Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football picks out the best of the autumn sports books
I’m sorry but you won’t find here the just-in-time-for Christmas sports autobiography blockbusters. With enough manufactured controversy to ensure blanket coverage when they are launched even a skim read will reveal that on the contrary they tell the reader very little they didn’t either know or suspect already.
Instead I would recommend a weighty volume of this sort. A Companion to Sport edited by David Andrews and Ben Carrington. The range of coverage from Monty Panesar to football’s 2010 World Cup is matched by the variety of insights, sport as a contested space being the overarching theme. As an academic book scandalously expensive, but any well-stocked library. should have a copy.
As a writer Rob Steen straddles that frustrating divide between the academic and the journalistic. His new book Floodlights and Touchlines reveals the richness of writing this mix can sometimes produce. A living history of the relationship between the spectator and his, or increasingly as Rob chronicles, her sport. This is social history of the very highest standard.
Simon Inglis is rightly renowned for his writing on the cultural significance of stadia and other sporting buildings. His Played in Britain project has helped transform our understanding of what these structures mean to their localities, and his latest account of this relationship, Played in London not only continues the richness of Simon’s explanation but is unarguably his finest book in this extraordinary Played In… series yet.
Michael Walker’s Up There is a hugely entertaining application of the social and historical, along with the political and cultural, to the place of football in England’s North-East. Newcastle, Sunderland, ‘Boro, but also the likes of Hartlepool and Darlo, where would English football be without them?
The First Game With My Father by Michael Tierney expertly, and movingly applies this macro-analysis of big picture football connectivity to the micro, the personal. A tale of how football frames many families' lives in the way it is a central influence in shaping both fatherhood and masculine adolescence, for good, and sometimes bad. Football once had this degree of influence because it truly was ‘the people’s game’. Today it dominates so many lives because it is big business, almost impossible to escape from.
Alex Fynn is a renowned chronicler of the processes behind this very particular evolution, his latest book Arsène & Arsenal continues what amounts to an in-depth study of Arsenal both as a football club and a business, a brand even, what Alex terms a ‘superclub’. If such a notion fills fans with horror, have a read of Ian Plendereith’s rip-roaring Rock n Roll Soccer is an account of the 1970s North American Soccer League which serves as a warning of what happens when football chooses to be simply a branch of a global entertainment industry and forgets where it came from on the way.
Of course wholesale resistance to any change amounts to a conservatism, few progressives should welcome. Has the penalty shoot-out spelt the end of football as we know it? No, an occasional thrilling end to a tightly-fought match. Ben Lytlleton’s carefully researched Twelve Yards contains plenty of original insight into how to take penalties successfully and turns this quirky idea for a book into a fine read along the way.
The last tournament England exited following a penalty shoot-out was Euro 2012. The tournament has proved to be the high point of Roy Hodgson’s England managerial reign to date, getting out of a tough group consisting of France, Sweden and Ukraine. In the year of London 2012 and Wiggomania however few took any notice and England have been down ever since.
Peter Kennedy and Christos Kassimeris have put together a really excellent academic survey of the tournament, Exploring the Cultural, Ideological and Economic Legacies of Euro 2012 . A legacy for the Ukraine which in essence was a tournament which united the nation instead of the bloody separation which followed so shortly afterwards.
No figure better represents the world English football fears lost to the excesses of commerce as it monetised our sport better than the late Bobby Moore. Matt Dickinson’s new biography Bobby Moore: The Man In Full reveals both Moore’s supreme achievements, with England and West Ham, but also the flaws even the most heroic contain within themselves.
In Moore’s day the media spotlight was nothing like as intense as it is now. We even have the phenomenon of the anonymous insider dishing whatever dirt that might otherwise be hidden from public gaze.
Guide to the Modern Game is the third volume of home truths from the suspiciously well-informed ‘Secret Footballer.’ Who is he? Who knows? And who cares as he continues to open the changing room door to put all behind it on show for his readers. And this time it is the tactics board, team talks and training he treats us to.
Two books kind of book-end the romance and the misery of modern football. Both happen to be about Arsenal, they could have been written about almost any club. Amy Lawrence’s Invincible tells the story of the club’s 2003-2004 unbeaten season. Amy is a writer who will help you to appreciate the football on the pitch with an understanding of how the game is played few can match. At the same time she never fails to appreciate the passion that makes us fans.
The Arsenal Shirt by James Elkin and Simon Shakeshaft is a beautifully designed art book visually detailing the history of the club’s most iconic of shirt designs. But of course since the advent of sponsors logos and merchandising profits any legendary kit simply becomes a moneymaking billboard. Unwittingly perhaps the book eloquently reveals the death of tradition that football’s monetisation has successfully engineered.
Progress? In some areas certainly, but at what cost? It is the shift over the past twenty years from the positives Post Italia 90 to the negatives after two decades’ worth of the dire Premier League (sic) that Martin Cloake charts in his new book Taking Our Ball Back . This is writing with well-informed anger. Martin carefully unpicks the causes, and effects of a growing discontent with how what was once the people’s game is being transformed.
Sport of course doesn’t simply collide with economic forces it is indivisible from the political and social too. This is the basis of these quarterly forays into reviewing the best of current sportswriting.
The Nazi Olympics of 1936 remain the strongest example yet of this combination. a platform for Hitler, sport used to seek to prove the physical superiority of the Aryan race, brilliantly demolished of course by black American athlete Jesse Owens’ four gold medals on the track and in the long jump pit. A superb achievement that has been allowed to mask countless examples of large sections of the sporting establishment’s effective covering-up and collaboration with the Nazi regime in order to save their sports’ relations with Germany.
An England football team ordered to give the Nazi salute before an England v Germany game an incredible, and shameful, moment in football’s history. Field of Shadows by Dan Waddell uncovers a part of sporting history from this period which I suspect even the most well-informed sports fan would be unaware of. The 1937 English cricket tour of Nazi Germany! The impulses and reasoning behind such a bizarre adventure for the Germans and the English were many and varied.
What Dan Waddell’s account reveals though in this most extraordinary of settings was how the cricket was framed by Germany’s fast-moving descent into Nazi barbarism while England remained divided by tendencies towards appeasement and collaboration versus popular and militant anti-fascism. When being knocked for six could land Hitler a propaganda victory cricket is not quite the gentle sport we’re used to Dan Waddell’s tale is scarcely believable. The fact it is just the makes the book an even better read.
Herbie Sykes covers a different sport , cycling, and a different era for Germany, the East German GDR years of state socialism and the Berlin Wall. Of course comparisons with the Nazi era are both crass and ill-founded historically yet the clash between politics and sport all the same was a constant across these two contrasting period in German history.
Herbie’s wonderful book The Race against the Stasi details the career, life and times of one of the sporting heroes of East Germany, Dieter Wiedeman. The culture that turned him firstly into an elite athlete, then into an icon of GDR socialism the disillusionment that led him to escape, turn pro, ride Le Tour and the efforts of the Stasi to repatriate him.
The cycling intrigue we are perhaps more used to are the drug scandals, particularly of the Lance Armstrong era.
Michael Barry is the latest rider to break ranks with the peloton to reveal the consequences of the sport’s drug culture and how cycling has to change in order to rid itself from this scourge. Michael’s autobiographical Shadows on the Road is both brutally honest while elegantly moving in terms of his vision for what riding clean means.
Restoring the undoubted romance, heroic endeavours and idealism of road cycling at its best is what Jan Cleijoine’s graphic history of Le Tour achieves. Jan’s Legends of the Tour is a stunning graphic history of what remains the greatest race on earth. Until relatively recently British cyclists wouldn’t be much more than an honourable footnote in such a history, Ellis Bacon’s Great British Cycling tracks the irresistible rise of the sport on these shores from modest beginnings. to such achievements at World, Olympic and Grand Tour level to be thought of as worldbeaters. At the core of that achievement in recent years have been women cyclists. Victoria Pendleton, Lizzie Armistead, Laura Trott and others.
Nicole Cooke’s The Breakaway is both a powerfully-written testament to the measure of that achievement by a former World and European champion on the road plus a well-argued critique of the barriers that stand in the way of women's cycling.
The latest edition of The Cycling Anthology remains the must-read collection of the very best writing on two wheels. Keep Calm and Pedal On is a great collection of quotes on cycling which gives us an idea of the breadth and depth of inspiration riding a bike fast, slow or in-between can provide.
Getting our hands dirty fixing what might have gone wrong with a bicycle might not seem much of a radical act. Sam Tracy would dispute this and has written a Bicycle Repair Manifesto full of useful diy maintenance tips to keep the bike, if not a revolution, on the road.
Still not convinced? Bike Mechanic is one of the most beautifully produced books I’ve ever read. In words but, most of all with arthouse standard photographs and layout a homage to those who build and maintain bikes.
Sport of course should never be treated as a fixed, unchanging, entity. It is shaped by powerful cultural and economic factors as well as the political and social. It demands investigation and often a critique too. Allyson Pollock’s pioneering Tackling Rugby provides both with a sparkling abundance of well-researched writing. Her target? Children and youth rugby, the risk of injury, especially head injuries, and the failure of the sport’s governing bodies to react, with practical suggestions for how to safeguard both young players’ health and the future of the game. A textbook example of how to investigate sport, expose and help to make change possible.
And my sports book of the quarter? David Goldblatt has already produced one definitive work, his global and social history of football The Ball is Round. His latest book, The Game of Our Lives is both a social history of the domestic game and a critique of its modern, monetised manifestation. David combines a sympathetic and original explanation of why football is of such importance to so many while accounting for why it deserves nothing resembling a hagiography because of its many, mostly self-inflicted out of commercial greed, failings. As such it is a book that informs and inspires, a truly great piece of writing.
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Mark Perryman is a member of both the Labour Party and Momentum. Co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football, he has also edited numerous books on the politics of the Left. The latest is Corbynism from Below and is published by Lawrence & Wishart, available to order from here.