Tag: bookreviews

Review: ‘One Football, No Nets’ by Justin Walley

For full disclosure, I know the author in the sense we’ve had lots of conversations on social media before, but this doesn’t affect my review of his book.

I first purchased the work last September on the back of listening to some podcasts, and being vaguely aware of CONIFA, a sort of independent counterpart organisation to FIFA that holds its own ‘World Cup’ for nations not affiliated with the far more prominent governing body, mostly for political reasons.

The work takes place during a 12-month expanse, beginning with Walley’s appointment as national team manager of Matabeleland, an area covering three provinces on the western side of Zimbabwe. In a turn of events that becomes a recurring theme throughout the 362 pages,¬† it was far from straightforward for him to land that role, and perhaps just as importantly, it was effectively an unpaid one.

Life in Bulawayo was (and doubtlessly continues to be) a rollercoaster; travelling to and from there is an epic journey in its own right, taking Walley the best part of three days from the UK or his base in Latvia, but once in situ, he becomes accustomed to its very particular culture and way of doing things. Indeed, the first third of the tome is still under the brutal regime of the late Robert Mugabe, and his many informants, obvious (the military police) and not.

Taking training is often affected by the prevailing and well-founded fear as much as it is by the logistical and financial problems faced by the young players, fellow coaching staff and Walley himself. Co-founders of the MFC (Matabeleland Football Confederacy), president Busani Sibidi and technical director Busani Khanye, jump off the text as larger than life characters, and the relationship he had with the two men, with its many ups and downs throughout the fraught and fractious process to fundraise and obtain visas really draws the reader into a world that bridges the gap successfully between alien and relatable.

Whilst ensconced in Bulawayo, Mugabe is dramatically wrested from power, and the atmosphere immediately preceding and subsequent to his ‘resignation’. Walley’s near-daily recounting of that major historical event demonstrates in no uncertain terms the grip the dictator had on Zimbabwe as a whole, and how decades of repression affected everyday life. His testament of the days afterwards is especially palpable, and almost makes you forget you’re reading a book ostensibly about football, but which actually manages to achieve much more than that.

Of course, that’s not to say everything immediately improves once Emmerson Mnangagwa takes office. The title takes its inspiration from literally only having a single functioning football for training, and most of the places they are able to practice are on unmarked pitches without nets. Thankfully, the situation does remedy itself, partly down to the author and the Busanis’ crowdfunding efforts (when electricity and internet access were present), a network of people back in Europe… and a certain Bruce Grobbelaar.

Bruce-Brobb

Growing up in the 90s, the Liverpool legend was more known to me as a figure of comedy at best (through numerous goalkeeping gaffes) and the match-fixing scandal that rocked the sport at worst. I saw him turn out for Bury in his single appearance for the Shakers at Birmingham City in 1998, and although I have heard interviews in the interluding period since, it’s this book that hugely helps to redeem him to people like me.

Walley tentatively contacts him, and once a rapport is established after feeling like he was being ‘cased’ as to whether he was genuine in a motorway service station back in England, things really take off. His contributions are huge for the project to get Matabeleland to London for the CONIFA World Football Cup, from sourcing gear to personally intervening in the visa application process when it appears that the British Home Office, not the authorities in Zimbabwe, threaten to scupper months of diligent hard work and fundraising.

Even when they do all belatedly make the journey over, events are no less dramatic. Walley is far less prepared for reasons outside of his control than his compatriots for the tournament itself. Many of his best-laid plans, training drills and recruitment went awry in Bulawayo, which undermined him from the outset, and there are plenty of entries dedicated to the effects the difficulties he faced had him (especially feelings of depression), his long-distance relationship with his girlfriend whose Schengen visa expired partway through the period described, and the MFC.

In their first outing, Matabeleland win one and lose two of their group games, playing a further fixture to determine their overall rank of 13th. Walley reflects that the ‘lowly’ position belied their true performances, especially given that their vanquishers both made the semi-finals.

The author is extremely well-travelled, having visited 150 countries and counting. This is an important aspect to remember when reading; as someone who has personally known several people in my previous life working for a large conservation charity who had a tickbox competition amongst themselves to see who could blag another new stamp here and there to their already heaving second passports, Walley honestly and skillfully avoids the pitfalls of both a kind of perpetual fatigue and cynicism from doing so, and their opposite number, a wide-eyed reverence for anywhere that isn’t home.

It’s a difficult balance to strike, and the section dedicated to his adventures and escapades in Russia for the showpiece tournament serve largely as a rebuttal to the growing mistrust and paranoia from the UK and elsewhere about the largest sovereign state on the planet. Moreover, he is at pains to point out the friendliness of the populace from Moscow to Kazan, remarking several times on the lack of fellow England supporters at games (who were mostly put off by FCO advice and constant negativity in the media), as well as the good-natured bonhomie between supporters of competing teams.

The diarised format of the prose does admittedly take you out of the immersion on occasion; on the flip side, it adds a layer of authenticity that would be harder to replicate months or years after the fact, and I found myself reading sections into the small hours several times. Even if I hadn’t spoken to the author before, he’s the kind of person I’d like to meet. His take on the world is individualistic (yet not) and unvarnished (yet carefully considered). His passions for travel, football, and just appreciating the simple things in life make him a sympathetic ‘character’, even if you parse that away from the political turmoil he was privy to at very close quarters.

I’d recommend this book, regardless of whether you care one iota about the beautiful game. It’s not a prerequisite to enjoying it, nor are the terms too technically minded to have you reaching for Google or highlighting the text on an e-reader. It is, at its heart, a celebration of the kindness of strangers, the company of a relentlessly positive outlook of a group of young men in the face of real adversity, and a frank account of personal struggles and triumphs. Make this your next purchase – it’s worth every cent, penny, or Ecocash mobile transfer payment!

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Review: ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ by James Bentley

For full disclosure, I had a very tiny part in helping fellow Bury fan James Bentley with his second tome about the Shakers (the first being centred around the 1984/1985 promotion-winning squad titled ‘The Forgotten Fifteen’ , which was set against the backdrop of the Bradford and Heysel disasters). I transcribed the parts featuring Mark Carter and David Pugh slowly, using lunch breaks at work to complete the task. It doesn’t affect how I perceive the book as a whole.

Having started the fortnightly pilgrimage to Gigg Lane mere months prior to where the main body commences as a wide-eyed eight-year old, the man in the dugout is Mike Walsh with a certain Stan Ternent as his assistant. It continues in a chronological fashion, spanning a four-year period until Neil Warnock takes charge and the downward spiral begins in earnest on the back of the meteoric rise hitherto experienced under Ternent, doubtlessly the most successful and best era to be a fan in the post-war period.

As well as chronicling the ups and downs of the seasons game-by-game, the major ‘added value’ comes in the guise of former players and staff agreeing to be interviewed for their takes on the extraordinary rise of Bury Football Club in the mid-90s, as well as accounts of supporters recollecting key events and their emotions at the time. Bentley is also able to call upon extensive archived material from newspapers (mostly the Bury Times when it still meant something to anyone, and the Manchester Evening News before the era of handing it out for free in the city centre). The local print and radio journalists add another layer to the prose, helping what might have been a bit dry at the end of another author’s pen or fingertips into a real page-turner.

Technology just before the proliferation of the internet into the collective public consciousness has a big say in the narrative, too. VHS tapes were still the order of the day, and even though attendances swelled to 6,000 or so in 1997/1998, it’s unlikely many copies of the season reviews were purchased back then, much less survive to this day and in a transferable state to more modern media. Anyone who’s watched the grainy footage on YouTube and other online platforms is extremely grateful for their existence; for me personally, watching back the highlights from that time (with a couple of famous exceptions) represented just the second instances of ever seeing them. That point can’t be understated because when they’re coupled with the excitable tones of commentator Paul Greenlees, it only enhances many of the goals’ iconic statuses, and ably demonstrates not having quick and endless access to them can allow a belated but renewed appreciation of memories hitherto trapped in amber.

The author himself was of a prime age for fully appreciating what was unfolding in front of the faithful few thousand in BL9, and this is relayed in what a player signing or leaving, a formation change, a rallying call, and the atmosphere before and during a match meant and felt like to him. Through no fault of his own, this in itself is a huge improvement over his first work. Simply being witness to the events adds an authentic voice to proceedings.

Whereas many of his anecdotes being close to a decade my senior are about going to pubs and driving down to away trips with his dad, what music he was into, and a finer understanding of the tactical points of the starting lineup, mine were about catching the 481 or 483 bus to Bury from Rossendale (initially with both my mum and grandma), dining in Burger King on the Rock, buying sweets in the Millgate Shopping Centre post office, and unzipping my bag to allow my teddy Paskin (named after John Paskin, the delightfully mustachioed South African striker the club had between 1994 and 1996 with a more than a whiff of porn star about him) to watch along with us.

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Like James, we were also at Wembley for the crushingly disappointing ’95 play-off final defeat to Chesterfield, and little would any of us have known that the 5-0 reverse to Warnock’s Plymouth early in the subsequent term would be the precipitant of the dramatic promotion the next May. We were among those gathered on the pitch after Ternent’s charges had done their bit, waiting to hear the outcome of the Darlington-Scunthorpe United game. Once confirmation of the draw came through, everyone, myself included, jumped up on down on the boggy pitch that barely passed as a playing surface. It would prove to be the last time my grandma was there in life. Some of her ashes were scattered there in September of the same year.

1996/1997 was the title winning season, and as was customary, Bury were one of the favourites for the drop. ‘Fortress Gigg’ was established, and with tribunal signing Dean Kiely in between the sticks, I had my first real favourite player. I’d always been a goalkeeper in the playground despite my small stature, and I always preferred asking for the jerseys over the outfield tops for birthdays and Christmases. What I didn’t know back then was just how protracted the saga had been over the fee for Kiely, and this is another way in which the book comes into its own – it has really helped me fill in the ‘gaps’ in what I would otherwise be able to recall.

Certain pivotal fixtures are of course covered in far greater detail than others, especially the decisive final pair that handed the club its first silverware for decades and a second successive promotion to boot. Once more, my feelings are mirrored in the author’s prose, but it should also be noted that even in the midst of success, the financial dark clouds that have never been far away from the Fishpool area were beginning to reform. Even in the days of lower league sides regularly paying transfer fees and a relatively low wage bill, Bury were still making fairly significant year-on-year losses. Whilst these pale in comparison to this decade and the inevitable liquidation of the current entity, they did add credence to the never-changing perception (and reality) of the club as either ‘cash-strapped’ or ‘spending beyond their means’.

Of most interest to me is the section on the first campaign in the ‘old’ Division One (now the Championship). I was starting high school, and it really felt like the team I loved and I were on the cusp of something. It was also the beginning of regularly travelling to away grounds up and down the country with my mum, including getting up at stupid o’clock in the morning to get on the official coaches to the likes of East Anglian rivals Norwich City and Ipswich Town. Although these were rarely wins, it never sapped my enjoyment of them or made me wish I’d done something else with my Saturdays and Tuesday evenings in the years since – indeed, as is reflected in the book, they were some of the best times of my life and of many others’, perhaps even more so for the ephemeral nature of being in the second tier on merit. The Valentine’s Day win over Manchester City at Maine Road in 1998 five days before my 12th birthday is unlikely to ever be beaten as my favourite away experience.

There are anecdotes contained within that few would’ve been aware of at the time, ranging from Ternent and Warnock’s mutual hatred to the far more harrowing tales of Andy Woodward, which only came to light in 2016 as the first in a deeply disturbing lone line of victims of child sexual abuse in football that continue to have ramifications in the sport to this day.

There are only two small negatives I can find in the book, neither of which really spoiled much. The first was an affliction all too common to Kindle editions, and unlikely to be the fault of the author. The formatting periodically lets things down – this manifests itself most strikingly in making words in a sentence combine into one for no real reason and giving pause for true comprehension of what’s being conveyed.

The second is the more than occasional party political allusion. I accept that the reader’s mileage will vary in this, and to play devil’s advocate, the ambiguous title of the book was very much of its time and famous for it. There are also instances where events current to the epoch are relayed alongside matches, some of which are of more pertinence than others; again though, these are less frequent or intrusive than his first book because of the authentic voice.

In summary, anyone with even a passing interest in Bury or more broadly about a less celebrated (former) member of the 92 will find plenty to entertain and elucidate them, and the author must be commended for the years of research and hard work that went into publishing it, as well as subsequent attempts to keep the ‘spirit’ of the club alive since expulsion of the EFL through a tour of pubs affected by the depressing events of the last six months whilst reflecting on better times without wallowing too much in nostalgia.

Review: ‘The Ugly Game: How Football Lost its Magic and What it Could Learn from the NFL’ by Martin Calladine

In the first in a (very) sporadic series on this blog, I will be reviewing books devoted to the beautiful game… starting with one that turns that popular notion completely on its head.

First of all, I must confess that I have never watched anything more than a few seconds of American Football and that’s normally been by accident. It has never piqued my interest in any fashion whatsoever. In all honesty, few sports except association football do. I will partake in ice hockey, tennis and basketball when they grace the television during major events like Wimbledon and the Olympics. Besides those ephemeral occasions, the domain solely belongs to the most popular game on the planet.

I had heard about this book before finally getting around to read it because its author, Martin Calladine, is both prominent and refreshingly unrepentant in his viewpoints on Twitter and he also graces my blog as one of the other dozen or so WordPress accounts I follow. To be on that list means to me that not only do I believe the content they produce is engaging for my own sake but that they convey ideas that I feel deserve a wider audience completely irrespective of whether I agree with their opinions.

The basic premise of the book, which reads like a collection of well-structured essays, is that the modern game has lost its sheen, principally because of the influx of big money into institutions such as FIFA, UEFA and the Premier League most notably and alongside that, the author randomly happening upon an NFL match in the early hours of the morning and it rekindling something he had liked but lost during his childhood.

The publication is not a weighty tome by any means, clocking in at fewer than 200 pages. That is to its advantage, however. Many much longer books about football outstay their welcome well before you reach their conclusions and gargantuan bibliographies. Calladine achieves this because the tone can and does skip from light and humorous to cutting and critical in the space of a paragraph and it doesn’t feel jarring. The numerous photographs used throughout add rather than detract from the prose and are always captioned in a off-tangent, humorous manner that normally hits the spot.

Calladine also doesn’t talk down to his audience and he stresses throughout that whilst structurally, the NFL is a lot fairer than the Premier League in particular, it isn’t without its own problems, so he avoids the trap of being preachy and bashing you over the head for still retaining your love of football.

You also get the sense that much like a mature romantic or platonic relationship that just fizzles out eventually over a prolonged time period, there is no chance for him to rekindle it without at least adopting some of the measures that he emphasises once more at the end of the book, which features updates on the changes that took place since it was first published in 2013. Even since the addendum, there have been developments in the game, chief amongst them further reports into FIFA corruption and close to home, the spiralling TV deals, League Three proposals coming (and going) and the extremely controversial restructuring of the EFL Trophy.

The author’s personal politics are quite overt throughout the book and whilst certainly understandable as to why he adopts position ‘x’ on a topic, it could potentially put off some readers who prefer to stick their own comfort zone (which is sadly not a rare phenomenon).*

I don’t want to spoil in detail chapter by chapter what Calladine talks about. Suffice it to say, I derived¬†39 topics I could use for further blogposts that don’t have Bury as their focus from it, so there is plenty of meat on the bones despite being able to blast through it from cover-to-cover in an evening sitting. I intend to cover each of the topics in separate blogposts.

If there was a failing, it still didn’t convince me to watch the NFL. I was much more knowledgeable about how it works off-the-field and think a lot of it would indeed be beneficial (and viable) if some of the rules were transferred to football. Now that on occasion NFL matches are hosted in the UK, it will doubtlessly serve to increase the awareness and potential audience size the gridiron game enjoys. However, it is coming at the cost of considerable ire back across the pond and is a remarkably similar idea to the hated ’39th game’ concept that Richard Scudamore once touted, only for the Premier League to back down in the face of opposition from FIFA and vitriol from fans.

If you have a passing interest in the NFL, some of the passages will be more immediately relevant and relatable but I don’t think any prior knowledge is required to still enjoy the content to the fullest. I look forward to any future books Calladine publishes and whilst my own personal orthodoxy is somewhat different to his, that I thought it was one of the best non-fiction works I’ve read in the past few years is its own endorsement. So if you’re after a short but constructively critical book on the ‘beautiful game’ whilst we await the return of the domestic season, you cannot go wrong with ‘The Ugly Game‘.

*My own personal politics are different to Martin’s but I believe I can separate the personal from the sporting… as you will see in future posts!