Magic moments in diaries of the unexpected

Phil Shaw reviews a year in the life of the best football tomes
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Everything is now geared towards 25 December, yet it is the events of 25 January that resonate through the pages of the year's most riveting football reads.

Eric Cantona did not, alas, keep a diary giving his version of that fateful night at Crystal Palace or its aftermath. Alex Ferguson did, and A Year in the Life (Virgin, pounds 12.99) reveals how the Manchester United manager was torn between the instinct to defend Cantona and a realisation that he was indefensible.

Amazingly, Ferguson was still unsure what had happened when he arrived home to learn that Cantona had "karate-kicked the guy". Too sick at heart to watch a recording, he went to bed, but could not sleep. "At 5.25am I got up and put the video on. I couldn't believe what I saw."

It is testimony to Ferguson's candour and the editing skills of Peter Ball that the tempo does not falter either side of Selhurst Park. The inside story of Andy Cole's pounds 7m signing is fascinating - Ferguson then considered him better value than Les Ferdinand - while he pulls no punches about Blackburn's shortcomings.

The extent to which l'affaire Cantona dominated a season bristling with big stories is evident from another diary, by the Charlton striker Garry Nelson. Amid the unexpected delights of Left Foot Forward: A Year in the Life of a Journeyman Footballer (Headline, pounds 12.99), is this initial reaction: "Just when I thought I was safe to go to parties again and say I'm a footballer..."

Fast forward to March. Nelson is pole-axed at Bristol City and is carried off in agony. "A City fan leaned out of the crowd. 'That's your career over, you bastard,' he crowed. Thoughts strayed to Cantona. If only he'd been carrying the stretcher, I'd have paid all his fines for him if, dropping me like a hot potato, he'd vaulted the hoarding..."

Karren Brady's Brady Plays the Blues (Pavilion, pounds 14.99) is billed as the diary of Birmingham's mould-breaking managing director. Although one always has a sense of events being viewed with hindsight, it contains entertaining insights into the odd trio of Brady, David Sullivan and Barry Fry.

At one point, Fry tells a player Sullivan wants him out. Brady insists the owner said no such thing, forcing the manager to backtrack. Later, she turns to Fry saying: "I can't believe you did that." The Arthur Daley of football replies: "Yeah, Kazza, it was a bit of a kick in the bollocks, wasn't it?"

Which brings us back to a certain Frenchman. Ian Ridley's Cantona: The Red and the Black (Gollancz, pounds 14.99) is an intelligent and critical study of a life and a career. The book is "unauthorised" and better for it, Ridley shedding far more light on the complex character he calls "part Rambo, part Rimbaud" than Cantona did in his self-justifying autobiography.

Gary McAllister stays on the fence about Cantona's time at Leeds in Captain's Log (Mainstream, pounds 14.99). The Scotland skipper does, however, quote one manager (sadly anonymous) who derided Cantona as "a poor man's Joe Jordan". He is also more forthcoming about how, but for Brian Clough's belligerence, he might now be leading Nottingham Forest.

As a study of a folk hero, David Instone's The Bully Years (Thomas Publications, pounds 8.99) is short on controversy (apart from Steve Bull's ongoing feud with Leicester's Steve Walsh) but long on goals. All the 250-plus Bull has scored for Wolves are described, and it is a tribute to the author that he turns so many knock-ins into a dramatic litany.

Vying with the diary for format of the year is the oral history. Kicking & Screaming, by Rogan Taylor and Andrew Ward (Robson, pounds 16.95), is recommended especially to anyone who forgot to video the BBC2 series while watching Cracker. Memories and myths trace a national obsession from the days when a pair of boots had to last years through the Brylcreem Boys to today's millionaire players and their agents.

Stephen Walsh's Voices of the Old Firm (Mainstream, pounds 14.99) performs a similar role in recording eye-witness accounts, laced with acid Glaswegian wit, of the past 50 years of Rangers and Celtic. It is a tale of devotion, rivalry and bigotry - and that's just the players.

Tom Watt must also have been up to his spectacles in interview tapes. Curiously, A Passion for the Game: Real Lives in Football (Mainstream, pounds 14.99) coaxes more "real" experience from stewards, kit men and press- box assistants than from the likes of Ron Atkinson and Robert Chase.

My favourite involves the PA announcer at Liverpool. Annoyed by the Tannoy man who gave details of a car to be moved as Tommy Smith was about to take a penalty, George Sephton wrote in pleading "Gissajob". They did, but he froze at his first game.

"All my mates are down there in the crowd. I've either got to get on and do this or pack my bags and emigrate." He survived, and is still going strong, but the next day: "I was in my car, driving through Bootle, and I stopped and just cried for 20 minutes. My nervous system was shredded."

As tears go by, the heavyweight club histories get bigger and better. No one does nostalgia as expertly as Breedon, whose latest batch include books on Blackburn, Bolton, Derby (a pictorial record) and a timely paean to Middlesbrough's past, Ayresome Park Memories, by Eric Paylor and John Wilson (all pounds 14.99). Meanwhile, their Breedon Book of Scottish Football Records (pounds 14.99), edited by Gordon Smailes, is a must for tartan anoraks.

Hamlyn are market leaders in the "official" illustrated homage. An impressive autumn collection features updated editions on Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham, plus a new volume on Celtic (all pounds 16.99).

As arguably the fattest and most expensive tome ever, A Football Compendium (British Library, pounds 60) is a Gazza among reference works. Compiled by Peter J Seddon, its 5,000 entries detail everything written or recorded about the game in these islands since 1863. For example, there have been 45 books on Arsenal, nine on George Best and one on Albanian footy. One for completists.

Duncan Chilcott's Hamlyn Guide to Football Collectables (pounds 12.99) may have a similar appeal. An illustrated buyers' guide to memorabilia, it is a treasure trove of shirts, caps, trophies, medals, works of art, records, books, stamps, programmes, cigarette cards et al. What price Cantona's old Bruce Lee posters?