Best football books

After a three-month coronavirus-enforced haitus, the Premier League is picking up where it left off, which means your Saturday afternoons can once again be covered in glory or ruined by disappointment, depending on your allegiances. Whatever team you support, good football writing is like good football itself: a thrill to behold.

So to get you back in the Super-Sunday spirit, ahead of the Carragher-Neville bust-ups and the inevitable weekly debate about VAR, we’ve rounded up some of the very best.

How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the F.A. Cup by J. L. Carr (1975)

Few books on football muster the time-defying oomph to pass the Penguin Classics test. But J. L. Carr's comic fantasy about a village team that upends football's natural order to win the FA Cup is a scorcher.

Set far from the carpet-turfed super stadia of the Premier League, this is a wistful hymn to mud-and-guts football of yore, where players change in old train carriages, and consider it a good omen when their pitch isn't drowning in water.

Narrated by a hapless local village chronicler, interlaced with newspaper reports and the minutes of committee meetings, it follows Steeple Sinderby Wanderers, a lowly village team languishing in the Fenland League. But when a cerebral new manager arrives from Hungary with controversial new ideas, supported by a tyrannical local tycoon, the team cranks into gear, giant-killing all who stand in their way in an unlikely march to Wembley.

We could call it Roy of the Rovers for adults, but it's much sharper – and more surreal – than that. Quintessentially English in tone, it is more a pastiche of the Beautiful Game than a paean – a hilarious love letter to the cohesive power of rural community, eccentricity and muddy minded determination that, read now, feels remarkably ahead of its time in terms of insights into the modern game.

The Game of Our Lives: The Meaning and Making of English Football by David Goldblatt (2015)

Why is it that we still love football so much, despite all the money and media-training; the billionaire plutocrats, soaring ticket prices and mega TV deals? Or, as David Goldblatt puts it, “this highly unequal, stratified league is incredibly popular and the more uncompetitive it has become, in strict econometric terms, the more the world seems to want it.”

His answer? Well, in an increasingly individualised, isolated and late-capitalist world, community and connection have never been more important to human health. And that's what football, stripped naked, is. Goldblatt – in his inimitably intelligent, astute and therapeutic way – explains it better... but that's his gist in this thumpingly heartfelt search for football's heart and soul.

Weaving British social history, economic analysis and sportsfan psychology with Goldblatt's own illuminating reflections, this William Hill Sports Book of the Year winner is a must-read for any football fan who wonders where the game has come to, and where it's going from here.

Football in Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano (1997)

Nobody writes about football like Eduardo Galeano wrote about football. Endlessly quotable, the Uruguayan conjured prose that will seduce even the most jaded of modern football fans (sorry, Newcastle).

Take this description of the legendary German striker Gerd Müller: ‘Nobody saw a wild wolf on the field. Disguised as an old woman, his fangs and claws hidden, he strolled along, making a show of showering innocent passes and other works of charity. Meanwhile, he slipped unnoticed into the box. The net was bridal veil of an irresistible girl. In front of the open goal he licked his chops. And in one fell swoop he stood naked, then bit.’

Galeano’s generosity and passion for the game itself is infectious, as is his cynicism for its modern incarnation. Football in Sun and Shadow is one of the genre’s all-time classics – ‘The Miracle of Istanbul’ of football writing if you will.

Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby (1992)

We all have our reasons for liking football. Maybe you just followed your school mates. Maybe a charismatic uncle persuaded you to support a team based hundreds of miles from where you live (Manchester, probably). Or maybe you saw René Higuita do that scorpion kick in 1995 and thought it a thing of such beauty, you had no choice but to follow football, hoping to see someone do it again.

For Nick Hornby, it was his parent's divorce. Left with a fading sense of what it is to feel at home, he turns to Highbury stadium instead. Losing himself in the Arsenal crowd helps him forget his problems and love his life. And as seasons and cup runs come and go, the team becomes his salvation.

Fever Pitch – widely considered to be the best book ever written on football fandom – is a hilarious, ever-relevant and deeply poignant account of what happens in the mind of a diehard fan. It's about masculinity, camaraderie, obsession and hope – that, however badly today goes, there will always be next weekend.

One Night In Turin by Pete Davies (1990)

This is the book that launched a thousand similar books that were nowhere near as good. Pete Davies’ One Night In Turin proved books about football don't need to be just stat-snoozes or ghost-written ex-pro memoirs. They can dig into the game’s psychology, its personalities, and what it’s like to actually play for England.

Brilliant, surprising, energetic, and nostalgic, it’s a backstage pass into England’s famous Italia ’90 World Cup run, which ended in defeat to Germany, when the country’s stiff upper lip took a terrible hit, and Gazza’s started wobbling.

As well as being remarkably well-reported and written, it’s a window into the time ‘football changed forever’, before all the capitalism and Coutts accounts, before football press officers could afford Savile Row suits. It’ll take you back to a time – the last time, perhaps – when football felt… honest.

How to Be a Footballer by Peter Crouch (2019)

Before his retirement this year, striker Peter Crouch was, quite simply, a joy to behold. To watch a man built like a novelty-sized deckchair score goals no deckchair should be able to score was a sort of footballing hallucination – a re-affirmation of life’s limitless possibilities.

He shouldn’t have been such a good player, yet he was. He shouldn’t have done that robot dance after scoring for England in a meaningless friendly against Jamaica, yet he did. He shouldn’t have written such a self-deprecating and insightful book as How to Be a Footballer, but he has.

Unlike many ex-pro memoirs, it isn’t a ghost-written, self-congratulatory nostalgia. It is a hilarious expose of what really happens off the grass when you expensively assemble a team of millionaire strangers in the hope they’ll get on well enough to gel into a winning machine. And if you like it, good news: Crouchy’s sequel, I, Robot, comes out in October.

State of Play: Under the Skin of the Modern Game by Michael Calvin (2018)

Within every silver lining, there is a cloud. And while the standard of the Premier League has never been more dazzling, the fog of decadence, corruption and greed that fuels it grows heavier by the season. State of Play is a welcome off-shore breeze.

Michael Calvin is a veteran football journalist with shelves of awards who’s probably forgotten more about football than you will ever know. But he, like all of us, has grown jaded by the ‘rapacious Premier League’. So, he went hunting for a reason to believe in football again.

The result is about as vivid and revealing an insight into contemporary British football as you are ever likely to read. Through hundreds of hours of interviews (execs, players, managers, fans and Kyle Walker), he captures an evasive truth: that, actually, there is still an awful lot to love about the beautiful game. Its beauty, really, is in its people – the managers, the players and especially the fans, not the moneymen and gilded string-pullers who seem to mistake it for corporate entertainment.

The Numbers Game by Chris Anderson and David Sally (2014)

Data is a dirty word in football. It’s for overpaid pundits and under-socialised Fantasy Football fanatics, not for true fans of the game. As every fan knows, at the end of the day, there’s only one stat that counts: the score.

Not according to Chris Anderson, former goalkeeper turned football statistics guru, and David Sally, former baseball pitcher turned behavioural economist. The Numbers Game blows apart any notion that deep-dive data works only in baseball. It works for football too and understanding it can mean the difference between glory and shame.

Why, statistically, should corners always be taken short? Why is it better to improve your worst player, than buy a £100-million superstar? And why do the number of years a country has gone through a civil war directly correlate with the average number of yellow cards a player from that country might get? Never boring or condescending, The Numbers Game answers all these questions and many others you never thought to ask. 

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