Above Head Height

Above Head Height: A Five-a-side Life

James Brown

Quercus, 2017

above-head-height

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.

Four Football Books to Read in Early 2017

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

above-head-height

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)

socrates

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)

solano

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.

Chris Bruce interview – The Five-a-Side Bible

With Christmas fast approaching, the perfect football gift book has arrived just in time. The Five-a-Side Bible is a must for all ‘ballers in your life, young and old. I caught up with author Chris Bruce to discuss the inspiration, the features and the fun.

Q1. You made the brilliant decision to start 5-a-side.com back in 2013. Was it a long-term plan and where did it come from? Was it an instant hit?

I’d love to be able to say that it was always my vision to create 5-a-side.com as it is today and eventually release a book but I’m afraid I’d be lying. The truth is that I love 5-a-side: the game its self, the culture, trying to improve at it. So back in 2013 I thought it would be a fun idea to start writing about it, and share my thoughts on the internet. It was really just a release for me back then.

For a long time there was hardly anybody reading it at all but I didn’t care. It’s a passion not a business, and I was just enjoying writing about the sport I love. Gradually over the months people started finding the site and giving me feedback on it, which was really nice and spurred me on to write more. It turns out that there are a lot of people who like reading about 5-a-side – no surprise as there are millions who play it – and it has been great to connect with people who all share that enthusiasm for the game.

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Q2. At what point did you start to think ‘You know what, we could make a great book out of this’?

Truthfully, that thought hadn’t occurred to me until the publishers, BackPage Press, got in contact and convinced me of the potential of it. Through the website I had stumbled across a part of the football community that wasn’t well catered for but BackPage Press were the ones who saw the potential for making a great book out of it. They had their finger on the pulse and had seen how popular the game had become, so they contacted me and we began talking about what we could produce.

Within about an hour of brainstorming we had come up with so many brilliant ideas of what we could put in the book.  It’s at that point that I just thought: wow, this could be something great.

Q3. There are so many brilliant features and anecdotes in the book but I think my favourite is ’15 Players You Always See At 5-a-side’. Which type of player would you say you are? And what’s your favourite feature of the book?

I’m now 34, and I can see myself starting to become ‘the veteran’. In the book, we describe that character as the one who knows all the tricks on both sides of the law, the sort of sneaky guy who knows what he’s doing and is rarely beaten. He’s also the one who starts to look a bit vulnerable in the last 20 minutes, when he employs the dark arts to stay on top of the whippersnappers.

I like to think that my use of the ‘dark arts’ is kept to an absolute minimum, but there’s no doubt that a bit of know-how can be crucial in 5-a-side.

It’s so hard to pick a favorite feature of the book – there were so many that were fun to work on. I like the interview we did with Matt Le Tissier; the reasons for not turning up to 5-a-side (a constant bugbear for any organiser); the best collection of 5-a-side team names (including the likes of ‘Murder on Zidane’s floor’ and ‘the Neville Wears Prada’); and some cracking real-life stories of crazy occurrences and people losing their temper.

Q4. In with all of the fun, there’s plenty of useful advice, especially in terms of tactics, fitness and nutrition. In 5-a-side I’ve always found these to be ignored elements but have they been really popular parts of the website? And is that a sign of the game being taken more and more seriously?

One of the beauties of 5-a-side is how informal it is. People, regardless of ability, body shape, or sanity, just turn up and enjoy a game with their mates. It’s a world away from professional football. Part of the 5-a-side culture seems to be that you don’t want to be seen taking the game particularly seriously.

But on the other hand people want to be good at it. And to be good at it there are things you need to know, and ways you need to prepare. 5-a-side.com has been sharing these tips for a while now and you’d be surprised at how many people are using them to improve their game. The book contains the best of those tips: the things that will make you a better player and improve your playing experience without going over the top. It’s all practical advice that you can apply.

Q5. One element I wasn’t necessarily expecting in the book was the history of the UK ‘movement’ and the interviews with pioneers like Sof. Did that take a lot of research or was that background something that you were already familiar with?

Since starting the site in 2013 I got to know quite a few of those guys. There’s a really interesting culture that has developed and some wonderful players have graced the 5-a-side pitches of this country over the years. The very best of the players can do some mesmerising things with the ball, which is all the more startling when you consider that they’re not professional players.

In the book I wanted to talk to a few of them about what makes them so good, and what their stories were. It’s really intriguing to hear the journeys some of them have been on in the world of football. Hopefully people will find those sections an interesting read – especially since I managed to persuade these 5-a-side legends to share some of their tips.

Q6. When you’re putting together a book like this, I imagine it takes a lot of collaboration with a lot of people. Did you have a team to work with? How was it working with BackPage Press?

The team has comprised of myself, plus the publishers BackPage Press (in particular Martin and Neil) – not even enough to put out a 5-a-side team between us. It’s remarkable how much we got through in such a short space of time.

BackPage have been great to work with. It really helped that they play 5-a-side themselves and understood the target audience, so when we collaborated on it we all knew what we were talking about. The experience they brought as journalists as well as the enthusiasm they brought as regular guys who play the game was a great combination. It really was a pleasure to work on it with them and I learned a lot in the process.

Q7. The book looks great; it’s the perfect giftbook size with great colour images throughout. Was the Christmas present-buying market always the intention here? After all, more people play 5-a-side than any other type of football and I for one will be buying plenty of copies for friends and family!

It’s the sort of book that you can dip in and out of. It’s entertaining and goes at a nice pace so I think it will be ideal as a gift for anyone who plays 5-a-side. And yes, there are lots of people that play, so even if a small proportion of them buy it the book should do well. Having a broad appeal across the spectrum of 5-a-side players was something we always wanted to achieve.

Q8. Were there any bits that you were sad to leave out? Will these be appearing in The 5-a-side Bible 2?

With a project like this you could go on forever, constantly adding new things to it. When we had to draw a line and stop I was full of thoughts of other things we could have done. But stepping back and looking at what we have managed to produce, I’m really happy with the way it has turned out.

Of course, it would be nice to one day get around to doing some more of the things we wanted to – but as you say, that’s for the 5-a-side Bible 2!

To buy The Five-a-Side Bible click here

Visit 5-a-side.com for the latest tactics, tips and anecdotes from the world of five-a-side.