Tag Archives: sport

Fifty Years of Hurt

Fifty Years of Hurt: The Story of England and Why We Never Stop Believing (2016) by Henry Winter looks at why the English national football team have underperformed by talking to a number of ex-footballers and coaches about why England have a worse record than Spain, Italy, France or Germany.

Why England don’t perform as expected is a bit of a mystery. People often point to the longer English season with no winter break and England’s failures on penalties in repeated tournaments. Also tactical and technical issues are assessed. The combination appears to be fairly devastating.

Winter talks to Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer, Michael Owen, Ian Wright and so many other people in the book that it does make for a pretty fascinating book for anyone familiar with English football. However, it is a bit long and does get repetitive.

It should be pointed out by the book, but isn’t that England’s record until Spain and France won World Cups and Euros was actually in the middle of the pack of large European countries and until 2010 had a better record than Spain. Indeed, if England could take penalties at World Cups they could well have two wins. England has the worst record of penalties in World Cups, having played three and lost three. It’s worth noting, however, that France’s record is 50/50 and Italy have played 4 and lost 3.

It should also be said that international football is really hard. Really only Germany and Brazil, the largest country in Western Europe and the largest country in South America that have really strong records. Only Italy and Uruguay have records that transcend their size. And even with Germany and Italy it’s worth noting that Italy hasn’t won the Euros in almost 50 years and Germany hasn’t in 20.

There is also some hope at the end of the book as the more recent success of the England youth team are discussed. There is also some hope in terms of fixing things that are not working. Germany lost a penalty shootout in 1976 and then got organised and have not lost one since.

For anyone interested in football and anyone who is interested in England it’s well worth a read. A bit more context and comparison with other countries and an acknowledgement that football is really hard to do well in might have helped, but the interviews and discussion are genuinely interesting.



The Secret Footballer’s Guide to the Modern Game

The Secret Footballer’s Guide to the Modern Game: Tips and Tactics from the Ultimate Insider (2015) by Anon is another book by the secret footballer about the modern game.

The book looks at fitness, food, tactics and the way the modern game works. There is also a fair amount on why England haven’t done as well as expected.

This book isn’t as good as the first book by the secret footballer but is much better than the second. The information about what modern footballers eat, how they train and the tactical insights are really interesting. The tactical discussions are probably the highlight of the book, hopefully these will be fleshed out further at some point.

If you’re into football this book is definitely worth a read. If you’re vaguely interested in football the first Secret Footballer’s book is a better bet.

The Inner Game of Tennis

The Inner Game of Tennis (1974) by W Timothy Gallway is a well written, insightful book on how to improve almost any activity.

Gallway posits the abstraction that there is an unconscious self, self 2 that performs physical actions while there is a conscious self, self 1 that is verbal and tells self 2 what to do and very often does more harm than good. Self 1 often makes self 2 tense up, focus on the wrong things and causes mistakes by being under confident or over confident.

Gallway describes how to quieten self 1 and observe self 2 and let self 2 work on improving and being as good as possible. He emphasises that focus and being in the zone are what really improve performance.

The book is simplistic, but it has a valuable lesson. Focus and  try and observe but not criticise what you are doing and then improve. The book perhaps neglects the role of practice, but definitely makes good points. It’s also applicable to more than tennis. It’s a short and interesting read.


Soccer and Money

Have you ever wondered how the Gini coefficient of La Liga and the EPL compare? If so Soccer and Money (2015) by Stefan Szymanski is definitely the book for you. If you’re interested in soccer and economic data there is loads in the book about the domination of leagues by particular teams, how teams become insolvent and disappear and how this compares to normal companies and many other topics related to how sport is organised.

There are chapters on players and squad value, stadiums and revenue, debt, ownership of the big clubs, strategy of ownership, Insolvency, how soccer compares to US sport and regulation of budgets of clubs.

The book points out how dominance of a few clubs exists even in tiny poor leagues and how even prior to the massive increase in money due to pay TV revenues in soccer since the 1980s there was dominance of a few clubs in most leagues. Szymanski points out that revenue and player pay is very closely related to league position and how ‘moneyballing’ soccer is very difficult. He also points out that salary caps wouldn’t work in Europe and that league mergers between the Dutch and Belgian leagues and Scandinavian leagues would make financial sense.

For anyone interested in economics and sport the book is a great read. There is lots of data and lots of interesting insights that have been obtained from the data that are well worth thinking about.

Behind the Curtain : Travels in Eastern European Football

Behind the Curtain : Travels in Eastern European Football (2006) by Jonathon Wilson catalogues much of Eastern European football from the years after WWII to the fall of Communism and beyond. It reads as part travel book, part sports book and part history book.

Wilson wrote the really excellent Inverting the Pyramid about football tactics and is a fine writer as well as a keen observer of football. He also has a love of Eastern European Football that comes through in the book.

The book covers Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, the former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania, The Caucasus and Russia in long chapters that go through the history of national teams, major clubs, great players and great coaches.

The political arrangements are followed by the deal and corruption of the modern era. Despite being a football book it prompts the question of why organise football well at all if society is collapsing. In places where football is used as a political tool it makes sense but in corrupt broken countries it’s hard to justify running a club well. It does make you realise that well run clubs that are not corrupt are in many ways stranger than a club run by a local rich man.

The book wouldn’t be fun for anyone who isn’t interested in football. It probably requires both an interest in football and an interest in Eastern Europe, but if you are interested in both then it’s a well written, rewarding read.

The Second Half

The Second Half (2014) by Roy Keane and Roddy Doyle is the second autobiographical book about Roy Keane. It covers the later stages of career at Manchester United, his games for Celtic and the beginning of his coaching career coaching Sunderland, Ipswich and the Republic of Ireland as well as his stint commentating.

It’s not a bad read for anyone interested in the end of a great player’s career and hearing about how he damaged his own body by playing too much and too hard and then turned toward coaching. For anyone interested in the subject to begin with it’s worth reading, for anyone who doesn’t like Keane or United it would not be a good book to read.

The Sports Gene

The Sports Gene (2011) by David Epstein is a superb non-fiction book on the interaction between genetics and sport. Even if you’re not interested in sport the book is very much worth reading because it is so well written and because of how the subject of the book extends further than sport. The book looks at how small areas of the world produce great results in particular sports and how the sporting world has been changing over time.

Epstein is a senior writer at Sports Illustrated. He was an athlete at high school and college and introduces us to the issues covered by the book with a narrative about how he saw some people he ran with performed. It gives the book a narrative that allows us to build a mental framework for the facts and the thesis he puts forward.

The book takes us to West Africa and Jamaica looking for sprint talent, to Finland to look at the Eero Mäntyranta the amazing cross country skier, to Kenya to look for long distance running talent and all over the US to look for what makes particular dimensions of bodies so good for various sports.

The sections on anthropometry are fascinating. The way that height and span are so important in basketball is remarkable. The book does concentrate more on athletic sports than on team sports where particular physical attributes are not as important such as soccer which does suggest that some sports may be more able to be played at a high level by a larger percentage of the population than others.

The coverage of genetics and what various types of athletes have is really excellent. The complexity of genetic ability and response to training is nicely done. It’s great to read a geneticist remark that if you want to test your kids for particular sporting ability the best test is often done with a stop watch.

The book is as good as a Michael Lewis or a Simon Winchester book. It’s non-fiction of the highest calibre that provides entertaining personal stories with a subtle and deep view of a subject. For anyone interested in sport this is a must read, for people who don’t like sports it’s still very much worth a look.