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.

Cruyff

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.

Forever Young

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.

mister

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.

tempany

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.

Hughes

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 Adventures of Darren Huckerby Finn

Maybe you don’t know about me, unless you read Feed the Goat: The Shaun Goater Story, but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr David Clayton, and he told the truth, mainly, but there’s much more to tell. I was quick and I could run with the ball and I did well at Coventry City with Dion Dublin. When Leeds United paid £6million for me, I was rich.

But when you got into the squad you couldn’t go right to playing. First you had to wait for the manager to shake his head at Mark Viduka’s weight, Michael Bridges’ injuries and Alan Smith’s temper. It was deadly dull and I got fidgety. As I sat on the bench, Mr O’Leary would say, ‘Don’t hunch up like that Huckerby’. O’Leary kept pecking at me for not scoring enough goals and it got tiresome. All I wanted was to go somewheres and I warn’t particular about where.

Hucks - Leeds

When I couldn’t stand it no longer, I lit out for Manchester City. Alf-Inge Haaland, he hunted me up and said he was going to start a band of winners, and I might join if I could follow the rules. We had to swear an oath and write our names in blood. It swore everyone to play for the team, and never dribble blindly towards the corner flag; and if anyone was in space, whoever had the ball must pass it to them. Everybody said it was a real beautiful oath, but it had me worried. Then Stuart Pearce says:

‘Here’s Huckerby, he don’t know the offside rule – what you going to do ‘bout him?’

‘Well, hain’t he a striker?’ says Alf-Inge.

‘Yes, he’s a striker, but you can’t never find him onside,’ says Psycho.

They talked it over, and they was going to drop me, because every player must know the offside rule, particularly a striker. Nobody could think of anything to do and I was most ready to cry. So I offered to learn the offside rule and stay onside from time to time.

Everybody said: ‘That’ll do. Huck can come in.’

I made my mark on the paper and collected my things. I went tip-toeing along to the Leeds Central railway station, and sure enough there was Shaun Goater waiting for me.

Now the way that Mr Clayton’s book winds up is this: I fed The Goat and he scored, and so did I, and Man City were champions of the First Division. Old Mr Keegan said I was coming along slow but sure, and doing very satisfactory. I was pretty-well-satisfied with myself too.

Hucks - Man City

But then in the Premier League the old thing commenced again. We had Nicolas Anelka, Robbie Fowler and Jon Macken and I was back on the bench. It was kind of lazy and jolly for a bit, laying off comfortable all day, and no football to play. But how slow the time did drag along after a month. When I came on I couldn’t score a damn thing and I was offside most of the time. We had a mean young midfielder called Joey Barton and he liked to give me a good going-over.

‘Shucks, it ain’t no use to talk to you, Huckerby. You don’t seem to know anything – you’re a perfect sap-head.’

I was six years older and I had an England B cap but that didn’t mean a thing to him. Joey warn’t never in a good humor; that was just his natural self, especially when the liquor took him. I warn’t scared of him worth bothering about but he was always cussing me.

‘You know one season you was caught offside 98 times. You think you’re better’n the First Division, don’t you? I’ll take it out of you.’

I was dog-tired of everyone pecking at the same old problems – my hunchback run, the way I couldn’t never stay on my feet. No-one tried to understand what it was like to be in my shoes. It was dreadful lonesome warming the bench with Kevin Horlock and Carlo Nash.

Mr Keegan sent me on loan to Nottingham Forest and I did ok back in my home town. I felt kind of sore about everything at Man City but I knew it was time to move on for good. Mr Worthington at Norwich City wanted me and that was good enough for me. I just needed to find a way to leave before Joey knew I was gone.

One night, I took my two First Division winners medal and my England B cap and I put them in a suitcase; then I done the same with my signed Shaun Goater shirt, one of Jason Wilcox’s judo black belts and a prototype ‘Dube’ that Dion gave me. It was about dark, now; so I walked down to Manchester Piccadilly, and waited for the first train to Norwich to come.

I was pretty tired when I got to my seat. The first thing I knowed, I was asleep. When the ticket collector woke me up I didn’t know where I was. I set up and looked around, a little scared. Then I remembered. I was free from Joey and free from the Premier League with all its mean linesmen and decent defenders. I knowed I was all right now. I felt powerful lazy and comfortable, like when Mr Keegan left me on the bench for a few games.

When I got to Carrow Road I warn’t feeling very brash. I’d never been to Norfolk and didn’t know nobody there. I catched a glimpse of a man going into the changing room. I went for it, cautious and slow. It was Marc Edworthy!

‘Hello, Marc!’ I says and skipped out.

He ran up and stared at me wild. I was ever so glad to see my old Coventry teammate. I warn’t lonesome now.

Hucks - Norwich 1

It was a mighty nice squad, and a mighty nice stadium, too. I practiced hard every day to get the hang of things, and by-and-by I could do pretty well up front with Paul McVeigh, Leon McKenzie, Matthias Svensson and Iwan Roberts. Mr Worthington said I must quit running offside all the time. I took notice, and done better. We won four games in a row and I even scored a goal. I wanted to win the First Division again but Marc didn’t believe we could go that far. I said come on, we’re better than the Tractor Boys, and West Ham and West Brom. So on we prowled.

‘I wish Dion was here,’ I says to Marc in January. ‘He’d call this an adventure and he’d score goals all day long. And wouldn’t he throw style on it?’

Marc manned the defence and I struck the goals. I judged Mr Keegan would have been proud of me as we went a-booming towards my third First Division title. The Norwich fans loved me and that was a special feeling I must say. They were taken with my style – the big shirts, the beach blonde mullet, the dives in the penalty area.

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Marc had an uncommon level head. He judged that 40 points would fetch us to mid-table in the Premier League and then we’d be out of relegation trouble. Well, after 13 games we didn’t have one win to our name. We were in an awful peck of trouble. The league table made me so sick and scared I couldn’t budge from Ceefax. If you think it ain’t dismal and lonesome down at the bottom, you try it once – you’ll see.

I almost just give up, then. I scored more goals but even signing Dean Ashton warn’t gonna save us. Late one night Marc called me and he started talking wild about how we were relegated already.

‘You been a drinking?’ I says. ‘You’re a tangle-headed old fool, Marc. You did dream it, because there didn’t any of it happen.’

‘We’re still in the Premier League?’

‘Of course we are!’

If we worked hard enough, I told him, we would get out of the zone and be free. We beat Manchester United, Newcastle, Charlton and Birmingham but it warn’t no use in the end. We went down but the Norwich fans said I warn’t to blame. They said I could have a home there as long as I wanted it. I won the Norwich player of the season award and they voted me into their Hall of Fame, too. That was a beautiful night.

Marc was awful disappointed. I said never mind, we’d be back, I reckoned. But Marc went to Mr Worthington’s office and bullyragged him about the relegation. The numskull said things he never should have said, and so he had to quit for Derby County. I was real sorry to see him go.

‘Head up, Huckerby!’ Mr Worthington shouts at me in training.

I didn’t understand. I warn’t so miserable; the First Division was my home, after all.

‘Huckerby, git your head up when you run! That way you might pass to a teammate one time.’

They was tough times for all of us. Then in the middle of the season, Robbie Earnshaw arrived from West Brom. Earnie was tiny, gentle and sweet, like a dove, but they said he was a grown man. Together we scored a nice number of goals but Reading and Sheffield United was miles away at the top. Earnie warn’t at all happy with ninth place but I never said nothing about his days in the Third Division. If I never learn nothing else out of Joey, I learnt that the best way to get along with people is to keep peace.

The new season was started when a voice not twenty-five yards from me, says ‘Is that you, Huckerby? I’d know that hunchback anywheres.’

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It was Dion’s voice – nothing ever sounded so good before. He grabbed me and hugged me, we was so glad to see one another. One thing was dead sure; me, Earnie and Dion would form a merry gang. Against QPR we all scored but the problem was the fools in our defence. Something was a-brewing, for sure. Then they sacked poor old Mr Worthington. We was in relegation trouble for a bit but we escaped thanks to our goals. I won the player of the season award again, and Dion was second. I done found a home where they loved me even if I couldn’t hit double figures no more.

Earnie headed for Derby County and in October we was bottom of the First Division. It made me shiver and so I kneeled down to pray. I knew I was full of goals, full as I could be, but why did they just trickle out from time to time? Why, it was astonishing, I felt as light as a feather, right straight off, and my troubles all gone. I would go to work and steal Norwich out of the relegation zone again.

We warn’t all right and safe until the last game of the season. That day we got too satisfied and we lost 4-1 to Sheffield Wednesday. Deon Burton scored two we played so bad. I scored our goal and the fans they was so proud and joyful. Norwich was free for another season and I had loved the adventure of it. As me and Dion waved goodbye, I was happy and satisfied, like a jug goggling out butter-milk. If I’d a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn’t a tackled it and ain’t agoing to no more. I’ve got to light out for the United States now, because Mr Roeder will have me warming the bench next season and I can’t stand it. I been there before.

THE END. YOURS TRULY, DARREN HUCKERBY FINN

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Football Books 2015

The football season is drawing to a close and the holiday season is just beginning. For those that can’t bear to leave the beautiful game behind, there’s only one solution: beach reading. With the help of the best sports publishers around, we’ve collated the best football books around so you don’t have to…

BackPage Press

Neil White: We’re working with Arena Sport on ‘DIEGO COSTA: The Art of War’, translated and updated from Fran Guillen’s Spanish edition of last year to include the World Cup, Costa’s transfer to Chelsea and this season’s dramas. Due out 16th July, more info here

Diego-Costa

We’re really excited about ‘The Five-a-Side Bible’ which we’re developing with Freight Books and 5-a-side.com for an October release. That’s going to have lots of funny stories from the world of 3G, as well as tips from the best fives players in Britain, a five-a-side bucket list and much more. If you play short-sided football, this is the book you’ve been waiting for.

Around the same time, we should have ‘PUSKAS: Madrid, Magyars and the Amazing Adventures of Football’s Greatest Goalscorer’ done. We’re working with Freight Books on that, and it’s written by Gyorgy Szlossi, who heads up the Puskas Academy in Budapest, founded the Puskas Award with Fifa and remains a close friend of the Puskas family.

Pitch Publishing

Paul Camillin: The first half of 2015 sees a variety of titles being added to Pitch Publishing’s ever-growing football list​, including biographies, autobiographies and club-specific titles.

For those who lament the modern game, and feel somewhere along the way football took a wrong turn, losing touch with fans. The Ugly Game by Martin Calladine is a passionate, funny book of essays, and sets out to put football right by comparing it, often unfavourably, with American football, a sport, perhaps surprisingly, that’s showing how money need not destroy fairness and competition.

Ugly Game

Soccer in Stilettos by Liam Newman is a definitive look at the rise of women’s football, telling the inspirational story of how the female sport has slowly but surely stepped out of the shadow of its male counterpart to become the truly beautiful game that it is today. With the future of the sport looking brighter than ever, how did football finally show sexism the red card?

Of the club titles, one is already proving popular with Leeds United fans, and flying off the shelves. Jon Howe’s The Only Place For Us is the A to Z history of Leeds United’s Elland Road home, revealing the stories behind its past uses, famous features and characters – plus fires, gypsy curses and escaped pantomime horses. Using archive research, insiders’ insights and fascinating photos, Jon Howe retraces the intriguing historical journey of one of Britain’s most iconic football grounds.

Then on the autobiography front we have Moody Blue, the self-told-tale of former Rangers legend Marco Negri and Luggy, the story of journeyman manager Paul Sturrock.

Ockley Books

This Yorkshire-based publisher’s small but finely-crafted football list is one of the best around. Current highlights include Adam Digby’s Juventus: A History in Black and White and Roger Domeneghetti’s From the Back Page to the Front Room: Football’s Journey Through the English Media.

I think the best, however, may be yet to come. It’s pretty rare these days that you hear of a football book and think ‘Wow, why has no-one written about that before?’ The Agony & The Ecstasy: A Comprehensive History of the Play-Offs by Richard Foster is definitely one of the most exciting ideas I’ve heard in a long time. You can read an extract here.

Playoffs

Trinity Mirror Sports Media

Hardback:

Danny Higginbotham Rise of the Underdog, RRP £16.99

Danny Higginbotham has always been honest. What he lacked in natural ability as a footballer, he made up for in raw passion and commitment.

He started his football education under the greatest – Sir Alex Ferguson – at his beloved Manchester United. After a headline-making loan spell in Belgium, he embarked on an eventful career journey, taking in stops at high-flying Derby County, Southampton, Sunderland and Stoke City.

Sharing Premier League dressing rooms and pitches with some big names, he experienced both sides of the modern game – from the gut-wrenching agony of relegation to the champagne moments of reaching Wembley. Along the way, he worked under charismatic bosses like Jim Smith, Harry Redknapp and Roy Keane – who delivered the most bizarre team talk he’s ever heard. At Stoke, he learned about the team-bonding tricks of Tony Pulis.

As honest and whole-hearted as his career on the pitch ‘Rise of the Underdog’ is the entertaining inside story of how an ordinary lad worked his way up the professional ladder, learning the lessons it takes to survive at the highest level of the English game.

Underdog

Paperback:

Sergio Aguero Born To Rise, RRP £8.99

‘A must-read for any football fan’ Daily Mirror

Sergio Aguero is one of the top strikers in world football, but his rise to superstardom hasn’t always been smooth. Born into poverty, his life story Sergio Kun Agüero: Born to Rise is fascinating and a real story of talent, desire and the guidance of good people helping him to overcome adversity.

The book features a foreword from his best friend, Lionel Messi, and includes colourful dressing room revelations about his fellow countryman and other stars he’s encountered on his journey. This is a book every Manchester City fan will want to read, but also any football fan who is fascinated by that elite group of world greats who were touched by destiny and born to rise.

Leon Osman My Autobiography, RRP £8.99

“Fascinating” Liverpool Echo

LEON OSMAN has been at Everton FC since he was ten years old and in that time has witnessed major changes at the club and within football. A fixture in the Blues’ team for the past decade, Osman’s humour and thoughtful nature shines through in his revealing and entertaining autobiography.

Osman provides a unique insight into Moyes – the man and his methods – as well as many of the big personalities he has played alongside, such as Duncan Ferguson, Wayne Rooney, Tim Cahill, Thomas Gravesen, Mikel Arteta and Phil Neville.

Filled with entertaining tales and anecdotes from his life at Everton, Osman’s story is fascinating and inspiring.

Best of the Rest – top 5 new releases

  1. Living on the Volcano: The Secrets of Surviving as a Football Manager by Michael Calvin
  2. Matchdays: The Hidden Story of the Bundesliga by Ronald Reng
  3. Money and Football: A Soccernomics Guide by Stefan Szymanski
  4. Eibar the Brave: The Extraordinary Rise of La Liga’s Smallest Team by Euan McTear
  5. Balotelli: The Remarkable Story Behind the Sensational Headlines by Luca Caioli

Calvin

Best of the Rest – top 5 paperback releases

  1. Thirty-One Nil: On the Road with Football’s Outsiders by James Montague
  2. Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty Kick by Ben Lyttleton
  3. ¡Golazo! : A History of Latin American Football by Andreas Campomar
  4. Louis van Gaal: The Biography by Maarten Meijer
  5. In Search of Duncan Ferguson: The Life and Crimes of a Footballing Enigma by Alan Pattullo

Twelve Yards

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.

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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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