SPORTS BOOKS FOR CHRISTMAS: FOOTBALL BIOGRAPHIES
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
William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2012