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)

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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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