Top 50 football books: Chapter one

Stuck for a book this Christmas?

Don't buy a cash-in autobiography just because you know the player. FourFourTwo assembled a panel of experts – including several writers – to vote on the best 50 football books of all time, and over the course of this week we'll name them all. Starting with a fashionable tome... 

50 The Fashion Of Football Paolo Hewitt & Mark Baxter 2004

From Best to Beckham, Hewitt and Baxter take an off-beat look at the rocky relationship between footballers and fashion. Detractors suggest that the book is simply too chaotic a mix, but Hewitt counters: “The point is that the relationship is ad hoc, always shifting, so we were fine with the book being that way.”

The turning point arrived in 1961 with the abolition of the maximum wage. From then on, players were free to demand higher wages, and blow it all on clothes, the more preposterously expensive the better.

However, for all the positives here, one question remains unanswered – why didn’t the fashion police swoop on John Barnes for the sartorial crimes he committed on Five?

49 Out Of His Skin: The John Barnes Phenomenon Dave Hill 1989

“It needed to be asked,” explains Dave Hill. “Why, before Barnes arrived at Anfield, had no black players established themselves at Liverpool or Everton?”

Hill’s study into bigotry in the city was a disturbing insight into the frightening level of racism among former players (Tommy Smith’s use of the ‘n’ word was at almost Manning-esque levels), fans and locals in a city which derived much of its wealth from the slave trade.

Two decades on, levels of consciousness about racism are higher and clubs have anti-racist policies. “At least clubs are aware of the problem these days – it used to be acceptable to ignore it,” Hill adds. Out Of His Skin is an uncomfortable reminder of how things used to be in a less enlightened age.

A sea of white faces at Anfield 

48 Steaming InColin Ward 1989

“I hope there’s no hoolie porn in the top 50,” sighed one of the FFT panel who argued over this Top 50. “They’re not about football. These people came close to destroying football in the ’80s.”

The most controversial choice in the top 50, Steaming In describes the terrace violence of the 1970s and ’80s. Ward, who followed Arsenal, Chelsea and England during that time, argued that he was an observer of violence – not a participant. Occasionally, he appears rather shocked by the scenes of carnage, although it didn’t stop him “observing” more of the same throughout the book.

Upon Steaming In’s release in 1989, The Guardian suggested it was “shocking in content” and “should be read in Government circles”. Apparently then-Sports Minister Colin Moynihan did just that, Ward’s book prompting an increase in security at games.

In the longer term, it sparked the “Kick-lit” genre, with former hoolies now telling – and selling – their tales by the bucket-load. Who says crime doesn’t pay?

47 The Beautiful Game: A Journey Through Latin American FootballChris Taylor 1998There's now a rash of books examining football in specific corners of the globe, but Taylor’s was among the first and finest; a well-constructed guide to the lunacy of football in the continent that has won nine World Cups, from its origins among British visitors to the turf wars that continue to beset ex-pats on Clapham Common. While readers may find the material on Argentina and Brazil familiar, that’s a testimony to the book’s success; even so, it means Taylor’s departures from the beaten track are the most striking. Easy to see why the FT hailed it the best footy book of 1998.

46 Steak... Diana Ross: Diary Of A Football NobodyDavid McVay 2003

The memoirs of the former Notts County defender are a candid and hilarious account of what it was like to play for a small outfit in the ’70s. As the scenery shifts from Elland Road to Halifax’s run-down Shay, McVay recounts boozy tales (pissing in a pal’s wardrobe), bust-ups and the unique style of boss Jimmy Sirrell.

McVay dissects what it’s like to play in a team which is never likely to hit the heights, and has an acute awareness of his own limitations. The cover sets the tone: as a blizzard rages around him, the author appears frozen by rigor mortis. Life in the stiffs has never been so much fun.

Proper stylish: McVay (back, third left) & Co 

45 Back Home: The Story Of England In The 1970 World Cup Jeff Dawson 2001

The sights (Jairzinho bounding around after scoring Brazil’s winner against England), the sounds (blaring car horns outside the Guadalajara Hilton which kept England’s players awake on the eve of that game) and the smells (the consequences of Gordon Banks’s dose of Montezuma’s Revenge still linger) of Mexico 70 are masterfully brought to life in Jeff Dawson’s book.

England had a stronger squad than they’d had in 1966, only to throw it away in 30 crazy minutes against West Germany. Extensive interviews with surviving squad members, and Dawson’s own detective work into the “Bogota bracelet” incident (Government documents released under the 30-year rule prove Bobby Moore’s incarceration by the Colombian authorities had diplomatic ramifications) makes this the definitive guide to an England World Cup campaign. All those years of hurt start here.

44 The Way It Was Stanley Matthews 2000

In the normal run of things, a ghosted autobiography by an old pro is likely to be the dullest read in football. These, though, are the long-awaited and posthumously-published memoirs of Sir Stanley Matthews, arguably the greatest and certainly the best-loved of all English players (his funeral in Stoke was attended by more than 100,000 fans) – and they’re beautiful.

Working with Les Scott, Matthews finished the book mere weeks before his death. Intelligent, articulate and often moving, the book provides insight into a graceful man and the very different football world in which he lived. The technical details are a revelation, and his lack of bitterness towards the men who ran the game is striking.

Matthews plays on at 50 

43 Barça: A People’s Passion Jimmy Burns 1999

Skip the pompous foreword and accept that the prose style can be as stuffy as the house style of the FT (where the author worked), and you’ll reap the rewards.

Burns’ history of a club, 100 years of Catalan pride and some of the game’s most fascinating personalities (Cruyff, Maradona, Rinus Michels, Romario et al) is carefully researched, well-observed, and packed with fascinating stories.

Barça may now be synonymous with the likes of Cruyff and Ronaldinho, but Burns gives a fair share of the limelight to those who have played vital cameo roles in the drama.

Personalities like Patrick O’Connell, the former Man United star who hung on as the coach even after his president had been shot by Franco loyalists, and Vic Buckingham, the English coach who restored Barça’s self-respect, despite reminding players of Henry Higgins, Rex Harrison’s character in My Fair Lady.

42 The Billy The Fish Football Yearbook Viz Comics 1999

Football is, among other things, a narrative: a never-ending story we tell ourselves to know who we are. For generations, British boys’ football stories did a parallel job, carrying Edwardian ideas of manliness deep into our age and shaping our fondest fantasies about the game.

As this ancient tradition staggered onto its last legs with Roy of the Rovers, the sublime, surreal, hilarious Viz character Billy the Fish filled the gap, simultaneously murdering the genre and breathing new life into it.

Viz represented a kind of very late comedy insurrection against Edwardian values. All references to sex, bottoms and drunkenness, which had been systematically banned from comic reading matter for more than a century, erupted into rude, hyper-sexualised, politically incorrect characters.

In this definitive collection, goalkeeper Billy Thomson (half-human, half-halibut) defies criminals, aliens, bomb plots and kidnappers, with the help of team-mates such as Shakin’ Stevens, Brown Fox and invisible striker Johnny X. Having no legs, arms or body doesn’t stop him being a wizard between the sticks. “What a save!” cheer the crowd. “He just got his fin to it in the nick of time! A breathtaking display of ‘aquabatics’ by the man/fish maestro!” A very British comedy masterpiece.

41 Left Foot Forward Garry Nelson 1995

The blurb called it “the first book to communicate what it is really like to be a footballer...” In fact, Eamon Dunphy’s Only A Game? had done that 20 years before, but nobody had done it well since.

Bridging the eras, the two writers share money worries, an obsession with age, and job insecurity. And football definitely is a job. After a game on Boxing Day, he writes: “The slightly later setting-off time of 8.30 couldn’t offset the tiresomeness of having to earn a crust entertaining 10,000 holiday-makers.”

The book breaks the rule of English football that you never say anything nasty about anyone and there’s also great detail on how some managers make money from transfers. Nelson doesn’t quite achieve Dunphy-esque honesty about himself, though, and jokes about team-mates’ weight problems and grey hair are Shoot-esque.

Tune in to FourFourTwo.com tomorrow for the second chapter, in which we bring you mavericks, managers and Madrid...

Top 50 books: The countdownChapter 1: Fashion, fighting & Fish (Billy the) Chapter 2: Managers, mavericks & MadridistasChapter 3: Priests, demons & golliwogsChapter 4: Randy Africans, hairdryers & CommunistsChapter 5: Puskas, politics & Palinesque jaunts

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