Christmas Books: McVay chronicle of a 'football nobody' brings harsh reality out of the wardrobe

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The Independent Football

Talk about an enigma within a riddle. Jimmy Sirrel's words as Notts County trained at the evocatively named Wilford Tip left David McVay confused. "Jesus Christ, you're playing, son, but you're no really playing, aye," growled the gnarled old Scottish philosopher-manager.

McVay, a former England schoolboys' captain who is now a sports journalist, kept a daily chronicle of his time as an insecure young defender. After three decades, they are available as Steak Diana Ross: Diary Of A Football Nobody (Parrs Wood Press, £9.95), the best insight into a player's life since Only A Game?, Eamon Dunphy's classic collaboration with Peter Ball.

Hilarious and sad, it captures perfectly the age of Monty Python, "progressive" rock and The Exorcist. McVay, while gravitating towards the crumpet-chasing, ale-sinking cynical older pros, also asserts his individuality with a beard. "The gaffer has told me it must come off if I'm to be selected for the first team," he writes. "Bollocks to that." (Sirrel is later depicted wielding a scalpel, in a manic attempt to clear marauding Manchester United fans rather than to shave him).

The first book, surely, to contain the words "knee-trembler beneath Trent Bridge", Steak Diana Ross - named after McVay's efforts to subvert the Q&A in Notts' programme about his favourite food, singer, etc - must also be the only one to admit to urinating in wardrobes. An enigma within a Jimmy Riddle, you could say.

Those looking for more traditional football fare, conjuring the beauty, passion and humanity of the game, would be well advised to invest in Stuart Clarke's glorious photographic collection, Football In Our Time (Mainstream Publishing, £20).

Clarke's pictures were taken everywhere from the World Cup to the Lake District. Alongside the landscapes, with stands and terraces protruding among trees and terraced houses, there are curiously intimate images of fans, celebrating and sickened. In terms of size, a coffee-table tome, but to be pored over rather than poured over.

Another "safe" Christmas present for fans of all ages is the DK Football Yearbook: The Complete Guide To The World Game, edited by David Goldblatt (Dorling Kindersley, £20). Living up to its billing as a "500-page graphic survey of the sporting, social and economic history of the sport", it is brilliantly designed, with maps and photos providing a colourful counterweight to the fact-fest.

In brutal contrast comes Jack Alexander's McCrae's Battalion (Mainstream, £15.99). The 16th Royal Scots were effectively Heart of Midlothian FC at war, knee deep in mud and gore at the Somme. In 1914, the Edinburgh club's players were exhorted to fight in conscience-pricking terms: "Don't let it be said that footballers are shirkers and cowards." Many remain buried where they fell. Alexander, in the role of historical detective, unearths their poignant stories.

The most riveting tale in Jon Spurling's Rebels For The Cause: The Alternative History Of Arsenal (Mainstream, £15.99) centres on the same period, notwithstanding the exploits of Charlie George, Charlie Nicholas and other non-conformists who have represented an ostensibly establishment club. Their owner, the caddish Tory MP Sir Henry Norris, uprooted Arsenal from Kent and ensured they joined the First Division after finishing fifth in the Second before the War.

From the original Franchise FC to their latterday equivalents, Wimbledon, aka Milton Keynes. Niall Couper's The Spirit Of Wimbledon (Cherry Red Books, £14.99) is a celebration of the original club's role in a south London community and the re-creation of the bond between team and fans in AFC Wimbledon.

Grahame Lloyd's One Hell Of A Season (Celluloid, £14.99) covers a year in the life of Lincoln City and Boston United as told by their managers, players (including Cilla Black's nephew), directors, fans and, crucially in the wake of ITV Digital's demise, accountants. With so many clubs stricken, it should resonate well beyond the boundaries of Lincolnshire.

There is something universal, too, about the black humour in Paint It White: Following Leeds Everywhere by Garry Edwards (Mainstream, £9.99). A decorator who refuses to use red paint out of disdain for Manchester United, Edwards has missed one game in 36 years. He is practised in coping with his club being in the red, as it were, thanking Joshua Tetley "for helping me through the Eighties".

In Elland Road e:males (Parrs Wood Press, £15), Dave Shack has compiled emails sent between a group of Leeds fans during the torrid 2002-03 season. Amid the superannuated laddishness, there are flashes of real lucidity. On Terry Venables' arrival, one writes: "Does he give anyone else a feeling of an impending slide down the ranks?"

Leeds often appear unmanageable, a term which recurs in relation to Aston Villa in Dave Woodhall's McMullan To O'Leary: Claret & Blue Managers (Heroes Publishing, £8.99). Ron Atkinson tellingly calls Doug Ellis "a frustrated manager", yet Tommy Cummings pre-dated "Deadly" and he states: "I was glad to get away from Villa - I wish I hadn't left Mansfield. I could still be there now."

Villa's nosedive down the divisions coincided with stirring times for nearby West Bromwich Albion. David Instone retraces their replay-strewn run to FA Cup glory in 1968 in When We Won The Cup (Thomas Publications, £15.99). The drama is not confined to the heroics of Jeff Astle and "Bomber" Brown or the original "Ossie" Osborne. The captain, Graham Williams, reveals a kidnap threat, à la Beckham, against his young family before the semi-final.

Like the McVay book, Gerald Mortimer's memoir, Are The Fixtures Out?(Breedon Books, £14.99), comes out of the East Midlands with a quirky title. Often cantankerous, invariably perceptive, Mortimer covered Derby County and Derbyshire cricket for 30 years, placing him at the heart of the conquests and convulsions of the Brian Clough and Peter Taylor era.

Once, before Derby met Notts County, Mortimer asked them how an ordinary player like Jimmy Sirrel (one and the same) had become such a winning manager. As Taylor tittered, Clough suggested he ask him exactly that, saying the Glaswegian valued bluntness. "Sirrel managed to throw me by describing himself as one of the finest players ever to come out of Scotland," recalls Mortimer, noting dryly that Notts lost 6-0.