A look at the latest offerings
Back Where We Belong – How Tranmere returned to the Football League, by Matt Jones, £12. Rating out of 10:9
LIFELONG Tranmere fan Matt Jones was so happy when the club won promotion that he decided to write a book about it!
The 28-year-old hadn’t had much to cheer about as a Rovers fan over the years, so the club’s dramatic return to the Football League this summer after a three-year absence gave him the idea.
‘ Back Where We Belong’ charts Tranmere’s three years in the National League and is a warts-and-all look at the highs and lows along the way.
Jones is a broadcast journalist with Liverpool’s Radio City Talk and has covered Tranmere for the last four years for the Liverpool Echo, so he has built up some decent contacts.
It meant he could help tell the story through the words of Tranmere chairman Mark Palios, past and current managers Gary Brabin and Micky Mellon, striker James Norwood, who famously scored the Wembley winner that clinched promotion, and Tranmere Rovers Supporters Trust chairman Ben Harrison.
“I always wanted to do a book and I was waiting for a bit of inspiration,” said Jones, who was taken to his first Rovers match by dad Glynne back in 1995.
“When we won the game at Wembley (2-1 against Boreham Wood with ten men in May), I thought ‘there’s a story’.
“All the people I approached agreed immediately to take part and they all had a different story and message to tell.
“They were all so honest and that’s the amazing thing.
“For example, Micky was very honest about how he struggled to get over the Forest Green (play-off final) game the year before.”
He’s right about that. There’s an excellent passage where Mellon talks about attempting to put the Forest Green defeat to bed by beating Boreham Wood.
“I can’t tell you the depths I’d gone to myself, and probably the rest of the staff and players too,” he says. “I felt the only way to get rid of that or deal with that was to go up those 107 steps (as a winner at Wembley).
“Emotionally, it was a case of going up those steps, lifting the trophy, leaving my sh*t at the top and walking to something new down the other side. That was where my mentality was. It was crazy how I was feeling.” It is that raw honesty that gives the book an extra edge. All the leading protagonists tell it to you straight. There’s no skirting around the issues.
Jones got writing as soon as the season ended and whizzed through it.
“It took six weeks to write,” he said, “while my wife, Emma, was watching Love Island! I wanted to get the book out for the first home game of the season.”
With a thousand books having already been snapped up, Jones admits he has been bowled over by the response to his self-published tome.
“I’m quite amazed,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve read one negative comment. I don’t know what I was expecting, but people seem to like it.
“There haven’t been many books written about Tranmere and it’s so long since we’ve had any success that I think people are enjoying reliving the story.
“It builds up to Wembley and I was lucky to get some great people on board. I’m quite overwhelmed.”
This is a book that Tranmere fans will love, but it also merits a wider audience.
Back Where We Belong is available from the club shop or from mattjones90. wordpress.com John Lyons
State of Play - Under the Skin of the Modern Game, by Michael Calvin, Published by Century, Price £16.99. Rating out of 10: 8
AWARD-WINNING sports writer Michael Calvin’s latest book is an ambitious, in-depth and wide-ranging examination of the current game. Calvin takes as his inspiration Arthur Hopcraft’s ‘The Football Man’, which was written two years after England won the World Cup and is regarded as one of the best football books ever written.
Hopcraft’s book was divided into nine sections but Calvin has gone for four broad headings: The Player; The Manager; The Club, The People.
It is an epic undertaking which covers: the need for more emotionally intelligent managers and coaches; the rise of the women’s game; the failing protocols for assessing and safeguarding injured players; the high-pressure, throw-away culture of the modern game and its toll on mental health; the social impact of football – in prisons, homeless shelters and urban estates around the UK - and the future of the sport – for coaches, owners and fans alike.
Calvin interviews many well-known figures in the game, including Gareth Southgate, Arsene Wenger and Dele Alli, but often the more affecting human stories are with lesser-known individuals such as Dawn Astle.
The daughter of the West Brom and England striker Jeff Astle, who tragically died prematurely from Alzheimer’s, is at the centre of the “Justice for Jeff” campaign, which she started in 2004.
The football authorities were in denial when the coroner found Astle had died from an ‘industrial disease’ – dementia brought on by the repeated trauma of heading the ball.
A long and all-consuming campaign to get justice for Astle and the hundreds of other footballers who have died prematurely has ensued.
Social media is also discussed and Calvin comments: “Twitter has made everyone a pundit. Opinion takes precedence over action.” And he is particularly scathing of Fan TV.
“The stars of Fan TV, uniformly self-regarding and inevitably self-appointed, emphasize the coarseness of what passes as public debate in a world without the constraint of truth, fairness and balance.
“Their narcissism is as over-powering as their ignorance, yet they set the tone,
purport to speak for those who lack the intellect or inclination to think for themselves.”
Arsene Wenger acidly comments on a modern malaise: “Five hundred years ago the target for people was to be a saint, fifty years ago it was to be a hero in the war. Today it is to be a billionaire or, even more, a celebrity.”
Calvin delves deep into the ever-increasing inequalities of the modern game. While Accrington Stanley chairman Andy Holt struggles to keep his club afloat, the top six demonstrate greed and avarice and try to impose serfdom on a game that needs to become more civilised than commercialised.
The hypocrisy of most fans’ motives is exposed. Bob Beech a Portsmouth supporter who set up the fans’ board during their financial difficulties, is brutally honest when he says: “Most fans are liars. They will tell you they want their football club to be as pure as the driven snow, with a great academy producing local boys for the first team. What they really want is to win on Saturday. If that happens they don’t really care whether a Colombian drug cartel is running the place.”
In his summary, Calvin highlights the huge contradictions in the modern game when he says: “Football’s beauty has long been in the eye of the beholder. It is capable of lyricism and cynicism, artistry and banality. It is steeped in reckless romanticism, and bloodless calculation. Its essential contradictions are embodied by its most acclaimed coach Pep Guardiola.
“The splendour of his teams and the authenticity of his personal principles are undeniable. Yet his passionate espousal of the Catalan cause left him exposed to accusations of hypocrisy, since he has profited from an Abu Dhabi-owned club Manchester City and his ambassadorial role with the Qatari World Cup. Neither Gulf regime is noted for its Liberalism.”
Betting companies and agents are a huge stain on the game and exploitative practices, such as West Ham’s policy of charging £700 to fulfill the dream of being a mascot, are contemptible.
Breaking through all the hype around football, Calvin shows us the reality of what is really going on inside our clubs and associated institutions. It is an intelligent and deeply insightful book, if somewhat dispiriting reading, about the current state of our national game. Ian Aspinall
Record Breakers – The Inside Story of Notts County’s Momentous 1997/98 Title Win, by Paul Smith, published by Pitch Publishing, £16.99. Rating out of 10: 8
PAUL Smith has previous – he was the author of Pie in the
Sky, the tale of Notts County’s 2009/10 title victory.
I haven’t read that one, but if it’s as good as Record
Breakers, it must be some book. This time around, Smith takes us further back – to the 1997/98 season. It is one that has special significance for the author.
“… The first year I truly recall games, incidents within them, great goals and the players who made it happen, is 1997/98 – Sam Allardyce’s record breakers,” he states. “The Third Division title was won by March, something no side has ever managed. This was a Notts County side that just won and won and won.”
The journalist also felt that County side hadn’t received the credit they deserved for their achievements. So with the 20th anniversary of that remarkable season beckoning, he decided it was the perfect time to track down as many of the players as he could and get their take on things.
It helps that there were some decent names in that team – for example, Ian Hendon, Mark Robson, Shaun Derry, Andy Hughes, Ian Baraclough, Steve Finnan – and a manager in Allardyce who has gone on to have a highly successful career, including managing England, albeit briefly.
The glorious season Notts had in the fourth tier in 97/98 was all the more surprising given the disastrous campaign they had had the one before, finishing rock-bottom of the third tier.
Allardyce has become known as something of a relegation escape expert in recent years, but he was only able to win two games out of his 21 in charge having taken over mid-season.
It meant the pressure was on him – and the team – to get off to a flying start at the lower level.
Striker Gary Jones, who hit 28 goals in the rip-roaring title season, said: “Sam must have gone through our contracts with a magnifying glass because he brought us back on 1 June – I f**cking hated it!”
Yet what the players regarded as the toughest pre-season of their careers began to pay dividends as the results started to go their way.
The book captures the at-the-time innovative ideas of Allardyce, like specialist training for goalkeepers and the use of sports science.
It also makes clear how close the bond was between all the players, a team spirit that made them put in that extra effort when the chips were down.
There’s the tension in the relationship between chairman Derek Pavis and Allardyce over money for signings and the sale of players.
One of the book’s strengths is that it’s not just a chronological account of what happens. It flits around and focuses on different aspects and individuals.
It’s well written and the contributions from so many of those involved bring it to life.
It was a time when footballers played hard on the pitch and off it. The game has become more professional, some would say boring, since then.
There’s a decent interview with Allardyce, then Everton boss, who laments that very fact.
He says: “The remarkable difference is today a squad can’t have any fun anymore together… It’s a no-no anymore sadly, and certainly you as a manager and a coach (you) couldn’t even dream about promoting anything like going out and bonding together by having a few drinks and playing silly games like we used to.”
With loads of stories and anecdotes, fans’ recollections and updates on what the players are doing now, this is a well-rounded book that Notts fans – or football fans in general - will thoroughly enjoy. An excellent read.