A review of 2014’s best football books
The end of the calendar year can only mean one thing: review after review after review! If you’re stuck for a stocking filler for the football fans in your life, Tom Simmonds’ review of some of the best football books to emerge in 2014 could be just the thing.
The World Cup loomed from January to June, and brought the inevitable slew of tomes released, to coincide with its arrival. The tale of a past team from a nation who did not qualify for Brazil was the most compelling. This was Danish Dynamite – the story of Denmark’s 1980s team – co-written by Rob Smyth, Lars Eriksen and Mike Gibson.
Danish Dynamite reveals how Sepp Piontek – a paternalistic yet indulgent German coach – took charge of an unprofessional Danish set-up in 1979 and turned them into one of the leading forces in European football. This fast-paced yarn looks affectionately at how Piontek’s pragmatism provided the platform for Preben Elkjaer and company to make Denmark sparkle in Euro 84 and Mexico 86, and how Piontek’s managerial architecture enabled Denmark’s Euro 92 triumph.
Sticking with managerial architects, Invincible – Amy Lawrence’s account of Arsene Wenger’s great Arsenal team who survived the 2003-04 league season undefeated – appeared in October. Lawrence ensures that her account transcends one-dimensional hero worship by centring the narrative on how Wenger and his staff put the conditions in place for such an achievement to be possible.
It’s into this that Lawrence delves deepest; Wenger’s revamp of their outdated training ground into a place players actually wanted to be upon arrival, his much discussed dietary changes as well as his philosophy of signing players who could “respond with intelligence” to difficulty are all recurring themes.
The most interesting sections arrive when Lawrence’s interviewees talk about times of difficulty. She stitches together intriguing vignettes about the galvanising effect of the infamous ‘Battle of Old Trafford’ and the halting performances in the final league games after securing the title. This infuses this team’s achievements with the human element that instant reporting of such deeds can often overlook.
Two football autobiographies stood out in 2014 as particularly intriguing. Enough has been written about Andrea Pirlo’s I Think Therefore I Play already, so the focus is on former Dundee United and Rangers midfielder Ian Redford’s autobiography Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.
Redford’s story is not easy reading, made harder by knowing that he committed suicide shortly after its publication. A sense that something was unresolved in Redford persists throughout, as he writes superbly and movingly about his younger brother’s death, his remote father, keeping his deafness in one ear a secret while playing, and his mental health struggles. This is an important and eloquent statement by a man who you can’t help but thinking was writing as a way to try to convince himself to keep going.
Finally, it might seem strange to name Paul Rees’ The Three Degrees as a book to lighten the mood but, as a reminder of football’s ability to serve as a neutraliser of prejudice, it does a fine job. This account of Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham and Brendon Batson’s integration into Ron Atkinson’s West Brom side of 1978-79, provides a vivid reminder of two things. The first is the way their ability helped West Brom to become genuine title contenders.
The second is the backdrop of overt racism – in both, football grounds and around the country in general – against which the three men began their top level careers. An episode where Cunningham is attacked in the street by three racist West Brom fans who become immediately apologetic when they realise who they have set upon, is particularly jolting.
Rees’ book is a celebration of their achievements in breaking illogical establishment thinking about the qualities of black footballers, and bearing what was a monstrous weight on their shoulders. The tragedy of Cunningham’s death at 33 as an unhappy, anchorless man lends a poignant counterpoint to Batson’s huge professional success and Regis’ contentment after finding religion, leaves an unsatisfactory hole in their legacy. However, football isn’t very good at neat resolutions – as all of these tales demonstrate in one way or another.
What are the best football books you have read in 2014? Has Tom made any glaring omissions in his selection?
Read more from Tom Simmonds here.
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