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Where The Owl Sleeps

Hidden Gems

Stephen McGovern - Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Football books are more popular than ever right now, but it can be hard to pick the right one to spend your money on. So here's a few good ones you might not have heard of, writes Ste McGovern.


Shola Ameoba reads books like he reads the game



The Bottom Corner: Hope, Glory and Non-League Football

Nige Tassell


Non-league football is far removed from the glitz and glam of the Premier League, the prestige of the Champions League, and certainly the money generated by those two. But it is not lacking for meaningful stories, as Nige Tassell proves here.


Over the course of a season, Tassell follows the ups-and-downs of a number of clubs, such as FC United of Manchester, Tranmere Rovers and Dulwich Hamlet, discovering what it is that keeps these small clubs going. On each page the author is able to paint a picture of community, of an identity among fans and players that is so often lacking at the upper end of the game. It is hardly an idyllic painting, however, as the grimmer aspects of life below the Football League show it can often be full of hard graft and little reward.



Green Shoots: Irish Football Histories

Michael Walker


This one’s a bit of a cheat, as the author has been on national radio and well-known podcasts to promote this book, but it’s curiously been left out of many people’s lists for the best sports books of the year. The work that has gone into Green Shoots is phenomenal, giving the reader a tremendous level of detail and insight. Aside from the Irish Soccer Split, there aren’t too many books that cover the game both sides of the Border like this one. In years to come this should be looked back on as an important source of historical information of the game on this island.


Hijacking La Liga: How Atlético Madrid Broke Barcelona and Real Madrid's Duopoly on Spanish Football

Euan McTear


In his first book Euan charted the stunning rise of SD Eibar, the tiny Basque club who were more used to the lower divisions than the environs of the Bernabeu and Camp Nou, but thrive in LaLiga today. Now living and working in the Spanish capital, the Scottish writer turned his attention to a far more well-known, but no less compelling story.


Atletico Madrid’s success is not a secret; in recent years they have won the Copa Del Rey, Europa League and, of course, the Primera Division. Alas, rightly or wrongly, the majority of football coverage in Spain focuses almost entirely on Real Madrid and Barcelona. To get an insight into the inner workings of Diego Simeone’s charges is a real treat, but we should be demanding (and supporting) more works such as these on the game in Spain. Speaking of...


Listen to our interview with Euan McTear:


Working Class Heroes: The Story of Rayo Vallecano

Robbie Dunne


Small clubs are very much in vogue in Spain right now. In recent years Eibar and Real Oviedo were able to raise much needed funds by appealing to football fans all over the world. Deportivo Alaves reached last season’s Copa Del Rey final. Leganes and Girona are flying this year, while so-called bigger clubs languish near the bottom of the table.


Rayo Vallecano are no longer in LaLiga, but they are a veritable hipster club. Through his time following the club as a reporter for Diario AS, Robbie Dunne tells the tale of Madrid’s forgotten club. “They’re ‘nobodies’ in Spain,” the author told The42 in November, yet their story is fascinating. And it’s one you should definitely read up on if you have any interest in Spanish football whatsoever.


Roy Hodgson: A Football Life

Richard Allen


There are some characters in football that you would assume are naturally uninteresting, a backstory that would bore you to death. Roy Hodgson might be one of them, but you know what they say about those who assume. The Croydon-born manager is still going strong in his seventies as manager of Crystal Palace, making this book that bit more relevant.


With the recent spate of same-old English coaches taking up vacancies in the Premier League, there was (mostly fair) critique of Proper Football Men, such as Alan Pardew and Sam Allardyce. The former Fulham manager was unfairly lumped in with the PFM brigade, but he is most certainly set apart from the Brexit-ismo of his counterparts.


After all this is a man who plied his trade all across Europe in places like Switzerland, Finland, Denmark and Italy, before finally making his name in England in his sixties. It might not feature some of the craziness that marks out some of the best books on English football, but that doesn’t stop it from being a quality read.



The Real Madrid Way: How Values Created The Most successful Sports Team On The Planet

Steven G. Mandis


The complete opposite stratosphere in terms of Spanish football clubs, The Real Madrid Way gives a fascinating insight into what makes the club tick. Why are they so successful? How are they such a money-making machine with worldwide appeal? Apparently community has an awful lot to do with it, which is quite surprising for a mega corporation. 


Steven G. Mandis gains incredible access to the club thanks to his connections to the higher echelons of the company, but remains as impartial as humanly possible given the circumstances. Mandis also comes from a non-football point-of-view as a businessman, meaning the book comes across less as a sporting narrative and more of an academic text. Still, an easy read that remains eye-opening.



The Man Who Don't Give A Fuck

Stephen McGovern - Monday, December 11, 2017

Robin Friday's life ended early, but his was one of the more remarkable lives ever seen in English football, writes Colm Boohig. 


Robin Friday, maverick of Reading and Cardiff (HYPE)




He was the ultimate football maverick. He was the greatest you never saw.


In December 1990, Robin Friday died in his apartment after suffering a heart attack suspected to be caused by a heroin overdose. He was just 38.


Two decades later, both Reading and Cardiff City decreed Friday as their all-time cult hero – he only played twenty-one times for Cardiff. In his two full seasons at Reading, he was awarded consecutive Player of the Season awards while also finishing top scorer on each occasion.


This is the same man who was sent for a short spell at Her Majesty’s pleasure for impersonating a police officer in order to confiscate drugs for his own personal use. This was the same centre-forward who showed up for one training session, naked, holding a swan he had just borrowed from the local lake.


There were mavericks like George Best and Paul Gascoigne, and then there was Robin Friday. He was the punk rock star of football.



Simply put, there is a reason that the Super Furry Animals dedicated their 1996 single The Man Don’t Give a Fuck to Friday.


His ability was immense from a young age and he was courted by Chelsea, who snapped the teen up promptly. However, the precocious talent had other hobbies as an adolescent, namely in the areas of illegal substances, the female of the species and petty crime. The latter activity actually landed the long-haired renegade a year-long stint in a borstal. Already, Friday’s football career appeared as though it would be ephemeral.


Upon his release, the youngster had to start all over on the pitch. He, of course, still found other ways to piss off the establishment.


At the tender age of 17, Friday married – tying the knot with a black girl. One has to remember that this was 1970s Britain and mixed-race partnerships were seriously taboo.


The relationship endured for years (despite Friday’s continual philandering) – much to the chagrin of the local community, including his parents – his father refused to attend the wedding. Then an event occurred which many of Friday’s researchers believe cemented his carefree attitude towards life for the remainder of his days.


At 21, while working on a building site, he had an extremely close call. Friday fell through an upturned spike and somehow managed to lift himself off to save his own life. From here on out, if he had not already, Friday was determined to enjoy every day he had on Earth.


YouTube: tastylimey


In the meantime, his non-league journey burgeoned where he was tearing defences apart at London side Hayes courtesy of his sublime skills.

Reading, playing in the old English Fourth Division decided to take a punt on the outrageously talented troublemaker. Aware of his reputation, Royals’ boss Charlie Hurley signed him for the reserves to see how he coped.


By January 1974, the first team was struggling so Hurley called Friday into the senior set-up. Reading easily maintained their Football League status thanks to the mesmerizing ability of the young forward. To celebrate this achievement, Friday, on the drop of a hat, went off to join a hippie commune in the summer of ’74.


He missed the start of pre-season by weeks, nobody at the club knowing the location of their brilliant new number nine.

Eventually, he showed up for training and ran rings around his team-mates in his first session back, despite having ceased running at all over the previous number of months.


Yet, a little over two years later, Reading got rid of Friday. His constant drinking, partying and womanizing was proving too much to handle.

Robin Friday, football maverick and Reading player (DEADLINE)

via Deadline


Before that decision was made, the striker had his best season in football when he was instrumental in guiding Reading to promotion in 1975/76. It would be in this season interval that Friday finally pushed it too far.


A summer-long jolly of sheer hedonism culminated in excessive drinking and drug-taking. When he wasn’t stoned, he was drunk, and vice-versa. He returned to Reading after the summer break a shadow of the player that graced the field just a couple of months prior. Reading knew they had to bring it to an end, not knowing how quickly this would occur. By December 1977, just twenty-one games after moving to Cardiff City, Friday retired from football.


He was 25.


His talent was hard to justify. He was regularly told that he was good enough to play for England if he focused, yet the highest level he ever played was the Second Division with Cardiff. That didn’t seem to bother Friday. It would all be too regimented at the top for this guy. In his eyes, he was living the life that every man wished he could enjoy.


Robin Friday, Super Furry Animals album cover (GENIUS)

via Genius


While his ability often compensated for his antics, Friday’s Reading team-mates like Eamon Dunphy loved the maverick for other reasons.


Unlike your typical playmaker, Friday’s work ethic was second-to-none, defending from the front at all times. He was also fearless, foregoing the use of shin pads and bravely flying into tackles.


Then, of course, there was his ability again.


There was one match for Reading when he was at the peak of his form. Friday collected the ball on his chest in mid-air, thirty-five yards from the opposition goal, swivelled and struck it first time into the top corner.


According to those in attendance, there was a momentary stunned silence throughout the stadium. Clive Thomas, who had refereed in World Cups, officiated that day and simply said, “Even up against the likes of Pele and Cruyff, that rates as the best goal I have ever seen.”


When Cardiff boss Jimmy Andrews signed the player for a cut-price fee, he thought he had found a bargain.


He should have known better.


Robin Friday signs for Cardiff City (TFT)

via These Football Times


Friday could not have commenced his new career in Wales in more typical fashion. Upon arriving at the train station in Cardiff, he was arrested and had to be bailed by his new manager. Then the next night, the day before his debut, Friday went on an almighty bender – finally finishing the party at five the following morning; matchday.


Still intoxicated at kick-off time, his direct opponent in his first game was Fulham’s Bobby Moore – the living legend and England World Cup-winning captain.


Remarkably, Friday gave the nation’s hero a torrid time, introducing himself to his marker by grabbing his nether regions. Nobody did this to the most respected footballer in the land. Moore was livid and Friday destroyed him all game.


Scoring twice, he proved instrumental in Cardiff’s 3-0 victory. After the match, Andrews rang Charlie Hurley to gush about his new player. The Reading boss ominously responded, “Jimmy, you’ve only had him for four days, give him a few months.”


He was right.


Robin Friday sent off. (FOURFOURTWO)

via FourFourTwo.


After his bow, Friday essentially stopped caring. He didn’t like his new manager or location. Cardiff would go weeks at a time without seeing their supposed star man, with Friday’s nadir coming in a match against Brighton. This time his marker, a young Mark Lawrenson, got the better of the attacker.


With Friday becoming increasingly frustrated, he lashed out at Lawrence after a tackle – kicking him square in the face. Tired of being told what to do and fed up with the game, he played just one more match before walking out on football. For good.


Returning to work as a labourer in London, Reading fans, in their thousands, signed a petition to re-sign their favourite player. Under increasing pressure, the new Reading manager Maurice Evans contacted Friday with a stern approach in mind to convince the still 25-year-old to return to the game he once loved and the crowds he had wooed.


Evans: “If you would just settle down for three or four years, you could play for England.”


Friday: “How old are you?”


Friday (after Evans revealed his age): “I’m half your age and I’ve lived twice your life.”


That was that. For the next thirteen years, Friday lived life in the only manner he knew how. The outcome was inevitable.

Robin Friday

via The Huddersfield Daily Examiner.


The great shame in the Robin Friday story, from a pure football perspective, is that millions of people will never know how good he was because of the paucity of visual coverage. It is all word of mouth.


But perhaps it is this very occurrence which makes the whole tale all the more intriguing. There will always be that air of mystery surrounding this flamboyant fellow. If ever there was a time that a player like Friday could exist then it was the 1970s – the decade of the football maverick.


The mind wanders.


If modern day professional football was a nightclub then Friday would never gain entry. At least we can be thankful for the open-door policy granted to the flawed showmen of yesteryear. Undoubtedly, we will never see the likes of Mr. Friday again.


Colm is a journalist with Storyful. 



Identifying The Irish Football Identity

Stephen McGovern - Thursday, November 30, 2017

The soul searching continues following Ireland's devastating World Cup playoff loss to Denmark, but one thing that has been overlooked recently is our football identity, writes Ste McGovern.


Irish Football Identity (Sportsfile)


Irish football is defined by intangibles: passion, physicality, fighting spirit. These are the things we hear from managers of other countries when they are asked what to expect of our national team. Maybe throw some long balls in there. That more or less sums it up.


It’s not much of an identity, is it? The Spanish have tiki-taka, the Italians have catenaccio, the Dutch have Total Football, the Danes have Danish Dynamite, the Brazilians have jogo bonito. It is the thing that informs not just how they play, but how they approach the game of football. Some managers and players may diverge from that identity or philosophy in some way, but it all stems from that initial starting point.


Ireland’s mode of playing can perhaps be explained, conversely, by a lack of identity. We are known for certain qualities, but not an overall structure to our game. When you see Ireland play, there is rarely a coherent idea for what we do in a progressive sense. The other side to that coin, the negative sense, has been familiar to us, especially in recent years, but still we recoil at the sight of overly defensive football. Brian Kerr recently lamented our dour style in a column in which he said we played like minnows against teams of similar stature, or in the case of Georgia, below us.


As the talent levels across the board steadily decline, the more we retreat into our shells. This is where the results-first mentality has gotten us. “You find a way to get the best out of what you have”, as Martin O’Neill himself puts it. Whatever it takes to win. And we were happy enough with it after the 1-0 win over Wales. It felt like the first time we could own our negativity, our shithousery. The problem with this is that too many times the team has played within themselves, and not played to their potential.


Listen to our live show and discussion on Ireland's footballing identity:


Playing ‘negatively’ doesn’t have to be like that though. Atletico Madrid might be considered a defensive or negative team who look to play on the counter rather than take the initiative, but they are a ferocious pressing team who go after the opposition aggressively when they are in possession. It can be thrilling to watch at times. Even Portugal, with all their talent, play in a counter-attacking way a lot of the time.


While we may never have the talent of those two sides, it just goes to show that being a defensive side doesn’t have to carry inherently negative connotations with it. We can make that our starting point if we so wish, and build from there. We have the qualities within our players already to do so, but if we are going to go down that road and make that our identity, then it has be a lot more organised and better executed than it has been in the recent past.


So how do we go about that then? How do you forge this identity, whether it be positive or negative?


Firstly, it’s important to note that the Ireland team doesn’t look too different from manager to manager, campaign to campaign. One of the reasons this is the case is we expect the performances to be driven from the top down, so we hire a manager we think is best suited to get us winning. As such, O’Neill was the best choice available to us following the sacking of Giovanni Trapattoni.


In reality the entire system should be geared from the bottom up. We need to create an environment in which everyone involved is learning the skills and tactics that we want to see from the senior team. From there you can install the man who will best represent this from the sideline.


This would also create more opportunities from within, as coaches would be more familiar with the scene and more capable of taking on big roles, as they know what’s required from them. It’s no coincidence that Iceland have continued on from their Euro 2016 odyssey by qualifying for the 2018 World Cup following the succession of manager Lars Lagerback with his former assistant Heimir Hallgrimsson. The Icelandic may have little experience of coaching outside of the small country, but he has been groomed for the position and one expects his successor will come through a similar process.


Were we to get to a similar stage, then instead of looking for foreigners or former Premier League managers, we can promote from within, creating a clear pathway in the Irish system, one that hasn’t existed for a long time, if ever. Theoretically it’s cheaper too, as you wouldn’t have to meet the high wage demands of the last two managers.


Before we can even think about any of that though, we need to make it easier for people to become coaches in the first place. Getting your badges is a costly process, especially if you want to go all the way up to your UEFA Pro Licence -- it can cost thousands of Euros. In Spain and Germany it is partly subsidised by the football associations. In order to get anywhere the FAI will need to do something along those lines.


That, however, would take imagination, something the FAI have not shown much of. The publication of the development plan and the establishment leagues are a step forward, but it’s doubtful that that alone will be enough.


In the meantime the only thing to do is start having these conversations among ourselves. Let’s try and drive change at a grassroots level, even if it’s only in the smallest of ways. Any one of us, time permitting, could get involved with a local club. It might not seem like much, but we all need to start driving the change we want to see in Irish football. Stop looking to those above us, start extending a hand to those next to us.



Ireland’s Night From Hell: 3 Crowd Mood Swings and 5 Crushing Strikes

Stephen McGovern - Thursday, November 16, 2017

It was one of those nights for Ireland one of those dreaded, god awful nights, writes Colm Boohig


Cyrus Christie; Ireland vs Denmark, nightmare.Image via Sportsfile/Stephen McCarthy


A nightmare November clash on Lansdowne Road


Passionate singing, outrageous noise, nervous excitement and true belief. Bewilderment, bafflement, anger and resigned acceptance – within one hour on Tuesday evening, every Irish person watching succumbed to these emotions and more. When Nicklas Bendtner added the fifth goal from the penalty spot in injury-time to complete Denmark’s unanimous hammering of Ireland in this World Cup playoff, it was hard to believe that Shane Duffy’s sixth-minute header occurred in the same match.


It was also difficult to comprehend how a sold-out ground which hosted a stunning rendition of Amhrán na bhFiann at around 7.40pm local time would rapidly empty fifteen minutes from time. Moods determine the ambience of spectator sports and those in attendance at the Aviva went through a handful of them over ninety painful minutes.


The twist and turns encapsulated the feeling of the rest of the country. Perhaps we were better off watching this in the pub.


Listen to our reaction to Ireland vs Denmark, and our chat to James Horncastle about Italy's demise:


We’ll be calling in sick in the morning


Ireland might be tedious to watch on the pitch these days but this team is the sporting drama that keeps on giving and the atmosphere on Tuesday evening around the likes of Grand Canal Street pre-match epitomised the emboldened Irish supporter. As the crowd congregated in claustrophobia-inducing circles outside the venue, the belief was rife among this boisterous crew of thousands because the equation was simple; defeat a beatable Danish side and Ireland would be playing at a World Cup for the first time in sixteen years.


Russia would have to prepare for the Boys in Green.


We took our seats right on schedule and any conversation about tactical discipline or subtle formation changes between ourselves were suddenly silenced by a roared national anthem. After the 0-0 stalemate in Copenhagen, the whole place was united behind captain David Meyler and the team and the sense of expectation was utterly palpable. This was very doable, so we all thought.


For those not in the stadium, it’s tough to quantify the raw passion and positivity of those opening five minutes. It was simply breathtaking. At one point, Cyrus Christie intercepted an attempted through-ball by Denmark. It was an act of relative simplicity but one which provoked an incredible bellow of enthusiasm from the stands.


Within minutes, we were all in heaven thanks to Duffy’s brave header.



But there were only six minutes gone and Ireland’s strength is not in ball retention during testing times. While Darren Randolph had to be alert on a couple of occasions, Martin O’Neill’s men had two presentable chances to double their advantage. Daryl Murphy’s flick and James McClean’s daisy-cutter missed the target and Ireland missed their opportunity.


Less than a half an hour had elapsed, we were winning one-nil and yet the game was already up for Ireland. The impact of this feeling was spreading throughout the stadium like a subtly deflating tyre on the M50.


It’s the hope that kills you


That’s because Denmark continued to pick off their hosts, with Pione Sisto enjoying acres of space to create chances thanks to the understandable Irish attention on Christen Eriksen. Andreas Christensen deservedly equalized for Åge Hareide’s side and three minutes later, Eriksen scored his first of the night to put the Scandinavians in the driving seat.


However, there was still plenty of time to go. This wasn’t over, we told each other as we spoke at halftime. But quieter moments like these in an otherwise hectic setting can often lead to sudden, devastating clarity; how on Earth are we going to score two goals against a superior side without conceding any? We don’t “do” goals.


We do hope. We do it in abundance but fighting spirit tends not to be too technically accurate.


Why do we do this to ourselves?


The atmosphere at the beginning of the second period was akin to a highly-anticipated house party that surprisingly peaked too soon. This was the equivalent of 11.30pm and people were starting to book taxis home. Soon, such a metaphor wasn’t far from reality. Eriksen doubled his personal tally with a sumptuous finish after being afforded far too much room by Ireland. There were sixty-three minutes on the clock and many revellers headed for an early night.




When Stephen Ward scuffed his clearance to present the Tottenham midfielder with his hat-trick, the crowd reaction wasn’t vitriolic, especially angry or even particularly concerned. Rather, it was that of hopelessness. By the time Bendtner completed the rout with his finely-taken spot-kick, the stadium had virtually emptied.


It was truly a remarkable turn of events and a game that will ensure 14 November, 2017, will go down as one of Irish football’s darkest hours. Because the change in that one hour among the fans truly was remarkable.


Undoubtedly, Irish supporters will return for more punishment in the not-too-distant future because we’ll always care. But heavens, we need a break. These mood swings are no good for the heart.


Colm Boohig is a writer and interviewer, formerly of among others. This piece was originally published here.



When Greatness Ends

Stephen McGovern - Tuesday, November 14, 2017

In the aftermath of Italy's loss to Sweden, no superlative is too excessive to describe Gianluigi Buffon, the greatest goalkeeper of all time, writes Ste McGovern. 


Gianluigi Buffon (via Sportsfile)


In football lexicon, the word ‘genius’ might just be the most overused phrase of all. We often hear “that was a piece of genius skill” or “that goal was genius”, when such a term should be used as little as possible, reserved for only the finest moments from the finest players.


End Of An Era is another term that gets overplayed. Someone retires, “we’ll never see his like again, it’s an end of era.” A team loses a knockout tie, and it’s “that’s it, thanks for everything, bye forever”, even though it’s not always so clear cut. Eulogies were delivered on behalf of the Spain team after both the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016, and yet they look like one of the top contenders at Russia next summer. Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos and others from that glorious team are still present. So is the old era dead or is it still ongoing?



For one man though it is less overstatement and more absolute. Buffon has been a staple of the sport, making it almost impossible to separate the position from the man. Strike up a conversation about goalkeeping with a mate and see how long it takes for the Italian shot-stopper’s name to come up. Not since Lev Yashin has someone come to define the position so comprehensively; he is the goalkeeper.


That much was evident on Wednesday night when Italy drew 0-0 with Sweden at the San Siro in a playoff for the World Cup. Out of the 359 he has amassed thus far, this must have been the worst clean sheet he ever kept. There was the 0-0 versus AC Milan in the 2003 Champions League final that Juventus lost on penalties, but this loss cut deeper than perhaps any. The realisation that there would not only be no World Cup, but no more games for the Azzurri must have dawned on him at that moment.



Afterwards there was a lot of talk about how bad this team had been over two legs and the poor decision making of their manager, Giampiero Ventura. But most of the conversation centred around Gigi and the tragic end to a glorious international career that included the greatest prize of all in 2006. He won’t get one last shot at winning it again, for which everyone mourned at full-time.


It was typical of the man he is that in such a painful moment in his career Buffon’s first action after the match ended was to console his teammates, many of whom will get more opportunities at major tournaments, and congratulate the Swedes on the opposing side. He embraced Martin Olsen, his opposite number, all the while holding back tears. It’s easy to do join in the celebrations when it’s Ireland who has beaten you and it has no effect on your progression to the next round. And let's not forget his clapping of the Swedish national anthem as Italian fans unceremoniously booed it. He exuded immense character on the night, an aspect of his personality that isn’t mentioned nearly enough. 


Gianluigi Buffon (via Sportsfile)


The respect from everyone on the pitch was evident, even the referee gave him a hug. It’s been well earned too; it’s hard to think of anyone who has had similar longevity while being so incredibly consistent. The World Cup in Brazil appeared to be a nadir for the Italian legend, a poor performance overall indicating a career that was finally on the slide. But the slide never arrived, and he seemed to be better than ever at times these past few seasons as he and his beloved Juve chased European glory.


As we head into the final stretch of the season, and thus the twilight of this great man’s club career, so much focus will be placed on Gigi finally getting his hands on the mouse ears. It would be a fitting end, but failing to win it should not define him as a player. If there was one footballer whose career was far greater than the contents of his trophy cabinet, then it’s Gianluigi Buffon.


Monday night’s game wasn’t just the end for the man between the sticks. The end of the road, at least for the national side, has probably arrived for all-time greats like Daniele De Rossi, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini. In May, Francesco Totti retired. Andrea Pirlo did so too this month. Before we know it all of these incredible talents will be gone in a flash after giving us a lifetime of memories.


The era is ending, but there’s still just enough time to appreciate it.





David Squires Does It Again

Stephen McGovern - Thursday, November 02, 2017

David Squires has a new book out, The Illustrated History of Football: Hall of Fame, so we had a read of it, writes Ste McGovern


The Illustrated History of Football: Hall Of Fame, David Squires book.


If you haven’t noticed by now, people at the highest level of football take themselves very seriously. Some more than others: Jose Mourinho, Louis Van Gaal, Cristiano Ronaldo, and so on. Considering it’s a ball game, they take it, like, really seriously. And look, to be fair to them, professional football is a high-pressured environment with money, reputations and success on the line. But it does make them poking fun at them easier than shooting fish in a barrel.


That’s where David Squires comes in. He’s been taking the piss out of these very people for a number of years now, and making a living out of it too. The natural culmination of that was The Illustrated History of Football, a book chock full of his work which was released last year. It was everything one could expect from a Squires book, and deservedly received a lot of acclaim. A sequel was already in the works while that was being published, the result of which is Hall Of Fame.


The first thing I notice about the new edition, aside from the wonderful artwork adorning the cover, is that it’s bigger -- 30 pages so. Comparing it to its predecessor, it’s actually lighter somehow. The paper is different this time, closer to what you might find in a newspaper, which is fitting for a collection of comic strips. It’s a small thing, but a nice touchall the same (and certainly easier to carry around with you).


More importantly though, the added length allows for a slightly altered format. Some cartoons are longer, as are the passages that preface them. The consequence to this is that each panel isn’t necessarily a zinger-per-second, but there is more room to breathe, more space to tell the stories of these wonderful characters, each picked for their own unique (and often bizarre) reasons.



In our podcast interview, David tells The Final Third that he didn’t have the time or space to elaborate on the stories of the individuals, focusing on historical moments instead. He decided that next time it would be a good idea to focus more on the people that made the game what it is today.


“Inevitably you end up with players like Maradona, and to try and condense his life story into a one page cartoon is nigh-on impossible,” Squires explains. “He’s lived such a rich and crazy life, I ended up just focusing on one part of his life, which is his time at Napoli. That’s a four page cartoon, and I really enjoyed doing that, and with the written text I could talk a bit more broadly about the rest of his life.”


That answer hints at what the Guardian’s resident cartoonist looks for when he is deciding which characters to write and draw about.


“What I found when I was writing it was that some of the players who have been massively successful, like Roberto Baggio or Marco Van Basten, they actually lived quite sensible lives, which probably contributed to such good careers and why they were so successful. They didn’t always lend themselves to comic material, so for those guys they have a one page cartoon, but I was able to find a few things to make jokes about.”


Hall Of Fame is more biographical in its detail at times, charting the notable moments of a player or manager’s life, rather than simply chuckle at their perceived faults. Jimmy Johnstone’s tale of post-career alcoholism and motor neurone disease, for instance, hardly makes for a LOL-fest, but his is a story no less worth telling in this form for that reason. If anything, this mode of storytelling gives the Celtic legend’s tale a sense of brevity and reverence that you would be hard pushed to find elsewhere.


“If I wanted to talk about some of the great players, like Johnstone and Garrincha, or Paul Gascoigne in more recent years,” Squires tells us, “it isn’t possible to talk about their lives and careers without talking about those things. I didn’t set out with the intention of including anything for the sake of pathos, it’s just that some of those people ended up living lives that were quite sad or tragic.”


On the flip side, the further you delve into this book, the more you realise that football is bursting with outlandish characters whose stories are seldom heard but richly deserving of your attention. Giorgio Chinaglia - someone we talked about during the Month of Calcio earlier this year - was not only a highly successful striker for Lazio and the New York Cosmos. He was also a gun-toting, probably fascist, right-wing troll who loved antagonising people for the hell of it.



A fun aspect of this book is there are lot of people in here that the average football fan wouldn’t necessarily know of; Charles Reep, Luis Monti, Andoni Goikoexta and Mario Zagallo, but my personal favourite has to be William ‘Fatty’ Foulke. Born in 1874, Foulke was an overweight goalkeeper who once ate the entire team’s breakfast before they had woken up. He also invented the concept of ball boys apparently.


The medium essentially allows for a ton of various characters to be covered in a relatively short space, including your usual cast of mega stars. It wouldn’t be a Squires book without having a laugh at Cristiano’s expense, but he’s become such a caricature of himself that the Portuguese doesn’t need a cartoonist to make him look foolish. In fact, Squires’ depictions of him don’t seem all that outlandish.


Squires deviates slightly from his usual style at times, experimenting with the form depending on the figure he’s portraying. Zidane’s cartoon is cleverly inspired by the film A 21st Century Portrait; featuring no dialogue, it follows the daily routine of Zizou as he encounters parking meters, spraying Cristiano with fake tan, and reminding himself not to call Gareth Bale ‘English’.


Elsewhere, Just Fontaine’s cartoon is based entirely on each of his record-breaking 13 goals at the 1958 World Cup, Lev Yashin gets a Soviet-style propaganda poster in his honour, while Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta (together, naturally) are represented in a Where’s Wally-esque design in which you have to find the loose pass for Michael Carrick to intercept in the 2011 Champions League final. (Spoiler: there isn’t one).

As per usual Squires combines sharp wit and artistic talent to produce a creation of satirical and comedic brilliance. There’s an awful lot to love about Hall Of Fame.



The Illustrated History of Football: Hall of Fame by David Squires is published by Century, priced £14.99 and is available now.



South America Has The Best Qualification System In The World And Last Night Proved It

Stephen McGovern - Friday, October 06, 2017

If you find international breaks boring, then you haven't been paying attention to the World Cup qualifiers in South America, writes Ste McGovern.


messi south america wolrd cup qualifiers


In this part of the world, international breaks are to be dreaded and rarely enjoyed. Moans and groans about the temporary stoppage of domestic football are commonplace: meaningless games against minnows, poor standard of football, crap atmospheres. Fans, pundits and managers alike all gripe about international football from time to time.


That may be the case for residents of some UEFA countries, but in South America it is a whole other ball game. It is home to undeniably the best World Cup qualification system in the world.


CONMEBOL, the football confederation for the continent, has a relatively small pool of countries but perhaps the highest concentration of talent, featuring the likes of Lionel Messi, Neymar, Philippe Coutinho, Luis Suarez, Alexis Sanchez, Sergio Aguero, Paulo Dybala (I could go on and on). Their teams have 45% of all World Cups, while only one team -- Venezuela -- has failed to ever qualify.



While the trend of winners has been ebbing away from South America and back towards Europe in recent tournaments, their qualifying process is still the best -- and that has a lot to do with the format.


Ten countries enter into a league three years ahead of the finals, playing each other twice home and away as they vye for four automatic spots. The fifth-placed team in the group goes into an inter-confederational playoff, traditionally against the best team from the Oceania Football Confederation. With plenty of places up for grabs among several very competitive sides, it has always been the most exciting of all the confederations. And last night proves my case.


Brazil, being miles ahead of the pack, have already qualified, but behind them is an extremely condensed group where just six points separated Uruguay in second and Paraguay in seventh.


Before the night began, all eyes were on Chile and Argentina’s respective games, as they were considered the ones most in danger of missing out. Meanwhile, Paraguay still had an outside chance just behind the main group, needing a win versus Colombia to have any chance.


While one might think that such a format might lead to plenty of dead rubbers come the end of the process, Brazil-Bolivia was the only truly meaningless game heading into last night.


south america world cup qualification table 2017


Argentina, armed with their ridiculous firepower upfront, faced Peru, a nation that hadn’t qualified since 1982. Surely they would find a way through?


Not so. Despite having the majority of possession and chances, they couldn’t find a way through. Although it ended 0-0, the game was captivating; watching this resolute defence take a stand against the mighty Argentines and the greatest player in the world, spurning chance after chance.


On the flipside, La Albiceleste failed to create enough clear cut chances. Their forwards were too static, standing still instead of making runs and creating space to open up the defence. The ball would be pushed out wide repeatedly, despite the fact that it simply wasn’t working. In fact, the wide areas is one of the areas where they very much lack an edge. For all their world class talent though, they looked a team without ideas.


Argentina have scored just two goals in five games - a record that mirrors the Republic of Ireland’s. Their reliance on Lionel Messi has become counter-productive, stifling what should be the most feared front six in world football.





In Chile, meanwhile, a massive tie with Ecuador was taking place at the same time. The away side’s chances of qualification were slim, but still had an outside shot. A win would put them level with Chile on points before a final day encounter with Argentina. In other words, this was a must-win game for both sides, and it played out as such.


Former QPR winger Eduardo Vargas got the opening goal for the hosts after 22 minutes, and were determined to hold onto the lead. Romario Ibarra had other ideas, striking an equaliser with just eight minutes to go. Disaster for the Copa America champions, and a major lifeline for Argentina. It didn’t last long though, as Alexis Sanchez turned up right when they needed him to, restoring their lead three minutes later. They hung on for a vital win.


A game of equal importance that was taking place at the same time, although not as many people were taking notice of, was Colombia versus Paraguay. A win would see the Colombians take their place in Russia next summer, while a draw would also put them in a relatively strong position heading into their last fixture against Peru.


It looked to be going their way when Radamel Falcao, who missed the World Cup in 2014 due to injury, scored with just eleven minutes of normal time left on the clock. As the dumbest cliché in football goes though, they scored too early. Through super subs Oscar Cardozo and Antonio Sanabria, Paraguay somehow won it at the death. Arsenal’s David Ospina made a right hames of the two situations, but it’s also fair to say that the entire defence bottled it right when they needed composure. Now they are in serious jeopardy of going out.





Just like that the complexion of the table was changed in the space of a few exciting minutes.


south america world cup qualifying


Chile jumped ahead of their closest rivals and into the automatic spots, while Paraguay have given themselves an outside chance of qualifying, should they win and at least one other team to do them a favour. On Wednesday they face Venezuela, easily the worst team in the group. They will be keeping half an eye on Peru versus Colombia, as one of those is guaranteed to drop points. Paraguay will be hoping to go to Russia at the expense of one of them, and with their fixture being the last of the lot to kick-off, there will be a lot of nails bitten down to quick waiting nervously for the final result at Defensores del Chaco.


Although Ecuador have nothing left to play for, they won’t be pushovers and the Argentines’ form would suggest a win is far from a formality: their last competitive win was a 1-0 victory over Chile in March, before losing 2-0 to Bolivia at home and drawing against Uruguay and Venezuela. If they do manage to get the three points though, there is every chance they will make the playoffs, where they would face New Zealand.


Five teams are now battling it out for three spots, meaning there will be four mouth-watering games on show next week. Uruguay are all but through thanks to their superior goal difference, meaning their match with Bolivia is the only dead rubber in the final round of games. Whatever happens this coming Wednesday, we are guaranteed drama, excitement and the prospect of at least one really good team being bitterly disappointed.


Let’s face it: CONMEBOL has it so good.




The Major Nations In Danger Of Missing The World Cup

Stephen McGovern - Thursday, October 05, 2017

We're into the final month of World Cup qualifiers, the last hurdle before Russia 2018, but there could be a number of big names missing from next year's tournament, writes Ste McGovern.


World Cup 2018


Irish minds are focused on next week’s crunch tie with Wales in a quasi-playoff for a place in playoffs for the World Cup, although even then neither nation is guaranteed a spot in the final round of qualification.


The two countries either side of the Irish Sea are not the only ones anxious about their chances of qualifying for next summer’s tournament in Russia. Several major powers are in doubt of making it to the showpiece, including a past winner of the competition. 


Listen: We interviewed Huw Davies of FourFourTwo magazine ahead of Ireland's crunch tie with Wales:




Jorge Sampaoli took charge of La Albiceleste after his stint at Sevilla in order to steady the Argentine ship. It remains to be seen whether or not he has: before the former Chile boss arrived they had lost to Paraguay, Brazil and Bolivia; since then they haven’t lost a game, but could only draw in his opening two competitive games in charge, against Uruguay and Venezuela, the only South American team to never qualify for a World Cup.


Argentina face a crunch tie tonight against Peru, who haven’t qualified since 1982 but sit ahead of their rivals on goals scored. A draw could be enough to see the Peruvians through to Russia, while anything less than a win could leave Sampaoli’s charges in serious danger of not even making it to a playoff with New Zealand. Can you imagine a World Cup without Lionel Messi? 



south american world cup qualifying





The country that Sampaoli led to Copa America glory in 2015 is in a slightly worse position than the Argentines. Sitting in sixth, they have to win their last two games against Ecuador and Brazil, no easy task, to have a chance of making a playoff at least. It would be a massive disappointment for the Chileans, who have won consecutive Copa’s and reached the Confederations Cup final this year, to not reach a tournament they have notions of possibly winning.


With only the Brazilians having clinched their spot so far, any four of six nations can qualify, complicating matters even further. Should Peru go through it would be an amazing story, but would be at the expense of one of football’s powers.




The Dutch missed out on Euro 2016 even with its extended format of 24 teams, but they were expected to bounce back for the World Cup qualifiers. The KNVB decided to stick with Danny Blind as manager, baffling fans and commentators alike. After an awful 2-0 loss to Bulgaria in Sofia in March, the former Ajax defender was sacked having won just 41% of his games.


Under Dick Advocaat the Oranje have bounced back, beating the Bulgarians 3-1 in the return fixture, but a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of France in August leaves them three points off second-placed Sweden. An inferior goal difference means they have to obliterate Belarus before taking on the Swedes in another quasi-playoff. 


group a uefa world cup qualifying netherlands


The last time Netherlands failed to reach a World Cup was, of course, when Ireland defeated them 1-0 at Lansdowne Road in 2001. They haven’t failed to qualify for consecutive major tournaments since the 1980’s, but look set to do so this month.




The nature of CONCACAF qualifying means that realistically the top teams involved only have to beat the bottom two teams in their group to make it to the finals. That’s very much the case with the Americans, as they have beaten Honduras and Trinidad & Tobago, but no one else.


Jurgen Klinsmann made way for Bruce Arena to return as manager, but they still sit in fourth place, nine points behind leaders Mexico. They’re tied on nine points with Honduras, although have a superior goal difference. That would be enough for a playoff against either Australia or Syria, not a gimme by any stretch, especially considering USA’s lack of form of late.


concacaf world cup qualification usa




The Socceroos are hardly a superpower in international football, but they have qualified for the last three World Cups in a row and won the Asian Cup in 2015. Australian football has made great strides since moving to the Asian Football Confederation in the mid-noughties, but failing to make it to Russia would be a huge setback to all the progress they’ve made.


Australia finished third in their group, behind Saudi Arabia on goal difference, meaning they have face the third-placed team in the other AFC group, Syria, in a playoff. The first leg is finished 1-1, but even if they make it through that tie, they may have to face USA in November. We could very well be without at least one familiar face next summer. 




You may not have noticed, but African qualifying has already taken a few scalps - Nations Cup champions Cameroon and Algeria are already out of the running with two rounds of games left to go. On the flip we could end up with one of Burkina Faso or Cape Verde Islands making the step up.


The Black Stars could be the next surprise exit if they lose Saturday’s contest with Uganda. The CAF qualification process means that only the winner of each group goes through, meaning that a draw probably won’t be good enough. Ghana trail Egypt by four points, who they will face next month in yet another potential quasi-playoff. The Ghanaians’ chances look especially slim, however.


African World Cup Qualification; Ghana


There are so many permutations in play this month and next in terms of World Cup qualifiers, not limited to the ones mentioned here. But at the end of it all we could end up with a finals missing the current champions of three different continents (four if you include New Zealand) and a former world champion nation. Expansion of the format can’t come quick enough for them.



Irish Football Fans Deserve Better Champions League Games

Stephen McGovern - Tuesday, September 26, 2017

When it comes to Champions League fixtures, the Irish broadcasters can sometimes feel like MUTV or LFCTV rather than RTE and TV3, writes Ste McGovern.   



Football fans in Ireland will get to see Real Madrid take on their group rivals Borussia Dortmund in a hugely important game in the Champions League. If the German side lose, their chances of a place in the knockouts are in peril, while a shock win would blow the group wide open. Shockingly, TV3 took the decision to show this game over Spartak Moscow versus Liverpool.


What’s weird about this is that it’s news at all. A station showing a stellar match-up between two outstanding teams full of incredibly talented players? Sacrebleu. even did a story on this, calling it the ‘hipsters’ choice. While the decision was unexpected, it hardly falls under hipsterism (that would surely have to be Napoli's tie against Feyenoord), although the use of the term was almost certainly tongue-in-cheek. 



Madrid have won three of the last four European titles, while BVB are one of the richest and best teams in Europe. Perhaps five years ago they were the quintessential hipster side, but they’ve outgrown that tag by now.


Naturally the story drew a lot of comments on their page, some of which echoed my sentiment: this shouldn’t really be surprising.


And yet, you have others who think this a ridiculous decision.


The tribalists amongst us remind us that Liverpool are no small fry themselves, five European Cups and all that. You also have people chiming in that it was in fact the correct choice because “Liverpool r shit m8”. Comment sections are so full of wisdom sometimes.


A familiar refrain, that you hear from all quarters and not just fans of a particular team, is that TV3 are missing out on easy ratings by not showing one of the most heavily supported fan bases in Ireland. Indeed, a survey earlier this year found that the two clubs in red have the biggest share of support amongst Irish fans.


It’s an argument I received just a few weeks ago, after I used the Final Third Twitter account to air some grievances about RTE showing Man United vs Basel over Barcelona vs Juventus.



One respondent, a Man United season ticket holder, replied “Want to find out how many Barca and Juve fans are in Ireland then, lads? Nobody's disputing which is a bigger game.” 



Other than the fact he told us to “suck a lemon”, his comment is paradoxical if not completely nonsensical. If it’s a ‘bigger game’, then why not show it? Is a relatively unexciting tie between United and the Swiss champions really going to bring in a ton of extra viewers over a repeat of the 2015 final? Besides the fact that there actually are a lot of Barcelona fans in the country, does this mean that broadcasters are beholden to showing only those two teams in the CL whenever they are on? That seems incredibly narrow-minded.


Another solution, as our insufferable tweeter informed us, is to simply buy a BT Sport package or stream a game illegally. An argument so easily rebutted I don’t think I need to waste my time doing it here.


One would hope TV3’s decision would be a sign of things to come, but RTE have chosen CSKA Moscow versus United for Wednesday night’s live game. On the very same evening Chelsea take on Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich face Paris Saint-Germain, so I’m not holding my breath in anticipation that the crowd in Montrose will follow suit. The irony in the choice of games this week, of course, is that Liverpool are the far more exciting team to watch than United under Mourinho.


I just miss the days of being able to switch between Champions League games on terrestrial telly without having to get an expensive subscription to do so.




The Two Sides To Serbia's Dusan Tadic

Stephen McGovern - Monday, September 04, 2017

As Ireland welcome Serbia to town, they bring with them Southampton's Dusan Tadic, the star player whose poor club form disappears on international duty, writes Rob Palmer.


Dusan Tadic, Serbia. (Sportsfile)


One of the worst things about modern football is the Sky-tastic, clichéd one liners that always crop up during a broadcast. Some of these bad boys include: “You couldn’t write a script like this”, “he’s almost hit that *too* well”, and “that’s a real Jekyll and Hyde performance”. However, in the case of Dusan Tadic, the latter really rings true.


Tadic is often Hyde for Southampton with the jury still out on his success as a signing after having spent almost four years at the club. This is typified in some of the reactions on Twitter in the wake of The Saints exhilarating 0-0 draw with Premier League giants Swansea City. To say the opinions of fans is divisive is an understatement. Some love him, some loathe him. There doesn’t seem to be an in-between among the Southampton fan base.


Compare that to the performances and adulation he receives while playing for Serbia. During this qualification campaign, he could be mistaken for a legitimately world class number 10. Tadic’s figures are up there with the best in the world with seven assists and four goals in seven games for the national team, who are unbeaten in their World Cup qualification group. Not bad for a side deemed to be average by most.


The vital difference between these two faces of Dusan Tadic is how he is used by his club and how he is used by his country. For Serbia, Tadic is an integral part of everything they do. He’s the central figure of all their creativity and positive play goes through him. The team has been built and set up in such a way that allows him to do the minimal amount of work off the ball and just focus on his undeniable prowess on the ball. He still works harder than, say, Nicklas Bendtner, but not by much. 


Podcast with Ken Early talking on the fifteenth anniversary of Saipan:


For Southampton he’s a totally different player. He’s very much one of the cogs in a larger machine, nearly always played on the left or right-hand side of a front three behind a striker. In this role, Tadic doesn’t get to spend nearly as much time on the ball in dangerous areas like he does for Serbia. Rather, he’s normally tracking full-backs or working hard defensively. Steven Davis is the one who is given the mantle of Southampton’s creative focal point, a decision which can only be looked at as beyond stupid. Especially when you consider that some of the Saints’ best football last season came when Tadic played centrally under Claude Puel while Davis was injured. A fleeting spell which showcased how poorly the South Coast club have, and continue to, misuse a quality player.


This is something that Ireland need to be wary of on Tuesday night. Tadic’s club form has absolutely no bearing on how he plays for his country because he plays a totally different role, in a different position in a system built to get the best out of him. He is literally a different player. There have been many occasions in the past when he’s gone away in horrendous form, scored and set up a couple of goals, only to come back resume his poor club form. This has nothing to do with attitude or work ethic, as he’s always shown a good attitude and incredible work rate at Southampton; it’s purely down to being used incorrectly.


At international level, the only way to stop Tadic is by taking the game to the Serbs. While they have some passable technical players dotted around their team, they’re not exactly world beaters, much like ourselves. Ireland would be more than able to compete with them in a game of football. Serbia like to play out from the back, keep it comfortable and work the ball into the feet of Tadic to let him do his magic. The only way to stop this from happening is to press them, force them to go long and keep the ball ourselves.


Ireland needs to force Serbia to come out of their shape and make Tadic work harder defensively than he normally would have to. While this absolutely increases the risk of getting hit on the break, it’s still a lower risk of getting picked apart by Tadic dropping between the lines. If we sit in a low block and hoof the ball long like we did against Georgia, we will get annihilated, simple as that. Tadic is simply too good, and clever, in this Serbia team to not rip apart a poor Irish defensive unit. It also wouldn’t be a bad idea to get an in-play bet out on Tadic to do his patented Serbia double of a goal and an assist if O’Neill employs the outdated, embarrassing and downright disgraceful tactics he used against Georgia. I’m definitely still not angry about that.




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The Final Third was created originally as a vehicle for three Dublin lads to express their opinions on European football and rebel against the bland, clichéd and stale way it was covered by mainstream publications and organisations.

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