On The Brink

On The Brink: A Journey Through English Football’s North West

By Simon Hughes

deCoubertin Books, 2017

On The Brink

‘I love being in a region where everything smells like football,’ Jürgen Klopp says in On The Brink. The Liverpool manager is talking about Merseyside but the sentiment can be applied to the whole North West, the subject of Simon Hughes’ brilliant new book.

The project is an ambitious one. Michael Walker’s Up There focused largely on the North East’s Big Three (Middlesbrough, Newcastle United and Sunderland), while Anthony Clavane’s A Yorkshire Tragedy looked at 8 sporting powerhouses in the region. On The Brink ups the ante, by aiming to give equal coverage to 22 football clubs, from Liverpool right through to Barrow-in-Furness. Somehow, Hughes manages to cover the key geographical, political, historical and football points in tight 15-page sections. It’s impressive to say the least.

What On The Brink lacks in depth, it makes up for in characters. As he has shown with his Liverpool Players’ Stories series, Hughes is an excellent interviewer. He picks interesting people and then gives them the stage. ‘Jimmy and James are talking between themselves now,’ he says in the Accrington Stanley chapter. ‘I am listening.’ His experts range from current club chairmen like Preston North End’s Peter Risdale to old club managers like Oldham Athletic’s Joe Royle.

The anthology approach of On The Brink works to highlight the common experiences. Some struggles, like the rise of social media and the Premier League, feel more universal but some feel more North West-specific. Themes of isolation, suffering, spirit and scepticism recur again and again. With the exceptions of Liverpool and Manchester, these are football communities battling to stay relevant.

At one point, Hughes asks, ‘How does a football club exist in a place where there has been years of economic decline, where the possibility of regeneration was snuffed out by the blow of recession?’ He is talking about Morecambe but again, the sentiment can be applied to much of the region. On The Brink isn’t the most uplifting book you’ll read this year but it offers a fascinating survey of north-west life and football in the 21st century.

Four Football Books to Read in Early 2017

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

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In December 2015, former NME and GQ journalist James Brown wrote a very moving tribute to one of his teammates who passed away. The article struck a real nerve with the ever-growing five-a-side fraternity and this book will surely expand on the weird and wonderful camaraderie that exists between people who only meet for an hour every week. Novelist Tony Parsons has gone so far as to call it ‘The Fever Pitch of five-a-side’.

2. Shades of Blue: My Life in Football and the Shadow Within by David White and Joanne Lake (Michael O’Mara, Feb 2017)

David White played for Manchester City for eight years, between 1985 and 1993. He’s always been a club legend but in the last few months, he’s entered the national spotlight as one of the first brave men to go public about sexual abuse at the hands of former Crewe Alexandra youth coach, Barry Bennell. This promises to be a groundbreaking account and in Joanne Lake (co-author of I’m Not Really Here, a groundbreaking account of depression in football), White has the perfect support.

3. Doctor Socrates: Footballer, Philosopher, Legend by Andrew Downie (Simon & Schuster, March 2017)

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I’ll be honest – I was a little sceptical about this one at first. Sure, it’s got a great cover but do we need another book on a Brazilian legend? The answer, as it turns out, is absolutely yes because this is an unusual biography about an unusual player. Downie is in possession of unparalleled insight; ‘he has had exclusive access to Socrates’s unpublished memoir and many of the tape recordings left by Socrates’. So I think this will be a special book indeed.

4. Nolberto Solano: Blowing My Own Trumpet (Mojo Risin’ Publishing, March 2017)

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I’m a big fan of cult footballers and they don’t get much bigger than Sir Nobby of Newcastle. Judging by his Twitter account, I reckon the little Peruvian has plenty of tales to tell about his time on Tyneside. ‘Armed with a lifetime of memories and his trusty trumpet,’ the publisher website states, ‘Solano reveals all in a story filled with hope and punctuated by painful life lessons.’ I can’t wait for this one.

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.

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.

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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.

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

Sergio Kun Agüero: Born to Rise

Born to Rise: My Story

By Sergio Kun Agüero and Daniel Frescó

Trinity Mirror Sport Media, 2015

Aguero.jpgOn first glance, Born to Rise: My Story looks like classic Christmas football fan fodder. On the cover, Agüero roars out of a football pitch in a plain light blue shirt (Manchester City obviously refused to give image rights), his Elvish tattoo on display. His name is big and central, next to that of his best friend Lionel Messi, who provides a pretty insipid three-page foreword.

However, take a second look, and you notice the size of the book. At 540 pages, Born to Rise is a hefty tome, the football autobiography equivalent of an old-school epic. So what exactly is there to fill all of those pages? The answer is – shock horror – plenty.

But first, a bit of a spoiler: this isn’t really an autobiography, or even a David Winner/Dennis Bergkamp-style fusion. There are first-person Agüero extracts dotted throughout but this is largely a biography written by Argentinian journalist Daniel Frescó.

On the whole, this format is a positive thing, especially for Agüero’s early years in Argentina where Frescó is able to call upon an impressive array of personal and professional sources. 200 pages into the book and ‘Kun’ is still only 13 years-old, excelling in the Independiente youth teams. For British fans, this incredible, pre-City detail is surely a real selling point. Perhaps most interesting of all is the groundbreaking financial/legal relationship between Agüero and the IMG group. And if you feel things are moving too slowly, there are boxes detailing his career highlights (debut, first goal, the Premier League winner against QPR) peppered throughout.

The downside to the format is that at times, Born to Rise feels a little too much like a propaganda piece. Agüero’s controversial departure from Atlético Madrid (he refused to celebrate goals as he tried to force through a transfer) is described in the dry language of a PR document: ‘throughout these times, Sergio left nobody in doubt as to his allegiance towards Atleti, identifying with the club’s values and adopting them as his own, as for him befits such a compliment. Elsewhere, the writing reads like a CV: ‘Kun had learnt to balance the obligations that come with such prominence with being able to enjoy his free time.’

These detours into bland biography aside, Born to Rise is a refreshingly comprehensive look at one of the best footballers in the world, and particularly the rise itself, from dirt pitches in an Argentinian slum to international tournaments and top European league titles. 500-plus pages may seem daunting if not excessive but Agüero’s rags to riches story is certainly worth reading.

Buy it here

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.

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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.

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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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