If you only had to take a handful of books to a desert island, these are the ones you should be packing. The following top 10 represent the greatest football books ever published; how many of them have you read?
10. Living on the Volcano
The Secrets Of Surviving As A Football Manager – Michael Calvin, 2015
What makes the modern manager tick? How does the pressure of a budget of millions affect a person? What’s left of a man when his job of years is taken away instantly? This fascinating insight into leading football managers’ lives reveals precisely what things are like at the epicentre of the chaos that is our favoured game.
A collection of portraits are neatly interwoven as some of the leading helmsmen in English club football talk candidly about their route to the top, the day-to-day and what they stand for in one-to-one interviews with the author. Among the men featured are Alan Pardew, Garry Monk, Mark Hughes, England U21 caretaker coach Aidy Boothroyd and that great hope of the English coaching fraternity, Eddie Howe.
And you’ll learn a lot more than just about coaching football: there are lessons for life here between the tales of obsession, camaraderie and primal competitive oneupmanship. Constant introspection and a fixation with detail remain rolling themes across all of Calvin’s subjects. “This job consumes your life. It eats you up, it really does,” explains one. Gregor MacGregor
The Brazilian Way of Life – Alex Bellos, 2002
The format was familiar: by the time Futebol appeared, in 2002, we’d already enjoyed excellent books on football in one country by David Winner (Holland) and Phil Ball (Spain), with several others in the pipeline. Yet nobody had tackled the ultimate football country since the American sociologist Janet Lever wrote the obscure but wonderful Soccer Madness in 1983.
What makes Futebol special is its legwork – Alex Bellos is a Stakhanovite. In dangerous countries like Brazil, there are foreign correspondents who never leave town, and barely even their neighbourhood, except to go to the airport for the flight home. But Bellos travels around Brazil as if it were Luxembourg.
Not only does he speak to everyone – the man who designed Brazil’s yellow-blue-white strip, the man who scored the winner against Brazil in the 1950 final, beauty queens, priests – but he also goes everywhere and does everything. He visits three Brazilians playing for a club in a village of 1,000 people in the Faroe Islands. He appears in the Sao Paulo carnival for the samba school of Corinthians’ hardcore fans, wearing purple feathers. Futebol’s hundreds of interviews, facts, drawings, photographs and even maps will spare researchers trouble for generations to come.
There are problems. When Bellos wrote this, he was Brazil correspondent for The Guardian, and like many daily journalists he has trouble structuring a book. At times it descends into a parade of cameo football obsessives. Secondly, he is shorter on theory than on fact. This is something of a relief after the many half-baked football-as-national-character arguments, but since Bellos knows so much, and seems so comfortable with Brazil’s history, language and music (like all good football books, Futebol is about much more than football), we want more of his insights. However, it’s an irreplaceable book. Simon Kuper
8. All Played Out
The Story Of Italia 90 – Pete Davies, 1990
This riveting, passionately written inside story of the England team and its fans during Italia 90 made ‘football literature’ mean more than daft ghosted biographies. “There had been good football books before,” recalls Davies, “but they were rare, and there’d been bugger all in the 1980s.
“I wanted football to have a proper place in popular culture; I thought someone should say ‘Not all of us are lunatics. We have legitimate emotional reasons for watching this game, which is incredibly important culturally and matters to everyone in the world.’”
Even more remarkable than winning the trust of England boss Bobby Robson and his players was persuading a major publisher to take a gamble on a genre that didn’t yet exist. Davies then wrote the book in just eight weeks after the World Cup to hit the Christmas market. “It’s still incredibly vivid to me,” he adds. “I’ll never forget being in Turin.” David Winner
7. Puskas on Puskas
The Life And Times Of A Footballing Legend – Rogan Taylor & Klara Jamrich, 1998
A warm, intelligent and revealing biography which fuses history and politics with the study of genius to produce a unique portrait of the great Hungarian, Ferenc Puskas. A labour of love, it was born of Taylor’s urge to know his boyhood hero.
One early fruit of this was an unmade film script with Stalin dying in the opening scene with the word “Puskas!” on his lips. In 1993, researching the TV series Kicking and Screaming, Taylor met Puskas and persuaded him to tell the story of his unparalleled career, first with Hungary and later as kingpin (with Di Stefano) of the great Real Madrid.
Some of the most mesmerising passages deal with the star’s status as the only free man in the vast prison camp of Stalinist Hungary in the early-’50s. Tragically, Taylor’s Hungarian co-author Klara Jamrich died of cancer at the age of 35. David Winner
Uli Hesse, 2003
Few football cultures inspire as many clichés as Germany’s: ruthless, defensive, boringly efficient. Such labels are proved hopelessly inaccurate by this book. In Hesse’s capable hands, the history of German football seems more entertaining, unpredictable and scandal-infested than England’s.
Part of the attraction is that when German players insult each other – and they do so incessantly – their jibes are a cut above the “not fit to tie my bootlaces” routines which pass for abuse in UK football media.
While British mavericks have usually been confined to the margins, Germany’s social misfits and rebels – from Franz Beckenbauer to Gunter Netzer and Lothar Matthaus – have often taken centre stage. And the startling chapter on East German football says more in a few pages about totalitarian football than most books on the subject. Paul Simpson
5. Fever Pitch
Nick Hornby, 1993
A completely original book. Hornby didn’t start the new wave of football writing – Pete Davies did – but he was the first British writer to examine the apparently unremarkable experience of being a fan.
Following the theory of fandom as therapy, Hornby describes how he used Arsenal to escape from his parents’ divorce, problems with women, the question of what to do with his life, and so on. He treats his fandom as a problem, as something not entirely healthy. This set him apart from the previous notion of fandom as a hobby, and from his imitators who wrote cutesy accounts of watching bad football in the rain without any of Hornby’s honesty about their own lives.
It helps that Fever Pitch is hilarious and beautifully written and that it offers a social history of Britain from the 1960s through to the early 1990s. Its only flaw is its formlessness: it’s a book to dip in rather than to read through. Simon Kuper
4. McIlvanney on Football
Hugh McIlvanney, 1994
From 1963 to 2016, Hugh McIlvanney wrote about sport for the Observer (30 years) then the Sunday Times (23 years). Released a year after his departure from the Observer and two years before his investiture as an OBE, this collection came out at a fascinating hinge in the timeline of the European game, a couple of seasons into the era of the Premier League and Champions League.
It remains essential reading from a witness to history. Starting with a report filed from the 1960 European Cup Final at Hampden between Real Madrid and Eintracht Frankfurt, it goes on to examine two dozen of the game’s giants – Busby, Shankly, Stein, Ferguson and Dalglish, all of whom hailed like McIlvanney from Scotland’s industrial south-west – plus Clough, Paisley, Finney, Greaves, Brady, Beckenbauer, Barnes and Best.
Like many great reporters, McIlvanney earns his reputation through clarity of insight, worn lightly. His writing lacks the pomposity of some of the oft-cited “doyens” of football journalism; the introduction to this book even apologises for any “delusions of authority” in the “presumptuousness” of the title his publishers foisted upon him.
Immediacy and intelligence
Such humility is misplaced. Like Clive James’ TV reviews (available to read for free online – there goes the weekend), this is allegedly ephemeral reporting, on supposedly lowbrow entertainment, elevated to the level of art. Consider this opening paragraph’s seamless combination of perception and punch: “There is something traditionally English about the funeral rites attending the death of Graham Taylor’s [England] regime. It is a noisy ritual in which many of the participants have a self-satisfied, almost chirpy, air – like Morris dancing on a grave.”
After a brief diversion into half-a-dozen “issues” – Hillsborough, hooliganism, Cantona’s kung-fu – the book settles into its second half, dispatches from World Cups 1966 through 1994. Despite being phoned through to strict print deadlines, McIlvanney’s pieces timelessly combine the immediacy of newspaper reporting with the intelligence of longer-form thought. You will have read about some or all of these tournaments, but McIlvanney brings them (back) to life with a critic’s eye, an interviewer’s ear and a fan’s heart.
If you want to be a writer, you must read this book. If you want to know more about football history, you ought to read this book. If you love football and good writing – and if you don’t, you’re in the wrong list – then this will educate and entertain. Gary Parkinson
3. A Life Too Short
The Tragedy Of Robert Enke – Ronald Reng, 2011
“Robert’s death reminded most of us how little we understand about the illness that is depression,” wrote Ronald Reng in the introduction to A Life Too Short: The Tragedy Of Robert Enke. Enke, destined to become Germany’s first-choice goalkeeper at the 2010 World Cup Finals, had been a friend of the author since 2002, and they had loosely planned to write a book together on Enke’s football career.
Enke kept notes so that “I don’t forget anything,” and he wanted the book to be published after his football career ended, so that he could finally open up about his depression. Reng explains that Enke couldn’t have opened up about this when he was playing because: “….a goalkeeper, the last bastion in defence, can’t be a depressive.”
But when, on November 10th 1999, Enke kissed his daughter goodbye and told his wife he was going training at Hannover 96, drove around in his car for several hours and then stepped in front of a train, Reng was forced to tell Enke’s story without him.
Enke, who played for both Barcelona and Benfica, had his first bout of depression in 2003, struggling following his unhappy spell at the Nou Camp. Reng recounts an incident when Frank de Boer screamed at Enke from the centre circle after the goalkeeper’s error helped Third Division Novelda shock their hosts in a Spanish Cup match, which further dented his fragile self-confidence. But in the unforgiving and macho world of football, Enke took to brooding and serene silences to cope with the demons that haunted him.
Reng is particularly adept at adopting a nuanced approach towards the root causes of Enke’s illness. The clinical depression which hit him hard in the midst of troubles at Barcelona did not consume him in the wake of his young daughter’s disabling disease and tragic death. Remarkably, Enke dug deep into his mental reserves to refocus and rediscover his form.
The ‘black dog’ returned just as Enke’s star was in the ascendancy once again, and he seemed set to make a big impression at the 2010 World Cup. The message is that there are no clear-cut and obvious reasons for depression, and Enke died not knowing why his dark thoughts returned in the summer of 2009 and utterly overwhelmed him.
“Perhaps this book will do something to help depressives find more sympathy and understanding,” Reng concludes. The culture within the sport is changing, albeit at a glacial pace. In England, footballers including Robbie Savage and Dean Windass have since admitted to suffering from depression and, in the wake of Gary Speed’s suicide, the FA confirmed that a raft of players – past and present – contacted them with a view to seeking counselling.
The football world is notoriously unforgiving towards any kind of mental fragility within players. But the tragic story of Robert Enke, so expertly told by Reng, demonstrates that the stereotype of the armour-plated “tough guy” footballer is a frequently misleading and dangerous one. Jon Spurling
2. Football Against the Enemy
Simon Kuper, 1994
For better or worse, the modern football fan knows at least a little about much more than was the case in the mid-90s. It’s hard for many to imagine a time before the mass-market penetration of the internet and satellite broadcasters, when foreigners were still a tiny minority in the British game. Such was the inevitably parochial climate into which Simon Kuper launched his debut book – part anthropology, part travelogue, all fascinating – on football rivalries around the world.
“I had mixed feelings when I began work on the book,” confesses Kuper. “I felt that the whole thing might be too big for me, and I was concerned about what friends would say when they read it. Yet I also had a sort of blind confidence in my writing ability. An established author probably wouldn’t have taken on such a project. It’s the sort of thing that a young writer needed to do.”
With a small(ish) £5,000 budget, the 22-year-old set off on a Palinesque jaunt which saw him visit 22 countries in a crazy nine-month period – “I’d go around Europe for three months, using mainly Inter Rail tickets, then come home to London and wash my clothes, fly to Cameroon, come home and then fly off to South Africa.”
His aim? “To investigate precisely how politics and football intertwined throughout the world. It was a subject that always fascinated me, and I was conscious that such a book hadn’t been written before.”
In the course of his epic adventure, he interviewed an eclectic mix of players and officials, including an Argentine general with unique views on the way the game should be played, a Berliner who’d suffered persecution at the hands of the Stasi simply because he supported his local team, and most bizarrely, Cameroon star Roger Milla, who had made headlines with his attempts to organise a tournament for pygmy tribes.
Kuper planned the trip carefully, but the actual interviewing process was distinctly ad hoc. “In the pre-internet age, it could be difficult. I’d arrive in Argentina, speak to someone in basic Spanish, and arrange to meet the friend of a friend. At first, I had a vague idea of meeting up with people in bars, but I quickly realised that I needed to be far more proactive in speaking to people. Sometimes I just got lucky, and bumped into people in airport queues – like a Dynamo Kiev official who spoke perfect English.”
Groundbreaking though Kuper’s book is, he denies that it was responsible for the mushrooming of more insightful football literature. “Nick Hornby and Pete Davies created the idea in publishers’ minds that football books could be good and sell, not me. Maybe I did influence some authors to carry out studies on football in other countries, but the process of excellent books being published was already under way.”
Two decades after the book’s publication, saturation football coverage and internet access means that fans are far more cosmopolitan in their outlooks than ever before. However, Football Against The Enemy remains the only book to take a definitive sweep on world football, and explain how political and cultural issues influence the game across the globe. Jon Spurling
1. Provided You Don’t Kiss Me
20 Years With Brian Clough – Duncan Hamilton, 2007
“I didn’t need a f**king motivational talk tonight. I just had to show them the s**t you’d written. Now, I’ve got a message for you. Take your f**king portable typewriter and stick it up your arse. You’re banned. You’re f**king banned for ever from this ground. F**king for ever.”
Two days later, Brian Clough would call Duncan Hamilton at the Nottingham Evening Post and say, “Don’t be such a stupid bugger. I didn’t mean it. Come down here and we’ll have a drink. Fancy a glass of champagne?”
Hamilton recalls, “I stayed well into the autumn afternoon and left hopelessly drunk on Bell’s Whisky. We never got to the champagne. My notebook was choked with stories.”
This anecdote, thrown almost carelessly into the prologue, reveals Hamilton’s skill at capturing the essence of Brian Clough: the good, the bad and the ugly. Indeed, the first 30 pages of Provided You Don’t Kiss Me are among the best of any book, sports or otherwise, written in the past decade. When Hamilton recalls how this stammering teenage journalist first met Clough to interview him, only to find himself being quizzed instead, we are in the room, hearing Clough’s nasal tone, seeing him bounce a squash ball on the head of a racquet.
Crucially, though, and despite the book being based on his own experiences across 20 years of professional intimacy with Clough at Nottingham Forest, Hamilton doesn’t dominate the narrative. He knows who’s the star of the show. It’s the man who’d start singing just so people would look at him.
Naturally the book is bursting with anecdotes, and unlike the after-dinner exaggerations shared by some of Clough’s former colleagues, they’re diverse, heartfelt and true.
We learn the reason for Forest’s training trips to Scarborough – Peter Taylor, Clough’s assistant manager and the yin to his yang, had a flat there and wouldn’t hire a furniture van – and see examples of Clough’s generosity, but not without tales of his pigheadedness and pride. While the book is often hilarious, Hamilton’s accounts of Clough’s spectacular falling-out with Taylor, his descent into alcoholism and his death are heartbreaking.
But Hamilton doesn’t just tell stories. He presents an enduring character study of a man who cared deeply about other people while being driven by a need to prove them wrong; a man “obsessed with money, as if he feared he might wake up one morning and find himself a pauper again”; a man just as proud of reaching cup finals with a patchwork Forest side and no facilities as he was of winning two European Cups during richer times.
Clough even becomes a sort of father figure to Hamilton, albeit one feeding him whisky for breakfast. The author was right to drop strict chronology and instead, in his own words, make “each chapter about a different piece of him”.
Unique and successful
Football is still paramount. The book brings alive Forest’s European successes when, Clough says, “no one gave us a prayer” – you sense he’d love what Leicester are doing, albeit while claiming he did it better – as well as his mixed experiences with Derby, Brighton and Leeds. Through recollections of little measures taken, such as sitting off-form or out-of-favour players next to him on the bench for “the best coaching lesson of them all”, we learn how Clough was both unique and successful.
FFT’s Best Books
“With his back against the wall,” Hamilton explains, “I came to see Clough’s greatness as a manager: the way he could take a raw team and mould it, his ability to recognise buried talent, his knack – through vigorous self-promotion – of being able to bend public opinion, and his skill at inspiring, cajoling and terrorising in equal measure.”
You might be surprised to see Provided You Don’t Kiss Me declared FFT’s greatest ever football book. It didn’t invert any pyramids or damn any uniteds. At its core, however, is a near-perfect account of a man and a manager both brilliant and flawed.
“No one really gets the hang of me,” Brian Clough once told its author. Duncan Hamilton got closer than anyone. Huw Davies
How many have you got? Tweet pics of your football library to #FFTshelfie