Dave O'Leary, Francesco Totti and a very violent fraudster - Issue 3
Three new ⚽ football books reviewed this week
A little later than usual this week - 3 football books reviewed, a baseball book from last year and a list of new books to check out this week. Enjoy.
New Book Reviews - three recent ⚽ football books
⚽ ‘Fit and Proper People: The Lies and Fall of OWNAFC by Martin Calladine (@uglygame) and James Cave (@AgainstLeague3). OwnaFC promised to allow football fans the chance to become part owners of a club and have a genuine say in running it for a small up front cost. Sounds too good to be true, because it was.
Very soon it became apparent that the project was in trouble. Calladine and Cave investigated and became the leading critics of the scheme. The book recounts their investigations and the violent reactions of its instigator as his lies became more and more unbelievable.
The OwnaFC fraud, and the story of how the authors tried to expose it, frame a broader reflection on the concept of owning a community institution like a football club and the failings of the powers that be, both sporting and political, to protect the interests of fans.
This is a brilliant, important book on the value of clubs to their fans + community and the dangers posed by the variety of people seeking to exploit fans. Reporting like this, which came at a steep personal cost as told in the book, is vitally important. It reduces the chances of repeat schemes succeeding, increases pressure on authorities and refuses to simply accept that football and football fandom are fair game to be exploited.
I’d recommend the book to any believer in the importance of football and sport more generally as a way of uniting communities and people.
⚽ The O'Leary Years: Football's Greatest Boom and Bust by Rocco Dean. The O'Leary Years recounts the four seasons during the late 1990’s and early 00’s when Leeds United returned to the top echelon of English and European football. A side blessed with talented young players and a host of big money signings briefly challenged at the top of the table and in famous stadiums across Europe. There was plenty of off the pitch drama too before the financial recklessness of the owners brought the club crashing down to depths it has only recently recovered from.
Dean recounts the story through his own memories and match reports from the time as he grew from a 14 year old travelling the country with his dad, to an 18-year-old equally fanatic adult. It’s very much a book about the nature of fandom, about nostalgia and the relationships that following sport can bring us. It’s a love letter to a unique team at a special time in the author’s life. It’s very much aimed at Leeds fans who will bask in nostalgia and their own reminisces as they read it.
I would still love to read a more detailed book on the rise and fall of that Leeds team. One that goes behind the scenes and captures the recollections of the key protagonists and sheds more light on where it all went wrong.
⚽Gladiator by Francesco Totti with Paolo Condo, and tr. by Anthony Wright (2021). The uncrowned 8th King of Rome, Francesco Totti played and scored for the Gallorossi more times than any other player (indeed he even got more Serie A goals than any other footballer since the 1940s). He was club captain for 20 years and played a pivotal role in Italy's World Cup win in 2006.
Totti was a player who could make anyone fall in love with football. A number 10 in the most perfect sense of the phrase. In an era of great playmakers in Italian football, he stood out for his consistency, the quality of his passing and his demeanor on the pitch. He operated as a world class playmaker, a world class goalscorer and a scorer of world class goals. On top of this, his commitment to Roma at the expense of even greater fame and fortune endeared him not just to the red half of Rome but to fans around the world. Players who stay at single club for their whole careers, particularly international stars, are so rare that they achieve a unique place in fans' imaginations.
Gladiator is a relatively typical autobiography in terms of format and structure, recounting Totti's life story and peppered with insights into players, managers and others who played a big role in Totti's life. The book dives deeper into some select areas including Roma's Scudetto victory, Antonio Cassano's entertaining time at the club and Italy's World Cup win in 2006. It also highlights specific times in his career when his destiny nearly changed - being offered a contract first at Milan, Bianchi trying to sign Litmanen and rejecting the chance to become a Galactico in Madrid. Unsurprisingly his departure from Roma as a player (he remains as a director) is also covered in depth The choices of areas to focus on are well made and the book remains interesting throughout.
Most fascinating to me is Totti's own description of his talent. From an early age he knew just how good he was. At each point of his early career, his experience reinforced to him that he was in fact better than almost any other player in Italy. Yet somehow this knowledge didn't lead to his destruction but instead gave him the confidence to emerge as a leader and club captain at a very young age. In the book he manages to capture this understanding of his ability without the arrogance of a Zlatan Ibrahomivic but without displaying false modesty either.
The book also captures what he means to the city of Rome (the red half at least) and the price that love had on Totti personally. Repeatedly in the book he laments (but doesn't whinge) about not being able to enjoy living in one of the world's great cities because to walk around outside is to be inundated by hundreds of fans. He shares some funny anecdotes which capture the intensity of his celebrity in the city.
For any fan who smiles when remembering Totti at his peak, this is a must-read.
New Sports Books - What’s coming out soon?
Keep an eye out for these recent and upcoming sports books:
⚽ The Year We (Nearly) Won the League: Stoke City and the 1974/75 Season by Jonathan Baker. The story of the unglamorous midlands club’s best ever team told by a lifelong fan. Out on 7 February.
⚽ Not German, I'm Scouse: A Lifelong Red's Journey Abroad by Carsten Nippert. I’m always fascinated by people who are diehard fans of teams that play in other countries or regions so this German fan’s account of his obsession with Liverpool FC should be an interesting read. Out on 7 February.
🏈 From Gold Teeth to Gold Jacket: My Life in Football and Business by Edgerrin James (with Peter Harris). The Hall of Fame running back shares his unique, no-holds-barred perspective in becoming an all-time NFL great while also building a financial empire while raising six children. Out on 8 February.
🏈 Off Center: A Memoir of Addiction, Recovery and Redemption in Professional Football by Randy Grimes. The ten-year veteran of the NFL and founder of Professional Athletes recounts his own struggles with addiction and his recovery. Out on 8 February.
⚽ I'll See You Out There: Arsenal, Manchester United and the Premier League's Greatest Rivalry by Rob Smyth. Look back at the days of Keane, Viera and co. from the excellent Guardian writer (and co-author of Danish Dynamite). Out on 10 February.
⚽ Fields of Dreams and Broken Fences: Delving into the Mystery World of Non-League Football by Aaron Moore. A look at football in the lower leagues in England. Out on 14 February.
⚽ A History of European Football in 100 Objects: The Alternative Football Museum by Andy Bollen. An alternative take on football’s history looking at some of the weirder and less savory moments by the author of the excellent Fierce Genius. Out on 14 February.
A not so new sports book review - ‘The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife’ by Brad Balukjian (2020)
I have a particular fondness for books involving people who feel compelled to go on arbitrary adventures. Danny Wallace specialized in this area with his books Yes Man and Join Me amongst others. I also really enjoyed Europe United by Matt Walker which involved a quest to visit a soccer match in every UEFA country.
The Wax Pack is Brad Balukjian’s account of tracking down all of the players whose baseball cards were in a particular pack of 1986 Topps baseball cards some 30 years later. Balukjian travels across the USA to track down the players who range from Hall of Fame players to 10 year journeymen to players who spent only a very short time in the Major Leagues.
Each player gets a chapter as Balukjian managed to spend time with almost all of them. Even where Balukjian doesn’t get to meet the player, he entertainingly recounts his odyssey to find them. One refuses to talk despite Balukjian showing up at the ballpark where he was working as third base coach. The other, Carlton Fisk the most famous player in the The Wax Pack, is in the midst of descending back into addiction.
The Wax Pack becomes a unique and fascinating insight into what happens players when they retire. It also becomes a reflection on father-son relationships as each of the players recounts their own, often troubled, relationships with their fathers and also with their own children.
The book and trip are deeply personal for Balukjian. At times there is definitely some oversharing and unnecessary details about the minutiae of the trip. However there are a couple of very funny stories from Balukjian’s own adolescence which had me laughing out loud. As the trip progresses the book becomes more and more a soul-searching journey for the author. Along the way he meets his ex, reconnects with his father, visits his childhood hero and tries to find love. Ultimately, the book feels more authentic for how personal it is.
I really enjoyed the book which exceed all of my expectations. Balukjian is an interesting character and he has done a great job to get such fascinating insight from the players he meets.
Thanks for reading. Let me know your thoughts, opinions, any improvements I can make etc. Catch me on Twitter. More books next week!