Two sides to every story

From Felix Magath’s facebook page:

Dear Facebook friends and fans, incorrect messages deal with my work. For you the clarification. I put this on your judgment and objectivity. This “cheese story” of the player’s Hangeland is cheese like nonsense. I would never prescribe a physician but, what he has to do. I told only the player with an inflammation in the knee, in addition with the old recipe Quark to To try it. Unfortunately, misrepresentation of hillside lands of media in its distorted portrayal is applied. It is however different. Compliment the work of the German press agency, work carefully and ask directly, before they put something in the public domain.

Often, footballers, reached no more attention with their services via verbal appearance to give a public. I have never experienced such behavior by world-class people such as Michael Ballack and Raul. Regarding alleged hard in the Club, I would like the Assistant Coach of Nottingham Forest, Steve Wigley, quote, worked with me in Fulham and publicly expressed a few days ago: “I like Felix, he was Very good to me during this time.”

I would like to be judged objectively in the profession after my work. Otherwise you don’t see it safely in your everyday also. Against criticism, I have absolutely nothing to argue against unprofessional controversy and Backbiting, mixed with stories of alleged “insiders” I keep myself. However, Me too will proceed.

If your questions for me, just to the attached email address, I will answer then this soon on my website. Thank you for your attention and support.

Greetings and See you.
Your Felix Magath

And the stories begin: Magath was every bit as bad as former players suggested

So no, Brede Hangeland wasn’t just bitter.  Read this.  I’ll post it all actually, as it’s important.  Good work, Daniel Taylor.

You might be aware of that scene from I’m Alan Partridge and the little piece of comedy gold when he is informed he isn’t getting another series of his chat show and, one by one, all the ideas he pitches as alternatives – potential classics such as “Monkey Tennis” or “Arm Wrestling with Chas and Dave” – are rejected until he finally snaps, jabs a fork into a block of Stilton and thrusts it into the face of Tony Hayers, the BBC’s head of commissioning.

That little sketch – “D’ya want some cheese?” – comes to mind now Felix Magath has left Fulham and one of the stories that suggests he, too, had some strange ideas of his own before everything unravelled. Again, it involves a large mound of cheese and, much like Alan, it is difficult to know where it leaves him professionally.

It goes back to last season when Brede Hangeland, then the Fulham captain, was diagnosed with a slight thigh injury and the club’s doctor, Stephen Lewis, with more than a decade of working in elite sport, put together a recovery programme to try to get him fit for the weekend. Except Magath thought he knew better. There was another way to treat the problem, he said. So he sent the kit-man to the Tesco in New Malden, a short drive along the A3 from Fulham’s training ground, to buy a large block of cheese.

Hangeland was then told to perch on the end of a massage table and spend the afternoon in that position with a slab of cheese carefully positioned on the sore spot. The cheese, according to Magath, would have soothing effects. Hangeland was a sceptical patient and, funnily enough, Lewis decided a few months later he would rather stick to more orthodox practices and left to join Brighton and Hove Albion. Hangeland could not wait to get away either and has been a frequent critic of Magath ever since. Others, I suspect, will start to be more forthcoming now he is gone because it is clear, speaking to some of the people who have now left Fulham, that his regime was even more bewildering and unpleasant than previously thought.

It is certainly difficult sometimes to remember that the man Fulham sacked on Thursday, bottom of the Championship and dropping like a stone in a well, had won two Bundesliga titles with Bayern Munich and another with Wolfsburg in the previous decade.

The Strange Case of the (Craven) Cottage Cheese is one thing but the stories about Magath are multiple and it would not be any surprise here if Fulham, despite losing their first game with Kit Symons as caretaker manager, begin climbing the league once a bit of common sense returns to the club and now they have started to bring back some of the ostracised players.

The list of outcasts featured Bryan Ruiz, who you may recall featured in many people’s World Cup XIs because of his performances for Costa Rica, and previously included the club’s £11m record signing, Kostas Mitroglou, now on loan at Olympiakos, and Fernando Amorebieta, formerly of Athletic Bilbao. Every day they would be left to mundane exercises on the next pitch to where the first-team squad were going through their sprints. Maarten Stekelenburg used to be with them, too, until he moved to Monaco on loan, and the Magath way was very much to close them off as if they did not exist. Another player was seen talking to Stekelenburg and one of Magath’s coaches ran over to tell him it was not permitted.

Perhaps none of this would have mattered too much had Magath shown he was a brilliant tactician or motivator. Yet this was the man who played Dan Burn, a 6ft 6in centre-half, at right-back in the 4-1 defeat against Stoke City last season that tagged their toes for the relegation morgue. Burn found out on the day of the match and the poor bloke put in a performance that can be accurately measured by the Stoke Sentinel’s post-match interview with Oussama Assaidi. “I felt very sorry for their defender,” the winger said. “He was a nice guy. He asked me to change sides, he didn’t want to play against me any more.” After that game, Magath turned on Burn in the dressing room. When Burn pointed out he had never played that position in his life he, too, was sent into a form of isolation (though, unlike others, he was eventually brought back).

As for Magath’s training methods, the stories are alarming. After one defeat, the German cancelled a day off and brought in everyone to play a full 90-minute match. At other times there have reputedly been three sessions in one day, some purely devoted to running the players until they were close to dropping. It was punishing and primitive and, slowly but surely, the Fulham players came to realise why Magath was known behind his back as “Saddam” at one of his former clubs.

Fulham can hardly say they were unaware of what he was like when his other nickname from Germany was Quälix, a mix of Felix and the verbquälen (to torture). Magath does have a record of achievement behind him but it is an outmoded style and now Fulham probably have a better idea now why Lewis Holtby, on loan from Tottenham, immediately asked to return to White Hart Lane when he found out that Magath, formerly his coach at Schalke, was taking over. In Germany, the joke is that Magath stopped winning matches because the opposition always included some of his former players – who disliked him so much they would give everything to beat him.

Magath had not been in work for 18 months when Fulham’s owner, Shahid Khan, offered him a way back in February and the only conclusion to draw is that his old-school style of boot camp management just does not work in modern-day football. Players don’t want to run until they fall or operate in an environment where they hardly dare utter a word. When they have been made to run through woods for 45 minutes, they don’t want to find the manager has emptied their water bottles for reasons only he knows.

One story has emerged of Magath calling players into his office and then just staring at them for two or three minutes without saying a word. Another comes from this season when two of Fulham’s first-year pros turned up late for training and Magath fined them so heavily it led to a meeting of the club’s senior players to decide how to take him on.

Eventually, the captain, Scott Parker, went to see him and tried to argue that the amount of money involved was not really fair for two teenagers on relatively low salaries. Parker explained there was a legitimate reason why they had been late and did his polite best to make it clear the punishment was disproportionate to the crime. Magath refused to budge. “They need to be taught a lesson,” he said. Parker – a class act – ended up paying the fines.

The theory here is that Magath brought through so many of Fulham’s academy-produced players because it better suited his control-freakishness, on the basis they were less likely to argue and more likely to fall in line, like Daleks. There is a difference, though, between being a manager who wants power and rule and one who is unreasonable and dictatorial to the point that it alienates everyone. Magath, to put it bluntly, was an unpleasant man and the trail of ill feeling he has left behind him brings to mind what Jefferson Farfán of Schalke once said about his former manager. “All the managers at Schalke in the last few years gave something to the club,” Farfán said. “The only coach who didn’t leave anything positive behind was Magath. All he left behind were fines.”

For Fulham, it could take some while to repair the damage. Yet Symons, I’m reliably informed, is one of football’s good guys and already working to make Craven Cottage a happy place again behind the scenes. The chalk to Magath’s cheese.

Fulham 0-1 Blackburn

One by-product of poor man management is players feeling on edge. Take Shaun Hutchinson. On his Fulham debut he had a rough time of it. The right move then, I’m sure, was to play him the next week and let him play through his mistake. But no, he was frozen out. What happens in that time? Hutchinson, at a new club, presumably starts to fret. He wants to impress his new teammates, the fans, and instead all anyone’s seen of him is a bad hour at Ipswich.

His luck didn’t change in midweek when what looked like a really good tackle was punished with a penalty kick. By now Hutchinson, keeping score in his head, is really feeling it. He’s clearly desperate to do well but so far the move hasn’t been panning out.

He gets another go against Blackburn and seems to be playing quite well, then, as half-time approaches, he sees a chance. He surges forwards, but his touch is heavy. He’s trying so hard though, he thinks he can impose himself on the loose ball. He gets it horribly wrong, his opponent goes off on a stretcher and Hutchinson sees the red card that only underlines what a nightmare his Fulham career has been. He stands in disbelief. He buries his head in his hands. As he walks off he holds his hands up to the crowd in apology. He knows he’s blown it. He knows that this fiasco of a season is going to keep being a fiasco for another week.

(symons: Shaun was distraught in the changing room at half-time,” stated Symons. “It was a straight red, there was no doubt about it. The one good thing is that Williamson is okay as it was a poor tackle; a typical centre-half trying to come out and play, makes a poor touch and tries to make amends but compounds the situation. He knew it was a bad tackle but there’s no malice in Shaun at all and he’s upset and disappointed.)  (which is how to deal with these things, right? Don’t throw him under the proverbial bus)

But that aside, today was as good as Fulham have been this season. There was some sense of team play there, and while it was true the Blackburn ‘keeper hadn’t been unduly troubled, he certainly would have been worrying when Hugo Rodallega’s screamer flew just wide. The team seemed composed on the ball, more coherent certainly, and if it didn’t all come together then, well, I guess we can’t expect too much too soon, given everything that’s gone before.

The signs are good though. Scott Parker, who I feel is now getting excessively criticised, had a huge game in the middle of the park. He looks fitter and hungrier, and is starting to play the leader’s role we’ve all been expecting. Parker deserved his criticism last year but in the Championship he’s a huge asset. Well done, him. well done the team in general, really.

Kit Symons wasn’t afraid to use his best players so we saw Amorebieta and Ruiz in the same team for the first time this season, and clearly this is a good thing. If Ruiz didn’t carve out anything special he showed some nice touches in the middle of the pitch, and as he gets games under his belt he seems destined to shine. Rodallega and McCormack, likewise, will I’m sure develop into one of the division’s top pairings, and both are starting to show their class. McCormack probably isn’t getting the volume of chances he needs just yet but the team’s been awful, hasn’t it? As things improve – and I have never been more certain that they will – so too will the goalscoring opportunities for our forwards.

Sometimes you have to look beyond the result. And even a bit beyond the performance. For the second time in three games the team’s been down to 10 men, so that’s either a sign of ill-discipline or one of those things. The Forest penalty was extremely harsh, and while we can hardly claim bad luck in conceding five goals in that game, it’s fair to say that the rub of the green isn’t going Fulham’s way just yet. Even today’s concession was slightly unfortunate.

It’ll get better. Honestly, it will. We’re more likely to go up than down.

Last word on Magath, for now

[by timmy]

A few pieces come to mind when thinking of Magath. The fact they’re about American football and their titles and the specifics don’t really matter as much as their essence.

Piece #1, from a former football player who spent one week at a certain team with a hated coach:

The psychology goes like this: Players used to love the game. They enjoyed their talent and had high self-esteem. If a coach comes along who makes them feel insecure and paranoid, they begin to hate the game. Then they begin to hate the man who made them hate the game. When they hate the man, they hate his agenda. His agenda, in this case, is an impersonal obsession with winning a football game, with (the perception is) little respect for the players who are doing the winning. The result: a player who doesn’t care whether his team wins or loses. And it happens constantly.

The good coaches are malleable, open-minded, humble. The good coaches make it feel like it’s our team, not his team. The good coaches understand that there is a fine line between being prepared and being confounded. The good coaches adjust their approach when they see 53 grown men ready to cry on a daily basis. These are the best athletes in the world. You don’t have to run them into the ground and call them pussies. You simply have to turn them loose. Sure, you must do so intelligently, with the opposing team’s strengths and weaknesses in mind. But you can’t project your own pedantic, inactive analysis of the game onto the athletes who actually have todo it.

Piece #2:

In the 21st century, NFL players are smart enough to distinguish between actual discipline (having a well-structured operation) and the bullshit old-school disciplinarian discipline. They know that a guy like Schiano is being a hardass because a) he gets off on it and b) he doesn’t really know what the fuck he’s doing. If you know what you’re doing, you usually don’t have to be a cock. If you haven’t, read former NFL tight end Nate Jackson’s account of Eric Mangini’s reign of terror in Cleveland for a good idea of just how far these nutjobs can take it.

Study after study has proven there are many good substitutes for Schiano’s redassed brand of leadership, and that it should be phased out of all aspects of American society entirely—in coaching, parenting, teaching, business management, etc. And now most NFL teams are doing just that. You can’t separate head coaches into “player’s coaches” and “disciplinarians” the way you used to. A good NFL head coach wins his players’ confidence by being detailed and having an answer for everything, not by being some stern daddy figure who demands you fight for his grudging approval. He doesn’t demand discipline. He inspires it.

Why a Symons/Murphy combination might be what we need

Peterkay

The other day Hade and I were watching Peter Kay. I always think I don’t really like Peter Kay, then I see him and can’t stop laughing.  This time he was on some regional news programme and interrupted the weather by crawling along then appearing in front of the map from the bottom of the screen.  In itself this wasn’t that funny, but in Kay’s hands we chuckled away.  Now, if David Cameron or Adrian Chiles or even Jimmy Carr had done this very same thing we’d have thought “no.”  But Kay made us laugh.  I don’t know why.

It feels like ties to a club should make no difference.  Whenever I see another team hire a former player to an important role I do think “hmm”.  Is that really the best qualified person for the job?  Sometimes it might be though.  It does feel though that the fans are quite fed up with the stinking sinking ship we’ve seen, and let’s face it, the ‘pick the best manager you can find’ approach isn’t exactly working for Fulham’s crack team of head-hunters.

Point is, we’re in a bit of a mess. Yes, the team will surely improve and at some point give the Championship a good hiding, but that might not be for a while.  We might lose a few games. We might take a while to integrate the kids.  There might not be a goalkeeper on sale in January!

So having some ‘untouchables’ at the helm for a rebuild might not be the worst idea. Take this season.  If Danny Murphy had presided over this start fans would be disappointed but not furious. It would be acknowledged that things take time, that Murphy was working out his best team, etc.  Any anger would be aimed at the, er, suits, which increasingly feels about right.  A Murphy/Symons combination would have enough goodwill in the bank to withstand much that fans would otherwise get angry about.

I think you have to assume that this isn’t going to be some jetpack/trampoline promotion situation just yet, and while I’m convinced the team will get better, maybe the time is right to go into a holding mode.  Stop buying in randoms and think about the next good Fulham team and who’s going to be in it. And while we move from A to B, have Symons and Murphy steering.

The end of Felix Magath

Well there we go, it happened.

It’s pointless trying to defend the undefendable – clearly Magath was not fit for purpose – but as with most recent Fulham decisions, the timing is iffy.

Honestly, you decide after an away defeat to the top of the table team that enough is enough?

Never mind. It’s a long season and there’s plenty of petrol left in the tank.

Whatever the manager’s merits, at some point you have to take supporter sentiment into account. Tension, anger and frustration have a way of finding their way onto the pitch. The players needed room to breathe. Magath had to go, for every reason.

In some ways the next manager walks into a reasonable position. Magath has done a lot of the dirty work in overhauling the relegation squad. Now, we might not like what he did after he’d overhauled it, but it was a big job and he ploughed through it with some (too much?) gusto.

The new manager also inherits a team that is, if not in a false position, then at least in a position from which we might reasonably expect a significant rebound. It’s the sort of role Harry Redknapp would have loved, jumping into a superficially sinking ship and saving it through the power of regression to the mean.

The players are okay, too. If not all of them are to the new man’s liking, at least there aren’t that many of them and they are mainly quite young. The only glaring personnel problem Magath has left behind is the absence of a goalkeeper, with two kids and Gabor Kiraly fighting for the no.1 jersey. It’s a battle in which nobody wins really, and the folly of letting David Stockdale go seems even worse with hindsight. We don’t know the details but it feels like an idiotic thing to have done, a transaction that might have been vetoed in a less dysfunctional organisation.

Those players that remain are hard to judge, looking fairly bewildered at their predicament. If the new manager picks the first team on merit then he has some dazzling attacking talent to draw on. If he can organise the defence, too, Fulham should be a reasonably good team quite quickly.

Magath feels like the closing of a particularly ridiculous phase in Fulham’s history. The ineptness of the Jol era, the Meulensteen/Curbishley/Wilkins fiasco, then Felix Magath… a long-running comedy of cock-ups. We could say that the next appointment is crucial, but it’s not just that. Looking back, the club’s approach to recruitment has veered all over the place in recent years, with each manager emphasising different types from different regions. Where is the overall direction here? Have the board ceded too much control to too many people?

It feels that way. And for an industry where so much money is flying around, the decision making has often been bewildering. We’ve mentioned Stockdale, but seeing Kasami and Mitroglou having some Champions League success more or less sums up what an absolute shambles Fulham have become. Good enough for the highest level of football, but not for Fulham? And our friend Bryan Ruiz, who had such a fine World Cup, can’t get a game in the Championship. Riiight. These are not the decisions of a club working effectively.

The other stuff – the bewildering team selections, the harsh substitutions, the dropping of players, these might not be optimal management but they’re all things that a manager can reasonably do. The big decisions though, there should be some sort of high level control here. You can’t just walk into a club and act with a free hand; it shouldn’t work that way. Everyone here has a lot of questions to answer. If this were English cricket there’d be an enquiry into prolonged poor performance. I’m sure Mr Khan’s businesses would do the same if one went badly wrong over a sustained period of time, made a series of bad decisions. It’s time for Fulham FC to have a good look in the mirror and decide what it wants to be. Are we blitzing the Championship on the back of mega-spending? Are we coaxing the youth team into a machine for the future? Whatever is decided the fans need to understand the message and need to be on-board with it. The latter is easier said than done, but fans will respond to things being done in what might be called “the right way.” This was always Magath’s problem: he did things badly and unconventionally, and fans never did quite work him out. Fulham can’t afford a repeat of this, so while a track record of some sort is obviously important, the intangibles are not to be overlooked either. Danny Murphy joining the existing temporary setup might make more sense than we think.

We won’t go down. We probably won’t go up. But at least now we can look forward to some kind of coherence about the club. This ought to have been a terrific season, where the kids got their chances and where we didn’t just turn up against the super-rich teams for a hiding. It’s not too late, though. Fulham have done the right thing for the first time in a long time. Let’s see what happens next.

Great signing: Fulham purchase Matt Smith from Leeds Utd

I like the Matt Smith signing. I remember watching him a couple of times when he was at Oldham. They played Liverpool and Everton in the cup and for some reason I had access to the TV.

What struck me about Smith was that he had this transcendental power. Power that – if harnessed – any team will struggle to defend.

High balls into the area are a great leveller. Sam Allardyce understands this and so does Tony Pulis. I don’t care if you’re Ferdinand and Vidic or Puyols and Pique, if the ball’s crossed with some accuracy, technical ability goes out of the window. If you want to defend it you have to compete physically. This is partly how Graham Taylor was able to get Watford promoted from division four to division one in short order in the 80s.

While researching my book on Roy Hodgson I talked to Richard Latham, a reporter in Bristol, who remembered briefings with Roy and Bob Houghton:

“He and Bob both spoke the language football wise, both very technical, very committed, and Bob had the press in with a blackboard explaining how Bristol City were supposed to be playing. I do remember something had just emerged, the POMO zone. Bob reasoned that every time the ball went into the POMO zone it was a chance, somebody should really have got on the end of it. He’d come out of games saying how many chances they’d had, but the goalkeeper hadn’t had to make a save. His reasoning was that the ball was in an area where they should’ve got to it, but nobody did. So I’ll always remember the POMO zone and I imagine Roy was into that sort of thing too. They were very technical coaches and sang from the same hymn sheet, but very different personalities.”

The point of all this was, simply, to get the ball into the danger area, to cause chaos, and to take advantage when the ball fell to the right man. (the background to all this was some dodgy but detailed analysis by Wing Commander Charles Reep, which Charles Hughes took on and made a central part of the FA coaching programme at the time. The analysis might have been suspect, but the long ball game it encouraged did work to a degree).

Now, this may not be what the puritans of SW6 want for their club, but it’s a legitimate approach and one that, dare we say it, has its uses in the Championship where as best we can tell, pretty football doesn’t seem to prevail as we might hope.

And Matt Smith seems to be the real deal if this is an option you want to take. He’s huge, but that alone doesn’t help if you can’t use this size, if you can’t compete, if you can’t put the fear of god into defenders every time the ball’s in the area. As best I can tell, Smith has all this in his locker. It’s too easy to write him off as a big lump: that won’t do in today’s game. The Championship is still a remarkably strong league. If Smith was just a big man up front he wouldn’t have stuck at Leeds, wouldn’t have scored the goals he has.

It raises other questions, not least how we’re going to provide the kind of wing play he’ll need, but on the surface this feels like a smashing signing to me.

(And dare we say it: if Magath was the embodiment of evil, wouldn’t Ross McCormack have warned Smith off?)

I am not an apologist

Or maybe I am: Apologist: “a person who offers an argument in defence of something controversial.”

Whatever. 

1

Suppose someone said: “we’re going to start again with this team. Bring in the youth team. Sign a few experienced players. Work to build a blend.”

How long would you expect it to take to get this right?

2

Here’s a run of four games that promoted QPR had late last season:

10 Feb 2014 Derby County 1 – 0 Queens Park Rangers
16 Feb 2014 Queens Park Rangers 1 – 3 Reading
22 Feb 2014 Charlton Athletic 1 – 0 Queens Park Rangers
1 Mar 2014 Queens Park Rangers 1 – 1 Leeds United

Derby made the playoffs, too, and many considered them the best team in the league. They had a run early on including four defeats in seven games. Late in the season they had a run of four games without a win.

Wigan were even more iffy: they had a run of one win in five early on. They lost four in a row halfway through the season, and closed out with a sequence of LWLLWL.

The difference here is that Fulham’s problems haven’t been a bad run in an otherwise good season, but a bad run with nothing else. 

But still.  Bad runs are part of football in the Championship.  

3

This is interesting: http://theonlystat.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/championship-week-4-fledgling-fall-of.html

The key part in Fulham’s predicament at the moment is that they simply can’t buy a goal for love nor £11m of Ross McCormack – although the League Cup winner in midweek against fellow Championship side Brentford may get him going.

Does anyone really expect Fulham to still be scoring just 13% of the shots on target at the end of the season? That’s less than half the league average of around 30%.

Defensively the west London team have also been burned – somehow conceding goals at double the league average – almost 60%.

Of course both these could be down to the quality of chances that Fulham are creating and conceding – but to have this wide a disparity must surely be very unlucky. (Consider it the reverse of when a West Brom or Sunderland or Swansea or other Premier League “minnow” is up near the top of the table a couple of months in – eventually every shot they take stops hitting the back of the net, opposition shots curl just inside rather than outside the post, and the team slides back down to its more natural (playing talent-based position somewhere in the middle of the table).

You know what that is? That’s just the bounce of the ball not going our way yet. If, across the league, 30% of shots on target are going in, and it’s half that when we shoot and double that when our opponents shoot, well that’s just the break of the ball. Last season every single team ended up clustered around the 30% figure, with 6 points either way.

So that’s just bad luck.

In conclusion:

1) we knew rebuilding would take time
2) most teams have bad strings of results. Even teams that aren’t starting from scratch.
3) we’ve probably been really unlucky so far. I know people won’t like this but it’s how things work.  If you toss a coin once anything could happen.  If you toss a coin 100 times you’re more likely to see a 50/50 split between heads and tails.  In short sequences of games things don’t even out.  They just don’t.  People will rightly say that we haven’t played well, but a lot of that is a function of the bad luck: when that starts to stabilise the players will appear more confident, the fans will overlook things that will get picked out after defeats, and the world is generally a happier place.

There. I did all that without talking about anyone in particular.  

Okay, now I will. Look, I don’t agree with most of what Magath’s doing either, but I’m not convinced that the sky’s falling down just yet.

Books

This is a bit out of place but Phil on Twitter was asking people about their favourite books so I wrote all this.  There are thousands of very good books in the world and these are just some that sprang to mind.   I’m terrible at  describing why I like the books I like but I’ll do my best.

Disclosure: the links are affiliate links.  On the off chance anyone clicks and buys I get a tiny percentage in commission.

Sports

King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero by David Remnick

Remnick is the editor of the New Yorker and has written a biography of Barack Obama which I’m reading now.  His Ali book, which focuses a good deal on Sonny Liston and the boxing world in which they worked, is a masterpiece.  This is about as good as sports books get, I think.

Game Time: A Baseball Companion  Roger Angell, funnily enough also affiliated with the New Yorker on several levels, is one of the great sports writers.  His descriptions of the game are so vivid and original, without overdoing it. (“Bernie Carbo, pinch hitting, looked wholly overmatched against Eastwick, flailing at one inside fastball like someone fighting off a wasp with a croquet mallet.”) He has a leisurely approach, an eye for the interesting, and his prose style is what you’d expect from a man whose mother was the driving force behind the aforementioned New Yorker, whose stepfather (E.B. White) wrote the style bible (the Elements of Style – writing style, that is) as well as Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, and lots of non-fiction for grown-ups besides.  Angell himself edited fiction for the New Yorker for years.  He also wrote baseball essays for the magazine, many of which have been collected into books.  I’d never get anywhere near him but Angell’s style is what I was going for when I started this website.

The Story of the World Cup: 2014: The Essential Companion to Brazil 2014 – the latest in Brian Glanville’s World Cup series. It’s a simple approach: every four years there’s a new version with a long essay about every World Cup held to date. FIFA can do all they want to spoil things, but ultimately it’s a rich competition with a vivid history. Glanville’s been there and seen it all (not quite it all but not far off) and this is pretty definitive. Put it this way: the World Cup is the greatest sporting event on earth, and this is the book about it I like most.

Fiction

Stone Junction – this is Jim Dodge’s…. third?… book. It’s imperfect, but so many of the best things in life are. (I’d rather listen to a bad Juliana Hatfield album than anything anyone else has done.)

Like many of the best fiction writers, Dodge is primarily a poet, and it shows in his language, which is exact, deliberate, but exciting.  This is subtitled “an alchemical potboiler” and it’s a big old canvas he’s working on here, but it covers some importantish ground.  I don’t know if anyone else will like this – I don’t always like it myself – but Dodge’s world view and writing pull the right strings for me.  Here’s a really good interview he did once. (e.g. ” Because my initial practice was poetry, in which there’s no money, I learned early on that there’s two ways to affluence: work to make enough money to buy everything you want, or to not want much.”)

Overall, I love it.

The Savage Detectives Roberto Bolano is more or less god in my world. His books are so far beyond what anyone else has done it’s pretty ridiculous.  The Savage Detectives is probably the most enjoyable but the trick here is to read everything he’s done, as it all fits together.   2666 is a more impressive accomplishment in some ways (it’s a monster, unsurpassable really, but not the best entry to Bolano) but you can’t beat this one for entertainment.  It starts with a group of young poets in Mexico City who end up on the run from some murderous drug dealers.  We spend the majority of the book hearing brief accounts by people who met two of these poets in the years they were missing, which gives a very uneven (talk about unreliable narrators…) but fascinating portrait of the individuals in question.  Ah, I can’t describe this.  It’s just brilliant.

Jujitsu for Christ (Banner Books) by Jack Butler.  One you won’t have heard of probably.  I got this on the recommendation (not a personal recommendation though) of the great singer-songwriter Jim White.  Here’s a blurb:

Jack Butler’s Jujitsu for Christ, originally published in 1986, follows the adventures of Roger Wing, a white born-again Christian and karate instructor who opens a martial arts studio in downtown Jackson, Mississippi, during the tensest years of the civil rights era.

I found it to be a really well written, funny, moving book, but not in a soft Metro-reader way. Dunno. Some books really affect you.  I could very easily have put Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” here, incidentally. Perhaps I should have.  That’s an incredible book.

General non-fiction

Pulphead: Notes from the Other Side of America by John Jeremiah Sullivan.  If Bolano is the god of fiction then Sullivan is the god of essays.  This is just amazing.

But crying…My God, there have been more tears shed on reality TV than by all the war widows of the world. Are we so raw? It must be so. There are simply too many of them-too many shows and too many people on the shows-for them not to be revealing something endemic. This is us, a people of savage sentimentality, weeping and lifting weights

That weeping and lifting weights line cracks me up every time.  There are also essays on Axl Rose and early American music, a serious piece that preceded this masterpiece of journalism.  Sullivan’s the Lionel Messi of writing at the moment.

The Signal and the Noise: The Art and Science of Prediction by Nate Silver – this is just a really good read about the way the world is today.  Silver, whose name you might know, is a very bright man, and talks about predictions and projections of all kinds, the weather, political polling, expert analysis, and so on. Fascinating.

Sew Your Own: Man finds happiness and meaning of life – making clothes by John-Paul Flintoff.   “The true story of one man’s attempt to survive economic meltdown, tackle climate change and find the meaning of life – by making his clothes”   An enjoyable read.  John-Paul’s all about doing things yourself.  Finding how things work, then taking them on. There’s a terrific story in here about him trying to apply this thinking to rat catching.  I’m listing it here as I think it’s a book more people should read.

Crime

Rogue Male – Geoffrey Household

Here’s Robert MacFarlane’s description:

I must be careful about spoilers. But I betray no vital loyalty if I say that the opening pages are a tumult: fast and disorienting in their incidents. Armed with a “Bond Street rifle” our narrator enters a European country (resembling Germany), and over several days stalks a dictator (resembling Hitler) to his country residence. He gets within sniping distance of his quarry, but at the vital moment is overpowered by a sentry. He is interrogated, tortured, then thrown over a cliff. But he falls into a marsh whose softness saves his life. He takes refuge in a larch tree, and then begins, desperately wounded, to make his way towards the coast. His torturers follow: the hunter is the hunted.

It’s very good. Old school thriller.  Well worth a read.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre B Traven.  You might have seen the film of this which stars Humphrey Bogart.  Treasure, trust, greed, gold,  guns, bandits, Mexico, all the ingredients you might need.  

Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler.  I could have put anything by him really.  The master.  I really do want to be Philip Marlowe.

“I was as hollow and empty as the spaces between stars.”

“I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.”

“It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.”

Life changers

The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract completely changed how I looked at baseball, and at other sports.  James is a brilliant writer, a terrific historian and an able statistician. He’s curious, looks at things in ways others don’t, and his ideas took hold about 20 years after they ought to have done.  Without James there would be no Moneyball.  Everything he wrote prior to about 1988 is gold.  His work probably lead to me doing what I do for a living now, and his early self-published abstract books were absolutely the inspiration for the Fulham Reviews.

Rabbit, Run (Penguin Modern Classics) by John Updike, which, in my late 20s, taught me that I wasn’t the only selfish idiot in the world.  There are four books in the series and I almost daren’t go back to them now, but they absolutely changed my world in ways I’m not going to go into.

The Monkey Wrench Gang (Penguin Modern Classics) by Edward Abbey.

MacFarlane again, funnily enough:

‘My job is to save the fucking wilderness. I don’t know anything else worth saving.” Thus the career plan of George Washington Hayduke, hard-nut hero of Edward Abbey’s 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. Pro-conservation, pro-guns and extremely pro-booze, anti-mining, anti-tourism and extremely anti-dams, Hayduke appoints himself protector of the remaining desert regions of the American southwest, and becomes a pioneer in the art of “eco-tage”, also known as “monkey wrenching” – using the tools of industry to demolish the infrastructure of industry in the name of the biosphere.

Hayduke is joined by three other activists – an anarchist doctor, a revolutionary feminist and a polygamist river guide – and this quartet of Quixotes heads out into red-rock country to wage war on techno-industry. They pour sand into the fuel tanks of bulldozers. They drive quarry lorries over canyon rims. They blast power lines and disrupt strip mines. Their weapons are audacity, wit and gelignite. Their grail is the destruction of the Glen Canyon Dam that blocks the Colorado river (and, it should be noted, still does).

Crunch! Kapow! Crash! Bang! The Monkey Wrench Gang is the wish-fulfilment dream of eco-Luddites everywhere. Civilisation violates the land, so Hayduke (“a good, healthy psychopath”) and his pals violate civilisation. Crucially, people go unharmed in Abbey’s novel. Machinery is smashed and split, exploded and eviscerated; but drivers and technicians escape. The only vital fluids that get spilt are oil, coolant and petrol. In this way, activism remains ethically distinct from terrorism. The beef of the Monkey Wrench Gang is not with the personnel of the “megalomaniacal megamachine”, but with its material and ideological manifestations. The battle they fight is against developments and double-lane highways, and against the economic principle of maximised shareholder profit and the economic delusion of unlimited growth.

The Monkey Wrench Gang is a magnificent snarl of genres: spaghetti westerns tangled up with the Keystone Cops, the Cervantean romance tradition and Acme cartoon capers (in an ending that comes straight from the Wile E Coyote school of resurrection, Hayduke plummets over a canyon edge and falls thousands of feet – only to reappear a few pages later, wounded but well).