BY PAUL McPARLAN – @pmaccap
Chris Darwen is a name that will be well known to many followers of football and in particular to those who play the addictive computer game Football Manager. He regularly posts football blogs and has many followers due to his idiosyncratic views on life in the football world. He lives in Spain and is also currently working as a commercial director for Torrevieja C.F., near Alicante, a post he achieved thanks to his involvement in the aforementioned computer game. This is his first book writing about real life football.
The concept of the book is remarkably simple. He describes the events of the 2015-2016 season, with a week by week account of how the events unfolded over the course of the Premier League season. Each team is covered in detail and Chris manages to add his own comment on every match, looking at the progress of the season through somewhat satirical eyes. As this is not a retrospective season review, this allows the author to describe events as they were happening and enables him to guide the reader through the key points of the season, week by week and game by game. Although everyone knows how the Premier League unravelled, this approach allows you to relive the whole process and remind you of how many key points you may have forgotten.
In addition, the F.A. Cup is described in some detail from the third round onwards and the impact it had on Premier League teams and their league form. Also events in both the Champions League and the Europa Cup are analysed from a similar perspective. Strangely, scant coverage is given to the League Cup apart from the final itself. As a number of weekends in the Premier League are left blank for International fixtures, they also feature as the season progresses. He does take time to comment on the sad death of Johann Cruyff in March, paying a suitable tribute to such a footballing legend
The book starts with the author’s pre-season predictions, (no he didn’t think Leicester would win the league) and with an end of season review of how well he performed. I quite liked this approach and it was a very entertaining way of concluding the book. I think that Chris would be pleased that his predictions were not wildly out of line with those of the so–called football experts. Like many readers, I enjoyed comparing my predictions for the season with his.
This is a very light hearted read although it is well written. As there are no formal chapters as such, you could read this book in one complete sitting or several. Personally, I think this is excellent for a long train journey to an away game or for just lounging on the sun deck. I am sure that many readers would agree with his observations on the modern footballer.
There are many examples of humour throughout. Some of his observations were eerily prescient, such as saying of Watford on the 9th August that they are “unlikely to be the only side that take at least a point from the blue side of Stanley Park this season”. Eddie Howe’s potential move for Adebayor is “a sacking waiting to happen”. Commenting on a rare strong defensive performance by Manchester City in the Champions League, he writes Otamendi and Mangala “actually looked like they had played football together before”. My favourite was when he refers to the annual Southampton fans survey to see “Which player Liverpool are most likely to buy in the summer”. Apparently, it was Sadio Mane. Spooky eh?
Being able to describe the season as it develops, allows the author to remind us of how quickly things change in football. During the early months the excellent form of Crystal Palace led by Alan Pardew and Swansea led by Garry Monk leads many in the media to conclude that they would be strong contenders for the England manager’s position. He also notes that “Sterling has started the season wonderfully”. However, by Christmas, Monk is sacked and Crystal Palace are heading for the relegation zone and Sterling finds himself sitting on the bench more often than not. At Christmas, Southampton are “in the kind of freefall which could see them dragged into a relegation battle”, instead they qualified for the Europa League. In February, he notes “Everton might be sneakily fancying the chances of some silverware this season”. Well, we all know how that ended, although from a personal view I wish he had got that one right. However, his claim that “Liverpool may yet make a decent fist of a Champions League challenge” was optimistic in the extreme.
Of course there are other things that one forgets. Tottenham Hotspur had failed to win a league game before the end of August and Leicester appeared to be in the habit of giving the opposition a two goal start in most games. Most of the goals for Manchester United were own goals. And of course, every team that has sacked Sam Allardyce has been relegated the following season! But did West Ham sack him? And did they deserve therefore to be tipped by several pundits for relegation?
To write a review of a season that everyone has witnessed is a really difficult task. It requires a certain type of skill, a certain type of analysis and a certain type of wry comment to maintain the interest of the reader. However, because the book is almost written “live”, this allows the author to share his thoughts and opinions without any fear of being caught out. We were probably thinking exactly the same things at the same time. Let’s face it, nobody took Leicester seriously and Vardy for England? – never in a million years.
Many games during the season generate pages and pages of discussion about refereeing decisions. They are analysed time and time again on television. I was encouraged to see that the author generally does not make any such comments on refereeing performance. However, I was pleased to read his wry comments on the efforts of Jon Moss who took charge of the Leicester vs West Ham game and his insights into the thought processes that informed his eccentric decision making. A potential career as a match assessor awaits perhaps?
Chris is currently living in Spain, so I was surprised to see him refer to the Real Madrid v Barcelona game as El Classico with a double S. If he wishes to maintain his credibility with his circle of Spanish friends , it is El Clasico – single S. Although in Catalan it is El Classic with a double S, so maybe he is just trying to keep in with both the Catalan and Castillian speakers!
There were so many events, shock and upheavals that it is difficult to cover them all within the space of a book. However, as there are only 144 pages in this one, perhaps a slightly longer version would have allowed the author to add some more detail and thought to some key developments. In particular, some managerial departures just seemed to have happened overnight. One week they were in charge, the next week they were gone. The sacking of Jose Mourinho, I felt was worthy of more detailed comment and analysis. Gary Neville suddenly becoming the Valencia coach was surely worthy of some observation. I never did quite work out if the constant references to “King Klopp” were heartfelt or sardonic. However, these are just minor quibbles.
If you are looking for a serious in depth analysis of the 2015/16 Premier League season then this may not be the book for you. However, if you are looking for an alternative, fans eye, humorous, review of the season devoid of journalistic tabloid hype then, you will find reading this book to be highly enjoyable. I look forward to the next one.
You can buy Tales from the Top Flight: A Review of the 2015/16 English Premier League Season by Chris Darwen from Amazon HERE