Football Books For Christmas: Glory and betrayal in story of Barcelona

Click to follow
The Independent Online
WHOEVER SAID sport and politics do not mix was overlooking the glory of Barcelona. Anyone arguing that they should not mix would find vindication in the story of Belfast Celtic.

At a cursory glance, there could hardly be two more disparate clubs. Jimmy Burns' homage to Catalonia's finest, Barca (Bloomsbury, pounds 16.99), finds Barcelona reaching their centenary as the biggest sporting institution on the planet. A trophy room as big as an airplane hangar; fabulous players; vast and passionate support in a sumptuous stadium; plus, of course, pots of money.

In brutal contrast, Padraig Coyle's lovingly told Paradise Lost and Found (Mainstream Publishing, pounds 9.99) reveals Belfast Celtic as a club with nothing but memories (Paradise was the name of their ground). In 1949, as Barcelona made it to their half-century, they folded, despite being Northern Ireland's outstanding side.

Yet the two clubs have much in common. As Burns shows, Barca exist to do more than simply play football. The fierce emotions they stir, among detractors as well as devotees, owe as much to the club's historic role as a symbol of Catalan nationalism as to the feats of Cruyff, Kubala, Maradona or Ronaldo chronicled here.

On the start of the Spanish Civil War, Barcelona's president, a left- wing politician named Jose Sunol, was executed by fascists. During the Franco dictatorship, the club became a vehicle for a collective identity and defiance, a place where the Catalan language and culture were celebrated. The Sunol saga rumbles on, and the author highlights the club's attempts today to try to gloss over his importance. Highly recommended.

Belfast Celtic also represented an oppressed community, Ulster's Catholics, although they operated a non-sectarian signing policy. Like their Glasgow equivalents, they were part of an Old Firm, their "Rangers" being the staunchly Protestant Linfield. It was the shocking events after their derby on Boxing Day 1948 that Coyle identifies as the beginning of the end.

A late Linfield equaliser had policeman throwing their helmets in delight. At the end, the Celtic players were attacked by mobs, Jimmy Jones having a leg repeatedly jumped upon and shattered. The Royal Ulster Constabulary made no arrests.

Celtic decided to close at the end of the season. This book works both as a tribute to their achievements and as social history, providing an insight into the years which led up to the outbreak of the "Troubles".

Mark Hodkinson's Blue Moon: Down Among the Dead Men With Manchester City (Mainstream, pounds 7.99) is a diary of the season City spent slumming with Macclesfield, Colchester and co. It is liberally laced with the black humour endemic at Maine Road, culminating in a typically surreal play- off final against Gillingham.

The same game provides rich pickings for Steve Parish, one of 26 writers who contributed pithy pieces on everyone from Germany through Dwight Yorke to Woking in Always Next Year: 1998-99 Season According to When Saturday Comes (WSC Books, pounds 9.99). For some City fans, he asserts, the question "Where were you when Dickov scored?" hangs round their necks "like a placard of shame".

Up to 5,000 had so despaired of City's attempts to erase a 2-0 deficit at Wembley that they were on tube trains or driving away when the goals flew in. "Their crime, their enduring guilt, will be lack of faith," says Parish, "allied to the knowledge that they missed what would have been one of the best moments of their lives."

Kirk Blows has written a robust account of West Ham in the 1990s "from the inside" (as well as being Julian Dicks' biographer he edits the club magazine). Fortune's Always Hiding? (Mainstream, pounds 9.99) lacks the style of Hodkinson's book but carries some good stories (e.g. Hartson v Berkovic, Harry Redknapp's disastrous early foreign buys, etc) robustly told.

A childhood attachment to Wolverhampton Wanderers - in Galway - led Kevin Brophy to decamp to the Black Country and spend a season following Wolves. In the Company of Wolves (Mainstream, pounds 9.99) has all the football detail a Molineux anorak could want, and Brophy struck lucky, if Mark McGhee will excuse the word, when the manager was sacked during his year.

However, the book is also a personal odyssey, poignant and funny by turn as the author discovers a sense of belonging in the Midlands. Derby day at West Bromwich disabused him of any romantic notions about the area. "The hostility was palpable," he reflects with typical verve, "like something Saddam Hussein might have developed for chemical warfare against anyone who failed to adore him."

The best photo collection of the year is Welcome To Elland Road (iFG Books, pounds 12.99). Edited by former loaded supremo James Brown and Les Rowley, the book features the work of John and Andrew Varley, a father-and-son photography team, who have covered Leeds United from Don Revie to David O'Leary.

Its pages abound with striking images. Duncan Mackenzie hurdles a Mini before a match (did he then play?); Vinnie Jones scythes down the mascot; George Graham with his head framed by the club crest like a halo; and Jack Charlton and Billy Bremner lie in their hotel beds the morning after Leeds won the FA Cup, with newspapers and plates strewn around and Bremner smoking.

The storming form of Peter Reid's team makes Roger Hutchinson's Into the Light: A Complete History of Sunderland (Mainstream, pounds 9.99) a timely tome. Strong on the distant past - over half the book covers 1890-1914 - but incomplete in that it has no illustrations.

Bill Leckie's words are worth a thousand pictures in parts of Penthouse and Pavement (Mainstream, pounds 7.99). Subtitled "How to survive in football without sucking up to the Old Firm", the book is the St Mirren-mad Sun scribe's occasionally inspired, often indulgent yet frequently hilarious take on Scottish football's haves and have-nots.

The epic tale of how Leckie ended up travelling to Stranraer v Fraserburgh in a stretch limo epitomises his obdurate love of the game's grass roots. Bristling with chip-on-the-shoulder idiosyncrasies, it includes a scathing put-down of Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch and what he sees as the middle-class colonisation of the game.

Comments