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.

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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Football School


Football School: Where Football Explains the World

Alex Bellos and Ben Lyttleton (with illustrator Spike Gerrell)

Walker Books, 2016

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‘But why do we need to know about _______?’

‘What’s _______ got to do with real life?’

If you can’t fill in the blanks based on the experience of youth, then I worry about your childhood. Whether it’s Science or English, Music or History, there are always school subjects that we find harder than others. What we need is a yellow brick road, an engaging way in to that particular world. Well for young football fans, the wardrobe to Narnia has arrived.

Football School, by Alex Bellos and Ben Lyttleton, offers 18 fun lessons ‘where football explains/rules the world’. The book uses cartoons, trivia, jokes and quizzes à la Horrible Histories but this is far from a cheap rip-off. The authors get the balance just right between the entertaining and the educational. Biology (footballers’ poos), Psychology (taking penalties), Politics (football diplomacy) and PHSE (nature vs nurture) are particular highlights, with only English (football jargon dictionary) and Maths (probability of death while playing football) disappointing slightly.

In trying to fit so much into just over 200 pages, Football School naturally spreads itself a little thin but it’s an excellent and significant gateway resource. For teachers and parents, the book offers lessons and activities that can be adapted and expanded to fit whatever purpose. And for kids 8 years and up, the book provides an accessible, real-world route into some very tricky topics.

Q&A – Matt Gardiner, Manchester Football Writing Festival

The UK literary festival ‘scene’ is booming, with over 350 planned for 2016. They range from village halls to entire towns (Hay-on Wye), and from remote rural settings to big city centres, but do they span the literary genres? The Edinburgh International Book Festival will welcome over 800 ‘writers and thinkers’ next month. Of those, roughly 1% will discuss our favourite pastime, sport: two will discuss athletics, four will discuss cycling, and two will discuss football (former Celtic goalkeeper Packie Bonner and Anthony Cartwright, author of novel ‘Iron Towns’).

No wonder Waterstones Deansgate made the inspired decision to team up with The Football Museum to create a literary festival dedicated solely to the beautiful game. Now in its third year, the Manchester Football Writing Festival continues to go from strength to strength. We caught up with founder Matt Gardiner to look back on the last few years and look forward to the delights of this year’s festival.

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1. Where did the idea for the festival come from? 

Back in 2013/14 Waterstones Deansgate had some great football events with Guillem Balague, Sid Lowe and Jonathan Wilson which had all proved incredibly popular.  That, alongside the launch that year of the London Sports Writing Festival, triggered an idea.  While the London festival covered many different sports I felt a Football festival in one of the world’s true footballing cities seemed to be the way forward and would be something I would personally love to attend.

2. Was it easy to get everyone on board – Waterstones, Football Museum, writers?

Waterstones was pretty easy as it was my idea and I work for them! The Football Museum also very quickly realised the potential of reaching a different audience and we kick started from there.  It has amazed me how enthusiastic writers have been to take part in the festival.  For the first year as soon as I had buy in from the Football Weekly team and The Blizzard I knew we had at least 2 events which would draw a crowd. Both have been back every year since which shows, I hope, how much they have enjoyed coming.

3. What has been your favourite ever event so far?

Difficult choice that! I loved the Sid Lowe & Graham Hunter event in the incredible surroundings of St Ann’s Church in Manchester in year 1 although I spent much of the night worrying about the language (Just the one F-word in the end). Our Manchester nights are always lively and almost impossible to draw to a close. The Mike Calvin event last year with Shaun Derry and Mel Johnson was absolutely fascinating too.
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4. What’s different about this year’s festival/how has the festival changed since that first year?

We have a new partner this year in Hotel Football which is fantastic.  Otherwise it is still very much the same beast as year 1.  Predominantly Twitter driven and hopefully still offering people the chance to meet and talk to their favourite writers and broadcasters.

5. What event are you most looking forward to this year?

I’m very excited to read Jonathan Wilson’s “Angels With Dirty Faces”, so I’m looking forward to that event tremendously.  Our final event this year with Women in Football promises to be incredibly insightful with some very experienced writers/broadcasters sharing their experiences of the world of football journalism.

6. What’s the best football book you’ve read this year so far?

I think that is between Rory Smith’s “Mister” and Oliver Kay’s “Forever Young” both of which are fabulously researched and equally readable.  Expect both to be on prize shortlists this year and next.

Find more details about events here

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Books Round-up: Early 2016

As I hinted back in April, May was a great month for football book releases. Here are my thoughts on two of those titles, plus an earlier gem:

When Football Came Home by Michael Gibbons (Pitch Publishing)

Reading this book ahead of Euro 2016 was like watching Christmas music videos in early December. The tales of Terry Venables, Gazza and co filled me with naïve hope once again that football might indeed come home. It’s a story that many of us are very familiar with but Gibbons gets the content just right. Old favourites like the dentist chair are wheeled out once again, alongside less famous details. England’s matches are explored in detail but not too much detail and the myths surrounding the team’s performances are neatly dispelled. ‘Euro 96 became a sugar-coated memory…The 4-1 win over the Netherlands was the high point, but they could easily have gone into that game under the pressure of having two points or less.’

When Football Came Home

The cultural backdrop of Tony Blair, Oasis, Blur and Northern Ireland is neatly tied in without taking the focus away from the boozy brilliance of the football itself. In terms of tone, the book reaches for Pete Davies’ witty reportage in All Played Out and gets close. It’s a very enjoyable whizz down memory lane. Now that England’s tournament is over and in such spectacularly underwhelming fashion, When Football Came Home reads like beautiful chaos, which beats limp resignation any day.

Football by Jean-Philippe Toussaint (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

First of all, Fitzcarraldo Editions make truly gorgeous books and this is no exception. Now for the ‘but’. To start a book with ‘This is a book that no one will like, not intellectuals, who aren’t interested in football, or football-lovers, who will find it too intellectual’ is a very bold move. It takes a perceived divide and attempts to widen it. Having finished the book, I can agree with the author but not for the reason offered. Football-lovers won’t like this book because Toussaint isn’t much of a football fan and this book isn’t really about football.

Football Toussaint

Instead, Football is a book about ‘melancholy, time and childhood’ that happens to touch on the beautiful game from time to time. And when it does, it is dismissive and offensive. There is some eloquent, philosophical writing in the book, especially ‘Zidane’s Melancholy’, but take the following statements: ‘the football of adults leaves me cold’, ‘in Europe, most football supporters are male, violent, racist, full of beer or wine’, and ‘I’m starting to get a bit fed up with football. I prefer poetry’. For Toussaint, it is ‘vulgar, coarse and perishable matter’. In my experience, football fans welcome intellectual writing that takes a deep and critical look at the sport. Too much of this, on the other hand, is shallow and offensive.

Forever Young by Oliver Kay (Quercus)

I know it’s early to talk about the Best of 2016 but I’ll be surprised if many books this year can compete with this exceptional story of ‘football’s lost genius’, Adrian Doherty. Doherty was an Irish wing wizard some thought was better than Ryan Giggs, who loved poetry and music as much as, if not more than, football. But just as he was on the verge of the Manchester United first team, Doherty’s career was tragically ended by injury.

Forever Young

Kay narrates this extraordinary tale with warmth and care, offering fascinating detail about Manchester United’s youth team during the late 1980s-early 1990s revival, as well as the treatment of injuries during this time. Kay deserves real credit for his brave, investigative style; no stone is left unturned and he refuses to cower in the long shadows cast by Manchester United’s modern empire.

If there must be a criticism, mine would be that at over 400 pages, the book is a little long. In trying to include so many different player testimonies, Forever Young becomes repetitive in its conclusions: Doherty was an incredible and unique talent, an outsider that everyone liked but few really knew. But ultimately, like the player himself, Forever Young is an extremely welcome breath of fresh, eccentric air.