For the football obsessed amongst us, reading books on the beautiful game is a great way to get our fix of the sport when there aren’t any live games on. Whether it is autobiographies by iconic players, ones detailing the history of a certain club or country, or even books looking at the wider social issues within the game, we all have our favourites. Therefore, we thought we’d ask our writers to put forward their choice for the greatest football book ever.
RODNEY MCCAIN – PROVIDED YOU DON’T KISS ME: 20 YEARS WITH BRIAN CLOUGH
Written by former journalist Duncan Hamilton, “Provided You Don’t Kiss Me” is one of the greatest books you will ever read. Hamilton moved from Newcastle with his family to Nottingham when he was still a boy. He had just started working for his local hometown newspaper, the Nottingham Evening Post when he first encountered Clough. That was as an impressionable ‘wet behind the ears’ 18-year-old sports reporter. He was lucky. He didn’t yet realise that his position at the local newspaper was about to allow him ‘front row’ access to one of the greatest, and yet most unlikely, success stories in modern football history.
The book tells the story of an improbable, and probably unique, intimate working relationship between the youthful local football correspondent and the flawed genius whom he came to depend on for “news feed” every day of his working life for over 20 years. However, unlike many ‘biographies’, here Hamilton paints an intimate portrait of the ‘unseen’ Clough. In all honesty, outside of Clough’s immediate family, probably only Hamilton had the personal relationship with Brian to have allowed such an intimate ‘behind the scenes’ look at the great man’s day-to-day life at Nottingham Forest.
This is NOT a biography. It is, rather, a collection of memories and observations from a friendship between two very different men. It was a friendship grown over two decades, surrounded as it was by Forest’s meteoric rise from Division Two obscurity to becoming two-times Champions of Europe. Ultimately, it reveals a man who was a lot less self-assured than he liked to portray himself to be in front of the television cameras. In fact, Clough is often seen to be riddled with self-doubt and harbouring bitter regrets.“Provided You Don’t Kiss Me” is one of the most fascinating, engaging, intimate books I have ever had the pleasure of reading. It charts the story of one of the greatest men ever to have graced a football stadium. If you loved Brian Clough, you’ll adore this book. If you didn’t even like Brian Clough, you’ll STILL treasure this book. If you’re too young to remember Clough, it’ll educate you about one of the greatest characters ever to manage a football team
JAMES BOLAM- TOR! THE STORY OF GERMAN FOOTBALL
It’s January 2011 and I’m on a train from Manchester to London. I’m heading to the capital from where I live to watch Bristol City which is the team I support and where I am from. I’m making a weekend of it. Catching up with friends and ticking off a ground I haven’t visited before -Selhurst Park. In a couple of weeks, I’ll be going to Germany to catch some matches at Borussia Dortmund, Leverkusen, and Wuppertal Borussia. I’ve visited Germany before but never seen a match there. I’ve bought a book on the history of German football to improve my knowledge and get me in the mood. Tor! The story of German Football by Uli Hesse. I’ve opened it up and have started reading as the rattler leaves Manchester Picadilly. Unusually when the train arrives in London I am disappointed it only took two hours. This book is that good.
The book starts with the story of ‘the miracle of Bern’ where West Germany, still recovering from the war and without a professional national league won the 1954 World Cup against the legendary Hungarian side of the era. We learn about Fritz Walter, who many regard as the greatest German player ever, and his love affair with 1FC Kaiserslautern as to which their stadium takes its name.
The book then becomes a chronological history of the game in the fatherland. From the origins of the famous clubs we know today and how they got their names. For example, football took longer to catch on than in other countries such as Argentina. Football was seen as ‘ungermanic’ and not a worthwhile pursuit although eventually, they came round. We learn what the numbers and initials in club names stand for. The numbers are the year of formation as a sports club. 1860 Munich was formed in that year specialising in gymnastics. The ‘Borussia’ in Borussia Dortmund is the Latin word for Prussia.
The book continues through the Nazi years and the era of regional championships and national play-offs. The formation of the Bundesliga and why the founder clubs were invited and why the likes of Bayern were not. It was based on a mix of recent success, historical success and regional spread. Match-fixing scandals are covered and one of the most fascinating decades in the 1970s where Bayern won three European cups but Borussia Mönchengladbach took more league titles
.We also journey through the 1980s where Germany experienced low gates, hooligan problems and far-right extremists on the terraces. Drawing parallels with the experience in England. Very different to the packed vibrant modern stadiums of today. Both the 1974 and 1990 World Cups are covered (2014 also in the latest edition) and wonderful stories as to how Puma was formed out of Adidas and why Rudi Völler is more popular than Lothar Matthäus.
The highest praise for this book is that while you are reading it Hesse’s writing style makes you feel like he is telling you these tales over a stein of pilsner in a bar. All in a second language which is quite an achievement. If you have an interest in German football or would like to read about this wonderful football nation then this book is a must.City drew 0-0 with Palace and despite a great time catching up with friends, the journey down to London and back was probably the highlight of the weekend. All thanks to this book.
LIAM TOGHER- NO HUNGER IN PARADISE
When it comes to football journalists who delve beyond the glitzy surface of the game to its murkier depths, which can be convenient to ignore, Michael Calvin is peerless in my opinion. “No Hunger in Paradise” was the first of his books that I read and it is a captivating yet harrowing introspect into the topic of teenage talents trying to make the breakthrough from academies into the professional game. In speaking to players, coaches, parents and those working within football, Calvin uncovers a series of hard-hitting anecdotes which strip away football’s glamorous exterior and lay bare the cold, harsh reality of those whose dreams went unfulfilled.
Tales such as that of Sonny Pike, who went from having his legs insured for £1m at 14 amid a range of product endorsements to being suicidal just three years later, make the reader acutely aware of just how hard the road to stardom can be for those who don’t make the great leap into the elite levels of the sport.
Calvin writes of 10-year-olds being released via text message, children bursting into floods of tears upon being told that their dreams are over, agents promising the sun, moon and stars to wide-eyed youngsters and even a tale of a three-year-old who was being headhunted by scouts of a ‘big six’ Premier League club. The author does a commendable job of informing a wider audience of the challenges and heartbreak that so many kids experience when trying to make it to the top in football.
ELIOTT BRENNAN- THE BILLIONAIRE CLUB: THE UNSTOPPABLE RISE OF FOOTBALL’S SUPER-RICH OWNERS
You wouldn’t have heard of Anamul Hoque. He isn’t a footballer, manager, official, club director or a governing figure or even a famous fan. In fact, he isn’t part of the industry. Yet, his vastly unknown story transcends the sport today. Anamul is a Bangladeshi who migrated to the UAE to work and provide for his family.
He had to pay an extortionate amount to get the job. As a result, he sold off most of his land and borrowed with interest from friends and family.
When he and his brother arrived, they were placed into the abusive Kafala system and suffered the fate many others did before and after.
At the same time, Manchester United’s smaller brother, Manchester City, transformed from noisy neighbours to Premier League Champions. And it was all thanks to the UAE.
Anamul’s complete account is detailed in James Montague’s The Billionaire Club: The unstoppable rise of football’s super-rich owners. The book, which was published in 2017, is a super-imposing and brilliantly researched reality check on how the rich came to acquire and dominate football.
The people Montague touches on include Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, former Arsenal shareholder and current Everton benefactor Alisher Usmanov, Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke, Manchester United’s Glazer family, former Sunderland Aston Villa owners Elliott Short and Randy Lerner, the mysterious Chinese owners who flocked to Europe, the UAE and Qatar as well as others.
From Eastern Europe’s oligarchs and the hawkish Americans to the over-ambitious Asian owners and the Princes and Sheikhs of the Middle East, Montague explains how the individuals became wealthy and why they suddenly took an interest in football. In some cases, like Abramovich, that is still a question that lasts to this day.
Crucially, Montague paints a vivid picture of the football business of football scurrying to the money men and the problems it creates.
Years on from first reading it, one lasting thought remains: for every praise a club owned by a problematic owner receives, there is someone like Anamul suffering in silence.
JAMES EDGINTON- TICKET TO THE MOON: ASTON VILLA THE FALL AND RISE OF A EUROPEAN CHAMPION
Richard Sydenham, an author, journalist, and boyhood Aston Villa fan, produced the definitive story of Villa in the 1970s and 1980s with ‘Ticket to the moon’. The book, complimented with a foreword by Andy Gray, provides a truly fascinating insight into the rise of Aston Villa under no-nonsense manager Ron Saunders and reveals the truth behind his departure.
Season by season, transfer by transfer, Sydenham conveys through the book how the pieces of the jigsaw were fastidiously placed together by Saunders. The pinnacle of Villa’s rise was their shock European Cup triumph over Bayern Munich aided by Tony Barton, who had been in charge of the club for just 56 days, and young goalkeeper Nigel Spink, who proved to be the hero in the final as Villa won 1-0. Just the romanticism of Villa’s rise alone could’ve warranted a book, however, Sydenham continues and describes Villa’s dramatic fall from champions of Europe to the Second Division.
With exclusives from boardroom members, managers and chairmen, this book takes you on a journey and reveals what it was like to be associated with Aston Villa football club during this incredible time of astonishing highs and lows. Richard Sydenham has meticulously interviewed all involved with Aston Villa in the 70s and 80s including chairman ‘Deadly’ Doug Ellis and he has assembled a compelling read for not just Villa fans but for all football fans. “Ticket to the moon” describes Villa’s amazing story, however, the sheer research and love that has been put into writing the book make the story even better.
GRAHAM HOLLINGSWORTH- FEVER PITCH
I spend an unhealthy amount of time reading books about football, so narrowing this down has been incredibly difficult. There are honourable mentions for “Angels With Dirty Faces” by Jonathan Wilson, a fascinating in-depth guide to football in Argentina over the last 150 years, and “Up Pohnpei” a hilarious tale by Paul Watson about his journey to improve the statistically worst international team on Earth.
However, I had to go with “Fever Pitch” by Nick Horby. It is his 25-year story as an Arsenal fan, from his first trip to Highbury as a child to him as a season ticket holder in the George Graham era. The narrative perfectly intertwines what was happening on the pitch with what Hornby was going through off it, from University to failed relationships, unsure what to do with his life, and struggles with mental health. It is equally joyous as it is moving, especially the foreshadowing of the Hillsborough disaster.
I only read it for the first time this year, but literally, every observation he makes about the way football was and where it was headed is still relevant today, if not more so than it was then. It will certainly be a book I revisit often as I grow older, and highly recommend it to anyone, football fan or not.
FERNANDO ROMERO- INVERTING THE PYRAMID
Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson is a book about the history of football tactics, and with it, it’s a book about the history of football as a whole. Wilson himself said that “the value of football from a historical point of view is that it shines a light on culture”. In that way, the book becomes a book of history through football. It’s a book about Italian Catenaccio, and Brazilian Jogo Bonito, and Dutch Total Football, but also a book about why Italians created Catenaccio, why Brazilians invented Jogo Bonito and why Dutchmen developed Total Football.
Wilson runs through the entire history of football, following (largely) four distinct lines of thought in the development of the game worldwide. At every point, he keeps a finger on the pulse of history, on the context of the time and the characters. That way, it helps us to better understand why the great thinkers of the game took the decisions they took, and why they went in any particular direction at any particular time.
As a football book, it’s not a surprise it was such a success. It was probably the first book on football tactics that didn’t look like an academic manual meant for PE teachers, but an approachable story, with narrative cohesion. In many ways, it exposed the greater public to the idea of tactics beyond the abstract number strings, and it opened the floodgates that made tactics analysis a mainstream part of football culture. Jonathan Wilson published Inverting the Pyramid first in 2008. He was 32 years old at the time. If I ever get to interview him, I’d love to ask if he ever imagined the impact the book would have.
DAVE PROUDLOVE – I BELIEVE IN MIRACLES
Based on the critically acclaimed film by Jonny Owen, “I Believe In Miracles” by Daniel Taylor of the Athletic charts the incredible rise of Nottingham Forest from Second Division also-rans to European champions over an incredible five-year period in the late 1970s, led by the inimitable Brian Clough.
When Clough arrived at the City Ground in January 1975, Forest were thirteenth in the Second Division and were peering over their shoulders at the relegation zone. By the end of the 1979/80 season, Clough had delivered the First Division title, two League Cups, and stunning back-to-back European Cup triumphs. Clough also added the European Super Cup to that list of triumphs and a 42-match unbeaten league run. And Clough achieved this with a team of free transfers and bargain-basement signings, and five of the players he’d inherited from a team scrapping to avoid relegation to the Third Division.
“I Believe In Miracles” tells the tale of the greatest spell in Clough’s managerial career, bringing together the stories of a remarkable group of players who achieved the impossible, some of whom idolised Clough, some of whom despised him, but nevertheless greatly respected him.
José Mourinho wrote the foreword for ‘I Believe In Miracles’, and there are quite a few similarities between his Champions League triumph with Porto, and Clough’s European Cup wins with Forest. Mourinho famously called himself ‘a special one’; “I Believe In Miracles” tells the story of the original special one, Brian Howard Clough.
JAMES BOLAM- MORBO! THE STORY OF SPANISH FOOTBALL
Phil Ball moved to Spain in the early ’90s and so understands the country’s unique diversity in its regions and culture. Particularly from his vantage point in San Sebastian in the Basque Country. Spanish football is full of interesting stories of rivalry, resentment and regional pride and Phil Ball tells these tales superbly. Written in the late ’90s, Ball tells the story of Spanish football by focusing each chapter on a particular region of the country and in some cases traveling to that region to discover more about its football confirming and debunking some stereotypes.
The book starts in Huelva where Recreativo de Huelva, Spain’s first club was formed. Ball finds a club that is down on its luck (which to be fair has pretty much always been the case) but a club whose fans are immensely proud that they were the first. Catalan and Basque nationalism are explored in the chapters on Catalonia and the Basque Country.
Football in Madrid is covered and we learn that (whisper it) Madrid FC was formed by two brothers from Catalonia. This is of course not recorded in Real Madrid’s official history and while Real Madrid can certainly not be considered a left-wing club it’s not quite the far-right fascist, Franco worshipping behemoth it’s made out to be.
The biggest event in the history of modern Spain is of course the civil war and its aftermath under the dictatorship of General Franco. This affected football with Atlético de Madrid briefly becoming the team of the air force and having to change their name to Atletico Aviación. Any other language than Spanish was banned and so Athletic Club became Atletico Bilbao.
Ball also points out that despite the common myth that Franco was pro-Madrid and anti-Barcelona that in the early years of the dictatorship Barcelona won more league titles than Real Madrid despite the latter’s success in Europe.
The jewel in the crown of this book is the chapter on football in Seville entitled ‘Five Taxi’s’. Ball travels to this football-mad city and procures most of his information on the intense rivalry between Sevilla FC and Real Betis from his taxi drivers. One being a former Betis player and another a Sevillano, Valencia supporting Woody Allen lookalike whose quotes are both laugh out loud funny and highly insightful. This chapter got me interested in football in Seville and I resolved to one day watch a match in the city. Little did I know at the time but years later I would make the city my home. When reading this book Ball makes you feel like you are traveling with him and wishing you could be on that journey yourself. It’s a fascinating insight into a fascinating country and football culture.
LIAM TOGHER – THE BOLEYN’S FAREWELL
Writing a full-length book about one football match may seem like a thankless ordeal, but West Ham’s 3-2 victory over Manchester United on 10 May 2016 was no ordinary Premier League fixture. As magnificently documented by ardent Irons supporter Danny Lewis, the final match at the Boleyn Ground in Upton Park was about a lot more than just the football. Thousands of Hammers fans turned it into a day-long occasion that will never be forgotten by any of those who witnessed it firsthand.
The author speaks to a number of West Ham supporters, plus some of the players and club staff who were involved on the day, to recount their memories of a hugely eventful evening before, during and after the football. If the on-field action may have felt like an afterthought in the greater context of the occasion, it most certainly wasn’t as the two teams served up a five-goal thriller in which both teams led before falling behind.
As someone who isn’t a West Ham supporter or even visited the area where the Boleyn Ground once stood, it may have been difficult to get a feel for what the atmosphere was like on that momentous day five years ago. In “The Boleyn’s Farewell”, Danny Lewis duly delivered a literary work of art that made it feel as if the reader was transported from their chair straight to the environs of east London on one landmark night in May 2016.