Chistmas Books Special - Part Two: Football

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In a year dominated by the World Cup, it's no surprise that the bulk of this year's football books comprise autobiographies of various England stars. A rather forlorn sense of what-might-have-been hangs over these titles, commissioned, no doubt, back in the halcyon days of 2005 when delusions over what England's so-called "golden generation" might achieve in Germany were at their height. Alas, it's entirely fitting that these titles, in the main, accurately reflect England's showing on the field - ie, over-hyped mediocrity masquerading as quality.

By far the worst on offer is Ashley Cole's My Defence (Headline £18.99). Despite promising, in its subtitle, to reveal all about "the drama of Germany", it is almost entirely an attempt to "put the record straight" about his move last summer from Arsenal to Chelsea. It reads like a shrill, extended whinge from a spoiled kid. Running it a close second in the avoid-at-all-costs stakes is My Story So Far by Wayne Rooney (HarperSport £17.99). While it covers the basics of his upbringing and subsequent career with Everton, Man Utd and England well enough, it's written with a perfunctoriness that verges on the insulting. At just 21, Rooney barely warrants a couple of chapters, let alone a whole book, but I suppose the one good thing I can say for this misconceived venture is that at least it's short.

Rio Ferdinand's Rio: My Story (Headline £18.99) is more successful at providing a detailed account of the defender's life and career but, despite going into lengthy detail, it fails to provide much insight into what makes him tick.

Steven Gerrard's Gerrard: My Autobiography (Bantam Press £18.99) is by the far the best of these four books. Following his life from his childhood in Huyton to his cup successes with Liverpool, it's refreshingly open about both good times and bad - including a frank confession that his poor performances for England in the Euro 2004 tournament were caused by the distractions he suffered due to constant press speculation over his possible transfer out of Liverpool. An intense, detailed and telling account of one of the country's best footballers, it genuinely succeeds in providing a flavour of the man and the energies and tensions that motivate his career.

Still on the autobiographical theme, two veterans have committed their stories to print. The current Celtic manager, Gordon Strachan's My Life in Football (Little Brown £18.99) covers his past successes playing under Alex Ferguson at both Aberdeen and Man Utd, his title triumph with Leeds and the ups and downs of his subsequent career in management. While there are a couple of decent anecdotes and stories here to raise an eyebrow or a smile, it rarely rises above the glib.

That's not an accusation that can be levelled at Paul McGrath's Back From the Brink (Century £18.99). He is generally recognised as one of the most talented players of his day, and this warts-and-all confessional of the Man Utd, Aston Villa and Republic of Ireland defender provides a disturbing account of his alcoholism and tranquillizer addiction that has all but wrecked his life. It's not a book for the faint-hearted, but it creatres an affecting picture of a man whose natural- born talent wasn't enough to save him from a legacy of emotional problems caused by his harrowing childhood.

On a lighter note, Simon Irwin's Sing When You're Winning (Andre Deutsch £12.99) is an amiable trip around the football grounds of the UK undertaken in a quest to find that most elusive of quarries, the "soul" of football. Irwin, a music writer, notionally undertakes his trip in order to study/comment on various terrace songs, but it's soon apparent that his subject is little more than a pretext for visiting stadiums and drinking beer while hanging out with the fans. While the soul of football remains tantalisingly out of reach, Irwin's writing is both enjoyable and sharply evocative.

The Meaning of Sport (Short Books £16.99) by Simon Barnes is a meandering, incoherent and staggeringly pretentious mess of a book that succeeds in saying nothing whatsoever about sport's supposed "meaning". The writer, chief sports writer for The Times, continually drops crass references to high culture with all the finesse and of an over-eager sixth former anxious to impress his teachers, but for all his irrelevant name-dropping this dreadful exercise is little more than a collection of over-heated banalities masquerading as insight.

David Goldblatt's The Ball is Round (Viking £30) is a doorstep of a book that charts the rise of football across the world. Clocking in at just under 1,000 pages of densely constructed prose, it examines how football conquered not only the UK and Europe, but also Latin America, Asia and Africa. Exhaustive (and exhausting) it is an impeccably researched and impressively scholarly work that contains just about all you will ever need to know about how and why a game played in a handful of 19th-century English public schools rose to become the global industry it is today. By contrast, D J Taylor's On the Corinthian Spirit: On the Decline in Amateurism in Sport (Yellow Jersey £10) is a wee slip of a book that muses entertainingly on the ongoing tensions between "amateur" and "professional" that continued to animate football from its foundation. Thoughtful, intelligent and sparely written, this should stand as an example of how to do sportswriting that the likes of Wayne Rooney, Ashley Cole and Rio Ferdinand would do well to follow.