Top 50 books: Randy Africans, hairdryers & Communists

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Come one, come all to the penultimate part of's best 50 football books ever. If you missed numbers 50 to 41, they're here, while 40-31 can be found here and 30-21 here.

Scroll down for your next helping of literary delights...

20 Dynamo: Defending the Honour of Kiev
Andy Dougan 2001

If the story is good enough, the rest will follow.

Ignore the clunking dramatisation of the opening chapter: once Dougan switches to journalistic narrative, history takes over. This is a book of remarkable research, cutting through the myths that obscured what happened when Dynamo Kyiv played the Luftwaffe in 1942.

Communist myth had the SS shooting at the Ukrainians during the game, with survivors shot at the final whistle; the truth was rather more prosaic, but no less tragic. A team based around several Dynamo players working at the same bakery did beat a team representing the Luftwaffe, and afterwards all 11 were rounded up for interrogation.

Dougan shows how one died under torture, three were executed and one disappeared, and in rescuing their tale from propaganda does Ukrainian football a great service.

19 Football: The Golden Age
John Tennent 2001

Nostalgia can be a cloying thing – did that ‘golden age’ include rationing and outside toilets? – but not in this tremendous photographic collection.

As with his companion volumes of old rugby and motor racing snaps, John Tennent has uncovered a monochrome goldmine. Featuring pictures of everything from boys playing in the streets to pools winners and Bobby Charlton with hair, the era of dubbin and Victory Cigarettes emerges astonishingly fresh.

Sir Bobby with hair. No, really... 

Always beautiful and often funny, the images reveal a game played predominantly amid mud, mist and trenchcoats, evoking a largely vanished world that still haunts our imagination.

It’s hard to imagine a better use of archive pictures.

18 Addicted
Tony Adams 1998

"For an autobiography to work," explains writer Eamon Dunphy, "the subject has to be willing to discuss his faults. The footballer must show himself to be real and flawed."

Addicted was the first such autobiography. Adams talks with breathtaking honesty about the two addictions which have dominated his life – football and alcohol. His career encompassed both the "win or lose, we will booze" culture of the ’80s and the mineral water/steamed broccoli of Arsene’s Arsenal.

His harrowing account of his descent into alcoholism (including bed-wetting and clothes-soiling) drew criticism from those with weaker constitutions.

The majority were simply dumbfounded by what they read, and concurred with Wenger’s comment: "Tony, I’m amazed you ’re still actually with us."

"Could you not have got me a slightly smaller copy..." 

17 The Far Corner: A Mazy Dribble through North-East Football
Harry Pearson 1994

For exiles from that 50-mile strip from Ashington in the north to Teesside in the south, The Far Corner cannot be read without a lump in the throat. It’s hard to imagine anything else could be so evocative of the North-East.

Football, of course, is the perfect medium for exploring the spirit of the region, that "far-off mythical place where the people were called ‘folk,’ the beer was called ‘ale,’ the men were called ‘lads’ and the lads were called ‘Jackie’."

Harry Pearson, himself a returned exile, manipulates the whiff of batter, leek-growing contests and the shopkeeper with the Shackleton obsession to produce a work that is moving, cynical, romantic, tragic and sentimental.

Most of all, though, it is hilarious – in that peculiarly North-Eastern mode that is both abrasive and affectionate.

16 The Beautiful Game? Searching for the Soul of Football
David Conn 2004

The lament for football’s lost golden age and the belief that commercial interests have sullied the game are as old as football itself  – Willy Meisl, for instance, in his 1960 book Soccer Revolution, argues that the liberalisation of the offside law in 1925, which played to the popular demand for more goals, was the beginning of the end.

However, Conn’s is a heartfelt account of the increasingly rapid changes of the past couple of decades. "It is deeply frustrating," he writes, "seeing the national game revel in a boom, which could take it so far, yet drive itself so needlessly into dysfunction and failure."

Conn is no nostalgic who believes the ’80s were a golden period – to him Wimbledon’s FA Cup triumph in 1988 was not a wonderful fairy-tale,
but a victory for thuggery – but he is appalled by the descent of the game into rampant, barely regulated commercialism.

"I think the end of the sharing of gate receipts in 1983 was the first break," he says. "When I talk about the soul, I mean the part of football that is more than business. The soul is the passion and the loyalty of fans, but it is also the joy to be found in playing the game. As other collective institutions disappear, football clubs are becoming an increasingly central part of people’s identity, and that’s why we see these heroic struggles to save clubs when they are threatened."

Books on the business of football can be unreadably dry, but The Beautiful Game? is passionate and bleakly humorous. Quite aside from the depth of the research, what sets Conn’s book above Tom Bower’s Broken Dreams, a mystifying winner of the William Hill’s Sports Book of the Year Award, is the sense that he really cares.

Broken Dreams was riddled with errors, both of fact and of spirit; Conn, simply by noting, for instance, that fans know intuitively why Notts County matter, taps into a depth of tradition of which Bower has no grasp.

Bower just says football is in a very bad way; Conn tells us why it is worth putting right.

15 The Boss: The Many Sides Of Alex Ferguson
Michael Crick 2002

Having debunked the myths surrounding leading Tories Jeffrey Archer and Michael Heseltine, Newsnight reporter Michael Crick wrote an instant best-seller on the United boss.

The "hairdryer" treatment, his dealings with agents, Fergie’s often fractious relationship with journalists – Crick proved that the Scot is a man of many contradictions.

The fear Fergie invokes in others was never better illustrated than when the Manchester Evening News refused to grant Crick access to its United clippings files on the grounds that it might incur the boss’s wrath.

The entire episode led the author to question whether he’d been transported to Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

One of Crick’s other revelations is that Fergie enjoys singing along in the car to Sinatra songs, including My Way. Fitting indeed.

"And now, the end is near..." 

14 Only a Game?
Eamon Dunphy 1976

A book that answers the greatest question: what’s it really like to be a professional footballer? Nobody had done it before.

Only a Game? has the perfect narrative structure: Dunphy takes us from absurd pre-season hopes, through quarrels in the team, to being dropped and finally leaving Millwall after eight years.

His diary for November 10 1973, a 2-0 victory over Cardiff City for which he was not picked: "I couldn’t go and sit in the stand hoping for them to get beaten. It is too small-minded for words. So I watched the racing on telly instead. What is terrible is that it is only November."

Dunphy is honest about himself, emotionally literate in describing his team-mates (who come to life like characters in a good novel), and revealing of the insecurity with which footballers live.

You get the sense that the life is not only unglamorous, but not much fun.

13 Niall Quinn: The Autobiography
Niall Quinn & Tom Humphries 2002

There’s definitely something about Irish players and their autobiographies.

Quinn’s book might not be as controversial as those of some of his compatriots, but it is nonetheless a candid insight into a man generally recognised as one of the nicest in football.

More than that, it is a real book, written in a simple, dryly amusing, almost lyrical style that, even if it wasn’t, could have been written by Quinn and yet still qualifies as proper writing.

He was helped by having the 2002 World Cup and the rumpus surrounding Roy Keane’s departure from the squad as a starting point, but by the end that is just one issue among many.

Football happens to have been Quinn’s life, but his autobiography is just as much about regret, about moving on and about remaining a decent man in a world that is profoundly indecent.

"The players are totally behind me. Isn't that right Niall..." 

12 The Miracle Of Castel Di Sangro
Joe McGinniss 1999

This hilarious, compelling, often misunderstood book proves Americans can write about soccer.

McGinniss, who made his name writing about American politics and his fortune penning true crime bestsellers, details the rise of Castel di Sangro, from a town of 5,000 people, to Serie B.

But this is as much The Sopranos  as Field of Dreams. A season of joy, tragedy, hilarity and courage draws to a shabby close with the team throwing a game as a player reminds the author: "Remember, we are the land of Dante but also of Machiavelli."

The comic highlight is the press conference where the club’s new African ‘signing’ from Leicester City announces he’s planning to sleep with all the players’ wives – a deal that proves to be a hoax.

Odd as that sounds, it’s not the strangest incident in this book.

11 The Glory Game
Hunter Davies 1973

"There is no way that a writer these days could possibly do what I did in The Glory Game," explains Hunter Davies. "He or she wouldn’t be able to get past the minefield of agents, lawyers and officials."

In 1973, Davies was granted unprecedented access to Spurs boss Bill Nicholson and his 19-man first-team pool. With no official contract behind him, he admits to "worming my way in" at White Hart Lane, and convincing all those concerned that an "inside story" book charting Spurs’ season would be a worthwhile project.

"I’d originally been told that as a club, Spurs would be completely unapproachable, and that Nicholson would be dour and difficult. He was completely cooperative though, and when I informed the players that I would keep 50 percent of the royalties and split the other half equally between them, they were happy too. It wasn’t a huge amount of money though!"

The Glory Game defines the fly-on-the-wall sports book. Although Nicholson later claimed that he’d occasionally felt inhibited by Davies’ presence (particularly when chastising Martin Chivers), the Spurs players and staff were remarkably candid in confiding their hopes and fears.

Aside from the frequent references to flares, Triumph Stags, and Nicholson’s hatred of men with long hair, Davies’ book simply doesn’t date. "The tensions, the personality clashes, the fear of losing one’s place in the team, the monotony of training, triumph and despair, concern over injuries, old players fading... all these factors will remain constants in team sports for as long as they’re played," argues Davies.

Printed in five different languages, and a big seller in the USA, The Glory Game is rightly regarded as a classic. And remember that in an era of media trained stars and Fort Knox-style security at big clubs, there will never be a remake.

"This had better be going in that book of yours, Davies..." 

Top 50 books: The countdown
Chapter 1: Fashion, fighting & Fish (Billy the)
Chapter 2: Managers, mavericks & Madridistas
Chapter 3: Priests, demons & golliwogs
Chapter 4: Randy Africans, hairdryers & Communists
Chapter 5: Puskas, politics & Palinesque jaunts

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