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.

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Spring 2017 – The Best Football Paperbacks

MARCH

Soccermatics: Mathematical Adventures in the Beautiful Game (Pro Edition) by David Sumpter

Maths doesn’t have to be boring and pointless. Instead, it can teach us fun and fascinating things, even about football. Especially about football, according to applied mathematician David Sumpter. Whether you’re a player, a coach or a fan (or all of the above), you’ll never look at statistics, tactics and analytics in the same way again. The Pro Edition paperback has updated content and a great new cover.

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APRIL

Quiet Leadership: Winning Hearts, Minds and Matches by Carlo Ancelotti (with Chris Brady and Mike Forde)

As Bayern Munich’s recent demolition of Arsenal showed, Ancelotti is still a manager at the very top of his game. Quiet Leadership combines Carlo’s own stories with the reflections of many of the biggest names in football including Cristiano Ronaldo, Paolo Maldini and Sir Alex Ferguson. Like Sir Alex’s Leading, this is a book with a massive dual market: sports fans and business people.

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Mister: The Men Who Taught The World How To Beat England At Their Own Game by Rory Smith

The British invented football in the 19th century and messengers spread the word to other nations around the world, who quickly became better at the sport than us. It’s a familiar story but no-one has written about those first football pioneers with as much style, craft and detail as New York Times Chief Soccer Correspondent Rory Smith. A new cover for the paperback would have been nice but Mister is a highly-recommended read.

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Ring of Fire: Liverpool into the 21st Century: The Players’ Stories by Simon Hughes

First Red Machine looked at the 80s, then Men in White Suits looked at the 90s and now Ring of Fire looks at Liverpool in the 2000s. Simon Hughes’ journalism is exceptional, bringing together insightful stories from Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso, Gérard Houllier and many more. You don’t have to be a Liverpool fan to enjoy this book but it certainly helps.

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MAY

Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty, Football’s Lost Genius by Oliver Kay

This was my favourite football book of 2016 and one of the William Hill Sports Books of the Year. Forever Young is a surprising, enthralling and emotional tale about talent, ambition, disappointment and personality. Trust me – Manchester United’s Adrian Doherty will soon be your new favourite player. In a world of agent-controlled Twitter accounts and bland player interviews, this is a real breath of fresh air.

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And The Sun Shines Now: How Hillsborough and the Premier League Changed Britain by Adrian Tempany

This hugely significant book explores the sporting and political environment that led up to the Hillsborough Disaster in April 1989, as well as the aftermath and the ground-breaking rise of Premier League football. Above all, it’s a book about the fans and how gentrification and commercialisation has affected their experience of football. The new paperback cover is fantastic and should help to bring And The Sun Shines Now to an even bigger audience.

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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.

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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

Oliver Kay Interview

2016 is turning out to be a very fine year for football books but undoubtedly one of the best came out back in May. Oliver Kay’s Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty, Football’s Lost Genius is a brilliantly original look at a brilliantly original footballing talent. I won’t give too much away because you really should read it, but Oliver was kind enough to answer my lengthy questions on the man, the myth and the book. Enjoy.

Forever Young

1. You talk in the book’s acknowledgements about the time in 2011 that you heard the name ‘Adrian Doherty’. Was it difficult to take the next research steps and when did you realise that there was a fascinating book to be written?

When I heard about him – essentially an untold, forgotten or neglected story about a guy who was rated alongside Ryan Giggs in the Manchester United youth team and who had drifted out of football and had died, his death pretty much unreported outside of Northern Ireland – the journalist in me was desperate to find out more and to write something about Adrian in The Times. I travelled to Strabane to meet his family. They didn’t want to do anything media-wise at the time, but I sat for hours and listened to them talk about him – not just about his talent on the football pitch but about his upbringing in Strabane, during The Troubles, and his music and his life away from and after football. I came away from Strabane that day feeling utterly hooked by the story and wondering whether, if they didn’t want a newspaper article, the story might be better suited to a book. So I kept digging and digging, speaking to various friends and ex-team-mates of Adrian’s, with a view to writing something at some stage and eventually, after some patience and gentle persuasion on my part, his family came around to the idea. I approached David Luxton, who is a literary agent specialising in sports books. He immediately “got” the story and we put together a proposal to send to publishers. Quercus loved it too and from there it was full steam ahead.

2. Has writing a book always been a dream of yours?

It had been an ambition, but, until this came about, it was a distant one – not something I was planning to do any time soon. That only changed because this story captivated me so much.

3. As a football journalist, do you see book writing as freedom to explore topics in greater detail and at greater length?

From one perspective, yes, for reasons of space, but the fact is that newspaper journalism is my day job, one that I love but one that leaves very little time for out-of-hours work – or out-of-hours anything, in fact. This book quickly became a labour of love, but it required an enormous amount of work (researching much more than writing), so I’m not sure “freedom” is the first word that would come to mind … .

4. And as a journalist, was it difficult to write a much longer story? What was the hardest part?

The length wasn’t the difficulty at all; I could easily have written another hundred pages if that had been required. No, by far the hardest part – but also the most enjoyable – was the research. Finding out about his upbringing in Strabane was easy enough, but there was very little archive material about his football career and even his family and friends didn’t know a great deal about his post-football life in Preston and Galway, so it wasn’t easy. I didn’t have much to go on at all, just his CV and a few names from his old address book, so it was a case of tracking people down and speaking to them about someone who had been in their life – in most cases fleetingly – in the mid/late 90s. A few of them told me they didn’t know too much about him (and were shocked when I told them he had been an exceptionally gifted footballer at Manchester United), but they all had stories and anecdotes that all added to the picture. One person led me to another and then to another and then eventually the jigsaw came together.

Oliver Kay

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5. The book is full of insight from top football people including Ryan Giggs, Sir Alex Ferguson, Gary Neville and Brendan Rodgers. Was it difficult to round up such an A-list cast or was everyone very willing to discuss Adrian Doherty and his tragic tale?

It turned out to be easier than I had imagined. If I can put this delicately, Adrian Doherty has been a sensitive issue inside Old Trafford, for reasons which are outlined in the book. I felt it wouldn’t be in my interests to seek out Ferguson, Giggs, Neville etc until I had done most of my other research. I wasn’t entirely sure, given the sensitive nature of the subject, whether those who were still at the heart of the United “family” would want to contribute to a book of this nature. But to my delight and considerable relief, they all did. The insight offered by Giggs and Neville was fantastic. Both of them gave a very technical breakdown of what he was like as a player. Giggs spoke brilliantly about how Doherty was “different”, the busking, the Bob Dylan obsession. Neville spoke about watching Doherty for the first time in a Youth Cup game at Old Trafford and how Doherty and Giggs (Ryan Wilson, as he was then) were the two that he, Beckham, Scholes etc were in awe of. I had heard it from others, less high-profile players, but it was great to have those sentiments validated by Ferguson, Giggs, Neville etc as well. “Incredible”, according to Giggs. “Out of this world”, according to Neville. That is not to say he was certain to make it at United, because there were those doubts about whether he really “wanted it” in the same way as others did, but, to me, that complex personality only made him a more interesting subject.

6. As you did your detailed research, what surprised you most about the story of Adrian Doherty?

It was something I was told at an early stage, but the other side of his life – the music, the poetry, the busking, the voracious appetite for reading anything and everything to expand his mind – and the personality was what truly captivated me. People said they could not work out what, if anything, motivated him as a footballer. It certainly wasn’t money or fame and perhaps not even winning trophies. He was just totally different to the typical footballer. I had been told at an early stage about his writing, but it was when I began to read it all – the poems, the songs, the unfinished Adventures of Humphrey and Bodegard – that I just thought “Wow.” Some of his writing is featured in the book. Some of it is silly, intentionally so, but a lot of is very clever.

7. At times, the book almost feels like a detective story, as it goes in search of answers. Is that how it felt to you as you investigated?

Certainly in terms of researching his post-football life, for the reasons I outlined earlier, and in terms of separating the truth from some of the myths that attach themselves to an individual such as Adrian Doherty. And above all, that applied to finding out the circumstances of his death. I was probably as guilty as anyone of putting two and together in my mind when I was first told he had died after falling into a canal in Amsterdam. You know, “Amsterdam, nudge, nudge, wink, wink”. But for one thing it wasn’t in Amsterdam – it was The Hague – and far more importantly I was able to find out that all the evidence, such as the police report, rules out drink, drugs, suicide or anything of that nature. That was a quest in itself. The Dutch authorities don’t make it easy.

8. One of the things that struck me most about the book was the optimistic tone throughout. What could have been a sad story of unfulfilled potential is instead a heart-warming story of a player that didn’t fit the classic mold and was strong enough to deal with it. Is that fair to say? If so, was that always your intention or something that emerged organically as you wrote?

I would say it emerged organically as I found out more and more about Adrian’s character and his unusual perspective on life. I had imagined the years in Preston and Galway, after he retired from football, would have been full of woe or bitterness at what might have been. Instead, what came out of my research was a picture of a guy who was happy doing his own thing, particularly when he was in Galway, writing his songs and his poems and performing at open-mic nights, living almost a bohemian life without even mentioning to most people that he had been a footballer. I would say I probably had a pre-conceived idea of what Adrian’s post-football life might have been like, but the reality, I found out, was different – and so the story, happily, reflects that. To that end, so does the book’s title, Forever Young, which was the Dylan track that his cousin sang at his funeral. If the tone is at times rather cheerier or light-hearted than might have been expected, given the nature of the story, it’s probably just a reflection of Adrian’s character.

9. And finally, would you write another book? Are there any ideas in the pipeline?

I definitely would, because I loved doing it, but it would have to be the right project – something that really captivated me, like Adrian’s story did – at the right time. It’s not ideas I’m short of. It’s time … .

Doherty

Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty, Football’s Lost Genius is out now, published by Quercus, in hardback or on Kindle https://www.amazon.co.uk/Forever-Young-Adrian-Doherty-Footballs/dp/1848669941/ref=zg_bs_268089_7

The book has a dedicated Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/ForeverYoungTheStoryofAdrianDoherty and Twitter account @ForeverYoungAD

Books Round-up: Early 2016

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

When Football Came Home by Michael Gibbons (Pitch Publishing)

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

When Football Came Home

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

Football by Jean-Philippe Toussaint (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

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

Football Toussaint

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

Forever Young by Oliver Kay (Quercus)

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

Forever Young

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

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