Nov 102011

Books really are the gifts that keep on giving. Have you ever tried turning down the corner of your Kindle to mark where you left off reading? With an eye on the calendar and mindful that Voice readers should be sending letters up the lum shortly, David Innes performs a labour of love in reviewing a seasonal offering from a fitba hero for whom every month was Movember.

Willie Miller is indisputably the greatest-ever Don. The image of him, bristling of moustache, jet black hair matted with Scandinavian May rain, nonchalantly holding aloft in trade mark single-handed triumph the European Cup-Winners’ Cup, is etched indelibly on every Dons fan’s retina.

It’s will be no surprise to learn that this iconic image dominates the front cover of Dream Team, in which Miller evaluates Dons with whom he played, stars who he managed whilst also trawling the Pittodrie archives to give brief pen pictures of legends of yesteryear as he chooses his best side and, unusually, backroom staff.

When football fans, always much more knowledgeable, of course, than those qualified and paid to make selection decisions, cannot even agree who should be in their team this week, selecting an all-time XI from their club’s entire history is guaranteed to cause arguments.

No doubt  Miller’s volume will engender more disputes than it will settle. Such debate is a huge part of football’s attraction to those addicted to it and happy in the knowledge that there is no known cure for this affliction.

Without giving too much away in case a Dream Team-shaped parcel finds its way under your festive tree next month, Miller rules himself out and selects a side in 4-3-3 formation, with seven substitutes. Unsurprisingly, most are his own contemporaries, but given that he played at the top level for 16 years, that gives him a wide constituency from which to choose.

All very interesting, but it is his – or perhaps co-author Robertson’s – research into Wasps and Reds icons of the 70 years of club history before Willie’s own career began that fascinates most. Although previous volumes have covered this before, an appreciation of Dons giants written from a player’s perspective gives occasional new insights to familiar and less-familiar names.

The fact that the terms “we” and “us” are used, even when discussing the author’s distant club forebears, is quite endearing.

What is disappointing is the editing. Occasional errors will slip through, but facts are easily checked. If the text is to be believed, the peerless Eric Black scored on his debut against Dundee United in another dimension, since there is no 31 September on any earthly calendar known to me.

The writing could frequently be sharpened, tightened up and sprinkled with some editorial pixie dust, but football books are rarely contenders for literary awards.

If you love the Dons, you’ll find Dream Team is of considerable interest and worth reading. If you don’t, I want to know why.

Willie Miller’s Aberdeen Dream Team
Willie Miller with Rob Robertson
Black and White Publishing. 236 pp. £10.99

Nov 262010

Ever-mindful of the need for Voice’s readership to get their letters up the lum shortly, David Innes tries a lucky dip in his book review in-tray and picks out:

The Management – Scotland’s Great Football Bosses by Michael Grant and Rob Robertson. Birlinn. 418 pages. £18.99.

When it comes to fitba literature, a term which itself looks like an oxymoron, I can normally race through books in the manner of a marauding Arthur Graham terrorising First Division full backs in 1971. The Management does not lend itself to such cursory treatment.

Grant and Robertson are proper journalists, you see. They have pride in their craft, a genuine love for their subject and back up their writing with well-researched fact-based insights rather than red top reader-baiting populist conjecture. This is a serious work which demands your attention.

The premise is that Scotland, diminutive in population and hardly a world fitba power despite our often inflated boasts, has produced far more than its fair share of iconic managers with trophy hauls and reputations to match. The Management doesn’t stop there. The authors analyse these great figures’ shared backgrounds in mining, heavy engineering and working class hardship and conclude that the trust, comradeship and leadership skills forged in these often brutal environments provided the ideal grounding for commanding respect in the dressing room and on the training pitch.

Whilst The Management gives deserved coverage of the careers, personalities and backgrounds of the giants – Busby, Shankly, Stein and Ferguson – Grant and Robertson are not tempted to leave it at that.

Who, beyond those Old Firm fans who have mastered the art of reading, knows all that much about Parkhead stalwart Willie Maley’s 52 (aye, that’s fifty two) years in charge of Celtic, or Bill Struth’s benign dictatorship of the mid twentieth century Ibrox monolith? Who was George Ramsay and why does Aston Villa have a lion rampant on its club crest? What IS ‘The Largs Mafia’, and why is it regarded disdainfully in Scotland by the hard of thinking whilst it’s revered throughout Europe and beyond?

Others, regarded as minor footnotes in fitba folklore, are also featured.  Although almost viewed as caricatures due to their public images, sketches of John Lambie, Jim Leishman and our own blessed Ally McLeod show that these guys were no fools, that they had a deep understanding of the game, stoical resilience, but an innate ability to laugh at themselves and not take the world too seriously. It’s only a game, right?

There are laugh out loud moments too. Who could possibly suppress a hysterical hoot at the mental image of Dons-era Fergie, raging in the away dressing room at Forfar at half time, telling a reserve player,“Get those fucking pants off your head”, not realising that it was his own trashing of a laundry basket that had caused the kecks to land on the loon and that he was too terrified to remove them?

This is a serious work which demands your attention

I would also have given a sizeable wedge to charity to have witnessed Jim Traynor’s riposte on ‘shite’ and ‘socialism’ to a bullying Graeme Souness as Traynor was barred from Ibrox press conferences for refusing to tow the party line.

The Management is several cuts above the average ghost-written, bland memoirs typical of players and managers who feel they have something to offer us. For those who demand higher standards and a cerebral take on some huge personalities, it’s an essential volume.