Football writers on the Best Books of 2015

Jack Pitt-Brooke, Football journalist for The Independent and i

GoldblattAt a time when the game of football itself is subject to endless dissection and analysis, The Game of our Lives by David Goldblatt tells the other story: what does football mean to us in Britain in 2015? Why does it matter? How do we experience it? How has it changed? From half-and-half scarves, to billionaire foreign owners, YouTube fan channels, and the rest, Goldblatt tells us with great narrative skill how we got here. Or, in the subtitle of the book, about ‘The Meaning and Making of English Football’. It is a remarkable piece of scholarship, showing an understanding not just of football, but of history, society and culture. Because the state of modern football, ultimately, is the state of us.

Matt Gardiner, sports bookseller at Waterstones and founder of Manchester Football Writing Festival

9781780893273(1)Living on the Volcano is another astonishingly strong book from the author of “Family” and “The Nowhere Men”. Mike Calvin has once again reached heights with his sports writing which seems to be unfair on his peers.  His ability to gain access to the people who really count is phenomenal and ensures once again that “Living on the Volcano” is a triumph.  The chapters which focus on the lower league managers are for me the strongest as we hear from men who don’t often make the headlines.  I for one can’t wait for what Mike does next.

Michael Calvin, Sports journalist for The Independent and author of Living on the Volcano and The Nowhere Men

The Soccer SyndromeCall me Mr Retro if you wish, but my football book of 2015 was first published in 1966. The Soccer Syndrome by the late John Moynihan has just been republished by his son Leo, through Ian Ridley’s Floodlit Dreams imprint, with an evocative new foreword by Patrick Barclay. It is a classic, an overdue reminder of football’s lost innocence which, in an age of corporate artifice, has rarely been more relevant. I worked with John as a young reporter; he was sardonic and perceptive, with a voice as rich as mulled wine. He understood football’s essential humanity – this is your chance to do likewise.

Paul Grech, author of Il Re Calcio: Stories From Italian Football

2015 has seen my shelf being enriched by a number of great new football titles.  As an avowed fan of Simon Hughes’ writing, I terribly enjoyed ‘Men In White Suits’, his analysis of Liverpool’s fall from grace in the nineties through the experiences of some of the players that shaped that decade.

From a football coaching perspective, I also enjoyed reading Carol Dweck’s Minset and Ian Leslie’s Curious.  Although neither one is a football specific book both have ideas that should inspire anyone who deals with coaching and indeed I wrote extensively about the impact of the latter book.

However, if I were to pick my favourite read for the year I would have to go for Michael Calvin’s Living on the Volcano.  This dissection of football manager, thanks to the experiences of famous and less well known managers, puts into focus the reality of football management.  Although I was never under the illusion that it is as easy a job as many seem to think that it is, there were passages in this book that still took me by surprise.

Martin Greig, co-founder of BackPage Press

InvincibleFrom the moment we founded BackPage – in 2009 – we wanted to publish a book on Arsenal’s Invincibles. Along with Pep’s Barca, they were the team that had most fired our imaginations.  We published the definitive book on Barca, but never got round to the Invincibles. Then Amy Lawrence wrote Invincible. At first I was devastated that we had been beaten to the punch, but on reading it I was simply thrilled that the subject had been properly documented. Invincible is excellent. Amy’s passion shines through. It is a sports book with a beating heart, like all the best ones.

Daniel Storey, deputy editor of Football365 and football freelancer

I believe in miraclesI Believe in Miracles is Daniel Taylor’s account of Nottingham Forest’s European Cup-winning team, told through the eyes of players, supporters, journalists, managers and club officials but knitted together perfectly by one of this country’s finest sportswriters. The book is split into two sections, the first regarding Forest’s rise to the league title, and the second the remarkable run to double European glory. At each stage of the journey the reader is given nuggets of information and anecdotes, all reminiscing about an achievement that will never be repeated.

There have been countless biographies and autobiographies written about each individual in that all-conquering Nottingham Forest era. This should be seen as the definitive book.

Sachin Nakrani, writer and editor for The Guardian and creator and co-editor of We’re Everywhere, Us

OstrichWe live in a world filled with season diaries (I should know, I’ve written one myself) and the job, therefore, of anyone who decides to go down that path is to avoid the obvious, well-worn methods of telling the story of nine months on planet football​ and provide the reader with something different​. Alexander Netherton and Andi Thomas achieve that with Are you an Ostrich? their take on the 2014/15 Premier League season with a book that is as sharp with its humour as it is with its considered, serious insight on the wider issues/topics-of-debate in the domestic game. So one one hand it creates a superbly surreal world in which Arsene Wenger cannot eat his breakfast without literally everything going wrong, while on the other offering the most powerful and intelligent take on why Ched Evans should not be allowed anywhere near a football pitch that I’ve ever read. Are You an Ostrich, which references the former Leicester manager Nigel Pearson’s infamous remark to a journalist near the end of the 2014/15 campaign, is a delight to read by two writers who have become experienced football diarists but continue to offer a fresh and must-read contribution to the genre.

Harry Pearson, football writer and author of The Far Corner

Touching DistanceMartin Hardy’s Touching Distance tells the story of Newcastle’s 1995-96 season, the year they could and – maybe – should have won the title for the first time since the 1920s. It’s built around a series of insightful and often funny interviews with key players including Peter Beardsley who relates how he informed his telephone-less parents that he had signed for his hometown club from Vancouver by sending them a postcard. Inevitably he got to Newcastle from Canada before it did. Ultimately Touching Distance is a bit like The Day of the Jackal – you know what the outcome will be but the author cranks the tension up so nicely that by the final chapter you start to suspect there might be an unexpected twist at the end.

Alex Stewart, freelance football writer

The Football's RevoltMy favourite football book of 2015 is only partly from 2015. To be precise, The Football’s Revolt, by Jan Le Witt and George Him, was originally written and illustrated in 1939 and reissued this year by the V&A. Witt and Him were two Polish artists who moved to London to work for the museum’s in-house design team, and also produced posters for the war effort, as well as their sumptuous children’s books. The Football’s Revolt tells the story of a match between Goalbridge and Kickford, a fierce local derby that gets out of hand when the football takes umbrage at being kicked so hard and takes to the clouds. The book at once manages to capture the intensity of football and its fans, while also undercutting that with sometimes very subtle humour. It is surreal and sly and celebratory, with a resolution that extols the simple pleasures of the game. The illustrations are lush and funny, perfectly complementing the style of writing. The Football’s Revolt is a great book for children, but will cause a wry smile to any football-loving adult who picks it up, and it is my football book of 2015.

Dermot Corrigan, football writer for ESPN, Irish Examiner, WSC and Unibet

Brilliant OrangeDavid Winner’s Brilliant Orange is not a traditional football book, but it’s still the best explanation of how and why the sport has evolved over recent decades. Johan Cruyff dominates, of course, but artists Johannes Vermeer and Jan Van Eyck are also brought into show how the Dutch are “a nation of spatial neurotics” for whom use of space is “a matter of national survival”.

Put more simply, with the ball you expand the pitch as much as possible, without it you restrict the space available for opponents to play in. Winner finds early evidence of this sophisticated tactical approach in the 16th century, when a visiting Spanish side [well, army] was squeezed of space in defence and thereby defeated – “anticipating by nearly 400 years the Total Football concept”. Spanish football caught up around 2008, and Cruyff’s influence at Barcelona is still strong. This book was published back in 2000, but is just as important today.

Ian Ridley, football writer and publisher of Floodlit Dreams

One of my favourite football books, and one that influenced me as a young football writer, was The Soccer Syndrome, by John Moynihan. It combines wit with perception, elegant writing with sharp opinion, and informs equally about the game at the highest level as well as on public park.

When his son Leo Moynihan approached me about re-issuing the book 50 years on to mark both its original publication and a half-century since England won the World Cup, I was delighted to work with him on it.

The result is a new edition, with foreword by Patrick Barclay and afterword by Leo, that we hope keeps alive the memory and spirit of John, who died a few years ago, and offers a chance to a new generation of readers to enjoy what remains a charming and relevant insight into English football.

George Rinaldi, English and Italian football writer and author of the upcoming Calcio’s Greatest Forwards

9781780893273(1)It comes as no surprise to say the most enjoyable football book I’ve read in 2015 was Living on the Volcano by Michael Calvin. It has become rather expected of Calvin to deliver such brilliance packed in to a small space, but he has done so once again with this superb reading of football managers. He isn’t afraid to scrutinise when he sees best, and also gives a number of different interviews with the Premier League’s top coaches. These managers do, however unfortunate, keep to a very stylised and cliché based response which might hamper the true feel of the book, but the writing is what I came for and it didn’t disappoint.

Adam Hurrey,

9781906850722The best football book I read this year was Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League by Ian Plenderleith. The North American Soccer League is a fascinating chapter of football’s not-too-distant past. On one hand, it was a hugely ambitious, forward-thinking enterprise; on the other, an unsustainable financial mess. Whichever cap fits, the NASL burned half as long it perhaps ought to have done, but surely twice as bright.

Ian Plenderleith’s deals dutifully with the well-worn NASL stories – Pelé, Cruyff, Beckenbauer et al – but it is the peripheral nuggets that really keep the pages turning. The decision to move franchises to Las Vegas and Hawaii, in particular, provides the author with some entertaining tales of ageing journeymen struggling with both the unbearable heat and the obligatory four-day benders.

If you’re into your footballing curiosities – and if not, why not? – Plenderleith’s meticulous (but never pedestrian) retrospective is as compelling as it gets.

Iain Macintosh, ESPN football writer, author and editor of The Set Pieces

I would say Matt Dickinson’s Bobby Moore: The Man in Full. That was very special.

Bobby Moore

Ian Plenderleith Interview

Having devoured the brilliant Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League, I had some questions for author Ian Plenderleith. The kind man that he is, he was all too happy to oblige, even from across the Atlantic. Like the book itself, his answers here are equal parts entertaining and insightful.

1. When did your interest in the NASL begin?

I remember being slightly perplexed by it back in the 70s when Shoot! would do an occasional photo-feature on British players who were in the NASL, and its grown-up sister publication, Soccer Monthly, did a lot of more in-depth features on the league. It was all weird jerseys, strange names and plastic pitches – the UK press always played up that angle. When I moved to the US in 1999, the NASL was like the wayward cousin who’d ended up in jail – no one really wanted to talk about it, because it was perceived as a failure, and in the US no one likes failure, not even glorious failure. There’s a ‘heroes only’ mentality in most US sports coverage.

So anyway, I wrote the odd feature on the NASL down the years, and the more I wrote about it, the more I realised what an under-told story the league was, and how it had been sorely neglected. Almost the only team anyone wanted to remember was the Cosmos, but there was so much more to the NASL than that – so many great stories to be told, and I felt there was an analysis missing of the league’s place in both US and world football history.

2. Was it difficult to find a British publisher for a book about an old American league, even if it did feature a lot of British players?

Surprisingly not. I gave a commissioning editor at Icon half a dozen ideas for football books, and the proposed NASL book was one that he and the several other people at the company really liked. Getting a book published can be a long and frustrating process, but in this case it really wasn’t.


3. The book includes interviews with a lot of people involved in the league. Were they hard to get hold of and were there people who wouldn’t speak?

There were a few people that I knew from previous interviews, but the Facebook page of the NASL Alumni Association was a huge help – I got in touch with several players that way. They were almost without exception really co-operative and very happy to talk about the league, and then several of them said, “Oh, you should talk to so-and-so, his memory’s much better than mine,” and then they’d give me their number. Pele and Johan Cruyff didn’t return my calls, though…

4. It must have been a mammoth project to put together. Was the research process tricky?

The research was a real pleasure, mainly because I’m the kind of sad case who loves reading old newspapers and football magazines. I could finally point to my stacks of yellowing publications and tell my wife, “See, I knew they’d come in useful one day.” I bought yet more yellowing publications on eBay, and bid on old autobiographies by players like Frank Worthington and Alan Hudson. I did a lot of archival research in Washington DC’s magnificent Library of Congress, and a couple of people loaned me their scrapbooks of cuttings. I spent one winter’s night in a crappy hotel near Minneapolis/St. Paul airport going through three thick scrap books that Alan Merrick gave me, but I had to give them back to him by the next morning before my flight went. It’s hard to believe, but I was sitting there until the small hours with junk food, my laptop, and reams of match clippings from the 1970s, and I was thinking, “Yes, this is the life!”

5. Do you have a favourite NASL team? You do a good job of seeming impartial!

I ended up with a particular soft spot for the Minnesota Kicks – partly because of their incredible rise-and-fall story that I wrote about in Chapter Five, and partly because many of their ex-players were so helpful. When you’re a writer working on a miserly budget you become really grateful towards people who get what you’re doing, and who go out of their way to assist you for no return.


6. What are your thoughts on Raul signing for the Cosmos? Could it spark a real NASL revival?

I don’t believe that single players signing for teams have that great an effect on a league’s destiny any more. Pelé signing for the Cosmos is the obvious exception, but the actual story of the signing is always much huger than any influence the player can have on the standard of play or the popularity of the league. A player like Raul, at that age, is not going to have a momentous affect on crowds, and he’s probably not going to dominate the play. I think I mention in the book that big name signings are a bit of a lose-lose prospect. If the players don’t perform well, people say they’re past it. If they shine, then you can say that even a has-been can do well in whatever league it is.

As for an NASL revival – that’s already well under way, but only in terms of this being a nascent second-tier league that resembles the old NASL in name only. It’s great, though, that the name and the names of some of the teams have been revived, because it’s a nod to the huge role that the NASL played in football history.

7. It feels like a very exciting time for US soccer. Do you think MLS is going in the right direction?

US soccer has been a fascinating work in progress ever since 1967. It’s always attracted a lot of attention from beyond the US because it’s seen as the great unconquered market in a country that has made its own unique major league sports. MLS has been steadily but unspectacularly chugging in a fairly good direction for the past decade. It’s the antithesis of the NASL, and that’s one of the reasons why it’s survived. But as I point out in the book’s conclusion, that makes it a somewhat less interesting league for now (something MLS is probably quite happy with). It’s at a crossroads now, though. Should it aim for ‘narrative’ signings like Gerrard and Lampard, which are basically marketing moves piggy-backing on the Premier League’s reputation and popularity in the US, or should it look more to the long term and focus on developing young players?

8. Do you feel European attitudes to US soccer are changing, especially after the national team’s strong showing at the 2014 World Cup? Do you think more and more players will choose to head out there, and maybe at a younger age like Giovinco?

I think a lot of European fans and journalists are still very condescending when it comes to US soccer. Their views are poorly informed, or outdated, or both. But the US game should care less about what these people think and concentrate on the structural problems that are holding back the US game at youth and college level. If they can properly tackle that in the next decade, then they will eventually have a frightening amount of talent at their disposal, and they won’t need to worry about being patronised any more.

Could bigger, younger names from abroad start coming to MLS? If team owners put forward enough money, anything’s possible, as long as the league’s centralised rules allow it. Get enough big names and you can charge more for TV rights, and if there’s global interest in certain players then the figures are potentially colossal. Is that the kind of league the US needs right now? I really don’t think so, but that’s not to say it won’t happen. But if it does, then those involved might want to keep a copy of my book handy so it doesn’t all end in tears.


Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer

Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League

By Ian Plenderleith

Icon Books, 2014

9781906850722In the last year, the MLS has recruited Kaka, David Villa, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Sebastian Giovinco. It’s not a bad haul of modern talent but it’s hardly Pele, Beckenbauer, Eusebio, Cruyff and Best. To think that five of the very best players of all time played in the US in the 1970s is hard to imagine, no matter how old and injured they were. But then, the North American Soccer League (NASL) as a whole was a pretty unbelievable concept, and that’s why Ian Plenderleith’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer is such a brilliant and necessary read.

Between 1968 and 1985, America made an audacious move into the ‘soccer’ market, putting a very local spin on the more traditional European game. The maverick NASL served up cheerleaders, 35-yard shootouts, ‘blatant commercialism’, and plenty of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll – entertainment, in other words, or ‘a good circus’ as one New York Cosmos player describes it. FIFA didn’t like it one bit, but for a while, the people of America seemed to. Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer is a hugely enjoyable, anecdotal trawl through the ‘crash and burn’ history of the league.

It’s one big Shakespearean tragedy, a tale of ridiculous over-expansion, where clueless owners like Jimmy Hill, Milan Mandarić and Rick Wakeman interacted with the player power of old pros like Pele, Cruyff and Eusebio with his ‘one knee that looked like Mount Everest’. The true superstars in Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer, however, are the American players who got wrapped up in the circus and lived to tell the tales. Best of all is Bob Iarusci, who was a teammate of all three during his eventful NASL career, and has a thing or two say about them.

Plenderleith’s tone and structure is a great fit with the subject matter. Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer is full of amusing asides and dry wit, from the chapter titles – ‘Debit does Dallas’, ‘Learning from your alcoholic dad’ – right through to the ‘Fun Facts’ sections for each season. But best of all is the ‘Half-time’ lists section in the middle of the book, which features ’20 odd names in the NASL’ plus the ‘NASL Soundtrack’.

Not that the book is all fun and frolics, however. Plenderleith writes very well on the social background to his stories, whether that be Washington DC or, more significantly, Britain. Many players, he argues, ‘fell in love with the country and its beaches, its possibilities, its openness. They escaped the claustrophobia of a socially conservative society.’ Especially for born entertainers like Rodney Marsh and Frank Worthington, the relaxed glamour and showbiz of American soccer was a marked improvement on the dull tactics and hooligan fans back home.

The book’s second line of argument is that the league was a prototype for football as we know it today. ‘The NASL introduced the idea that a soccer game could be an event and a spectacle, not just two teams meeting to compete for points’, Plenderleith contends. 3 points for a win, 3 substitutes, the backpass rule, names and number on shirts – all these innovations started with the NASL. The first experiment rarely gets the recipe right but it’s hard to disagree that ‘the biggest leagues on the planet became extensions of what the NASL had begun.’

Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer takes a relatively unknown area of ‘soccer’ history and brings it to life in all its spectacular glory and failure. Sure, there’s a little bit of excess (the book’s over 400 pages long) but what would you expect? This is rock ‘n’ roll after all.

Buy it here

8 Autumn Titles to Look Out For

Now that the international fun is over, it’s time to return to the club game we all know and love. Here are 8 football books to read in the coming months:

1. A Season with the Honest Men by Gerry Ferrara (Pitch Publishing, 1st Aug)

I can think of no better preparation for the new club season than a Miracle of Castel di Sangro-esque story set in the glorious surroundings of the Scottish First Division. A life-long Ayr United fan, Ferrara takes us on an incredible, behind-the-scenes journey through scandals, pranks and tantrums as his team chase that all-important promotion. Great characters guaranteed.

2. Rock n Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League by Ian Plenderleith (Icon Books, 4th Sept)

With the MLS now well-established and on the rise, it’s easy to forget that it was only founded in 1993. Before that, there was the North American Soccer League, home to teams called the Tampa Bay Rowdies and the Tulsa Roughnecks, and players called Pelé, Johann Cruyff and George Best. Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer reveals in all its glory the colour and chaos of the world’s first truly international league’ – a must for all fans of cult sports stories.

3. Bobby Moore: The Man in Full by Matt Dickinson (Yellow Jersey Press, 11th Sept)

The only World-Cup winning England captain and a West Ham defensive legend – but what more do we really know about Sir Bobby Moore? Dickinson, The Times Chief Sports Correspondent, is a man well-placed to write this definitive biography. For the first time we get a ‘warts and all’ view of Bobby’s life both on and off the field.

4. Guardiola Confidential: The Inside Story of Pep Guardiola’s First Season at Bayern Munich by Martí Perarnau (BackPage Press, 2nd Oct)

From Andrea Pirlo to Graham Hunter, Glasgow-based publishers BackPage Press are building a great reputation and a brilliant football list. Their latest book, by Spanish football expert Martí Perarnau, looks at Guardiola’s high-profile return to management at Bayern Munich last season. If their other books are anything to go by, this will be packed full of excellent detail, analysis and insight.

5.#2Sides: My Autobiography by Rio Ferdinand (Blink Publishing, 2nd Oct)

This isn’t the first book that Rio has written but it looks likely to be the most outspoken and interesting. John Terry, Roy Hodgson and David Moyes will be just a few of the topics that the former Manchester United defender offers his opinion on. Plus if you needed any further persuasion, the brilliant David Winner is collaborating on the project.

Cover - #2sides Rio Ferdinand high res

6. The Second Half by Roy Keane and Roddy Doyle (Orion, 9th Oct)

What a fascinating prospect this is – one of football’s fieriest characters working alongside one of fiction’s funniest writers. According to the blurb, this book ‘blends anecdote and reflection in Roy Keane’s inimitable voice. The result is an unforgettable personal odyssey which fearlessly challenges the meaning of success.’ Something tells me Sir Alex won’t be the only person threatening legal action once this publishes.

7. My Autobiography by Luis Suarez (Headline, 9th Oct)

Fear not football fans – despite the Uruguayan’s big-money move to Barcelona, this explosive book will still be published this autumn. The Diving, the goals, the biting, the accolades, the racism – all will be covered in this candid account of the amazing highs and lows of Luis Suarez. ‘El Pistolero’ in his own words – not to be missed.

8. Ossie: My Autobiography by Leon Osman (Trinity Mirror Sports, 10th Oct)

From one side of Liverpool to the other, and from a man of controversy to a man of understatement. Now 33, Osman has played nearly 400 games for Everton and remains a pivotal figure in their ball-playing midfield. The first name on the team-sheet during David Moyes’ tenure, ‘Ossie’ also has 2 England caps and hopefully lots of stories to share with us.