Must Read Books For Arsenal Fans
After my wife and kids, one of my first loves is football, in particular the team that I have supported since I was a young boy, Arsenal. Based in North London, playing their home games at the Emirates Stadium in Ashburton Grove, Arsenal have been one of the most successful English clubs in recent history. With some world great players passing through the club, it has been a privileged time to be a fan of this great club.
However, my enjoyment of the club does not stop at the end of each match. One of my guilty pleasures is reading books on this exact subject, in particular biographies of some of our key players. In a day and age where players are releasing biographies in their early twenties after just one or two good seasons you have to be careful but I do enjoy reading books about our greats and if you have either an interest in Arsenal, Football or Sport in general, hopefully you will enjoy a few of my Arsenal book reviews in this hub.
Arsene Wenger: The Authorised Biography - Xavier Rivoire
On September 30th 1996 Arsenal Football Club announced the identity of their new manager. Many names had been bandied around but to many peoples shock the successful candidate was a Frenchman barely known outside of his country who looked more like a Professor. Granted he had had success with Monaco in his home nation but had spent the past two years in a state of almost exile managing the Japanese team Grampus 8 and the Evening Standard newspaper captured the feelings of many fans on that day with their headline of: "Arsene Who?"
Fast-forward nearly 18yrs and Arsene Wenger is still at the helm of our club having become in the meantime, the most successful Arsenal Manager of all time. This book, which was first published in 2008, is an in depth biography by the leading French football journalist Xavier Rivoire. As an Arsenal fan I knew much of Wenger's history once he had joined the club but knew little of what had made the man.
Wenger wasn't a great player but the book takes you through his early career, highlighting his interest in tactics and coaching from an early age, through to his initial coaching job at AS Nancy. From there he moved on to Monaco where he stayed for 7 years. In that time as well as buying players such as Glenn Hoddle he started to bring through some of those who became stars of the French 1998 World Cup win such as Thierry Henry. What was most interesting about this period was reading about the match fixing scandal that had hit France in the early 90's. I was completely unaware of this but the effects do seem to have shaped some of Wenger's beliefs going forward.
He left Monaco in 1994 before spending a couple of years in Japan before joining Arsenal and shaping them in to the team today. When he arrived the club had had a varied few years in terms of final league position and there was a culture of drinking within the squad with at least a couple of members of the team well known to have drink and/or drug addictions. This wasn't just limited to Arsenal though and Wenger quickly set about up-heaving the squad beliefs. All of a sudden everything was changed from how training was run through to changing the diets of all the players. In some ways it seems common sense but at the time it was game changing and several of the older members of the squad at that time have credited with these changes with extending their careers.
For the first 8 full seasons that Wenger was in charge, the club never finished lower than 2nd, picking up 3 league titles and 4 cup wins in the time frame. This made him the most successful manager in the clubs history. In the 2003-2004 season Wenger steered the club to an unprecedented "Immortal" season where not a single league match was lost, the first time in the modern era this had occurred and an achievement which will be tough to match by any team. However, the last silverware won was in 2005 and whilst we have moved ground in that time, questions have started to be asked about whether or not Wenger has become staid. It is very interesting when reading this book as, whilst at times the writers praise does stray a bit too far in my opinion, it highlights how Wenger does seem to have stagnated. Following his revolutionary introduction, other teams have caught up and in many cases overtaken.
Overall this book is a great read if you are an Arsenal fan and would be enjoyable even if you aren't. It is extremely interesting to find out more about the history of the man known as Le Boss and who hopefully will lead us back to the top of the league again.
Stillness and Speed: My Story - Dennis Bergkamp & David Winner
Speak to many Arsenal fans and ask them who the greatest player to wear the red and white has been in recent years and there is one name that is likely to float towards the top. That of Dutchman Dennis Bergkamp. Having joined the club in 1995, he became an Arsenal legend, staying at the club until his retirement in 2006. I remember being at a match against Southampton in August 1997 when he scored a wonder goal, one of three that month that led to him becoming the first and only player to ever get a 1-2-3 in the prestigious BBC Match of the Day, Goal of the Month. Just this weekend he became the latest player to have a statue of himself unveiled outside of the Arsenal stadium.
This book was released in September 2013 and I saw quite a lot of press and talk on twitter about it but to be honest I wasn't planning on reading it at first. However, when a few weeks later I saw that they were selling the kindle version for just 99p for a few days and it seemed to be too good an opportunity to turn down so I downloaded it and started to read it.
Similar to the Arsene Wenger book above, I didn't know that much of Bergkamp's history in his pre-Arsenal days. I knew that he had started out at Ajax before moving to Inter Milan where he experienced quite a torrid time until his move to Highbury. This book delves in to that a bit more, exploring how he rose through the youth ranks, made his debut for his home town club in Amsterdam and also explored why Italy didn't work out for him. It also explores why Bergkamp developed an aversion to flying which severely restricted him when Arsenal played in European competitions with him either missing games or having to take a strange combination of trains and cars to get to his destination. As a very confident flyer myself I do sometimes struggle to understand such an obtuse fear but when you read of some of the experiences he had on flights, it would be enough to push anyone with a slight fear over the edge.
Now, whilst I enjoyed the subject matter of the book and getting an insight in to this great Arsenal player, I have to admit I didn't really enjoy reading the book itself. This was due to a writing style that I couldn't quite get in to. I should commend the author for trying to put a different spin on what many biographies are like, but I wasn't a fan. A lot of the book was written as conversations Ad Verbum. Some of these are conversations where the author has spoken to ex-teammates and managers of Bergkamp to get their opinions and some is conversations with Bergkamp. At points it seemed a little like watching a TV show where the interviewer would cut to a pre-recorded segment and they would both listen. For example:Interviewer: You had a difficult relationship with X and I discussed this with him.
Bergkamp: You're right, will be interesting to see what he said.
Person X: Thoughts on Bergkamp
Interviewer: What did you think of that?
Bergkamp: It was strange he said this about that....
I am sure for some this method (which I have reproduced quite clumsily) would be enjoyable but not for me. That said, regardless of the writing style, I still read through this book very quickly and it was enjoyable for the subject matter and I would recommend to anyone that wants to understand more about this man, albeit with a caveat on the style.
Thierry Henry: Lonely At The Top - Philippe Auclair
Picture the scene. It's almost 70mins into a Monday night FA Cup match between Arsenal v Leeds Utd at the Emirates Stadium. The game itself has been a bit bland so far and is currently goal-less but the atmosphere starts to grow as a 34yr old Frenchman gets ready to come on. Ten minutes later he makes a trademark run to the left of the box, latches on to a through ball from Alex Song and buries the ball past the onrushing goalkeeper. The roof is lifted off as the crowd goes crazy. The King had returned.
If you're not at Arsenal fan much of what I have just written probably means very little. If however you are I hope you got a little shiver down the spine, especially if like me you were fortunate enough to have been there that night. The Frenchman in question was Thierry Henry, a living Arsenal legend (there are few players who have statues of themselves erected at a club whilst they are still playing for another), and this game was his first in a short cameo where he had re-joined the club on loan to build up his fitness prior to kicking off again with the New York Red Bulls in MLS. During his first spell with the club I hadn't been fortunate to see him play in the flesh as I was a student with little money, tickets at our Highbury ground were hard to come by and those games I did get to were often in cup competitions when he was rested. But when I heard he was returning, I was determined this was a game I would get a ticket for.
For some time this book was sat at the bottom of my kindle in the list of recommended items and after a while I decided to download it. It is written by a respected French journalist who I have followed on twitter for some time now, @PhilippeAuclair. In many ways he puts me to shame as his grasp of the English language is much greater than my own and at times it is tough to remember that this is not his mother tongue. It is also interesting how he himself views the book as to quote from one chapter: Rather a lot, I believe, certainly in the context of a book like this one, which I have always thought of as a biographical essay rather than a biography.
As I write this I have yet to finish the book but I can see how he would see the work in this way. Unlike some biographies, including the others in this hub, the book has not seemingly had any influence from Thierry Henry himself. This is actually quite refreshing as it has allowed the author to move away from the sycophancy that many biographies fall in to. It's not that Henry has lots of skeletons to hide but instead, Auclair has been able to delve deep in to what made this man. Starting from a childhood in les banlieues of Paris where he had to contend with an extremely overbearing whose determination that his son would succeed led him to be quite harsh at times; through to his professional debut for AS Monaco under the guidance of Arsene Wenger.
It looks in detail and how a bodged transfer to Real Madrid (that I had previously been unaware of) led to friction between himself, his advisers, his club and his father until he eventually moved away for what in hindsight was a ill conceived 6 month spell in Italy at Juventus before he moved to Arsenal. At Arsenal he became a star revered to this day but he had an uneasy relationship with the French national team who after successes in 1998 and 2000 failed miserably at the World Cup in 2002, Henry found himself slightly marginalised in 2006 and in 2010 there was an outright strike by Henry and his French team mates. Auclair explores this debacle in great detail, looking deeply beyone Henry himself and deep in to the racial and social divides that exist both with the French National team but also the French society as a whole. Whilst that last epsiode does not see it's blame laid at Henry's feet, the author definitely feels that the senior member of the squad could and should have acted to reduce the impact. Indeed he openly admits that he was tempted to end the book on this slightly sour note but refrained in the end to write a postscript covering the events I recollected before.
Reading this book it becomes apparent that there are two very different sides to Henry. The one fans like me (and to his credit Auclair) see of the legendary striker, but also the other he reserved for journalists where he could appear both bored and two-faced amongst many other personality traits. It is quite apparent that while Auclair applauds Henry's abilities as a footballer, he does not like him so much as a man. Perhaps this occasionally leads to a slightly over-negative spin on events but on the whole I believe it to be a good in depth view of Henry. In the acknowledgments, Auclair gives credit to the fact that whilst Henry would not be aproached directly for this book, he had been aware that it was being written and had not actively sought to sabotage it or ensure he was painted in a picture of his choosing.
If you are an Arsenal fan then I would say that if you haven't yet read this book you should do so as soon as possible. It really scratches beneath the surface of a man who will always be an Arsenal star and who I will be eternally grateful to have seen play once in the red and white.
Highbury: The Story of Arsenal In N.5 - Jon Spurling
On 7th May 2006 referee Uriah Rennie blew the final whistle at the end of an Arsenal 4-2 victory over Wigan Athletic. With it bringing down the curtain on Arsenal playing at their home of the past 93yrs, Highbury. The famous old Art-Deco styled ground was no longer big enough for the demands of Arsenal fans to watch their team play week in, week out and to ensure a successful future, a decision had been made a few years earlier to move to nearby Ashburton Grove and play at the impressive modern bowl, the Emirates Stadium. Thierry Henry had made sure the ground went out on a bang with a hat-trick in that final match but the old ground had a lot of history.
During their early years Arsenal had played in South East London but moved to the borough of Highbury & Islington in 1913 having procured land from a local Divinity College. This book follows the history of the club and the ground itself from that point all of the way through to the match against Wigan 93yrs later. It talks about the developments including the now listed East/West stands and some of the other events that were held at the ground such as the World Heavyweight boxing title bout between Henry Cooper and Muhammad Ali in 1966. It documents how the ground was the first to host a floodlit match and how the famous North Bank was rebuilt after being bombed in WW2.
This book is a great accompaniment to any Arsenal fan's books collection as the history of the club at Highbury does cover such a large amount of our history. I was brought the book as a present but couldn't put it down when I started reading it. Completing it cover to cover in a week's skiing holiday. It is well written by an author who definitely knows his stuff and I am sure I will return to it again in a few years time to re-remind myself of such an important part of our history.
When Arsenal moved to the Emirate's in 2006 there were many who were sad to see the old ground go and with good reason. However, we had outgrown the stadium and as I mention above when talking about Henry, one of the main reasons I got to so few of his games (I in fact only managed to see one game at this old ground) was a lack of space. However, the memory of Highbury still lives on as it was converted in to luxury apartments as the two listed art-deco stands couldn't be demolished and as a fan, I still walk past the old ground every time I attend a match as it is literally just round the corner, unlike many teams who move across entire cities.
There are quite literally hundreds of Arsenal related books out there, some good, some bad. If you have read a great book on Arsenal then I would love to hear about it.
Likewise, even if you haven't but have comments that you'd like to share about this hub then I'd love to hear them!