What are you expecting for Christmas off your nearest and dearest? Socks again? Maybe that new James Bond aftershave that is highly unlikely to make supermodel scientists fall at your feet? A badly-wrapped jumper at best?
It’s a depressing thought especially when what you really desire is an engrossing football tome you can delve into while the turkey settles and blot out the chaos around you. Here at the Cutter we’re here to help with a carefully chosen top fifteen of the best footy reads ever.
Feel free to leave your laptop or phone open to this page and call over your relatives for a spurious reason. They might get the hint though probably not. It’s going to be socks again isn’t it.
15/ 32 Programmes by Dave Roberts
One of the few books here we’ve not personally read yet but it’s on our list to Santa and despite not knowing the quality of the writing the Cutter cannot wait to curl up in our novelty slippers from Auntie Pat and spend a happy couple of Christmas Day hours sipping sherry and tearing through the pages. Why? Because as someone who collected football programmes to the point of obsession as a kid just the concept of this slim tome is enough to appeal greatly. When writer Dave Roberts relocates to the US his wife sombrely informs him they can only take the essentials. This means his beloved collection of 1,134 programmes must be sold save for a special 32 that can be packaged into a small box. Choosing which and why evokes nostalgia on a well-spent youth that barely involves such unimportant distractions as girls and life.
14/ The Damned United by David Peace
If you haven’t already read this or indeed seen the excellent film then welcome to planet Earth, please leave your luggage at the station and head to the nearest Burger King because you must be starving from such a long journey.
The eccentric and extraordinary Clough gets a suitably eccentric and extraordinary novel in his honour that is worthy of adorning any book shelf.
13/ Power, Corruption And Pies: A Decade of the Best Football Writing From When Saturday Comes
Any book that puns on a New Order album title is alright by us especially when it contains cracking pieces by the likes of Harry Pearson, Nick Hornby and Simon Kuper. This ‘best of’ compilation from the first ten years of WSC is a reminder of what fan literature was and could be before internet bloggers turned the artform to sh**e.
12/ A Life Too Short: The Tragedy Of Robert Enke by Robert Reng
The deserving winner of the 2011 William Hills Sports Book of the Year is a poignant, personal and affecting biography of the Barcelona and Germany number one who tragically took his own life in 2009. Reng was a friend of Enke and the two agreed to one day co-write a book highlighting the keeper’s long-term battle with depression. Ultimately fate decreed that the author would do so alone.
11/ Manchester: The City Years by Gary James
Most clubs have a historian who diligently chronicles their team’s journey from its nascency to now. Then there’s Gary James who is truly a class apart. What separates the author from his contemporaries is his captivating writing style that not only brings each era to life but is imbued with such passion and love that it’s infectious to even non-Blues. What also helps matters of course is that James is obsessed with a club that is nothing short of a far-fetched Shakespearean play told in 132 acts and after writing about this eccentric and wonderfully f***ed-up institution for many years here is the author’s grand opus. Manchester: The City Years is an incredibly detailed and lavish affair: so detailed that a well-respected writer recently said if it’s not in here then it simply didn’t happen, so lavish that you open it with your fingertips so as not to damage the pages.
10/ All Played Out: Full Story of Italia 90 by Pete Davies
For nine months the author enjoyed full access to the England squad and Bobby Robson in the lead-up to a World Cup campaign that is now widely considered a…. right I’m going to use the word here but don’t tell anyone okay?….’zeitgeist’ for British football. That Italia 90 caught the public’s imagination, helped change the majority perception of our sport, and was as enthralling as a Verdi opera was to the author’s great fortune but by God does he capitalise upon it. It was a time that has spawned several documentaries and a small mountain of books but Davies’ captivating prose remains the essential chronicle of those strange and wonderful few weeks, Gazza’s tears and all.
9/ A Season With Verona by Tim Parks
Having moved to Verona in 1981 the respected fiction writer had already penned two books on his adopted country before turning his shrewd gaze upon a team he had fallen helplessly in love with. Parks follows the fortunes of Hellas Verona home and away for a season, getting to know his fellow supporters in a book that is part-travelogue, part character study of the insanity that is club devotion. The wonderful writing keeps you hooked until the final whistle of the final fixture.
8/ The Glory Game by Hunter Davies
After writing an infamous and scathing biography of The Beatles – which Lennon later dismissed as ‘bulls*** – the esteemed Davies was somehow granted unparalleled access into the inner sanctum of Tottenham Hotspur. Here he penned what has become a classic in football literature, lifting the lid for the first time ever on the day-to-day politic of running a football club and getting up Bill Nicholson’s nose on several occasions. With the restrictive media management these days and agents running the show such a revealing book will never again be allowed. Thank goodness then we have this.
7/ I’m Not Really Here by Paul Lake
The only autobiography on this list and amidst some strong competition (Tony Cascarino’s Full Time deserves an honourable mention here) there was only ever going to be one winner. Lakey’s story is incredible in itself – a Manchester City captain at just 21 he was groomed for greatness until a knee injury prematurely ended the dream. This was followed by several heartbreaking attempts at recuperation and a lengthy slump into depression – but what really takes this into another stratosphere is the player’s conversational style and unnerving, unstinting candidness, all told by a bloke so fundamentally decent you find yourself desperately willing him to pull through. We’re really not exaggerating here when we say this will move you immensely and is a great testimony to the strength of human fortitude. Should the City connection put you off let us note too that some of the most glowing accolades we’ve witnessed have been from United fans.
6/ Dynamo: Defending The Honour Of Kiev by Andy Dougan
Concentrating on a game that became known as the ‘Death Match’ this is an astonishing story told with adept sensitivity by the author. In 1942 in a municipal stadium in Kiev a team of bakers largely comprised of players from the all-conquering pre-war Dynamo side took on a German Luftwaffe eleven in an ‘exhibition’. The Germans won 5-3, helped significantly by the fact the referee was an SS officer and they had eaten food that day.
This is highly recommended and best read if Escape To Victory is on the box yet again this Yuletide, if only to remind ourselves that such incredible resistance actually occurred.
5/ The Football Grounds of England And Wales by Simon Inglis
A rather dry matter-of-fact title for a potentially dry matter-of-fact subject matter but Inglis lifts this into a beautiful and loving tome to the architecture in which we pray and scream on a weekly basis. Where once this was an indispensible reference guide to be pored over prior to embarking to the Baseball Ground or the old Den now it’s sadly more of a curio to the past with most of the grounds now either gone or changed beyond all recognition. This however should not diminish the book’s beauty or charm. All hail Archibald Leitch.
4/ Inverting The Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics by Jonathan Wilson
It’s embarrassing confession time – I skipped the first couple of chapters of this wonderful and illuminating book that artfully documents the evolution of tactics and formations from the all-out chaos of yesteryear to the sophisticated chess of today. That’s my loss and something I’m one day resolved to rectifying because this is a superb sweep of an intimidating subject told with real panache and intelligence by one of the best football writers around.
Read this and never again be talked down to by some teenage pleb on a club forum.
3/ Futebol: The Brazilian Way Of Life by Alex Bellos
Former Guardian journalist Bellos ignores the Samba clichés and instead successfully manages to illustrate how football shaped Brazil with the country then defining the flamboyance and wonder contained within football. Aside from this being a enthralling read it’s a highly impressive literary achievement as the author explores each strand – from why Pele is known as a ‘malandro’ to how three average Brazilians found themselves shivering in the Faroe Islands – and stitches each into a rich tapestry of tales.
2. The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Football by David Goldblatt
Weighing in at more than 900 pages it is tempting to describe Goldblatt’s masterpiece as ‘exhaustive’ but there is nothing energy sapping about this exhilarating and detailed footy bible. From the Aztecs to the 1990s gold rush this has everything and more and makes for essential reading.
1/ Beautiful Orange: The Neurotic Genius Of Dutch Football by David Winner
I could wax lyrical about this work of utter genius all night long and indeed I’ve been known to after a cider too many. So instead I will simply suggest that you buy this – buy it now – and leave you with a sample of its text chosen genuinely at random by flicking it open…
‘The events of Munich, 7 July 1974 are burned into the Dutch psyche in the way that Dallas, 22 November 1963 haunts America’.
That’s it, I’m now doomed to read it for the twentieth time….