Sports books for Christmas: All present and correct: working-class heroes, iconoclasts and mad decorators

In the first of a series of best reads for the festive season, Phil Shaw looks at this year's more left-field football offerings
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The Independent Culture

The old bluesmen got it wrong: you can judge a book by looking at the cover. The dust jacket of the year's finest left-field, celebrity-free football book, Gary Imlach's My Father and Other Working-Class Football Heroes (Yellow Jersey Press, £15.99), shows Stewart Imlach hurdling a goalkeeper. The foggy backdrop makes it an apposite image, for this is a journey through the mists of time.

It takes us back barely 50 years, when the game was on a different planet. After the death in 2001 of his dad, a winger from a Scottish fishing village, Imlach Jnr realised he knew only the outline of his life. Setting out to discover the man behind the crew-cut on bubble-gum cards and in team groups with Scotland and Nottingham Forest, he illuminates the era of £20-a-week "stars" who travelled to games on public transport.

Evocative and poignant, it is also sharply pointed. Nowhere more than when the author calls Jimmy Hill, his father's manager at Coventry soon after the lifting of the maximum wage. Hill offloaded Stewart and replaced him with a player who made just four appearances. Yet he could remember only the flop, not the father.

Archibald Leitch was also of humble Scottish stock. A blacksmith's son, he became the foremost architect of football grounds (six of the 1966 World Cup venues featured his work). In the sumptuously designed Engineering Archie (English Heritage, £14.99), the stadium authority Simon Inglis examines his life and legacy. From the 1902 Ibrox disaster to the survival of his pavilion and stand at Fulham, an absorbing story requires no knowledge of Leitch's trademark pedimented gables and criss-cross steelwork balconies to be enjoyed.

Leitch was hired by Woolwich Arsenal when they uprooted to north London in 1913. Bruce Smith's lavishly illustrated Highbury: the Story of Arsenal Stadium (Mainstream, £20) inter-weaves the lives of the Gunners and their famous ground, the latter thread showing that French influence was at work on the former divinity-college site long before it was graced by Thierry Henry. The Paris-trained Claude Waterlow Ferrier provided the art deco majesty that remains its defining characteristic as it enters its final months.

Nobody does ironic football better than the magazine which blazed a trail for countless fanzines 20 years ago next March. When Saturday Comes: The Half Decent Football Book (Penguin, £20) is a chunky reference work which combines information with the idiosyncrasy, iconoclasm and good writing that are WSC's hallmark. Under "A", alcohol, the Anglo-Italian Cup and art are allocated roughly the same space as Arsenal.

The index includes "smoky bacon crisps, Alan Shearer's love for" and "Shilton, Peter, hanging from bannisters to lengthen arms".

"What makes Saturday special?" asks the subtitle of Chris Green's Matchday (Highdown, £14.99). To answer the question, he compresses into a 24-hour narrative the experiences and thoughts of players, managers, fans (chiefly a Wrexham diehard who makes a 650-mile round trip from Cornwall for every match), referees, reporters (whom Green brands "a sour, dour bunch" after they pip him to the pies at Wigan), chaplains, doctors and directors, including one Bob Marley of Worcester City. With its bite-sized episodes, it is a highly readable, relentless and ambitious drama.

The title is unpromising, but Where Are They Now? Life After Leeds United (YFP Publishing, £9.99), by Les Rowley and John Wray unearths fascinating post-football careers in a pithy, irreverent trawl of 150 ex-players. With a page apiece, there is a detective in the CID, a Liberal Democrat councillor, an Orkney postman, a stand-up comedian and the world-class defender now afflicted by Parkinson's Disease.

Same idea, different format. Dave Woodhall's After the Villa (Heroes Publishing, £9.95) allocates a chapter each to 25 past Aston Villa players. There is a strong Northern Ireland flavour. Peter McParland recalls a brush with Colonel Gaddafi, while George Best's death draws one to the story of Sammy Morgan. A bespectacled bruiser lured from teaching by Port Vale, he realised he had been at school with a genius only when they became unlikely international colleagues.

Leeds fans are not all knuckle-draggers of the kind that sullied the minute's silence for Best. Their surprising literary tradition endures with Doolally (PDG Books, £8.95), full of madcap Elland Road yarns, homages and fantasies edited by David Gill, and The Second Coat (Mainstream, £9.99), the sequel to Paint It White by Gary Edwards, a wacky painter and decorator who gets rid of red for free and has seen every match since 1968.

More humour, largely of the gallows variety, fills Black Catalogue (PDG, £11.95), a collection of Sunderland supporters' anecdotes edited by Ken Gambles. A bouncer recalls how team-mates carried a "dead drunk" Jim Baxter out of a nightclub at 2.30am. Next afternoon he watched Slim Jim destroy Newcastle.

Adam Adamthwaite's Glory Days: The Golden Age of Bishop Auckland (Parrs Wood, £17.99) is a misty-eyed account of the team from County Durham, many of them miners, who made Wembley their second home during the 1950s. The Manchester United of amateur football, you could even buy them as a Subbuteo set.

In Colin Harvey's Everton Secrets (Sport Media, £17.99), John Keith delves into the midfielder/manager/youth coach's rich fund of memories. They include the striker who thumbed a lift out of Liverpool on a lorry after being transferred and Harvey's awestruck first glimpse of the primary-school prodigy he knew as "Baby Wayne".

Alex Ferguson to manage Heart of Midlothian? It might have happened, according to Hearts: Great Tynecastle Tales (Mainstream, £15.99), by Rob Robertson and Paul Kiddie, though in 1990, rather than after George Burley's recent and contentious exit. A topical tome, given the maroon renaissance, blending nostalgia and controversy.

Gary Imlach deservedly won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year prize. But if there was a reissue category, Fred Eyre's tragicomic Kicked Into Touch (Ponoma, £9.99) would have strolled it.

The first-ever Manchester City apprentice was stalked by insecurity and failure. However, on his tour of 20 clubs (and a solitary League appearance), Eyre amassed a treasure trove of tales, ranging from after-dinner set pieces to the dark and downright absurd. As the cover claims, it is "an antidote to the glib reportage of a game lost to showbusiness".

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