Book Review: The Football Neutral: Season 2014/15 by Jim Smallman

One of my favourite books that I read last year was Jim Smallman’s first Football Neutral. This is the second season as Smallman continues his travels to various clubs. A stand up comic, Smallman decided that attending football matches on Saturdays instead of wasting time in cafes, and blogged about them, the results being collected here.

Like the first one this made me miss the experience of going to matches regularly and I’ve made a nee resolution to try and go to at least five matches in the 2017/18 season. I would especially love to go see Clapton FC, who, based on the entry here, have a great following that creates a fun, entertaining atmosphere.

The Clapton players marking their anti-homophobia match

Smallman writes with natural charm and enthusiasm. His analysis of the games is fair and unpretentious, but where he excels is capturing the atmosphere and characters of the matches. An astute people watcher and seemingly a lover of humanity, these are usually warm and funny.

Throughout the book, Smallman is enthusiastic and passionate about football and it’s infection. 

He also seems like a top bloke, and is great company here.

Hopefully, there will be more collections to come.

Verdict: A charming, fun read that gives readers a great tour around British football, with a likeable and engaging guide in Smallman. It’s fuelled by a simple, honest love of the game and its fans and gives more background to clubs I only knew from the classifieds. A nice, easy read full of charm. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Commitment by Didier Drogba

Cards on the table time, I’m not a massive Didier Drogba fan. This is probably because despite being a skilled footballer I felt he was too prone to diving and he played for Chelsea during an era when I severely disliked the team (mainly because of the tag team of tools that was Ashley Cole and John Terry).

But I received this book as a Christmas present from my big sis, who likes Drogba a lot because of his Christian beliefs and charity work. To be fair to the guy, he does seem to do a lot of good work and has donated a lot of his sponsorship cash to worthy causes. 

This book details some of this work, and the reasons behind his charitable work as well as his personal life. Born in Ivory Coast he moved to France as a young boy where he moved frequently as he lived with his journeyman footballer uncle. A lover of the beautiful game from a young age he wished to follow in his uncle’s footsteps.

Missing out on academy football he was late in making it compared to his peers, but soon made up for this with a knack for scoring goals. This is what most of the book is devoted to, with the story divided by specific sections of his career.

For non football fans it might be a bit of a struggle as it’s mainly about how he did every year, the goals, injuries, triumphs and failures along the way. The sections about family and charity are separate, and feel tacked on.

Drogba comes across well enough and it does give a little bit of background to the dressing room atmosphere and his explosions on the field. But the insights are rather limited and the writing is thoroughly pedestrian. 

Maybe it’s because of the language barrier, but there’s a genuine lack of humour or depth. It’s an easy read, but uninspiring. But as I used it to help pass time on night shifts this actually turned out to be a positive- just about interesting to keep you going and easy enough for a sleep deprived mind.

An okay read if you’re a huge Chelsea or Drogba fan, but for others might be a bore.

Verdict: It passes the time, but is rather dull and lacks the humour, scandal or insight to make it a great autobiography. 5/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: The Football Neutral: Season 2013/14 by Jim Smallman

I adored this book, and found myself really wanting to go out and take in a football match (it has been far too long). The book is a collection of blogs that comedian Jim Smallman wrote after deciding that while he was on the rode he may as well enjoy his Saturday afternoon away from home and decided to watch a match every chance he got.

A Leicester City fan, Smallman decides that he can’t just go and watch his own team, and that he will avoid premiership matches, instead embracing lower league matches and a new team every match day.

This is what makes the book such a joy as Smallman writes with warmth and affection for the teams and fans he meets along the way. From Championship all the way down to non-league he slots games into his free time and sees glamour ties like Aldershot vs Wrexham. He appears to enjoy most of the matches, describing the action with some good football knowledge and a keen eye for people watching.

He’s a charming and funny companion in the stands and captures the atmosphere and appeal of going to live games. Every entry is well written and entertaining, with even the more dire matches written about with energy and wit. Throughout he is engaging and excited about football, interested in the clubs and their fans and stories. It’s also nice to see someone open about their oathing of certain clubs (for Smallman it’s Coventry and MK Dons, although he shows Coventry sympathy I would struggle to muster for Cardiff).

As well as being about football it’s also an interesting look into the life of a working comedian. There’s a second book available collecting the next season’s matches and it has gone right into my “to read” list. It also makes me want to go see a live match again, and so in the new year I might wander over and take in a Barry match.

Verdict: A warm and amusing read which will appeal to any football fan and captures life in the stands, and gives a snapshot of life in the lower leagues. Smallman is a funny and charming writer and his enthusiasm is infectious. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: I am the Secret Footballer by Anonymous 

Despite countless column inches in every paper what goes on behind closed doors at football clubs is still a mystery, largely surrounded in secrecy and rumour. Even more of a mystery is what the players really think.

Opening up about teammates, managers, the media and the fans would be a risky move, and that’s why the writer here is anonymous. Over several years he wrote for The Guardian and provided a look into the mind of a modern player.

The anonymity allows him to be gloriously candid, and while it’s all one man’s opinion it’s still well worth a read and an insight into the changing rooms of the Premier League.
In the book he discusses managers, other players, fans and the highs and lows of life as a professional footballer. Whoever he is the Secret Footballer is a gifted writer with warmth, humour and honesty running throughout.

It’s a solid read and a section about his own depression is especially well done and open. It’s nice to see mental health addressed in such an up front, unflinching way and offers reasons for why athletes may be so susceptible to depression and stress. It’s brave work and shows that while there has been some progress we still have a way to go with attitudes towards mental health.

If you’re a football fan it’s definitely worth checking out as it’s an unprecedented insight into the world of the modern professional and there are some entertaining stories of ego, debauchery and excess along the way.

Verdict: Well written and with engaging candour this is an entertaining glimpse behind the changing room door. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Euro 2016 Part 7: Proud

said I’d cry and I did.

Wales’ Euro 2016 dream came crashing down in three minutes, as Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani both scored for Portugal. After the first I thought we could get back into it, but the second was a devastating blow and Wales couldn’t recover.

Ronaldo heads home

On the night Portugal were the better team and deserved the win, but it still hurt.

As the seconds ticked away and a comeback looked less likely and I teetered on the brink of despair. And then the Wales fans in Lyon started singing.

There was frustration. There was disappointment. But the emotion that pushed me over the edge was the pride. Pride in the Welsh players and fans who have carried themselves so well throughout the tournament. 

On the field there have been great moments, the victories against Russia and Belgium being the highs, but the attitude of the team has been amazing. There has been a genuine feeling of camaraderie and pride in representing their country, exemplified by the sheer joy that has followed every goal and Chris Gunter’s “chin up” gesture following the loss to England.

Gunter gestures to the fans to keep their chins up

The passion on the field has meant that the Welsh team have connected with the public as never before, and they have been taken into the hearts of the Welsh people. The fans have sung, cheered and tweeted their support, filling fan zones across the country.

They have behaved and enjoyed, earning the respect of their hosts and opponents, and have been an important part in driving the team onwards .

They have sang the national anthem, a rallying cry, an inspiration for the eleven men on the field. The connection has been made and will endure long after the tournament, earning the team new fans.

For older fans it was a moment of glory after years of disappointment and failure. Building on the work of the late Gary Speed, Chris Coleman has built a team that works as a unite who have become a true team and who have reached heights Welsh football never has before. From ranking the wrong side of 100 to the final four in Europe it’s been a sensational story.

It may not have ended the way I would have liked, but Wales have done so well, and I feel nothing but pride and love for a team who have come so far. They leave the tournament able to hold their heads up and the future for the team looks bright, with renewed confidence before we start on the road to Russia 2018. Wales at the World Cup would be a great thing indeed.

The Wales team salute their fans

They will return to a heroes’ welcome and it will be justly deserved.

They did us proud. Cymru am byth.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Euro 2016 Part 6: Oh, me of little faith

Crying like a toddler, and I don’t care. Magnificent. Utterly bloody magnificent – Gary Slaymaker

I haven’t cried yet. But it’s been a close thing ever since hearing the Manics blast out “Together Stronger” at the Liberty.

Welsh football has been a cruel mistress. Letting you down right at the end, embarrassing you in front of your English friends, never taking you anywhere nice, sometimes not even showing up at all. But then, like the hero of a romantic comedy who makes the grand gesture at the end, Wales came through.

The qualifying campaign was a dream. Making Euro 2016 a massive high.

A middle aged customer said to his friend a while back “We made it. Everything else is a bonus.”

And what a bonus.

Winning the group. Edging out Northern Ireland to make the quarters.

After dismantling Hungary, I thought Belgium were going to be too much for us. And in the early stages they bossed the game, with only heroic Welsh defending keeping them out.

But the line couldn’t hold indefinitely and finally they broke through when Nainggolan was given far too much room and fired in a cannon like strike from distance.

They could have fallen apart there, but part of their success is due to resilience and passion, and Wales not only getting back into the game but started dominating. An equaliser looked likely and arrived from a fitting source, captain Ashley Williams heading home.

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Williams in wonderland

Scenes of joy followed and Wales were in with a chance. After the break, Belgium regained a little bit of momentum but it was open play.

And then a moment of utter genius. Surrounded by three defenders and with his back to goal, Hal Robson-Kanu got the ball in the penalty area, and could have struggled. But with a clever flick he turned, wrong footing the defence and slotting the ball home.

2-1.

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Robson-Kanu

Then the tension set in, Belgium throwing everything forward and Wales surviving through gritty defending and, yes, luck. With ten minutes to go I was perched on the edge of the sofa, a bundle of nerves and anxiety.

And then Sam Vokes, on as a substitute scored his first goal in a Wales shirt, a magnificent header to seal the deal at 3-1. Cue Wales, and me going into meltdown.

The semi-finals! We’ve made the bloody semi-finals!

A lump in my throat, joy in my heart.

Whatever happens against Portugal, the players have done amazing and I’m proud of the boys.

And whatever happens, I’ll end up in tears at the final whistle.

I just hope they’re happy ones.

Quarter Final Round Up

Portugal beat Poland on penalties to go through, and it went the distance between Germany and Italy. Germany, the penalty specialists, progressed but only after a laughably bad shoot out that featured some of the worst penalties I’ve ever seen.

The quarters also saw the end of the tournament’s great underdog story, as Iceland were demolished 5-2 by hosts France. It was a disappointing conclusion for the Icelandic team, who had been a surprise package and the small nation had rallied behind their players, bringing with them a small, vocal support who’s almost primal chant was awe inspiring.

They kept fighting, but were outclassed by a rampant French team, but saluted their fans and could be damn proud of what they achieved.

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Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Euro 2016 Part 5: Hazard Warning

Belgium vs Hungary. The winner would face Wales, so I watched with great interest.

In this kind of situation you want both teams to look poor, play extra time (so they’re more tired) and the winning side to pick up several cards and minor injuries so they are weakened when you face them.

This didn’t happen though, instead it was a decent showing from both, decided in 90 and Belgium, the victors, emerged looking strong.

They started well with good attacking moves and took the lead after ten minutes from a good headed goal from Toby Alderweireld. For the rest of the first half Belgium put on pressure but a brave Hungarian defence kept them back.

Belgium boast a squad full of talent most noticeably Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne, who hit the crossbar with a sensational free kick.

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De Bruyne in action

Hungary had their own attempts but lacked a cutting edge up front and the game was open and entertaining. The second half saw more of the same, although the Belgians began to look more impressive.

As they chased a second they showed quick, fluid passing and were dangerous on the counter. Hungary gave a gritty display, holding them off, but it seemed unlikely that they could hold for the rest of the game and their own attacks didn’t threaten enough.

With twelve minutes remaining the Belgians got their second goal, effectively killing off the match. A corner was half cleared to Hazard, who knocked the ball past the defence and then whipped it across the face of goal, allowing substitute Michu Batshuayi to score with his first touch.

Hazard the bagged one of his own a minute later, after a quick counter worked the ball upfield. He ran in from the wing, running at defenders before blasting in from just inside the box.

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Hazard celebrates.

Three-nil seemed harsh on the Hungarians who had worked hard for almost 80 minutes, but Belgium showed no mercy. And a minute into added time Yannick Carrasco found the net and the scoreline was a rout.

In the end the class of the Belgian team won out and they dominated throughout, should they come into the match against Wales in similar confident form the tournament may well be over for us. Hazard and De Bruyne will pose the defence considerable problems, and while he was frustrated here, Romelu Lukaku is a dangerous presence up front.

Belgium set out their stall and after this type of performance they have to be regarded as one of the main contenders, and definitely the strongest looking team in their half of the tournament.

It was an entertaining match, but a worrying one for a Welsh fan.

Round of 16 Round up:

Poland and Switzerland went to penalties and Arsenal’s new £34m Swiss signing missed, meaning Poland advance to face Portugal.

Portugal progressed after beating Croatia 1-0 in a game which should be prescribed to insomniacs.

After a good group campaign Slovakia were sent home as the Germans thrashed them 3-0. The Germans will face the winner of the Italy vs Spain game this afternoon.

Today’s other match sees England take on Iceland, the tournament underdogs. The winner will face France after the hosts came back after an early scare against the Republic of Ireland to win 2-1.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Euro 2016 Part 4: Agony and Ecstasy

“Football is football, it is cruel”- Arsene Wenger.

Gareth McAuley had to act.

When Bale whipped the ball in front of goal the Irishman knew that Hal Robson-Kanu was behind him and positioned for an easy tap in. And so McAuley dived in, trying to stop the danger and only succeeding in sending the ball into his own net.

A goal that sent his country home.

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Nobody can blame him. The attacking movie, with Ramsey setting Bale free down the left was quick and beautifully executed, the ball into the area a masterpiece. Robson-Kanu was in a good position and most likely would have grabbed his second if McAuley had just hung back.

The Northern Irish fans, devastated by the loss will probably forgive him. They’ll remember the moment, in the masochistic way sports fans never release their painful moments, but they’ll know he tried. They’ll also be able to remember a decent campaign in their first tournament in 30 years.

By all accounts Wales only just edged what was a cagey game, but either way it had gone one underdog story would have been put to sleep. I feel for the Irish players and fans, but I can’t lie and say I’m not happy with the result.

Wales’ Euro dream lives on, with Belgium or Hungary awaiting, and the team find themselves in the last eight. It has been a good run and the team and fans have done us proud, how long it will last is unknown, and I think we should all enjoy the ride while we can.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Euro 2016 Part 3:

I refreshed for what felt like the hundredth time. There was no change. Wales were up two-nil, and the second round was less than half an hour away.

MWF and her cousin were talking, I have no idea what about, I was staring intently at my phone. I’d missed the start of the second half, having been at bingo (don’t knock it until you’ve tried it). An error on my part, forgetting that Monday was the day. Wales one match from the knockout stages.

A win and we were through. A draw and what happened in the other match would decide our fate. A loss and it was home time.

Wales had bossed the first half, with Aaron Ramsey giving his best performance of the tournament, passing well and piercing the Russian defence with some good runs. He’s opened the scoring after Joe Allen fed through a gorgeous pass and Ramsey calmly chipped the keeper.

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Ramsey!

I’d been happy. But one goal is not safety. Wales were all over the Russians, attacking with menace and looking solid in defence.

Breathing space arrived as Neil Taylor, making up for his poor showing against England cut into the penalty area. His first shot smacked into the keeper, but the rebound fell kindly and he bashed it into the net.

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Not bad for a man who’s last goal was six years ago against Grays Athletic. His joy mirrored everywhere and my bellowed “YESSS!” startled the blue rinse brigade.

Russia looked to be losing their cool, but despite repeated attempts a third was not forthcoming.

Gareth Bale had the look of a man on a mission, and you would have put good money on him finding the back of the net. The only downside being his desire to score made him selfish at times, trying too much when support was to hand.

I hoped that we wouldn’t be punished for this individual drive, and that Chris Coleman could calm him at the break.

A little over twenty minutes now.

Another refresh.

3-0.

Bale the scorer.

The tension unwound. The Russians were reeling before and a third effectively killed the match. Wales were in charge.

Arriving for the finish revealed Wales passing the ball with ease, the crowd giving an “ole!” to each move. Bale was taken off and the attacking edge still there, but with the game in the bag the intent was dimmed. Russia were done. A fourth would be slightly mean.

“Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” rang out from the stands, and shots of the fans was an insight into the feelings I went through. Joy. Disbelief. Relief.

The final whistle blows.

Wales are through to the last sixteen. And with England held to a goalless draw by Slovakia, we finished top of the group. The party was on in Toulouse, and I was buzzing.

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Who Wales will face next isn’t decided yet? But as group leaders it will be an easier match. Could we make the quarters? Well, a man can dream.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Euro 2016 Part 2: Back to Earth

When Daniel Sturridge found the back of the net in the dying moments there was a sense of crushing inevitability. Of course we would lose to England, of course our progression to the knock out stages would be a tense, down to the wire affair.

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In fairness England deserved the win after a Welsh performance which left the air blue and my nerves frayed. The attacking spirit and tough defending of the Slovakia game a distant memory as Wales adopted a defensive strategy with an eye on the counterattack.

The problem was that attempts at going forward were infrequent and lacked teeth, in fact that the opening goal belonged to us was a surprise and felt undeserved.

Wayne Rooney had needlessly fouled Hal Robson-Kanu, but it seemed too far out even for Gareth Bale. But a powerful strike from distance found the bottom corner and after half an hour of attacking England found themselves losing.

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With a goal advantage Wales should have looked for a knockout blow, but continued a dull strategy which seemed doomed to fail. As strong as a defence is, when facing wave upon wave of attack the odds slip in the attackers’ favour and so Jamie Vardy, on at the break buried the ball in the net to restore parity.

Even losing the lead didn’t change the Welsh game plan and it remained a tough watch. The defence looked shaky, particularly on the left where Neil Taylor gave Kyle Walker time and space and seemed unable to do anything other than backpedal.

Aaron Ramsey frustrated again and substitute Johnny Williams took to the field and blatantly dived when a little bit if work might have led to a shooting v opportunity. There was little to no pressure on the English defence when they had possession and they easily cleared their lines.

And then the Sturridge goal.

2-1 to England a fair result, they having created chances and attacked better. Wales had noone to blame but themselves for a poor display.

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From riding high to this gut punch of a defeat Wales now find themselves under pressure as they prepare for Russia Zealand and just get a result. It can be done, but it requires the team to remember the opening game’s fire and drive, and to actually go for the win.

Both home nations in group B can progress, and the last round of their games should provide some entertaining matches.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.