Shankly’s Village

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‘As somebody who cherished the friendship of my great fellow Ayrshireman Bill Shankly, I am delighted that the story of the remarkable mining village that produced him is being vividly told. Physically, Glenbuck has been expunged but its name will always have resonance for anyone interested in the importance of football to the working-class communities of what used to be Britain’s industrial areas.’ Hugh McIlvanney

Shankly’s Village is not only an important book about a lost community, its football teams and its history, but in its rebirth with the Glenbuck Academy, a magnificent inspiration of what football could be and mean again. . . it has so many great stories . . . very moving and powerful scenes, and is really well written.’    – David Peace

My new book, Shankly’s Village is out now.

Written in conjunction with football coach Robert Gillan (@robertpgillan) it tells the remarkable story of the tiny former mining village of Glenbuck that was the birthplace and home of Bill Shankly and over 50 other professional footballers. The book features:

  • The most comprehensive, exhaustive, and fully researched study of Glenbuck, birthplace of Bill Shankly
  • Never-seen-before detail on Bill Shankly’s playing career and his life after leaving Liverpool
  • Exclusive in-depth interviews with Ian St John and Ian Callaghan, providing fresh and revealing insight into their relationships with Bill Shankly
  • The truth about the ‘football is more important than life and death’ quote
  • A sweeping portrait of football and social history across Britain, from the birth of the game to the modern day
  • The former mining village was home to over 50 professional footballers; per capita, the equivalent would be a small non-league club in London producing nearly 250,000 pros over a 40-year period
  • Unprecedented coverage on each Glenbuck footballer and the clubs they played for
  • Detailed chapters on FA-Cup and League-title winners, their remarkable careers and lives
  • Fascinating interviews with relatives, former villagers, eyewitnesses and experts on a whole range of clubs, stories, and related subjects
  • Packed with detail, stories, anecdotes and insight.

For more details, and a FREE downloadable chapter, go to the Pitch page

From the book jacket:

Glenbuck is a name that resonates through the history of football in Britain. Once a tiny village in the Ayrshire coalfields, it produced an unprecedented roll call of professional players. Its most famous son, Bill Shankly, shaped not just Liverpool’s destiny but exerted a huge influence on the evolution of the modern game.

And yet virtually all that remains of ‘Shanks’s’ birthplace is his marble memorial. Glenbuck has not only been physically erased by de-industrialisation, but from football’s consciousness. The pitch which once rang with the shouts of players and partisan fans is now a boggy, neglected field. It is eerily, unforgivably silent.

The Football Village brings back to life the birthplace of Shankly and the exploits of 49 other wonderful characters. Glenbuck’s sons range from stars of English and Scottish football to more parochial heroes, all combining to form a compelling story of the British game across the divisions.

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LEGENDARY TALES

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IT’S that time of the year, when I have a new sports book out just in time for Christmas. For 2014 it’s Legends – a visual celebration of 40 of the finest domestic footballers to grace the English league in the post-war era.

Part of the highly popular When Football Was Football series, it’s an unashamedly nostalgic look at some of the great names of the game. And not simply the best players, but the most compelling, charismatic, and captivating characters – from Best to Bowles, Moore to Matthews, Greaves to Gascoigne.

There are full profiles, stats and facts on each player and a host of photos drawn from the brilliant Mirrorpix archive. Many of the colour and black-and-white pictures show each player behind the scenes, and away from the action, showing then in a unique light during their heyday.

  • Legends is priced £25 and available from Haynes publishers and all good high street and online bookstores.
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Postcards from the Spurs edge

Here’s an ideal Christmas gift for the Spurs fan in your life – a 50-strong postcard-style selection of Tottenham players, legends, sights and moments, from the glorious past and not-so-inspiring present.

The obvious gag is that they can be used to send SOS messages about the current hapless state of the team. ‘Wish you were here’, or perhaps ‘Wish we still had some of these players’.

It’s unlikely anyone will want to actually post these, however. The cards are prime collectible material, all contained in a handsome box.

Artist Stephen Gulbis has put together a half century of fine colour illustrations that capture the spirit of the club. Publishers VSP, (who this writer has worked with on a number of Tottenham-related titles) certainly know their way round the White Hart Lane story, and the pack comes with the club’s official seal of approval

Some of the likenesses are more impressionistic in style. Others are evoked with uncanny truthfulness. Emmanuel Adebayor is captured for artistic posterity, not lashing home a wonder goal but in sadly more familiar guise standing motionless with his hands on his hips.

Gallows humour aside there’s more than enough here for even the bitterest cynic to gaze on lovingly at more heart-warming figures and features from the Spurs story. Say what you like about Tottenham: there’s never a dull moment and this collection is a colourful tribute to the club’s ever-eventful story.

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Hands off Hove Park School – an open letter

The board of governors at Hove Park School are meeting tonight (Monday 22nd) to decide its fate. They will be voting on whether to convert the school to an academy, or keep it under local-authority control. It is a question that should have been resolved months ago, and there should have been a clear and definitive answer: the school is doing just fine, and will continue to do so. It simply doesn’t need to become an academy.

That the issue has been allowed to drag on for so long, with all the disruption and uncertainty it has brought, is bad enough. That some of the governors and the school leadership team are still so hell-bent on conversion, beggars belief. The message from all quarters has been unequivocal against conversion.

Teachers at the school are overwhelmingly opposed, even to the extent of taking strike action. Pupils have expressed their concerns with admirable enthusiasm. Parents have issued an unmistakeable rejection – not just in a series of campaigns and meetings that have drawn committed and widespread support, but in a council-run vote that resulted in 71% of parents voting against academisation.

Its supporters argue a 40% turnout in the vote shows parents are either apathetic or happy to accept the change in status. That is a foolish assumption to make – and sits uneasily beside an earlier opportunity the school gave for parents to vote on a uniform change that produced just 80 votes. Yet this still led the school to treat the result as a ringing endorsement for change.

That’s an odd take on democracy. And the school never offered a vote on the issue that really mattered. Instead, the head of governors and the leadership team have persisted with a weak, misleading and illogical counter campaign. Proper consultation, that fairly lays out the pros and cons of all the options, has been non-existent.

The arguments made in favour of academisation are dubious and do not stand up to scrutiny. The evidence in favour of retaining local authority control is compelling and convincing.

Academy schools do not transform academic achievement. They can set schools against each other, threaten teacher pay and standards, and undermine the whole principle of a good education open to all. They lack accountability and are prone to highly controversial takeovers from individuals and organisations pursuing narrow interests. Witness the disturbing problems at academy schools in Birmingham in recent months.

The success of Hove Park offers an acute contrast. The huge strides it has made in recent years are down to many things. The outstanding work of teachers – and the leadership team – is self evident. So too is the enthusiasm of a wonderful group of children, actively supported by their parents. The council-wide admissions policy has also played a major part.

I have seen this first hand. When my eldest daughter was first awarded a place at Hove Park, it was at a very low ebb. Teachers and pupils were trying hard, but exam results had big room for improvement. Many outsiders looked down on the school, belittling it and its pupils. ‘Why do you want to send your kids there?’ was an oft-heard comment.

Six years on, the answer is clear. Hove Park is one of the most improved schools in the country, and has achieved this at a time of hostile government policy and enormous funding challenges. The school is a runaway success. And all this has been achieved while under LEA control. The conclusion is blindingly obvious: if it ain’t broke, why fix it?

The original justification for considering academy status was presented in a confusing brochure that was high on gloss and low on coherent argument. It even threatened emotional blackmail, talking of a ‘moral imperative’ to consider academy status.

This was an insult to everyone opposed to the idea. They have all since spoken, and will do so again at a rally outside the upper school gates tonight, but it seems some on the board and the leadership team are still refusing to listen.

It is high time they did the right thing and rejected these unnecessary, irresponsible plans, so that Hove Park School can concentrate on what it does best: offering an excellent education for and within a community that values it so highly.

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BUENA SUERTE (or ‘ISN’T GOOGLE TRANSLATE WONDERFUL’

SO hello, Mauricio, welcome to White Hart Lane, the world famous home of the Spurs.

Or is it infamous? The old place has been something of a temple of managerial doom in the last decade or so. It’s like that climactic scene in Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade, when a succession of whimpering candidates tread gingerly on their quest to find the holy grail, only to have their heads sliced off as they get their answers to various riddles hopelessly wrong. Make one false step at Tottenham and you’ve had it.

Spurs fans will be hoping the new man is clever enough to read the runes and negotiate his way round such treacherous ground. At the time of writing Pochettino is the 10th Spurs manager in 13 years – a truly eye-watering figure.

It’s pointless raking over the bones of all who came before him – who should have got the job, who shouldn’t, who succeeded, who didn’t. We all have our favourites and dislikes but in the final analysis it’s been much of a muchness. Some brief, brave new dawns, a rise of about five league places, one League Cup, and one season in the Champions League. Not a lot for all that money spent, all that hope, all that perpetual material and emotional investment from the fans.

Not excluding the bewildering array of managers and DoFs. Enic have tried just about every permutation going. Experienced British old lags, bright young continental things, man-managers, tactics wonks, bluffers, enigmas, motivators, returning heroes and prodigal sons. Suffice to say the rapid hire-and-fire approach from the owners looks less like a strategy than a case of trading lots of players, and throwing cards up in the air in the hope that one day, some might fall in the right way to knock up a half-decent hand.

It surely can’t go on like that. Some of us have banged on many times before about why Spurs need managerial stability rather than constant churn, but one can only hope rather than expect that this time the incumbent lasts the course. He’s been given a 5-year-deal, which sounds good but as we all know, when it comes to football, contracts means diddly.

So he’s doomed before he’s already started? According to some traditionalists and permanently angry people on social media that’s the case. He’s not wanted, not experienced enough, too much of a yes man, not enough of a big personality, and, that old chestnut, not English. He was beaten twice by Spurs last season, and by his widely-maligned immediate predecessor, so ergo, what exactly is he bringing?

Alternatively there are other views that he’s just what the club doctor ordered: young, ambitious, cerebral and tactically-minded. He apparently likes structured pressing, offers up plenty of supportive stats for those who like that sort of thing, and his Southampton players stacked up well in a ‘comparison matrix’ (I’m not making this stuff up).

For my part, and for what it’s worth isn’t much, he wasn’t my first choice. I was erring towards someone like Rafa Benitez, a combination of many of the aforementioned characteristics and a manager who definitely does have the experience, coaching nous and the trophies to match. And, arguably, the personality, reputation and clout to best manage Enic and their rather particular way of running the club under a defined economic model.

instead, Spurs have got a bit of a younger, apprentice version. A man with a fair but modest track record. He has experience in the PL but sparingly so; by all accounts he’s an effective man-manager yet one with a promising tactical awareness. It’s a punt – all appointments are – but one invested with faith more than concrete evidence.

I wish him the very best. If you’re a Spurs supporter and you don’t then you perhaps need to reconsider what this football fan lark is about. But I have no idea if he’ll succeed or not – and that’s the way it should be. Here comes another record I keep on scratching, but it doesn’t matter what I, any other fan, twitterer, blogger, pundit, expert, ex-player, manager or DoF thinks. What matters is what the people who make the actual decisions think – and more importantly if they are going to stick by their choice.

In their welcome to Pochettino, the board have made all the right noises about winning mentality, a talented squad and a commitment to attacking football with an emphasis on youth. Fine, that’s good. But we’ve heard very similar all too many times – usually about 18 months before the latest project leader gets the boot. And let’s be clear about this: Pochettino was clearly not the owners’ first choice.

That’s understandable. A big beast like Louis Van Gaal was an admirable target, but out of reach. It’s hard for Spurs to take on Manchester City, Chelsea, and the other established Champions League sides with wage bills to match. Liverpool are now spectacularly back in the hunt, making that ambition to get in the CL, and make the more important challenge for trophies, much tougher propositions.

In truth, I don’t expect Spurs to actually achieve them. Brutal economics, regrettably, dictate that. But I do expect Spurs to have a better go at it. Wanting to play good, entertaining football that gets results is music to my ears. Bringing through youth gets a firm thumbs up. I’ll even support the club’s persistence with a DoF.

But please, Mr Levy, Mr Lewis: no more of this perennial, debilitating change. Give Pochettino a chance. Give him some proper and less equivocal say over recruitment. Let him have a decent stab at it. Two years at the very least, preferably more. Don’t panic and pull the plug at the first sign of a wobble. If noisy fans like me start moaning, ignore us. Stick with your own programme. You made the decision, after all. Now, back it up.

Spurs fans can help by, as ever, supporting the new man. I’ve never bought this idea the supporters are fickle and responsible for all the turmoil. Sure, the atmosphere’s been poisonous at times, with bizarre armed camps forming online over this manager or that and needlessly fracturing the support. But I haven’t heard too many calls for sackings and wanton disruption where it matters, at the ground. Maybe I’m turning a deaf ear on the few occasions I go it but it’s noticeable that through all those nine previous managerial dismissals, the fans haven’t really turned on the bloke in the dugout. It’s the owners that have done that.

So, its likely Pochettino will get plenty of support from the crowd. He inherits a curate’s egg of a squad. Good in places, not so good in others, and too much of an unknown quantity. Hopefully he can mould the clunky parts into a cohesive, functioning whole. Maybe he’ll even rescue the seemingly lost cause of Lamela.

The pair’s shared nationality can certainly help. In fact, it’s kind of comforting to see Spurs with an Argentinean streak again. It’s regreattable that Tottenham have never exploited that connection as well as they could have done. We should have made more of being the first club to successfully bring Argentineans to these shores in the wake of Ossie and Ricky’s dazzling success. Think of all that talent that headed to Spain and Italy that perhaps should have ended up in North London.

But that’s all in the past. What matters now is how the new ones fare, and already the new coach is making quite an impression. There’s a picture doing the rounds of what seems to be Pochettino looking very pleased with himself in the company of two ladies garbed in Stars and Stripes spandex, with Mauricio himself dressed in a nurse’s uniform and looking like Benicio del Toro. Maybe it is Benicio del Toro. I have no idea what’s going on. I’m not sure I want to.

You can’t quite imagine that first Enic manager, George Graham, being pictured in such a way, so there is some significant difference between the two at least. And there does seem to be a bit of hope engendered in the new guy, which was almost completely absent regarding his predecessor back in 2001. Hopefully, Pochettino fares well. I can’t admit to being that excited about this next instalment in the grand Enic plan. That’s not Pochettino’s fault, just that there have been far too many days like it to really believe otherwise this time. But good luck, Mauricio. You’re going to need it.

Now, how about a ticker tape reception at WHL?

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Let them eat birthday cake

THE football silly season has started early this year. Usually in a World Cup summer, the period of slow-news days has a relatively shorter lifespan. So perhaps the gods of stuff and nonsense are getting their work done now, before they are sidelined by the beano in Brazil.

That at least appears to be one explanation as to why the story of Yaya Toure wailing over a lack of birthday greetings is gaining so much traction. Alongside this heartrending tale of modern-day super-rich woe, there’s another goodie in the shape of West Ham putting Sam Allardyce on the naughty step. The owners are warning him that unless he bucks his ideas up and starts playing ‘entertaining’ football, there’ll be hell to pay. Or at least a nice big compensation cheque for when they sack him.

Yet while both yarns have the whiff of entries in some future, faintly amusing compendium of Football Babylon, they illustrate something else. It’s hard to recall such an overwhelmingly negative reaction from fans and other football lovers to such farces.

Let’s call it exasperation. Exasperation at the sport’s unerring ability to careen with great force up its own fundament. Exasperation at its bloated self-regard and self-serving codswallop. A sport so full of itself, it’s a wonder it can’t stare from the inside out at its own puckering arsehole. Sometimes football does its level best to make its fans think ‘you know what? I think I’ll leave you to it.’ And this felt like one of those days.

The grimy details of Toure’s hissy flounce revolved around the apparent absence of sincere greetings for the 31-year-old’s birthday. Note that age: 31. At a time when grown men should be worrying more about important things like their family, their place in the cosmos, and receding hairlines, Toure has been whining over whether he got a cake or not from his bosses.

If ever there was a perfect storm of misplaced arrogance and ego, this was surely it. Toure is an outstanding footballer and a phenomenally well-rewarded one. He does wonderful things on the pitch, but is behaving like a prize tool off it. There may be underlying reasons why he and his agent have chosen to act up – we can all guess as to the unsubtle opening move in an impending parting of the ways from City – but frankly it’s not worth caring about. The cake story on its own is enough to make you heave.

Down at the soon-to-be-vacated Upton Park, meanwhile, a group of owners who are traducing their club’s distinguished heritage by upping sticks for an Olympodome very few of the club’s fans want to move to, are banging on about traditions and the West Ham way. This is PR designed to impress the terminally thick. It just doesn’t wash. Aside from the contractual details of defining ‘entertaining’ football (is Kevin Nolan getting sent off entertaining? It sure is) it smacks of playing to some ill-defined gallery. Showing that owners really ‘care’ and understand what makes their club tick.

What Sullivan and Gold, and Toure, and all the rest of them do understand is what really makes the modern game tick – money, and loads of it. At their heart, that is what both these tales are about. Great big bulging stashes of the stuff.

Both of these silly-season stories are right to be reported. Each meets the requirements of a back page lead – exceptional footballer in dispute with his employers, the current league champions and FFP transgressors; East London PL franchise could dispense with its public face because the product needs to fulfil the needs of an entertainment business, and not just a results one.

Both stories are ostensibly about respect – for the individual and, (excuse the language) the brand. Ultimately, however, they revolve around money. The headlines about cakes and jolly cockney knees ups are simply the dressing.

It’s cash that lies at the heart of these and most other football narratives. The important topical ones – Richard Scudamore’s performance as Premier League chief exec, ongoing ownership controversies, the FA Commission, and the appalling neglect of grassroots football – are rightly covered on their own individual merits, but all roads inevitably lead back to money.

Even the forthcoming Champions League Final can’t resist. It is a great story to see Atletico Madrid reach the final, with a chance of achieving a famous double, but much of the build up has been about the vast disparity in wealth between Atletico and their regally appointed neighbours.

The same goes for the World Cup. What used to be a tantalisingly brief extravaganza, starring global talent and played by and large for the sake of the sport itself, increasingly resembles a bloodstock sale where gilded clubs and agents bid for emerging or biddable players. Less about national pride than shop-window promotion. Listen out for how many times a particularly fine piece of skill is greeted with variations on ‘that’s added a million to his transfer fee’.

I should at this point declare a sort-of conflict of interest. My living depends to a large extent on writing about football, so it’s rich to bemoan its riches. But there has to be a balance somewhere, and it seems like the scales have tipped way too far in the direction of avarice.

So much is so obvious. We all repeat the mantras about being against modern football, but modern football carries on seemingly regardless. It is largely immune to righteous anger. Yet exasperation gets us nowhere. It’s communication and organisation that has the best chance of delivering tangible gains.

The excellent DFAFS blog has outlined a plan of action that should whet some whistles.

And, as Martin Cloake often reports in his must-read New Statesman column,  supporters groups across the country are making genuine, positive strides. Modest steps for the most part, but important nonetheless.

Collectively they might not bring the profound earth-shattering changes many would like to see, but it’s got to be better than just worrying about football’s inevitable eternal damnation. Yaya can wallow in his birthday sulk and Sullivan and Gold can blow bubbles all they want. Football fans have got more important things to be getting on with.

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Oh Ledley, Ledley

FOOTBALL in May shouldn’t be like this. Drenching rain, a cold wind, and hundreds waiting on a platform for a train that never seems to arrive. A departing crowd making their way home after a fixture with nothing at stake. Getting pissed on in all kinds of senses, following another fruitless, financially extortionate season of disappointment, resentments and rancour.

It all seems wrong. This is the time of the year when the trophies should be won, on balmy nights when the floodlights aren’t required from the off, and the crowd are in a deafening frenzy. When you dare to hope the campaign will end with some glittery shiny thing, but won’t be too distraught if it doesn’t. It shouldn’t be a long trudge home in the aftermath of damp-squib end of a season – a campaign of drift and wasted opportunity when nothing much happened apart from the usual off-pitch turmoil, chaos and money-obsessed bollocks.

Yet looking around, all you can see are smiling faces, laughter and animated talk. A Spurs win being pored over with glee. Slightly over-awed kids clutching programmes, with mums and dads reminding them of the stellar talents they’ve just seen.

It speaks volumes about the Tottenham Hotspur of 2014 that the most enjoyable bit of the season came only after it ended. Ledley King’s testimonial was a cockle-warming pleasure from start to finish. A full house of 36,500 – many had apparently been turned away – saw Spurs stars current and past laying on the entertainment.

It was all fancy flicks and shimmies that often came to nothing but got the oohs and aahs they deserved. A midfield of Anderton, Davids and Ginola with Sheringham and Berbatov up front. Sign ‘em up, please, Mr Levy. There were loads of goals (forget the score), some re-assuringly inept Spurs defending, and a good old sing song, mercifully free of the bitterness and spite that has characterised far too much of recent times.

Even referee Howard Webb was revealed to be a member of the human race, joining in the spirit of the occasion. At one stage he took matters into his own feet and dribbled with the ball, before being kicked in the air by Lewis Holtby and then laughing it off as the crowd roared approval and applauded. Hell had frozen over.

It was only the friendliest of friendlies of course, with absolutely nothing at stake. A Ledley King Spurs XI played a Spurs XI, with the latter decked out in all-Lilywhite but on the receiving end of good natured boos. Every King touch was cheered. When the opposition went through the pantomime of conceding a first-half penalty, King was inevitably invited to step up and score in front of the Park Lane end and receive the acclaim

He did so with that customary element of shyness. To be truthful, he looked ever-so-slightly uncomfortable throughout. It was a reminder that while this was a charity-funding celebration, it was also a something of a memorial service for the passing of A great footballer’s brilliant, but in part unfulfilled career. “That’s life,” said King when Paul Coyte asked him after the final whistle about the cruel injuries that had robbed this magnificent defender of the hundreds more games he should have played. This was a bittersweet night at the Lane, all about memories, all-too fading glories, and what might have been.

But back to what had been. Coyte’s excellent master of ceremonies shift came into its own during a recreation of the 1984 UEFA Cup penalty shoot out. A team of MPs took on the role of Anderlecht (no, I don’t know why either) and were obligingly useless. Local MP David Lammy got a few jeers but mostly respectful applause for one of the worst pens ever. A video message from Boris Johnson was roundly booed.

For Spurs 1984, Graham Roberts did a Klinsmann dive in celebration, Micky Hazard came through the cramp barrier to score, Martin Chivers shot home while holding an umbrella, and Tony Parks set off in a recreation of his famous victory run but wisely thought better of it and pulled up after a few yards.

Such laughs. It was a telling illustration of how this club can get it right when it puts it’s mind to it. This was very well done by all concerned. Good organisation, and excellent value, with notably lots of kids and, at a guess, plenty of locals able to bypass the usual ticket logjam and come to the Lane.

The crowd did their bit too, save for the abominable Mexican wave. But that attendance and the reports that others couldn’t get in is worth noting again: on a dreadful Monday night of lashing wind and rain, following a season of expense, rows, and miserable thrashings, tens of thousands had shown up to pay tribute to the captain they loved and stayed to the very late end. An East London reared, home-grown defender who will forever be dear to fans’ hearts got the send off he deserved. A proper legend. Something for Sol Campbell to ponder, perhaps.

Yet for all the unashamed Spurs love-in, this was a night tinged with poignancy as well. During the half time penalty sketch, Ledley’s son Coby got to take part and he finished with accomplished ease. He’ll probably end up playing for Chelsea as they purchase their 7th European Super League Title in the future, but for that brief moment last night it was very touching to see the son of a Spur knock one in and take the acclaim of the White Hart Lane crowd.

I should be too old and too cynical for this sort of sentimentality. At the back of my mind was the thought that if Coby’s dad had stayed fit he might not have done the 10 years at Tottenham. But the sight of the two together struck a chord. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, players and supporters. The extended Tottenham family.

If only football could always be like this.

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