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Football’s Great Heroes and Entertainers, Jimmy Greaves with Norman Giller (Hodder & Stoughton 2007)

Like Tony Iommi, Jimmy Greaves has put his name on an entertaining book that he didn’t write. And like Iommi, Greaves has earned the right to do that. He entertained millions as a player, then entertained millions more as a broadcaster and football pundit, but he never made a lot of money. I assume he’s not written this book, at least. It would be unusual if a good player from a humble background were also a good writer, because this is an easy and entertaining read.

And Greaves was a good player – very good, in fact. He scored 44 goals in 57 England games, which isn’t far behind Bobby Charlton’s record 49 goals for England. But Charlton took 106 games to score that many. If Greaves had played so long and scored at the same rate, he’d’ve had about 80 goals for England. But he retired early and was never the kind of conformist to win so many caps.

He missed out on the World Cup Final in 1966 too, but he says here that he agrees with Alf Ramsey’s decision not to play him. Booby Moore and Gordon Banks did play and both are included here. Moore was Greaves’ “best mate in football” and asterisks appear as Greaves says what he thinks of the way Moore was treated by “the f****** FA” after he retired and had to scrabble for money. Even mediocre players can become millionaires today, but Greaves’ generation often fell into poverty after they retired.

In one of the generations before that, Tom Finney was “never ever a full-time professional”, which is why he earned the nickname of “The Preston Plumber”. Finney is #2 in this book, after Stanley Matthews, but the book is written in order of birth, not by how highly Greaves rates them as players. In that case, however, birth-order and Greaves’ rating coincide, because only Matthews makes the “All-Star XI” that Greaves picks at the end. Playing 4-2-4, the XI goes like this:

Lev Yashin; Franz Beckenbauer, John Charles, Bobby Moore (capt.), Duncan Edwards; Alfredo di Stefano, Dave Mackay; Stanley Matthews, Pelé, Maradona, George Best.

I don’t know enough about football to disagree, but Johan Cruyff seems like an obvious omission. He’s #28 in the book proper. And where is Lionel Messi? Nowhere, because this book was first published in 2007, so he doesn’t appear at all. Footballers are like flowers: they flourish briefly, then fade. The big young names here, like Steven Gerrard, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney, are senior players now, approaching the end of their careers, not burning at the zenith as they were in 2007.

And I don’t think there are many generations of footballer to come. This book is about the winners of genetic and environmental lotteries, but new technology means that we’re on the verge of being able to rig the game. When bioengineering and eugenics can produce super-athletes to order, how much value will sporting prowess retain? In crude, one-dimensional sports like athletics, rugby and American football, it’s already possible to inject your way to excellence, which is one reason I’m not interested in those sports.

Football has stayed interesting longer because it’s intellectually and psychologically demanding too. Big muscles and speed don’t automatically translate into dominance on the football pitch. Lightly built men like George Best and Denis Law could excel even in the days of brutal tackles and lenient refereeing. Like everyone else in this book, they must have had special brains, able to process visual information at high speed and perform very some complicated combinatorics. They were born with that ability, I’d say, but they had to polish it by practice. Footballing skill has to become automatic, operating below the level of consciousness, as the German great Gerd Müller explained:

Asked about his gift for goals, Muller said, “I have this instinct for knowing when a defence is going to relax, or when a defender is going to make a mistake. Something inside me says, ‘Gerd, go this way; Gerd, go that way.’ I don’t know what it is.” (Gerd Muller, #26, pg. 135)

It’s no coincidence that the human beings who play football best are male or that eleven is roughly the size of a hunting-party. Long-distance running and spatial intelligence were once essential for hunting: chasing prey down, throwing spears, firing arrows, and so on. A game of football is like a ritual hunt.

So Norman “Bites Yer Legs” Hunter had an even better name than was apparent as the time. He isn’t one of Greaves’ heroes, but he’s mentioned by George Best as one of the hard men who once tried to kick him out of games. Best mentions Ron “Chopper” Harris and Tommy “Iron” Smith too, then says:

But the hardest of them all was Peter “Cold Eyes” Storey at Arsenal. He seemed a real psycho to me. He used to prowl around the pitch almost grunting as he waited to chop anybody trying to get past him. (George Best, #27, pg. 144)

I hadn’t heard of Storey before, but I’d heard of nearly all of Greaves’ heroes. The exceptions were the Italian Gianni Rivera, AC Milan’s European Footballer of the Year in 1969; the Spaniard Francisco Gento López, Real Madrid’s fleet-footed left-winger for a remarkable 761 league and Cup games, from 1953 to 1971; and the Scot Jim Baxter, a skilful midfielder for Rangers, Sunderland and Nottingham Forest.

Otherwise I already knew the names and was happy to learn more about the players, from Alfredo di Stéfano to Zinedine Zidane, from Len Shackleton to Lev Yashin. Most of the men here are still alive, but football is in its dying days. Advancing technology will see to that, but as it does so it will also answer some interesting questions. It won’t be long before we can run computer-models of retired players and see how they might have performed in different eras and using different tactics. Was Pelé really the best of them all? I think he probably was, but that doesn’t mean he would be in history’s strongest team. The whole of a team can sometimes be more than the sum of the parts and managers are obviously crucial too.

Greaves chooses ten managers in the epilogue, then settles on Sir Alex Ferguson to manage his All-Star XI. But managing is something else that will be changed by technology. Will great managers emerge in the future among computer-gamers who have never played professional football? And when virtual football is fully realized, will people lose interest in the real thing? Probably not, because virtual football will derive its power from the real thing and its history. Bioengineering and eugenics will be the “Chopper” Harris of history, carrying out a crunching tackle from behind that ends the world’s greatest and most beautiful sport.

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The talkSPORT Book of Premier League Legends, Bill Burrows with Derek Hammond

I’m interested in art, I’m interested in maths, I’m interested in biology. How could I not be interested in football? Easily. But I am interested in football and I enhance my appreciation by looking for aesthetic, mathematical, and biological patterns in the game. Sometimes they’re easy to see: the curve of a Beckham cross combines both art and maths; the under- and over-representation of blacks as goalkeepers and forwards, respectively, says something interesting about human biology. So, less obviously, do football’s origins in the rule-worshipping, world-conquering folk of nineteenth-century Britain. Football and English are Britain’s two most popular exports, though if football spoke English it would have an odd accent, sounding as much Celtic as Saxon and more European than either. This book reflects that: the top ten legends in an English league consist of a Scot, a Welshman, a Dutchman, an Italian, two Frenchmen, and four Englishmen, at least one of whom has Irish ancestry. That’s discarding the Russian at number 7, Chelsea’s billionaire owner Roman Abramovich, who isn’t a player or a manager. And hasn’t necessarily been good for the game. Fernando Torres, the Spanish legend at 77, is a good player, but was he worth £50m of Mr Abramovich’s hard-insider-dealt cash?

More pertinently, is Torres a legend? I wouldn’t say so, but hype is a keyly core, and corely key, component of modern football. “Premier League” is marketese for “First Division”, after all, and talkSPORT is a commercial radio station. I’ve barely listened to it, but the impression I got made me pick up this book expecting a lot of exclamation marks and a lot of illiteracy. I didn’t get either: the potted biographies of the legends, both for the league as a whole and for individual clubs, are well-written and interesting, though Borrows or his simul-scribe should learn what a hanging participle is. There are blasts from the past, like Georgie Kinkladze of Manchester City, who were then dosh-dry, not dosh-drenched, and current comets, like Wayne Rooney of Manchester United, who have been dosh-drenched for decades. Kinkladze was Georgian, Rooney is Anglo-Irish, and both challenge the genetic theory that links athletic ability to symmetry and symmetry to attractiveness. In fact, Rooney’s challenge threatens to break both its legs: he plays like an angel and looks like an orc. But I think his body, if not his face, would support the theory and biology is about tendencies, not absolutes. For example, men are taller than women, on average, and that has great biological significance. The significance doesn’t disappear because some women are a lot taller than some men.

Some women are also a lot better at running and jumping than some men, but that doesn’t change the statistics. At the extremes – the far tails of the bell-curve – one sex can hugely outnumber another and this book is about human beings who have exceptional athletic ability. Accordingly, although the average man is not hugely more athletic than the average woman, the only woman who turns up here is Delia Smith, the TV-chef and Norwich City benefactrix who clocks in as legend no. 99. But, just as cooking involves more than a sensitive palate, football involves more than athleticism. A footballer’s brain has to deal with much more than a sprinter’s, so running ability isn’t all a footballer needs. Sometimes he can do without it: legend no. 6, David Beckham, wasn’t known for his speed. He doesn’t challenge the symmetry-and-attractiveness theory either: he’s famously good-looking. And famously well-rewarded for it: the Beckham photo chosen by the authors shows him in a room crowded with photographers as he promotes an aftershave. But Beckham, often mocked for his verbal indexterity, does challenge the theory that football requires intelligence. I’m sure, though, that, despite his clumsy way with words, he does have an above-average IQ. I’m also sure that his brain is above average in other ways. All the brains in this book must be, including those of Roman Abramovich and Delia Smith. You need an above-average brain to be successful in a field that doesn’t depend purely on luck. Business and cookery don’t, and neither does football.

But luck is a big part of what makes football interesting: the book is full of might-have-beens. How high would legend no. 79, Darren Anderton of Tottenham Hotspurs, have gone without all the injuries? And what would have happened to legend no. 8, Sir Alex Ferguson, if, as seemed more likely than not, Manchester United had sacked him in 1990, “following defeat against [Nottingham] Forest in the third round of the FA Cup”? But the defeat didn’t happen: a late goal by Mark Robins saved Fergie’s job and started the avalanche of silverware that means Manchester United are now the most successful club in British football. The might-have-beens of legend no. 15, Matthew le Tissier of Southampton, are different: it wasn’t injury that stopped him moving to a bigger club, it was loyalty and laidbackness. As he himself says here: “Perhaps I’m in the nought point one per cent of footballers who don’t give a toss about unlimited money.”

He was another player who wasn’t good to look at, but was good to watch. Very good: his goals, like Beckham’s passes and crosses, were things of beauty. The aesthetics of football appeal even to the most lumpish fans, but le Tissier the aesthetician belongs with legend no. 10, Dennis Bergkamp of Arsenal, not with Beckham or legend no. 16, Cristiano Ronaldo. Beckham and Ronaldo are wonderful to watch, but they perform off the field too and bring the tedious worlds of fashion and celebrity into their footballing careers. Le Tissier and Bergkamp didn’t, which makes them my favourite players in the book. My favourite manager is legend no. 13, Arsène Wenger of Arsenal, but the most interesting manager, or even most interesting man, who appears here, Brian Clough of Nottingham Forest and Derby County, isn’t one of the legends. He’s discussed in the section devoted to legend no. 61, the manager Martin O’Neill, who played for Clough at Nottingham Forest. Clough himself never managed a team in the Premier League, but he did achieve remarkable things with medium-sized clubs in the old First Division. He also achieved remarkable things as a player, scoring 63 goals in 74 games for Sunderland in the early 1960s, before breaking his leg and having to retire young.

What might have been there? Clough’s goal-rate is reminiscent of the prodigious run-rate of the Australian cricketer Donald Bradman and, like Bradman’s, it doesn’t seem to have been a statistical fluke. Legend no. 56, Kevin Phillips, also scored at a remarkable rate for Sunderland, but after 30 goals in 36 games during his first season, he reverted to the mean and ended his career with a unexceptional 92 goals in 259 games. He was another good player who doesn’t genuinely count as a league legend, but his place in the section on club legends is taken by Kevin Ball. If you’re thinking “Who?”, join the club. Burnley’s club legend isn’t even a player: it’s the “super-fan” Dave Burnley, who has clocked up 480,000 miles following every Burnley game since 1974 and who named his daughter “Clarette in honour of the team’s colours”. Another exceptional person in a book about exceptional people. The book itself isn’t exceptional, but it is entertaining and unhysterical. The premier league gets only the first of those right. Crowds in the German Bungesliga are bigger and the skill in the Spanish league is greater, but the international audience for Fußball and futbol is much smaller. English football, though increasingly less English, is the most popular in the world. That is proved by trivial mathematics, but more subtle and powerful mathematics, which governs the movement of rocky spheres in the heavens, also governs the movement of airy spheres on football fields. Those spheres can still create music at the feet of men like le Tissier and Bergkamp, and the muzak of hype and hysteria doesn’t drown it. That’s what makes this book worth reading through and reminiscing over.

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