Book Review: A Tournament Frozen in Time – The Wonderful Randomness of the European Cup Winners’ Cup by Steven Scragg

The European Cup Winners’ Cup (ECWC) competition came into being in the 1960/61 season, and as its title suggests qualification was attained by being the winners of a countries domestic cup. Despite its creation after the first European Cup competition in 1955/56 and the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup which also began in 1955 (before it morphed into the UEFA Cup in 1971/72) and therefore being the youngest of the three competitions, it was though seen as the next most prominent after the European Cup. It continued until the 1998/99 season with the final playing of the tournament between SS Lazio and RCD Mallorca at Villa Park, home of Aston Villa, the last of the 39 Finals.

If Willy Wonka did football tournaments, then it would undoubtedly be the ECWC, a competition that was a fabulous mix of the eccentric, the magical, the unexpected and the sometimes bizarre, which is brilliantly captured in Steven Scragg’s book, A Tournament Frozen in Time – The Wonderful Randomness of the European Cup Winners’ Cup.

Rather than take the chronological route within the book, Scragg creates chapters which look at the history of the competition in terms of the countries or regions that took part in the ECWC, so for instance, Italian clubs participation is captured within the chapter titled, Forza Italia, whilst Robbie and the Purple and Whites, Plus Other Adventures Through the Low Countries, looks at how the sides from Belgium and the Netherlands fared during the thirty-nine seasons of the tournament. The exception are those which look at the 1980/81 campaign, Everton’s triumph in 1984/85 and Sir Alex Ferguson’s two cup wins with Aberdeen (1982/83) and Manchester United (1990/91). What this allows is that the story of the ECWC is able to be told in its own right, but also intertwined to the wider footballing context, so that its relationship with both the European Cup (and later the Champions League) as well as the UEFA Cup is presented.

What the reader is also given are stories that justify part of the author’s subtitle for the book, The Wonderful Randomness. Even from its inaugural season, there was something ‘different’ about the ECWC, in that for that 1960/61 the Final between Fiorentina and Rangers, was played over two-legs and was never to be repeated with all subsequent Finals a one-off at a neutral venue. Additionally, the trophy presented to the first winners, Fiorentina, was replaced by a different design for the remainder of the tournaments existence. Unlike the other two European competitions, there was never a period during which a team came back and was able to successfully defend the trophy and indeed never had a Final in which both sides were from the same country. It was a tournament littered with teams from all corners of Europe, some unlikely due to the current UEFA formats, ever to get near a European tournament again.

But readers may ask, if this was such a wonderful competition, why was it ended? Scragg addresses this by detailing how the change in status of the European Cup to the Champions League, was part of the process, as was the breakup of the former Communist bloc, necessitating the introduction of a Preliminary Round to the competition, as well the fact that attendances for the Finals were invariably poor. This included just 3,208 witnessing the 1963/64 Final in Brussels, 4,641 for the 1973/74 Final in Rotterdam and in 1992/93, just 37,393 strewn around the ‘old’ Wembley in its 100,000 capacity days, as Parma beat Royal Antwerp.

As a football fan, my view is that the demise can be traced back to when the so called ‘big-clubs’ in Europe, unhappy with the European Cup knock-out format, wanted a change so that they would be not only be part of an expanded tournament but of one bringing increased TV revenues. For me, there is nothing special, season-on-season, of another Champions League tie featuring Barcelona v Real Madrid (or indeed any combination of the repeat qualifiers) and as for the farce of the 2018/19 Final in which neither of the finalists (Liverpool and Spurs) had won the League – well just don’t get me started. Unfortunately, this is the reality of the greed and money that has infested our game both at home and abroad and at the cost of the romance that the ECWC gave us, such as Italian giants Napoli up against the Welsh minnows Bangor City in 1962, in a tie which required a replay in a time before the away-goals rule was introduced. That game is though just one of the many wonderful stories to be found within the pages of Scragg’s homage to the tournament.

What more can be said? Well, to paraphrase the words of Willy Wonka, “If you want to view paradise, simply look at this book and view it.” It is without doubt a wonderfully researched and written book and is a rightful nominee in The Telegraph Sports Books Awards 2020 (within the football category), and is a must read for anybody wanting to discover about a lost treasure in the football world or for those of us of a certain age, a most magical trip down memory lane.

(Pitch Publishing Ltd. September 2019. Hardback 288pp)


2019/20: An Incredible Journey. Match Day 15 – Saturday 19 October 2019: Oldham Athletic v Macclesfield Town

Matchday programme cover

The M62 motorway that runs east to west in the north of England is a main artery for travelling fans during the season. I’m on it again today as I make the twenty odd mile journey from Huddersfield to Oldham. Interestingly the footballing clash between the respective clubs is referred to as the M62 or A62 ‘derby’. Today though Oldham’s opponents are Macclesfield Town. It will be interesting to note which teams I see on the most occasions on this journey, this being the second Macclesfield match I will have attended, having also seen Carlisle twice so far.

Boundary Park the home of The Latics, is no distance at all when you turn off the M62 at Junction 20. The venue was originally called the Athletic Ground when it opened in 1896 for Oldham County FC. When they were disbanded in 1899, Pine Villa FC (founded 1895) moved in and changed their name to Oldham Athletic. Boundary Park is known as a cold ground and sometimes mistaken as the highest venue in the top four tiers, it is in fact second highest, the highest being the Hawthorns, home of West Bromwich Albion, but do you know the third?

My memories of Oldham come from them reaching the Final of the League Cup in 1990 and getting promoted to the newly formed Premier League in 1992. There was also the 1993/94 FA Cup Semi-Final under Joe Royle, when Oldham were denied progress to the Cup Final when Manchester United equalised in the last minute of extra-time. I remember exactly where I was that night! I was watching the game in a pub on the Fulham Road, The Somerset Arms the local of my girlfriend at the time. When we got home, we found out that we had been burgled, and the Police informed us that we had probably disturbed them, so it’s all Mark Hughes fault for taking the game into extra time!!

View across to Joe Royle Stand

So to the action on the pitch, which in all honestly was a quiet one for the first-half. The only real moments of note were a header from a corner that ex-Oldham player Theo Vassell put wide and a long-distance effort from Oldham’s Tom Hamer that flew past the post shortly before half-time. Macclesfield edged the half on possession, but at the break it was goal-less.

The Latics came out better in the second-half and had an early chance from a free-kick, that Mohammed Maouche directed wide. However, Macclesfield gradually worked their way back into the game and Theo Archibald had a couple of decent half-chances as the last twenty minutes approached. The breakthrough for the visitors came with just four minutes remaining. Oldham conceded a free-kick on the edge of their box, allowing substitute Jack McCourt, who had only been on the pitch six minutes, to step up and fire past De La Paz and into the far corner. Oldham nearly snatched a point in the final minute of the game as a header from a corner was somehow cleared off the line. At the whistle though, it was The Silkmen who went back to Cheshire with the three points courtesy of a 1-0 win.


Saturday 19 October 2019

Sky Bet League Two

Oldham Athletic 0 Macclesfield Town 1 (McCourt 86’)

Venue: Boundary Park

Attendance: 4,428

Oldham Athletic: De La Paz, Hamer, Wheater, Stott, Iacovitti, McCann, Missilou, Sylla (Eagles 90’), Maouche (McKinney 69’), Smith, Azankpo (Wilson 59’)

Unused substitutes: Woods, Smith-Brown, Gaskell.

Macclesfield Town: Evans, Kelleher, Vassell, Gnahoua (Horsfall 90’), Harris, Ironside, Archibald, Welch-Hayes, Kirby (McCourt 80’), O’Keefe, Osadebe

Unused substitutes: Charles-Cook, Stephens, Gomis, Ntambwe


Steve Blighton

2019/20: An Incredible Journey. Match Day 6 – Saturday 24 August 2019: Nelson v Shelley

Matchday programme cover

A trip to Wembley, Little Wembley in fact, also known as Victoria Park, the home of Nelson FC. As you can imagine there is a bit of a dramatic difference between the two Wembley’s, trust me! Capacity wise, whilst the home of the England team in North West London can hold 90,000, the North West England version, holds a mere 2,000.

Here’s a football quiz question for you. Can you think of the club that was the first English side to beat Real Madrid away from home? A side that also won away at Old Trafford in the same season. A side that played in the Football League for ten seasons and has played competitive games against 34 of the current sides in the top four divisions. A side that has played many FA Cup ties in the competition proper with a record home attendance of over 14,000. The answer? Well, all this, and more, has been achieved by ‘The History Boys’ of Nelson FC, also known as ‘The Admirals’.

The origins of Nelson FC can be reputedly traced to a group of townspeople who in 1881, on witnessing a local football match between Burnley and Blackburn, were inspired to form their own team. However, it wasn’t until 1889/90 that they competed in a senior competition.

When football resumed after the First World War, Nelson embarked upon the most remarkable adventure of their history. In 1921 the thirteen non-reserve teams of the Central League were voted into the Football League`s newly formed Third Division North. The first league match, on August 27 1921, brought a record attendance at Seedhill of 9,000.

The next season, 1922/23, saw the Blues lead a close race for much of the season, and five wins in a row during April saw them romp away to the title. On the back of their title triumph, and in preparation for life in Division Two, Nelson took the remarkable step of an overseas tour to Spain, in May 1923. They performed with some success, winning two of their four games, a 2-1 success against Real Oviedo and a 4-2 victory at Real Madrid.

Unfortunately, Nelson`s time in Division Two was to be short-lived, lasting just the one season in which they finished second-bottom of the table. It was clear early on that they were struggling both on and off the pitch, but they achieved some remarkable feats on the way. They had a home victory over Champions-elect Leeds United, one of only nine league defeats for the Yorkshire side and their first away victory came at Manchester United. Few non-league clubs can claim to have won away at both Real Madrid and Manchester United!

A return to Division Three North brought a drop in attendances, though big games saw new records established, such as 13,500 for the visit of table-topping Darlington. That first season back in the third tier of the Football League saw a second-place finish to the North-Eastern side, hence no promotion, and was to be the last time the Blues seriously threatened a return to the national stage.

The next season brought a new and never beaten record attendance at Seedhill of 14,143 for the visit of leaders Bradford Park Avenue. The home team went two goals down but came back to draw 2-2. Two seasons later Nelson became serious strugglers, finding themselves £6,500 in debt. A rock-bottom finish meant a re-election application. They had conceded 136 goals during the season, and all the problems seemed to be down to insufficient gate receipts during difficult times for the area. Re-election was granted in 1928, but three seasons later Nelson were back in the same situation, and 1930/31 was to be their final season as a League club. Nelson struggled on in the Lancashire Combination without winning any honours, and things became much bleaker in 1936. A big loss was incurred that season and the club disbanded on 7 August. The club reformed after the Second World War and entering the Lancashire Combination League, playing in the league until it merged with the Cheshire County League to form the North West Counties League in 1982.

Action at Little Wembley

The current Nelson side still ply their trade in North West Counties First Division North and their visitors for this fixture were Shelley from Huddersfield – my connection to Shelley will be revealed later on in the season.

It was a lovely sunny day and barely a breeze, only a hard pitch to contend with. It’s a quaint old ground which has seen better days with a small stand along one side of the pitch. Attendance on the day was nothing like the 14,000 they attracted back in the 1920s. In fact, the crowd was 55 and I was able to count every one of them. Of the game, it was two very evenly matched sides and I was impressed at the standard of football, this being tier 10 of the pyramid. Both defences were much stronger than their own and opposition attack with Ryan Blackburn being outstanding in defence for Shelley, who also showed touches of pace up front with Israel Johnson. Nelson were equally stoic in defence well marshalled by Daniel Fagan. Shelley manager, Ash Berry, was his ebullient self on the touchline in a game that ended as a draw, which on reflection was a fair result but deserved goals.

A final interesting fact about Nelson FC, following their return to act after the war in the Lancashire Combination. They were involved in some terrific tussles for the title with Wigan Athletic over the next few seasons, winning it twice in 1949/50 and 1951/52. In those three seasons of 42 league games apiece, Nelson scored 125, 120 and 139 goals, respectively. The first title season also saw Nelson clinch the Lancashire Combination Cup to seal an historic ‘Double’ in what was at the time one of the premier leagues in the country outside of the Football League. The men at the forefront of this period of success were two young player-managers. Centre-half Bob Johnson moved from Burnley for the start of the 1949/50 season and, when his contract expired, the Blues landed a young man from Manchester City, 30-year-old Joe Fagan. The team built by ‘Uncle Joe’ romped to the title in his first season in 1951/52. Joe left to join Liverpool`s boot room team in 1958 and 25 years later he was the manager who took the Reds to a European Cup, League Championship and League Cup treble.


Saturday 24th August 2019

North West Counties Football League – First Division North

Nelson 0 Shelley 0

Venue: Little Wembley

Attendance: 55

Nelson: Parkinson, C. Lloyd, Grice, Dickinson, Fagan, Wynne, J. Coop, Sharples, Hill, J. Lloyd, Knight.

Substitutes: Close, Townsend, Dewhurst

Shelley: Day, Leech, Andre, Daffern, Blackburn, Keane, O’Keefe, Broadbent, Billington, Pownall, Johnson

Substitutes: White, Robertson, Bradshaw


Steve Blighton

Book Review: Manchester United Collectibles by Iain McCartney

Manchester United are probably one of the most famous football teams on the planet and therefore the appetite and interest in anything associated with the Red Devils from the past and present of the Old Trafford Club is huge.

This slim tome from Iain McCartney, a Scot who fell under the spell of the side from the red half of Manchester as a schoolboy, “looks at some of the most iconic and interesting pieces of Manchester United history.” McCartney is well placed to write this book, since he is a respected collector and editor of the Manchester United Collectors Club, Chairman of the Manchester United Writers Association, as well as author of a number of books on United.

It was a pleasant surprise to find that Amberley had upgraded the paper quality of this book compared to their Fifty Defining Fixtures series and also that it contained a good number of quality colour illustrations. However, the layout at times seemed strange with some of the pages containing large areas of blank unused space and the book would have benefited from clearer direction for the reader on the locations of items that McCartney was referring to in his text, i.e. programme overleaf.

On the positive side, this book has some interesting pieces amongst the 140 illustrations, which will appeal to football fans and collectors irrespective of whether they support the Red Devils or not. Also, McCartney has some great advice for collectors on ways they might specialise or develop their own collection and over the eight chapters looks briefly at the range of United associated collectibles, including traditional items such as programmes, various types of cards, badges, tickets, books, magazines, newspapers and pennants as well as some more obscure memorabilia including Funeral Order of Services and Balance Sheets & Accounts. There are as expected included items pertaining to the Munich Disaster, the European Cup triumph of 1968 and league title wins during the 1960s, with the emphasis on the pre and post war period rather than the Premier League era.

McCartney admits himself, that individual books could have been easily been dedicated to United collectibles such as programmes, tickets, and cards, so to produce in less than 100 pages something as engaging as this book is quite an achievement.


(Amberley Publishing. August 2018. Paperback 96pp)


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Book Review: George Best – Fifty Defining Fixtures by Iain McCartney

In this instalment of the Fifty Defining Fixtures series, author Iain McCartney acknowledges, “there have been many books on the ‘Belfast Boy’…but while telling the story of the player many believe to have been the ‘best ever’, they have merely skirted around many of the games when he laced up his boots, pulled on the jersey and caused havoc in opposition defences.” The author’s aim therefore in this edition is to focus instead on Best’s games rather than the off field dramas that came to impact his career and later life so dramatically. So, if readers are looking for a book detailing the wild-side and scandal that surrounded the life of George Best, then this isn’t the book for you.

As with the other books in this series, the content looks at games, with reports of the time from newspapers, club programmes and other written material, to provide the reader with an idea of the genius of one of the greatest players of all time.

McCartney has been somewhat creative with his interpretation of ‘Fifty Fixtures’ with some chapters including both legs of European ties and then for Best’s spells at Fulham and Hibernian, single chapters are used to summarise his brief time at the respective clubs. Of the 160 pages, 143 are dedicated to Best’s career at Manchester United and internationals with Northern Ireland from 1961 through to 1974 and quite rightly so, given that it will be those times for which the player should be remembered. In doing so, McCartney captures the highlights of Best as he emerged at Old Trafford, but also his decline as his career entered the early 1970s and issues off the field affected the player, and in parallel as the club from the red side of Manchester also went from European Champions to a relegation threatened First Division club.

These ‘Fifty Defining Fixtures’ books have a place in providing an outline and or indeed an introduction to the players and managers they feature to potential readers, and don’t in anyway pretend to be anything more than that. However, this edition suffered in a number of ways, firstly in that the number of typos was distracting, with errors such as the repeating of the same sentence (page 94) one of the most glaring. Secondly, it was good to see a number of images included in the book, but perhaps if they had been ordered chronologically it would have been beneficial and made more sense. Thirdly , whilst still on the topic of photographs, the author makes reference to a famous image of Best from the United fixture v Burnley at Old Trafford in 1965, yet it doesn’t feature in the book. Finally, McCartney is undoubtedly an expert on the Old Trafford club, having written a number of books about the Red Devils, but his insistence on referring to Best as simply ‘George’ even in the team line-up images, feels overfamiliar and adds nothing to the reading of the text.


(Amberley Publishing. October 2015. Paperback 160pp)


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Book Review: From Triumph to Tragedy – The Chapecoense Story by Steven Bell

In this era of over-hyped, sensationalist media coverage, the words, ‘disaster’ or ‘tragedy’ are banded about in football like confetti, usually following a defeat for any Premier League club you’d care to mention. The reality is that down the years in the game there have been events that are genuine tragedies. These have included the loss of Italian side Torino’s squad in 1949, the deaths of many of Manchester United’s ‘Busby Babes’ in 1958, that of Peruvian club Alianza Lima in 1987 and the Zambia national team in 1993. The common factor linking all four, being that these disasters were as a result of plane crashes.

This sad list was added to on 26 November 2016, when Brazilian side Chapecoense who were travelling to the first-leg of the 2016 Copa Sudamericana Finals in Columbia, saw their playing and management staff decimated in a crash that saw their plane plough into the forest mountain of Cerro Gordo.

Whilst Triumph to Tragedy – The Chapecoense Story details the awful events of that catastrophic event, the book expresses so much more about the Brazilian game and its footballing culture, quite an achievement for a book of only 223 pages. It manages this due to the fact that author Steven Bell has such a passion for the Brazil national team, nicknamed the Canarinhos (Little Canaries), his fascination with the World Cup and his love of the game at club level in the country.

The book follows Bell’s experiences beginning with him watching Brazil win the 1994 World Cup which took place in the USA and which led to him travelling to South America to see them host the 2014 tournament. That six week visit was the catalyst for his deeper interest in the game in Brazil and his discovery of a side based in the south of the country, Chapecoense. The author is cleverly able to combine the story of the Brazilian national side, who have one of the biggest kit deals in history with Nike, with a team that in 2006 was basically a non-league outfit on the verge of going out of business. This linking of paths is achieved because Bell highlights the 1994 World Cup winning Brazil squad under coach Carlos Alberto Gomes Parreira, who weren’t in the tradition of the free-flowing sides of the past playing, O Jogo Bonito (the beautiful game), but instead adopted a pragmatic European style to lift the trophy. This change in approach was an influence as Chapecoense, nicknamed the Verdao (the Big Green) took on the mantel of underdog, a side willing to scrap and fight to survive and overcome more illustrious opposition.

The clubs incredible rise and promotions are well documented in the book and the author’s knowledge of the working of the Brazilian football organisation is very useful in understanding the State Championship system, promotion through the Serie divisions and the wider structure relationship within the game in South America as a whole, something very unfamiliar to those used to the rudiments of the pyramid system in England.

As a reader, you are introduced to some of the players, officials and management that came through the Big Green’s rise, and their individual stories are told in such a way that you connect with them. They are real people. Some who had harsh backgrounds, others whose careers were considered over, but all human, with wives, girlfriends, families and a love of the club. So, despite the fact that you know there is tragedy waiting in the story, it is still shocking and sad to read of the deaths of characters that Bell has warmly introduced.

The book doesn’t end with the crash and instead the final chapter details how the club, country and the footballing community dealt with the disaster, which lead the author to an interesting concluding observation.

Bell was in Brazil when the Canarinhos hosted the 2014 World Cup and the nation and its national side hoped to exorcise the demons of the 1950 World Cup loss to Uruguay, instead they were humiliated by Germany in the Semi-Finals 7-1. It was a night of tears and tantrums and of perceived national tragedy – Bell describes the aftermath in which, “Brazilian football was broken: Brazil as a nation was broken too.” Fast forward to 2018 in Russia and the book reflects a change in reaction following defeat to Belgium in the Quarter-Finals, with Bell’s opinion that the Chapecoense disaster had left the nation with the realisation that there is more to life than football.

Passado mas nao esquecido

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Book Review: I am Football by Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is one of most iconic names in football – something the man himself, famed for his limitless self-assurance, would surely not only corroborate but probably even propose. After all, this is the man who has referred to himself as a god and whose new book is titled I Am Football. There is no denying the fact that, in part because of this brazen chutzpah, Ibrahimovic has always been something of a divisive figure, both on and off the pitch, not only for spectators and media, but also amongst his own teammates and coaches, but the one thing that is unquestionable is his record.

Amongst other teams, Ibrahimovic has played for seven of the biggest clubs in football history – Ajax, Juventus, Inter Milan, Barcelona, AC Milan, PSG and Manchester United. He has scored goals at for every team he has played for, in impressive quantities and important moments, racking up over 500 in total, and continues to do so at the age of 37 for LA Galaxy. He has won over thirty trophies with the teams he has played in, including league championships in four of the biggest competitions in the world (Eredivisie, Serie A, La Liga, and Ligue 1) as well as countless other individual awards. His records include being the only player to have played in the Champions League with seven teams (although the one black mark in his tally is the failure to win the competition), the only player to have scored in derbies in six countries and the only player to score in his first five league matches for Barcelona – records that neither the generation’s two leading players, Messi and Ronaldo, cannot match. And this book charts each of these milestones in Ibrahimovic’s journey from Malmo to Manchester United.

The chapters focus sequentially on each of the eight clubs he played for from 1999 to 2018, opening with a snapshot of his match, minutes, goals and assists stats, a picture and a Zlatan quote before an introduction to the context of each moment in Ibrahimovic’s career, which is followed up with images and quotes from the man himself, as well as contributions from teammates and coaches before a concluding assessment on his time at each club. It’s a really appealing and easy-to-read approach. But what really sells this book and makes it stand out from the crowd is the incredible design and finish of it – it’s clearly been lovingly and artistically put together, and rather than your average hardback sports autobiography, this has the appearance and gravitas, dare I say it, of something more akin to a bible. It is a book that visually grabs you and makes it clear its subject matter is intended to be viewed as something special, extraordinary. It’s a format that very much fits with a man who wants to make his mark, to turn heads, but it’s more than just a gimmick, it is genuinely a really stylish, well-packaged and put together creation, that, to my mind, suggests a refreshing, contemporary direction that sports books could take in the future to really develop the genre. Huge praise therefore must go to the creative and design team behind it, which includes Graphic Designer Sebastian Wadsted and Project Manager Martin Ransgart. There is nothing especially overly fussy or fancy inside the pages, just simple but hugely effective use of colours, spreads and imagery to create a beautiful, minimalist, sleek look. Even the way, the statistics – or rather Zlatistics (their word, not mine) – are displayed in a comprehensive chapter at the end of the book is engaging and visually appealing.

In terms of the content itself, the range of voices, from the book’s editor to Ibrahimovic’s teammates and coaches to the man himself, make for a more complete read. And whilst I am not sure this book will completely change perceptions about Ibrahimovic, it certainly gives a more rounded view of the man – no person, after all, is completely one thing, but Ibrahimovic, for whatever reason, has often been cast as the villain. The contributions from his teammates, and to some extent his coaches, are perhaps the most telling in their breakdown of this judgement. These are the people who spent the most time with him, day in, day out, who knew him off the pitch and on it, and their assessments – from greats such as Thierry Henry and Andrea Pirlo – are all markedly similar: Ibrahimovic, they all effectively concur, is indeed a strong personality, but above all a special footballing talent and a team player on the pitch, and off it, he is a funny and likeable character – very different to the troublemaker he has often been portrayed as. There is no denying his ego, many of the quotes from the man himself ooze it, but while some call it arrogance, the contributors tend to see it as self-confidence – a requisite for success. And success is exactly what Ibrahimovic has achieved throughout his two decades at the very top of the game. So maybe, as the title of the book suggests, he is, after all, football. There are definitely few who could argue with the Zlatistics.

Jade Craddock

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Book Review: George Best – A Memoir by Michael Parkinson

George Best died in November 2005, aged just 59, but his legend means that his name still lives on undiminished – and so too the interest in him. He was, unquestionably, a mercurial and complicated figure – a man who had it all but sadly couldn’t keep the demons away.

Lifelong friend Michael Parkinson saw Best at his highest and his lowest – both on and off the pitch – and thus writes this latest memoir from the privileged position both of Best’s friend but also as a journalist. As such it is equally a warm recollection and yet at times a critical assessment of this troubled character, compounded perhaps by what comes across as something of a lack of understanding about the nature of addiction. It is, of course, a difficult subject to broach, not least for someone close by watching another self-destruct, but it does feel as if the emphasis on Best’s troubles with alcohol are equated more often with a matter of choice than illness.

Best, it is repeated, is not a man who accepted pity, but the book does perhaps not have the empathy I had expected. I also found some of the writing quite unappealing, notably a couple of sections when Parkinson seemingly puts words and thoughts into Best’s head, which seems particularly strange given his reference to Best’s comment, ‘Nobody knows me’. In contrast, the book is at its strongest in the transcripted interviews with the man himself and the players and managers who knew him best on and around the pitch. Here we get to see both the awe at his footballing brilliance and the poignancy of a life derailed.

Best’s own assessment of the lack of support for footballers, the intrusion of the outside world and the philosophy of the British media are all particularly sad indictments and also understandable pressures on a young man upon whom the mantle of being the first real footballing superstar was thrust. What the book does do really well is it to pose some thought-provoking questions, not least about whether Best may have had a different experience had he been playing today, or whether even the support structures in place nowadays are really any better.

Another question that crops up is that perennial one of who is the best: Best, Messi or Ronaldo? But phrased not in terms of today but of Best’s era, it opens up the debate once more. Indeed, it is not a question of whether Best could have matched Messi and Ronaldo in the modern game but whether Messi and Ronaldo could have equalled Best in his era. It’s an interesting one, as too is that of how he would have fared under today’s managers. The portrait of Busby’s handling of him seems far removed from today’s footballing culture and makes you wonder just how Best’s career may have transpired under Sir Alex Ferguson, Pep Guardiola and, most intriguingly perhaps, Jose Mourinho.

The book ends with a reflection from Michael Parkinson’s son, Michael Junior, and it is perhaps one of the most touching moments of the memoir, as the junior Parkinson remembers having a kickaround with Best in the garden – or rather, as it turned out, a run around for the Parkinson boys as they chased United’s unplayable winger – a funny set piece in many ways but also a somewhat perfect portrait of both the joy and isolation football brought Best.

Whether or not you played football with Best in the back garden, watched him rule the pitch and fall from grace or know only of him through the reflections of the previous generation, you can’t help closing this book with a sense of loss, of what might have been. And though Messi and Ronaldo rule the roost today, despite his troubles, Best’s name continues to reverberate with theirs, which would surely please the man who said, ‘If only one person thinks I’m the best player in the world, that’s good enough for me.’ Fortunately, there is still a generation of people who think Best was the best player in the world, and maybe, just maybe, the greatest of all time.

Jade Craddock



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Book Review: Caught Beneath the Landslide – Manchester City in the 1990s by Tim Rich

Looking at today’s roll call of talent, the impressive Etihad Stadium and the record-breaking feats and trophy hauls of the last few years, it is almost impossible to conceive of a time when Manchester City weren’t at the height of English football.

But yet, somewhat unbelievably only a couple of decades ago, it was a very different story for the blue half of Manchester. Despite a veritable thrashing of their nearest neighbours and greatest rivals, Manchester United, in September 1989, 5-1 at Maine Road, the game signalled not the start of the glory days but rather the beginning of a downward spiral that would see them, at their lowest, languishing in the third tier of the English game in 1998/99, and it is these dark days of City’s recent past that Tim Rich chronicles in Caught Beneath the Landslide.

The success of the club’s youth team in 1986 and that victory over United three years later could have seen City dominate in the way that the Class of ‘92 did in the nineties, but behind the scenes unrest and mismanagement saw a very different outcome.

Rich’s tale of City’s fall from grace charts some of the key figures, decisions and players in these uncertain times and it is a fascinating reminder of just how far City fell in the mid-nineties – when their neighbours were celebrating an historic treble, Manchester City were celebrating winning the Play-offs in a dramatic game against Gillingham to be promoted after finishing third in the old Third Division.

However, their decline also highlights just how far they’ve risen from the ashes since then. It really is incredible to read the authors narrative of the City of old in the context of the City of today.

Manchester City fans, especially those who remember and were witness to, the turbulent years of the nineties, may not want to be reminded of this uneasy past, whilst the new generation of Cityzens who have grown up with a City side at least competing in, if not dominating, the top flight of English football are likely to find the history unthinkable, but either way it’s a significant backdrop to this club’s past and its present, a reminder that success is not a given, it is earned and can just as easily be lost.

Jade Craddock

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Book Review: Manchester United in Tears by J. Paul Harrison

The Munich Air Disaster that took place on 6 February 1958 will forever be part of the history of Manchester United and in the period since the tragic event, it has been covered in documentaries, TV dramas, music and most especially in books.

Manchester United in Tears by J. Paul Harrison (published by Austin Macauley) is the latest addition to hit the shelves. Harrison’s approach to the oft covered subject is to undertake the “story of this eventful season…on a day by day, match by match basis, providing a fascinating insight into the world of football in the 1950s.” There is no doubt that the book covers the season on a linear basis, with the emphasis on the games and events surrounding the Manchester United first team, the reserves and its youth team, during the 1957/58 campaign. This is a credit to the author and the research carried out to provide such a detailed picture.

However, in reading the book it feels as though it is stretching a point to say that it provides “a fascinating insight”. There are some interesting details, such as the fact that players like Bobby Charlton, who whilst being first team players at Old Trafford, were also turning out to play in the Armed Services representative games throughout the season. Yet the nature of match reports, followed by results, whilst informative, is rather dry and as a result unfortunately struggles to convey or indeed take the reader, “back to that black and white era…when football was still fun.”

Then, after all the detail that the book delivers from Harrison, it ends in an abrupt way with a one-page piece of conjecture about United’s fortunes if the crash hadn’t happened and which frankly adds nothing to the story. The overriding feeling is that this book attempts to do too much, in trying to focus on the context of the Club during the season, the disaster and the wider view of football in the 1950s, but yet doesn’t achieve any of these strands fully.


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