Book Review – Golazzo: The Football Italia Years by Jonathan Grade

When you think about the movers and shakers in UK sports broadcasting over the years, Channel 4 might not necessarily be the first name that comes to mind. However, this was the station that brought coverage of the NFL to these shores, laying the foundations of a generation that has seen the game gain a real foothold in this country as well as broadcasting sumo wrestling from Japan and kabaddi from India which both enjoyed cult followings. A more familiar sport though hit the screens via Channel 4 when they picked up the live television rights to Italy’s top football division Serie A in the early 1990s. The output consisted of two programmes, Gazzetta Football Italia on Saturday mornings, which contained the highlights of the previous week’s matches and a piece on Italian culture and Sunday afternoon live games (although this came to change in later years).

Channel 4’s coverage began in the 1992/93 season and continued until 2001/02. In that initial season, England had three internationals playing in Serie A, Paul Gascoigne (Lazio), David Platt (Juventus) and Des Walker (Sampdoria) providing interest for fans of the Three Lions. However, there was so much more to Italy’s top division, as during this period it was considered the best league in the World boasting some of the finest players on the planet, at a time when Italian teams dominated the European Club competitions. Allied to quality on the pitch, Channel 4 had a superb team fronting and commentating including the legendary Kenneth Wolstenholme, Peter Brackley and James Richardson. Behind the scenes in the production of the programmes, Jonathan Grade worked and progressed from being a runner to Series Editor and in Golazzo: The Football Italia Years he looks back on his time involved with the shows.

The back cover of the book promises, “a nostalgic look back with some stories from behind the scenes”. However, the reality is that overall it fails to deliver. What readers get over the first nine chapters is essentially a retelling of each of the season’s that Channel 4 covered Serie A. It isn’t until Chapter 10 and Grade’s reflections and tributes to Wolstenholme, Brackley and Programme Director Tim Docherty that readers get a feel for those involved and stories on and off screen. James Richardson on the shows was known as a charismatic and witty presenter, yet the anecdotes about him are few and far between.

It is obvious that the Football Italia years were the best of his working life and as Grade details within the book, it was his “dream job”. However, ultimately the enjoyment and memories Grade had don’t fully translate within the pages of Golazzo: The Football Italia Years.

(Publisher: Independently published. November 2020. Paperback: 177 pages)


Jonathan Grade is a freelance television producer, who spent the best part of a decade working on Channel 4’s Gazzetta Football Italia and live Football Italia programmes from 1993 until 2002 – the last two of which as Series Editor.


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Book Review: Nicklas Bendtner Both Sides

Nicklas Bendtner is perhaps not a major name in Premier League history and certainly not the icon he dreamt, even predicted, he’d become as a young boy head and shoulders above his compatriots in his homeland of Denmark.  More of a cult figure, and a problematic one at that, even for Arsenal fans, where he spent the majority of his career, though Bendtner’s name may not be amongst football’s Hollywood elite, his life story is definitely one more suited to the big screen as his autobiography Both Sides makes explicit. Indeed, his early prowess and his move to boyhood club Arsenal which promised much, followed by his larger-than-life antics and headline-making behaviour off the pitch reads like a quintessential Hollywood story of an outsider’s rags-to-riches ascent and eventual fall from grace, with so many outrageous episodes you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a movie script.

What makes Bendtner’s story all the more compelling is that the early days promised so much, and that old echo of ‘what if’, ‘what could have been’ sounds loudly in the background of the book. But this isn’t a book of ‘what if’ and Bendtner doesn’t get hung up on feeling sorry for himself, far from it, this is a book about what was, what has been, with Bendtner unflinchingly frank, to the point of blunt, in his assessments of every action on and off the pitch, the good, the bad and the ugly – and, really some of it is very ugly. Yet despite his wild antics and faux pas, Bendtner never comes across as malicious or bad-natured, rebellious, yes, wayward, certainly, headstrong, definitely, but not irredeemable. He is the impish child let loose in a fun fair, and fun he certainly has.

With Rune Skyum-Nielsen, the autobiography hits on a simple but effective formula of breaking down the chapters into various spans of years, which allows everything to be covered but also gives the flexibility to address some periods of Bendtner’s life in lesser detail and some in greater detail as required. This moves the book along nicely at a pace and gives the feeling of leaving nothing unturned. As too, do the details, memories and episodes that Bendtner includes, which are oftentimes genuinely jaw-dropping and eye-opening. Indeed, despite Bendtner’s reputation, which very much precedes him, thanks to several publicised fallings-out, misdemeanours and troubles, he could be forgiven for wanting to brush a lot under the carpet or at least gloss over it. And whilst in the world of social media where Bendtner’s every move has been detailed and every action scrutinised, obviously he wouldn’t have been able to rewrite himself as a saint, but should he have chosen, he could have handled his story very differently, focusing purely on on-the-pitch matters, for instance, to take the spotlight, the heat off everything else. But whatever you think of Bendtner, and opinions do seem very strong, the way he fronts up to even the darkest corners of his past and tackles things like alcohol, gambling, womanising and football culture head on – even if it doesn’t reflect the most positively on him – is unquestionable and his frank, unfiltered voice remarkable. A lot of autobiographies sadly seem sanitised to repair or cement a reputation, whilst others claim to be outspoken and honest. Bendtner’s is certainly not the former and is definitely the latter but in a way that exposes all others as mere child’s play. This isn’t so much warts and all, as warts, spots, lesions, blisters, blemishes – the whole graphic caboodle. I don’t think any other football book I’ve read, at least not in a long while, comes anywhere near close to Bendtner’s scrutiny. So whether you’re a fan or Bendtner or not, know a lot about him or a little, if it’s an unflinchingly honest behind-the-scenes insight into football and all of its trappings you want, this is the book for you.

His on-pitch story is covered well and is interwoven with his off-pitch life nicely, but there is no escaping the fact that it is his off-pitch world that sustains the reader in this book. And that perhaps sadly says it all about Bendtner’s career. Learning the true extent of off-field issues and troubles and his lifestyle makes for a seemingly entertaining read but in many ways it’s also poignant as he confronts betrayals, family breakdowns and trust. Alcohol, gambling and womanising are also central themes, and rather than be contrite or humbled, he is as frank and straightforward as ever. For those thinking the problem days of football were consigned to the past, the book comes as a real wake-up call to the continued issues that dog the sport and its players, particularly those like Bendtner, who seem, be it through quirks of character or personality or genetics, most susceptible.

Whilst Bendtner’s actions, particularly as he gets older, seem reprehensible, again there’s that question of ‘what if?’ hanging over it all, in terms of his early years in football and how perhaps he was handled – or possibly, rather, mishandled. Would a different approach perhaps have led to different results? Would he have continued to rival van Persie and Ibrahimovic as he had done for periods with a different coach, a different club, a different philosophy? And would he have achieved his ‘Golden Boot’ aims if he was given a different outlet off the pitch? Although there is no shying away from the fact that there are a lot of mistakes and misjudgements on Bendtner’s part, and a recognition of his challenges, the book raises the question of how football handles mercurial young talent. Bendtner is not the first, nor will he be the last, young footballer with prodigious potential but also a maverick character, with certain traits and predispositions, and yet football has never seemed to learn how to nurture and care for these individuals, allowing them often to self-destruct. Yes, there has to be a sense of individual responsibility but that comes later on and perhaps we need to ensure the football world does enough in the early stages to protect and steer all of its charges, not only those blessed with self-discipline and attentiveness, and to offer the necessary off-field support needed. Bendtner is clearly no angel, nor I suspect would he ever be or want to be, but it feels like his story wasn’t necessarily inevitable.

The final chapters do point to a changing man, as Bendtner, now 33, finds himself at a very different stage in his life, and possibly a very different reality to that he envisaged when he was ruling the pitches as a youngster in Denmark. However, it’s clear there is still a long way to go, and with retirement yet ahead of him, maybe the hardest part of his journey yet, when football is completely behind him. Sadly, this side of football is also still too often ignored and I imagine Bendtner’s story is replicated the world over, although not quite to the heights he reached. Call me naïve, but I find the ending of the book poignant and can’t help hoping that despite his demons, his bad press, his misadventures and plain bad mistakes, Bendtner finds the sort of peace and stability that seem to have eluded him all his life. Whatever you make of the man, and many I’m sure will find his life story unsavoury and disconcerting, it takes a certain degree of mettle to speak so candidly and to face up to such an errant past. This book is also a warning to young footballers, their parents and their coaches about the very real issues and distractions that remain in and around the game. Football is a game we know and love on the pitch, but off the pitch there is still a murkier side, albeit more concealed these days, and one way or another promising footballers like Bendtner can still get caught out.

Jade Craddock


(Monoray. October 2020. Paperback 346 pages)


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Book Review – Stuck in a Moment: The Ballad of Paul Vaessen by Stewart Taylor

Paul Vaessen was at Arsenal Football Club from 1977/78 until 1982/83. During those six seasons he started in just 27 games first team games, with 14 additional appearances from the bench, scoring 9 goals.

The trouble with those statistics is that viewed on they own they don’t tell the story of Paul Vaessen’s career. Lost within his limited time at Highbury, there is one substitute appearance and one goal that standout.

On 23 April 1980 Arsenal played Juventus at the Stadio Comunale in the second leg of the European Cup Winners Cup Semi-Final. The Gunners had drawn 1-1 with the Italian side at Highbury and knew that they had to go and win at a ground where no British team had previously won in order to go through to the Final.

With 75 minutes gone, the nineteen-year-old Vaessen came on for David Price with the game still level at 0-0. With just two minutes remaining in the game, Graham Rix broke down the wing and delivered a looping cross which the Arsenal substitute Vaessen headed in. The goal was so late in the game that Juventus had no time to get an equaliser. Arsenal had won the game 2-1 on aggregate and Vaessen was the hero.

Unfortunately for the youngster that was to prove the highpoint of his short career.

That goal is captured on the cover of the hardback version of the book in three frames, which as they are repeated through the second and third iteration of the image, fade – a visual metaphor for Vaessen’s rapid disappearance from the game.

The fact is that just two years after that magical night in Turin, Vaessen was forced to retire due to knees injuries and died aged just 39 from a drugs overdose.

A truly tragic story.

Through this book – which was deservedly nominated for the long-list of the 2014 William Hill Sports Book of the Year – Stewart Taylor sympathetically tells the story of Paul Vaessen’s moment of glory and his subsequent sad decline.

Taylor is able to tell the story through extensive interviews with Vaessen’s family, friends and former teammates and provides an honest picture of the former Gunner. This ‘worts and all’ account shows that Vaessen struggled with drug addiction for much of his life, and led to a less than glamourous lifestyle in which he became involved in crime in order to feed his habit.

Any death in such circumstances is a sad thing and the tragedy for those left behind is compassionately captured by Taylor. Paul Vaessen’s death left two children without a father, a brother faced with the loss of his sibling and battling drug addiction himself and parents without one of their boys, forever wondering if there was anything they could have done differently that might have saved their son.

The pain of Paul Vaessen’s death is best summed by his mum Maureen.

“He wasn’t a bad boy. He took a knock in life – his early retirement – and he couldn’t get over it.”

“When he came home that last Christmas he turned up with this silly hat on…I keep that hat on my bedpost. I hold it every night. I can smell his hair. I tell him I love him, that I miss him. I say, ‘You silly bastard Paul. You silly bastard.’”


Note: A paperback version was released by Pitch Publishing in 2018.


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2010/11: Nat Lofthouse – True Football Giant

It’s a curious thing that the football greats of the post-war era seemingly get labeled with the sobriquet, “giants”. Leeds United of course had the legendary John Charles who at Juventus, was so revered by the fans that they called him Il Buon Gigantethe gentle giant. This weekend Nat Lofthouse ex-Bolton Wanderers and England passed away, a player the BBC described as, one of the post-war giants of football.

Players such as Tom Finney, Tommy Lawton, Stanley Matthews, Billy Wright, Wilf Mannion, and Stan Mortensen, all finished playing before I was watching football, but I know their names and recognise their place in the football history of this country. Their playing days, like John Charles and Nat Lofthouse belong to a game, era and society that are very different to that now.

Unlike many of the players today, Nat Lofthouse was a one-club man, making more than 450 appearances for Bolton Wanderers, earning 33 caps for England. Lofthouse was Bolton born and bred and was signed as a 14-year-old schoolboy by Charles Foweraker (Bolton manager from 1919-1944). Lofthouse played during the Second World War and also worked as a Bevin Boy coal miner, and eventually turned professional in 1946. The money players received back then will be seen as comical by today’s standards. £10 was the fee Lofthouse received when he signed-on, but he reflected,  ”…I know £10 doesn’t seem much these days, but it was four times more than my Dad was getting per week as a coal bagger for the Co-Op…”. It’s an interesting point, as it illustrates that even back then payments in football out-stripped that of the ordinary working man. Lofthouse made his debut in a wartime 5–1 win against Bury on 22 March 1941 and scored two goals. However, it was then more than five years until he made his League debut for the Trotters against Chelsea on 31 August 1946, when he scored twice in a 4–3 defeat. Lofthouse retired in 1960 having scored 255 goals for the club.

During his club career, Lofthouse played in two FA Cup Finals, both of which have gone down in the annals of Wembley Stadium, but with different outcomes for the Bolton player. He scored a goal, but was on the losing side, in the famous 1953 FA Cup Final which became known as, The Matthews Final having previously scored in each round. That was the only blemish on a season when Lofthouse topped the First Division scoring charts with 30 goals and won Footballer of the Year. Five years later, Lofthouse captained Bolton against Manchester United. Wanderers won the game 2–0 with Lofthouse scoring both goals. However, the second was highly controversial and remains a talking point to this day. Lofthouse went into a challenge with the United keeper Harry Gregg knocking him unconscious as he barged Gregg into the net to score. Looking at the footage in this era, it seems inconceivable that shoulder charging was a legitimate part of the game, especially since nowadays goalkeepers are offered more protection than most endangered species.

As an international Lofthouse had a brilliant scoring record, with 30 goals from his 33 appearances. His England debut was on 22 November 1950 and he scored both goals in a 2–2 draw against Yugoslavia in the game at Highbury. Perhaps his most famous international game came on 25 May 1952. The England forward earned the title Lion of Vienna after scoring his second goal in England’s 3–2 victory over Austria. In the act of scoring and running from the half-way line, he was elbowed in the face, tackled from behind and finally brought down by the goalkeeper. He played in the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland scoring three goals. Lofthouse made his final England appearance, against Wales, at the age of 33 on 26 November 1958. During the eight years of his international career, England played approximately 70 fixtures. In the eight years between 2002 and 2010, England played nearly double this amount of games. That says all sorts about the modern era which has seen an increased number of games in Qualification for World Cups and that World Cup tournaments in terms of team participation has increased, allied with the introduction of the European Championships and the increase in friendlies. However, it is interesting to consider how many goals Lofthouse may have scored if he had the number of games available to the modern day international.

After retiring, Lofthouse continued his links with his home-town club. He became the assistant trainer at Burnden Park in 1961 and was then appointed chief coach at the club in 1967. Between 1968 – 1970, Lofthouse spent a brief time as caretaker manager of the club before taking the job full-time. After the brief management stint he became Bolton’s chief scout and later administrative manager. In 1978, he became the club’s executive manager and became president in 1986. Nat Lofthouse’s connection with the club in so many capacities over 50 years is an incredible feat. One that would be seemingly impossible to replicate in the modern era.

In closing, I’d like to let the words of the Bolton great speak for themselves, “…the game’s changed out of all recognition to my day…the strips changed, the ball’s changed and the money has changed…but I still believe footballers take great pride in the game. I don’t know about me but people like Matthews and Finney would be seen as very good players, I’ve no doubt about that…”

Spoken like a true football giant.