11 football books every fan should read
The pre-match pint: it’s an important social ritual for football fans.
It’s also a subtle game of one-upmanship. Your fellow fan, if engaged in conversation, will quickly assess your legitimacy; are you a football buff or just an armchair supporter?
Of course, it’s your duty to be the former. To help you in your quest for enlightenment – and to give you the upper hand in any social situation – we’ve rustled up this list of the 11 best football books, covering everything from tactics and statistics to tales of drug addiction. (Oh, and three novels by Steve Bruce.)
In our list are…
- A stats-heavy book that suggests corners are next to pointless, goal-wise
- A club who signed an actor as a publicity stunt
- A legendary manager’s not-so-legendary stint at Leeds
Inverting The Pyramid
Jonathan Wilson’s history of football tactics was voted Football Book of the Year in 2009. It’s a forensic – but entertaining – dissection of how the game has evolved through Herbert Chapman’s WM formation, Hungary’s Magic Magyars, Italian Catenaccio, Dutch Total Football, Barca’s tiki-taka and much more.
The Secret Footballer
Despite his dramatic pseudonym, we do know a few things about The Secret Footballer. For instance, we know that he’s English and that he has played for a newly-promoted Premier League team. The stories he divulges are more important than the mystery of his identity, though. There are eyebrow-raising tales of wild nights out, dressing-room discontent and moving insight on his struggle with mental health issues.
The Numbers Game
The Numbers Game is full of compelling stats that will re-shape your understanding of football. For example: your team win a corner. The crowd erupt with expectation – surely, there’s a goal on the way. However, if you’ve read Chris Anderson and David Sally’s landmark book on football data, you’ll be compelled to stand up and issue this sobering statistic in a loud, clear voice: “On average, the data show that a corner is good for 0.022 goals.”
It might not catch on as a chant, but it is at least true.
The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro
Castel Di Sangro is a small town in rural Italy, home to just over 6,000 people. In the 1990s, its football team, Castel Di Sangro Calcio, began a magical ascent up the leagues. Joe McGinniss’s compelling book chronicles their tempestuous two-season stay in Serie B, Italian football’s second tier. Here, the team had to deal with the death of two players in a car accident, the arrest of another on a drug-smuggling charge, alleged match-fixing, and a Chief Executive who deliberately signed an actor for publicity purposes. A must-read, even if you don’t like football.
Black And Blue
Paul Canoville’s story is a tumultuous one. Consequently, his 2008 autobiography, Black and Blue: How Racism, Drugs and Cancer Almost Destroyed Me, is a tough read.
Chelsea’s first black player, he was routinely racially abused by his own fans during a four-year spell at the Bridge. He suffered a career-ending knee injury while playing for Reading, which initiated a torrent of troubles; crack addictions, homelessness, rehab, and two bouts of cancer. Somehow, he has also found time to make a name for himself as a DJ and father 11 children.
German football journalist Raphael Honigstein has a problem: he’s in love with the English game. In Englischer Fussball, he recounts its rich history, tries to define what makes it so alluring, and wonders what it tells us about the English national character. As an outsider’s perspective, it makes you take stock and wonder just why we’re all so football crazy.
The Soccer Tribe
Desmond Morris’s 1981 book The Soccer Tribe is a study of football as a social phenomenon. An academic, Morris is a bit of a polymath who counts zoology and a flair for surrealist art in his skillset. Across The Soccer Tribe’s 44 chapters, he examines everything about football; from stadiums, chairmen and club crests to fans’ behaviour, chants and the clothes they wear. It’s comprehensive and hugely illuminating.
Back from the Brink
Paul McGrath has spent most of his life battling with addiction. The former Manchester United, Aston Villa and Ireland centre-half’s autobiography is complex, heart-wrenching and downright shocking. Despite impressing on the pitch, he privately wrestled alcoholism and a weakness for pills that led him to dark places and several suicide attempts. It’s the fact that McGrath is still here, and well again, that makes his story so inspiring.
The Damned United
Brian Clough is routinely referred to as “the greatest manager England never had”. But while Old Big ‘ead’s methods made a roaring success of Derby County and Nottingham Forest, his time at Leeds United was both abrupt and abysmal. David Peace’s dramatisation of his 44-day tenure brings the whole chaotic story vividly to life.
All Played Out
Author Pete Davies was afforded nine months of unprecedented access to the England squad in the run-up to the 1990 World Cup. His eyewitness account of their campaign – which ended in tears for Paul Gascgoine in the semi-final defeat to West Germany – is the definitive tale of what it’s like to be part of a World Cup squad. In 2010, All Played Out was adapted into a documentary, titled One Night In Turin.
Do you live and die by your team’s results? Arsenal fan Nick Hornby’s 1992 book is effectively a straightforward autobiography that’s preoccupied with whether Arsenal won or lost. Set out as a series of essays, it’s an evocative, nostalgic and heartfelt rumination on the nature of obsession – a book any true football fan can relate to.
The Steve Bruce Trilogy
Any half-decent 11 needs at least three subs. By this rationale, we’ve included a trio of mystery novels by the same author: former Manchester United defender and journeyman manager Steve Bruce. Written during his tenure at Huddersfield Town around the turn of the century, Bruce’s masterpieces are titled Striker!, Sweeper! and Defender!. Each book trails the heroic and daring Leddersford Town manager Steve Barnes as he mixes football with amateur sleuthing. You’ll need to do some of that yourself to get ahold of a copy – they’re mighty scarce and can exchange hands for anything up to £250.
The books have been tracked down and definitively reviewed (rather brilliantly) by TheSetPieces.com. Their full assessment in one word? “Excremental”.
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