Football: Books for Christmas - How Claridge thrived despite Aldershot' s bouncing cheques and rotten turkeys

The Unsung Heroes
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The Independent Online
From Weymouth to Wembley, Steve Claridge's journey was more chequered than a Croatian shirt. If your mental picture of the journeyman striker is of him wheeling away to celebrate a goal then you have not read his entertaining memoir. Tales From the Boot Camps (Vista, pounds 5.99) finds Claridge stuck in a ditch, beneath a tractor after an incident with a melon.

Only two books, Eamon Dunphy and Peter Ball's Only A Game? and Fred Eyre's Kicked Into Touch, have got inside the humour of the game as successfully as Claridge and his collaborator, Ian Ridley, The Independent on Sunday's Football Correspondent. Confirm- ing that failure makes for better football literature than success, his time at Aldershot forms the most compelling chapter.

Cheques bounced, overnight stays were out (even to Carlisle) and the Christmas turkeys from the club were rotten. When Claridge bought a video of a match in which he had scored a hat-trick, he recognised the commentator as the team's bus driver, who was struggling to be heard above a moaning fan.

It is Aldershot, rather than Leicester, where he finally cracked it, that Claridge calls "the happiest time of my career". But there's much more: from clashes at Cambridge (one more than verbal) with the lord of long-ball brutalism, John Beck, to the circus that was Birmingham under Karren Brady (as it were) and Barry Fry. Highly recommended.

Claridge plays with his socks rolled down. So did Robin Friday, though whereas Claridge has made the most of a modest talent, Friday literally pissed his exceptional ability against a wall. The sadness of The Greatest Footballer You Never Saw, by Paolo Hewitt and Oasis bassist Paul McGuigan (Mainstream, pounds 9.99), is that the former Reading striker is not around to enjoy the belated acclaim. He was found dead seven years ago.

Friday was a pigeon-toed ex-asphalter with a penchant for spectacular goals and a passion for excess. He spent one New Year's Eve drunkenly dancing on pub tables. In the morning he scored twice despite being marked by Bobby Moore.

Drink, aka The Bevvy, plays no small part in Ian Black's Tales of the Tartan Army (Mainstream, pounds 8.99). In Italy, after capitulation to Costa Rica, Scotland supporters sought solace in vino collapso. Their adaptation of "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" burned into Black's memory:

What do you get when you drink the wine?

A pounds 10 fine and a year's probation

Knee in the balls at the polis station

I'll never drink the wine again

We also encounter the sinister Kilt Police, armed only with boot polish, and learn the bittersweet saga of Bodyswerve and the bairn that never was. For all their overseas tours of duty-frees, Wembley brings the best out of the footsoldiers. In '75, as the English goals rained in, they sang: "We'll support you up to four." When it ended 5-1 they gloated: "They couldnae make it six."

The Tartan Army are more likely to be found at East Fife or Forfar than Ibrox or Parkhead. David Bennie's A Season in Hell (Mainstream, pounds 14.99) is an idiosyncratic, sad and sometimes hilarious travelogue around all 37 Scottish League venues. A sort of Bill Bryson-meets-Nick Hornby, it must be the first book to compare Cumbernauld and Cowdenbeath with Chicago and Albania respectively.

Bennie's title would have been equally apposite for Stephen North and Paul Hodson's account of the fight to save Brighton & Hove Albion. Instead they came up with Build a Bonfire (Mainstream, pounds 14.99) - as in the song - which is one of the few courses of action campaigners did not follow. The bulk of the book comprises the views of "ordinary" supporters. There is also a guide to how to depose your chairman (right down to picketing his house in a quiet village) and suitably vitriolic verse by Attila the Stockbroker.

The Herefordshire hostelry where 40-odd inebriated Brightonians celebrated League survival with a mass, Wayne's World-style singalong to "Bohemian Rhapsody" must have been a sight to behold. Essential reading in Doncaster.

From the Midlands come two unusual perspectives. Steve Stride is the Aston Villa-crazy kid who progressed from office boy to secretary and director, in which time he has seen five chairmen, nine managers and hundreds of players come and go. Stride Inside the Villa, with Rob Bishop (Sports Projects, pounds 8.95), is full of behind-the-scenes anecdotes.

Jo Venglos took defeat like no manager Stride has seen. Once, after his team were booed off, Dr Jo's wife Eva (whose English was not great) muttered: "Poor my husband." One of the players' wives said politely: "You mean my poor husband." Eva nodded: "Yes him too."

David Instone, of Wolverhampton's Express & Star, has produced an insightful reporter's diary of another year of Molineux under-achievement in Wolves: Exclusive! (Thomas Publications, pounds 6.99). The day after Dave Bassett quit Crystal Palace for Nottingham Forest, Instone overheard Mark McGhee being complimented on his sharp suit and tie.

"Got to be smart today," replied the Wolves manager, sending himself up. "I've got an interview at Palace."

When Saturday Comes has played an influential role in the increased assertiveness of supporters. Power, Corruption and Pies (Two Heads, pounds 9.99) collates the best of 10 years' journalism in WSC, which was way ahead of the "new football writing" in more ways than one.

The wit of Harry Pearson, the polemicism of Ed Horton and the strident clarity of the magazine's founder, Mike Ticher, stand out. Ticher's piece about Matthew Harding goes against the received wisdom without coming on remotely like Ken Bates, while Nick Hornby mounts a stout defence of Fever Pitch.

Alan Edge's Faith of Our Fathers: Football as a Religion (Two Heads, pounds 9.99) sounds and looks like an academic treatise to accompany a Channel 4 documentary. It is actually a personal, often amusing account of growing up on football-mad Merseyside, mixed with observations on the modern game.

This reader particularly identified with the author when he recalls the reaction of his Christian Brother teachers to the innocent carving of players' names on his desk. And who can put his hand on his heart and say he has never leapt out of his car, like Edge, to berate a small boy for wearing a Manchester United replica kit?