Book Review: The Periodic Table of FOOTBALL by Nick Holt

For some people (me included), the mere mention of the periodic table may bring them out in a rash or at least induce a feeling of dread. Thankfully, there’s no confusing chemistry or strange isotopes in Nick Holt’s The Periodic Table of FOOTBALL, which finally succeeds in making the periodic table understandable, relevant and, dare I say it, fun (apologies to all chemistry fans out there who rather like the original).

Sticking with the table format that has plagued GCSE chemistry students for decades, Holt transmutes the baffling world of cadmium, copernicium and curium with that of Charlton, Clough and Cruyff as he seeks to arrange 108 of the most impactful players, managers, leaders and personalities of the global game into some kind of overarching order. Covering by and large the full extent of footballing history, from the late nineteenth century through to 2016 when the book was published, Holt includes and introduces a smorgasbord of the sport’s memorable (and a few not so memorable) names. And rather than taking the easy way out and dividing the table simply into goalkeepers, defenders, midfielders and strikers, which would have been a fair and less taxing course of action, Holt adheres to the chemistry theme by grouping his footballing elements into fourteen categories defined by distinctive characteristics.

As such, there are: the precious metals (football’s biggest stars); the bedrocks (the indispensable players); the solids (the defensive balance); the sustainables (the long-serving reliables); the conductors (namely the managers); the catalysts (the team players); the transmuters (the literal game-changers); the porous (the overhyped); the unpredictables (exactly as it says on the tin); the explosives (the playmakers); the combustibles (the fiery characters); the corrosives (the negative influences); the polymorphs (those who have crossed boundaries) and the trace elements (the good but not the great). And within each grouping, Holt offers a brief introduction before selecting between 4 and 12 individuals that best represent that characteristic, offering a potted biography of each and their suitability to that group. Naturally, the book is awash with some of football’s biggest and best names: Pele, Matthews, Ramsey, Puskas – and in the case of the corrosives, arguably some of its worst – and it’s great to be reminded of these mammoth contributors to the sport, but equally appealing is the inclusion of some lesser-known or remembered names, certainly for younger readers, and there were several that were entirely new to me.

Inevitably, in limiting the selection to just 108 footballing names, and dividing them into categories like this, there will always be room for dispute, but Holt himself is entirely unequivocal in his decisions and opinions. By and large, they seemed generally plausible enough, however, I did struggle with the whole concept of the ‘porous’, which felt a bit gratuitously critical. I appreciate the idea of having players with different values and characteristics – as with the original periodic table, there are the lesser elements – and the addition of the ‘corrosives’ is a refreshing and necessary nod to the less salubrious side of the game, but the porous category seemed entirely counterintuitive. Why include six names just to seemingly snub them, why not instead just choose a further six players who the author feels made a valuable contribution or at least a significant contribution to football? As it is, the scapegoats are Billy Wright, Jairzinho, Mario Kempes, Lothar Matthäus, Roberto Carlos, and – prepare yourselves Liverpool fans – Steven Gerrard who led the Reds to their first European title in 20 years and is generally revered as a great of the Premier League (although his inclusion here is largely on the back of a less consistent England outing). Indeed, all of these players will rightfully feel hard done by and many will challenge their inclusion and it does sit a little uneasily in what is broadly a fair and reasonable selection elsewhere. However, this will serve just to ignite debate about Holt’s inclusions and others may argue equally against – or for – other names in the book.

I also wondered about the exclusion of any female names, particularly in the category of transmuters, but in truth it would perhaps feel a little tokenistic just to include a smattering of women just for the sake of it when a much more appealing option would be for an entire periodic table of the women’s game. In fact, Holt has struck on a format that I could see working in myriad ways – a Premier League table; an England table; a table for every club. I doubt Holt or others would be willing to compile a complete set, but it would make for an interesting series. As it stands, this book is an interesting and engaging concept, which includes and introduces a number of the significant forces – both positive and negative – in the global game and will certainly get readers debating. If only this was the real periodic table, it would have made chemistry lessons fly by!


Jade Craddock


(Ebury Press. May 2016. Hardback 192 pages)


Tags: , ,
FBR Copyright 20214 All rights reserved.

Posted February 6, 2021 by Editor in category "Reviews

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.