19th June 2014 - Kieran O'Connor
There's far more to the footballer's autobiography than ghostwritten cash-ins from Premier League stars: Kieran O'Connor from our St Pancras International branch reveals some of the intelligent and enlightening life stories from the beautiful game for those as passionate about their literature as there are about their team.
The English translation of Andrea Pirlo's autobiography, I Think, Therefore I Play, has recently been published by BackPage Press to a wealth of positive coverage from press, blogs and football fans alike, if not for the content but for those obscenely handsome facial features that grace the monochrome cover. What is perhaps most surprising about the success of this book is that, though the release was preceded with almost blanket coverage across the football press, this wasn't generated and intensely farmed by self-aggrandising press conference with the chief sports writers in the gutter press. The quotes that did emerge were not salacious, sordid scandals or previously unheard-of tabloid filth, there was very little in the way of undignified score-settling with previous foes, and certainly no loathsome 'lads-on-tour', banter-heavy stories from the 'good old days' - you know, the usual underhand tricks used by your common-or-garden publicist trying to get the book in the conscious in order to shift units. Presumably, these publicists thought that the book wouldn't sell in the UK and it was missing a UK hook, given that Pirlo has no professional links with any club in the UK (though he scored perhaps the most beautiful, most audacious goal against England ever, with Ibrahimovic's a close second, for argument's sake).
It's an honest book, published by a wonderful independent publisher of football books, whose target audience is fans of football who want a glimpse into the mind of one of your generations most skilful players. It got me thinking about other football biographies that offer something a little bit different to the standard biographical template of linear narrative, self-aggrandising idiocy, arrogance and greediness bursting from every anecdote, all laced with every possible football cliche and platitude.
Some recent examples of biographies that are a cut above include Dennis Bergkamp's cerebral Stillness and Speed, the strangely compelling The Binman Chronicles by Neville Southall and, on a different tack, Duncan Hamilton's The Footballer Who Could Fly and Gary Imlach's My Father and Other Working Class Heroes, who both attempt to make sense of their own relationship with their respective estranged fathers through football. Even more high profile biographies of Thierry Henry (Auclair), Pep Guardiola and Lionel Messi (both Balague) are immensely readable and stimulating.
The list below is a small selection of similiarly brilliant books that are deserving of more than a mere mention.
The Keeper of Dreams: One Man's Controversial Story of Life In the English Premiership by Ronald Reng (Yellow Jersey Press)
German journalist Ronald Reng's last book, A Life Too Short, is one of the football biography's genre's most astonishing works - a deeply sensitive portrait of international goalkeeper Robert Enke's struggle with depression and sad death, a suicide in which the hyper-macho world of elite football is partly culpable. His first book, belatedly published in English in 2002 and also featuring a German goalkeeper, was a different affair, detailing the rise and fall of Lars Leese's ascension from the German non-leagues to a getting a taste of the Premiership, as it was called then, for newly-promoted Barnsley in 1997, and back down again. It's a proper football story, shocking, moving and sad in equal measure, about a young man, chasing dreams of being a professional footballer and finding that salvation in a football club from working-class Yorkshire mining town also living the dream through their club.
The Greatest Footballer You Never Saw: The Robin Friday Story by Paolo Hewitt and Paul McGuigan (Mainstream)
Somehow, a rock journalist and a functional yet underwhelming former bassist from Oasis have written a boozing, brawling, rock 'n' roll football biography that isn't deeply repulsive on every conceivable level. Robin Friday was a proper fighter, footballer and philanderer who, along with George Best, Paul Gascoigne and countless others, could enter the pantheon of footballers who had enough requisite talent but whose careers were cut short, ultimately succumbing to their own addictions. The interviews are very heavy with nostalgia given that his off-the-field antics suggest he was rather troublesome, but his pursuits on the pitch, carried by extensive match reports from the local press, really evoke the football from a truly different era, where his abundance set of skills dazzled even the grimmest of winter away days.
The Damned Utd by David Peace (Faber)
Washed-up alcoholic? Working class hero? Corrupt megalomaniac? The greatest manager England never had? Brian Clough was all these and so much more, and nowhere have these characteristics been laid bare so provocatively than in The Damned Utd. Strictly speaking, this isn't a biography (Clough's life has been well documented in other brilliant books from Jonathan Wilson and Duncan Hamilton) and Peace's novel found its way into the courts after former player Johnny Giles contested the veracity of some of the content. All that aside, the imaginative use of Clough's inner voice, beating along with Peace's percussive, jazz-like prose makes this one of the best sport novels ever published.
Back from the Brink: The Autobiography by Paul McGrath (Arrow)
A few times while reading this, I had to close the book to gather my thoughts and try and process what I had just read. This is no glorious CV summation of a glittering career truly fulfilled. There's no bravado on the scrapes he's been in and no redemption at having reached 'the other side' of illness, addiction and five attempted suicide attempts. This book is full of pain, not only for that he inflicted on himself but for the other people caught up in the whirlwind - the most poignant portion being a curious unsatisfying chapter written by his mother on the reasons for giving up her son to a series of Dublin orphanages.
Trautmann's Journey: From From Hitler Youth to FA Cup Legend by Catrine Clay (Yellow Jersey Press)
There's no way I'm going to be able to sum up the extraordinary career of Bert Trautmann, nor this superlative biography but his place in history, not cementing his place in Manchester City folklore as a member of their FA Cup winning team in 1956, but also a potent symbol of post-war reconciliation between Britain and Germany. For a man who saw and felt the horror of war, experienced life as a captured POW and saw more than his fair share of tragedy in his personal life, grew to love England and the English, in turn, utterly adored him.