Books

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Every book featured in this section is included on the personal recommendation of a member of sportingintelligence‘s panel of writers and authors, to be expanded over time. Our “We say” reviewers have included only those books they count among their personal favourites and would actively encourage others to read as outstanding.

A full list of our “We say” reviewers at the foot of this page.

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2009

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Why England Lose: and Other Curious Phenomena Explained / / / by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski / / / HarperSport

We say: An attempt to explain trends in football using the tools of an economist. JW

What others said: David Goldblatt in Prospect magazine: “Almost every mainstream football homily is revealed by the authors of this book to be hokum: untested, prejudiced myth spawned by an unreflective, anti-educational and above all closed culture. What other business would allow a single person to take all the key purchasing and personnel decisions unexamined and untested by the rest of the company? They certainly don’t do that at Shell, but then Shell makes money while football and its megalomaniac managers pour it down the drain. Kuper and Syzmanski are, by contrast, a highly effective and scrupulously rational team, combining the former’s detailed and nuanced understanding of European football with the latter’s sophisticated econometric analysis.”   That review in full

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Open / / /  by Andre Agassi / / / Knopf

We say: The crystal meth admissions got all the publicity; a shame because the book is so much more than a confessional tell-all. It sets a new standard for the “jock memoir.” LJW

What others said: The New York Times: “Among the more genuinely startling elements of Open is its scornful depiction of Ms. Shields as shallow, materialistic, dense and not sufficiently interested in Mr. Agassi’s career. (Though she does, damningly, show some interest in her own.) Mr. Agassi does not easily forgive, and his book is larded with extremely backhanded compliments for those who have crossed him. “I envy Pete’s dullness,” the book says of Mr. Agassi’s frequent rival Pete Sampras. “I wish I could emulate his spectacular lack of inspiration, and his peculiar lack of need for inspiration.” And yet Mr. Sampras is one of the more highly regarded opponents in Mr. Agassi’s story.”    That review in full

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Feet of the Chameleon / / / by Ian Hawkey / / / Portico

We say: The history of African football. JW

What others said: The Independent: “Inevitably, football in Africa becomes entwined with politics. Several of the post-colonial nationalist leaders understood its potency, even overseeing their own favoured teams. Later on, Bobby Moore and four of his World Cup winning team-mates endorsed apartheid by accepting lucrative deals to play in South Africa. The book also examines the vexed issue of national teams so often having coaches from Europe. Throughout, Hawkey neatly sidesteps the cliches that dog so much coverage of African football, barring one lengthy section on voodoo and fetishes.” That review in full

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Cantona: The Rebel Who Would Be King / / / by Philippe Auclair / / / Macmillan

We say: The best modern biography of a player. JW

We say: An instant classic revealing more about Cantona than even he probably knows. MC

What others said: The Sunday Times: “Here are some words and phrases you don’t expect to read in your average biography of a football player: leitmotiv, Velazquez, post-structuralist historians, L’Instinct de mort, Jacques Derrida and the ‘absolute nothingness that lies beyond the pitch’, political nihilism. I don’t think any of that stuff cropped up in Wayne Rooney’s scintillating autobiography, unless I missed them. They’re all in this one, though. In fact, leitmotiv crops up twice and the second time it isn’t even in italics. This is a very French book about a brilliant anglophile French footballer, written by a very good anglophile French journalist. It takes its subject seriously and asks that you do the same.” That review in full

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Strokes of Genius: Federer v Nadal / / / by L Jon Wertheim / / / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

We say: A magnificent celebration of the 2008 Wimbledon men’s singles final, widely regarded as the best tennis match ever.  JR

What others said: The New York Times: “Wertheim ably chronicles the contrasting styles of his gladiators: the Swiss Federer is ‘a delicate, brush-stroking impressionist,’ and the Spanish Nadal is ‘a dogged, free-wheeling abstract expressionist.’ The contest is ‘Middle European restraint and quiet meticulousness versus Iberian bravado and passion’.”   That review in full

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2008

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Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics / / / by Jonathan Wilson / / / Orion

We say: I can testify first-hand to Wilson’s polymath mind, and that’s just from the work Christmas quiz. Here we have cerebral football, in a book for the ages, actually about the game itself. NH

What others said: When Saturday Comes: “Despite the many diagrams, Inverting the Pyramid is not a dry work of analysis, but a wide ranging and entertaining account of the evolution of football tactics around the world from the original 1-2-7 line-up favoured by England in 1872 to the 4-3-3 of José Mourinho’s Chelsea . . . As he showed in Behind the Curtain, Wilson is a lucid writer with a gift for concision and amusing and compelling turns of phrase.” That review in full

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The Book of Football Quotations* / / / by Phil Shaw / / / Ebury Press

We say: As Danny Blanchflower said of football, so we agree of this simple idea, brilliantly executed: “It’s about doing things in style, with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.” NH

What others said: Pat Murphy in the Birmingham Post: “The book’s a convincing rebuttal to all those who maintain there’s no humour any more in the game. All the outstanding humourists are included – Atkinson, Redknapp, Clough, Shankly, Greaves, Fry, Mourinho – but there are some beauties from surprising sources. How about this from Clinton Morrison, after he’d played like a drain for Birmingham against Crystal Palace. ‘I’d been ill and hadn’t trained for a week. Plus I was out of the side for three weeks before that. So I wasn’t sharp. I got cramp before half time as well. But I’m not one to make excuses’.”  That review in full (click link then scroll down page)

* Eighth edition. First published in 1984. First five editions were collaborations between the late Peter Ball & Phil Shaw, and were published by Stanley Paul.

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The Team That Wouldn’t Die: The story of the Busby Babes* / / / by John Roberts / / / Aurum Press

We say: The original and definitive tribute to Manchester United’s victims of the Munich air disaster. NH

What others said: Paul Hayward on the 2008 edition: “The Team That Wouldn’t Die turns out to be an apposite title. It says it all. Enter a room with the current first-team squad and you see the ultimate proof that United’s spirit, their raison d’etre, survived the tangled metal.”

That article in full

* Fifth edition. First published in 1975 by Littlehampton Book Services.

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2007

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Provided You Don’t Kiss Me: 20 Years with Brian Clough / / /  by Duncan Hamilton / / / Fourth Estate

We say: Insight into the flawed and brilliant Clough during Forest’s glory years and after. NH

What others said: When Saturday Comes: “This is a harsh read for any Forest supporter; if it’s not a consummate dismantling of the central tenets of Cloughology, it’s a definite unscrewing of a joint or two. For starters, Hamilton makes a strong case for the restoration of Peter Taylor’s role in the story, to the extent of claiming that Clough was crippled managerially and emotionally by their acrimonious break-up, to which the author was a party (and to some extent, the pawn of).”  That review in full

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A Fighter’s Heart / / /  by Sam Sheridan / / / Atlantic

We say: It’s hard to read this account and not emerge with a deeper appreciation of—if not taste for—pugilism. LJW

What others said: The Independent: “Sheridan also provides a fascinating commentary on the mentality of fighters, their constant desire for refinement, and the relentless quest for self-improvement that so often prevents ageing fighters from knowing when it would be best to quit. He makes a fantastic fist of explaining “gameness” – the ability to carry on fighting beyond the point of normal physical endurance – through a first-hand investigation into the dubious, and in most countries illegal, world of dog-fighting.” That review in full

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2006

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The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football / / / by David Goldblatt / / / Viking / Penguin

We say: A definitive history of football, placing it in a socio-economic context. JW

What others said: The Guardian: “Weighing in at more than 900 pages, this might seem a mighty read. But Goldblatt has packed the book with detail, stories, match reports and rumination. It can be read cover-to-cover or dipped into. It is both a magnificent work of synthesis of other people’s research and a voyage into entirely new territory. I found myself zipping around the globe, and across time, from Saudia Arabia to Ireland, from Bolton to Calcutta. The book moves from comments on types of studs to descriptions of matches. Part of the joy of The Ball Is Round is its eclecticism.” That review in full

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Best and Edwards: Football, fame and oblivion / / / by Gordon Burn / / / Faber and Faber

We say: Elegant, intelligent, digressive study of two footballing geniuses and their times. NH

What others said: The Observer: “Gordon Burn’s loving study of two of the best players of their generation, Best and Edwards, is a fine book that is less about football than a coruscating damnation of celebrity.”  That review in full

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The Damned United / / / by David Peace / / / Faber

We say: A fascinating novel based on Brian Clough’s ill-starred 44 days as Don Revie’s successor as manager of Leeds United. JR

What others said: The Guardian: “Clough was one of the great, complex egos of the game. He embodied many of the forthcoming dilemmas of Thatcher’s Britain, his career a constant argument between self-proclamation and partnership, between probity and the demon drink, between financial irregularity and the belief that football was about more than acquisition. The Damned Utd shows what Clough’s tragedy was: deep down, he knew that winning was only loss deferred. In Peace’s book, football is a game founded on fear. Leeds were the great intimidators and Clough’s first meeting with the players – “a gang of apes after a fuck” – is a fine paranoid scene of territorial confrontation.” That review in full

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2004

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The Beautiful Game? Searching for the soul of football / / / by David Conn / / / Yellow Jersey Press

We say: This is as fan-concerned, serious and worthy as you’d expect from Conn, but a flourished read to boot. NH

We say: The financial detail that explains how English football got into the state it’s in now. JW

What others said: Sunday Times:  ”The Beautiful Game? is one writer’s tribute to the masses who support clubs blindly, through thin and thinner, and who ask for nothing in return. The book is also the story of the collision between these hardy souls and the suits who see the game as another business opportunity.”   That review in full

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2004

Garrincha: The Triumph and the Tragedy of Brazil’s Forgotten Footballing Hero / / / by Ruy Castro / / / Yellow Jersey

We say: Garrincha, who along with Pele was integral to Brazil’s success, lived a wild life and died a tragic premature death. The story about the goat says it all really. MC

What others said: The Guardian: “Castro describes Garrincha as “the most amateur footballer professional football ever produced”. He never trained. He had no agent, didn’t bother reading his contracts, and usually signed them before the figures had been filled in. When he was given a bonus after the World Cup, he handed the cash to his wife, who hid it under the children’s mattress. Years later, they remembered the money, and discovered a rotting mass of sodden paper. The bonus had been destroyed by bedwetting…Castro’s biography is passionate, fascinating and surprisingly moving.”    That review in full

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2002

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Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life / / / by Alex Bellos / / / Bloomsbury

We say: A detailed examination of the wider culture of Brazilian football. JW

What others said: The Guardian: “Futebol is an affectionate and shrewd account of the game as played both in Brazil and also in the global diaspora, where Brazilian players bring glamour and tropical credibility to clubs from the Arctic Circle to the Adriatic. The book is full of intriguing sidelights on Brazilian popular culture, its hedonism, piety and wondrous absurdity. Bellos takes us to the Amazon, to Uruguay and to the Faroe Islands, where several Brazilian players have recently settled. The conditions of work in Brazil are such that practically any club in Europe offers a better living. Not that these Brazilians are necessarily better players than the locals: their mere presence has talismanic value in Nordic countries.” That review in full

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2001

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Seabiscuit: An American Legend / / /  by Laura Hillenbrand / / / Random House

We say: The heart-warming true story of a bunch of misfits and an undersized, maverick horse they groomed to glory in America during the Depression. JR

What others said: Sports Illustrated: “Hillenbrand not only ties these divergent personalities into a fast-moving narrative but also shows an extraordinary talent for describing a horse race so vividly that the reader feels like the rider. She writes about the confusion, turbulence and artistry of a race with the same grasp of sound and movement that Whitney Balliett brings to jazz in his New Yorker profiles. That is no mean accomplishment.”   That review in full

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Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football / / / by David Winner / / / Bloomsbury

We say: The most idiosyncratic of the examinations of the football of a particular nation. JW

What others said: Ajax-USA.com: “Now I get it. Winner’s explanation of the Dutch use of space, their obsession with playing “good” football, their disdain for defensive systems and penalty kicks (that abomination)… It sounds trite and lame when I list the qualities here. But Winner makes his case, thoroughly and eloquently, as in this introduction to a chapter titled Dutch Space is Different: ‘Space is the unique defining element of Dutch football. Other nations and football cultures may have produced greater goalscorers, more dazzling individual ball-artists and more dependable and efficient tournament-winning teams. But no one has ever imagined or structured their play as abstractly, as architecturally, in such a measured fashion as the Dutch.Total Football was built on a new theory of flexible space’…” That review in full

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2000

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Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life / / /  by Richard Ben Cramer / / / Simon & Schuster/ Touchstone

We say: Absorbing and controversial biography that peels away the myths wrapping an extraordinary Yankee. NH

What others said: Los Angeles Times: “In an era of endless celebrity slobbering, DiMaggio never sat with Barbara Walters to weep about Marilyn Monroe. He never published a tell-all autobiography, retailing his sexual exploits or demanding pity. During the long years after his retirement as a player in 1951, he seemed to wear his fame lightly, insisting on his privacy without becoming a bitter recluse. He was never vulgar. He was never a boor. In this long biography, Richard Ben Cramer grapples valiantly with the mystery of DiMaggio’s enduring image, his transformation into a legend and a hero.”     That (highly sceptical) review in full

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1999

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The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro / / /   by Joe McGinniss / / /  Little, Brown

We say: American writer, of relatively recent football conversion that doesn’t prevent strong views, hits narrative gold in a true-life romp with a bitter twist. NH

What others said: The Independent: “One hates to resort to the cliche ‘a heady roller coaster ride of a season’, but quite honestly how else can you describe nine months which featured untimely deaths, the arrest of a defender in connection with a $25m cocaine smuggling ring, a performance art piece disguised as the unveiling of a new player, much to the disgust of the bemused fans and media, and a £5m embezzlement scandal. And some astonishing scalps.”   That review in full

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1994

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Football against the Enemy / / / by Simon Kuper / / / Orion

We say: The book that launched the new wave of international football writing. JW

What others said: Richard Williams, writing in The Independent on Sunday in July 1994: “The banishment of Diego Maradona and the murder of Andres Escobar last week suddenly put the competition back in touch with football as the rest of the world knows it, and as Kuper describes it: a simple game that has become an obsession with peasants to presidents alike. His survey of the depth, extent and variety of that obsession begins with the Dutch defeat of West Germany in the semi-finals of the European championship in 1988. It was an event of national significance, transcending sport and bringing more than 60 per cent of the population of Holland on to the streets in celebration. ‘German fans were less interested,’ he writes of the build- up to the match. ‘After all, Holland was not the only country Hitler had invaded.’ That’s the authentic Kuper voice: witty, a bit wry in a Dutch kind of way, and always ready to own up to some of the less admirable human instincts, in this case the enjoyment of a long-postponed revenge.” That review in full

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1994

The Far Corner: A mazy dribble through North East football / / / by Harry Pearson / / / Abacus

We say: A wonderful book, part travelogue, part soccer history; very wry observation of soccer in the “hotbed” – whatever that is! MC

What others said: The Economist (US Edition): “[Pearson’s] travels are memorable as much for his commentary on other fans as for what happens on the field – his contempt, for example, for a weedy man who hurls abuse at Newcastle’s Kevin Scott until another, far larger, fan behind him intones, ‘Scotty’s all right by me.’ Between the games and the funny stories (of which there are many), Mr Pearson has woven a fascinating regional soccer history. Not so long ago, such a book would have been a rarity. The sport’s almost universal appeal had inspired few good books. Baseball, boxing, angling and cricket, say, yielded more than their fair share. But soccer? “The Glory Game”, “The Football Man”, perhaps “Only a Game?” and not many more. Most soccer books are still dire. They are either a star player’s autobiography (written “with”, ie “by” a helpful hack) or a hasty portrait of a manager or player. But there are now also books by people like Mr Pearson: lovers of the game who write well – and wittily.”

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1992

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Fever Pitch / / /  by Nick Hornby / / / Penguin

We say: The definitive fan account, so good that it has been almost impossible to write a fan’s eye view since without seeming derivative. JW

We say: This book has done more to convey to Americans the appeal of soccer than any World Cup game. LJW

What others said: The Independent: “Hornby was 11 when he first watched Arsenal, a morose child whose parents had separated, and who was badly in need of some ground, some subject on which he and his father could meet and communicate. Highbury was the ground; Arsenal filled the hole in his emotional life, and an obsession was born. Fever Pitch is the anatomy of that obsession, a knowing, bittersweet, and very funny autobiography in which the writer’s life is measured not in years, but in seasons – not by the Gregorian calendar, but by the Gunners’ fixture list. I’ve read no better account of what being a fan really means – and as such, the book performs two invaluable services. First, it’s a sound corrective to Bill Buford’s inaccurate and morally repellent Among The Thugs. Second, it explains one of the great mysteries of life in our time – namely, why does anyone become an Arsenal fan?”   That review in full

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1991

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A Strange Kind of Glory: Sir Matt Busby and Manchester United / / / by Eamon Dunphy / / /  Heinemann

We say: A brilliant history of Sir Matt and how he made United great. MC

What others said: The Times: “The empathetic pen-portraits are delightful. George Best’s ‘body was frail but he possessed extraordinary flexibility of movement which enabled him to snake his way through a scrum of powerful bodies with the ball, impossibly, at his feet.’ Dunphy helps us to understand not only the stars such as Best, but the groundsmen, teaboys and all the other staff who, for a relative pittance, keep football going. This is a good book about the triumphs and tragedies of the national sport.”  Review not available online, but here’s a round-up of other reviews

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1990

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Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team and a Dream / / / by Buzz Bissinger / / / Addison-Wesley

We say: A look at how garish Texas high school football can lead a town into darkness. Bonus points for spawning an excellent eponymous TV show.  LJW

What others said: CurledUp: “The book’s merit lies in the fact that, while it details the excesses that happen in Odessa because of the town’s obsession with the Permian Panthers, its reader realizes the genuine passion the town, the players, and the coaches have for the game. While it is appalling to read about the town’s hatred of Africa Americans and Hispanics and its almost complete disdain for anything that gets in the way of football, Bissinger succeeds in getting us to root for the team and read with bated breath the account of the team’s fortunes on the field.” That review in full

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1978

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A Handful of Summers / / /  by Gordon Forbes / / / Heinemann

We say: The joys and tribulations of international tennis prior to the open era, brilliantly told by a player who lived it. JR

What others said: The Independent: “Tennis was once played chiefly for fun. And, as Winston Churchill might almost have said, never was so much fun perpetrated by so few for the enjoyment of so many. Chief among these pranksters and humorists whose only weapons of engagement were old wooden racquets, were a legendary pair of South Africans, Gordon Forbes and Abe Segal. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, on the clay courts of Rome, Monte Carlo and Roland Garros, not to mention the grass courts of Wimbledon, where strawberries and cream were served as often as tennis balls, these two cavorted and performed. In Davis Cups of the era, they represented their country with pride and pleasure. They could play, of course; boy, could they play. But they never forgot the fun.”  That article in full

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1973

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In This Corner / / /  by Peter Heller / / / Simon & Schuster

We say: Shocked that Rocky Marciano died without writing an autobiography, Peter Heller interviews 42 retired former world boxing champions in the 1970s. JR

What others said: Don Freeman in the San Diego Union-Tribune, 1995 (on-re-issue): “The heavyweights do not command the boxing skills of your average featherweight but the big fellows still capture the public imagination. You don’t need a shrink to tell you why — a heavyweight has danger in his fists. He can end it with one pop. The heavyweights are the Patton of pugilism. Boxing, in common with baseball, is blessed with the warming flavor of nostalgia.We see the films of those grand fights of old and we are filled with wonder. From these films the imagination is tantalized … The highest boost I can offer is that the book belongs on the shelf next to A.J. Liebling’s The Sweet Science … Cus D’Amato, the storied fight manager, made this book required reading for his tigers.”

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1972

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The Glory Game 1972 / / / by Hunter Davies / / / WeidenFeld and Nicolson

We say: Nearly 40 years old now, but still a brilliant insight into how football clubs operate. MC

What others said: The Independent (about a re-issue in 2000): “Despite the game having changed beyond recognition since, Davies’ work holds up surprisingly well. From his arrival at pre- season training, the author finds the players to be sharp, gregarious and profoundly sensitive, none more so than Ralph Coates, who struggled to come to terms with his disastrous loss of form and confidence. As luck would have it, Davies was rewarded with a roller-coaster season, which culminated in the Uefa Cup win and took in, among other things, Alan Mullery’s ‘Boy’s Own’ comeback at San Siro along the way. Like all classics, it hasn’t really dated, and although it may have inspired some inferior imitations, this first (and now re-printed) insiders’ account is still the best.”

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1969

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Levels of the Game / / /  by John McPhee / / / Farrar, Straud and Giroux

We say: A combination of sociology, culture, psychologist and history threaded into an account of a single tennis match. LJW

What others said: Robert Lipsyte in the New York Times: “This may be the high point of American sports journalism”. This is taken from a precis and reviews round-up.

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1955

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Soccer Nemesis / / /  by Brian Glanville / / / Secker & Warburg

We say: Glanville at his best: a punchy, opinionated history of England’s decline. JW

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Reviewers

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JR = John Roberts. Veteran sports writer who worked for the Daily Express, The Guardian, The Daily Mail and The Independent, where he was the tennis correspondent for almost 20 years. A sportingintelligence columnist, and author of:

The Team That Wouldn’t Die, the story of the Busby Babes

Shankly: My Story, with Bill Shankly

Keegan, with Kevin Keegan

Everton: The Official Centenary History

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JW = Jonathan Wilson. A former football correspondent for the Financial Times, Wilson is The Guardian‘s east European football correspondent as well as a general football writer for them, and a regular contributor to The Independent, The Independent on Sunday, FourFourTwo magazine, The Telegraph titles, When Saturday Comes and others. He is also the author of:

Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics

Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football

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LJW – L Jon Wertheim. A senior writer for Sports Illustrated magazine, and one of the most accomplished sports journalists in America. His work has been cited in The Best American Sports Writing anthology four times (2005, 2006, 2007 and 2009) as well as in The Best American Crime Writing (2009). A writer with a legal background and a CV of acclaimed investigative journalism, Wertheim is an authoritative voice on tennis, the NBA, sports business and law, and social issues. His weekly Tennis Mailbag at SI.com (archive here) is never less than entertaining, and he is also the author of:

Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played

Blood in the Cage: Mixed Martial Arts, Pat Miletich, and the Furious Rise of the UFC

Running the Table: The Legend of Kid Delicious, the Last Great American Pool Hustler

Transition Game: How Hoosiers Went Hip-Hop

Venus Envy: A Sensational Season Inside the Women’s Tennis Tour

Foul Lines: A Pro Basketball Novel, co-written with Jack McCallum

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MC = Mike Collett. The soccer editor of Reuters, one of the oldest, biggest and most respected news agencies in the world. Collett is also a member of the Football Writers’ Association’s book committee, as well as the author of:
The Complete Record of the FA Cup
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NH = Nick Harris. Editor, sportingintelligence.

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