Monday, 30 June 2014

'All Played Out' by Pete Davies (Review)

As the observant among you may have noticed, there's a little football tournament on at the moment down in Brazil, and (understandably) I've been slightly preoccupied recently.  For many teenagers all over the world, Brazil 2014 will turn out to be the tournament that all others will be measured against.  For me, however, my formative footballing experiences happened a good generation ago - and today's book tells everyone exactly how it went...

Pete Davies' All Played Out (recently rereleased - and filmed - as One Night in Turin) is the story of Italia '90, the most memorable World Cup of my younger years.  As many of you may know, one of the better performers in the competition was England, and Davies takes the reader on a ride with the team, starting with the qualifiers, moving onto the first, stuttering steps in Sardinia during the group stage, before getting lost in the euphoria of England's success in the knock-out stage.

While the focus is on the football, what makes All Played Out so good is the way in which Davies sets the team's progress against background concerns.  Each game is sandwiched by interviews with the team, comments on the chaotic organisation of the Italian hosts and the constant tussle with the hyper-critical press.  However, the overriding theme of the book is that of a country which has lost its way - in the era of the hooligan, England, to the outsider, certainly appears all played out...

From the very first paragraph, touching on the wonderful opening game of the competition, the memories came flooding back.  It's the start of a story about the beautiful game, and of the importance of the national team to the country, as the then England manager confirms:
"The national team is the flagship of that - but it's more than that, the dimensions of it are frightening.  When you become the national manager, you realise how important it is to the country, because people are patriotic about it.  And winning does mean such a lot."
p.84 (Mandarin, 1991)
That being the case, can the England team do the country proud and improve the country's mood?

As anyway who remembers those times will recall, it was certainly needed.  1990 was a time when football was at its nadir in England, what with the clubs still being banned from European competitions after the events of Heysels, and the stadium tragedy at Hillsborough the previous year.  Much of the focus pre-tournament was on the notorious hooligans and their constant running battles with the police:
"These, it seemed, were the new horror days of a nation that was all played out, a nation of riot and yobbery, a nation whose football was oafish and whose fans were louts, a nation with a ridiculous government, an economy in a tailspin, food you daren't eat and weather you daren't go out in... England, England, whatever the hell happened to England?" (p.6)
And, twenty-four years on...  It was little surprise when England were exiled to Sardinia for the group stages, only being allowed into Italy 'proper' once the knock-out stage had begun.

Sadly, the football was just as dire as the behaviour off the pitch, and another running theme of the book is the need to change a failing system - or, to put it in footballing terms, to 4-4-2 or to 3-5-2.  In many interviews with the manager, the late Sir Bobby Robson, Davies tries to understand the thinking behind his stubborn defence of his tactics (and the violently sudden about-face during the tournament).  Robson is a man from another generation, and it shows in the way he views the World Cup, with war metaphors never far from his description of England's (ahem) 'campaign'.

We also get access to the players, and with the book not coming out until after the tournament, the men in the middle were surprisingly candid in their views about the team and the country.  There are several great in-depth interviews with stars like Chris Waddle, John Barnes and Gary Lineker in which they voice their frustration about the way in which they are forced to play.  Of course, the football fans amongst us will know that there was a happy ending :)

Of course, off the pitch, thing are slightly different.  Davies spends a lot of time talking about the England followers, and the conclusion he comes to is that the fans are simply a reflection of the country; expecting ill-educated, boorish young men, most fuelled by alcohol, to act as if they were sitting at Wimbledon's centre court is slightly unrealistic.  It's English society which has created the issue, and the hooligans are merely the public face of the country's failings.  However, Davies also discovers that the hype doesn't always match up to reality:
"Because people behaved, people paid, and they were welcome to come back.  But this, of course, is one headline you'll never read:

And this is where we come to the first villains of the book, the English press.  With legions of reporters sent to the country, there's a need to find content, even if that involves making up stories - or urging hooligans to throw bricks through windows.  Once the indignation has been dialled up to eleven, it's then time for the politicians to get involved (as was the case when Margaret Thatcher wanted to withdraw the team from the competition...).

Of course, as fascinating as the background is, it's ultimately all about the football, and if the press are the minor villains, it's Argentina, and Maradona in particular, who are the ultimate supervillains.  From their initial catastrophe against Cameroon, the ugly Argies march on and on, upsetting fans, players and knee-caps aplenty.  With a supporting cast of efficient Germans, flawed Brazilians and nervous Italians, it all makes for one hell of a show ;)

All Played Out is simply a great football book, particularly for those who remember the summer of 1990, and it's one I highly recommend.  I'll just finish this post by sharing a little story with you all, one of my experiences of the tournament.  As a fifteen-year-old Ireland fan, this was a great competition to watch, except for when it came to the second-round penalty shoot-out against Rumania/Romania.  As it was about to begin, there was a knock on the door, and our rent collector, a proud Irishman, asked politely if he could just come in and watch the shootout.  After eight goals and one save, David O'Leary stepped up and slotted home the winning penalty - and the rent collector, my Dad and I danced and cheered all around the living room...

What memories will be made at Brazil 2014, I wonder?