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The Greatest Footballer You Never Saw: The Robin Friday Story, Paul McGuigan and Paolo Hewitt (Mainstream 1997)

Excellent premise, execrable execution. That’s how you could sum up this book. I thought it would be a proper biography, but it turned out to be a collection of newspaper clippings and extracts from interviews with the relatives, friends and acquaintances of Robin Friday, the legendarily skilful and anarchic footballer who dazzled fans of Reading and Cardiff City before dying of drink, drugs and debauchery at the age of 38.

And yes, that’s right: 38. If you’re not that age now, you soon will be. If you’re older, you won’t have lived half Friday’s life. Or so he would have told you. Like Kurt Cobain, he thought it was better to burn out than fade away. But if he’d used the fuel of his talent more carefully, could he have been one of the all-time greats? Possibly, but it’s much easier to look good when you’re surrounded by mediocre players. Friday looked good at Reading, then at Cardiff City, but neither Reading nor Cardiff was a big club with the best players.

Then again, the most skilful and successful players today would find it difficult to cope with the tackling and physical intimidation of Friday’s day. Hard-man defenders dished it out to Friday and he dished it right back. He never wore shin-pads and often came off the pitch bruised, battered and bleeding. Or concussed after an elbow in the head. But he could come back from a pub or night-club in the same way, because he enjoyed fighting and exercising his will to win. He liked life the way he liked his music: loud. He was a heavy-metal fan and brought the blood-and-thunder of his records to his football. That’s why he had a bad disciplinary record, as you can see sports-reporters lament again and again in the clippings. Presenting Friday’s life like that has its appeal. The book mixes pop-charts and snippets of world-news in with the reports about Friday and other cult-players, so you almost feel as though you’re back in the 1970s, following Reading’s push for promotion in the local paper or watching Cardiff try and fail to turn Friday into a star. But why couldn’t the book have had both clippings and a proper narrative?

Well, Paul McGuigan was a member of Oasis and had an image of lumpen stupidity to maintain. Write a proper book? Fook off. And he wouldn’t have wanted to put his name to a proper book that some other cunt had written. At least, that’s how I like to see it, being a dedicated Oasisophobe. But there is room to appreciate beauty and the transcendent even in the soul of a member of Oasis. Men like Paul McGuigan undoubtedly like Friday’s toughness and thuggish side, but it’s not the thugs and bullies of football who become the true legends. George Best was far too small and delicate to be a thug. It was his skill that made him a legend. His drinking and womanizing were only the icing on the cake.

Friday wasn’t at Best’s level, but he could have matched or surpassed other ’70s legends like Rodney Marsh, Frank Worthington and Stan Bowles, with their silky skills and their balls of steel. And ’70s nostalgia is now a large part of what has made Friday a cult-figure. Men were men and football was football in those days. Or football was thuggery enlivened with skill.

You get some impression of the 1970s from the unrelieved stream of clippings and personal anecdotes, but this book could have been so much better. Irvine Welsh gives it the kiss of death in his banal introduction: “Yeah, perhaps not a lot of us did get the chance to see Robin Friday play, but those that did are just that wee bit more enriched as a result. And that’s what it’s all about.” No, it’s about much more than that and you get glimpses here of a might-have-been-great from a vanished culture.

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The Secret Footballer's Guide to the Modern GameThe Secret Footballer’s Guide to the Modern Game: Tips and Tactics from the Ultimate Insider, The Secret Footballer (Guardian Books 2014)

Who is the Secret Footballer? I don’t know. But he’s definitely a Guardianista. You can tell this by two things: 1) he’s passionately committed to the fight against “homophobia, sexism, racism and everything in between”; 2) he uses “in terms of” a lot. Interviewing another concealed component of the crypto-community, The Secret Physio, he asks this:

TSF: So would players need to train differently from one another in terms of the weights they lift and the core work they do? (ch. 1, “Getting Started”, pg. 14)

“Core” is also Guardianese and maybe he’s really interviewing himself, because the Secret Physio uses “in terms of” too. I didn’t spot the incendiary slam-dunk of a mixed metaphor anywhere, but he does claim that Wayne Rooney is “one of quite literally only a handful of players” who matter a lot to Manchester United’s profits (ch. 4, “It’s Football, But Not As We Know It”, pg. 116). So case proven: he’s a Guardianista.

But he’s also worth reading and this is his most interesting book. He talks about world football and the game in general, not just his life in the Premier League, and he seems to know his stuff. I don’t. To me football is like music: I appreciate it without understanding it. I know what players, teams and matches I like, but I don’t have a clue about tactics or formations.

The Secret Footballer combines appreciation with understanding, so it’s gratifying that he praises three of my favourite players: Glen Hoddle, Matt Le Tissier and Dennis Bergkamp. He says that Hoddle proved that “an entire football nation did not know what to do with skill and finesse” (Epilogue, pg. 218) and lists Le Tissier and Bergkamp among the scorers of “The goals that influenced me most”. This is Le Tissier’s:

…his finest goal, in my opinion, came against Newcastle in 1993. It is so skilful that it deserves to grace most lists. The three touches he takes to get the ball under control while beating a defender at the same time are by no means easy and all have to be perfect. I later read that the slightly scuffed finish had taken the gloss off it for Le Tissier himself, but, for me, it serves as a lesson in composure for every kid who wants to be a striker. (ch. 1, pp. 52-3)

This is Bergkamp’s, against Newcastle in 2002:

Almost every other player I have seen would try to control the horrible bouncing ball that comes into him. But Bergkamp, with his back to goal, flicks it to one side of the defender and runs the other, using his strength to outmuscle the defender and find the calmest of finishes. For a long time, some people debated whether or not Dennis had actually intended to do what he did here. Like so many others, those people don’t truly understand football. (Ibid., pg. 54)

But what does it mean to “truly understand football”? Ultimately, it means using mathematics. There’s maths everywhere in football and everywhere in this book, from the topspin on a free kick (ch. 1, pg. 41) to 4-2-3-1, “the most in-vogue formation in modern football” (ch. 6, “Formations”, pg. 158). A good footballer has to be both an athlete and an expert in reading and responding to patterns. The movement of players on the field sets constantly shifting problems in combinatorics, for example. There’s no entry for “Mathematics” in the index, but then there’s no entry for “English language” either. This book is written in English and is talking about maths, implicitly but intensively.

That’s as true in the section about diet as it is in the section about using spin in free-kicks. One is physiology, the other is physics, but they both involve the interaction of entity that is the essence of mathematics. The spin of the ball affects its interaction with the air. Chemicals in the body affect its interaction with play: its strength, stamina, flexibility and so on. That’s why diet is so important. But chemicals are important in other ways. To physiology and physics you can add physiognomy, as a recent scientific paper shows:

The structure of a soccer player’s face can predict his performance on the field – including his likelihood of scoring goals, making assists and committing fouls – according to a study led by a researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder.

The scientists studied the facial-width-to-height ratio (FHWR) of about 1,000 players from 32 countries who competed in the 2010 World Cup. The results, published in the journal Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology, showed that midfielders, who play both offense and defense, and forwards, who lead the offense, with higher FWHRs were more likely to commit fouls. Forwards with higher FWHRs also were more likely to score goals or make assists. (Facial structure predicts goals, fouls among World Cup soccer players, ScienceDaily, 12/xi/2014)

Facial structure is influenced by testosterone, which also influences competitiveness and aggression. And testosterone itself is influenced by genetics. Football was invented and is still dominated by men. That won’t change until the human race changes. And it will be men who invent the means for the human race to change.

Or rather: the human races, because there are a lot of them. The big ones – Europeans, Africans and Asians – are all represented in this book and the Secret Footballer writes a lot about genetic differences, even though he doesn’t know it. And would be horrified by the claim that it matters. As a Guardianista, he knows we’re all the same under the skin and that environment is responsible for the way blacks contribute little to science and mathematics. Blacks contribute a lot to football, but not as managers and not as certain types of player: goalkeeper, for example.

Why not? The Secret Footballer would say it’s racism and lack of opportunity. I would say it’s lack of intelligence. But lack of intelligence is due to racism and lack of opportunity too, isn’t it? No, I’d say it’s due to genetics. Why is the performance of the brain less influenced by genes than the performance of the muscles? It isn’t. Sadly for Guardianistas, hateful stereotypes like this are based on a hateful genetic reality:

Speedboat, no driver: Refers to a player who has blistering pace but no clue where he is supposed to be running or when. Controversially, this phrase is typically used for young black players. There are lots of managers who do not trust black players with the disciplined side of the game and just tell them to run instead – I even had a manager who did not want to play black centre-halves because he was convinced that they had tunnel vision and didn’t read the game well. I can’t disprove it one way or another, though it sounds ridiculous to me. However, I’m here to tell you that lots of managers feel this way and I’ve lost count of managers, coaches, academy coaches and players who describe young black players using this term. It’s even been said to me on the pitch by an opposition player when we brought on a young black player in the second half. (“Appendix: The Guide to Modern Football Language”, pg. 228)

Genetics at work, in my opinion: the environment of Africa selected for athletic ability but not high intelligence. Football is not just a beautiful game. It’s a bountiful one too, because it offers so many patterns to analyse: patterns of play, of history, of culture, race, human behaviour and biology in general. The Secret Footballer discusses all of them, sometimes without realizing it. He’s interesting, opinionated and obsessed with the game. I’m not and never have been, but this book woke memories of the days when I cared much more about twenty-two men chasing an inflated sphere around a rectangular field.

Perhaps I should care more now, because the game has never stopped evolving and improving, as the Secret Footballer will show you. There are some exciting names in his list of the “ten best players of the last twenty years”: Lionel Messi, Zinedine Zidane, Cristiano Ronaldo, Xavi Hernández, Ronaldinho, Paul Scholes, Paolo Maldini, Thierry Henry, Ryan Giggs, Andrés Iniesta (ch. 6, pg. 186). He also offers his “ten best players of the future playing now” (ch. 7, “Coaching”, pg. 206) and lists the “best young players you probably haven’t heard of… yet” (ch. 3, “Fashion in Football”, pg. 104) And where does he stand on one of the great questions of our time? Here:

Cristiano Ronaldo once said that God put him on this planet to play football. We’ll just have to ask Lionel Messi if he remembers doing that. (ch. 8, “Whatever Happens, Never, Ever Give Up”, pg. 215)

There’s also Nike vs Adidas, Mark Viduka singing Monty Python in Middlesbrough and an explanation of why England are so bad. And for once a good popular book isn’t spoilt by a bad literary omission, because there’s a detailed index. I don’t like the Guardian, but it occasionally comes up with good things and this guide is one of them.

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