Richard Foster Interview

Paul Dickov, Dean Windass, Clive Mendonca – you’ve gotta love the Football League play-offs. Richard Foster loves them so much that he’s written a very good book about them – The Agony & the Ecstasy (Ockley Books, 2015). The origins, the stats, the winners and the losers – they’re all there and more. I caught up with the Guardian journalist to talk all things play-offs.

Agony

1. At what stage did you decide to write the book and how did you approach Ockley about it?

I actually had the original idea about ten years ago. I had always been intrigued by the Play-Offs and following initial research was amazed that there was no book dedicated to telling the story behind them and so the journey started.

Having just finished my first book, The A-Z of Football Hates I had an offer from that publisher for the Play-Offs history but was introduced to Ockley by another author. I was impressed by Dave Hartrick’s enthusiasm, knowledge and most importantly, his emphasis on the quality of the writing.

2. What was the hardest part of the writing process?

Firstly, having written a fair chunk, around 20,000 words, I had my Mac stolen and stupidly hadn’t backed it up so that was a major setback. I could not go back to writing it for a year or two, as it was too painful. So that was a tough lesson learned – always back up your work.

Secondly, writing a history is a tough challenge as every year things change and I toyed with the structure for ages. The biggest decision was whether to go down the strictly chronological route or a thematic approach, in the end it turned into a mixture of the two.

Finally, the bane of every writer’s life is proofreading.  We all recognise it has to be done and it has to be done thoroughly but this book actually was proofread by three different people so by the end, I wanted to scream.

3. There are lots of great tables, stats and infographics throughout the book. Was that the plan from the outset?

I must admit that I am a sucker for stats and I had always thought that a dedicated Play-Offs table would be a good idea. But it did take a lot of toing and froing between Dave Hartrick and myself to come up with the final formula and, as a Brighton fan, he was not especially enamoured by the idea of Palace being the top Play-Offs team.

The infographics are the work of design genius, Mick Kinlan, who did an amazing job transforming all the facts that I dug out about each and every club that have competed in the Play-Offs into such a visual feast. My personal favourite is the Bristol clubs being linked by the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Class.

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4. There are lots of insightful contributions from player, managers and fans. Was it hard work collecting these or were people very eager to discuss the play-offs?

Almost universally everyone I approached was more than willing to be interviewed about the Play-Offs and could recall the minute details of their experiences, which convinced me that this was a worthy topic for a book. There was one manager, who shall remain nameless, who asked for money to be interviewed, suffice to say, he is not included in the book.

5. Putting aside your beloved Palace, what is your favourite play-off memory?

There are so many to choose from but as a neutral I would have to say that the Huddersfield Town Sheffield United penalty shoot-out in 2012 League One Final takes some beating. Uniquely, all twenty-two players took a penalty and the last one by Steve Simonsen was perhaps the most inglorious failure and dramatic and heart-breaking ending of them all.

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6. What are your predictions for 1-6 in the Championship this season and who do you think will win the play-offs?

Middlesbrough, Hull, Burnley, Brighton, Sheffield Wednesday and Ipswich. Fate decrees that Brighton will win the Play-Offs this year as consolation to my publisher for having to stomach Palace topping that Play-Offs table.

7. Would you be in favour of a Premier League play-off for the fourth Champions League spot?

I am with Sir Alex Ferguson on this one, which is not a phrase I use that often. I think it would be a little too artificial and considering the bleating that goes on about too many fixtures for the top clubs this would add fuel to the fire.

 I like the fact that the Play-Offs give the Football League clubs the stage upon which to showcase the excitement and drama of their season finale. All eyes are focused on the lower divisions for those Finals and that is a good thing that should be maintained.

You can buy The Agony and the Ecstasy here

Of Pitch & Page review of The Agony and the Ecstasy coming soon in TERRACE magazine

Living on the Volcano

Living on the Volcano: The Secrets of Surviving as a Football Manager

By Michael Calvin

Century, 2015

Arguably the greatest asset of Michael Calvin’s previous, award-winning book The Nowhere Men was its human insight into a shadowy, under-appreciated world. The trials and tribulations of scouting were vividly portrayed through interviews with figures unaccustomed to the limelight. This was always going to be the biggest challenge for his latest book, Living on the Volcano: The Secrets of Surviving as a Football Manager. As Calvin admits in the acknowledgements, ‘football managers are categorised by the profundity of their pronouncements.’

Living on the Volcano takes the same structural approach as The Nowhere Men: a broad range of case studies (26 at the author’s count), where a quiet, objective narrative style prioritises the words of the subjects themselves. These range from ‘veterans’ Ian Holloway and Aidy Boothroyd to bright young things Garry Monk and Eddie Howe; from League Two survivors to Premier League personalities. Even cutting through the bluster of the likes of Alan Pardew and Brendan Rodgers, there is honest insight to be found throughout.

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‘When we piece together the jigsaw of what makes a successful manager, it contains shards of bone, scraps of sinew and slithers of grey matter.’ As Calvin’s words neatly summarise, no two managers’ stories, situations or approaches are exactly alike; some have expensive technology at their fingertips and swear by it, some pride themselves on a persona of self-belief, and others have little more to work with than old-fashioned man-management.

However, what Living on the Volcano does so brilliantly, is pick up the recurring threads. The ‘band of brothers’ mentality that emerges is built on a mutual world of uncertainty, frustration, and ‘recurrent rejection and renewal’. Each chapter is cleverly connected to the next to reflect the fluid nature of the managerial merry-go-round. The importance of father figures is clear, whether that be mentors within the game or personal heroes outside of it. In such a pressurised profession, the support network is key, as is maintaining perspective. ‘All right, we all want to win, and we might lose our job, but there are a lot of worse things in the world,’ Wolves manager Kenny Jackett stresses.

And whether they’re discussing neuro-linguistics or ‘developing the person and the player’, all managers are trying to create the best environment to nurture talent. Rodgers sees himself as ‘a welfare officer’, former Brentford boss Mark Warburton talks of ‘handling the hunger and the anger’ and Walsall manager Dean Smith describes ‘the natural sensitivities of human beings’. Within each squad, there are a range of character types to understand and get through to. It is this emotional angle that emerges as every manager’s number one challenge, whether they’re fighting for a Champions League spot or fending off relegation.

As a series of individual portraits, Living on the Volcano may seem like a book to dip in and out of. However, in doing so, there’s a danger of missing the power of the overall narrative. Bookended by former Torquay manager Martin Ling’s emotional story, this is a book about people and what it takes to do their intoxicating and exhausting job. Just as with The Nowhere Men, Calvin gets to the personal core of an impersonal industry, arguing for empathy with these ‘Poundland prophets’ and their ‘desperate ambition, absurd pretension and ritual sacrifice’. Living on the Volcano might not make the job any easier, but it should make you give your manager a little more time.

Buy it here

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.’

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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.’

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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.

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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.

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