All positions covered, from a brutally honest full back to the ultimate outsiders
SOCCER: Running Through Walls by Dave Langan with Trevor Keane and Alan Conway. (DB Publishing) “As well as dealing with the injuries, the drinking, the gambling, the poor decisions and the marriage breakdowns not to mention missing out on my children’s lives, one of the toughest parts of my life came about six years ago when I was left homeless and living in the basement of the town hall.”
So begins chapter nine of Dave Langan’s remarkable biography, a book that chronicles pretty much all of these misfortunes over the course of its 180 or so pages.
Langan recalls the ups and many downs of his life and career with humility and almost brutal honesty.
Those fans who saw him play for Derby, Birmingham City or Ireland remember the fierce commitment with which Langan devoted himself to the cause. What few appreciated, though, was the anguish being endured by a man who fought an increasingly uphill battle with drink and depression from the time in the early ’80s when injury started to seriously hamper his playing career.
His personal life more or less disintegrated and he ended up living and working, as a registered disabled person, for the council in the town where he had last played professionally. The people of Peterborough had not, he observes in one of his more frank admissions, seen the best of him and he found himself on the receiving end of both abuse and violence in the years that followed his retirement.
There are, of course, echoes here of Paul McGrath’s story but without the career highs; Birmingham City signed Langan in 1980 when he was fit and still on the way up, gave him £200 a week plus £50 for actually playing.
A couple of decent years at Oxford aside, it was mainly downhill from there and despite some help from supporters (including, to their considerable credit, his ghost-writers here and Vincent Hogan of the Irish Independent) in recent years, there is, sadly, no real sense at the end of this difficult tale that the former full-back is by any means out of the woods yet.
La Roja – A Journey through Spanish Football, by Jimmy Burns(Simon and Schuster) and El Clasico: Barcelona v Real Madrid, Football’s Greatest Rivalry by Richard Fitzpatrick(Bloomsbury). It’s been another good year for Spanish football with the national team becoming the first ever to win three straight major tournament titles. Atletico Madrid won the Europa League meanwhile, and Barcelona somehow continued to be the side almost every other aspires to being despite winning nothing much at all.
That might just mean that you have already had your fill of Xavi and co but if not, then it’s been a good year on the book front too.
As if the Pep Guardiola biography wasn’t enough, Jimmy Burns and Richard Fitzpatrick have chipped in with volumes that provide those viewing the Spanish game from afar with plenty of context to the many conquests of recent seasons.
Burns, as the title suggests, takes a ramble around the general history of the game explaining how it is intertwined with so many other aspects of society: religion, politics and regional rivalries chief amongst them.
Fitzpatrick, meanwhile, focuses on the increasingly bitter battle for supremacy between the country’s two most famous clubs: Barca and Real Madrid.
These are undoubtedly happy hunting grounds for authors but both do well with the available material and offer up hugely readable back-stories to games growing numbers are fixated by on TV.
The Great the Good by John Giles (Hachette Books Ireland) The argument between ‘good’ and ‘great’ was rumbling long before Eamon Dunphy controversially claimed Michel Platini wasn’t worthy of being regarded among the latter nearly 30 years ago. It has been debated for generations on terraces and in pubs, and John Giles fondly remembers heated arguments between his father and pals, disagreeing over players they’d never even seen play.
Its durability owes as much to a divergence of opinions as much as anything else. The discussion can’t be a one-way street – it’s a spaghetti junction of argument and counter argument, caveats and conjecture. Yet that’s exactly what The Great and the Good isn’t. Instead, it is one man’s opinion, and left unchecked that can lead to a frustrating read.
No better man, of course. Giles is more qualified than most.
He was and always will be one our greats, and the book flows with the authority he has brought to his punditry for well over two decades now. But it lacks a dissenting voice, to inquire why the criteria seem to vary from player to player.
Someone, perhaps, to ask why Bobby Moore can be regarded as “great” when he got “bored” playing for a West Ham side that had no chance of winning a title, but supreme talents like Platini or Cristiano Ronaldo wouldn’t make that leap for either not turning up against Ireland on a blustery day at Lansdowne, or for throwing the odd strop while leading Real Madrid to a title ahead of Pep Guardiola’s mighty Barcelona side.
It’s a good book, but there are far too many ifs and buts for it to be regarded as a great book.
The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper by Jonathan Wilson(Orion Books). Jonathan Wilson usually gives more than you bargain for and The Outsider is no different from his previous titles in that respect. Wilson sees football in the broader sense, he analyses the game’s impact far beyond the confines of the pitch or the dressing room.
This latest instalment from a bona fide scholar of the game might not jump off the shelf but it’s a reminder to those who have developed a healthy cynicism towards the modern game, that there was a time when sport wasn’t just about the bottom line.
It charts the evolution of the goalkeeper’s role, from the times when there was no man between the posts, to the development of a clearly defined position, and back again to the roaming roles played by goalscoring ‘los locos’ like José Luis Chilavert and René Higuita.
However, it is the cultural impact of the outsiders that is Wilson’s primary focus – the account, for example , of Ukrainian Mykola Trusevych’s brave stance against German occupation and his subsequent assassination in a prison camp.
So plentiful were the extroverts and introverts in the goalkeeping fraternity, one wonders how it has taken this long for such a detailed all-encompassing account to emerge.
Pep Guardiola — Another Way of Winning by Guillem Ballague(Orion Books). Much is made in the opening pages of this biography of Pep Guardiola’s reverence for Alex Ferguson, but the subsequent pages reveal a man not at all like his ‘hero’.
“I want to tell a player off and then hug him immediately after,” he told Ballague, an admission the Scot would never utter. “If they ignore me or don’t look at me when I call them, that destroys me.” Guardiola took Ferguson’s advice to trust his own judgement, but the Spaniard operated very differently to the Scot and that may answer the question Ferguson poses in the foreword as to why he left Barcelona when he did.
Guardiola publicly backed himself from the moment he took the job at the Camp Nou in 2008, but Ballague’s account and, better still, the self-appraisal of the man himself portrays someone acutely aware of his own fallibility.
After four years and 14 trophies, the Spaniard, the first La Masia graduate to coach the Catalan giants, had invested so much emotional energy in his players and his project his passion dried up. Unlike Ferguson, he didn’t know how to rediscover it. Ballague’s access to Guardiola, his players and staff makes this a fascinating read about a man who, after 272 hours in front of the media, was ground down by the demands of his short, brilliant spell at the top of the managerial ladder.
His sabbatical in New York must come to an end, but whether or not he can prosper without his Catalan family, in more authoritarian environs, remains to be seen.