What are the best football books ever?
If you only had to take a handful of books to a desert island, these are the ones you should be packing.
The following top 10 represent the greatest football books ever published. How many of them have you read?
1. I Think Therefore I Play
Andrea Pirlo, 2014
Former Milan and Juventus midfielder Andrea Pirlo’s tome I Think Therefore I Play is short, sharp, but packed to bursting with everything you want. Clocking in at only 150 pages, you could read it in the time it takes Pirlo to misplace two passes.
From transfers that never happened – including Pirlo nearly joining Barcelona and a fascinating description of Pep Guardiola’s office – to playing PlayStation hours before winning the World Cup, the book is a fascinating, non-linear route into the mind of football’s greatest wine-loving luxury.
There are points where he descends into pseudo-intellectual self-parody – like describing the warm-up as “nothing but masturbation for conditioning coaches” – but I Think Therefore I Play is the perfect distillation of what a football autobiography should be.
2. How Not To Be A Professional Footballer
Paul Merson, 2011
Forget about literary grandeur: Merse’s painfully honest rollercoaster ride through almost every level of English football won’t change the way you feel about the game. But it will take you on a mesmerising jaunt from the highs at trophy-winning Arsenal, to the lows of dealing with the intense pressures at the pinnacle of our national obsession.
From gambling away his wages to going straight at Villa and Pompey, Merson’s ‘lad banter’ balances out the sad self-destruction of the Soccer Saturday heavyweight, providing the inside line on that ruinous drinking culture inherent to the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
3. The Greatest Footballer You Never Saw
The Robin Friday Story – Paolo Hewitt & Paul McGuigan, 1998
Drinking binges, drug-fuelled rages, disappearing acts, jail sentences, an outrageous talent squandered, and a shockingly early death amid suspicious circumstances: meet Reading and Cardiff ’70s cult hero Robin Friday – football’s Keith Moon.
The Friday legend is perpetuated by the fact that so little footage of him remains. He spent his entire career in the lower leagues, and despite extensive research, Hewitt unearthed only a few grainy images of him in action.
But team-mates vouch for Friday’s unorthodox brand of genius. He set the tone after his Reading debut in 1973. When asked if he was satisfied with his debut goal, he replied: “Yeah, I could have back-heeled it in actually, but I thought that might be taking the p*** a bit.”
4. Fear And Loathing in La Liga
Barcelona vs Real Madrid – Sid Lowe, 2013
You might find this hard going at first, but stick with it. There’s much to be fascinated by in each club’s humble beginnings; of General Franco and the Catalan resistance; of Madrid’s mercurial Alfredo Di Stefano; of Barça’s brilliant László Kubala and his escape from Hungary dressed as a Russian soldier.
As Lowe digs deeper you’ll find interviews with legendary representatives on either side of the divide – Di Stefano, Johan Cruyff, Zinedine Zidane and Hristo Stoichkov. Yet these are all just characters in a much greater story, one in which each side has grown to despise and yet need the other to further validate its ideals.
5. The Damned United
David Peace, 2006
Peace described The Damned Utd as an “occult history of Leeds United”, but it’s nothing of the sort. It’s a brutally powerful first-person stream-of-consciousness based around Brian Clough’s 44-day stint at the club he hated, attempting to replace the manager he despised, Don Revie.
Peace maintains a taut rhythm by alternating italicised flashbacks to Clough’s stressful but successful rise to the top of management (and rancorous rivalry with Revie) with day-by-day descriptions of the six weeks at Leeds, all in the present tense (and boy, is it tense).
It’s not an accurate history – Johnny Giles sued and won – but it’s acutely moving, a terrifying glimpse into the mind of a man going mad.
6. Inverting The Pyramid
The History Of Football Tactics – Jonathan Wilson, 2008
Tracing the development of various tactics over the last century and a half, Wilson spins a consistently interesting tale spanning various continents and fascinating characters who have helped football gradually invert the pyramid – from the attack-minded 2-3-5 to the sole strikers and packed back halves of today.
It’s to Wilson’s credit that although long, it’s far from dry. He rails against the British game’s entrenched anti-intellectualism and stages a passionate takedown of the statistical misreadings upon which Charles Reep and Charles Hughes did so much damage.
And although it may not be entirely new, all-encompassing or unarguable, it’s a thoroughly entertaining education for anyone wishing to be an internet quarterback.
7. All Played Out
The Story Of Italia 90 – Pete Davies, 1990
This riveting, passionately written inside story of the England team and its fans during Italia 90 made ‘football literature’ mean more than daft ghosted biographies. “There had been good football books before,” recalls Davies, “but they were rare, and there’d been bugger all in the 1980s.
“I wanted football to have a proper place in popular culture; I thought someone should say ‘Not all of us are lunatics. We have legitimate emotional reasons for watching this game, which is incredibly important culturally and matters to everyone in the world.’”
Even more remarkable than winning the trust of England boss Bobby Robson and his players was persuading a major publisher to take a gamble on a genre that didn’t yet exist. Davies then wrote the book in just eight weeks after the World Cup, in order to hit the Christmas market. “It’s still incredibly vivid to me,” he adds. “I’ll never forget being in Turin.”
8. Fever Pitch
Nick Hornby, 1993
A completely original book. Hornby didn’t start the new wave of football writing – Pete Davies did – but he was the first British writer to examine the apparently unremarkable experience of being a fan.
Following the theory of fandom as therapy, Hornby describes how he used Arsenal to escape from his parents’ divorce, problems with women, the question of what to do with his life, and so on. He treats his fandom as a problem, as something not entirely healthy. This set him apart from the previous notion of fandom as a hobby, and from his imitators who wrote cutesy accounts of watching bad football in the rain without any of Hornby’s honesty about their own lives.
It helps that Fever Pitch is hilarious and beautifully written and that it offers a social history of Britain from the 1960s through to the early 1990s. Its only flaw is its formlessness: it’s a book to dip in rather than to read through.
9. Football Against The Enemy
Simon Kuper, 1994
For better or worse, the modern football fan knows at least a little about much more than was the case in the mid-90s. It’s hard for many to imagine a time before the mass-market penetration of the internet and satellite broadcasters, when foreigners were still a tiny minority in the British game. Such was the inevitably parochial climate into which Simon Kuper launched his debut book – part anthropology, part travelogue, all fascinating – on football rivalries around the world.
“I had mixed feelings when I began work on the book,” confesses Kuper. “I felt that the whole thing might be too big for me, and I was concerned about what friends would say when they read it. Yet I also had a sort of blind confidence in my writing ability. An established author probably wouldn’t have taken on such a project. It’s the sort of thing that a young writer needed to do.”
With a small(ish) £5,000 budget, the 22-year-old set off on a Palinesque jaunt which saw him visit 22 countries in a crazy nine-month period – “I’d go around Europe for three months, using mainly Inter Rail tickets, then come home to London and wash my clothes, fly to Cameroon, come home and then fly off to South Africa.”
His aim? “To investigate precisely how politics and football intertwined throughout the world. It was a subject that always fascinated me, and I was conscious that such a book hadn’t been written before.”
In the course of his epic adventure, he interviewed an eclectic mix of players and officials, including an Argentine general with unique views on the way the game should be played, a Berliner who’d suffered persecution at the hands of the Stasi simply because he supported his local team, and most bizarrely, Cameroon star Roger Milla, who had made headlines with his attempts to organise a tournament for pygmy tribes.
Kuper planned the trip carefully, but the actual interviewing process was distinctly ad hoc. “In the pre-internet age, it could be difficult. I’d arrive in Argentina, speak to someone in basic Spanish, and arrange to meet the friend of a friend. At first, I had a vague idea of meeting up with people in bars, but I quickly realised that I needed to be far more proactive in speaking to people. Sometimes I just got lucky, and bumped into people in airport queues – like a Dynamo Kiev official who spoke perfect English.”
Groundbreaking though Kuper’s book is, he denies that it was responsible for the mushrooming of more insightful football literature. “Nick Hornby and Pete Davies created the idea in publishers’ minds that football books could be good and sell, not me. Maybe I did influence some authors to carry out studies on football in other countries, but the process of excellent books being published was already under way.”
Two decades after the book’s publication, saturation football coverage and internet access means that fans are far more cosmopolitan in their outlooks than ever before. However, Football Against The Enemy remains the only book to take a definitive sweep on world football, and explain how political and cultural issues influence the game across the globe. Jon Spurling
10. Provided You Don't Kiss Me
20 Years With Brian Clough – Duncan Hamilton, 2007
“I didn’t need a f**king motivational talk tonight. I just had to show them the s**t you’d written. Now, I’ve got a message for you. Take your f**king portable typewriter and stick it up your arse. You’re banned. You’re f**king banned for ever from this ground. F**king for ever.”
Two days later, Brian Clough would call Duncan Hamilton at the Nottingham Evening Post and say, “Don’t be such a stupid bugger. I didn’t mean it. Come down here and we’ll have a drink. Fancy a glass of champagne?”
Hamilton recalls, “I stayed well into the autumn afternoon and left hopelessly drunk on Bell’s Whisky. We never got to the champagne. My notebook was choked with stories.”
This anecdote, thrown almost carelessly into the prologue, reveals Hamilton’s skill at capturing the essence of Brian Clough: the good, the bad and the ugly. Indeed, the first 30 pages of Provided You Don’t Kiss Me are among the best of any book, sports or otherwise, written in the past decade. When Hamilton recalls how this stammering teenage journalist first met Clough to interview him, only to find himself being quizzed instead, we are in the room, hearing Clough’s nasal tone, seeing him bounce a squash ball on the head of a racquet.
Crucially, though, and despite the book being based on his own experiences across 20 years of professional intimacy with Clough at Nottingham Forest, Hamilton doesn’t dominate the narrative. He knows who’s the star of the show. It’s the man who’d start singing just so people would look at him.
Naturally the book is bursting with anecdotes, and unlike the after-dinner exaggerations shared by some of Clough’s former colleagues, they’re diverse, heartfelt and true.
We learn the reason for Forest’s training trips to Scarborough – Peter Taylor, Clough’s assistant manager and the yin to his yang, had a flat there and wouldn’t hire a furniture van – and see examples of Clough’s generosity, but not without tales of his pigheadedness and pride. While the book is often hilarious, Hamilton’s accounts of Clough’s spectacular falling-out with Taylor, his descent into alcoholism and his death are heartbreaking.
But Hamilton doesn’t just tell stories. He presents an enduring character study of a man who cared deeply about other people while being driven by a need to prove them wrong; a man “obsessed with money, as if he feared he might wake up one morning and find himself a pauper again”; a man just as proud of reaching cup finals with a patchwork Forest side and no facilities as he was of winning two European Cups during richer times.
Clough even becomes a sort of father figure to Hamilton, albeit one feeding him whisky for breakfast. The author was right to drop strict chronology and instead, in his own words, make “each chapter about a different piece of him”.
Football is still paramount. The book brings alive Forest’s European successes when, Clough says, “no one gave us a prayer” – you sense he’d love what Leicester are doing, albeit while claiming he did it better – as well as his mixed experiences with Derby, Brighton and Leeds. Through recollections of little measures taken, such as sitting off-form or out-of-favour players next to him on the bench for “the best coaching lesson of them all”, we learn how Clough was both unique and successful.
Thank you for reading 5 articles this month* Join now for unlimited access
Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription
Join now for unlimited access
Try first month for just £1 / $1 / €1