Summer Reading: Six Summer Soccer Reads
With the Christmas/New Year break upon us you may be looking for something to pick up after finishing with the 2016 Almanac. Here are some personal favourites of the round ball game that you may have already read or feel you should get around to reading.
A SEASON WITH VERONA-Tim Parks (2002)
Hellas Verona will never lift a European Cup or unveil a $100million signing any time soon. In fact in recent times they were bankrupt and had been sent from Italy’s top level Serie A all the way down to the C grade to start over again before finally making it back to the top division in 2014.
Before then though a Verona based English teacher called Tim Parks decided to follow the team around to every game during the 2000/01 season in Serie A. His first trip was a hellish 11 hour one way bus ride to the south of the country with coked up and drunk ‘ultras’ suspecting he’s an undercover cop as they worked their way down the boot avoiding roadblocks and arrest warrants for a couple of passengers.
From there as Hellas Verona picked up a point here and the occasional win there as a Serie A struggler Parks takes the reader through all aspects of football in Italy and its cultural significance with everyday life. There’s the North-South divide, the issues on immigration (a lot of Hellas ultras are fascists) along with the supposed view by the smaller clubs that the giants like Inter, Milan, Juve, Roma et al are protected species.
This book is great because it not only gives some back story and depth to a league many Premier League fan boys still do not know a lot about but Parks gets you involved with him getting to know the players, the Ultras, the culture of the club and the seriousness of Italian Football in a time when Serie A was still the top league in the world.
If the book can be described in one quote it is perhaps “I l calcio è al cuore di tutto” (football is at the heart of everything.) An educational and unique read.
THE DAMNED UNITED-David Peace (2006)
One thing you learn early in his book is that legendary football manager, drunkard and socialist Brian Clough hated Don Revie and his Leeds United side….HATED them. So why did Clough go to Leeds United as manager in 1974? Some would say spite, some would say because he wanted Leeds to win without cheating but his short reign at Elland Road is the stuff of legend.
This book is a somewhat ‘factional’ account on what may have happened in those 44 days that Clough was manager of then then brutal yet successful Leeds side who had lost Revie to the England job. Clough was a brilliant player but a knee injury ended his career early so he went in to management becoming loud, brash and desperate for attention like a modern day reality TV contestant in a time when managers were more like policemen or funeral directors. If I describe him as a cross of Mohammed Ali and Ian Paisley then we might be getting close to what he was first becoming famous for taking little Derby Country from the second division to Division 1 champions.
The collective fantasy Peace goes in to paints Clough as obsessed with ‘Dirty Leeds’ from his time at Derby and turning them in a side that plays the game as it should be played rather than a team of shin kicking mercenaries. The initial meeting between Clough and the Leeds players when he tries to become the alpha male is one many great moments in his book that is more about what happens in the change rooms and offices rather than on the pitch. Clough knew from the outset he couldn’t change the soul of a team but he went ahead it with it anyway in a great example of the man’s self-destructive streak. Clough was also missing his close friend and muse Peter Taylor who had vital to his success at Derby before a falling out over the Leeds job.
Whilst Peace does raid fact for fiction smartly using many names of people now passed away to avoid law suits it’s a tremendous act of ventriloquism to paint Clough the way he does and while Clough’s widow did publically denounce the book you do think that Clough perhaps may have been quietly chuffed with how is portrayed in this book as a man of deafening principles and brashness beyond even a modern day NBA star. The movie is fantastic but the book is superior and well worth the read.
BACK FROM THE BRINK-Paul McGrath (2006)
A vast majority of footballer’s autobiographies are, to be honest, generic crap and an exercise in marketing and exploiting an image with the help of ghost writers. One to break the mould and celebrate triumph and tragedy is a book on Irish footballing legend Paul McGrath ghost-written by Vincent Hogan and a winner of numerous sports writing awards.
McGrath played in 83 games for Ireland that included two World Cups along with a club career that took him to Manchester United and Aston Villa where he commanded his defences with an iron fist and made three successful trips to Wembley. His injury problems were well known (playing with a dislocated shoulder against Italy in Ireland’s most famous ever win and having no cartilage in his knees after 8 operations) but it was his off field issues that makes his career even more remarkable.
McGrath was born to an Irish mother and Nigerian father with the latter doing a runner shortly in to the pregnancy thus forcing his mother Betty to give him up for fostering seeing as he was classed as ‘illegitimate’ in a country where Guinness was the only other thing that was black. His time in orphanages was made all the more upsetting by random visits from his mother and the death of his half-sister resulting in occasional breakdowns before his focus on football levelled him out mentally for a brief time.
Alcohol was always prevalent during his career though as he self-medicated and immersed himself in to the 80s lad drinking culture at United living an ‘on the edge existence’. He admits that he often played games drunk holding his breath around the manager. He also had numerous benders that resulted in arrests and disputes with his now ex-wife and never really overcame the trauma of his childhood. Yet despite all this he is still nicknamed ‘God’ in Birmingham with Villa fans and back in Ireland where he was part of a remarkable team that finally delivered on the world stage. Not really a triumph of spirit, not really a happy ending of recovery and self-discovery but it is a riveting and sometimes harrowing read on a cult figure of the game.
MY FAVOURITE YEAR: A Collection of Football Writing (1993)
This year’s Footy Almanac is about ‘being more bulldog’. It’s about those long suffering sons of the west finally having their day in the sun and will be a great read. Great reads do not have to be about redemption and drought breaking though. ‘My Favourite Year’ is a collection of short stories put together by Nick Hornby from various writers about their most memorable season even though near all of them do not result in a trophy or a parade or anything near a Fever Pitch like ending of Arsenal snatching the league at Anfield.
Commitments author Roddy Doyle kicks things off with his story of Ireland at the 1990 World Cup in Italy where he and his countrymen finally found it worth their time having a vested interest in following their national team after so many false dawns (sound familiar?). Doyle’s insistence that his going to the toilet always helped Ireland is put in to theory:
‘I was pressing my forehead against the tiles and trying to remember the second half of the Hail Mary when it happened: the rush of human noise pushed open the Gents door. Either we’d scored or Lineker had run into a goalpast. My vigil was over. I didn’t wash my hands.’
Scottish Writer Harry Ritchie watched his beloved Raith Rovers have their best season in decades from his London bedsit watching in wonder as his side featured in their first ever extended highlights game on BBC Sportscentre, the Raith Rovers line up all over his TV screen in vivid graphics in a 2001 space odyssey monolith-like moment.
Then there’s Olly Wicken on his golden year as a Watford ball boy (with a few white lies), Ed Horton on his role in making sure the Maxwell Empire didn’t kill his beloved Oxford United in the early 90s while Matt Nation refers to Bristol City in the late 80s as a jealous wife while he flirted with Chelsea and ‘felt dirty afterwards’. A personal favourite of mine is Don Watson befriending a skinhead lovingly dubbed ‘Psycho Mike’ and concocting an elaborate story of taking Ice Skating lessons so he could follow Leeds United around the country during their early-mid seventies heyday as a young teenager nearly being beaten stupid on numerous occasions and forming a cold war like friendship with his violent new mate.
What makes this book so great is the acknowledged hopelessness yet the writers are at the level of acceptance that winning the third division or making the last eight of a World Cup is probably as good as it’s going to get and thus should be celebrated. Only one story out of all of these actually almost hits a massive high but it’s more about the reasoning as to why someone would support a Boro, Raith Rovers or Bristol City as an organic process rather than because they win trophies.
A thoroughly recommended read as it’s one of the most accurate celebrations of the hapless football fan.
SHOOT OUT. PASSION AND POLITICS OF SOCCER’S FIGHT FOR SURVIVAL IN AUSTRALIA: Ross Solly (2006)
While Brian Clough had a self-destructive streak the sport in this country was on suicide watch for decades. No more so than in the early 2000s when the money dried up, Machiavelli-like grubs held on to positions of power at the then Soccer Australia and the National Soccer League was on life support propped up by new boys Perth Glory. Then John Howard stepped in with an inquiry, funding and a goal to get back Frank Lowy and cut the heads of the sport dealing with what was left.
Former ABC Canberra presenter Solly looks at the history of the Governing body of the sport in this country and its constant ability to shoot itself in the foot despite many golden opportunities. It gets so bad it starts to be amusing in a ‘clown running across a minefield’ kind of way. There’s the powerbrokers like Neville Wran, David Hill and Nick Greiner who tried and ultimately failed to help the sport walking way disillusioned. This was mainly thanks to the ones who claimed to be the big fans running the game but were gutting from inside out like Tony Labozetta and Basil Scarsella et al who held on in various positions until removed pretty much being dragged out before the bitter end.
It’s a literary version of a car crash reading what went on and a minor miracle that the sport enjoys success today along with being the most played sport in Australia at club level so it is for these reasons this book is worth tracking down. Love or hate Frank Lowy in recent years with his control of the game his return like a prodigal son and the help from the then Federal Government helped save the sport in this country.
A HISTORY OF FOOTBALL IN AUSTRALIA: Roy Hay and Bill Murray (2014)
Something perhaps worth reading if want a more positive look at the history of the sport in this country is Roy Hay and Bill Murray’s very involved read. The game did start in places like the Hunter Valley and other mining or industrial centers as game for the working classes to play before spreading to the suburbs with the arrivals of the new Australians after World War Two. Now with the Socceroos and Matildas a force and a viable national league system the book encapsulates the varied history of the sport and how it came to be with painstakingly intricate detail.
The book is not without its controversies. Discussion is held on whether poor governance or the whole ‘ethnic/foreign game’ stigma are to blame for the game being such a basketcase for long periods of time and not being the number one sport like other countries. One thing is for certain, the game has always been blighted by politics. Despite that it’s a chance to celebrate some wonderful people who played the game such as a Joe Marston, the activist Charlie Perkins and later pioneers like Eddie Knecevic who was one of the first to play in Europe ushering in new generations who do so to this day.
There is one constant linear through the book which is immigration and the problem of integration in to the national identity but it shows off a rich history many would not know about which therefore makes it is a book worth chasing up. It is more of a hardcover coffee table type book so maybe not the best one to take to Peaceful Bar between Christmas and New Year to read on the beach but if want to know more about the history of Australian Football then look no further than this publication.