Book Review – The Fifty: Football’s Most Influential Players by Jon Driscoll
Jon Driscoll’s book The Fifty aims to spotlight fifty footballers who have been most influential in terms of shaping the history of the beautiful game. I always love these sorts of books and features but never envy the author the task of selecting the chosen few and it’s fascinating to see just who gets picked, and equally who doesn’t.
Starting from football’s earliest days through to the present moment, Driscoll’s task is far from easy. A lot of the expected names are rightfully included – the likes of Pele, Maradona and Messi – but what is great about this book is that in choosing the most influential, rather than the best players, other names like Walter Tull, Jimmy Hill and Hope Powell are given their place in football’s narrative. Indeed, it is a fantastic premise that allows a really rich and encompassing view of the sport, that takes in players that not only changed the game on the pitch but off it too, comprising issues like women’s football, racism, corruption and pay, and whether or not these are the fifty names that individual readers would choose, Driscoll makes a very valid and informative case for each.
Of the fifty players, Driscoll chooses, I was familiar with most of them to some degree, but even with those that are household names across the board, Driscoll manages to unearth lesser-known, intriguing tidbits about them, whilst introducing a few names that were new to me and raising my awareness of their contributions and histories. It was great to genuinely learn something about each individual and to have a greater understanding for names that I’d previously only had limited knowledge of, to have my impressions or perceptions of a player revised or my appreciation improved. Indeed, I came away from each chapter having learnt something new and my overall experience of the book was of a really enlightening and insightful read. It was one of those books that had a real impact on my sense of knowledge and understanding.
Of course, one of the main talking points about this book, and any selection of this kind, revolves around the choice of players and there’s always a degree of debate and discussion about such things. Driscoll has clearly done his research and aimed to create a wide-ranging and inclusive collection of players that takes in all facets of the game and, as I said before, he offers strong justification for each choice. Ask 100 football fans to name their most influential 50 players, however, and no two responses will be the same. To my admittedly less-knowledgeable mind, Driscoll seems to have done a thorough job and I particularly appreciated the inclusion of Lily Parr and Brandi Chastain, as well as the earliest selections in the book which gave me a greater insight into football’s origins. I felt that some of the more recent names are perhaps more debatable, but given time Cafu and Ozil, who were both defining and exceptional players, may fully justify their places, though for me, in terms of football’s story, the development of the Premier League and the effect of the Invincibles, Thierry Henry may have been a more fitting choice than Ozil. But every reader will have their own thoughts and neither Ozil nor Henry may feature. As Driscoll says, compiling this history is ‘like completing a moving puzzle’, but without doubt he has done a mighty fine job of laying out a comprehensive template and beginning the debate.
With the most influential players in history having thus been examined, Driscoll’s book does open up a myriad of avenues for further exploration – the fifty most influential managers, teams, Premier League players… If Driscoll has the time or the inclination, I’d be delighted to read his take on any of these as he’s proven himself with this book to be a hugely accomplished and informative football writer and it’s a rare treat to read a book that leaves you so much the wiser and discerning not just on finishing the book but with every chapter.
(Pitch Publishing Ltd. November 2020. Hardcover: ?320 pages)