Football / Books for Christmas: Title tales as Ferguson is denied his Holy Grail: Trevor Haylett picks out a seasonal selection of forthright football volumes

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The Independent Online
THEIR managerial rivalry went head-to-head in every major domestic competition in 1991-92 and the start of a new campaign found Alex Ferguson and Howard Wilkinson in opposition again as they both launched into print to recall the cut and thrust of their championship fight.

Leeds' dramatic overhaul of Manchester United's lead in the gripping final days gives Wilkinson the advantage in his book title. Managing to Succeed (Mainstream pounds 12.99) has a fitting ring of eminence. Ferguson, denied Old Trafford's Holy Grail for another year at least, has to settle for

Six Years at United (Mainstream pounds 12.99).

To be fair they are both much more than mere chronicles of title glory and failure. Wilkinson, ably assisted by David Walker, traces his career in management and examines at length issues central to the game and dear to his heart.

Just six weeks after his triumph on a Sheffield Sunday in April, Wilkinson was on the brink of resignation and walking away from football. Returning from a seminar in Italy attended by Europe's top coaches he found a 'scenario of dissatisfaction and disorganisation engulfing English football and I experienced a sense of utter frustration bordering on dismay'.

They have it right abroad where players are asked 'to produce their peak form once a week and where the coach or manager can concentrate on getting matters right on the field'. Here 'the promises of a bright future were again evaporating' as chairmen 'snatched the chance of a fast buck' with rows over the constitution of the Premier League and the 'botched television deal with BSkyB'.

Wilkinson also proves remarkably prophetic when forecasting Eric Cantona's likely problems at Elland Road. He says the Frenchman proved 'the most successful acquisition Leeds have ever made' because of his relationship with supporters and the media.

However, he goes on to question Cantona's ability to adapt. 'Realistically if you scrutinise the evidence you have to admit his chances are less than even. Can Eric adapt to life in England or can we adapt to Cantona?

Ferguson takes us year by year through his time at the helm of the world's most famous club. It's a workaday format which is no fault of David Meek, for 35 years the respected United reporter for the Manchester Evening News, who presumably we have to thank for steering Fergie away from the normal bland 'revelations' and into controversy.

If anything Fergie is too frank for his good, his criticism of former players and staff at times quite wounding. His love and respect both for United and its traditions leap out from every page as does his desire to bring them more success. He hates to fail and because of that is too ready to seek out excuses to explain away failure.

Referring to last season's crucial defeat at West Ham when only three games remained, Ferguson described the home side's performance as 'obscene' because they had the temerity to want to win]

'I know there is a natural envy for Manchester United which often sees opponents raising their game but considering that the Hammers were bottom of the League and already relegated it was amost criminal to see all that effort in a game that came too late to affect their own position.'

Footballers who question the ability of journalists to criticise - 'when did you ever play the game' - risk a retaliatory strike when they pick up pen and paper. Lee Chapman has shown already that he has skills outside the penalty box with his burgeoning contributions for radio and newspapers and now he goes further with the publication of his biography and it's all his own work.

To a degree More than a Match (Stanley Paul pounds 14.99) is standard football-life fare but the Leeds' striker makes an admirable fist of telling his own story. There's probably too much detail on last season's title race and he scores best when describing life under Brian Clough and Howard Wilkinson. There's a fascinating chapter on Robert Maxwell's doomed attempt to take him from Niort to Derby when Chapman was intent on joining their neighbours and rivals Nottingham Forest.

When defeat loomed the megalomaniacal Maxwell offered the French club pounds 500,000 to keep him there for his three-year contract and when that was refused he even attempted to buy the club outright.

In the blue of Rangers and Scotland Ally McCoist is all cheek and chirpiness and Ally McCoist My Story (Mainstream pounds 12.99) bounces along in similar fashion. Crawford Brankin is faithful to the wee striker's sense of fun, his humour remaining intact even during a turbulent period under Graeme Souness when the manager refused to play him and seemed hell-bent on making his life uncomfortable.

McCoist paints an unflattering profile of the present Liverpool boss, complaining that Souness's need to assert his authority cost him some of his human qualities. Referring to the 'Souness wall' McCoist says: 'When publicly challenged he had to be seen to win. I know managers have to be tough but this was unnecessarily severe.'

When the jokes wear thin, pick up Stephen F Kelly's study of Souness's predecessor at Liverpool. Kelly's research for Dalglish (Headline pounds 14.99) is impeccable, the background to his shock resignation from Anfield and the drama and numbed disbelief experience on Merseyside vividly portrayed.

Still we search for the 'real' reason behind his departure. There appears to be none. Dalglish himself forced to telephone the Liverpool Daily Post and Radio Merseyside the day after his announcement with a cry from the heart: 'I've told the truth and if people don't believe me then that's up to them. I gave my reasons for going and they are 100 per cent'.

Kelly does not go far enough in his criticism of a man who for all his rapport with the football, his outstanding managerial success and his sensitivity, counselling and personal sacrifice after the Hillsborough tragedy has never fully understood the importance of the media to the game. Tolerant and protective of his players his flippancy and lack of co-operation with journalists began to grate long ago.

Ian Ridley's journey through English football in Season in the Cold (Kingswood pounds 8.99) is a must for every fan whether your preference is for all-seater Premier League splendour or among the escapism and fantasy world of a Sunday morning on Hackney Marshes and all its 106 pitches. The front cover is alluring and you are enticed inside for a colourful ride down football's diverse byways. Ridley's love of the game and all its idiosyncracies is unmistakable and he alights for the big football occasions as well as the more obscure calendar dates. This one's high on the recommended list.

I wanted to enjoy More Than a Job? (Further Thought Publishing pounds 4.95) as much but Roger Titford's worthy attempt to recreate Reading's 1975-76 season through Eamon Dunphy's contemporary local newspaper columns fell down for this reader because of the limitations of the subject matter.