Pep Guardiola -- Christmas reading for Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour?


No one would dispute Barcelona's status as the greatest club team of the century so far and two books in 2012 have gone a long way to explaining why the pride of Catalonia came to symbolise both power and artistry in football.

Graham Hunter's Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World (Back Page Press) draws on the considerable knowledge of the club Scottish journalist Hunter has accumulated since deciding to base himself in Spain. Hunter was the only English-speaking  journalist to interview Pep Guardiola during his time as coach at the Nou Camp.

Yet, perhaps inevitably, Hunter's admirable book is eclipsed by Pep Guardiola: Another Way of Winning (Orion), written by the Spanish journalist Guillem Balague -- who is based in England, as it happens.

Balague, well known to English television viewers as one of the presenters of Spanish football on Sky Sports, won the trust of Guardiola in a way that no other journalist has managed to achieve.  Balague's analysis of the character and methodology of the most coveted coach in world football ought to be required reading for any of Guardiola's prospective employers, revealing an obsessive, somewhat tortured individual who will emerge somewhere in 2013 to find a football world eager to learn whether he can replicate his Barcelona success at another club.

If Balague's portrait of Guardiola raises much food for thought, then Philippe Auclair's portrait of Thierry Henry, Lonely at the Top (Macmillan), may similarly challenge a few preconceptions.

Auclair, the France Football correspondent who wrote a notable biography of Eric Cantona, began his Henry project feeling only warmth towards the former Arsenal striker but finished with a certain ambivalence towards him, based on what he learned about his character, yet with his admiration for Henry as a footballer undiminished.

There has been no more exhaustively researched and detailed biography in 2012 than Jonathan Wilson's 576-page portrait of Brian Clough, Nobody Ever Says Thank You (Orion), in which Wilson, already respected for his expert knowledge of Eastern European football and for his studied, historical analysis of football tactics, attempts to construct a level-headed portrait of a character surrounded by myth more, perhaps, than anyone in football history.  He succeeds.
Wilson is the first writer to have told the Clough story in full, from his debut as a player for Middlesbrough all the way through to his retirement, as a sorry, sozzled shadow of his former self, as manager of Nottingham Forest.  Along the way he challenges many of the preconceptions about Clough as man and manager, looking beyond the anecdotes to reveal that the legend often obscures the truth.

Among the year's crop of autobiographies, Fabrice Muamba's I'm Still Standing (Trinity Mirror Sport Media) is by some way the most inspiring story of 2012.  Skilfully ghost-written by sports journalist Chris Brereton, this book has at its heart the moment that allowed football to put rancour and rivalry to one side and show its best colours.

As a refugee from the war-torn African Republic of Congo, the former Bolton Wanderers footballer already had a story worth telling. But then came his collapse on the field during an FA Cup match at Tottenham, when he effectively 'died'. His heart stopped for 78 minutes, yet Muamba survived due to the extraordinary work of doctors and paramedics who kept his brain and body functioning while they fought to restart his heart.

The story united the game in the same way that the tragic death of Gary Speed in 2011 touched football fans regardless of their allegiances, with the notable difference of a happy ending.

The biography that should be remembered as one of the year's unexpected pleasures is The Binman Chronicles (de Coubertin), by Neville Southall, the former Wales and Everton goalkeeper, who set out with the help of journalist James Corbett to "show who I really am" after a career in which he was labelled as so many different things that he felt he had become almost a living caricature, painted usually as an eccentric of one kind or another, mostly by people who did not know him at all.

He did so, you sense, not out of bitterness at any misconceptions -- "I suppose at various times I fitted all the descriptions" -- nor out of any desire to reinvent himself, but simply because he is a thoughtful, reflective person with more sides even to the complicated character his friends and teammates knew.

The book begins on a non-league football ground in Kent where Southall is engaged in his new vocation, as a teacher working with disengaged teenagers, not just giving them something to take them off the streets for an hour or two but as part of a programme lasting six months that aims to equip young people cast out by society in one way or another with the skills needed to release the potential Southall believes they all have, to some degree, to make something of their lives.

He goes on to tell the story of his life and career as you would expect but somehow, as you begin to understand him a little more with each chapter, it all leads back naturally to that football ground in Kent and his concluding assertion that "this old goalkeeper has still got plenty of living to do."

Special mention should also be made of former Crystal Palace chairman Simon Jordan's Be Careful What You Wish For (Yellow Jersey), his autobiographical tale of how football stole his fortune, which was shortlisted unexpectedly but deservedly for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2012.

For more details and to buy any of the titles above, follow the links below or go to the Football Page at the Sports Bookshelf Shop.

Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World, by Graham Hunter
Pep Guardiola: Another Way of Winning: The Biography by Guillem Balague
Thierry Henry: Lonely at the Top: A Biography, by Philippe Auclair
Brian Clough: Nobody Ever Says Thank You: The Biography, by Jonathan Wilson
Fabrice Muamba: I'm Still Standing, by Fabrice Muamba
Neville Southall: The Binman Chronicles, by Neville Southall
Be Careful What You Wish For, by Simon Jordan

More reading:

William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2012



Wales and the Lions dominate rugby union's seasonal selection


Christmas 2012 comes too early for the definitive story of the England rugby team's astounding victory over the All Blacks at Twickenham to make it into print but while that one waits to be written there are plenty of contenders for the rugby fan's wish list.

They range from the year's bestseller, Jonny Wilkinson's Jonny: My Autobiography to Behind the Lions, a collection of stories that will whet the appetite for next summer's tour of Australia by the British and Irish Lions.

Wilkinson's story, ghost written by Times journalist Owen Slot, made the longlist for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year for 2012, both for the quality of the writing and the depth of the England fly-half's soul-searching.   Wilkinson has been a tortured soul, wracked by self-doubt, fearful of the future to the extent that, even in his career-defining moment, when his drop goal sealed England's historic World Cup victory in 2003, he was soon agonising over whether he could ever live up to the expectations he had made for himself.

The disappointment of losing the 2001 Lions series against Australia in the final minute of the final Test ranks high among Wilkinson's several disappointments, which has led him to announce that he would relish the chance to correct that piece of unfinished business next summer, as a prelude to which four of the most esteemed British rugby writers have pooled their talents to create a unique history of Lions tours.

Behind the Lions: Playing Rugby for the British and Irish Lions (Birlinn) is the fruit of the combined efforts of Stephen Jones, Wales-born rugby correspondent of The Sunday Times, Irishman Tom English, the chief sports writer for Scotland on Sunday, Nick Cain, the English chief writer for The Rugby Paper, and freelance rugby journalist David Barnes, a Scot.
The four tell the story of the Lions through the eyes of the players, having interviewed scores of former tourists to uncover the passion, pride and honour associated with wearing the famous red jersey, telling tales of heart-breaks and highs, painful moments and funny ones, some laced with poignancy, others inspirational.

The 2013 Lions tour to Australia is also at the top of Sam Warburton's ambitions for the next 12 months, along with retaining the Grand Slam for Wales.

Warburton details his first year as Wales captain, having set a record as the youngest player to lead that country in 2011 at 22 years and 242 days, in Refuse to be Denied: My Grand Slam Year (Simon & Schuster), which explains that his reluctance to accept the captain's role was so deep that he felt he survived the 'ordeal' of his first game in charge, against the Barbarians in May 2011, only by reassuring himself that he would not be asked back.

In the end, he led Wales to the semi-finals of the World Cup, where his own tournament ended with a red card, and to the nation's third Six Nations Grand Slam in eight years.  Written with the help of Sunday Telegraph journalist Steve James, Refuse to be Denied has been described as an honest and insightful look at a year in an international rugby player’s life.

Welsh rugby fans eager to relive Grand Slam glory will enjoy Trinity Sport Media's behind-the-scenes record Inside the Camp, an official Welsh Rugby Union book which follows the Wales team from their pre-tournament training camp in Poland through every match, with previously unpublished photographs.

TSM's exclusive access allowed their cameras into every corner of the team's life, on and off the field, and there are images of the players in training as well as matches, and in their relaxation time away from the intensity of competition.

The Wales rugby team is the focus of another new offering, Wales Play in Red: The Rugby Diaries of Carolyn Hitt (Gomer). Since you ask, Carolyn is a columnist for the Western Mail who as a child yearned to be allowed to go to the Arms Park with her older brothers and then found her love affair with rugby reignited by accident, in 1999, when she was asked to write about the World Cup, in the classic style of old-fashioned male editors, 'from a woman's viewpoint'.
She went on to cover four World Cups, two Lions tours and a dozen Six Nations tournaments and became the first woman to be named Welsh Sports Journalist of the Year.  Known for the warmth and wit of her writing, she is also an accomplished television presenter.

Wales Play in Red draws on the best of Hitt's sports writing and tells the story of Welsh rugby since that 1999 World Cup to the present day, charting the peaks of success and the lows of defeat and scandal, recalling charismatic characters and memorable matches.

Among those characters, one of several to have passed through the revolving door marked national coach, is Graham Henry, who was appointed on a salary reputed to have made him the world's highest paid rugby coach in 1998.

Henry, who went on to enjoy huge success coaching the All Blacks in his native New Zealand, left the Wales job before the 27-year wait for a Grand Slam ended in 2005 but was nonetheless nicknamed 'The Great Redeemer' after presiding over a run of 11 consecutive wins.  Henry's autobiography, Final Word, is published by HarperSport.

Away from the world of Welsh rugby, and back on the Lions theme, former Ireland and British and Irish Lions player Stewart McKinney has followed up his popular Voices From the Back of the Bus with another collection of stories, Roars From the Back of the Bus: Rugby Tales of Life With the Lions (Mainstream).

Roars From the Back of the Bus was inspired by the number of friends McKinney met at the memorial service for the former England No 8 Andy Ripley in 2010, reminding him of the camaraderie shared by rugby players, particularly on tour and especially on Lions tours. McKinney has taken his research right back to the first Lions tour in 1888 and was granted exclusive access to letters from Alexander Findlater Todd in 1896 and to diaries from 1938 and 1955, unearthing stories about Lions players of the like of Blair Mayne who were war heroes as well as intrepid rugby tourists, and of characters such as Sir Carl Aarvold, who was a Cambridge blue for rugby, president of the Lawn Tennis Association and whose career as a barrister and judge saw him preside over the trial of the Kray twins.

McKinney shows that despite today's professional game having changed rugby so much, parallels can still be drawn between more recent tourists such as Jamie Heaslip, Brian O'Driscoll and Joe Worsley and their colourful predecessors.

The selection of autobiographies on the Christmas shelves also include those of two Irish legends -- The Bull: My Story, by John Hayes (Simon & Schuster) and The Outsider, by Geordan Murphy (Penguin Ireland).

The multi-decorated All Black captain Richie McCaw, the most capped New Zealand player of all time, tells his story in The Real McCaw (Aurum Press).

The other big sellers of 2012, both listed in Nielsen Bookscan's top 100, were Engage: The Fall and Rise of Matt Hampson (Simon & Schuster), which was shortlisted for William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2011, and Lewis Moody's Mad Dog: My Life in Rugby (Hodder).

For more details and to buy any of the titles above, follow the links below or go to the Rugby Page at the Sports Bookshelf Shop.

Jonny: My Autobiography, by Jonny Wilkinson
Behind the Lions: Playing Rugby for the British & Irish Lions
Refuse to be Denied: My Grand Slam Year, by Sam Warburton
Inside the Camp: Wales Grand Slam 2012
Wales Play in Red: The Rugby Diaries of Carolyn Hitt
Final Word, by Graham Henry
Roars from the Back of the Bus: Rugby Tales of Life with the Lions, by Stewart McKinney
The Bull: My Story, by John Hayes
The Outsider, by Geordan Murphy
The Real McCaw: The Autobiograhy , by Richie McCaw
Engage: The Fall and Rise of Matt Hampson, by Paul Kimmage
Mad Dod - An Englishman: My Life in Rugby, by Lewis Moody