Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Stuck in the Middle with Us

Book Review: Jimmy Greaves: This One's On Me, Coronet Books, 1979.

Back to the biography theme, and an odd one you might say. If I hadn't have happened upon this book in the bookshop I work in, and been obsessed enough at the time to read just about anything about football, there's no way I would have even heard of Jimmy Greaves, let alone read his book.

Jimmy Greaves scored hundreds of goals from 1957 through to the early seventies, including 44 for England. He was a larrikin, an individualist on and off the field, and an alcoholic. The book is about all that.

In a way this review rounds out the 'negative series' of reviews that I begun with Hooligans and Thugs (football crowd violence) and continued with The Rot at the Top (football corruption). This was my first real gritty insight into the pressures on star football players and how horribly the glory can unravel. For fans who are want to gleefully leap from idolisation to scorn and back again according to the tides of the fortunes of the team, it is worth a reminder about the mind-boggling pressures on these human beings - often kids - who provide us with so much pleasure.

For Greaves it began with a stint with AC Milan, where he was essentially owned and his every movement was controlled. Every time he managed to escape their clutches to go and kick up (he wasn't an alcoholic at this point; merely a cocky youngster who needed release) he was fined, so that he ended up earning less than had he have stayed with his club in England. I think some players must respond very well to discipline, some probably need it, but some people just don't.

How does the modern tight coaching regime deal with genius? It's an important problematic. We know that a modern university could never produce an Einstein and that a modern Conservatorium could never produce a Mozart. But an Einstein or a Mozart might still emerge because these engage in fundamentally individualistic pursuits. The only way a football genius can express themselves is through a team, and these days teams have million-dollar coaches, managers and team-mates, hounding media and fans and discipline brother. No answers forthcoming from me.

Without shirking on his descriptions of teams, players and games, Greaves' running theme is his downfall via alcohol and his subsequent attempts to recover, finally leading him to Alcoholics Anonymous. It's a dramatic and moving personal journey, but what it led me to think upon was not the evils of alcohol, but the pressures of the game on the mere humans involved. At the same time it raised some interesting issues about the very idea of coaching and team discipline, especially when dealing with what is essentially un-coached genius.
It has never been a secret that I am anti-coaching. I am firmly of the opinion that many coaches have done more harm than good to English football. They stifle the natural instincts of players and turn them into robots. Our football until recently had become so stereotyped that it was difficult to tell one team from another. Great individualists had almost disappeared from the game and for that I blame the coaches.
Food for thought whichever way you want to look at it. "The revolution" in football for Greaves had two facets. Firstly the breaking of the wage-barriers which saw top players' remuneration go through the roof, and secondly the end of the attacking formations which saw such high-scoring games. For Greaves these two things went together, and the simplest way to say how is just that the stakes got higher.

I know I'm dreaming, but I for one would love for two top teams (ok, even A-League teams) to get together and agree to both play 2-3-5 formations, just for the demonstration of it. Wouldn't we all? Wouldn't we voluntarilly pay twice as much for our ticket if the coaches and players agreed to do that for us? Just for the sheer fun of it? Dreaming...

This book would never win any literary prizes. It's not that well written frankly, especially considering Greaves had the help of one of his journalist mates. But it comes across as very sincere, very raw and very real, so was no trouble at all to read. Meanwhile I can't exactly recommend it as I'm sure it's out of print and only shows up in massive second-hand bookshops from time to time. Suffice to say that the issues it raises have not dated.

As a tribute to Greaves' career, his journey and his book, it would be wrong of me to not add a final note about the despair of alcoholism. For anyone who has an alcohol or drug habit that is effecting their lives, family and loved ones, check out AA. Why not? It worked for Jimmy Greaves.

Jimmy Greaves has a Website. I haven't really even looked at it yet, but here it is.

Jimmy Greaves more recently. Don't tell Adelaide he's available.



Blogger john said...

Hamish san

My favourite out of print football book is 'A century of great soccer drama' I used to love reading about the goalkeeper who didn't know his team had lost the FA cup because it was so dark that he didn't see the ball go in the net from a shot that was so hard it rebounded out. 'When's the replay he asked on the way off the pitch.'

I think I may have met Jimmy Greaves and Venerables when I saw Spurs play in Sydney once - could be wrong.

December 13, 2006 10:01 pm  
Anonymous wayne said...

Don't get me started Hamish..oh hold on, with posts like this, I think you did...

December 14, 2006 1:16 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home