Football Literature: The Gift That Will Always Give

Football touches on every aspect of life, which means you can put a book about the game in most sections of a library: politics, economics and social science; languages and geography, when dealing with world football; mathematics, when dealing with statistics and data; and, of course, religion.

There are certain set texts that look intimidating, in terms of page length and subject matter, but once you start reading them, you can’t stop. Here are the Pringle cans of football literature.

Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting The Pyramid is the gold standard in its domain.

Brian Glanville – The Story of the World Cup

Born in 1931, the don daddy of football critics still has a World Soccer column and gets his grandson to help him type up his match reports, usually of Fulham FC. Glanville started his career writing stories in the 1950s and then more or less began the discipline of football criticism, rather than straight reportage, in Britain. His World Cup chronicle was first released in 1973 and has been updated every four years.

David Goldblatt – The Complete Works

You know how you can buy every Shakespeare play in one book, printed on paper as thin as you find in the Bible? I reckon his publisher should bind together the three texts by David Goldblatt. 2006’s The Ball is Round spends 900 pages taking the reader from Victorian England to ‘the end of history’ in the early 2000s. 2015’s The Game of our Lives is about British society as much as about football. 2019’s The Age of Football sees him gallivant around the world – including stops in Nigeria and Israel – to take the pulse of football ten years on from his first book. What a delight that it was completed before 2020. It comes out in paperback in August, which will be easier on the arms.

Duncan Hamilton – Going to the Match

Best known for Provided You Don’t Kiss Me, which is as much memoir of himself as portrait of Brian Clough, this 2018 book proves why Duncan Hamilton is one of the best contemporary writers on football. Paying the entrance money to all sorts of football grounds, he tries to turn Lowry’s famous painting into words and succeeds. Poetic prose can be found in every chapter, in the kind of book you have to read in an armchair with a glass of posh wine.

Michael Calvin – The Complete Works

These are books to read with a pie and a pint. These are documents of social history rather than academic books, which are written in the trenches. Hitching a wagon with football scouts (The Nowhere Men), aspiring dreamers (No Hunger in Paradise) and gaffers (Living on the Volcano), the reporter documents the game’s hidden side without bias. In his book about Millwall FC, Family, Calvin harks back to The Glory Game, Hunter Davies’ book about Tottenham which is almost 50 years old. His 2019 book State of Play also goes ‘under the skin’ of the modern game, an accurate description of his style. BT Sport have filmed two of his books as documentaries, which will be shelved in the Audio/Video section of the Football Library.

John Nicholson – Can We Have Our Football Back? 

You might know ‘Johnny The Nic’ from his Football365 column but did you know he is the Karl Marx of football critics? His second book (published a year after the excellent We Ate All The Pies) sets out his manifesto for reforming football, which the English FA would do well to look at. Nicholson advocates a Sovereign Wealth Fund to stop other clubs following Bury into bankruptcy. He also wants to shatter the link between football and gambling, while his bold call to arms for Sky Sports subscribers not to renew is convincing. Nicholson rails against capitalism, promotes sustainability and involves the reader from the opening chapter. The joke about why Middlesbrough’s pitch was so green is one for Phil Shaw’s Book of Quotations. 

James Montague – The Complete Works

While we are on the subject of journalists in the trenches, James Montague’s passport must have run out of space to put stamps. The globe-trotting journalist made his name with a book on football in the Middle East called When Friday Comes, where he was particularly illuminating on Syria, Palestine and Iraq. He followed it up with Thirty-One Nil, which follows football’s minnows as they try to reach the 2014 World Cup. For his next trick he moves his attention to the boardroom while explaining the rise of the ‘super-rich owners’ from America, Asia, Russia and the Middle East in The Billionaires Club. His latest book is an exploration of fan culture, 1312, where he goes ‘among the ultras’.

Bill Buford – Among the Thugs

The subtitle of James Montague’s new book is a nod to the classic examination of the football hooligan, which shocked the world when it was published in 1990. Buford edited Granta magazine, a high-minded literary publication, but was taken by the fights, football special train services and general air of menace, which is clear on every page on this classic of pre-Premier League football literature. Genuinely scary in places, this is a history lesson in book form.

Jonathan Wilson – The Complete Works

Wilson is Sunderland’s brainiest fan. A graduate of Oxford university, he edits The Blizzard, a football quarterly magazine. This builds on his work as a critic of high esteem for the likes of World Soccer and the Guardian. His big break came in 2008 with Inverting the Pyramid, which is the set text on football tactics. His Anatomy series drops in on ten big games in the histories of England, Liverpool (co-authored with Scott Murray) and Manchester United. All three form a wonderful way to look at football with both a telescope and a magnifying glass. His 2006 book Behind the Curtain is his own adventures in Eastern Europe and the fragmentation of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, while The Outsider (2012) is his history of goalkeepers up to the current craze for sweeper-keepers. He has followed up his history of football in Argentina, 2015’s Angels with Dirty Faces, by focussing on Hungary: The Names Heard Long Ago reminds readers of the era of Hidegkuti and Puskas, as well as the sort of critics who informed Brian Glanville’s view on the game. Like Duncan Hamilton Wilson has written a biography of Brian Clough called Nobody Ever Says Thank You. He also published The Barcelona Legacy in 2018 which was subtitled ‘Guardiola, Mourinho and the Fight for Football’s Soul’. See, football as religion/philosophy.

Do you have any essential texts that ought to be automatic choices for the shelves of the Football Library? Send Jonny a message @FootieLibrary on Twitter.

Jonny Brick

Jonathan Brick is a writer based in Watford, UK. His eBook A Modern Guide to Modern Football is out now.