You might know him for his phenomenally popular Football Manager Meets Moneyball series, but Alex Stewart is also a prodigious bookworm and he’ll be joining The Set Pieces this summer as our resident book reviewer. Here, he shares some of his favourite books.
Reading is an odd business. To paraphrase someone on Twitter, you stare at a bunch of squiggles etched onto a collection of bits of pulped tree and then hallucinate for several hours. How much odder then, when the subject of the reading experience is football, a sport that relies as much as any on a combination of movement, immediacy, and communality of experience. None of these things are especially associated with books.
And yet the shelves groan with the weight of a variety of books on football, on footballers, on the history of teams and tactics, and even biographies where individual experiences, maybe growing up in a particular family or overcoming an illness, are refracted through the lens of football. There’s clearly an appetite for football writing of all sorts.
It can’t simply be because the thirst for football-centric ephemera is so great as to be unquenchable. Especially in the social media age and the ascendency of the blogosphere, more words and time have been dedicated to the beautiful game then ever before, perhaps so much that its beauty is diminished by over-familiarity; your partner always looks so much lovelier when you’ve not seen them for a few days, but in the present time, football seems and feels ineluctable.
Perhaps, however, there’s something too short-term about this sort of football-satiation. The number of books and their popularity suggests we want a deeper connection, a more lasting period of immersion into things football-related than a few Vines or a 600 word blog post can give us. This is why the best football writing connects at a deeper level than just a presentation of facts.
Now, what follows is, of course, subjective. I won’t pretend to know what all of you are looking for in football writing and my tastes can’t and shouldn’t be everyone else’s. Take, for example, Jonathan Wilson, one of the contemporary greats of football writing. His classic Inverting the Pyramid is encyclopaedic, detailed, and, at times, a little starchy. There’s no doubt that as a textbook of football tactics, layered with history and anecdotes, it’s pretty unsurpassable and a must-read.
For me, though, The Outsider, his history of goalkeepers, is a far more enjoyable book. The detail and history is there, in spades, but it is the personal aspect that resonates most clearly. I used to be a goalkeeper, which helps. By putting personalities front and centre, while skilfully weaving in the development of various styles of keeping and, brilliantly, shedding a light on parts of football history often neglected like great African ‘keepers, Wilson makes the subject both deep and relatable. It’s a masterful book.
Of course, histories or narratives can have great personal detail written into them. Joe McGuinniss’ The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, the tale of a tiny team’s heady first season in Serie B, is tempered by tragedy and the author’s own personal experiences of living in the small, close-knit Italian community in a rough part of the Abruzzo region. We can recognise the universality of the appeal of the footballing story, but it is the touches of the reality of life outside football that really take hold of the reader and draw them so profoundly into this mix of success and sadness.
Perhaps the apogee of this more personal style of writing is Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow. In typically lyrical South American style, Galeano (like McGuinniss, a so-called ‘serious’ journalist with a fanatic’s passion for football) explores his own relationship with the game through a series of short, sometimes no more than a few lines, recollections, apothegms, observations, and comments. His subject is moments of great play, of players, of the sport itself, and the way he and society at large relate to it. The beauty of the book is not simply in the writing, which touches the sublime at times, but because while we might not share his recollections or experiences, our own thoughts are given a poetic frame and point of reference by his take on the sport.
Arthur Hopcraft’s wonderful The Football Man similarly speaks to us, though in a pleasantly sepia-tinted voice (if that’s not a horribly mixed metaphor), recalling a by-gone, perhaps a halcyon era of the sport with measured but vibrant prose.
Histories of the game itself, or of great teams or seasons, can be dry affairs. Often, unless you support a particular team, you have no interest in why they did so well or so badly in a particular period. Some team-specific histories transcend this, and I’m thinking here of Amy Lawrence’s Invincible, about the Arsenal team who earned that epithet with an unbeaten season. A combination of extraordinary access and insight, and Lawrence’s prose, which is both passionate and crystalline in its descriptions of play itself, elevates this beyond a standard blow-by-blow account of a season.
So too David Goldblatt’s The Ball Is Round, which is possibly the best known of all football books and deservedly so: it is a work of erudition and depth which moves at a lively pace despite its length. A mention too should be given to his recent work on what has gone wrong with the English game, The Game of Our Lives, which is at times searing in its critique and profound in its insight.
Of course, not all football books are created equal, and two genres I especially dislike are biographies and hooligan books, which I suppose by genre fit into football books, albeit tenuously. Biographies are often rose-tinted, autobiographies self-congratulatory. We want to be close to our heroes and feel connected, but the barriers erected by ghost writers, by clubs, by, in some instances, the snarling egos of the players themselves, rarely present a true account.
Two honourable exceptions to this that I have read are Tony Cascarino’s autobiography, Full Time, which is honest and open and devoid of any self-reverence at all, and Ronald Reng’s incredible biography of Robert Enke, A Life Too Short. Enke, a talented goalkeeper at the top of his game committed suicide after struggling with depression. The book is unsparingly honest, beautifully tender, and provides an insight into the illness that is rarely matched by any treatment of the subject.
It’s also worth mentioning Michael Tierney’s The First Game With My Father, about his dad’s catastrophic stroke and how football provided a bridge for communication and a shared identity that allowed them both to cope better with the ordeal.
Hooligan books are a staple and seem to arrive regularly on the shelves. The celebration of violence and aggression, which was in itself terrible but also did great damage to the game and its reputation, strikes me as fairly pathetic. Every chapter is a litany of drunk people steaming into each other and celebrating the fact. For an interesting look at the subject, though, Bill Burford’s Among The Thugs is well worth a read. Written when he was editor of literary magazine Granta, Burford follows a firm and narrates with passion the complex position of football hooligans, the mix of belonging and alienation, the social ramifications, and the lure of violence alongside a group of like-minded individuals. It does not glorify their actions at all, but it provides significantly more insight than the majority of thugalogues.
So while books are by their nature a subjective thing, I suppose we all look for tone, clarity, honesty, and a subject that means something to us. The books that have resonated with me have always stepped beyond the sport in some way, whether in terms of the personal, the historical, or providing an individual expression of a near universal experience, the watching of football. Perhaps it’s impossible to objectively state what constitutes good writing, but for whatever it is worth, the books listed above have led to some of my most rewarding experiences with pulped trees and weird squiggles.
You can follow Alex Stewart on Twitter (@AFHStewart)