Books, eh? The forgotten children of the modern football media family – or the noblest and truest expression of a sports writer’s craft? You decide.
Either way, there’s still a place for books in our lives, or at least there should be. And, during the Covid-enforced lockdown it’s certainly true that we’ve all got a real chance to catch up on tomes that we might have previously lacked the time to read.
Here are seven football books we think are well worth nosing through.
Only a Game?, by Eamon Dunphy
Some might think that Eamon Dunphy is just an old moaner who whinges about how bad football is now, but Only a Game?, his diary of a truncated season playing for Millwall in the old Second Division, shows that he was a young moaner too – and a perceptive one at that.
Inspired by baseball pitcher Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, the question mark in the title tells you a lot about the attitude Dunphy takes in his account of the journeyman footballer’s life away from the growing glitz, glamour and glory of the league’s high fliers.
Acting like a deluge of paint stripper on the glossy veneer of football in the mid-seventies, the Ireland international takes you inside the dressing room of an average club and shows the tensions and trivialities that really define football for players as he rails against the club, the manager, his teammates, the fans and himself in a stone-cold classic football book.
There's no better description of new-season optimism than this by Eamon Dunphy in the brilliant "Only A Game?" pic.twitter.com/hqcyJtmCqx
— Oliver Kay (@OliverKay) August 8, 2015
The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, by Joe McGinnis
If you only get a chance to read one from this list, make it this one. You won’t find many “Best Football Books” compilations that don’t include Miracle.
American writer Joe McGinnis’ account of the time he spent with then-Serie B side Castel di Sangro has long since become a seminal text. McGinnis installed himself with the team and mixed relatively freely with management and players, even going so far as to frequently question tactical decisions made by the coaches. Who, as you can imagine, often didn’t respond well.
It’s a sun-drenched book filled with drama, football and Italian cultural references, all played out in a small town in the Apennines. What more could you want?
It's #WorldBookDay 📚
Personally, my favourite football books are:
🇮🇹 A Season with Verona
🇮🇹 Miracle of Castel di Sangro
🇦🇷 Angels with Dirty Faces
🏴 Provided You Don't Kiss Me
— Outside Write ⚽️ (@outsidewrite) April 23, 2020
A Season With Verona, by Tim Parks
Oh, and if you like Italy and Italian football, you’ll need to read Tim Parks’ hilarious and evocative A Season With Verona.
Parks ensconces himself with Hellas Verona’s fans and ultras, attending as many home and away matches as possible. The people he encounters are weird, funny and, occasionally, normal. It’s as much about them as it is about football, and the accounts of long bus journeys in their company are among the book’s best bits.
Parks is by far the best and most natural writer of any in this list and that really comes through in this one. Don’t miss out.
Underway with book club on A Season With Verona!https://t.co/M0f0SPjBTP
— Kieran Devlin (@NoNotThatDevlin) April 3, 2020
The Damned United, by David Peace
You may have seen the film based on Peace’s novel about Brian Clough’s disastrous 44-day stint in charge of Leeds United, but if you haven’t you should definitely read the book instead.
Where the movie turns Cloughie and assistant Peter Taylor’s tag-team into a bromance for the ages, this controversial book digs deep inside the manager’s massively inflated head and the obsessive personality that fills it.
Interweaving his turbulent Elland Road stay with episodes from his past – a goalscoring sensation at Middlesbrough whose career is cut brutally short, his battles with the board at Derby County as they won the First Division for the first time ever, his love/hate relationship with former Leeds manager Don Revie – this story uses a brief spell in Clough’s life to look at the forces and traits that drove him to incredible successes in football and deep, dark depths away from the game.
I want to read it again just writing this.
Football Against The Enemy, by Simon Kuper
One of the older entries here, Kuper’s book was pioneering in its genre. The author journeyed around the world talking to a range of intriguing, exciting and, once or twice, unsavoury characters. As you’ll gather from the title, it’s based around the underlying theme of various conflicts being lived out by proxy on the football pitch.
The book covers Gazzamania, Bobby Robson at PSV, Roger Milla and much more besides. It’s a superb insight into the biggest names and stories in world football at the time of its publication in the early 1990s, and would surely have served as a base text or jumping-off point for manifold bloggers and writers down the years.
Kuper managed to get wonderful access and writes openly, critically and fairly about his subjects. Football Against The Enemy is a canonical football book.
— Simon Kuper (@KuperSimon) April 25, 2020
Forza Italia, by Paddy Agnew
Many years ago, Paddy Agnew was sent to Italy as a “Vatican correspondent” for an Irish newspaper. He arrived at a time when the country’s football scene was soaring and Forza Italia intersperses snippets from that glorious era alongside Agnew’s insights into everyday Italian life and culture.
There’s Berlusconi, builders, bank accounts and a briefcase with a hammer inside, all of which are woven into a pleasingly rambling journey through Italy’s political and sporting landscape.
It was a tough choice between this and John Foot’s Calcio, but Agnew’s decision to share events from his own life give Forza the edge.
Passage from Paddy Agnew's book 'Forza Italia'. pic.twitter.com/kYifagxRIw
— Kieran Cunningham (@KCsixtyseven) June 4, 2017
All Played Out, by Pete Davies
Oh Paddy, really? Another book about Italy? Get some new material, pal.
Alas, dear reader, it’s not our fault many of the best books about football have the peninsula as their location. Anyway, this one’s not really about Italy.
All Played Out tells the story of Italia ’90, or rather Italia ’90 through the prism of the England football team. Author Pete Davies succeeded in gaining a quite astonishing level of access to the side and spent significant amounts of time embedded with Bobby Robson, Gazza and the rest of the camp.
As any modern football biography will evidence, access does not always equal quality, but Davies earned a level of trust with the players and staff that allowed him to produce arguably the finest book about English football.