I’ve Made My Peace With Championship Manager (short essay)

I remember two particular images from my footballing education. The first is of Nigel Clough sitting pensively on the Nottingham Forest bench. The second is of a cross into the box from a Sheffield Wednesday player (Petter Rudi? Niclas Alexandersson?), with the ball rising and falling in a graceful curve. These two uninspiring images are my first memories of English football.

Both images came from the hour-long Premier League highlights packaged program that was beamed to Australian free-to-air TV in the late nineties. My father semi-regularly watched the program, his passion for Newcastle United still existent then. By the time I’d started watching it with him, I’d been too late to make my mark on the game. I’d never been good with the round ball at my feet, and I felt like I’d also been too late to pick up on that innate hum and flow of the game itself. “Kick it to him!” I would say, “Can’t you see him on the right?” I’d missed out on learning the footballing language, and as pithy as it sounds, anything worth doing well is worth starting when you are young.

Better late than never, then. The 1998-99 season kicked it all off. Football was on my brain, and the green shoots rose up to the red sun of Forest and the blue sky of Wednesday. Back then I didn’t know any better. I came to know much better—more than I perhaps should have.

I was a quiet kid who played Theme Hospital and Age of Empires on the computer. I didn’t have the stomach for shooters, or the quick fingers for sports games. Outside of the aforementioned two games, I rarely played games to completion—rather tipping in and out of demos that game from the latest issue of PC Powerplay magazine. In other words, the tender was open to impress upon a 14-year-old student the delights and continually-expanding horizons of the digital gaming world.

The demos were limited plays but forever free. Some of these demos passed muster, while others were forgotten, put in the limbo of the computer desk’s second shelf where nothing came out remembered. Each demo was the crumbs of a pie—just enough to whet the appetite for more. And after I’d scoffed down most of the demo offerings from one particular issue of PC Powerplay, I finally landed on the game that I hadn’t tried out yet, a game with the unimaginative title of Championship Manager 1998-99.

I loaded it up, and immediately saw the strangely kerned typeface laid out in slightly opaque textboxes. A few unsure clicks brought me to the option that millions before me had, and have since, held their breath at as they pondered the possibilities beyond it. An option that struck right to what I wanted at 14 years of age: to ‘Take Control’.

The game made sense to me from the get go. A football simulation devoid of any in-play action outside of the rolling text updates. There were no faces to match the players, and no textures and ripples to hold on to. Yet my imagination turned the unending reams of simulation data into a fully-fleshed out world of my making. The data kneaded my malleable brain. Every click-through of a player profile backfilled the huge gorge that represented everything that came before Nigel Clough and Sheffield Wednesday on the TV. I had no business scoring this knowledge into my memory—yet I simply had a huge appetite for it. To this day, the Tetris pieces of data still fit snugly in grey matter and synapse. It’s all well remembering that:

went up front with:

but perhaps it is a sign of a misspent youth that I can also remember that:

a 16-year old up front for Brentford, once scored against me in one of my early forays in ‘management’. Enamoured with the sifting-through of all this information, I called to my father from the back room to get in on the CM thrill too, and appealed at him to get impressed quick at the impossibly juked stats of someone named Edgar Davids. I said to him, “Look at all those red twenties!” I found grace in the numbers—maybe I’d been wedded to a form guide in a previous life.

I logged countless hours into the demo, and begged my parents to buy me the next iteration of the game, Championship Manager: Season 99/00 for Christmas. That was when computer games came in boxes seemingly made of teak. CM3 had broken me in well. The slicker interface of 99/00 led me to double-down on my addiction. The world within the game spilled into the world outside the game. I challenged my school friends on the players and the teams. They had no interest in football, so how could they have known the answers, let alone understood the answers? When a friend came over to my house one weekend, he saw my CM-style, top-down and hand-written AC Milan team list on A3 paper blu-tacked to my bedroom wall (Ba, I AM R and Ganz, M SC, anyone?). “What the hell is this?” he said. “It’s AC Milan,” I said, “from the game.” ‘What the hell’ indeed. I continued down that path of investigation, exploring the limits of the game and of my management abilities; my friend never did.

Each press of the ‘Continue Game’ button was a micro-shot of dopamine. A return from the grey-limbo of the loading screen added further lashings of unreality to my in-game world. Each new layer of data gave me more time in the time-suck. Virtual years’ worth of transfer activity rolled into the fantastical—avatars of real-life players retired and were regenerated into young tyros with questionable names. Witnessing the random assignation of a digital entity (under the guise of a ‘youth player’ to my team following the pre-season ‘big load’ brought about that warm and fuzzy feeling that this youngster existed in a virtual world that was mine alone. I felt proud.

But at the time, I never knew why I felt like that. In hindsight, I can perhaps say that everyone likes the home-grown player from the small-town club. That player you can empathise with and identify with. An approximation of yourself is put into that player, containing all your expectations. I was proud of my players, yet intensely guarding over their ultimate fates—therefore I couldn’t let up with the game. I had to nurse them into digital retirement.

Yet the time dragged with each load. The numerical values 1-20, the sum of a player, revealed nothing new to me. So, thoughts turned to beyond what I saw on that autopsy table, the values and attributes that couldn’t be seen. Anyone straying into the long grass of CM’s boundaries downloaded the ‘all-seeing eye’ program aptly named CM Scout. The program’s advanced filters allowed users to judge a player’s ability and future potential through normally hidden, pre-determined values. This removed any challenge left in the game. Then there was the last refuge of scoundrels, cheaters, and rage-quitters—the save-game editor that changed player values and came with the warning that it might just swallow up your carefully cultivated in-game world and spit it out in the form of a corrupted save file. Regenerated heroes forever locked into a last formation on the eve of a second-leg cup tie. Yep, I went through all this.

I think this is when my passion for CM started to wane. The veil had been lifted on the show. I knew the magician’s tricks and the shortcuts to jerry-rig a bit of cheeky European success to a Third Division team. The third-party programs, infallible tactics packs, and endless lists of ‘recommended players’ written by the user community made the gaming experience a bit pointless. The editing continued—during one hot Australian summer, I clocked in several weeks’ worth of pre-season editing as I tried to recreate the real-time transfers across major European leagues in advance of my next underdog campaign. Why I didn’t download the update patches is beyond me—maybe I just liked the control. Some days I called in sick at my part-time job to spend the afternoon hunchbacked toward the screen to make sure that, among many other moves, Junichi Inamoto moved virtually on loan to Fulham from Arsenal, and that Paul Ince’s transformation to Wolves midfield general was set in stone.

Yet I grew sick of it all. The hours, days, years of carpal-tunnel and dry-eye inducing game binges had taken its mental toll. I imagined a save game to be like a pack of cigarettes—once it was done, it didn’t take much to open up a new one. But I couldn’t do it anymore. Even then, the break from CM was gradual, and never clean. I envied those that wore their addictions proudly, especially those that would alt-tab from the game to a blank Word document to lay down a grand narrative generated by the generated world. I was too early for the in-game YouTube CM streams and the CM ‘challenges’ laid out by obsessives. I’ve never been an overly analytical person, which perhaps puts me at odds with a typical CM player. In the early versions of CM, I always settled for cookie-cutter players that I could set and let free in attacking formations. I eschewed most of the new features with every new CM iteration. So, what kept me playing the game?

I enjoyed playing the game, of course, but at addiction-level something feeds the desire—perhaps it was the need for control, or a coping mechanism from the bad things in my life. Maybe CM satisfied my need for order where order didn’t exist in my life. Whatever it was, CM massaged my insecurities and let me put off my responsibilities and fears for another hour or two.

Over the last decade I’ve returned to CM a handful of times. I’ve only once strayed outside the ‘classic’ versions from the turn of the century. A brief sortie into Football Manager 13/14 only left me pining for the wholesome CM. I bought 13/14 through Steam, and there it remains to this day on the virtual shelf. 13/14 doesn’t loom large in my memory—it was just too counterintuitive and intensely in-depth for me. The brutal functionality of the CM series had been replaced by the fortune of choice. I finally understood what ‘too much control’ meant. The ersatz manager, with his ersatz team, doling out pinpricks of micromanagement. I didn’t give half that attention to family, friends, girlfriends. Despite this reflexive turn back to CM, every resulting foray in it is one of diminishing returns and diminishing joy. The desire to load up, buy up, move up (in the standings) degraded into an atomic half-life. As such, the addiction has faded like an old tattoo on leathered skin. In other words, it’ll never go away, but remain in bare vestige.

But the game has brought me great joy. Palpable joy. CM bridged the divide between footballing philistine and tragic obsessive. Also, years of playing CM in a closed environment taught me the social value of football. I’ve made many friends through football, but those friendships only deepened through the collective CM consciousness. I’m proud of that—the grind meant something off-screen. Many years ago, in a dive bar in Seoul, I surprised a British expat by invoking the name of Charlie Austin when he asked me, “Have you ever heard of Swindon Town?” The ‘knowledge’ got me a free beer—and even if this was the only tangible, concrete reward I got from the years of retina-scaling late nights on CM, I can still bask in the intangible joys that CM has brought me. CM is all about community and friendship—and, you know a like-minded CM tragic when you come across one.

I downloaded CM3 to write this post, and I spent two nights trying to figure out a workaround to play it on Windows 10. On the second night I found the patch that would allow me to do so—and it took all of five minutes to download and install. Even when I wasn’t in the game, CM3 still found a way to suck the time out of me.

Each in-game click revived the muscle memory. Each screen unrolled a wallpaper of names that seemed to have been bundled away into that old computer desk. But this time, they were coming out remembered. Ivan Tistimetanu at Bristol City! The Georgians at Man City who weren’t Georgi Kinkladze! Marlon Broomes in the England squad! It was like driving past a childhood home—pricks of recollection came thick and fast.

But as I went through the familiar screens, I didn’t feel any pangs of longing. The desire to play is now parched away, desiccated. It was a sad moment to reflect upon all the graft I’d put into CM, only now to leave the game behind me. It was a sad moment but also a proud moment, to actually know that I’d left CM behind. An image of a clean-water river appeared in my mind—a river that had previously been addled, plugged, and dammed with the flotsam kicked up from a storm. Perhaps this is what the kicking of an addiction feels like. Or maybe my addiction is a long sleep, dormant yet primed on a hair trigger.

An old hard drive sits on the top shelf of the spare room in my parent’s house. On that hard drive is my greatest ever save game, from CM00/01. A masterpiece thirty (virtual) years deep. Wolves levitating on the summit of European football. Unassailable. Ask me who plays up-front nowadays in the real world for Man City, Man Utd, or Liverpool week-to-week, and I’ll give you an answer after a skipped breath and a pained recollection; but ask me who played up front for Wolves circa 2030 and I’ll be able to tell you in a single breath– Àngel Hidalgo and Hernan Ruggeri, with tyro Jeff Griffiths off the bench (regens over reals!). Twenty-five goals apiece per season. That game will always stay with me, but on the top shelf. A relic. It’ll probably never be loaded again, and if it is, it will be an echo from my history.

Nigel Clough sitting pensively on the Nottingham Forest bench. A Sheffield Wednesday player crosses into the box. Still shots from the very beginning. Now forever joined by Fabrizio Ravanelli on the pitch for Marseille, Ole Gunnar Solskjær in mid-slide after scoring the winner in the Champions League final, and an empty, unknown stadium under a grey sky—all still shots from the iconic CM background screen. Precious memories, indelibly linked with the game. I am better for having had CM in my life, for it gave me football. I’ve made my peace with CM.

Recovering – Richie Sadlier

The bulk of football autobiographies can be lumped into two categories: the going-through-the-motions account of a brilliant career; and the money-spinner churned out mid-career to capitalise on a player’s popularity. Not only does Recovering by Richie Sadlier not fit within these typical outlines, but it also seeks to distance itself from them. In doing so, it stands out brilliantly. Recovering is a story about how Sadlier reclaimed his life from football, and how he recovered from the horrible excesses that football urges on its players.

The critically-acclaimed Recovering won the 2019 Irish Sports Book of the Year, and is preceded by other similarly feted football autobiographies that describe the ravages of alcoholism. Paul McGrath’s Back from the Brink and Tony Cascarino’s Full Time: The Secret of Tony Cascarino especially come to mind. Recovering reminds us that alcoholism and drug use are both still horribly inveterate in the modern game.

Sadlier is perhaps better known for his work outside of football than his work on the pitch. He forged a decent career in football with Millwall, and represented the Republic of Ireland at underage level. He very nearly made the 2002 World Cup squad, too. He is, however, popularly known for an unfortunate TV caption during his punditry with RTE that endeared him to the masses; a caption that stated that he once “scored in UEFA European U-18 Third Place Playoff”. This answer to a middling trivia question asking “Who is Richie Sadlier?” sealed his cult hero status years after he’d given up the game. The image of a tall, young Irish striker in baggy shorts scoring a goal here and there at The Den (and maybe in the rain) some twenty years ago might have come to the mind of someone who had never even saw him play.

“Saturday nights were a no-go for boozing, though, as Sunday was when I had my games with Belvedere. Nothing was to interfere with that. I would ring-fence those nights, mark them down and be clear that on Saturday nights I never drank. This was the dedication I felt was needed to become a professional—something which was beginning to seem like a real possibility.”

Sadlier on his early dedication to professionalism (pg. 30)

The above quote refers to Sadlier’s steely teenage determination to become a professional footballer, and perhaps reflects how naïve and thoroughly unprepared Sadlier was for the extracurricular vices that come part-and-parcel with the profession. The once-homesick Sadlier inevitably partakes in the debauchery. The roots of his alcoholism (“I tried [alcohol]. And everything changed in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I tried it because, well what else was there to do?” (pg. 28)); his cocaine binges in his party house; the laid-back attitude to his injury recovery and a cancer scare; and the denial of issues that led to his self-destruction, all partly make up his laundry list of misadventure.

And all this while plying his trade at Millwall—a club proud to be apart, and perhaps the club least conducive to a physical, mental, and spiritual healing. Sadlier is hardly effusive with his praise for the club. Of an early incident with Millwall fans, he writes, “What I wanted to say was that they were fucking pricks who didn’t deserve to be called supporters” (pg. 60). There is a shocking tale of Sadlier, after breaking his arm, being turned away from treatment at a hospital because Millwall owed the hospital money. His own poor handling of his injuries seems to contribute to the injury that put paid to any hope he made of making the full Republic of Ireland squad for the 2002 World Cup.

Readers of Recovering will notice that there is little banter about former teammates, or self-deprecating humour. The hardships Sadlier endures breed further ill-feeling, discontent, and deep self-resentment. Tragedy is unfettered and unfiltered. At the family level, Sadlier’s strained and seemingly distant relationship with his father is a further source for his crippling self-doubt. His father, a reformed alcoholic, doles out stoic and frank advice. At the peak of Sadlier’s playing career, when he was on the verge of making the full Republic of Ireland squad for the 2002 World Cup, his father undermines his fragile confidence by saying “the chances of you getting some game time are fairly remote, isn’t that right? It’s an awfully long way to go, too,” (pg. 120).

“We never knew which version of my dad would arrive home. Hungover, drunk or sober, take your pick, you’d know who it was before he said a word. His mood came in the door before him.”

Sadlier on his father’s alcoholism (pg. 10-11)

Saddled with alcoholism, depression, and a career scuppered by injury and self-destruction—if this wasn’t enough for the reader to take in, Sadlier reveals that, at 14 years of age, he was sexually abused by his physiotherapist. This needs no more glossing over here, but it does form a part of Recovering’s extended coda and perhaps the most important and honest part of the book. It is truly necessary reading, and acts as the final moment of catharsis from his playing career and the terrors that came with it.

The sheer emotional heft of Recovering leaves the last chapters that describe his TV work tacked on. Invested readers familiar with Sadlier’s punditry will appreciate these chapters, but reading about the bickering between him and fellow pundits seems unimportant considering the nature of the preceding chapters. The writing is emotionally removed and can easily be glossed over.

There is relatively little about his playing career, and as such, little banter or humorous recollections about former teammates. A very dry wit permeates through the book, but this is derived from the unadorned, unfettered and punchy prose. Indeed, the writing serves to highlight all the cruelty that Sadlier endures.  As such, Recovering is not a read for the faint-hearted. His reflections on his life come from a studied eye that has, for a very long time, looked inward.

Being a one-club man, Sadlier was hardly a journeyman footballer. He is, however, a man on a journey. He travels through many stations—professional footballer, alcoholic, club CEO, motivational speaker, TV pundit, psychotherapist. This is by no means an exhaustive list. So perhaps it is fitting that a man who has worn many caps can turn out a study of his life so plainly and honestly—a life put through the wringer every which way by football. Recovering shows an ex-footballer healed, and a man cleansed.


“I was just a kid, a powerless kid abused by a powerful man. I turned on myself and continued to do so for years.”

On suffering sexual abuse as a teenager (pg. 240)

STARS: 4.5/5

UNDER 20: A landmark autobiography by Sadlier that shows the end of football as the start of his life.

FULL-TIME SCORE: A down-and-out player finds his own beat to march to, and leads his team to a gritty and inspired 3-0 win against the rabid opposition.

RELATED READING: Full Time: The Secret Life of Tony Cascarino by Tony Cascarino (2000); Back From the Brink by Paul McGrath (2006); Position of Trust by Andy Woodward (2019)

Find Recovering on Amazon

Bobby Robson: More Than A Manager

Sir Bobby Robson watches on as England capitulate to West Germany in 1990

The football documentary has of late received a makeover. It was inevitable that the modern-day football documentary would outgrow its gritty, made-for-television docudrama form of the 2000s, to evolve into a more elegant form that melds minimalistic storytelling and raw footage to create a compelling documentary. The masterful F1 documentary Senna has driven this change, and its influence has been seen in recent football documentaries such as Maradona and here with Bobby Robson: More Than A Manager. This documentary outlines Sir Bobby Robson’s various managerial achievements and falls from grace, and crafts a fine portrait of an often cruelly denigrated and misunderstood football man with a worldly bent. Even though Robson passed away from lung cancer in 2009, his legacy positively resounds into the present day. Interviews with figures from Robson’s life showed him to be a caring mentor to his players but a distant father, a successful and daring coach punished for his success, and a man who always looked like he was chasing up ‘unfinished business’.

When he got on the train at Durham to go to Fulham, and he was looking out the window and he was waving, well, I just broke down to think that, was he going to make the grade? Was he going to be alright?

Sir Bobby’s father Philip Robson on his son’s start to his playing career

The opening words of Robson, narrated by the man himself, sets the tone of an uncertain adventure already longed played out. “In my early days,” he says, “I always knew what I wanted to do. It was in my blood. I never knew where it would lead me.” Robson continues in a non-linear fashion, beginning with him taking on the Barcelona coaching job nine months after recovering from an operation to remove a malignant melanoma in his head. The mid-to-late 90s is the anchoring point for Robson, and despite the timeline jumping to his salad days as Ipswich manager and to his infamous stint as England manager through the 80s, we always return to his managerial glory days in continental Europe. This period, highlighted by his Barcelona days, acts as the conflict that drives the narrative forward.

Jose Mourinho, Sir Bobby, and Ronaldo taste victory

The magic of Robson inevitably lies with his days as England head coach and as the successor to Johan Cruyff at Barcelona. The touchstone moments within these periods are covered with invaluable raw footage. An irate Robson fronts a press pack disputing Maradona’s first goal in England’s 1986 World Cup quarter final against England (“Maradona handled the ball into the goal, didn’t he? Didn’t he?”). We watch a nervous Robson fold a paper cup from the touchline as he sees England bow out to West Germany in the 1990 World Cup semi-final. We chuckle at his valiant attempts to speak Spanish in press conferences (“Figo, problem, fora. Stoichkov, problem, fora.”), and stand and salute his glorious last stand against the opposing forces within his own club to lead Barca to three trophies in a season before being unceremoniously dumped from his position as manager. No bit of footage is wasted in Robson, and through the lens of hindsight, we learn that Robson, despite his individual brilliance and his legitimate success, was always on a hiding to nothing from internal and external forces in the football world. Like myself, younger football fans will primarily remember Robson from his time as manager of Newcastle United in the early 2000s. Robson’s stint at Newcastle—his last—was a bittersweet one. The toxic situation at the club before Robson’s departure is palpably conveyed through Robson.

He said it was the hand of God. I said it was the hand of a rascal. And I’m right.”

Sir Bobby on Maradona’s infamous goal in the 1986 World Cup

The interviews carry legitimacy with endorsements of Robson by figures such as Jose Mourinho, Alan Shearer, Ronaldo, Sir Alex Ferguson, Gary Lineker, and Pep Guardiola. Robson clearly had a great influence on Mourinho’s career. Mourinho’s default pose of ‘resting belligerence’ is occasionally broken by misty-eyed recollections (“Without feeling [Robson’s] trust, I couldn’t jump so fast to be working with the best players in the world. Our relationship was phenomenal”). Pep Guardiola recounts how he offered to join Robson at Newcastle United following Robson’s departure from Barcelona (a real sliding-doors moment). Paul Gascoigne, perpetually on the verge of tears, tells of the deep, father-son relationship he had with Robson and how he would receive two calls a week from Robson following Robson’s sacking from Newcastle (“Under Sir Bobby, I knew I was safe. I was safe”; [Robson] could have done anything…to spend most of this time worrying about me was so, so, so unbelievable”). However, Robson’s dedication to his players is reflected with the distance he kept from his family, with his son Mark Robson lamenting that his father spent relatively little time with him. Robson, on a sombre, final note in Robson, seems to acknowledge this.

Paul Gascoigne on Sir Bobby

They were spot-on when they chose Mr. Robson to be the next one. Spot on.

Jose Mourinho on Robson’s appointment as Barcelona manager.

Where there is sentimentality, there is also a sense of despondency and feeling of betrayal in the interviews. In regards to Robson’s sacking from Newcastle United, his wife states that “[Robson] was very heartbroken when he was guillotined”, and his son claims that “His world fell apart. We can’t believe it still. Brutal.” Most tellingly was former Newcastle chairman Freddie Shepherd’s assertion that sacking Robson “was like shooting Bambi”. The undercurrent of sadness that flows through Robson is allowed to flow here in its latter parts, especially when Robson, stricken with terminal cancer, shows up to greet the players before the charity match for his foundation, and specifically gives Paul Gascoigne one final word of encouragement.

Devoted disciples to Robson may find the documentary lacking substance in terms of his initial forays into management on the European continent (PSV Eindhoven and Porto) in the 1990s, and a more complete picture of Robson’s life is best served in his autobiographies and biography. Despite this, Robson, as a documentary, almost bursts at its seams with the amount of territory covered. As a lovingly-curated account of Robson’s managerial life, Robson never overstates itself, and as a result is a simple, eminently watchable appraisal of an unforgettable figure in football history. The renaissance of the football documentary is well and truly in swing, and Robson is a prime example of it.

I remember everything. How long have you got?

Bobby Robson on his life
Sir Bobby at Newcastle United

STARS: 4.5/5

UNDER 20: A lovingly compiled and elegant recounting of Sir Bobby Robson’s managerial career.

Find Bobby Robson: More That A Manager on IMDB

Ajax, Barcelona, Cruyff – Frits Barend & Henk van Dorp

“You don’t have to understand. If I’d wanted you to understand I would have explained it better.” This well-known phrase of Cruyff’s, originally spoken in relation to contract negotiations to become Holland’s national coach before the 1994 World Cup, is often wheeled out to remind everyone how obstinate and single-minded Johan Cruyff was when it came to his principles. This phrase showed Cruyff—the visionary, the sublime tactician, and purveyor of beautiful football—at his indomitable best.

However, this phrase also reflects how intensely private Cruyff was of his personal affairs, and how unwilling he was to offer up a softer side of himself to journalists. Cruyff’s sad passing in 2016 ensured that little was left in the way of an autobiography (aside from the disappointing My Turn published posthumously in 2016), leaving the best accounts of his life’s work to the journalists who followed him closely. The best of these is undoubtedly Ajax, Barcelona, Cruyff by Dutch journalists Frits Barend and Henk van Dorp. In this book, the many sides of Cruyff are laid bare in a series of fascinating interviews with the two journalists over a period of 25 years. The end result is not only a compelling, finely layered, and insightful character study, but also a ground-breaking piece of footballing long-form that straddled the line between traditional biography and cultured essay.

“I’ve been called a tactical genius. I’ve trained the first team, the C-team and also the youth teams. And practice has convinced me you don’t need a diploma for that. I only talk about technique and tactics. If Ajax has to train for physical condition, I just don’t join in. When I was young, I also hated running in the woods.” (pg. 35)

Cruyff speaking to ‘Vrij Nederland’ in March 1981 (pg. 35)

The interviews and articles follow Cruyff as player through his salad days at Ajax and Barcelona in the 1970s, and finishes with the end of his coaching stint at Barcelona in the mid-1990s. The content of specific interviews is wide-ranging, and rarely static. The dialogue between Barend, van Dorp, and Cruyff makes for stirring reading, and Cruyff’s Barcelona interviews (as coach) help to pin down many facets of Cruyff’s character. Gold dust lies between the footballing matters—Cruyff is often prompted on family life, religion and philosophy, and he mostly replies candidly. Elsewhere he shows his tempestuousness and exasperation, resulting in stand-offs between him and the journalists. Cruyff truly flows and rages like a river moving through rapids. His answers are often incomprehensible (even to the journalists) and evasive, but herein lies the humour and tension.

Ajax, Barcelona, Cruyff is not a typical football biography. In format alone, it demands of the reader a basic knowledge of both Dutch footballing dominance in the 1970s and Cruyff’s footballing and coaching exploits. In the interests of providing context, the translators for this English edition (David Winner and Lex van Dam) include magazine and newspaper articles that did not feature in the Dutch edition. These additions are indispensable in painting a picture of Cruyff in the 1960s and 1970s. The very specific nature of the interviews especially caters to the football fan look wistfully at football in the 1980s and 1990s. As Barcelona coach, Cruyff waxes lyrical on the future of young Dutch tyros Aron Winter and Richard Witschge; he laments at the loss of Ronald Koeman and the laziness of Hristo Stoickhov; and he reflects upon his foreign contingent at Barcelona of Popescu, Kodro, Luis Figo, and Hagi post-Romario. The nostalgia trip is real.

“When you are 4-0 ahead with 10 minutes to go, it’s better to hit the post a couple of times so the crowd can go “oooh” and “aaaah” because if it’s 5-0 nil, it’s only for the score, it doesn’t affect the result.”

Cruyff on ‘Barend and Van Dorp’ in April 1997 on how football should be played beautifully (pg. 218)

Although Ajax, Barcelona, Cruyff was first published in 1997, readers will appreciate this portrait of Cruyff more so than his recent autobiography My Turn. The transcripts in Ajax, Barcelona, Cruyff show a dedicated family man (“I’m my daughter’s father”) who picks up the children from school; a philosopher who discusses social affairs and the existence of God; a man who sticks by his footballing principles even in the face of greater opportunity (“I could never work for AS Roma. They have a running track around their pitch. That’s the worst thing there is”); a maverick who never admits he is wrong (“If there was [a time I was wrong], I would never talk about it, never. I would put it away. That’s part of my character”); and a retired player-cum-coach who loves to get stuck in on the training pitch (“There are obviously a thousand and one problems a day here. My only distraction is the one and a half hours I’m on the pitch”). Ajax, Barcelona, Cruyff is a warts and all depiction of Cruyff—it is far-removed from the self-serving and arrogant language of My Turn.

“Last Friday, Cruyff was given an ultimatum. ‘Why an ultimatum when we’re still in the middle of negotiations?’ Cruyff thought. How was he supposed to react to the combination of faxes from the KNVB lawyer Mr Utermark and from Staatsen, bearing in mind that it’s impossible to insult Cruyff more than by giving him an ultimatum. Cruyff might not be arrogant, but he happens to be the Sinatra of football trainers and it remains very Dutch to say that Cruyff shouldn’t think he is Cruyff. Think about it!”

On Cruyff’s contract negotiations with the KNVB, in ‘Nieuwe Revu’ in December 1993 (pg. 164)

The translation is seemingly faithful to the turn of phrase used by Cruyff and the interviewers. Some readers my find the translation jarring and inaccurate, yet knowing that Cruyff had a very distinctive speaking style (“Cruyff can be enigmatic and elliptical to the point of incomprehensibility”) it seems hardly fair to criticise the translation. As previously stated, the articles are very selective in time frame and context, and some may be disappointed that there is almost zero mention of his career in the United States to claw back his fortune following his disastrous decision to invest in a pig farming venture. This may be due to the journalists’ overt criticism of football in the US (“in the United States, where football or ‘soccer’, never was and never will be anything, Cruyff can walk the streets without being disturbed”). Where Cruyff describes his US experience as a defining time for his career and life in My Turn, Barend and van Dorp completely overlook this in Ajax, Barcelona, Cruyff. Cruyff’s experience in the US deserves greater coverage, especially in long form. It is therefore a disappointing omission from an otherwise great book.

There will never be a character in the football world as enigmatic and forward-thinking as Johan Cruyff. Although much is written about his footballing ‘vision’, his tactics, and his immense contribution to the game that still resonates in the present day, there is less written about his life in sum—especially when Cruyff himself famously refused to dwell on his past. Ajax, Barcelona, Cruyff is therefore an invaluable treasure for the footballing community. Despite its unorthodox style and it being twenty years since it was first published, this book is still the most objective and rounded impression of this football revolutionary and bona fide legend.


“We’ve listened to a lot of tapes of you. There’s a lot of verbal battles, because you always want to talk rubbish and then we say, Johan, be clear. And then you say: Let me talk, let me explain. As seen through out interviews, your life is one big war. You’ve been active for about 35 years in professional football, and for almost 35 years it’s been a war. Why is that?” Cruyff: “War? Arguments!”

Cruyff on his so-called ‘war’, on ‘Barend and Van Dorp’ in April 1997 (pg. 248)

STARS: 4.5/5

UNDER 20: A series of revealing articles and interviews with Johan Cruyff contribute to a stunning character study of the legend.

FULL-TIME SCORE: The indomitable coach adopts his trademark fluid, attacking display to great effect in a fully-fledged team performance resulting in a 4-0 win (with a last-minute shot against the bar to make the crowd go oooh and aaaah).

RELATED READING: Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football by David Winner (2000); My Turn by Johan Cruyff (2016)

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My Turn – Johan Cruyff

Johan Cruyff is regarded as one of the greatest footballers of all time, yet he was also incredibly successful in his post-playing career. In addition to his many honours and accolades, he contributed immensely to the tactical side of football, so much so that the modern game is heavily rooted in the ideas that Cruyff espoused. As such, the European patron saint of ‘beautiful football’ may well go down as football’s single-most influential figure.

Cruyff’s autobiography My Turn, finished shortly before his death at the age of 68, is a typically Cruyffian and frank account of his body of work. Like any man who has truly earned the right to own the soapbox, he writes without filter and without humility. His writing is often illuminating, prophetic, divisive, idealistic, and rooted in that wonderful arrogance that made him such an iconoclast. This is by no means a by-the-numbers autobiography—it is rather a manifest, a thesis defence, and a rallying cry. It is truly his turn.

“The good player is the player who touches the ball just once and knows where to run; that is what Dutch football is about. I have always said that football should be played beautifully, and in an attacking way. It must be a spectacle.”

Cruyff on how football should be played (pg. 29)

My Turn also reads like a mournful eulogy. Cruyff wrote My Turn whilst battling lung cancer, and although there is one mention of this in his book, his health is a subject that he was always highly conscious of. He remarks upon his previous heart problems with a certain casualness, having realised at a young age that his health problems would eventuate. Cruyff’s quiet acceptance of this flows through his writing, and read posthumously My Turn is an incredibly personal recounting of a man who lived and died for football. Even his often-disengaged style is somewhat endearing and displays that brilliant single-mindedness endemic in genius.

Fervent adherents to Cruyff’s philosophy will undoubtedly gain a great insight into his thoughts on Total Football and his turbulent relationship with the Ajax board in his later years. His honesty ranges from brutal, particularly in reference to his failed personal relationships (“That’s happened to me often if my life—people I had a special bond with suddenly letting me down. Like with Michels, but also with Piet Keizer, Carles Rexach and later Marco van Basten…When I think about it, I’ve learned a lot from them all, but they’ve never been willing to learn from me. I think that’s a very telling difference.”); to the tragic, encapsulated by his reasons for refusing to be part of the Dutch national team for the 1978 World Cup and in his description of son Jordi’s injury-plagued career. My Turn is the work of an idealist with unshakeable principles who refuses to be caught up with the material and transient—he merely regards medals and honours as things to put in his “grandchildren’s toy box” and he writes that the past is “not something that I think too much about”.

“In the end, the time will surely come when the club [Ajax] realizes things need to change…At any rate, it’ll happen when the right people start being listened to. People who hold the club in their hearts and who know what Ajax represents. If that happens, our struggle will not have been in vain.”

Lamenting the situation at Ajax (pg. 239)

However, his self-serving style of writing and what he chooses to focus on (and omit) will invite criticism and polarise readers. It may be a great loss to football history that he glosses over his magnificent playing career, and his dismissal of the greatest of the great losses—the 1974 World Cup Final loss—is infuriating in its blitheness (“That said, I got over it quickly enough. In fact it wasn’t much of a blow. Much more important was the vast amount of positivity and admiration for our play that our performances had generated all over the world.” (pg. 60)). He defends himself from the many criticisms levelled at him, including the standing-over of then-Ajax coach Leo Beenhakker and his insensitive remarks to Edgar Davids by claiming that what he did was for Ajax’s betterment. He writes his disdain for the ‘gutter press’, yet used his column to kickstart a war of attrition against the Ajax board. His frequent use of imperatives (“we must”, “we have to”) and arrogant language (“I’ve never been driven by rancour”; “I’m a very idealistic person who knows what he’s talking about”; “I looked in the mirror and came to the conclusion that I should be the model for this”) can make for some difficult reading.

Yet this is what made Cruyff essentially Cruyff—an unshakeable belief in his own ideology, and his determination to make the game ‘beautiful’ to watch, where winning is merely derived from spectacle. Therefore, My Turn cannot possibly encapsulate the depth of Cruyff’s ideology, and it reads much like an unpolished draft. As such, there are some grating contradictions. He writes “You can’t be a top sportsman unless you are intelligent” and later writes that “information is more important than intelligence”. He claimed to have an affinity with numbers and numerology, yet flexes that he doesn’t know how much money he has (“I wouldn’t be able to tell you. Not a clue. Let me know if there are any problems. I don’t live in that world. It’s not my thing.”) It all comes across as conceited, and to a fan who struggles to pay for a ticket to watch a game—let alone the beautiful game—such remarks are insulting and out of touch. Several chapters, especially his meandering descriptions about his battles with the Ajax powers-that-be, are heavily unedited and may have been an effort by the publisher to maintain Cruyff’s ‘voice’.

My Turn ends with a touch of lament. Cruyff bemoans the state of his beloved Ajax, writing that “It’s incredibly sad that, at the age of sixteen, I was there for the beginning of the ascendancy, and now, at nearly seventy, I have to witness the decline. No one wants to listen. Or rather, hardly anyone wants to listen. Everyone has his own agenda.” It would have been unlike Cruyff to question his own relevancy at any time, but to admit his sadness shows a man taking stock near the end of his life. Readers may even pick up some regret in his refusal to even acknowledge the ’74 World Cup loss as a failure in his footballing life, despite bemoaning the circumstances involving his self-exclusion from the ’78 World Cup tilt (that they may have won had he played) and his dejection in not being able to coach the Dutch national team in the 1990 World Cup (Michels “cocked it up”).

Perhaps the charm of My Turn lies in the obstinacy, the inconsistencies, and the unanswered questions. Cruyff set himself high standards, and expected the same of others. His autobiography is written in the same vein—he writes assuming that the reader already understands. In a way, My Turn is engaging in its combativeness and self-importance, for Cruyff certainly earned the right to be unashamedly forthright. However, My Turn is a tragic missed opportunity by Cruyff and his publisher to leave behind a final, unforgettable testimony of one of football’s greatest personalities. We, as football fans, are worse off for what has been omitted, ignored, or downplayed.


“The World Cup [1974] turned us into cult figures around the globe. People warmed to our image of gritty bravura. Our strength lay in our honesty. We weren’t acting; that was really how we were. Dutchmen by birth, and definitely Amsterdammers by nature.”

Remarks upon the 1974 World Cup (pg. 62)

STARS: 2.5/5

UNDER 20: A disappointing and uneven autobiography by a bona fide footballing legend at the end of his wonderful life.

FULL-TIME SCORE: The undoubted star of the team dictates play, but his end product is unusually lacking in a bore 1-1 draw against a more pragmatic team.

RELATED READING: Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football by David Winner (2000)

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Do You Speak Football? – Tom Williams

The lexicon of football is indeed richly varied. Words and expressions are routinely coined and rarely arbitrary. Each coinage is reflective of the culture from which it originates, and carried a collective feeling, a shared history, a regrettable moment, or a glorious victory. Well known terms such as joga bonito, diski, and morbo all evoke certain ideas about football, and how it should be played. Each part of the football lexicon is personal, subjective, and shifting in meaning over time—therefore, any attempt to categorise such a lexicon would prove to be a difficult task.

Tom Williams has, however, tackled this task meritoriously in his extensive glossary Do You Speak Football? In this book, the respective lexicon of eighty-nine footballing nations over seven regions is detailed in varying degrees, with ‘heavyweight’ nations commanding the most entries. Amidst this eclectic compendium—where there are at least twenty ways to describe a nutmeg and no less than fourteen creative ways to say in the top corner—Williams also cannily delves into the history of more specific expressions and teases out some glorious, seldom-told anecdotes from footballing history that even the most knowledgeable football anorak may be unaware of.

“One of the most evocative words in World Cup History, Maracanazo was the name given to Brazil’s sensational defeat by Uruguay in the deciding match of the 1950 tournament…Nelson Rodrigues, Brazil’s greatest playwright, described it as ‘our Hiroshima’. The calamity was evoked again during the 2014 World Cup when Brazil, again the hosts, collapsed to an unbelievable 7-1 loss to Germany in the semi-finals at Belo Horizonte’s Estádio Mineirão. It was quickly dubbed the Mineirazo.

The meaning of Maracanazo (pg. 28)

The entries are brilliant and conjure up vivid mental images. Onde dorme a coruja (‘where the owl sleeps’), fare la gavetta (‘to do the mess tin’), and pihkatappi (‘faecal plug’) are good examples of this. Panenka, timsaha yatmak (‘doing a crocodile’), and poteaux carrés (‘square posts’) all reflect moments in football history that still ripple in the present; and tuya, Héctor (‘yours, Hector’) and en rigtig Jesper Olsen (a real Jesper Olsen) are footballing expressions that have entered everyday life. There are hundreds of equally fascinating entries each accompanied by Williams’ punchy and clever explanations.

Do You Speak Football? does not have to be linearly read. Readers can dip in and out at will, though it is certainly worth reading from front to back to get full value. A concise appendix of each entry is lacking, making the book difficult to reference quickly. Where there are crossover entries—nutmeg and in the top corner, for example—there are no specific page references for similar entries. Although no entry is forced, some countries are overrepresented, while others are underrepresented.

“When a bear hibernates, a large mass of hardened matter called a faecal plug forms in its colon… In football terms, [pihkatappi] is used to describe a defensive midfielder who plugs the gap in front of his team’s defence. And you thought left-back was an unglamorous position.”

The meaning of pihkatappi (pg. 92)

Do You Speak Football? can also be compared to Adam Hurrey’s 2014 book Football Clichés. Both are glossaries of footballing parlance, but are very different in tone. Football Clichés is a humorous and light stocking stuffer, whereas Do You Speak Football? eschews the pithy humour to take a more erudite and meaningful look at footballing language. As such, it reflects upon how culture affects language.

The success of Do You Speak Football? is a testament to Williams’ research, and his ability to compose a fascinating anecdote. His work will appeal to all football fans, and will especially please those who appreciate esoteric football trivia. Readers of Do You Speak Football? will also gain a clearer insight into the beauty of a lexicon that is often watered down by clichés and platitudes.


“Unimpressed by the performances of 18-year-old playmaker Gianni Rivera at the 1962 World Cup in Chile, [Gianni] Brera dubbed him l’Abatino, meaning ‘the Young Priest’, in mocking reference to Rivera’s slight physique and lack of defensive endeavour. The term became used to describe any thoughtful, willowy midfielder whose excellent vision and passing ability were not matched by his work-rate. Another term was euclideo (‘Euclidean’), after the Ancient Greek mathematician Euclid, which he used to describe a player who read the game well and moved in logical patterns.” (pg. 122-123).

A couple of Gianni Brera’s classic coinages (pg. 122-123)

STARS: 4/5

UNDER 20: A fascinating study of football lexicon and culture that is punctuated with wonderful asides, historical anecdotes and trivia.

FULL-TIME SCORE: The l’Abatino plays a Streltsov pass to the ponta de lança, who puts some chanfle to put the la bendita into the jep’s nest for a glorious final mark on a colourful and creative 3-1 win.  

RELATED READING: Football Clichés by Adam Hurrey (2014).

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Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football – David Winner

The Dutch style of football, typically characterised by Ajax and Dutch national teams playing ‘Total Football’ in the 1960s and 1970s, is more complicated than the sum of its parts. Any book investigating the roots of the Dutch style needs an author who can tease out elements of history, society, culture, and politics that went into the making of the Dutch style. David Winner, in his masterpiece Brilliant Orange, succeeds in picking apart the Dutch style and analyses it with an expert and loving eye. So successful is his quest that Brilliant Orange can be read as a love letter to, eulogy to, or debriefing of the great enigma that was—and arguably still is—the Dutch style of football.

So, what is the Dutch style? Perhaps it can be popularly summed up through three elements: the tactics of ‘Total Football’; the late and great Johan Cruyff; and the 1974 World Cup Final. David Winner, however, takes a deep dive into the Dutch psyche and resurfaces with anecdotes from multiple spheres, sources, and spectrums to explain the Dutch brand of football. The Dutch style, Winner argues, is not just a product of Rinus Michels’ disciplinarian and manipulative tactics on and off the pitch. It is influenced by the progressive politics of the 60s, flexibility in architecture, the Dutch penchant for making open space from crawlspace, and collective trauma. By no means is this a definitive list—Brilliant Orange is far too storied to adequately describe it in bullet points.

“Barry Hulshoff explains the principle: ‘Total Football means that a player in attack can play in defence—only that he can do this, that is all. Everything starts simply. The defender must first think defensively, but he must also think offensively. For an attacker it is the other way around. Somewhere they meet.’”

Barry Hulshoff on ‘Total Football’ (pg. 26)

The usual malaises of the Dutch style are skilfully covered, including the heartbreaks of the 1974 and 1978 World Cup Finals, and continued underperformance and failure at national level. As well as drawing upon anecdotes from wide-ranging sources, Winner also interviews players, managers, journalists, psychologists, and artists to bring together a narrative. Every poke and prod he makes pushes out a further question. We read a thrilling interview with the enigma and former glamour boy Johnny Rep which reads like a tug-of-war between him and Winner. Where Rep is unforthcoming and cheekily evasive, Gerrie Muhren is serene, open and engaging. The pragmatic coach Leo Beenhakker talks about how he both “hates” and “loves” the Dutch style of the end-to-end excitement of attacking play. We learn about the man who played in Johan Cruyff’s shadow (and was possibly on par with him skill-wise), and how a captain’s ballot and swimming pool party helped bring down Camelot. Or, according to one source, how West Germany “murdered innocence.”

Although Winner and the reader may not be any close to an answer on why the Dutch style—perhaps the most stylistically revolutionary of all styles—fell to bits where it mattered, the poetry, as Jan Mulder implies, lies in the failure of the enterprise.

“But we are talking about the great team that lost because they lost. If they’d won, it would be less interesting, much less romantic. So we are in the same room as Puskas and the great Hungarians—we are together with the best team in the history of football. Second but imperial! Unforgettable seconds! Better seconds!”

Jan Mulder on being second (pg. 115)

Some of the, well, more brilliant parts of Brilliant Orange lie in the historical, societal, and artistic insights. Winner bookmarks these insights in the first- and final-thirds of the book. Everything in between is equally illuminating and a treat to read. The structure and chapters of Brilliant Orange can be seen as representative of the theory of total football, in fact—it is total in its scope and content, forever intertwined, and more than the sum of its parts. David Winner, in writing Brilliant Orange, is like an engineer devotedly describing each part of a finely-tuned engine. Such is the quality of writing, and such is the quality of product. And although Brilliant Orange was originally published in 2000, it retains a timelessness and whimsical yearning. The updated version also covers the infamous 2010 World Cup Final.

The best football books come from a longing from within, a need to explain oneself through the content. This comes out through well-known and touching autobiographies, most notably Paul McGrath’s Back from the Brink. However, the gold standard of football long-form also contains that ephemeral delight that can only come from an author’s hobbyhorse. Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch is perfectly representative of this, and in turn shows what great football writing is. David Winner’s Brilliant Orange comes from the same streets, and is rightfully regarded as one of the greatest football books ever written. Brilliant Orange is a must-read for every football fan.


“When we lose, it’s always because of “brutal force”. We never think we lose because of the elegance or creativity of another team. No, it’s because they used brutal force, which is simply not relevant to us because we are playing a different, better, higher game, which the referee also happens not to understand. We won’t lower ourselves to your level, but if it makes you happy to destroy our elegance, then go ahead!”

Political scientist Paul Scheffer on elegance vs brutal force (pg. 203)

STARS: 5/5

UNDER 20: A mesmeric and thrilling investigation into one of the most glorious football movements and set of players in history.

FULL-TIME SCORE: A glorious 4-0 win that enchants with bold, attacking, and fearsome play. It is very rare to see a team play this cohesively, this magically, and this memorably.

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Danish Dynamite – Rob Smyth, Lars Eriksen, Mike Gibbons

Denmark’s national team in the 1980s was one to behold. Names such as Laudrup, Elkjær, and Olsen became synonymous with an attractive, attacking brand of football that was in full flow at the Euros and 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Coach Sepp Piontek laid the foundations for not so much a team, but a movement for an entire nation that would ultimately culminate in Euro glory in the early 90s. In Danish Dynamite, authors Rob Smyth, Lars Eriksen, and Mike Gibbons capture this Danish zeitgeist in a thoroughly engaging and spirited read that will leave fans of 80s football reminiscing on one of the best-assembled national teams in football history.

Danish Dynamite is a lovingly-curated time capsule that focuses primarily on the ‘golden generation’ which represented Denmark at major tournaments in the 1980s. The book draws upon a multitude of resources that gives weight and depth to the narrative, and the descriptions (particularly of the matches) are lavish and vivid. From the national team’s amateur days wherein a session in a pub or bar was more highly regarded than the performance on the pitch beforehand; to the inspirational wins borne from the attack at-all-costs mentality and the soul-crushing losses at the latter stages of major tournaments, the reader rises and falls with the team.

“For the Italian and Germans an international match was business; for the Danish players it was a beano. They were an international team in name and a pub team in nature, steeped in a quagmire of amateurism in both approach and structure.”

Denmark’s amateur setup at national level (pg. 16)

Elkjær, Simonsen, Laudrup, Arnesen, Berggreen, Olsen, Lerby—these are not just players, but instantly likeable ‘men of the people’ who enchanted the football world, and who were equally as comfortable on the ball as they were drinking with the fanatic traveling band of Danish roligans. Although this generation of Danish footballers may in some quarters be best-known for that game against Spain at Mexico 86, the authors treatment of this game and other memorable ties (the win against Platini and France, and the grudge match against Belgium in particular) is respectful, insightful, and the benchmark of excellent football reportage.

“…after a particularly brutal opening the game morphed into one of the greatest in the history of the European Championship. A genuinely brilliant football match and a stripped-to-the-waist set-to were gloriously entwined. As the saying goes, in the middle of it all a football match broke out. And what a match.”

Denmark v Belgium at the 1984 European Championships (pg. 90)

‘Danish Dynamite’, as the Danish team’s way became known as, was the house that coach Sepp Piontek built, and Danish Dynamite can perhaps be seen as a tribute to his outstanding work. From his beginning as the coach of Haiti, to harnessing the tremendous individual talent he assembled into a glorious Danish national team, Piontek’s influence and character is finely weaved into the narrative. Piontek is a man certainly worthy of mention in football history—he led Denmark to its first World Cup in 1986, and even provided Bobby Robson with his worst memory of management when England capitulated to Denmark in 1983. Thankfully, Danish Dynamite lays out Piontek’s achievements in English-language long-form to a generation of football enthusiasts who may have been too young to remember the Danish team in its pomp.

Some readers may wonder why Denmark’s crowning achievement (champions of Euro 92) gets scant attention in Danish Dynamite, with one chapter at the end devoted to it. Indeed, the glory that escaped the ‘classic’ Danish team of the 80s is seen as an afterthought. However, the main strength of this book is that it poeticises not just the highs but also the lows, and in so gives the missteps, the fateful injuries and red cards, and the painful losses meaning. Danish Dynamite is about the journey, not the destination, of that comet that streaks across the sky and dazzles onlookers. As such, Danish Dynamite is an instant classic of football non-fiction, and is a highly recommended read.


“It was football’s saddest, maddest thrashing. ‘It annoys me tremendously still today, because it’s ridiculous,’ says Elkjaer. ‘We were the better team, but we lost our heads and that’s crazy.’ Yet in a sense it was also in the spirit of Danish Dynamite. This was a team who could win 6-1 one week and lose 5-1 the next—and at Mexico 86 they became the only team since the 1950s to score and concede at least five at the same World Cup.”

Summing up the era of ‘Danish Dynamite’ (pg. 190)

STARS: 5/5
UNDER 20:Danish Dynamite is a classic and eminently re-readable account of the 80s Danish team that enchanted supporters and rivals alike.
FULL-TIME SCORE: A barnstorming 6-1 win, reflective of that memorable win against Uruguay in the 1986 World Cup.

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Thirty-One Nil – James Montague

James Montague’s Thirty-One Nil is a sweeping travelogue detailing the fortunes of a number of national teams as they battle through qualifiers in the lead up to the 2014 World Cup. These teams all share ‘outsider’ status in some respect, whether it be for political reasons or because of their lowly status. Author James Montague teases out the difficulties national teams such as—but not restricted to—Haiti, Egypt, Lebanon, American Samoa, and Eritrea faced in putting a team on the park.

Travelogue, geopolitical essay, adventure story—Thirty-One Nil can be described as all of these. Montague covers riots in Egypt and Brazil; questions Sepp Blatter about Kosovo; goes fishing with players of the Antigua and Barbuda national team; gets drunk in a seedy Curacao bar; and even gets tear gassed and shocked out of sense by a stun grenade. Montague writes from the edge of his seat, and has duly earned the plaudit of ‘The Indiana Jones of soccer writing’ from Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl.

Montague’s writing shines when he narrows his focus on minnows such as American Samoa, the Caribbean nations, and (the then-lowly) Iceland. The stories of Nicky Salapu (the goalkeeper on the losing end of the 31-0 scoreline to Australia in 2001) and Jaiyah Saelua make for great reading, and Iceland’s goalkeeper-cum-filmmaker Hannes Halldórsson is given a platform in Thirty-One Nil long before he made a name for himself in the 2018 World Cup.

“I feel like I’ve been let out of prison. I want my son to grow up and don’t want kids chasing him around saying your dad lost 31-0…but if we win this tournament, we will get to Brazil no doubt! Even if we qualify for Brazil, and I don’t make it there, I would die a happy person.”

Nicky Salapu on qualification (pg. 100)

Antigua and Barbuda’s search for descendent talent in England is also worth mentioning, as well as Bob Bradley’s challenges in guiding Egypt (which features a young Mohamed Salah, and national icon Mohamed Aboutrika) through the qualifiers. Although the state of the national setups in 2014 are not reflective of the setups at the time of reading (2019), Thirty-One Nil nevertheless echoes the problems that face national teams in the present day due to complex political and social issues.

Montague has certainly chalked up the air miles in Thirty-One Nil. The book has a ‘written on the fly’ feel to it, and as such the writing often lacks cohesion and the chapters read like despatches from a coldly-observing foreign correspondent. The political exposition has a place in the book, but could have done with some pruning to break up overly-long paragraphs.

Back cover.

Some passages come across as insensitive and flippant, such as Montague comparing Haiti’s airport to ground zero of a “zombie apocalypse”, and the use of “bloodbath”, “sacrificial meat”, and “mauling” to describe unflattering score lines alongside chapters covering the Rwandan genocide and the Port Said Stadium riot.

Montague is a daring writer and intrepid traveller, and he has a talent for throwing himself into the moment. However, in travelling all over the world to gather his stories, he has perhaps spread himself too thin. As such, he doesn’t do full justice to one singular format, whether it be travelogue, geopolitical essay, or adventure story. There is undoubted quality in the pages of Thirty-One Nil, however a narrower focus that eschews historical and political exposition would have better served the main characters in this book, and their footballing lives as ‘outsiders’.


When it is time for the ‘extreme underdogs’ of the US Virgin Islands to begin training, they start by running the length of the pitch, back and forth, back and forth. They take shooting practice next. No one manages to hit the target. Balls balloon over the goal, or end up near the corner flag. The maintenance men go about their work, painting and repainting the terrace steps in red, yellow, and blue, only stopping to retrieve any balls that land close to them.

On the US Virgin Islands’ upcoming qualifier against Haiti (pg. 50)

STARS: 2.5/5
UNDER 20: A gritty footballing travelogue, geopolitical essay, and adventure story rolled into one—yet lacking a unifying flavour.
FULL-TIME SCORE: A 2-1 loss away from home. Away attacks were fully-fledged and brave, yet sporadic.

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Football Clichés – Adam Hurrey

Football Cliches by Adam Hurrey, simply, is a compendium of clichés upon which the modern-day football world dances. The book hums along in a sprightly pace, and is a breezy read. You will laugh and you will smile wryly at the wordplay at work here, and anyone familiar with Hurrey’s work will get a kick out of it, as I did.

“Hammered – So evocative a term for powerful long-range efforts that it even extends to players’ nicknames, such as German midfielders Jorg ‘The Hammer’ Albertz and Thomas ‘Der Hammer’ Hitzlsperger, neither of whom needed a second invitation to shoot during their time in British football.” (pg. 16)

On describing the term ‘hammered’ (pg. 16).

Over fourteen chapters, Hurrey puts the spotlight on hundreds of clichés that are pervasive in football media and weaves them into his prose. From those heard on the field to those heard in the commentary box and everywhere in between, each cliché is keenly and humorously described. Clever diagrams are also featured, and although they are mostly irrelevant, they serve to further solidify Hurrey’s patented sense of football humour (the graph of ‘Minutes of Stoppage Time v Incredulity’ is typical of this humour).

“They may find, however, that their adversary is no slouch and he himself may need no invitation to bomb on. The historically undersung full-back has gradually been liberated by the era of relative gung ho-ism that the backpass rule ushered in. They are not free to buccaneer or maraud to their lungs’ content, provided they are just as good going the other way.”

On the modern-day full-back (pg. 40).

The writing does drag in the latter stages when the novelty of the writing form wears off. A book made up of lists is likely to do that, no matter how good the writing is. So, to sum up, Football Cliches does exactly what it says on the packet, and does it well.

Back cover.


“Welcome to the Premier League – The standard English top-flight welcome pack for few foreign signings consists of three items: a pair of oversized headphones, a designer washbag and an agricultural challenge from an old-fashioned centre-half.”

The Premier League ‘welcome pack’ (pg. 94).

STARS: 3.5/5
FULL TIME SCORE: 2-1 win. An entertaining first half with the three goals scored, though the game gently falls away as players run out of legs.

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