Raheem Sterling! Gareth Bale! Wayne Rooney!

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Another football season is about to begin and the biggest superstars in the world have been preparing for months. In fact, they’ve been working hard all of their lives to make it to the very top. To succeed as a professional footballer, you need talent but you also need focus and courage. There will always be difficult times – growing pains and injuries, coaches thinking you’re not quite good or strong enough – but the best players in the world battle on to achieve greatness.

Raheem Sterling, Gareth Bale and Wayne Rooney are three of the best and most expensive British footballers ever. This season they’ll be playing in front of thousands of fans, aiming to win league titles and perhaps the biggest prize of all, the Champions League. But how did they get to where they are now? What challenges did they face along the way? What were the key moments in their incredible journeys?

There’s only one fun way to find out! Raheem Sterling: Young Lion, Gareth Bale: The Boy Who Became a Galáctico and Wayne Rooney: Captain of England are fictionalised stories for football-mad kids, aged 9 years and up. Come and share their highs and lows and learn what it takes to become a superstar. What are you waiting for?!

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Ben Thatcher in the Rye

<I>

I guess the first thing you’ll want to know is where I was born. I’m not really up for all that autobiography crap – my childhood, the time I put that bastard Pedro Mendes in hospital. That stuff goddam bores me, but I’ll answer that first question. Swindon – home of XTC, WHSmith and that kid from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It was pretty depressing, but no-one gets to choose where they start out.

No, I wasn’t born in Wales but Mark Hughes knew that when he called me up to the squad. My grandma was Welsh. Hughesy knew that, and I guess he knew that after playing for the Under-21s, England just didn’t want to know about me. We didn’t talk about that, though. They had Psycho, then Graeme Le Saux, then Wayne Bridge and Ashley Cole, hell even inbetween they preferred Pip Neville’s right foot at left back. I knew when I wasn’t wanted.

It was Vinnie Jones who first suggested it, back when I was at Wimbledon. I’d just arrived from Millwall and Euro 96 was making everyone a little football crazy. To tell you the truth, I was pretty sore to have missed out. I should have been out to impress at my new club but pre-season was boring as hell. Sure I was young, not yet 21, but I was highly thought of in FA circles. I was the classic old school British defender, all take the man and find row Z. The smug old blazers left me cold but everyone said I was taking the right route, shaking the right hands – Lilleshall like Sol Campbell and Nicky Barmby, then the Under-21s with Richard Rufus and Kevin Gallen. Very big deal. It seemed like it was only a matter of time before I joined the seniors.

‘What happens if Psycho gets injured? Are you telling me Steve Howey is going to do the business on the left?’

We were doing a passing drill and I was shooting the bull, acting the cock of the walk. Vinnie liked it that way, so that he could take you down a peg or two. The guy was intent on keeping that damn Crazy Gang spirit alive, even if Fash was long gone.

‘You think you’re next in line to the throne, boy? Forget it, you ain’t all that. You’ve got no chance in hell playing here and that England team’s cursed anyway. If I was you, I’d start looking into your family history. You think I give a fuck about Wales? I was born in bloody Watford!’

JFK kicked a ball in my face. He was hot as a firecracker, always yelling. The gaffer was in cahoots with Vinnie, but I was fair game. ‘Oi Thatcher, wakey wakey! You think you’re still on fucking holiday? Kimble is 30 going on 80 and his right foot has seen even less action than your dick, but I’ll still pick him over you!’

I wasn’t too crazy about Old Kinnear, to tell you the truth, but that wasn’t unusual with me and my managers. I’ve hated pretty much every one of them – they never act like people. Sometimes I worked really hard on my game but they never notice anything.

Thatcher 1

<II>

So Vinnie got me thinking back then but it wasn’t until seven years later that I did anything about it. Inbetween, things hadn’t exactly gone to plan. There were no big trophies, and most importantly no England caps. I had a reputation as a hardman, a ‘dirty’ player with a habit of swinging elbows. I can’t say I was misunderstood exactly but that wasn’t all I was about. Then in 2000, Wimbledon got relegated. It was sad to see but things really soured once JFK left. The old brute had health issues, and they replaced him with this weird Norwegian with tiny little eyes. He tried to introduce football science to the Crazy Gang and boy did he learn his lesson. It was like trying to teach a fish to walk.

I went to Tottenham for £5million and at first everything was pretty great. There were some big players around the place and I got a bang out of that. Tim Sherwood had a Premier League winner’s medal and he would play all manner of pranks. One day he called Stephen Carr’s wife, pretending to be her husband’s rent boy. That killed me. George Graham was a nice guy but he wasn’t the cleanest and he ended up paying the price for that.

Hoddle arrived and boy did he think the sun shone out of his arse. He was a real phony and one of the biggest bores I ever met. He made his mind up early on and he chose Taricco and Ziege over me. I got the axe and I was really hot about that. I was playing well when I got the chance but it made no difference. I had plenty of dough but it didn’t feel right taking it for just sitting my ass on a bench each week. Goddam money; it ends up making you blue.

I kept thinking about my days at Lilleshall when it felt like I was going places. What a deal that was. I started getting sorry for not working a little harder, for not keeping my cool a little more. One thing I have, it’s a terrific temper. I was damn near ready to just quit and become a physiotherapist or something.

‘That Hoddle’s a real bastard. Some day somebody’s gonna bash his-’

Stephen Clemence didn’t even bother to listen; he wasn’t on the gaffer’s naughty list yet. We were in the club car park and he just shut the damn door and drove off.

I needed to get out of White Hart Lane. I thought of giving JFK a buzz but I wasn’t sure he even had a phone. Maybe the poor old guy was dead; I never read the news. Instead I walked the streets of London, just for the hell of it. It was a cold February evening and I wished I’d brought my gloves with me. I looked for an HMV to buy the latest Ja Rule record but everything was shut. Covent Garden was mobbed and messy, revellers everywhere. I was damn lonesome. I thought about going to the movies but there was nothing good on.

In the end, Leicester came in for me. Micky Adams was a class act and he made me feel welcome. I knew damn well that I could still make a name for myself – I just needed first-team football again. I got that but I’d joined another team on the slide. The Leicester squad was like a who’s who of footballing mediocrity, the Eastbourne of the Premier League, where old prospects go to die. Les Ferdinand scored 12 goals but we were relegated for the second time in my career. I felt sorry as hell for Micky – he wasn’t to blame for it all. To most, I looked like a curse but it wasn’t my fault either and I told Andy Impey that.

‘Thatcher, when are you going to grow up and take some responsibility? You’re not a prospect any more. You’re 29 and you’re an average player like the rest of us.’

That was crap but he got me thinking. It was time for me to up my game.

I got a move to Manchester City and I was first choice. It was before the big ‘Sheikh up’ as I like to call it but we had David James, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Steve McManaman, Nicolas Anelka, Robbie Fowler, Trevor Sinclair – loads of big names in one place, even if some of them were getting on a bit. And Joey Barton; he was a fun guy to be around. Joey could be a pain in the ass, but he certainly had a good vocabulary.

Keegan was in charge and that was exciting. But then that jerk Stephen Jordan came along and stole my spot. He wasn’t a bad guy but where is he now? Fleetwood Town, that’s where. I didn’t deserve to make way for him. Luckily, I had bigger concerns by then; you see, I was an international footballer.

Ben Thatcher, Manchester City

Ben Thatcher, Manchester City

<III>

I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw. It’s awful. When I want to, I can charm the birds out of the trees. When I threw an elbow at Wimbledon, I denied it wholeheartedly and JFK just nodded and told me to get the hell out of his office. I caught the guy right in the face; he’d been riling me all game and I didn’t even look behind me as I did it. It was a good shot but I felt sorry as hell about it later. That temper of mine, it can really get me into trouble.

When Hughesy asked me if I wanted to play for Wales, I thought back to Vinnie and I told him it would be a dream come true. I told him that I’d been really close to my grandma and this would mean the world to her, God rest her soul. I told him I’d spent some lovely summers there as a kid, some of the best of my life. In fact, I’d only met her once and knew nothing about her. But the chance to play international football, and with Giggsy and Gary Speed no less, was too much. Hughesy nodded and told me he’d be in touch.

I made my debut against Hungary and we won 2-1. It was a fiery match in Budapest and I got a real bang out of that. The tackles were flying and I picked up a yellow on the half-hour mark. Robbie Savage looked over admiringly – that’s what I was there for, no doubt. ‘Ben Thatcher, international footballer’ – that had a nice ring to it.

It was all going swimmingly until Toshack took over. There was something about him that didn’t sit well with me. I think he resented me for not being Welsh – fair enough, I suppose, but I was a damn fine asset. Injuries and suspensions kept me away from the team, and I could tell that he was really questioning my commitment.

When Tosh called me up for the games against England and Poland, I was just coming back to fitness. I wanted to say yes, of course I did, but we had the Manchester derby three days later. Psycho made it clear that he needed me to start that game and it was hard to say no to him. So I had a hell of a decision to make.

‘Boss, I’m not recovering as quickly as I’d hoped. The injury is still playing up, so I’m not gonna be able to play. I’m bummed out about that.’

I felt damn sorry to have to lie to him. Old Tosh nodded and told me to rest up. I did but a few days later, he watched me play the full 90 minutes against United. We drew 1-1 at Old Trafford and I played pretty well but that wasn’t the point. After that, Tosh kicked me out for good.

Thatcher 3

<IV>

That’s all I’m going to tell about. I could probably tell you what I did after that – the last years at City, the year at Charlton and then the way I ended things at Ipswich with Keano. But I don’t feel like it. It doesn’t interest me too much anymore.

I work for a sports management company now. It’s nice, easy work and I have a lot of time to spare. Chris Perry keeps asking me if I’m going to apply myself, go back into football as a coach or something, but it’s such a stupid question. I mean how do you know what you’re going to do till you do it? There’s a reason they always called him ‘The Rash’.

‘You know what I’d like to be?’ I told him the last time just to shut him up. ‘I keep picturing this football field but instead of grass, it’s a big field of rye. Rye up to your knees, the kind of stuff that’s really hard to run through, and improves stamina no end. Hundreds of kids are running around, playing a massive game, and I’m on the edge of the pitch. What I have to do is shout encouragement, give them water, and stop the ball if it goes over the touchline. If two kids get a little hot and start to fight I have to come out and stop them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be Ben Thatcher in the rye and all. I know it sounds crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.’

Chris was quiet for a moment. ‘Thatcher, you’re a strange, strange boy. That just sounds like youth coaching on a large and pretty intense scale.’

I knew he wouldn’t understand. If you want to know the truth, I sort of miss the game, the fame, and the people. I think I even miss goddam Toshack and Hoddle. It’s funny.

Don’t ever tell your story. If you do, you start missing everything.

Vertigo

Vertigo: Spurs, Bale and One Fan’s Fear of Success

By John Crace

Constable, 2014

VertigoWe’re approaching a quarter of a century since the publication of Fever Pitch, and yet it remains virtually unchallenged as the benchmark for football fan literature. In the decades since, authors have tended to tread lightly or skirt the genre altogether, as if this central, highly subjective and ever-changing aspect of the sporting experience already has its definitive description. Thankfully, some do dare to disagree and who better to challenge Hornby’s tales of Arsenal than a supporter of their North London foes? In Vertigo, Guardian journalist John Crace has written an entertaining account of what it is to be 1) a football fan and 2) a Tottenham fan. Over the course of the club’s 2010-11 season, we’re treated to several highs (Gareth Bale vs Inter Milan), a few lows (away trips to the Midlands) and a hell of a lot of the irrational inbetween: anxiety, paranoia, pessimism.

Like Fever Pitch, Vertigo is in many respects one long, valiant response to that age-old question, here posed by long-suffering wife Jill – ‘How come you get so much pleasure out of something that gives you so much pain?’ Crace’s answer has two main strands: one universal, the other very individual. The first is the sociable aspect of football fandom, that much-eulogised sense of ‘belonging’. Vertigo is as much about the characters in the stands as it is about ‘Crouchie’, ‘Pav’ and ‘Hudd the Thudd’ on the field. Robbie, the self-conscious, teenage son finding his terrace voice; Justin and Amici the ‘football next-door neighbours’; Trevor and Simon, advisors on all things memorabilia; and best of all Matthew, optimist and narcoleptic father of twins with an unfailing love of Journey and ‘Yacht Rock’. This is Crace’s football gang, the friends with whom he shares every eventuality, and with whom he shares the Tottenham psyche: sceptical of success, welcoming of bitter disappointment.

Speaking of psyche, the second strand of the author’s answer is more unusual and more interesting for that very reason. ‘For those four hours Spurs have my undivided neurosis’ – Crace is very candid and eloquent when discussing his history of mental health issues, and describes the beautiful game as an ‘escape from myself’ as well as a ‘constant endurance test of proving to myself that I can stick with something through both good and bad’. Football also touches on several key relationships in his life – with Robbie, but also with his daughter Anna and his sister Veronica. As Crace concludes with a rare and touching ray of positivity, supporting Tottenham ‘helps me navigate my life.’

As you’d expect from the author of Digested Read, a wry, cutting humour prevails. Crace is a master of pithy one-liners – football is ‘like going to a health spa. Only without the pampering’, ‘Any day when Spurs are playing is better than one when they aren’t. Until kick off’. He is spot-on when it comes to the players – my personal favourite is ‘banker for the catastrophic’ Younes Kaboul  – and spot-on when it comes to the club, ‘a team whose fans grandiosely talk of ‘The Spurs Way’ as a metaphor for attacking, stylish football as we slide to yet another 4-3 defeat’. Thankfully, Crace is also ever-willing to poke fun at himself; the chapters on his souvenir collecting (tickets, shirts, programmes, cup celebration banquet menus) are self-mockery at its best.

My one gripe with Vertigo relates to the paperback update. Richard Swarbrick’s brilliant cover illustration can’t hide the fact that a book published in late 2014 has a preface from 2013. So where you might hope for Crace’s considered views on the sale of Bale and Sherwood’s tenure, instead you find ‘When AVB moves on or is moved on…’ This small grumble aside, Vertigo offers up a well-written and highly enjoyable blend of personal and sporting narrative that should find a much wider audience than just the Spurs faithful. Gooners might not like it but Fever Pitch now has a worthy, contemporary bookshelf rival.

Buy it here

What Ever Happened To Billy Parks?

What Ever Happened To Billy Parks?

By Gareth R Roberts

The Friday Project, 2014

whatever happened to billy parks[1]In the lofty world of fiction, few subjects are deemed as fatal as football. And I say that in 2014,nearly a decade after the success of David Peace’s The Damned United. The beautiful game, despite its inextricable ties to human nature and contemporary society, remains the source of exasperating literary pillory. But blessed be the few brave souls who fight the tide. This year, most notably Danny Rhodes took on memories of the Hillsborough disaster in Fan, and Gareth R Roberts inserted a fictional hero into the iconic world of 1960s West Ham United in What Ever Happened to Billy Parks? The former has been a much-heralded success; the latter won a prestigious Fiction Uncovered Award.

Billy Parks might be a footballer, but he is first and foremost an archetypal ‘nearly man’, pained by regret and pining for redemption. He was a highly talented winger in a golden generation, who, through a combination of tragedy, womanising and alcoholism, wasted his opportunities for true greatness. Parks spurned offers from Matt Busby’s Manchester United and Brian Clough’s Derby, and sat helpless on the bench as England failed to qualify for the 1970 World Cup. By the novel’s opening, he’s in his sixties and reduced to sharing stories at a Sportsman’s Lunch for £60, some drinks and, most importantly of all, an afternoon of adoration. Alternating between this often tragic present and his more auspicious past, Billy Parksis (to borrow the most tired of football clichés) a tale of two halves: fame and fortune, fading into reflection and remorse. As with Peace’s portrait of Brian Clough, Roberts’ novel is a moving human drama played out on the sporting stage.

For all his failings and misdemeanours, Billy Parks remains an endearing narrative voice. His aim is true, his personal battles are tough and vivid, and he favours self-knowledge over self-pity. He rues ‘the growing carbuncle that was my ego, drunk on alcohol and adulation’, but makes no excuses for himself. Even in the midst of his most depraved spells, there are small expressions of weakness; ‘just occasionally a black sadness before or during a game, as I grappled with the reality that failure would mean an endless abyss of nothing’. Later on, at death’s door, it’s Parks’ genuine desire to make amends with his daughter and grandson that keeps him sober and alive.

But to focus on the sadness in Billy Parks is to ignore the sense of joy and excitement. The novel is a thorough, loving tribute to a bygone era and most importantly, to the delights of youth. Roberts brilliantly captures the pure ecstasy of that first game (‘There were goals and movement and swear words and arguments and kicks and shoves and I loved it all’) and that first goal (‘I felt my body and mind surge with the glorious fresh air of life’). The inclusion of match stats throughout – date, venue, team line-ups, goalscorers, attendance – is the inspired touch of a writer in his element. The macho invincibility of footballing fame is also well-captured; ‘we drank and revelled in being young and carefree and oh-so-very-very male.’ Parks and his teammates are ‘knights of the round table, the untouchable dynamite dealers of Saturday afternoon’.

And then there’s Roberts’ wildcard, which turns out to be a winner, if perhaps not a trump card. Without saying too much, there’s a mysterious ‘Service’, a very eminent ‘Council of Football Immortals’ and the chance to rewrite history. Just when Billy Parks is cruising along towards traditional ‘memoir’ territory, it takes a left turn into Back To The Future. But worry not, sci-fi sceptics; it’s no giant leap and it’s all in the name of feel-good, football fun. Out of its oddly disparate elements – football, family, love, addiction, regret, nostalgia, comedy, tragedy, fantasy – Billy Parks emerges as both a heart-warming human tale and an engaging sporting narrative. Perhaps Roberts should consider adding manager to barrister and novelist.

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Sol Campbell: The Authorised Biography

Sol Campbell: The Authorised Biography

By Simon Astaire

Spellbinding Media, 2014

‘Sulzeer Jeremiah ‘Sol’ Campbell. Is there a finer English footballer over the last fifty years who has been eyed so suspiciously?’ Simon Astaire’s astute biography of Sol Campbell ends with this most pertinent of semi-rhetorical questions. The former Tottenham and Arsenal centre back is hardly the first footballer to shy away from the limelight; in fact, another famous example was born in that same year of 1974. But whereas Paul Scholes is readily accepted as a quiet, unassuming family man, Sol has always been seen – by friends, teammates and managers – as a man of depth. He is also, through largely no fault of his own, a man of controversy. A claim of assault, a North London betrayal, an episode of depression and an ill-fated stint in League Two all made the headlines, alongside recurring slurs against his race and sexuality. For a private man, Sol Campbell has had a very public career.

Like subject, like book, Sol Campbell: The Authorised Biographyhas had an eventful life so far. Press attention has sadly centred on one sensationalist claim; that racism within the FA prevented Sol from being ‘England captain for more than 10 years’. Appearing to undermine the strong leadership qualities of teammates such as Tony Adams, David Beckham and John Terry, the remark suggested a bitter ex-player voicing long-held grievances now that retirement hadn’t resulted in the kind of opportunities he felt his accolades merited. But thankfully, as Matt Dickinson wrote in his excellent review in The Times, ‘The book deserves far better than to be known for one reckless outburst.’

That ‘outburst’ aside, Sol Campbell offers a considered look at a highly distinguished career. Very few direct criticisms are levelled and even these are mild and reasoned. Wayne Rooney, for example, is condemned for diving but praised for having ‘the imagination to change things’. When it comes to discussing the worst of the Tottenham years, Sol takes no prisoners but names no names: ‘I had muppets as team-mates who were on treble the money.’ Respect is given to both performers and professionals, from half-time smoker David Ginola through to veteran captain Gary Mabbutt. England managers, Arsenal and Portsmouth teammates – all are acknowledged with polite appreciation, if not always overt affection. Present tense narration lends a nice sense of drama to scenes like the historic unveiling at Arsenal but the many high-profile decisions of Campbell’s career are also explained openly and judiciously, from Tottenham’s insufficient ambition (‘I wanted Spurs to show me that they were going to challenge’) to the allure of the Notts County project (‘I liked the idea of being part of the renaissance’).

Penetrating Campbell’s tough football shell, however, is no easy task; he’s not a man who naturally confides his feelings to others, least of all teammates. Lee Dixon sums it up well – ‘I didn’t get to know him and I don’t think anyone really did.’ Life-changing decisions are shared – if at all – with his mother Wilhelmina and his agent and friend Sky Andrew. Until now, that is. ‘Sometimes he would stare at me with a seriously blank expression when I asked something difficult’, biographer Astaire admits in the prologue, ‘but he would eventually open up’. Sol Campbell reveals a man with a deep-rooted emotional fragility. Pressure and hurt build and build inside him until they eventually overflow, as on the night he famously disappeared during half-time of a nightmare performance against West Ham in 2006. ‘The accumulation of storms in his life had finally combined and on that evening hit him so hard and unexpectedly that he had only one choice left. Escape.’

What Astaire does brilliantly is to trace this sensitivity all the way from its roots. Five years younger than the next of his eleven siblings, Campbell was largely left to his own devices as a child, ‘adrift’ as he puts it. Two significant and competing elements of Sol’s character emerge from this upbringing: a fierce independence and a recurring need for appreciation. Whether kicking a tennis ball against the wall in his street or sitting quietly in his front room, Sol’s childhood is dominated by solitude; ‘The calm made me happy. Since then, I’ve always been in search of it’, he confesses. The impact of his father’s very distant parenting style is also felt throughout the story. The care and attention he failed to find at home from Sewell, he held out hope for at Tottenham but while George Graham ‘knew I was a top-notch player…I never felt he rooted for me’. Expressed a different way, ‘The fans may have believed in me but I felt the club didn’t, otherwise they would have done more.’ At Arsenal, Campbell joined a winning mentality but also a family environment with protection and praise from David Dein and Arsene Wenger. Later on, Portsmouth proved another good fit, in part because Harry Redknapp is ‘someone who he felt would manage him in a fatherly way’.

Confidence, determination and focus – in the 21stcentury, the myth of the steadfast sporting mindset is finally being questioned. With this book, Campbell deservedly joins the likes of Robert Enke, Andre Agassi and Marcus Trescothick in a very significant subgenre of sports writing. Yes, key matches are analysed and records are set straight, but the real triumph of Sol Campbell is that ‘The Rock’ is revealed as human after all.