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.

Promised Land

The Football Book Calendar – August to November 2016

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August

Angels With Dirty Faces: The Footballing History of Argentina – Jonathan Wilson

The Roar of the Lionesses: Women’s Football in England – Carrie Dunn

Ring of Fire: Liverpool into the 21st century: The Players’ Stories – Simon Hughes

Hope – Hope Powell

 

September

A Yorkshire Tragedy: The Rise and Fall of a Sporting Powerhouse – Anthony Clavane

The Bottom Corner: A Season with the Dreamers of Non-League Football – Nige Tassell

No Nonsense: The Autobiography – Joey Barton

Fearless: The Amazing Underdog Story of Leicester City, the Greatest Miracle in Sports History – Jonathan Northcroft

Bayern: Creating a Global Superclub – Uli Hesse

The Wenger Revolution: Twenty Years of Arsenal – Amy Lawrence

The Manager – Ron Atkinson

Martial: The Making of Manchester United’s New Teenage Superstar – Luca Caioli

 

October

My Turn: The Autobiography – Johan Cruyff

Jamie Vardy: From Nowhere, My Story – Jamie Vardy

Saturday, 3pm: 50 Eternal Delights of Modern Football – Daniel Gray

Tunnel of Love – Martin Hardy

The Man in the Middle: The Autobiography of the World Cup Final Referee – Howard Webb

The Football Ramble – Marcus Speller, Luke Aaron Moore, Pete Donaldson and Jim Campbell

 

November

Pep Guardiola: The Evolution – Martí Perarnau

The Illustrated History of Football – David Squires

Hail, Claudio!: The Man, the Manager, the Miracle – Gabriele Marcotti

Home and Away: Writing the Beautiful Game –  Karl Ove Knausgaard and Fredrik Ekelund

O, Louis

O, Louis: In Search of Louis Van Gaal

By Hugo Borst

Yellow Jersey Press, 2014

Van GaalWhen Louis Van Gaal agreed to become the next manager of Manchester United, he sparked yet another war. This time, however, it was literary, a war of words written on the page rather than words spoken at a press conference. No offence meant to Maartin Meijer’s Louis Van Gaal: The Biography, but of the two translations released in 2014, Hugo Borst’s O, Louis was certainly the more intriguing. The Yellow Jersey Press seal of approval certainly helped, as did the sinister cover photo decorated with the Dutch manager’s own quotes.

So what exactly is O, Louis? Well, it’s certainly a strange one. 32 pages in and Borst makes an announcement; ‘You might be expecting this to be chronological…This is not a biography.’ Instead, the book turns out to be a bizarre, Woody Allen-esque exploration of one man’s obsession, and the subject of that obsession. As such, it’s part biography, part autobiography, part ‘tribute’. ‘Some of this book is about me’, Borst admits. ‘That’s inevitable given that my obsession with Louis Van Gaal has taken on grotesque proportions.’

The pride, the candour, the loyalty, the arrogance, the suspicion, the hidden warmth, the outbursts of righteous indignation – the former Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager is certainly an engrossing character, with far more enemies than he has friends, especially among the media. In short, sharp, non-sequential bursts, O, Louis presents each period of Van Gaal’s career in football, as well as each of the parts that make up his complex character. The prose is witty, analytical and frank, representative of the more daring approach of the Dutch football press. It’s hard to imagine a British journalist suggesting that Sir Alex Ferguson had ‘all the mobility of a slug on sandpaper’ and living to tell the tale.

‘Objectivity has never been my strong point’, Borst warns the reader, but for the most part, that statement does him a disservice. His own narrative may be somewhat irrational but he’s the first to admit Van Gaal’s split personality; the bad and the good, ‘a crazed loon and a consummate professional sharing the same body’. Borst’s own views are presented alongside media transcripts and a series of interviews with less biased authorities. His choice of interviewees – including a novelist, a priest, a psychiatrist and a spin doctor – is unexpected but there’s plenty of intellectual insight on offer. Theatre director Luk Perceval, for example, is fascinated by Van Gaal’s ‘blend of spiritual leader and prima donna.’

The problem with O, Louis is that the obsession gets tiresome, as obsessions always do. There’s only so much desperate discussion of Van Gaal’s poor communication skills and father-complex that one can take before the question begged is, ‘So what?’ 140 pages build up to the revelation of why Borst and Van Gaal have fallen out and it’s an anti-climax of petty proportions. Comedian Theo Massen quite rightly tells Borst that he shouldn’t expect Van Gaal ‘to be a good coach and to act more or less like a normal human being’. However, that doesn’t stop him from trying to pin every possible psychological condition on Louis – narcissistic personality disorder, schizophrenia, autism. Thankfully, psychiatrist Bram Brakker is on hand to speak some sense: ‘Putting any label on a colourful character like him would be to sell him short.’

As it must, the book’s journey ends with a resolution of sorts following Holland’s surprising performance at the 2014 World Cup. At the beginning of the book, Borst says ‘There are few things I want more in life than to understand Louis.’ By the end, he is arguably no closer to understanding Van Gaal but what he does understand is that it’s time to let go. O, Louis is a funny, often frustrating, but ultimately unique and rewarding look at a top manager’s mindset. Now for LVG vs Mourinho, Part Two…

Buy it here

Seven Features of a Truly Memorable Match

Considering this is a blog about football books, I feel I’ve been remarkably restrained about discussing Fever Pitch. Until now that is. In his landmark work, Nick Hornby picks out what he sees as the ‘Seven Features of a Truly Memorable Match’. They are:

  1. Goals
  2. Outrageously bad refereeing decisions
  3. A noisy crowd
  4. Rain, a greasy surface, etc.
  5. Opposition misses a penalty
  6. Member of opposition team receives a red card
  7. Some kind of ‘disgraceful incident’

22 years on, I’ve enlisted the very generous help of my favourite sports writers and novelists to put together an alternative list.

1. The diva tantrum
By Nick Quantrill, author of the Joe Geraghty crime novels, “Broken Dreams”, “The Late Greats” and “The Crooked Beat”

Hull City 0-0 QPR, 29th January 2011

Laughs at Hull City matches during 2010/2011 were in short supply. Freshly relegated from the Premier League and facing financial meltdown, the club was undergoing rapid change with faded showman, Phil Brown, replaced by the Nigel Pearson’s dour pragmatism.

QPR arrived at the KC Stadium as champions-elect, and with star man, Adel Taarabt, in fine form. The game itself followed the established pattern of a lot of huff with little skill, but all eyes remained firmly on Taarabt. Starting out wide, he struggled to make an impact on the game as two well-organised banks of four hurried and hassled him with vigour and energy.

Waving his arms theatrically in the air when a pass wasn’t delivered on a plate into his feet, and seemingly taking offence at every possible opportunity, Taarabt’s every reaction provoked cheers from a home support sensing some sport to be had from enquiring as to where his dummy had gone. Electing to turn his back on the game and simply walk up and down the touchline, taking no further part in proceedings, Taarabt upped the ante, slowly heading across the pitch in the direction of the bench, signalling that he’d simply had enough for the day and wanted to be substituted.

Throwing his gloves to the floor only served to bring more howls of laughter from the home support, but any suggestion he was carrying an injury was banished when he showed a sudden interest in taking a free kick on the edge of the area. After jostling with his own teammates and receiving a warning for his actions from the referee, he hilariously slammed the ball into Row Z before the half-time whistle finally put him out of his misery.

Post-match, a preening Neil Warnock, pumped full of self-interest and misplaced fury, bizarrely placed the blame squarely at the feet of the home support for antagonising his star man. Nice try, Mr Warnock, but for all the laughs it provided, a quite unique and incredible tantrum from a player whose career is unlikely to match the heights he imagines for himself in his own head.

Watch footage here

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2. The mild pitch invasion
By Anthony Clavane, sportswriter for the Sunday Mirror and author of Promised Land: A Northern Love Story and Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?

Leeds 1-2 West Brom, 17 April 1971

Leeds United lost the title to Arsenal by a single point in the 1970-71 season. This was blamed on a referee called Ray Tinkler, who failed to spot Colin Suggett being about 15 yards offside before Jeff Astle tapped in the West Brom winner in a 2-1 win for the Baggies at Elland Road.

I’ll never forget the Leeds manager Don Revie shaking his head in disbelief and looking up to the sky, before imploring the linesman to put right the wrong and get Tinkler to change his mind. A few fans, several of whom were middle aged, invaded the pitch, which led to Leeds having to play their first four matches of the following campaign away from their fortress. In the post-match interview the Don refused to condemn the invasion. He said a whole season’s graft had been undermined by one terrible decision. His interviewer, the brilliant Barry Davies, appeared to sympathise. That night, on Match of the Day, Davies screamed: ‘Leeds will go mad, and they have every justification for going mad! Don Revie, a sickened man. Just look at him, looking at the heavens in disgust!

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3. The unlikely goal from a club stalwart
By Gareth R. Roberts, author of That Immortal Jukebox Sensation and What Ever Happened to Billy Parks?

Liverpool 2-1 Borussia Monchengladbach, May 25 1977

This was the greatest season in Liverpool’s history. This was the year when every obsessive minute, lovingly employed by first Bill Shankly, and then Bob Paisley, came to fruition; this was the season when Liverpool threatened to sweep all before them. By the first week of May, incredibly, they were still in the race for a unique and amazing treble: the League, the FA Cup and the European Cup.

The League was won after a goalless draw with West Ham at Upton Park, leaving Liverpool facing two finals in a week: first up, Man United at Wembley – the old Lancastrian enemy, an epic final in brilliant sunshine on a pitch burned yellow by a spring heatwave. Sadly for Liverpool fans, it was United who lifted the Cup after the flukiest of winners off Jimmy Greenhoff’s, not insubstantial, backside.

The challenge for Bob Paisley’s men was to physically and emotionally lift themselves to face Monchengladbach in Rome three days later. The Germans were a force in European football with the likes of Vogts, Heynkes, Stielike, Bonhof and the wonderful Dane Allan Simonsen.

Liverpool, though, had a couple of cards up their sleeves – one, was the incredible support of thousands of Scousers. The stories of Liverpudlians using every ruse going and every mode of transport possible to get to Rome are legendary.  The other card they had was an indomitable spirit, and no-one personified this spirit more than Tommy Smith.

Smith, a Liverpool man born and bred, had been at the club as a schoolboy when Bill Shankly arrived and started to create the legend. Smith had played in every position, and fulfilled every role at Anfield. He was so hard that they said that he wasn’t born, he was quarried. He had a fearsome reputation during a time when an absence of cameras and more lax refereeing meant that footballers could sort things out in a more cynical way. That night, May 27th 1977, was to have been Tommy’s 600th and last game, the Anfield Iron was hanging up his boots to slide into the oblivion of retirement. Of course, no one who had ever watched him play expected him to go gently into that good night, not that night, no, the sentiment of the occasion would have no effect on him, he would be as committed as he was in his previous 599 appearances; but no one expected him to score a goal either, because, with the exception of a handful of penalties, one thing Tommy Smith wasn’t renowned for, was his goalscoring. In his 599 appearances he had scored less than twenty goals.

The match kicked off, Liverpool were nervous; Simonsen looked dangerous, quick and elusive. Clemence had to dive to his right to save from Heynkes then Bonhof hit the post, before the wonderful McDermott put the reds ahead with a crisp shot after a perfect run into the area. The lead looked tenuous and sure enough Simonsen sneaked between a couple of defenders to level in the second half.  Now Monchengladbach were in the ascendency, Bonhof and Stielike were starting to exert their silken influence in the midfield – Heynkes was looking increasingly dangerous. This was the period when games are won and lost, this was the time when the pendulum of pressure can swing either way. Only one team can win a cup, and the Germans were looking the more likely.

Then Liverpool won a corner on the left, Steve Heighway lined the ball up and raised his arm. Smith and Hughes made their way into the penalty area. The ball sailed towards the six yard box. The ball travelled through the air. The ball. Heading on its way to assist in a moment of immortality. Smith rose. He leapt like he’d never leapt before. He timed his jump perfectly, he met the ball like the greatest centre forward that ever lived, like Lofthouse or Mortensen or Law and put the ball into the net. What a moment. What a career. An unexpected goal from a true hero.

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4. The goal celebration
By Matt Oldfield, editor of OfPitchandPage

Chelsea 1-0 Middlesbrough, 21st August 1996

With Hoddle taking over from Venables as England boss, The Blues decided to promote Ruud Gullit to player-manager. What the dreadlocked Dutch legend lacked in managerial experience, he made up for in continental connections. Frank Leboeuf, Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Di Matteo were the first to arrive; what these medal-winning internationals thought of their new teammates (Frank Sinclair, Andy Myers, Eddie Newton) one can only imagine. It was a unique blend, and expectations were high. A dull 0-0 away at Southampton was hardly the dream start we were looking for, and things weren’t looking much better back at The Bridge. Chelsea were heading towards another goalless draw, struggling to break down a Middlesbrough side sporting a few new stars of their own in Brazilian midfielder Emerson and Vialli’s former Juve strike partner Fabrizio Ravanelli.

With 85 minutes gone, Di Matteo, making his home debut, receives the ball about thirty yards from goal, dead centre, one defender in front, one fast approaching behind. With calm assurance, the Italian works an inch of space and rockets a drive into the bottom left corner. An excellent, pinpoint finish, but that’s only half the story. In the resulting frenzy, Di Matteo lies nonchalantly on the grass with his left arm pointing up at the sky. Captain Dennis Wise follows his example, as do Jody Morris and Dan Petrescu. Leboeuf throws himself down next to them, limbs spread like a starfish, and defensive partner Erland Johnsen crouches behind him, again with that left hand pointing. It was a team celebration like no other; the revolution had begun. Two months later, Gullit signed Gianfranco Zola. The rest is history.

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5. The non-celebration
By Martin Greig, one half of BackPage Press and author of Road to Lisbon and The Zen of Naka: The Journey of a Japanese Genius

Celtic 1-1 Spartak Moscow (Celtic win 4-3 on penalties), 29th August 2007

There is a photograph of the Celtic players seconds after they have secured qualification for the group stages of the Champions League against Spartak Moscow at Celtic Park. Artur Boruc has just saved Maksym Kalynychenko’s penalty in the shoot-out, having earlier kept out Egor Titov’s. Lined up in a row across the halfway line, they have all started to run towards the Polish goalkeeper to celebrate. When his Celtic team-mates reach Boruc, there is a mass pile-on involving all the players and coaching staff. Well, not quite all of them. Shunsuke Nakamura – who had missed a penalty in the shootout and three chances during extra-time – smiles briefly then walks straight off the park with his head bowed.

Afterwards, Nakamura said: “I did not celebrate with the other players at full-time. I was really disappointed with myself because I missed so many chances during the game. I missed three in as many minutes. I sat and thought about what happened and what I had done.”

The concept of group responsibility is huge in Japan. From a young age, Japanese are indoctrinated with the idea that their group, whether it be a corporate organisation or football team, even a political party, is of paramount importance. Group responsibility dictates that an individual feels worse about damaging their group and colleagues than they do about the personal impact it will have on them.

In British football, a player who refuses to celebrate after scoring against a former club achieves respect. That night, Nakamura took the ‘non-celebration’ to new levels.

Naka

6. The inexplicable defeat
By David Winner, author of Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football, Those Feet: A Sensual History of English Football, Stillness and Speed: Dennis Bergkamp and #2Sides: Rio Ferdinand

Holland 1-2 West Germany, 7th July 1974

The 1974 World Cup Final, where Holland lost after taking the lead in the first bloody minute! It was two minutes before a German even touched the ball and the Dutch still lost! 40 years on and I’m not over it at all. I still replay scenes from that match. Cruyff and co. never won a World Cup and it gnaws away. If they had, they’d probably have won two or three because they’d have had that habit of winning. The ‘beautiful losing’ started that afternoon. Previously, they were unstoppable like their direct successors, the recent Spain and Barcelona sides. But that Dutch team never recovered. Years later when I met the players, they’d speak very calmly about everything else in their careers but when they got to that game, it was like hitting a wall. It was a tragedy and you didn’t need to be Dutch to feel it; even some Germans weren’t that thrilled.

I’m also old enough to remember the shock and grief surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy. I made the comparison in a speech I gave in Holland at the Johan Cruyff University 10 years ago and I joked about my ‘quite frankly unforgivable bad taste in mixing up a moment of genuine trauma and national tragedy with the mere shooting of a politician’. I felt very bad for saying it but I can honestly say that the Dutch defeat has had more of an impact on me over the years. I still feel it even now.

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7. The “couldn’t have scripted it better” ending
By Tom Oldfield, author of Cristiano Ronaldo: The £80 Million Man, Nadal: The Biography and Arsene Wenger: The Unauthorised Biography of Le Professeur

Southampton 3-2 Arsenal, 19th May 2001

It was with mixed feelings that Southampton were bringing down the curtain on 103 memorable years at The Dell. Moving to a sparkly new 32,000-seater stadium represented an important step forward for the club but The Dell had become a huge part of Southampton’s identity over the years (and, at times, a trump card in avoiding relegation). It just added to the occasion that the visitors were a star-studded Arsenal side featuring Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Vieira.

It was already an emotionally-charged afternoon – and then, with 17 minutes to go, Southampton manager Stuart Gray cranked the atmosphere up another notch by bringing on substitute Matt Le Tissier, the man nicknamed “Le God”, who had saved so many seasons for Saints over the years with moments of genius, scoring 208 goals along the way. Bringing him off the bench seemed like a nice chance for the fans to show their appreciation.

But, with the game heading for a 2-2 draw, Le Tissier had one more trick up his sleeve. In the 89th minute, a long ball bounced enticingly just inside the penalty area and the Southampton number 7 swivelled to smash a left-footed half-volley into the top corner. Cue pandemonium at The Dell. When the final whistle sounded minutes later, Southampton fans completed an unforgettable day with a joyous pitch invasion. They could not have scripted it better. The Dell would soon be gone, but the memories would live on.

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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.

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