Recommended Reading II: Best Books for Christmas 2020

It’s that time of the year again, when people’s thoughts turn to “What am I going to buy for Christmas presents?”

It’s going to be a strange Christmas, with the traditional family gathering not happening in many cases – certainly in mine I’m going to be spending Christmas in Spain for the first time as the mandatory quarantine makes travelling home slightly pointless.

So maybe more than any Christmas before, sitting inside reading a good book might be the most appealing course of action.

Just as I did last year, to assist you with Christmas shopping for the football fans in your life (or if you simply want to Treat Yo’self) I’ve come up with a selection of ten of the best football books I’ve read this year.

They’re not all new ones, indeed some have been out for years and I’ve either re-read them for the millionth time, or in some cases I’m shockingly late to the party on them.

Also – as the shops all put up their Black Friday/Black Week/Black Month advertising, just remember that this year has been tough on retailers and if you can, try to support your local high street bookstore – they need it much more than online retailers, regardless of how convenient they are!

So here we go, my selection of ten great books for Christmas 2020!

Morbo – Phil Ball

It feels appropriate given my current location to start with a book about Spanish football and Phil Ball’s Morbo is one of the best that has ever been written.

I’m not entirely sure when I bought my copy of this, it was definitely sometime in the mid-2000’s when I spent a lot of time travelling up and down to university on trains and would usually take advantage of Waterstones’ constant 3 for 2 offers to liven up my journeys.

This is one which obviously stood out to me with the iconic cover photo of Figo taking a corner in his all white Real Madrid kit with a policeman in the foreground (pig’s head possibly out of shot) and of course, the intriguing title.

It looks at the history of Spanish football through some of its biggest clubs and regional rivalries. There are chapters focusing on Real Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Seville’s two big clubs, the Basque Country, Galicia and wait for it… Recre! Little did I know as I sat reading this on the train between Belfast and Coleraine all those years ago that I would be living in Spain a decade later and would have visited all of those places I was reading about.

The only downside to the book is that this particular edition is now rather outdated, coming in the midst of the Galactico/Super Depor/Spain the perennial disappointment at major tournaments era – I believe there is an updated edition available, which presumably dates from after the 2010 World Cup given the picture of a jubilant Carles Puyol that adorns its cover – but I still enjoy reading it as the cultural details never change, the Spain I live in now is still very much the same one I enjoyed reading about a decade and a half ago.

And if you’re looking for a primer on Spain and its football culture, I’d definitely recommend you to pick up a copy for yourself!

Welcome to Hell? – John McManus

One of my very early football memories is the reception Manchester United received when they arrived in Istanbul to play Galatasaray in a Champions League tie. Smoke bombs, flares, assorted missiles, throat-slitting gestures and most notoriously, a banner which read “Welcome to Hell”.

Throughout my early years as a football fan, this was the image of Turkish football that was most commonly seen around the world, culminating in the deaths of two Leeds United fans in the same city before a UEFA Cup semi-final in 2000.

Aside from those incidents Turkey has been a bit of a blind spot in regards my knowedge of the game in Europe but I found John McManus’ book an excellent crash course, not just in the big three of Galatasary, Fenerbahče and Besiktas, but in shedding light on some of the less well-known clubs in the country.

Indeed, it’s when dealing with some of the lesser lights that the book really excels. One of my favourite chapters deals with the city of Izmir and its Levantine community, descendants of Western European’s who settled in the old Ottoman Empire’s largest port.

And it does shed valuable light on the current political situation in the country and how President Erdogan has made football such an important part of his plans for Turkey.

The only sad thing is that I finished this book just as we were heading into lockdown, so any dreams I had of visiting Istanbul in the near future had to be put on hold.

One Thousand Miles to Jamor – Filipe D’Avillez

This is one of my favourite new books I’ve read this year and one which I’m sure I’ll revisit on a regular basis.

The idea is an extremely simple, yet brilliant one. D’Avillez follows the story of the 2018/19 Taça de Portugal from the first round right up to Sporting’s dramatic victory over Porto in the final.

In the first round he attends one of the matches involving a team from the Azores, the islands which lie about 1,000 miles from Lisbon and the Estádio Nacional where the final will take place – hence the title of the book.

Writing on Portuguese football tends to be dominated by the Big Three clubs and the personalities of the game, so one of the Real highlights here is the focus on smaller clubs in the early part of the book and the inclusion of many personal stories.

The description of the day of the Portuguese Cup Final, with fans gathering in the forest park which surrounds the Estádio Nacional, is brilliant and has really made me want to experience that at least once in my life. I was in Porto when the Taça final was held this year (sadly behind closed doors in Coimbra rather than the traditional venue, but the celebrations as Os Dragoes clinched a domestic double were a sight to behold.

Mister – Rory Smith

The story of how British coaches took football around the world is a fascinating one and it’s brilliantly told by Rory Smith.

Some of the stories are ones which are familiar to anyone who has a passing knowledge of the early days of football around the world. Fred Pentland is an iconic figure in the history of Athletic Club, Jimmy Hogan’s influence on Central European football and ultimately the great Hungarian team of the 1950’s is almost legendary.

I enjoyed learning about Jack Greenwell, an important early figure in the history of Barcelona and Vic Buckingham, who in the 1960’s was arguably responsible for setting in place the footballing philosophy that connects both Ajax and Barcelona to this day. Then there’s George Raynor, the first English coach to lead his team to a World Cup Final, Sweden in 1958, and former manager of Serie A giants Juventus and Lazio, but someone who struggled to get any kind of management work in his home country.

Most of these men are connected by one thing – their progressive thinking – and Smith paints a portrait of them being frustrated by a reactionary, conservative Football Association at home, but received with open arms abroad.

The book also takes a look at some more modern examples of coaches who went abroad – the famous examples of Bobby Robson, who enjoyed great success in the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain, John Toshack, who managed numerous La Liga teams, and Terry Venables, who brought the league title back to Barcelona and came down close to bringing them their much-desired first European Cup, along with less successful exports such as Ron Atkinson at Atlético Madrid.

It even has a foreword by Roy Hodgson, whose formative years as a coach were spent in Sweden and who went on to coach Switzerland at the 1994 World Cup and have a couple of stints in Serie A, most notably with Inter.

Ultra – Tobias Jones

Back in the depths of lockdown, I had a lot more time than usual to immerse myself in reading and this is one which I got totally lost in.

Ultra is a look at the history of fan culture in Italian football – one of my favourite themes – anyone who watches Serie A can’t help but be in awe of the massive pre-match choreographies and tifos put on by the various Ultra groups.

But as Jones goes deeper into the subject, the connections between the ultras and the darker side of Italian life become more and more explicit. The portrayal of the violence is unflinching throughout and the links between the fans and organised crime and far-right political causes are made explicit through some of the more infamous individuals and organisations of the scene such as Lazio’s irreducibles.

Some of these groups grew to almost as much, if not more, of an influence over the running of the club than the presidents.

Interspersed through the rest of the narrative are tales from the ultras of Cosenza, a small club in the south of Italy, who in contrast to the majority are left-leaning and extremely socially conscious and are led by a monk, Padre Fidele, who is one of the most memorable characters in the book.

It’s a thoroughly absorbing read, even though the material is not always comfortable.

Forever Young – Oliver Kay

Forever Young is a book I purchased late last year and it took a long time for me to get round to reading it. That was a mistake on my part.

Oliver Kay’s book tells the story of “the best player you’ve never heard of” Adrian Doherty, who was a contemporary of Ryan Giggs in the Man Utd youth team and was rated by many of the people who saw him play as a far better player than the man who would go on to become the most decorated player in the history of English football.

Coming over to Manchester from his home in Strabane as a teenager, Doherty initially struggled to settle, feeling out of place among the alpha male culture of the youth teams. Kay paints a portrait of an intelligent inquisitive young man, who although he was a supremely talented footballer, his true loves were poetry and music and he could often be found busking on the streets of Manchester.

Unfortunately for Doherty, disaster struck in the form of a serious knee injury just as he was about to make his first team breakthrough. A recurrence of the injury ended his career at Old Trafford and in 1993, just as United won the inaugural Premier League title, he left the club without having played a single senior game. Indeed his entire senior football career consisted of a few largely unhappy appearances for Derry City in the League of Ireland in 1993.

In his post-football life, he moved around, working in a number of jobs, before his tragic early death in the Netherlands aged 26.

For all the thoughts of what might have been, it seems Doherty had no regrets about the path his career too. “What a lot of people don’t realise is that the years from 20 to 26, after he left football, were the happiest of Adrian’s life,” says his brother Gareth.

It’s a powerful and moving story and one which is well worth reading.

World Football Club Crests – Leonard Jägersköld Nilsson

What’s in a badge? Quite a lot actually.

This is an excellent guide to the history and symbolism behind some of the most famous club crests in the world of football.

All the clubs featured have a brief overview of their history followed by a look at the different historical crests used by the club, including special variations for important anniversaries and tracking the changes over the years.

It also tackles the controversy that usually accompanies any kind of change in a traditional design, from Atlético fans’ unrest at the modernisation of their crest prior to the move to the Wanda Metropolitano, to the outpouring of rage which accompanied Vincent Tan’s full-scale rebranding of Cardiff City, swapping the Bluebird for a red Dragon and changing the colours of the kit to boot.

The Turning Season – Michael Wagg

The secretive world of the German Democratic Republic – or East Germany as it is better known – has always been fascinating to me, even more so since I visited Berlin in 2017 and saw the country’s former perennial champions Dynamo Berlin playing in the United country’s fourth tier.

So when I heard there was a book covering the country’s football around the 1989/90 season, it was a must-read for me.

1989/90 is the “turning season” of the title – it wasn’t the final season of the DDR Oberliga, it would continue on into 1990/91 before its clubs were absorbed into the Bundesliga, but this was the year that really changed everything.

Michael Wagg visits each of the clubs involved in that pivotal season thirty years on, most of whom are now scrapping around in the lower levels of the German football pyramid, a far cry from how they used to regularly win trophies and take on the giants of European football.

These days the only eastern clubs in the top flight are Union Berlin, who were never a major force in the DDR era and RB Leipzig, who didn’t even exist until almost 20 years after the Berlin Wall came down.

The fact the book mentions Coleraine and their mid-80’s UEFA Cup tie with Stahl Brandenburg is an added bonus!

Sacre Bleu: From Zidane to Mbappé – A Football Journey – Matt Spiro

A superb look back at 20 years which saw French football climb the highest peaks of achievement by winning the World Cup in 1998 and 2018 and in between plumb the depths of embarrassment and disgrace.

As the title suggests, a lot of the book is focused on French football’s biggest icon, Zinedine Zidane, and the player who many believe will go on to dominate the next decade, Kylian Mbappé. Mbappé was actually born a few months after Zidane’s double in the 1998 World Cup Final against Brazil and the story of his early life and development as a footballer is told against the backdrop of a French team which lurched from crisis to crisis in the turbulent reigns of Raymond Domenech and Laurent Blanc, before World Cup winning captain Didier Deschamps brought some stability and laid the foundations for their ultimate victory in Russia.

It covers a lot of the same ground as the excellent Les Bleus documentary I saw on Netflix a couple of years ago, although of course, it has the advantage of continuing the story after Euro 2016 and including the emergence of Mbappé and the 2018 World Cup won which serves as a much better ending than the shock defeat by Portugal.

The Damned Utd – David Peace

Football and fiction don’t always work well together – think of the infamous Steve Bruce murder mystery trilogy – so what about a fictionalised version of real events?

Brian Clough is one of the most interesting characters in the history of British football and David Peace’s 2006 novel presents a fictionalised version of the most controversial stage of his career, the 44 days he spent in charge of Leeds United.

Clough has been openly critical of Leeds’ style of play and their previous manager Don Revie, and reportedly told the players at his first training session that they could throw all the medals they’d won in the bin because they’d won them by cheating. So it’s not a massive surprise he wasn’t successful there.

Peace’s narrative follows those fateful 44 days through Clough’s internal monologue as he feels more and more isolated without his usual assistant Peter Taylor and becomes ever more paranoid that people are waiting to stab him in the back as the results continue to get worse. This is intercut with flashbacks to his successful time managing Derby County, which show the background to his obsession with getting one over on Revie, which would ultimately lead to the fateful decision to take the Leeds job to try and win “better” than he had.

It was made into a film 11 years ago, featuring a spot-on rendition of Clough by Michael Sheen, but it also smoothed off some of the rougher edges of the novel, which Clough’s family had always been unhappy with, but it has to be said that the book’s portrayal of obsession and descent into near-madness is much more powerful.

A few years ago, Peace returned to this theme for “Red or Dead” which focuses on Bill Shankly after he stood down from Liverpool, but it’s not really in the same class as it’s predecessor – a mid-table club compared to a Champions League contender.

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