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Best, Pele and a Half Time Bovril By Andrew Smart

Release date: 18th May, 2014
Publisher: John Blake

List Price: £7.99
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Former sports journalist Andrew Smart, a man who cut his teeth reporting on Mansfield Town as the team he supported, Nottingham Forest, were conquering Europe, has written the book those of us who fondly recall domestic football in its pre-1992 guise would have loved to write.

One astonishing statistic unearthed by Smart sums up much of what has gone wrong with the English game. “As late as 1992,” he writes, “there were still only eleven players from outside the home nations…plying their trade in the Premier League.”

Of this select XI, only Peter Schmeichel and Eric Cantona (then at Leeds) could be considered genuine stars; the others were part of an unintended, but extremely effective, blockage of indigenous talent which continues to this day. The consequences explain why England’s stay in Brazil for the World Cup is, sadly, likely to be a brief one.

The seventies (“football’s last great decade,” according to the author) produced six different league champions, a run that is simply unthinkable today. Instead of a concentration of expensive foreign mercenaries, the league’s inherent competitiveness accounted for a broad spread of talented English players, including Frank Worthington, Tony Currie and Stan Bowles, each capable of exerting significant influence on top-flight matches.

Aside from the Football League’s ultra-competitive nature, the FA Cup was also deemed a trophy worth winning, not used (and undermined) by teams fielding fringe and youth players. Smart laments the Cup’s marginalisation, concerned that fans and players are being “led away from the FA Cup, educated in the belief that it doesn’t matter.”

Yet this is no rant of a grey-haired fan longing for sepia-tinted days when things were ‘better’. He is not shy in identifying the rise of a brutal strain of hooliganism as a major cause of supporters abandoning football in their droves. Perhaps, as the game limped through the eighties, what had happened to it a decade earlier ensured it was ripe for takeover by broadcasters and dodgy owners.

Smart revives some great memories, but this is also a thought-provoking read which explains why the beautiful game was prepared to sell its soul.


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