No Hunger In Paradise by Michael Calvin

 


There is so much written about football nowadays and Amazon now stocks over 20,000 books on the subject, but I would be totally amazed if more than 1% of them are more than dross and have much literary merit or originality.

Amongst the ghost written pap there are a frustratingly small number of authors who stand out from the sea of mediocrity and one of them is Michael Calvin. I make no apology for writing about him yet again but with the forthcoming release of “No Hunger In Paradise” he has now written four exceptional football books each providing a detailed and informed study of a different aspect of the sport.

He has previously spent a season as a fly on the wall in promotion winning Millwall’s dressing room, given a voice to scouts – one of football’s most ignored groups, and demonstrated just how stressful and perilous is the role of a football manager.

Now he has surpassed himself with a forensic, lacerating and yet sympathetic study of what it takes to become a professional footballer. He has followed the journey followed by so many desperate and naive youngsters and examines the reasons why well over 99% fall off the parapet and disappear into obscurity or even worse, and only a handful make it into the big time.

Talent is of course a necessary prerequisite but it is by no means the be all and end all. The difference between success and failure can be minuscule. So often it is a case of having a good game at the right time and catching the eye of the right person. Injuries can strike just when contracts are being decided and woe betide any youngster who is perceived to be a problem, or who falls out with his manager or coach.

Calvin journeys far and wide and tells the salutary tales of kids from who are chased by clubs when they are barely more than babes in arms and how they can fall into the clutches of rapacious agents who often seem to act as a law unto themselves and are merely seeking riches without much thought for their clients’ wellbeing.

What can make all the difference is the presence of a levelheaded set of parents who want nothing more than to act in the best interests of their son, instill in them a set of values and protect them as much as possible from those who see them as no more than commodities or as a meal ticket. My heart went out to young Zak Brunt, who has overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles at home and abroad and a father who initially found his situation hard to deal with, and is now at Derby County. Zak’s rollercoaster ride is heartrending and has been beautifully and lyrically summed up by Calvin: “Go well, young man. You have earned the right to dream. Stay safe out there, for there are still many swirling rivers to cross.” Not all parents are perfect and we hear of those who are more concerned with making a quick buck rather than looking at doing what is best for their son.

What Calvin describes is a veritable snake pit where corruption is rife and the innocent fall foul of adults who should know far better and are motivated by greed and the allure of finding the next big name.

Calvin exposes the ego driven coaches, such as the goalkeeping coach who insists on lining up the defensive wall for his 13 year old charge, who forget that it is all about the kids and not them, and the bullying mindset that frighteningly has still not been fully eradicated from the game. It really is all very shocking to read.

Fortunately there are some exceptions with heroes such as Steadman Scott with the supportive work he conducts at the wonderful Afewee Training Centre where talented kids from backgrounds well beyond deprived are given the help they need. So far more than 40 boys have benefited from their holistic approach and are now in the academy system, all hoping to follow in the footsteps of their most famous alumni, Nathaniel Clyne.

It is humbling to contemplate the obstacles that some of these kids have to overcome: broken homes, social deprivation, lack of role models and positive parental influence, poor schooling and the ravages of the gang culture. It was truly heartbreaking to read of the academy players whose form dropped off owing to the unimaginable effects of seeing good friends become the victims of street murder.

Everything is slanted in favour of the big clubs who can plunder the best talent from below with impunity owing to the dictates of EPPP, a self-drafted and self-serving manifesto for youth development written by the top six clubs which was ridden roughshod through the protests of their weaker brethren by the threats of withholding the much needed solidarity payments from the Premier League.

Calvin provides a snapshot of the fallout caused by Brentford’s decision to close their Category Two academy in May. He rightly lambasts the club for parading the Under Eights on the pitch before a full house crowd at the Fulham local derby less than a fortnight before the decision was made public, an action that Co-Director of Football, Phil Giles regrets but was forced into owing to HR protocols related to staff redundancies, and as a parent himself, he fully understands how the parents must have felt. Giles is taken to task for this PR own goal but makes a persuasive case for why Brentford decided to stop investing around one and a half million pounds each year in an academy that whilst it was turning out fine young men in abundance, it had yet to produce any first team material and the two most outstanding prospects in Ian Carlo Poveda and Josh Bohui had been picked off by Manchester City and United respectively for relative peanuts. The club, innovative as ever, has now launched a B team Development Squad operating outside the system and its success is being closely monitored by many other clubs who similarly feel that it has hardly worthwhile investing time and money on prospects who either fail to make the grade, or conversely, even worse, prove to be far too talented to hang onto and are snapped up for fees that bear no resemblance to their likely future value.

One small quibble, as is the case with everything written by this author, facts are scrupulously checked, however I would query his assertion that fullback, Rico Henry, singled out as one of the most promising youngsters in the game had found it hard to establish himself at Brentford, given that he was seriously injured at the time of his signing for his new club and was not fit to play until well into the new year, since when he has played almost every game and impressed everyone with the quality of his performances and the heights that he might reach one day.

This is an important book which is often uncomfortable to read and one that raises many important and difficult questions. We owe a massive duty of care to our children and it is apparent that football and its acolytes are falling far short of their responsibilities and Calvin deserves credit for shining a light on and exposing many of the game’s shortcomings.

No Hunger In Paradise by Michael Calvin is published by Century at £16.99.

Bob Booker Biography – Extract

Here is a chapter from my forthcoming Bob Booker biography which deals with his first few frenetic days after he signed for Sheffield United. I hope you like it and I would welcome your comments.

Thank you.

Chapter 17

It had been over two years since Bob Booker had last played regular first team football for Brentford and he had been involved in only 25 games in the intervening period. He had started 7 times and lasted the full 90 minutes on only one occasion, at Bristol Rovers, an occurrence that had left him gasping for breath by the final whistle.

There were obvious and serious question marks about his fitness when he joined Sheffield United. Would his ailing left knee stand up to the physical pressures and demands of first team football? Would he be able to twist and turn and demonstrate the mobility, flexibility and stamina required to play regularly in the Third Division, particularly for a team like Sheffield United which prided itself on a punishing and demanding high energy, high tempo style that required its players to maintain exceptional fitness levels?

Could he cope with the mental pressure of a promotion push, something that he had never really experienced at Brentford who had only briefly threatened to challenge for honours in the 1981/82 and 1982/83 seasons before such hopes proved to be a mere chimera?

Could he rise to the challenge and responsibility of becoming a potential first choice again after such a long period marooned on the periphery of the action?

Would he be able to prove himself to a new set of fans, most of whom had barely heard of him and would his new teammates accept and welcome him?

How would he deal with the prospect of nearly 20,000 supporters baying their disapproval at him should his performances fall short of their expectations?

How would he feel when he read Tony Pritchett’s articles and match reports criticizing him in the pages of The Sheffield Star or heard supporters venting their fury about him on the notorious “Praise or Grumble” post-match show on BBC Radio Sheffield?

These were all issues that deeply concerned Bob as soon as he put pen to paper for the club, however his feet barely touched the ground as he was thrust straight into the promotion maelstrom and such negative thoughts and fears were quickly dismissed and dashed from his mind.

I spoke to Derek French, Dave Bassett’s ebullient physio who played such a valuable role behind the scenes in keeping the squad fit and in good cheer. He had much to say about Bob’s state of health at the time that he joined the club.

“Bob lived near me in Watford and as we knew each other well I had seen him privately a few times for rehabilitation sessions when he was recovering from his injury, so I knew how serious it had been and quite understandably he was very concerned about whether he would be able to play again as ACL repair work in those days was nowhere near as advanced as it is today.”

“Before we signed him Dave Bassett had asked me about his fitness and whether I thought we would get anything out of him given that he had hardly played any football for such a long period of time. I told him it would be a bit of a gamble but knowing Bob as I did I thought that coming up to Sheffield and having a change of scenery would give him a massive boost, but that I honestly couldn’t guarantee anything. That being said he was going to be coming on a free transfer so it was really a low risk gamble that wouldn’t cost us anything if it did not work out.”

“If his knee had been totally knackered we would not have been able to sign him but Harry was only hoping to get a year or so or, at best, a couple of seasons out of him so we didn’t bother with a huge medical examination for him, we just made sure that he kept himself in decent shape.”

“After he signed we worked really hard with him and every day after training he would come to the gym and do lots of extra work to strengthen and rehab his knee. He showed a lot of dedication and determination, as he fully understood that he had been given a totally unexpected last chance to extend his career and to be part of a team that was going to win things. A change is as good as a rest and the transfer gave Bob a totally new lease of life as well as a huge mental lift. I think that in his excitement about the situation he found himself in he simply forgot about his knee and ignored the pain and he just got on with things!”

“He kept himself very fit over the 3 years he was with us. We knew that his knee was always going to deteriorate over time and given that he started playing every game for us after such a long break from regular action and was put straight into the firing line he initially suffered from a few niggles and hamstring problems, but nothing that was unexpected or out of the ordinary. After a few months he got himself really fit mainly thanks to his own hard work and he was really flying. He looked after himself very well off the pitch and was never really a drinker. He was determined to enjoy the time he had in Sheffield and threw himself into the local community and he was a total credit to both the club and himself.”

Dave Bassett confirmed in his autobiography that he had been aware of Bob’s career and capabilities for many years but he initially saw him merely “as a short-term solution” but quickly admitted his error and wryly amended his opinion to: “Did I say short-term?”

John Garrett admits to having vaguely heard of Booker, and in that I am sure that he was in the absolute minority amongst United fans, despite Bob having scored at Bramall Lane for the Bees back in 1982, whilst Derek Dooley had absolutely no idea who he was when Bassett informed him that he wanted to sign Bob and was simply grateful that he would not cost anything.

Bob received a new lease of life in Sheffield and the fact that he played so regularly for Sheffield United for 3 years, missing only 5 matches in the 1988/89 season after making his debut in late November, as well as playing 52 and 33 times respectively over the next 2 seasons, clearly demonstrates the power of mind over matter and his utter determination to maximise the opportunity he had unexpectedly been given.

The first that Sheffield United supporters heard about the move and Bob’s arrival was on Wednesday 23rd November when the banner headline “BOOKER PRIZE FOR BASSETT” appeared in the Sheffield Star and Tony Pritchett announced that “Bob Booker, Brentford’s experienced midfield player, is to move into Bramall Lane tomorrow to reinforce Sheffield United’s promotion challenge after the loss of Simon Webster with a broken leg.”

Dave Bassett was quoted as saying “I have known Bob a long time, he comes from the same town as Vinnie Jones but there the similarity ends. I wanted to take him at Wimbledon a few years ago but I couldn’t do the deal.”

“I had my eye on him again this season but until the accident to Webster it wasn’t so urgent. I didn’t want to sign him just to play in the reserves but now we need an extra man. It is a matter of grabbing when you can.”

“He can play midfield or up front and I have brought him to go into midfield for us.”

Booker expressed his surprise and joy at this unexpected move: “It is unbelievable coming here at this stage of my career. After 10 years plus at Brentford, to finish my career here is tremendous. I have been blown off my feet today; it is a dream. I am really excited about it.”

Bob was thrown straight in and played for the first half of a drawn reserve game at Huddersfield on the Thursday night in order to blow out the cobwebs after all his recent travelling up and down the motorway and ideally prove that he was fit enough to make his debut against Bristol City at Bramall Lane on the Saturday afternoon. His experience allowed him to husband his energy and get him through the 45 minutes relatively unscathed but he could already see the difficulties that lay ahead.

“The Huddersfield game was a real eye opener for me. Harry had the reserves playing in exactly the same way as the first team, which was fast moving and high energy football. I had experienced their system at Griffin Park earlier in the season when I was playing against them, which I found quite hard enough. Now I needed to adapt very quickly or else I could see problems ahead and I would not last long at the club. In a nutshell I was nowhere near fit enough to keep up with the pace of the football the Blades were playing.”

Bob had barely played for over two years and he was concerned that he would now be unable to cope with his new anticipated workload given that matches were coming thick and fast as United were still involved in the FA Cup and the Sherpa Van Trophy with the Saturday games generally punctuated by a midweek match too. He quickly realized that he had to look hard at himself, his fitness levels, training regime and the way that he prepared for matches and tailor and adapt things according to what was going to be required of him.

“I needed to train hard, but also train smart as to play Harry’s game you simply had to run and run for 90 minutes – there was no escape and no hiding place. I was so relieved that I had only played 45 minutes at Huddersfield after the week that I’d had – that was more than enough and all I wanted to do was to crawl off the pitch, get back to the hotel where I was staying and catch up with some much-needed sleep.”

“There was no respite for me as Frenchy wanted me in early on the Friday to give me a massage and start me off on my new training regime. I owe him so much for the way he managed my knee from day one, I couldn’t have survived at the club for very long without him. On our way back to the hotel he gave me the run down on what I was in for on the following day which would be a typical Friday morning’s training session and would consist of a warm up and ball work with Geoff Taylor before Harry would turn up at some stage and take the rest of the session.”

“I wasn’t sure what they had in store for me and was pleasantly surprised when Derek said ‘don’t be surprised if Harry throws you straight in on Saturday, and there’s a real opportunity for you here if you’re up to the challenge and are able to take it.’”

“I was as nervous as a kitten before my first training session on the Friday and felt exactly like I had so many years beforehand when Pat Kruse gave me a lift to the Brentford training ground for the first time. ‘Come on Bob’ I said to myself as I prepared to enter the dressing room, ‘you’re a seasoned pro with over 300 games under your belt, you can do this,’ but I still felt like a little boy on his first day at school.”

“Thankfully I needn’t have worried as there was a strong Southern contingent in the squad as Harry had already brought in a number of his former Crazy Gang members from Wimbledon in Simon Tracey, Francis Joseph, who, of course, I also knew from my Brentford days and Wally Downes with John Gannon soon to follow. As soon as Frenchy introduced me I heard a voice with a strong Northern accent shout out: ‘Not another Southern softie’ – that was my welcome to the Northern bunch, in this case Sheffield born Dane Whitehouse! This totally broke the ice and for the next ten minutes it was like World War 3 with good natured abuse flying everywhere between the Northerners and Southerners!”

Being as this was 1988 and not today when the practice is far more in vogue, there was no rite of passage or initiation ceremony for the newcomer and Bob was not required to stand on a stool or similar and sing a song as the price of his admission into the group and his new teammates were thankfully spared his ghastly tone-deaf rendition of a favourite by The Who, Def Leppard or even, heaven forbid, Alice Cooper!

“I could tell straight away that this was a happy and united
dressing room filled with so many strong and memorable characters who were all pulling together and supporting one another in a way that I had never experienced before in my career. Dave Bassett, Geoff Taylor and Derek French ran a close-knit and happy ship where everyone worked and played hard and laughter was never far away. You can never win anything if your dressing room is divided or split into cliques with lots of whispering in dark corners but here everyone mixed and gelled together.”

Bob was immediately made to feel a part of the group and welcomed by the likes of Chris Wilder, who is now managing the Blades, and fellow midfielder Mark Todd. Bob clearly remembers his first sight of his new skipper Paul Stancliffe who as a Rotherham defender had marked him out of the game in his second match for Brentford way back in October 1978. “He walked into the dressing room and spotted me, did a double take and shouted out ‘what on earth are you doing here – you’re even older than me!’ He was right too as I was born 4 months before him. Well, that was music to the ears of the Northern contingent who laughed their collective heads off. Whilst I was still trying and failing to come up with a witty riposte the ex-Wimbledon crew came to my rescue: ‘He might be older than you, Stan, but he’s played more games already than you’ll every play and he can score goals too.’”

No pressure then and little did they realise that Stancliffe was to go on and play 674 times in a 20-year Football League career nearly double the number that Bob managed!

Bob felt a bit more relaxed and at home after this lively introduction but he knew that whilst it was all very well holding his own in the dressing room it was what he did on the pitch that counted the most.

“Geoff Taylor popped his head around the door to tell us it was time to leave for the training ground. I wondered why he kept his distance and didn’t come in but my unspoken question was answered when his words were met by an immediate fusillade of laundry baskets, kit and football boots. There was no hiding place in this dressing room, you either joined in or fell by the wayside.”

“Chrissy Wilder and Mark Todd offered me a lift and from that moment on Chris and I became great friends. He was a lot younger than me but we soon discovered that we had much in common. We both came from close-knit families and we were both local boys done good. Born in Stocksbridge, he had been an apprentice at Southampton but he finally signed for his beloved local club and was so proud to be a Blade. His mates sat right behind the dug out at Bramall Lane and the main characters of that group were two lads called Witt and Dallas who also became great friends of mine.”

“Chris was the manager of their Sunday morning football team and he often invited me to go along to watch the lads in action. This was a bit weird as on a Saturday they were all at our game singing Sheffield United songs and eventually even my name, but the next morning I was just one of the lads watching them play. We would end up at the local pub after the game having a few John Smith’s together. This might not have been an ideal preparation for training the next day but it helped me settle down and became part of the local community and Chris was to play a massive part in my life in Sheffield.”

“On the drive to the training ground Chris and Toddy
started teasing me about the match at Griffin Park, ‘wasn’t that the game you played terribly in and got taken off?’ The banter was as cutting as anything I remembered at Brentford – that’s footballers for you, but it also had a serious side as I soon recognized just how important Simon Webster had been to the team and how popular he was and I realised that I had a large pair of boots to fill.”

Bob knew that the other players would be watching and judging him on the training ground, just as he had done to every newcomer he had encountered at Brentford. He had become part of the furniture and a respected senior player at Griffin Park but now the roles were reversed, all bets were off and it was up to him to prove that he deserved to be there and could add something to a team that had already demonstrated that it would be challenging for honours that season. If he didn’t he knew that his stay would be short and that retirement would be beckoning again.

“After the warm up the footballs came out and every dodgy touch was greeted with cries of ‘how many games has he played’ and all kinds of stick was being thrown my way but I was loving it and I did OK. By now, Harry had arrived and made his way over. In his strong Cockney accent he said ‘OK Geoff, that’s enough of that rubbish!’ Even the manager was throwing banter around and the players were loving it.”

“We all caught our breath for a while whilst Harry and Geoff had a discussion. I looked behind me and Carl Bradshaw and Simon Tracey were wrestling with each other on the floor, which was apparently a fairly common occurrence and nobody took any notice of them!”

“As soon as Harry began to speak the atmosphere changed and the players all gave him their full attention and you could tell that he commanded their total respect. Even now nearly 30 years on I can clearly remember what he said: ‘Right lads, listen up, these players come with me, the rest of you stand on the side, watch and listen and keep stretching.’ Harry then started calling out the team for tomorrow’s match and my name was included. I did a double take, was I really in the starting eleven, could I have misheard him? My stomach lurched and I didn’t know whether to feel terrified or exhilarated. After the week I’d had, I really wasn’t expecting that despite the hint that Frenchie had given me. The team lined up in a 4-4-2 formation and I took my position up in midfield, next to my new little Irish mate Toddy who was a great technical player, and way out of my league in terms of his skill on the ball.”

“Now came the hard work as I was given a crash course into exactly what was required to play centre midfield in this Sheffield United team and I knew that I had to prove a quick study. Harry stood over some footballs just outside our penalty area, in front of our back four. He served them in turn to the centre halves and then the fullbacks. Each time he shouted out ‘two touches, hit the corners.’ As the ball went forward we all squeezed up the pitch like soldiers in formation filling in areas where the ball might go. At the top end of the pitch Deane and Agana knew exactly where and when to run. If they ended up receiving the ball outside the box they gave it straight to one of the wingers and then sprinted into the penalty area where they knew the ball would go.”

“I was used to picking the ball up from one of the Brentford defenders, turning and then looking either to make another short pass to a midfielder and keep possession, or to hit the ball long towards one of the wingers or central strikers. I would then follow my pass as quickly as I could and attempt to join in with the next phase of play. Harry then fired in a set of detailed instructions to me and made it clear that I would have to reprogramme myself as everything was done differently at this club in terms of the style and pattern of play and the midfielders were the workhorses of the team.”

“He told me that I should never come short for the ball from the defenders as they would be aiming what he called a ‘Reacher Ball’ to either Deane and Agana or towards the touchline ideally level with the opposing penalty area and we were always looking to turn the opposition defence by getting the ball in behind them.”

“As soon as the ball was launched forward by a defender or Benno in goal my first task was to keep up with the play and then get goal side of my opposing midfielder and look either to get a knockdown from our strikers or wingers or pick up the second ball as it was half cleared. When I got the ball I was instructed not to do any Cruyff Turns or anything fancy on the ball but to play a simple forward pass ideally to one of the wingers. Once that mission was accomplished I was not allowed to rest on my laurels but told to get into the penalty area as quickly as possible in order to support the strikers and get a strike in on goal – not much to ask for as I quickly learned the hard way that every game would consist of a series of lung bursting 70 yard runs up and down the pitch.”

“That was only half the task as when the opposition were in possession I had to squeeze up on them, try to compress the pitch and ideally stop them playing and win the ball back and start the entire process yet again. Set pieces were crucial to our success and given my height and strength in the air I was told to make late runs from beyond the far post and ideally meet Brian Deane’s near post flick-ons. I was also allocated a strong header of the ball from the opposition and told to mark him at their set pieces – not too much to ask for from an old crock with a dodgy knee!”

Stunned and left almost speechless at the extent of his workload and what was going to be expected of him, Bob cast a furtive glance at his midfield partner, the tiny Mark Todd and wondered if he had been a 6-footer before he joined the club and had gradually been worn down by the demands of his duties?

“After about 15 minutes of pattern of play work Harry brought in some of the other squad members who set up as he expected Saturday’s opponents Bristol City to do. Every possible detail was covered. Finally we practiced a series of attacking and defensive set plays. By now my head was reeling with information overload and the need to keep concentrating on what I had seen and heard – and this was supposed to be a quick and easy training session!”

“What Harry said was just as important as what he did and at the end of the session he spoke simply and passionately
about the importance of getting back on track as we had lost 2 of our last 3 league games as well as the need for all of us to remain switched on at set plays and every time the ball was out of play.”

“At the end of the session he finally introduced me to the squad and said to the lads, ‘I’m sure you’ll make him welcome even if he is a Southern softie!’ He then turned to Geoff Taylor and asked if he wanted to take the lads for a 10-minute game of North v South. This was greeted by cheers from everyone and the next few minutes were total carnage as the tackles flew in with barely a thought about there being a game tomorrow. The final whistle blew and luckily everyone was still in one piece!”

“We then headed back to stadium for a hot bath and the banter was relentless. An unwary apprentice was seized by Wally Downes and Simon Tracey and thrown into the kit skip where he was forced to remain for about 5 minutes, which must have seemed interminable for the poor lad. Thank goodness I had never been an apprentice and I can’t imagine anything like that being allowed to happen today!”

“After our hot soak, Chrissy Wilder informed me that we were all going down to the social club to have lunch together. Now I began to understand why this team was so successful as all the players bonded together to form a tightknit unit which was physically and mentally strong and full of winners with everyone supporting each other.”

“Paul Stancliffe then itemized all the club fines. These included being late, wearing dirty boots or the wrong kit, not wearing flip-flops in the dressing room and borrowing someone else’s shampoo. The list seemed endless and went on and on and I knew I had to be focused and on the ball at all times or my improved wages weren’t going to last too long.”

“After lunch Chrissy Wilder invited me back to his house which he shared with Tony Agana. However, I was mentally and physically exhausted and decided to go back to the hotel to rest and start preparing myself for one of the biggest games of my career. I was at a new club with new players, a new manager unlike anyone I had ever previously worked for, with new fans and new expectations. I’d only been there for a couple of days but I already felt like a Sheffield United player and now I had to go out and perform like one.”

A point Snatched From Our Grasp – 18/12/16

What a frustrating afternoon at Elland Road yesterday with Brentford being denied a well-earned point right at the death.

Fine margins yet again as a tight offside decision goes against us, just as the Hogan pushing decision also went against us last week.  Dean Smith was convinced that both Vibe who made an excellent run from a cleverly taken free kick and Hogan who turned in his cross were both onside. Television evidence is less clear but it was a close run thing and given that Hogan was also cruelly denied a goal last Saturday when Mousinho went down as if there was a sniper in New Road then it is clear that we are not getting the rub of the green at present. Hogan might also have been awarded a penalty too just after the break when he ran into the area and was clumsily challenged by a defender. I do have to wonder whether the referee might have been more convinced if the incident had occurred at the other end? it is now around thirty games since Brentford were awarded a penalty too and looking at some of the soft awards that other clubs seem to be benefitting from – are you watching Sheffield Wednesday who received an early Christmas present yesterday against poor doomed and benighted Rotherham – then it makes you think that we are really unfortunate at present.

Hopefully the luck will change as we are very close to being a more than decent Championship outfit given a little bit of strengthening in the forthcoming Transfer Window.

Elland Road seems a bit flat yesterday and lacked its normal air of menacing triumphalism. There were also only the hardcore of Bees fans in attendance given the proximity to Christmas and the ludicrously high cost of match tickets.

Brentford performed excellently before the interval and totally silenced the crowd and made a good Leeds team look distinctly average. Bentley was totally redundant and had only one cross to punch away. Brentford dominated the midfield with Woods and Yennaris busy and Sawyers and Vibe finding space between the lines. The final pass just was not quite there and for all their possession and a concerted spell of pressure near to half time there were not enough chances created and Green was relatively untested and when we did get it right Hogan’s effort was controversially disallowed. We should have been ahead and a goal before halftime would have inspired us and deflated them.

The second half was a different matter and after a bright start the Bees were pushed back and began to turn the ball over carelessly at time and were caught on the break twice but thankfully Leeds missed presentable chances. As the game progressed the performance and energy levels clearly declined and the crowed began to scent blood. The goal came late on after we defended poorly out on the left and conceded a soft corner. We lost our defensive shape, did not cover the short corner and Egan was brushed off by the massive Bartley who beat Bentley to Dallas’s well flighted near post cross to score easily. That was that despite Egan almost making up for his error with a last gasp hooked volley narrowly over the bar.

What a frustrating and annoying journey it was back to the station as we contemplated the point that had got away.

We lost quite simply because we do not currently have sufficient fit players of the required standard. Tom Field played well and showed strength in the tackle and good positional sense but after the tough week he had had he ran out of puff and was substituted late on by Barbet – and that move cost us dear. He was exhausted and needs nursing, was on his last legs and that’s what I think Sawyers was telling the bench when he ran over to them just before he was subbed off.

Barbet is no full back, nor does he pretend to be and does not have the pace needed. He therefore stands off the winger and gives him more room. The corner from which they scored was down to his poor defending and slipping over at the crucial moment. There is no blame attached to him as he is simply doing the best he can in an unfamiliar position.

Nico Yennaris also disappeared from the action as the game progressed. He just does not seem to be fully fit and looks as if he is playing injured. He is one of our fittest players but now cannot seem to last 90 minutes so a lingering injury might well be the explanation. We missed his energy as McEachran never got into the game as we were pushed further back towards our own goal.

Vibe too is playing out of position just behind Hogan and missed one presentable early chance and should have had an assist. Kaikai did worry them a bit when he replaced the flagging Vibe but we do not have a number 10 capable of hurting teams at championship level and Macleod is sorely missed.

Leeds strengthened and we weakened as we were forced to make substitutions and a key difference was the quality of the two benches. Narrow margins yet again!

I am trying to be objective by saying that there is very little difference between ourselves and the major rump of this league.

We lack numbers, key players seem to be playing hurt and we all know where our weaknesses lie and I am quite sure that our DOFs are also well aware and that some of them might well be addressed in the transfer window.

To suggest that Dean Smith set us up to play for a draw as some have done is in my opinion total nonsense.

We simply did not have the puff or fresh legs needed to maintain our first half massive superiority.

We will be fine and will finish where we deserve, which is between 8-12th place.

By the way. Had we drawn at Bristol and Leeds rather than winning and then losing totally undeservedly there would probably have been less complaints even if we would have one point less and this is the first time that Leeds gave managed to beat us since we were promoted!!

What it Means To Beat QPR! – 31/10/16

qpr-v-brentford-london-challenge-cup-replay-1973-4Three days on, I am certain that every Brentford supporter is still floating on air after Friday’s demolition of our major rivals QPR – the first time that we have beaten them in their own backyard for 54 years. Revenge is a dish best served cold and it was even more satisfying that our victory and almost total domination and their humiliation was witnessed by a national TV audience on Sky Sports. No longer are we the whipping boys as there has been a seismic shift in the balance of power in West London and the Bees are now the team on the rise with much more to come from us over the next few years.

I know exactly how great I am feeling but it was wonderful to receive an email from former Brentford striker and local boy, Richard Poole which clearly demonstrated just what this victory over the traditional old enemy meant to him even though he is now living abroad. Here is what he had to say and I hope you relish his comments as much as I did:

Friday’s win somehow made me think about the Braemar Road forecourt at Griffin Park and that massive tree-like sign which was up for years and showed just how much we supporters had donated to the club in dribs and drabs, and how much was still needed in order to keep us alive after QPR had done their utmost to take us over and kill us in 1967.

I joined Brentford FC as a apprentice in the 1972/73 season and I can clearly remember our clashes in the South East Counties League as little old Brentford boasting only two apprentices – me and my mate Kevin Harding – had to go up against our rich neighbours, a QPR squad full of apprentices and youth internationals. Invariably they were very hard and violent games – to be quite frank they generally turned into kicking matches but I was never one to pull out of a tackle. I was always taught that if they hit you, then you spring right back up to your feet, smile at your opponent and then hit them even harder later on when the referee isn’t looking. We played our home games at Ruislip Manor’s ground on a small and narrow pitch with a slope worse than Yeovil’s and trained on public park pitches at Gunnersbury Park where we had to avoid the dog muck but it really didn’t matter as we played with total pride and respect for our shirt. 

I also remember one senior match against QPR in the London Challenge Cup second round in the 1973/74 season when later in the season I would make my full first team debut. The match was played in the evening at home and we fielded a mixed team with me and Kevin Harding one or two senior squad players like Stan Webb, Terry Scales, Alan Nelmes and Jackie Graham and a couple of other youth team products. QPR were then an established First Division side and fielded a really strong team. We gave our all and fought out a fully deserved 0-0 draw. We were well pleased and were all looking forward to the replay which was held on October 31st 1973 at Loftus Road. So how disappointed we all were when the Manager, Mike Everitt took a full strength first team for the replay and I have attached the team sheet which shows just how strong a team we fielded.

Mike Everitt was punishing the first team for losing 4-1 at Scunthorpe the previous Saturday – a totally spineless display which resulted in the Bees propping up the entire Football League in 92nd place for the first time in its history. So I missed out on the chance to play at Loftus Road and I was gutted that I would not get the opportunity to score a goal there and put QPR back in their place. We lost narrowly 2-1 and their team included Micky French as a substitute and they fielded quite a few first team players too. We hated QPR but to tell the truth we also had a pretty deep rivalry with Reading in the early to mid 70s too.

I was so proud and impressed with what I watched on Friday night and can only hope and pray that we can do more of the same this Friday against Fulham, put them back in their place, show them where they belong and prove that we really are the Kings of West London!

BOB BOOKER BIOGRAPHY EXTRACT

Just to let everyone know why I have not been writing or updating my blog lately. Well to be quite frank I have been pretty busy and occupied in researching and starting to write my biography of Bob Booker which I hope and expect to have published by the end of next year.

Here is a brief extract from Chapter 4 which covers his hat trick against Hull City in 1979. Let me know if you like it.

Thanks.

Bill Dodgin had kept an eye on Bob’s progress at Barnet and as results began to deteriorate and injuries started to bite he had no option but to recall Bob from his loan at Barnet.

Lee Holmes had bruised his ribs at Carlisle soon after scoring with a brave low header, so Bob was thrown straight back into first team action.

He had not played in the Third Division for over a year since November 11th 1978 but on December 8th 1979 Bob’s life was to change irrevocably when he scored a hat trick in a 7-2 thrashing of a struggling Hull City team. His three goals came in the space of just 24 minutes as Brentford notched their biggest victory since the record 9-0 obliteration of Wrexham in October 1963.

Bob remembers the day clearly, as well he might: “It was a misty, dark and drizzly day. Things started well when I made the second goal by flicking the ball to Steve Phillips who scored easily. For my first goal after 35 minutes, I turned away from Gordon Nisbet, went down the right and as the centre half slid out towards me and the keeper started to come off his line I side footed it towards goal I didn’t hit the ball particularly well but it went under the keeper and nestled in the corner of the net.”

The second goal came after a free kick from Alan Glover which was half-cleared and fell to Bob who poked it home and his hat trick was completed when he volleyed home Keith Fear’s right wing cross in the 59th minute.

Long-term Dodgin target Keith Fear had recently signed on loan from Plymouth and was the inspiration and pulled all the strings whilst playing in a free role as well as scoring a brilliant goal from wide out on the wing after Bob had passed him the ball. Steve Phillips scored twice and Bob was tickled pink to beat him to the hat trick, and Pat Kruse scored the seventh. Three goals and two assists in his first game of the season – not a bad way to announce your return to the team!

As for the match ball, it is now in pride of place in the Brentford Trophy Cabinet. Bob and his teammates signed the ball which raised the incredible sum of £1,000 at a Sportsmen’s’ Dinner at the club.

“ I couldn’t believe it went for so much but the guy who bought it said ‘I want you to have it back’ so I gave it to the club and hopefully one day it will be on display at their new stadium in Lionel Road.”

Bill Dodgin was delighted with Bob’s performance: “I thought the experience at Barnet would do him good and he is far sharper and has improved his control of the ball. I brought him in to give us some hustle and bustle and to take the weight off Steve Phillips, and he certainly did that.”

Bob knew that things could never be the same again after his wonderful performance: “This was the most exciting day of my life and it was sheer magic, I was still pretty much unknown and very few Brentford fans knew who I was. You could feel the buzz from the crowd and there were nearly seven thousand people there. But my achievement was a double-edged sword as the hat trick put so much pressure on me as the supporters now expected me to score in every game I played and unfortunately things were to go downhill for me from there.”

Much the same had happened to another callow young striker in Andy Woon who had burst into prominence by scoring three goals on his full Brentford debut in a 5-0 hammering of Port Vale in early 1973. After arriving unheralded from Bognor Regis the previous October. He hung around for a couple more seasons but he failed to meet rising expectations, his promise was unfulfilled and he drifted back into nonleague football with Maidstone United. Would the same fate befall Bob Booker?

Bob kept his place for four of the next five games and scored at Bury but he could not repeat the form he had displayed against Hull and he was dropped. He reflects sadly: “If it had not been for the injuries I would probably have been left out earlier and the crowd certainly didn’t help as they quickly got on my back.”

We will come back to the effect on players of booing in the next chapter but results soon deteriorated as a team suddenly shorn and bereft of confidence sank like a stone towards the bottom four after losing six of its next seven games. Tommy Baldwin simply felt that “the luck just ran out and we never really replaced Andy McCulloch.”

Bill Dodgin carried on with his tried and tested methods and approach just as before as he felt that the tide would turn, but it didn’t as the rot had well and truly set in. Bob Booker returned as a halftime substitute at home to Blackpool and after the “young, lanky striker” headed home the equaliser, he made the winner for Danny Salman, which brought about the first victory since Hull, eleven matches ago.

Bill Dodgin’s last shake of the dice in an effort to turn things around was signing tiny striker Tony Funnell for a club record £56,000 from Gillingham but he was a Steve Phillips clone, started slowly and didn’t improve matters, and six games and four defeats later Bill Dodgin was given a leave of absence and later sacked, which was a poor reward for such an excellent servant to the club who less than a year previously had loyally turned down the chance to join Chelsea as assistant manager, in retrospect a poor and misguided decision on his part.

Brentford Chairman Dan Tana was loath to pull the trigger on Bill Dodgin: “The time around his departure was very difficult, with only a handful of games to go it looked as if Brentford would get relegated and something had to be done to avoid the drop back to Division Four. The supporters had been demonstrating in the forecourt at Griffin Park and I’d spoken up on behalf of the manager – telling people that he’d been good enough to get us up and I thought he was good enough to keep us up. Bill and I spoke about the situation and, until the 6-1 thrashing at Colchester followed by the home defeat to Rotherham, he’d told me not to worry as he had every faith in being able to turn the situation around.”

“But after the Rotherham game Bill came over to my house and we analysed the whole situation and, on further reflection, Bill was no longer convinced that the team would escape the drop. So we came to a mutual agreement that he would step aside. I didn’t sack him – Bill was a very good man.”

Ironically it was the misfit, Tony Funnell, who finally came good and scored the winner in the last game of the season against Millwall that kept the Bees up.

Dodgin was replaced by his former coach, Fred Callaghan who was the antithesis to Dodgin as he was “a tough nut and a bit of a character who worked the players hard.”

The days of long liquid lunches and golf outings were gone as training increased in intensity and three wins in the last seven matches ensured that the Bees finished two places and two points clear of relegation.

This was Bob’s first experience of seeing his manager sacked and replaced and he felt very unsure of what the future had to bring for him.

“Losing Bill was tough to take and it was sad to see him go as he had been a father figure to me and given me my opportunity and believed in me. My main worry was whether the new manager would like and rate me and if I would be in his plans and I knew that I had to prove myself once again. Fred was a fresh face and a fresh voice and we responded to him although he did not change things too much at first apart from training us harder and longer.”

Bob was brought back into the team for a must-win match at Gillingham and he responded by scoring the winner with a brilliant left foot curler from the edge of the area, his best goal to date, which helped turn his career round as it filled him with confidence for the following season.

This had been a roller-coaster season for Bob as he had started it totally out of favour, proved himself during his loan spell under Barry Fry, came back with a bang with that hat trick against Hull, drifted out of contention again before ending the season with a crucial winning goal at Gillingham. All in all he had scored six goals in nine appearances plus three more as a substitute, which was enough to make him equal third top scorer in the team.

He had barely played a dozen Football League matches but so much had already happened to him in his career.

Turf Wars: A History of London Football – 6/9/16

Pretty much every major football club boasts a book or two recording its history from formation until the present day. Given the growing number of statisticians and frustrated writers out there for whom this is a real labour of love, many of them are of a truly exceptional standard and boast a combination of deep and painstaking research, well chosen words that paint striking verbal pictures and startling photographs which bring so many previously half forgotten episodes back to life.

Given the size and stature of our club we Brentford fans have certainly been well served in this area and I doubt if there are many serious fans of the club who do not possess a copy of the unparalleled and inimitable 100 Years of Brentford, a true treasure and cornucopia of riches from start to finish.

The 125th Anniversary book was also a massively impressive work of art incorporating as it did so many wonderfully evocative press clippings from days of yore.

The 70s, 80s and 90s have all been celebrated recently with their own comprehensive Big Brentford Book and there is also a serviceable Who’s Who edition.

I am really not sure if there are many gaps remaining to be filled for Bees fans who have already been so well catered for.

I hope and expect that work has already started on an oral history celebrating Griffin Park our home for 112 years now and one that will be sorely missed when the long awaited and much anticipated Lionel Road stadium finally comes to fruition.

There has also been thought given to a Harry Curtis Years book commemorating the club’s glory days when the legendary Secretary/Manager took them from the depths of the Third Division to near the top of the First.

This would be my personal favourite and I am aware that Dave Lane, author of the two excellent Cult Bees and Legends interview books has been researching Harry Curtis and so far without success attempting to locate some of his descendants.

Hopefully this book will become a reality rather than a pipe dream as I never tire of being reminded of the times when the mighty Bees were a team to be feared and Arsenal in particular fell foul of us on many occasions in the few years leading up to the Second World War.

Maybe Mark Croxford will also be tempted to publish an updated Who’s Who book given his painstaking levels of research and knowledge and perhaps one day we will finally be treated to the long awaited and anticipated anthology of the writings of the much admired Middlesex Chronicle journalist George Sands who watched the Bees play over one thousand times without missing a match.

I make a point of seeking out other historical books that I feel have special merit and my efforts were certainly rewarded very recently.

Many years ago as a young child I read and relished David Prole’s Football in London and I have been waiting in vain ever since for it to be updated or replaced. It provided an indepth analysis and history of the main protagonists in the London football scene up until the mid 60s.

My eternal gratitude now goes to Steve Tongue who has used his experience and knowledge of the London football scene gained over many years as a leading football journalist to provide a well organised, fascinating and comprehensive history of all the London football clubs, amateur and professional alike.

I have long enjoyed and admired his erudite and pithy match reports in a variety of publications and if I recall correctly I was once a teammate of his on a dank and gloomy Sunday morning at Wormwood Scrubs many, many years ago when we both played for Brian Glanville’s Chelsea Casuals team.

Tongue has sensibly and cleverly divided the book into eras and writes about each club forensically and with humour and knowledge with a keen eye for spotting patterns and trends and, most impressively not for one moment does he let slip any evidence of personal bias or self interest. A casual reader of this book would have no idea about his long and deeply held passion for Leyton Orient.

The book is short in pages but long in information and has been beautifully produced with loving care by the admirable Pitch Publishing who have been responsible for so many exceptional sports books recently.

It is a real gem and sensibly priced at a mere £9.99. I can wholeheartedly recommend it to all students of London football and as far as I am concerned, it was well worth the wait.

Turf Wars: A History of London Football by Steve Tongue. Pitch Publishing. £9.99.

How Good Are We? – 1/9/16

There have been a lot of questions raised over the last few weeks about the relative strength of the Brentford squad and how well we are equipped to face the challenges that doubtless lie ahead in what is likely to be the strongest Championship in living memory given the quite ridiculous sums of money sloshing around and the size of the fees already invested in players by the likes of Newcastle, Aston VIlla, Norwich and Sheffield Wednesday.

How on earth can a Brentford team hamstrung by the fact that the club has almost the smallest attendances and lowest revenue in the division compete on a level playing field with its richer brethren?

Well the truth of course is that the playing field is far from level or even and the Bees quite simply have to do everything different, better and smarter if they are not to be left trailing in the wake of their opponents.

Their strategy is clear and uncompromising – buy cheap and sell dear and concentrate almost exclusively on signing talented young players from both home and abroad with development potential and when the time is right, sell them at the top of the market and start the entire process again.

So far this policy has worked like a dream and will continue to do so as long as we continue to recruit well and persuade players and their agents that Brentford is a perfect steppingstone club which will put young players in the spotlight and provide them with the framework in which to improve and shine before eventually moving on.

Given the vast sums being spent on transfers in the Championship and the undisputed fact that many clubs are recruiting better and smarter, it has become harder and harder for Brentford to maintain their competitive advantage and stay ahead. Barnsley in particular are using analytics very cleverly and signing some interesting players from all levels of the game.

Whenever asked I stated quite firmly that no judgements on this season’s activity and strength of squad should be made until 1st September once the Transfer Window had closed until next January.

So here we are in September and how well do I think we have done?

Pretty damn well is my verdict, particularly given the problems we faced, but I suspect it was a close run thing as matters went pretty much to the wire and could quite easily have gone differently, in which case we’d have had quite a different tale to tell today.

From the squad that finished last season we have lost all three loanees in Djuricin, Swift and Canos, Button and Bidwell made it clear that they would not extend their contracts and therefore needed to be sold and O’Connell departed for Shffield United.

Judge too remains on the long term injured list and it is doubtful if he will be seen much before Christmas and a difficult decision will need to be made about him in January given that his contract ends next Summer.

Have we adequately replaced the players we have lost and perhaps even strengthened?

Button was a marvellously consistent goalkeeper but on early evidence Bentley is sublime and is surely earmarked for greater things. Hopefully we can get the tribunal with Southend sorted as soon as possible as I suspect that he will be in great demand perhaps as soon as January.

Bidwell was a mainstay of the team – Mr Reliable – but signing Rico Henry is a massive coup.

Injured he may be now but in Bentley and Henry we now possess two potential full international footballers, and I am not exaggerating when I say that. The fee for Henry is substantial and could reach eye watering proportions but we are likely to benefit greatly from his services before he leaves us at some point for a huge profit.

Our policy of protecting the future also paid dividends with Alfie Mawson whose move to Swansea for a fee of around £5 million, a sum that highlights the madhouse that football has become, has led to us benefiting from a sell-on clause reputed to be around 40%.

If that figure is accurate then Mawson, a youngster who never played a league game for us, has paid for Rico Henry. Good business indeed!

Kaikai finally arrived yesterday not without some mishaps and he has the potential to replace Canos whose pace, cutting edge and enthusiasm have been sorely missed.

Since last season ended the Bees have signed four top quality players from the Third Division in Bentley, Egan, Sawyers and Henry, indeed with the exception of Gillingham’s Bradley Dack, probably the best players in that division.

Two talented Premier League quality  loanees in Elder and Kaikai complete our recruitment which has been totally exceptional and well in line with the club’s ethos.

Analyst Ted Knutson recently highlighted Henry as the top prospect in the lower leagues and also mentioned Colin and Barbet as likely Premier League players in the making and the Bees now have a whole raft of promising young players whose value can only appreciate as they continue to improve.

Therevis also much talent bubbling under in the newly formed B team who can fill in if necessary.

The other exceptional news was that of Ryan Woods extending his contract for four more years  and that means that the majority of their best players are now on long contracts and the club’s position is therefore protected for the midterm.

Of course we could have hoped for more, another striker or winger, or that long awaited tough tackling defensive midfielder but the club has to work within its limitations and I believe that we are now well equipped to face the challenge of the Championship with equanimity and we should be one of the division’s better teams.

 I expect further tweeking to the squad in January by which time we should know far more about whether Josh McEachran can establish himself, if KK’s excellent late season form was a flash in the pan and if Lasse Vibe and Philipp Hofmann can provide Hogan with the support he needs.

Kaikai will score goals but Sawyers and Macleod will also need to step up to the plate and score regularly.

We will have bad days too but in essence we have put together a decent squad that should ensure that we are defensively sound, competitive, attractive and good to watch.

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