Book Reviews: GCR Books

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The Wenger Code: Will It Survive The Age Of The Oligarch?
By Richard Evans

With the events of the weekend, a book analysing the failings of the preceding two seasons is going to make uncomfortable reading. The preceding two seasons offer little comfort in that respect. Evans has created a book which is readily identifiable with its subject. Like Arsenal, this is prose which is easy on the eye, as you would expect from a man steeped with journalistic history, whose career has covered a large swathe of the media.

Evans traces the past two season, rarely stuttering, passing as easily and fluidly through the pages as the ball does across The Emirates turf. Like Arsenal, the book takes plenty of shots at its target, not all of them hitting their target.

 

The failings and relative successes of 2010-11 and 2011-12 are dissected and a cast of villains emerge. The usual suspects are laid bare; under-performing and treacherous players, both Arsenal and opponents. Pantomime villains include Joey Barton, Kevin Nolan, Kevin Davies and a host of inept officials. Add into the mix bad luck and you know this is a book written by a fan. As much as Evans tries to be dispassionate, that pesky supporter bit comes through to the surface.

He is a normal Arsenal fan. Supportive of the manager, he wants top quality players brought in. In other words, spend the money available to you without bankrupting the club. That explains why the only person who emerges unscathed from this examination is the manager himself. Were Wenger so inclined, this might be his mea culpa were he to pen it. Not much acceptance of his own failings but readily identifying those of others. In itself, that is the book’s flaw. The Wenger Code is not so readily identified, the manager’s strategies, decisions and overall performance not critiqued.

That does not detract from the overall content. Evans contextualises the two campaigns, appraising the form of players, key matches and events surrounding the club, using the most potent tool of all: hindsight.

Kicking off on that afternoon at St James Park, there is no doubt that Phil Dowd’s performance has not improved with time. The inconsistencies applied to hime and away players by the official and subsequently the FA, are brutally exposed. He stops short of conspiracy theories though with Barton and Nolan right identified as the protagonists whose influence over a number of games is noted as destabilising, calculated to ensure Arsenal’s failure.

Those employed by the club do not escape questioning. Performances on the pitch pondered, the fickleness of form and who swiftly the fates change. How could, for example, Johan Djourou move from being a first class defender to a Jonah without reshuffling the letters of his name? Inevitably certain clubs feature prominently although many would focus more on Manchester City, Chelsea and United rather than Newcastle or Bolton, even if the latter pair were more pivotal matches.

Ultimately this is an enjoyable read from a fan’s viewpoint. Commendable as it is I was left wishing for an appraisal of the manager, his training methods and strategies on the pitch, looking more forward than back even though quite often the answers are in the past. Football is changing and the question is whether the manager can with it.

Until that book comes along, this a good foundation, a good analysis of events on the pitch in the two previous campaigns. Purchase directly from GCR Books.

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Arsenal The French Connection by Fred Atkins

A book that is long overdue and one that needed to be written by a Francophile. Fred Atkins is that man. For GCR books, it is a brave tome upon which to launch themselves as publishers in their own right alongside the outstanding collection of reprints.

The club, as the author points out, owes a great deal to their French manager. The second Golden Age came at the hands – or mind – of Arsene Wenger and the feet of a veritable army of players from across the channel. They all get their moment in Atkins interesting angle on the modern history of Arsenal.

Of course we might like to forget the contribution of some of them. Did I really want to learn more about Squillaci or Silvestre? Actually theirs are two chapters which shed more light on their careers, diverting attention away from the pitch and telling us more about the men. There is the other end of the spectrum with players such as Sunu, whose career barely registered on the Arsenal radar, whilst Coquelin might well be included in Volume 2 should Mr Atkins be so inclined.

It is to his credit that the successes are celebrated as much as the failures. The tribulations endured on the Anelka and Gallas trails are not ignored, acknowledged for their contributions with the same focus on their distractions. As much as we may view them as fools, both provided watershed moments for the clubs, Anelka the funding for the training facilities at Shenley whilst Gallas proved that the manager’s view of captaincy was not misplaced as far as his compatriots were concerned. A harsh lesson to learn.

Where the book succeeds is in providing interesting information about those whose careers have been – and continue to be – covered in great depth. It takes hard work to offer a new perspective on the likes of Pires and Henry; Atkins manages to do so as well as keeping the reader interested in the more familiar and well-known aspects of their Arsenal days.

Of course we might wish to know more about careers post-Arsenal but that may stray too far down a path away from their influence at the club. It is often used as a stick with which to beat the manager yet time will show us the healthy influence of this French Foreign Legion. Perhaps Atkins book will be a stepping stone in that direction.

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Purchase The Battle Of London from GCR Books

It is a brave man who would try to put historical perspective on the rivalry between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, certainly from a neutral perspective. I couldn’t do it and despite being a Tottenham supporter, Pardoe made an excellent effort in this book, originally published forty years ago.

The formation of the rivalry between the two clubs is explored fully which gives an interesting historical perspective, especially looking back now when the game is entirely different. Global interest in the Premier League is no bad thing at all; it does tend to water down what was an intense local rivalry at the time. Sometimes a touch of parochialism is needed to remind us of whom we are, where we have come from, what we mean to each other.

The republishing of this book is a welcome addition to what is growing into an impressive literary Arsenal at GCR Books. Making sought after items on eBay available to the masses has made the history of Arsenal Football Club become more accessible, supporters more knowledgeable.

To the point where Pardoe’s history finishes, Arsenal had the upper hand. Having usurped Tottenham from the First Division at the end of the First World War, Arsenal was within a decade of entering their first ‘Golden Age’. The rawness to which Tottenham were exposed at this time is wonderfully captured by Pardoe. Of course, there were dark times for the Arsenal support to bear.

Tottenham were not always playing second fiddle; watching from the sidelines during the 1930s was replaced by gloating of the early part of the 1960s. The first London club to complete the League and Cup double; the first English club to win a European trophy. Small crumbs of comfort when your rivals can point to three titles in a row and three times as many as you have won. European trophies were matched by the end of the same decade and within a decade, so to was the League and Cup double.

It is a true asset of the book that Pardoe has put the passion into context without becoming overbearingly academic on the subject. Football history is all too often consumed with statistics which render whichever aspect of the game is under scrutiny, dry. This book is about passion, enmity, the joy and despair of being a football fan with successful rivals. And to his credit, Pardoe captures this without falling into the trap of obvious bias.

Whilst the author’s original work is lovingly restored, there is a modernisation, the ending of the book has been updated to include the performances of the two clubs since the original publication date. The historical gap widened at this point, any equivalent book now would surely reveal the author’s bias more distinctly.

An excellent book which is recommended to all with an interest in local rivals.

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Captain of Wales by Walley Barnes

GCR Books continues its very welcome series of Arsenal books, republishing what are rightly held to be footballing classics. The latest in the series is Walley Barnes, “Captain of Wales“.

Barnes was an erudite man who led by example on the pitch, a League title and FA Cup winner in the immediate post-war Arsenal. And yet it was a career that so nearly never happened. Born in 1920, Barnes served in the Forces during the Second World War, playing for Southampton. When Tom Parker, the then manager, left following a disagreement with the Board, his final act was to offer to find clubs for the guest players, those who were serving and based close by.

The last player he spoke to was Barnes, telling him that he need not bother naming a club, he was joining Arsenal.  It was the second time fate played a hand in his fledgling career, a Portsmouth scout had spotted him playing in a non-league match whilst catching his breath on a bike ride. They don’t make careers like that any more.

Not that it was all plain sailing. A knee injury sustained in an Arsenal Reserves match threatened to end his career but Barnes recovered and would play in every position for the club during his time at Highbury.  He switched from Left Back to the right when Laurie Scott vacated the role and would have won more were it not for an injury sustained in the 1952 FA Cup final. Forced to leave the pitch, Arsenal played on with ten men only to lose 1-0 to Newcastle United. The injury plagued him and he missed out on the title-winning season in 1952-53 entirely.

Having managed Wales for two years whilst injury took its toll, Barnes moved into television following the path trodden by George Allison at the BBC by presenting the FA Cup final programmes for broadcaster and the first Match of the Day in 1964.

A huge pat on the back for GCR Books in their endeavours to republish the books, this one can be bought directly from them here.

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ehFootball Ambassador by Eddie Hapgood

It is rather hard to try and get over to you readers what I mean about Arsenal, because, of course, I was one of them, and, in some way, it sounds like personal boasting. But we were proud of ourselves, as I suppose we were entitled to be.

Signed by Herbert Chapman in 1927, Eddie Hapgood was arguably the first in a long tradition of outstanding left backs in Arsenal’s history.

The first encounter with the manager is recounted, Hapgood suitably impressed. Chapman’s question for the future England captain was similar to that which you can imagine Wenger asking, “Do you drink or smoke?“. Hapgood did neither and before arriving at the club was a vegetarian, something that the club were keen to end, eventually the player being more than happy to devour steaks “the size of Whittaker’s Alamanac“.

Born in Bristol, he worked as a dairyman, driving a milk cart for his brother-in-law. It was a job that he considered important enough to decline the overtures of Bristol Rovers, “there was a social distinction between driving a milk cart and a coal cart.

The book recalls in vivid detail football of that era. The words of those of an honest man, hard-working and should be read by all players today. Hapgood gives an insiders view of the club and brings to life the histories of Arsenal which abound, offering a key insight into personnel on and off the pitch.

Hapgood would become a key member of the successful side of the 1930s, captaining club and country duing his career. During his time at the club, he won 5 league titles and 2 FA Cups, the club’s most decorated captain. At this point, Arsenal were the pinnacle of English football, illustrating how exceptional a player Hapgood was. Hard to believe that this was a man who was conned out of his £10 signing-on fee during a train journey into London to join Arsenal for the first time.

Hapgood’s international career often goes remarkably unnoticed. It was far from that. Forged in the decade before and during World War II, his debut came in Rome under the gaze of Mussolini. The Italians were prominent in his career, the opposition for his first match as England captain in the Battle of Highbury in 1934. Most controversial was the fixture in Berlin, 1938 against Germany.

The 6-3 victory for England is forgotten amid the ‘Nazi salutes‘ proferred by the team at the behest of the weak-spined politicians of the day, carried out to ‘keep the crowd in good temper‘. Hapgood and the rest of the squad were uncomfortable with the whole scenario, the captain noting that “Personally, I felt a fool heiling Hitler“.

Hapgood would go on to become the most capped England player at that time, 43 in total, 21 as captain, a record recognised by the Football Association who awarded him a £100 testimonial in recognition of his services.

Every Arsenal fan should read Hapgood’s story and so should the players. The opening quote shows what it meant, and should still mean, to play for Arsenal Football Club. Click on the titles to buy Football Ambassador: The Autobiography of an Arsenal Legend, along with The Arsenal Stadium Mystery and Forward, Arsenal!, the other GCR reprints, keeping the history alive.

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Forward, Arsenal! by Bernard Joy

Originally published in 1952 and long out of publication, this essential book on the history of Arsenal is reprinted by GCR Books. Whilst every season spawns an updated version of the club’s history, this was for many years the definitive version of that story.

As a former player Bernard Joy had a level of access that gives this history a uniqueness that is unlikely to be matched again. His experience as journalist gives his narrative whilst his love of the club is never allowed to overspill into sycophancy, retaining a balanced view throughout.

Joy began his career at amateur side Casuals in 1931, winning the Amateur Cup and captaining the Great Britain team at the Berlin Olympics of 1936. He was registered with Southend United and Fulham in the early 1930s but in 1935, he joined Arsenal.

It is utterly inconceivable that an amateur player would ever follow this career path in the modern era, let alone represent the full England international side. Yet this is how Joy’s career unfolded, playing his one full international in a 2-3 defeat to Belgium. He was the last amateur to achieve this status, a record that will surely never be broken.

In 1937-38, the regular Arsenal centre half, Herbie Roberts suffered a broken leg and Bernard Joy replaced him, winning a League Champions medal that season. As a result of his injury, Roberts retired and Joy remained first choice in his position through to the outbreak of the Second World War, picking up a Charity Shield winners medal in 1938.

Joy’s war was spent as an RAF Intelligence Officer which enabled him to continue playing football. He was to make more than 200 appearances for Arsenal during this time, continuing his career once war was over. However, like many, he lost those years from his career and at 35, he retired in December 1946 although he was to continue playing for Casuals until 1948. It is incredible to think that such a pivotal player for those seasons was an amateur. On retiring, Joy entered journalism as Evening Standard and later Sunday Express football correspondent.

Forward, Arsenal! is a superb history of the club. Contributions were directly received from a veritable Who’s Who of players and managers including Tom Whitaker, George Allison, Alex James and Charles Buchan, rather than relying upon the press of that time for the information. The detailed analysis puts modern histories to shame.

This book has long been sought after on eBay in its original form. GCR Books has made a fine reprint, one that every Arsenal fan should own. Having started with The Arsenal Stadium Mystery, Greg is planning an outstanding library of reprinted books about Arsenal, which can be viewed on their website en route to buying Forward, Arsenal!

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Billy Gooner’s First Match by Greg Adams

A bit of a change for ACLF book reviews, this one is aimed at the younger audience.

GCR Books has published the tale of a seventh birthday trip to Highbury to see Arsenal take on West Ham – a Hammer’s theme day on ACLF today – in 1976. As choices of first games go, it’s pretty much hard to improve on that.

The book is aimed at the younger audience and sits comfortably in that arena. Number Two son is of that age and enjoyed the story, remembering his own experiences along the way. The excitement of a child’s birthday present being  is well-conveyed and the language he found helped comprehend the story, not just reading it.

It is well worth the effort of buying this for any younger family members although be prepared for pester power to come along with it; how you will wish that entry to the ground was at 1976 prices!

A Cultured Left Foot readers can get a 10% discount on the purchase price by visiting the GCR website and entering the code ‘ACLF’ in the relevant box when ordering.

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The Arsenal Stadium Mystery by Leonard Gribble

I know what you are thinking, it is not a new book to review. It is the return of the book reviews section on the blog. GCR books do an outstanding service in reprinting historic Arsenal books. This week will see original reviews re-posted and then appearing on their own page.

For those who do not know, the story is set against the backdrop of a fictional match between Arsenal and an amateur team called The Trojans. As Mick Jones sang, ‘Somebody Got Murdered‘ and Inspector Slade is called in to save the day, which he duly does. Or rather, solve the case, for it would not be much of a ‘whodunnit’ if you were still wondering the identity of the culprit at the end of the book.

Set eighty years ago, it is almost inconceivable that such a book could be written in today’s football climate with the natural suspicion that clubs, players, managers and staff hold the media. If Gribble did not have access behind the scenes, he possessed an astute eye for observing characters, descriptions of the playing staff and their personalities entirely plausible.

Where the book excels in football literature is capturing the emotions surrounding the game, both on and off the pitch. Anyone who stood on terraces at Highbury will relate entirely to Gribble’s depiction of the stadium emptying and queues for the tube station.

Compared to today’s crime writing, the absence of car chases, swearing and sex scenes is a refreshing change. It concentrates purely on the crime, characters and their lives. Even so, the pace is consistent throughout and an enjoyable read it is too.

GCR Books are looking at other Arsenal titles so let us hope that they are able to reprint those as a decent job has been made of this one. The Arsenal Stadium Mystery can be purchased directly from GCR Books and with Christmas around the corner, a recommended stocking filler for all.