As part of our regular exclusives feature, The Boot Room were given the opportunity to interview the Guardian journalist and author of Invincible: Inside Arsenal’s Unbeaten 2003-2004 Season, Amy Lawrence. A regular broadcaster and lifelong Arsenal supporter, Amy is the perfect person to provide a detailed insight into goings on, both past and present, at the Emirates.
We got stuck in immediately, with Amy more than happy to discuss her initial involvement with sports journalism. “I never grew up aspiring to be a football journalist, it was just something I began to do for a hobby as I was able to combine two things I loved – football and writing”, she said. “I was beyond fortunate to get a chance to learn on the job when I got an opportunity on FourFourTwo magazine, and was amazed to be able to make a career in something I enjoyed so much.”
Social networking sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, have provided the capacity for aspiring writers, from all reaches of the world, to create a pedestal for a future career in the industry. However, the reality is, very few will go on to achieve their dream. Amy’s early career was met with cynicism, with those around her suggesting she “try something else”. However, when many would have given in, she pursued with her efforts, and now very few can deny her of the success she has experienced.
“It is not an easy environment in which to find work, but write as much as you can, analyse as much writing you admire as you can, and make sure to be flexible in terms of writing, picture, broadcasting etc. That’s the way it’s going.” Sound advice, from the writer named the Football Supporters’ Federation Writer of the Year for 2014. She portrays a clear message: remain persistent, while exploring a variety of journalistic-styles.
We moved on quickly to discuss Amy’s debut book, Invincible: Inside Arsenal’s Unbeaten 2003-2004 Season – described as a gripping insider’s account of how Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires became the first team in 100 years to go the entire season undefeated. For anyone who hasn’t already read this, make sure you do. It’s excellent. As is always the case, we were eager to discover what had made Amy decide to transgress from article-based journalism. After all, writing a 250 plus page book is no easy feat.
Invicible’s main success is the manner in which Amy’s portrays her love for Arsenal Football Club. Through her careful application of individual anecdotes and testimony, it becomes startlingly obvious that the Emirates outfit is far more than just a topic of research. “Luckily some of the research was already in my head,” she explained. “Having watched the team closely over a number of years and covered matches and made interviews at the time.”
However, her memories and previous experiences alone proved insufficient while planning a project of this scale. This task required far more than simply sitting in front of a laptop with previously acquired knowledge. “Once the publisher had approached me, I was clear that the book I wanted to write depended on the access to up-to-date interviews with the protagonists,” she told The Boot Room. “That was hard to pull together, but worth all the perseverance.”
The players’ individual testimonies, and Arsene Wenger’s reflections, in particular, provide invaluable insight, giving Invincible tremendous depth as the stories of the past and present come to life. In many ways, this is what makes this book such a special and unique read. Through impressive research, and a captivating writing style to match, Amy has successfully encapsulated the goings of one of the most impressive sporting years in English footballing history.
Despite Arsenal’s success throughout the 2004-15 season, few of the players involved stayed with the club. The main protagonists – the likes of Robert Pires, Dennis Berkgamp, Patrick Viera and even Thierry Henry – all departed in the proceeding years, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to understand why Wenger allowed this to happen. Naturally, comparisons have been made with Manchester United in the past, especially considering the way in which Sir Alex Ferguson retained the services of Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville. Perhaps this was a missed trick on the then-Highbury club’s behalf – a forsaken opportunity to build on the 2003/04 season’s success.
Was it a financial imperative to get some high wages off the books due to the stadium move, or was it a conscious footballing decision from Arsene Wenger to move them on? Amy describes how the French manager was very set on this idea of “project youth”, with the emphasis on creating a new team he hoped would be able to compete at the highest level. She said, “He wanted to build a new generation he hoped would want to stay together because they grew up together. It didn’t quite come off. A personal view is that the team was broken up too early. Although Wenger couldn’t really stop some departures, others, like Gilberto and Pires, were let go prematurely.”
While the rate at which the Invincible team left the club proved disappointing, the club’s failure to translate domestic success into European form is likely to remain more of a regret among the Gunners faithful. Considering the relative weakness of the competition throughout the 2003/04 season – a Porto versus Monaco final saw the Portuguese outfit emerge as eventual Champions League winners – it is difficult to deny that this was the perfect year for Wenger’s side to challenge on all fronts.
On this subject, Amy said, “That is one theme that comes across repeatedly when you talk to the players from that team. They all feel that was the one that got away, and there is a sureness that they felt like the best team in Europe that year.” She went on to explain how Wenger later admitted that he should have sacrificed the FA Cup semi-final versus rivals Man United, a game that fell four days before the Gunners crashed out of the Champions League to Chelsea. “They were fatigued and paid a heavy price. It was a very bad week!”
Since the departure of the Invincible team, we have seen very few of the players return to the club in a coaching capacity. Amy feels that enticing the likes of Patrick Viera and Thierry Henry to the Emirates would be a positive direction for the club to take, not only for their “excellent knowledge and experience” but also for the passion for Arsenal that they continue to maintain – this alone would “go a long way”.
There’s no doubt the Arsenal Invincibles were an outstanding team, but few can argue with the manner in which English football has progressed over the past decade. Amy, however, believes the side of the 2003/04 season would still compete with the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City today. “I see no reason why the Invincibles wouldn’t be favourites for the Premier League today. They were an amazingly balanced team, whose collective will to win was obvious, and they had the technical qualities that would be difficult to stop in any era.”
She continued by suggesting that, from Wenger’s current playing staff, Alexis Sanchez, Santi Cazorla and Laurent Koscielny in particular, would have experienced an easy integration into the record-breaking line-up, with the emphasis on heavily weighted towards the squad as a whole rather than individual players.
The current Gunners first-team is known for the individual talent it possesses, particularly in midfield. However, there is one player who, despite being tipped for a highly successful career, has struggled to establish himself as a regular starter at the Emirates. That player is Jack Wilshere. Once seen as the future of English football, the 24-year-old’s career has been hampered by injury.
In terms of his progression, Amy holds the same views as Wenger, “what he needs is two years clear of injury, even one year would be a start. He just needs to have the fitness and the time to play his way into his best form – that’s an addition to any team.” Clearly she holds the England man in high-regard, but like many of us would agree, she feels that he needs to keep himself away from the treatment table if he wishes to fulfil his promise. Perhaps his two goals versus Slovenia last weekend were a sign of things to come?
On the subject of young talent and world-class potential, we continued to quiz Amy about the Arsenal academy system, asking her recommendation on the next top youngsters to come through the Emirates production line. Two players stood-out during this chat: Chuba Akpom and Gedion Zelalem. According to Amy, the former “is a striker with great talent who I would like to see have a chance,” while the latter “is very highly rated as a creative player.”
Akpom, 19, who spent last season on loan at Nottingham Forest – failing to score in seven league fixtures – has made four appearances at senior level for the Gunners, while Zelalem, 18, is yet to feature for the club. However, the USA international has attracted attention following his recent performances at the under-20 World Cup.
Our talk soon turned to summer activity. Less than a month has passed since the end of the season, and the transfer window is yet to open, but this hasn’t prevented the usual rumour mill from reaching a level of overdrive. Among those linked with a move to the Emirates is Southampton’s Morgan Schneiderlin, as well as Monaco’s Geoffery Kondogbia – with the defensive midfield role a problem factor that seemingly will not go away. Francis Coquelin has experienced an exceptional breakthrough season at the club, but increased speculation suggests he could still be overlooked, as Wenger looks to mount a title challenge throughout the upcoming campaign.
Talking of Coquelin, and potential midfield targets, Amy said, “It would be remiss of Arsenal not to sign another player to share the load. He has had an extraordinary season, and has proved how crucial it is to have an anchor in midfield with intelligence, power and the capacity to intercept, tackle, and interrupt the opposition so manfully. What if he gets injured?” She continued, “It’s a vital role [defensive midfield], which needs two players who can perform it to the highest level. They may have to share the responsibility, and in some games can play together. But leaving it to Coquelin alone would be risky.”
With transfers on the mind, we turned the clock back ten months, to the club’s capture of Chilean international Alexis Sanchez. Unlike his outstanding debut season in England, in which he scored 16 goals in 35 league appearances, the former Barcelona midfielder’s move to the Emirates went somewhat under the radar – a deal that Wenger appeared to conclude with relative ease, despite intense interest from Merseyside. Following an impressive World Cup campaign with his home nation, Sanchez was widely expected to move to Liverpool, before a dramatic U-turn saw pledge his allegiance to the Emirates faithful.
With the world full of social media and noisy agents, completing a transfer in private is close to impossible now. Based on this notion, we asked Amy whether this change had hindered Wenger’s attempts to recruit in recent years? She replied, “It is hard, full stop. I don’t think Wenger has been less active because of agents or transfer noise. It is more down to what he perceives as a lack of the right talent at the right price. If he can find that, he will go for it. But any kind of auction once some of the super rich are involved – as that has such an impact on salary as much as anything else – he tends to back off. “
Clearly Wenger operates a pragmatic transfer policy. As Amy describes, he is willing to stake his claim for a player’s services, as long as the price is right. Prior to the signing of Mesut Ozil – formerly of Real Madrid – two seasons ago, the Frenchman had never been seen splashing the cash for any one individual. This trend has changed since, but still, a similar pretence remains. Some would say that it is this transfer policy that has hampered the club’s chances of challenging for the Premier League title. However, few can argue with the Frenchman’s ability to operate within financial restrictions – Arsenal have never failed to finish in a top four position under Wenger’s reign.
Alexis Sanchez may have finished the season as Arsenal’s top goal-scorer last term, but Olivier Giroud proved the perfect sideman for the Chilean. The former Montpellier weighed in with some fanastic performances throughout the campaign, scoring 14 times in 27 league appearances. However, this was not enough to prevent pundits from questioning his suitability to Arsenal’s title aspirations. Of all people, it was Thierry Henry who pioneered the notion that his compatriot was not up to the challenge of winning the Gunners a league title, with the suggestion that the club must buy a world class forward this summer if they wish to contend next season.
Amy proved reluctant when discussing this topic, which suggests she was not fully convinced by Giroud’s ability. However, she clearly envisages a future role for the Frenchman. She said, “I think I might have to defer that answer until the new season is about to start! There are not that many world-class predators out there. If Wenger can find one, competition between Mr X, Giroud and Walcott could be very interesting. It would be fascinating to see Arsenal pair two strikers sometimes.”
Porto’s Jackson Martinez is a player who finds himself continuously linked with a move to the Emirates. However, it remains to be seen if Wenger holds any genuine interest in the Colombian striker. Elsewhere, Napoli’s Gonzalo Higuain has also been touted for a move to the Emirates – the rumours continue to persist. Will Wenger sign a front-man to rival Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott, as Amy would like? In truth, only time will tell.
Before concluding our interview we were eager to hear Amy’s thoughts on the future of the Emirates outfit, with particular interest towards her views on Arsene Wenger. The Boot Room asked, ‘Do you think it is time for Wenger to move on, or does he still have something to offer?’ To which she responded, “at the moment it’s not a question worth considering as he has no intention to move on and the board have no intention of moving him on. With the progress of last season he has earned the right to try to push for another big step forwards next season.” Clearly Amy is an Arsenal fan who remains content with the progress the club are making under the French head coach, and why wouldn’t she be? The signs shown last season were certainly promising.
We would like to say a huge thank you to Amy Lawrence for taking the time to answer our questions, while wishing her the best of luck for the future. If you haven’t already, you can buy, Invincible: Inside Arsenal’s Unbeaten 2003-2004 Season (both paper and hardback) here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Invincible-Inside-Arsenals-Unbeaten-2003-2004/dp/024100456X
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Exclusive: We speak to The Football Ramble’s Luke Moore
Originating as a hugely popular podcast, downloaded over ten million times a year, The Football Ramble has established itself as THE weekly listen for football fans across the globe, so why not turn your talents into writing a book for all to enjoy? That is exactly what Luke Moore, Marcus Speller, Pete Donaldson and Jim Campbell have done.
A non-fiction work, which combines footballing fact and opinion with tonnes of comedy, The Football Ramble: By Four Men Who Love The Game They Hate puts all aspects of the game under the microscope. From a look at football’s early origins, to analysis of media, managers, fans and stadiums, TFR is a cheery read, that really does have it all.
If you’re a fan of football, this is a highly recommended read. If you’re a fan of The Football Ramble‘s podcast series, this is an absolute must. With Christmas around the corner this is literally the perfect stocking filler for those who seek enjoyment from the beautiful game – as you can probably tell, we cannot endorse this enough!
We were given the opportunity to speak to Luke Moore following the release of The Football Ramble’s brilliant new book. On behalf of The Football Ramble quartet, this is what he had to say…
TBR: For those of our readers who don’t know you (although we’re sure there will be very few), can you tell us a bit about each of yourselves, how you became involved with The Football Ramble and what else occupies your time in life?
Luke: I became involved in TFR (The Football Ramble) when Marcus, who I went to uni with, asked if I’d like to reprise the Saturday Sports Show we did on university radio together in the form of a podcast, and it went from there. We picked up Jim and Pete early on along the way.
TBR: You’re obviously four guys who just love talking, reading, watching, and generally living football, but to take that to the next level requires another level of motivation. What was the initial inspiration behind starting The Football Ramble podcast? Can you remember the exact moment you came up with the idea?
Luke: It was just nice to have an outlet to chat about the game and meet up every fortnight (as it was then). Everything else grew organically as we grew into the show and worked out that we didn’t need to get ‘proper jobs in media’ – we could do it ourselves and maintain creative control over it.
It was Marcus’ original idea, and I think his thinking was what I touched on in the first answer – he wanted to continue our Saturday show somehow and that was the best way to do it
TBR: Obviously the Football Ramble the podcast has been a resounding success over the years, but what inspired you to turn your talents to writing a book, and how did you decide on the subject?
Luke: We were approached by PenguinRandomHouse about the possibility of writing a book about football with them, and we thought it was a good idea and so went for it. We met and talked about the different parts of the game we were particularly interested and went from there.
It’s important to make clear that this book isn’t TFR podcast stuck between two covers, it’s its own thing and should (hopefully!) stand on its own merits. It covers just about every part of football in our own style, something we’ve developed over almost ten years of making podcasts. Like the show, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it’s not a podcast in book format, it’s a book.
TBR: There are a number of ‘laugh out loud’ moments throughout the book, with the comedy aspect of the book making for a very enjoyable read. Is this something you were conscious of throughout writing, or does it just come naturally?
Luke: From my point of view I wanted to write my parts in my own voice. I wasn’t going to suddenly start writing like I was authoring a textbook, I’ve always had a pretty irreverent style (for better or worse!). And by the same token, it didn’t really make any sense to shoehorn each of us into a uniform style either – the Ramble works because we all have our own voices, it made sense to take that philosophy across to a book as well. Hopefully that’s what keeps it fresh – each of us writing in our own style.
On the funny parts, it’s just as easy to make observations in written format as it is on the radio, or it should be. From my point of view, it’s great to know at least someone found it funny!
TBR: Since releasing the book, you have embarked on your nationwide live book tour. Which has been your favourite event so far, and do you have any funny stories you can tell?
Luke: I absolutely loved the Glasgow show. I love doing live shows anyway, wherever they are, but Scottish audiences tend to just be so much fun, and to play to a sold out, raucous, pretty drunk Glaswegian crowd was special. When we came back from the interval, a guy had left shots of whisky on the stage for us. We called him up onstage later in the show to get him to play Kevin Keegan (don’t ask), and he was just so drunk he had no idea what was happening. And so were we. Because of the whisky.
TBR: The demand for the shows has been remarkable, with many selling out, and the reviews have been resoundingly positive. How did it feel knowing so many people wanted to come and see you in action (so to speak), live?
Luke: Yeah, it’s cool. It’s a different thing, the instant nature of having a crowd in front of you. We’ve had to work hard to make it its own entity, the theatre show. It’s not like a regular podcast at all really. That’s one thing I’d like to get across – when you come to see us live it’s not just like watching the live recording of a podcast. I feel like many people might think that’s what it is, but it isn’t.
But overall it’s amazing to see so many people making the effort to come out and see us. I really appreciate it. When you get downloads of the show it’s obviously great and we’re very appreciative, but it’s just numbers on the screen in front of you. To see people in the flesh is brilliant.
TBR: Like the live shows, the book has been a resounding success, debuting No.1 in the Amazon Sports Chart. Following such positive feedback, is a second publication in the pipeline?
Luke: That’s a question for PenguinRandomHouse! But I hope so – it’s been a rewarding and interesting experience. I’d love to do another one if we can settle on a good theme/subject.
TBR: What is the greatest opportunity that being involved with The Football Ramble has presented to you? Be it attending a sporting event, meeting a childhood hero, or something more general?
Luke: We’ve had lots of great opportunities because of the show, but the greatest pleasure is to be able to experience it all with some mates, whether that be at a World Cup or just in the studio having fun. It’s a privilege really – it beats working for a living, put it that way.
TBR: Producing a podcast, and getting it out there to a wide audience is no easy feat. What advice would you give to any of our readers currently working on/or hoping to start something of their own in the future?
Luke: Just work out what you’re doing and why, and put the audience at the centre of everything you can. And then stick at it – do it the same time and same day every week so people can rely on you. Radio/podcasts are supposed to be like a friend, and no-one likes a friend they can’t rely on.
Reviewed: Fifty Years of Hurt By Henry Winter
England were still in the European Championship when I started reading Henry Winter’s latest offering, but they were unceremoniously dumped out by Iceland by the time I finished it. Fifty Years of Hurt: The Story of England Football and Why We Never Stop Believing began as a forensic post-mortem of England’s performance over the past half-century, but lived experience transformed it into a post-mortem of England’s last six weeks. The Three Lions dismal performance in France providing another fresh corpse for the mortuary slab; yet another fatal excursion to pick the bones out of.
As The Times’ chief football writer, Winter is well qualified to take on this vast subject having covered the last seven World Cups and filed copy from 257 consecutive England matches. Many glibly assert that journalists offer only criticisms without any solutions, but this is not an accusation one could throw at Winter. Anybody familiar with his columns or his appearances on Sunday Supplement will know that he is very much an ‘ideas man’. Some of his proposals may be wide-eyed and idealistic, but Winter never shy’s away from putting his neck on the block and advocating a way forward.
The book is structured in a broadly chronological way, with the early chapters dealing with a given era on the basis of an interview with a former player. For instance, Jack Charlton provides a window into the 1966 World Cup, Alan Mullary into the sweltering heat of Mexico 1970, Peter Shilton into the dark days of the 1970s and so forth.
The middle chapters become more thematic, scrutinising England’s notorious bête-noir, the penalty shoot-out, media pressure, the FA’s selection of managers and the problematic logistics of tournament football where England players spend too much time in what Winter calls a ‘bubble’. He also considers the impact of the Premier League and the ‘shadow’ this hugely successful, multi-national jamboree casts over the national team.
There are three chapters near the end of the book devoted to the ‘Too Much Too Young’ sentiment, especially prescient given recent debates in the media since England’s Euro 2016 exit. Winter catches up with some of today’s protagonists at the end of the book; Dan Ashworth, Gary Neville and Roy Hodgson. As you can imagine the words of Neville and Hodgson are now extremely portentous: “This summer is a big moment in terms of how the four years
will be will be viewed,” said Neville.
Some of Winter’s criticisms are very incisive and applicable to events that have just unfolded in France. His chapter with Glenn Hoddle elucidates our troubled relationship with flair and maverick players. In the 1970’s, this was due to the stiff-collared, blue-blazered chaps who ran the FA and treated players like school-children. The likes of Rodney Marsh, Frank Worthington, Stan Bowles and Tony Currie were paid scant regard by the national team, in many cases due to their non-conformist behaviour. Hoddle himself and later Matt Le Tissier were two other talents that England failed to extract the most from. Paul Scholes trials on the left side of a diamond under Sven Goran-Eriksson is another case of world-class ability that was squandered.
The graceful Chelsea midfielder Alan Hudson produced a man of the match display against world champions West Germany in a 2-0 England win at Wembley in 1975. The German players publicly lauded Hudson, telling the assembled media that England must build their team around him. Hudson was given one more cap.
True enough, some of Hudson’s off the field problems were very much ‘self-inflicted’, but his story enforces a problem with English football that Winter deserves credit for highlighting. We often cut our own nose to spite our face by always seeking the moral high ground. The FA ties itself in moral knots over Terry Venables’ financial disputes, agreeing to part company with the popular manager before Euro 1996. They suspend Rio Ferdinand after hemissed a drug test, before he was allowed a fair hearing. So much for innocent until proven guilty.
In response to this saga, FA chief-executive Mark Palios publishes a fresh player’s code of conduct. The press informs Palios that James Beattie, who had just been called up to the squad, was serving a driving ban and therefore infringing the new rules. Beattie was sent home. Farcical. The absurd treatment of Raheem Sterling is further evidence that many hold bizarre expectations when it comes to player behaviour.
The moral-maze continues when the players are on the pitch, with England players consistently outwitted by cynical and unscrupulous opponents; Diego Maradona, Diego Simeone, Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suarez. Winter, though not advising or condoning cheating, contends that England players must be more ‘street-wise’ and cute in their game management, something Wayne Rooney admitted after the 2014 World Cup. England should have pressed the
referee to give Diego Godin a deserved second yellow during their fatal group stage clash with Uruguay.
Against the honest and plucky Icelanders, such an excuse was not at hand. However, our skewed moral compass, rooted in delusions of superiority, must be disposed of. This is a culture where Phil Neville’s verdict that players who play a no-look pass can expect to be two-footed is a misdemeanour, but telling a referee an opponent should be booked is a felony.
Backed up by the claims made in Jamie Carragher’s Daily Mail column this week, Winter’s chapter on England’s ‘Bubble Trouble’ is particularly enlightening. He criticises England’s insularity when abroad (a theme exhibited by the English abroad in general, it has to be said) noting how some England players turned down the chance to visit
Robben Island and Nelson Mandela when in South Africa in 2003. One player even asked ‘what’s Hiroshima?’ during the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan.
Amidst some of the bitter, resentful columns in the front-half of the tabloid’s recently, analyses which are drenched in class antagonism, we forget our footballers are often ignorant, ill-educated and frequently from troubled backgrounds. They’re don’t spend much time abroad when they are young, foreign cultures are alien to them and are not very comfortable with their own company when there is time to kill. This is one reason why they are so vulnerable to addiction, especially gambling. Michael Owen describes how the card-school in which thousands of pounds were exchanged was the refuge of stir-crazy England players. More thought should go into keeping
them fresh and stimulated at international tournaments.
However, one of Winter’s arguments that should be opposed is his postulation that young English footballers find their ‘pathway’ blocked by young foreign players. Of course, it is a tautology to say that the more English players in Premier League first-teams the better for England’s manager, but it is the concept that this should be artificially induced that is troubling.
One likes to think that sport is governed by meritocratic principles, with the cream rising to the top. Getting more English on Premier League pitches via quotas may make us feel better about ourselves, but it is ultimately a false consolation. What matters is producing players of requisite quality to make a difference to England’s tournament performance. Harry Kane, Delli Alli, Jack Wilshere, Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen et al, did not have their ‘paths
blocked’. I would ask those who claim that paths are being blocked to name a player who has missed the cut at one our top clubs, but gone on to make them rue their decision. It’s a brief list.
Finally, Winter’s discussion of the Premier League gets to the heart of the matter. He insists that there remains a great reserve of support for the national team and that international football can still produce intoxicating moments and atmospheres. Go to a pub for an England game, or look at the consistently impressive attendances at Wembley for what are often mediocre matches and this opinion seems justified. However, I am unconvinced that the generation brought up on a staple Premier League diet has quite the same passion for England.
Simply put, the dual soap operas of the Premier League and the Champions League satiate our footballing desires to the extent that there isn’t much room for much else. In years gone by, international football (like the Olympics) was a rare chance to watch live sport on TV and support your team in an active way. Football supporters, even those not watching games in stadiums, can do so every week now. Perhaps it is different for supporters of lower league clubs, who view the national team as a rare day in the sun. Many fans now seek more authentic experiences in non-league and women’s football, also.
As the Premier League grows larger, and our clubs begin to resemble NFL franchises disconnected from their support base and their geographical location, there is a chance that supporters will seek nostalgic refuge under
the flag of the national side. Until then, the Premier League and the England team co-exist in an awkward alliance.
Featured Image: All Rights Reserved by Ai Kagou
Reviewing Raphael Honigstein’s ‘Das Reboot’
The worst performance at a post-war football tournament for the German national team came in 2004. The European Championships ended for the Germans in the group stage, a humiliating exit to a group of the Czech Republic, Latvia and arch-rivals Holland.
German national teams didn’t do this. They made it to semi-finals and finals, and never ever lost in the group stage. Rudi Voller resigned in shame, leaving Germany without a manager and visionless.
Here Raphael Honigstein picks up perhaps the most important football story of the 21st century, certainly on a national level. His book, “Das Reboot: How German Soccer Reinvented Itself and Conquered the World”, is a fantastic history of the painstaking project to rebuild German soccer.
Honigstein was in a German television studio in Portugal, covering Euro 2004, as news broke that Ottmar Hitzfeld was turning down the open job. Hitzfeld, the clear favorite, said “My heart said ‘yes,’ but my head won out.” The FA had no backup plan for Hitzfeld’s denial.
He describes the total shock and disarray of the nation, as weeks went by without a new coach. The FA had appointed a search committee to find the new manager, but every candidate either ruled themselves out, or was disqualified for behavior issues.
Finally the hero appeared, and from where else but Hollywood. Jurgen Klinsmann, the former national team striker, had long since been out of the public eye. Klinsmann retired to Los Angelos, enjoying the sun and philosophizing about the beautiful game.
Klinsmann finally aired his thoughts after Euro 2004. In a pair of newspaper interviews, the Swabian-turned-Californian systematically dissected the national team’s problems: they played prosaic football, decades behind the times; even if the tactics were modern, German players as a whole were physically unsuited to play a high tempo, aggressive game. Training and youth practices were also outdated.
The German FA took notice, and several weeks after, hired Klinsmann and Oliver Bierhoff to revitalize the German game.
Honigstein’s book is, in the end, a chronicle of the revolution Klinsmann started. Don’t be mistaken: much was accomplished before Jurgen started as manager in 2004, and much of Jurgen’s success was built on the decades of hard work preceding him.
But all of that work would have gone to naught had first Klinsmann and later Jogi Low not brought it into the spotlight. The two made the national team the most cutting edge, forward thinking football institution in Germany.
“Das Reboot” is told in a non-linear, Tarantino-esque fashion. Honigstein juxtaposes the story of the successful 2014 World Cup campaign with the history that led to it.
Honigstein tells the story of 2014 brilliantly. He merges match reports with chilling insight, and interviews with players and the management. He has enough of a big picture view to see the overarching themes of the campaign that manifested themselves within certain games. But he also focuses on the little details, recreating the atmosphere before and after every game. It allows the reader to recreate the day by day emotions of that summer. One can forget the ups and downs of a World Cup campaign, but Honigstein does a fantastic job of immersing the reader into the vicissitudes of the campaign.
Honigstein also narrates the story of the revolution. In between his account of the current German team’s triumph, he discusses the past struggles.
Decades of hard work, on several fronts, led to the Klinsmann revolution and the 2014 World Cup victory. Honigstein leaves no stone unturned in recounting the steps forward.
“The Beginning of the Beginning” and “More is More” tell the tale of the work of Dietrich Weise and Ulf Schott. Weise and Schott in effect built the German youth system, making it modern and cutting edge. They got the FA to create regional centers, where players in remote areas, where no Bundesliga clubs existed, could easily find high level instruction. They convinced the Bundesliga clubs to create or update their academies. The clubs, struggling in the economic downturn, saw youths as a cost saving measure, and bought into Weise and Schott’s plan.
The effects of their work are evident today: many of the players from the 2014 squad are direct products of the remade youth system.
“An Island of Modern Football” describes how Germany caught up tactically to the rest of the world. Having fallen behind in the 80s and 90s, the German establishment was at a loss for a solution. German teams were consistently outplayed in Europe, and the game at home was declining in popularity. But in the lower divisions, coaches like Ralf Ragnick and Jogi Low were making tactical changes that would fundmentally alter German football.
They adopted the play that the great Dutch teams and Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan had used to conquer Europe. Their teams played with a higher defensive line, pressing the opposition, and seeking to counter quickly. They pushed the tempo of the game, and dropped the traditional sweeper.
These changes were ridiculed in Germany, but as Ragnick and Low won more and more, the benefits were readily seen. Eventually clubs like Borussia Dortmund, led by one Jurgen Klopp, and finally even Bayern Munich adopted the tactics.
Klinsmann’s national team played no small role in pushing modern tactics into the mainstream of Germany. Low was vital as an assistant, helping Klinsmann put his big ideas into practice in the training sessions.
Honigstein stays invisible throughout the story, telling both sides of every argument ably. He took on a monumental task, telling the story of how an entire nation rebuilt football team. “Das Reboot” is a fantastic book, and a great read for any interested in how a country can succeed in the international game.
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