Clough, Best, Greaves: a glance at how football heroes used to behave

It is easy to avoid the bland autobiographies this Christmas. Phil Shaw unearths tomes that rival Shakespeare for their gravitas right down to old favourites such as Shoot!
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The Independent Culture

Public indifference to the bland, self-serving autobiographies of Rio Ferdinand, Ashley Cole and company has been a heartening feature of sports publishing this year, though never let it be said that the stellar talents present a sanitised version of their lives.

Consider this revelation from Wayne Rooney's My Story So Far. (HarperSport, £17.99) In secondary school, the boy wonder began suspecting he was of Irish descent. "I came home and said to my dad, 'Are we Irish?' 'How do I know?' he replied."

Rooney's material is interesting enough yet is rendered dull by the safe, conventional format. But imagine the story was turned into fiction. The Japan-based, Huddersfield-born David Peace did exactly that with Brian Clough's 44 days as Leeds United manager in The Damned Utd (Faber, £12.99), the most compelling football book of 2006.

The treatment is novel in more ways than one. Peace weaves together two narratives, one dealing with Clough's rise and fall at Derby, while the other is his ill-starred reign as successor at Elland Road to Don Revie, whose achievements Clough had denounced as tainted.

Shakespearian in its scale, ambition, depth and elements of tragedy, farce and betrayal, the book depicts Clough as all bravado, ruthlessness and certainty on the outside. Inside, there is sadness, paranoia and loneliness, compounded in Peace's skilful straddling of the line between fact and imagination by Peter Taylor's refusal to join him at Leeds.

To call The Damned Utd meticulously researched may sound like criticism to literary ears. Be assured historical accuracy does not impede a more important sense of authenticity, that which makes Clough's voice, hectoring and helpless, ring in the reader's ears.

Two distinct stories threaded into an absorbing whole is also the format for the thought-provoking Best and Edwards: Football, Fame and Oblivion by Gordon Burn (Faber, £16.99). The book investigates how two players, whose greatness was truncated by drink and death respectively, could each epitomise Bobby Charlton's description of Manchester United as "more a breed than a team" yet be so different in their personalities.

The football world into which Clough and the doomed United burst is brilliantly captured in The Best of Charles Buchan's Football Monthly (English Heritage, £16.99). Edited by Simon Inglis, it starts with an essay analysing the history and appeal of the must-read magazine after its 1951 launch.

Inglis then lets the journalism speak for itself, reproducing pages with headlines that sound oddly contemporary, "We must become Continental to win" and "Attendances fall but clubs can't blame BBC 1." There are also readers' letters, one from a public schoolboy called John Motson (nerdish even then); wonderful photos, many providing an insight into the stars' modest lifestyles; and evocative adverts for cigarettes and The Body Sculpture Club ("Muscles like Granite").

Shoot! jazzed up Football Monthly's Brylcreem-age template to the exotic feather-cuts, perms, moustaches, knitwear and Admiral strips of the 1970s and 80s. It also has a "best of" on the Christmas market, the crassly titled Studs! (Ebury Press, £9.99), which offers an entertaining insight into the era, not least for responses by the big names of the day to this questionnaire staple: "If you weren't a footballer, what do you think you'd be?"

Answers range from Terry Venables' "brain surgeon" and Sam Allardyce's "Chef", to Alan Hansen's "I give in" and David O'Leary's "No idea".

We also meet a slim, hirsute Martin Jol and Paul Sturrock; Glenn Hoddle serenading his now ex-wife with a guitar; Kevin Keegan and Johan Cruyff at home; and Jimmy Greaves baiting "Jocks".

There is a poignant picture of Greaves in 1966 Uncovered: The Unseen Story of the World Cup in England by Peter Robinson and Doug Cheeseman (Mitchell Beazley, £25). Clutching a beer at a pre-tournament function, he looks insecure; or rather hindsight, and our knowledge of his alcoholism and his despair at being dropped by Alf Ramsey, makes us interpret it that way.

The book is full of forgotten treasures. The "people on the pitch"of Kenneth Wolstenholme's great commentary are captured in their steward-evading glory. Other highlights include a stunning shot of an autograph-hunter approaching Pele in a downpour, the North Koreans watching Laurel & Hardy on TV and a wry postscript by Alan Bennett.

High fives to Forza Italia by Paddy Agnew (Ebury Press, £10.99), a search for football's soul in the land of the world champions; to Soccer in a Football World by Dave Wangerin (When Saturday Comes Books, £12.99), which does likewise for the United States; and to Ward's Soccerpedia by Andrew Ward (Robson Books, £10.99) which uses thousands of quirky examples (e.g. the player who lost a finger celebrating a goal) to explore the game's lore and laws.

And big back-slaps to two outstanding club histories, Gerald Mortimer's substantial, nugget-laden Derby County: A Complete Record (Breedon Books, £19.99) and David Instone's Forever Albion (Thomas Publications, £17.99), which is a rich pictorial homage to West Bromwich Albion.