Category Archives: Book review


And his signature song was originally done by The Village People and The Pet Shop Boys

And his signature song was originally done by The Village People and The Pet Shop Boys

Two very clear memories of Duncan Ferguson are etched on my mind. With Everton rock bottom of the Premiership, drifting under the dubious direction of Mike Walker, just 14,505 pitched up at Selhurst Park to see the Blues play Palace. Early on, just in front of me, the new long, lean, angular centre-forward, accepted
an awkward throw-in instantly, turned, beat a man and whipped a cross into that area between the six yard box and the penalty spot. A murmur went round the fans – this was an upgrade on the previous month’s Number 9, one Brett Angel. The“chewing gum feet” on the end of so intimidating a physical presence had me thinking of Marco Van Basten – and I wasn’t alone.

Fast forward six months and I’m in the frenzied back room of the General Smuts
pub, reputedly the largest in London, the atmosphere acrid with cigarette smoke and heaving with Evertonians. Players names are chanted and cheered, but when it comes to Duncan Ferguson, out comes the full “Go West” and off come the shirts – hundreds
of them – swung above heads in tribute to the already legendary celebration of
his goal at Goodison the previous month that was enough to secure the points against
Manchester United.

These two events capture the paradox at the heart of the man’s career. We lost
the game against Palace, but, without the big man – suspended or injured as was
so often the case – we won the game at Loftus Road (with a sensational last
minute free kick from Andy Hinchcliffe). As I once heard at Goodison late in his
career when he was hooked an hour into another lacklustre performance, “Some legend you are!” – acknowledging both Ferguson’s consistent inconsistency and his undisputed legend status.

So who was this most opaque of players? What compelled him to be such a compelling yet frustrating presence through some of Everton’s most difficult and
dangerous seasons? And where is he now, literally and metaphorically? Some
answers, but not all, can be found in Scottish journalist and long time Ferguson pursuer Alan Pattullo’s biography, which teases more than it delivers.

Or rather it delivers both too much and too little. The author has done his research and he’s damn well going to use it – so we get lots and lots of stuff about Jim McLean, Ferguson’s first manager at Dundee United and a long diversion into contemporary Finnish classical music, amongst other sidelines to the main narrative. That’s partly down to the subject’s non-cooperation with the author, a member of the long-snubbed press pack (a snub that bothered journos much more than it bothered fans) and partly down to the author’s unwillingness to rein in his verbosity.

If a certain long-windedness is forgivable (though there’s at least 100 pages could be edited from the text with no loss of clarity), the failure to deal with Ferguson’s many contradictions is a greater fault. He is both a rebel and a leader, sometimes described as quiet and sensitive, sometimes described as loud and insensitive. He is the obsessive trainer whom more than one colleague describes as not really liking the game. These strands needed pulling together and a stance taken.

The book ends with Ferguson’s bravado – for once considered rather than reactive – in his claim that he would take a break and then return to manage his beloved Everton. As unlikely as that sounded five or six years ago, Ferguson took that break, did his badges and has rapidly ascended to first team coach forming an unlikely alliance with the media-friendly, postgraduate degree holding Roberto Martinez. Precisely nobody would be surprised so see him move forward in the dugout when Roberto gets the call from a Champions League team and become Boss in title as well as reputation at Goodison.

Maybe, like so many footballers held in a state of arrested development, Duncan Disorderly has jumped from wild teenager to thoughtful middle-aged professional in one bound. And, like many of the managerial greats, his unfulfilled playing career may spur fulfilment off the pitch.

Watch this space.


World Cup Special – Danish Dynamite reviewed

Which way to the ice bath? Alpha Alpha male preben Elkjaer

Which way to the ice bath? Alpha Alpha male Preben Elkjaer

That was a helluva team wasn’t it? Morten Olsen, the closest thing to Franz Beckenbauer before or since; Frank Arnesen on one side and Jesper Olsen on the other; Soren Lerby box-to-boxing in the middle; and, up front, the incomparable Michael Laudrup and the bonkers Preben Elkjaer. How did it happen? Or, more pertinently, how did it happen in Denmark? Two Englishmen and a Dane, united by their love of this brief, beautiful football flowering, set out to find out and what they discovered just made them love this team all the more.

Rob Smyth, Lars Eriksen and Mike Gibbons start their story with tales of the part-time players and the amateur leagues of the 1870s – I’m sorry, this is Denmark – the 1970s. All that (well, not quite all that) was to change in 1978 when the beer fuelled matches became beer sponsored matches, with Carlsberg fronting the kind of money needed deliver a successful World Cup / Euros qualifying tournament. But it needed a certain kind of alchemist to spin an XI from the far-flung Danish boots-for-hire men scattered over Europe.

That man was ex-German clogger/stopper and Haiti manager Sepp Piontek, who, in the sparkling portrait that emerges in the text, appears to have come closer to anyone to recreating Brian Clough’s unique climate of fear tempered by fatherly concern (maybe not concern, maybe even – that word again – love) that provokes a response in certain young men that engenders loyalty without question. Pointek is still around today and so is the culture he created – though the young men are middle-aged now.

Like Clough, Piontek hid a bear-trap mind behind the one-liners, the bluster and the rules made for breaking. He thought sometimes in his regimented native German and sometimes in his freewheeling adopted Danish and did the same juggling when marshalling his charges. The lads could still have a beer and chase a girl or two round Copenhagen dancefloors , but that became the reward for the football and and not its replacement (as it had been under his genial predecessor, the Falstaffian Kurt Nielsen).

Like the Everton side that unexpectedly emerged at about the same time, the fans idolised these down to earth players, who played like supermen and behaved like everymen. Through some wonderful and typically generous interviews, the writers get to the heart of the team, to the men who made the magic. Thankfully, they all appear to be exactly as they should be!

Morton Olsen is still the leader, the calming presence who would suddenly trundle forward, the libero spreading his wings. Unique in his record of 100 national caps as player and manager, his perspective frames the narrative. Michael Laudrup floats in and out of the text, the master player wearing his pan-European experience lightly – can Garry Monk really be a better bet for Swansea? Soren Lerby, Frank Arnesen and Klaus Berggreen also offer some wonderful tales to go with their wonderful play.

The star, as he was when driving defences demented, is Preben Elkjaer, the alpha male striker whose pace and compelling direct style on the pitch was matched by his partying off it. He was a force of nature, a late-developing marauder, always on the point of losing control of the ball but never quite doing so – just look at this!  His charisma was so great that, even in a culture that valued the humble plumber and traffic cop who played in the Euros and the World Cup, it was Elkjaer who connected with fans at a visceral level.

The book is at its best when addressing how this team that won nothing (though the players that comprised it won national and continental honours by the fistful with their clubs) created its indelible mark on football history. It was their time: the time for fans who drank beer and organised sing-songs not riots; for superstar players with their feet on the ground; for the team, the nation, the game to be so much greater than the sums of their parts.

It’ll never happen again – read Danish Dynamite and find out exactly how it happened then.



World Cup Special – And Gazza Misses The Final reviewed

51SNdY-fKwL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX385_SY500_CR,0,0,385,500_SH20_OU02_Many claims are made for new media – that it’s killing off journalism for a start – but many of them form part of the window dressing that attracts the attention of the casual observer, while underlying structures remain untouched. Ask a student struggling with shorthand if you don’t believe me.

I’m not quite as cynical as that, and the structures aren’t quite so robust that the new kids on the block with their new toys can’t chip away at the foundations. And, as Andy Dufresne knew sitting in his Shawshank cell, if you chip away for long enough, you can break free.

It’s over ten years now since the Guardian Unlimited Sports Team – no convergence back then, you were inky (and grown-up) or online (and rad!) – started typing what they saw when watching football or cricket on the telly. The Minute-By-Minute (and Over-By-Over) was born. Soon early adopters of the Second Screen paradigm were emailing in, seeing their own quips and observations appearing in the report as the match unfolded. Some kept score; some met for drinks; some even got married. They’re still married today and we’re still emailing the MBM and loving it!

It wasn’t just an ego trip for a bunch of outsiders who had brokered smartarsery into membership of a clique of insiders, the MBM was a new form of journalism, sitting somewhere between a radio commentary and an “on the whistle” report. The journo’s job was not just to record the events of a match in near real time, it was to capture its mood and that of those following it. It was, and is, an absurdly complex job done instantly with no sub-editors, no copytakers, no safety net if legal issues suddenly pop up. It took a particular kind of writer to do it at all, never mind to do it well – and the masters of this now much mimicked art, are Rob Smyth and Scott Murray. They know their sport, they know their audience and they capture the rhythm of sprawling unpredictable sport with astonishing facility.

They’re not around at very often these days (but never miss Scott MBMing the golf – it’s much better than the real thing) so it’s a delight to find that they have applied the journalistic practice that they largely invented to a selection of World Cup matches  from 1950 right up to the Howard Webb (non) show in 2010. What emerges in “And Gazza Misses The Final” is a combination of history book, yellowy faded newspaper report, wry observation and, uniquely, a reimagining of the ebb and flow of matches that you’ve read about, or watched at the time.

The old stuff that fills the book’s first 50 pages or so, is more suited to the aficionado than the interested fan (though, as the vast online literature about football tactics shows, there’s plenty of aficionados around these days). We may all know that Uruguay shattered Brazilian hopes, nay, expectations, in 1950 with the 2-1 win, but how did that match play out? Who were the stars? Where was the match won and lost? How did the crowd react? It’s all here, minute by minute.

The narratives leap forward in the reader’s mind when the names can be matched with the video loops that we hold in our heads – or on youtube. Everyone knows that back in 1966 come the 120th minute there were people on the pitch who thought it was all over, but what happened in the 5th minute? In the 55th minute? In the 105th minute?

What emerges in the book are matches that ebb and flow, that  continue with tight offside decisions, yellow cards that could have been red, big chances missed and half chances taken. What reads backwards as inevitable, reads forwards as contingent, as real.

Everyone will have their favourites, of course.  The unforgettable Italy 3 Brazil 2 unfolds again – Socrates, Eder and Falcao! There’s the fatal Cerezo square pass, the unexpected ruthlessness of Paolo Rossi, the dull sense of something infected with a whiff of bereavement as this most glorious of teams is slain. But if we didn’t have that pain, we wouldn’t have Tardelli’s cathartic run to camera a week or so later. You see how it comes back?

There’s the occasional quip or comment that reveals the fact that the MBMs were written with the knowledge of 2014 and not (say) 1986, but they’re few enough to amuse us rather than to break the spell. It’s also fun to spot the different styles of the authors – Smyth’s shining metaphors, Murray’s rich Scots-inflected vernacular – but you get the feeling that these two old muckers could (and perhaps did) finish each other’s sentences, so attuned are they to their own work and the discourse of the MBM. The reports miss the emails: Mac Millings – where are your XI players in the 1990 World Cup whose names are anagrams of porn stars? But that’s a minor quibble.

You’ll learn much about football’s history from these 20 MBMs, but you’ll also learn much about reading, writing and the construction of knowledge – yes epistemology is there located somewhere between Nigel de Jongh’s foot and Xabi Alonso’s chest. And how different history would be if those sliding doors tackles moments had gone the other way. There’s not much between the Heroes and Villains – well, unless you’re Terry Fenwick.