and pulling Ray Parlour’s shorts down at training.

All very entertaining but then there’s the other, more intriguing side of Dennis that conforms to that age-old Dutch stereotype. Quiet and polite he may often be, but he’s also confident, driven and obstinate. He’s an ‘adventurer’ who has always made his own decisions, whether that be choosing Inter over the Dutch-haven of AC Milan, or refusing to travel by plane. He had no idols growing up and he’s never been a follower – for Bergkamp, football is all about being unique. Early on, he tells us, ‘My best trainers were the ones who let me do my own thing: Cruyff, Wenger and Guus Hiddink’. Those who tried to dictate his play, on the other hand (namely Louis Van Gaal and Ottavio Bianchi), quickly found themselves with an unhappy player on their hands.

As you’d expect from the writer of the classic Brilliant Orange, many of Winner’s most detailed and illuminating sections here concern matters Dutch. Stillness and Speed begins and ends at Ajax under the watchful eye of the footballing revolutionary Johan Cruyff, with Bergkamp first as a Cup Winners’ Cup-winning school kid and later as the coach of De Toekomst (‘The Future’). In between these bookends, twin chapters ‘Player Power’ and ‘Power Player’ deftly unravel the national team disappointments at Euro 96, World Cup 98 and Euro 2000. As Thierry Henry puts it, ‘That Dutch team with Dennis didn’t win anything – crazy! Too crazy for me.’

Where the book feels surprisingly hollow is in the 130-plus pages on Bergkamp’s 11 years at Arsenal. Abandoning strict chronology, Winner opts for a thematic approach, with chapters on fitness, cheating, leadership and penalties. Detail is substituted for overview. We’re told of ‘The Plan’ that Dennis signed up for but we’re not really told aboutits development, its ebb and flow. Instead of season-by-season analysis, these chapters are dominated by laudatory quote after laudatory quote from the likes of Ian Wright, Tony Adams and Thierry Henry. The surface is more stroked than scratched; Nicolas Anelka, Bergkamp’s strike partner for 2 key seasons (1997-9), is only mentioned once in passing, while Arsenal and Holland teammate Giovanni van Bronckhorst is never mentioned. Instead, a chapter is given over to Bergkamp’s interest in golf. Perplexing, frustrating, but Winner did warn us; a distinctive book for a truly distinctive footballer.

Buy it here