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 2015 could be just the thing.
Michael Calvin has established himself as the premier chronicler of the human side of football with his previous works Family – centred around Millwall’s 2009/10 promotion season – and The Nowhere Men – a superb look at the lives of scouts.
Calvin’s latest effort is Living on the Volcano, which gives several football managers a stage to present themselves as fully formed human beings. It does not disappoint. Calvin gives his subjects plenty of opportunity to shine or trip themselves up, in the form of lengthy, warts-and-all interviews. It is inevitably those who allow themselves to discuss and engage with their own vulnerabilities that emerge as the most sympathetic characters. Martin Ling, back in management at Swindon Town, talks about his depression with disarming candour. In giving us the details of Joe Dunne’s tough childhood alongside his chat with the current Cambridge assistant manager and former manager of Colchester it allows Dunne to present himself as a highly intelligent, rounded and thoroughly humane man.
Calvin’s framing of Dunne’s story sums up Living on the Volcano in microcosm; he ensures that those who merit the praise have their decency brought to the fore. He also does not sugar-coat the words of those who come across as inflexible and stuck in another era (former Tranmere manager Micky Adams, for example), making clear demarcations between his subjects and allowing the reader to appreciate the difference between old-school managers and the modern breed, as well as highlighting the flexibility of those of the old-school, such as Luton’s John Still, who have been able to adapt successfully to the modern game.
The former Shrewsbury, Hereford and Crawley player Ben Smith’s autobiography Journeyman is a fine antidote to the numerous glossy, ghost-written football autobiographies that dominate display space at this time of year. Smith gives an unflinching insight into life as a player in the lower divisions and is remarkably honest in admitting both his limitations as a player – which began to become apparent while Smith was in Arsenal’s youth team – and mistakes he made along the way.
Particularly interesting are the passages at the end of each chapter where he diarises his struggle to make a new life for himself as a PE and ICT teacher and gives us a stark insight into the fears and feelings of inadequacy which were plaguing him once the uncertainty of his post-professional life had set in. Smith does tend to lapse into over-description of matches he was involved in, but his insights make that forgivable. Particularly enjoyable are the accounts of Steve Evans’ antics when Smith played under him at Crawley.
Another landmark in football literature emerged late in the year, in the form of Raphael Honigstein’s Das Reboot, which gives the inside track on how German football pulled itself out of the rut it found itself in at the start of the century to fashion the World Cup winning side of 2014. The first essential book about German football, Uli Hesse’s Tor!, was first published in 2002. Honigstein’s book is now the second essential work on the subject.
The moral of Das Reboot’s story is one of not losing faith in a process and not to resist change if it is clear that change needs to happen. When the DFB turned to Jurgen Klinsmann and Joachim Low after Euro 2004 when Ottmar Hitzfeld turned the job down, the national mood in Germany was one of cynicism towards Klinsmann’s fitness-oriented methods. Honigstein is clear that the changes Klinsmann and Low made were a large part of what helped to create an environment which allowed Germany’s current golden generation to be successful, and for the team to be seen as a representation of a modern, progressive German nation that has moved away from its grim past. Accounts from players, DFB officials and, best of all, former national coach Dieter Weise, as well as Honigstein’s fine writing and acute analysis, bring his account alive. It should be required reading for any football administrator anywhere.
Emy Onuora’s Pitch Black garnered much publicity upon its release in April when a quote from the book hit the press, stating that Graham Taylor, the then England manager, had told the former Birmingham player Richie Moran that two unnamed members of the FA had instructed him to “not pick too many black players” for England.
Onuora argues throughout that, while overt racism has largely been eradicated from the game, unconscious racial bias certainly hasn’t and that this bias is still a powerful force among powerbrokers in football and in the media. Onuora talks extensively to BAME footballers from different eras to compile an arsenal of material in support of his argument. Onuora concludes by applying this argument to the hottest issue concerning race in football at the moment: the lack of BAME coaches working in the game.
His argument is convincing, and its cogency is Pitch Black’s biggest achievement. As a piece of football writing it also works in the sense that the vignettes he presents are a good starting point for somebody who wants to learn more about the struggles BAME players have faced across generations, though some of the stories (those of Paul Canoville and Brendon Batson, Laurie Cunningham and Cyrille Regis of West Brom) are covered in more depth in other books.
What are the best football books you have read in 2015? Has Tom made any glaring omissions in his selection?
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