News and reviews of Rock n Roll Soccer



ROCK N ROLL SOCCER: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League, by Ian Plenderleith. This is the blog to back the book hailed as "fantastic" by Danny Kelly on
Talksport Radio, and described as a "vividly entertaining history of the league" in the Independent on Sunday. In the US, Booklist described it as "a gift to US soccer fans". The UK paperback edition published by Icon Books is now available here for just £8.99, while the North America edition published by Thomas Dunne Books can be found here. Thank you.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Rock n Roll Soccer - more rollicking reviews

Some recent customer reviews from the ever-reliable internet. At amazon.com,
Rock n Roll Soccer has a 100% 5-star rating (nine reviews):

"Definitive history with a cogent narrative. Thorough without being tedious and ties the story to the present. If you didn't grow up with soccer [in the US] you need this book to fill in that gap." (Nathan Sager, amazon.com reader)
"Football book of
the decade."


"With this book, [the author] has managed to weave together a huge amount of research and interviews into a cohesive and rollicking narrative. This means that it doesn't really matter if you weren't previously interested in the NASL - if you like sports journalism, particularly the longer form more common in the USA over the years, then chances are you will very much enjoy this. As well as Plenderleith does in weaving this book together, perhaps the best writing in it is his own voice - when he's assessing things in a very dry way, that often raises a chuckle. Having enjoyed his fiction, I hope now also for more non-fiction from him." (reader review, amazon.co.uk)

"The football book of the decade." (Richard Luck on Twitter)

"This is a splendid book. Although it explicitly claims not to be a history of the NASL, and it's right, it isn't, it is very, very informative. It seems that Mr Plenderleith the author has also written the book with a wry smile on his face because football is only a game after all. There is plenty of humour and the half time entertainment is a lot of fun. The most fascinating thought the book leaves you with is that despite folding in 1984 the NASL can be seen to have left a legacy which is very visible in the English Premier League." (reader review, amazon.co.uk)

"Definitive history with
a cogent narrative"
"A must read for any fan of the NASL! So many players names brought up in this GREAT book that bring back memories. I was lucky enough to go to Spartan Stadium and watch my beloved Earthquakes play and watch that GREAT George Best goal. We can not and must not forget these pioneers that started it." (reader review, amazon.com)

"So, I’m giving this book five stars (and would give it a hundred if I could) just because it’s the first time I’ve seen an outsider actually give us some recognition." (John F. Pepple, amazon.com reader)

"A great book about a wild and crazy league that probably could've only existed in the mid to late 70s-early 80s. Fast and loose and freewheeling, the book reads a lot like the NASL's existence, bouncing from pillar to post, sometimes quite unorganized, and a little frustrating. Still a good read. Recommended." (reader review, amazon.com)

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Pelé salutes the readers of Rock n Roll Soccer!

Edison Arantes do Nascimento holds up his hand for
a cheap(er) copy of Rock n Roll Soccer. 
The trade paperback version of Rock n Roll Soccer is published today in the UK. Don't ask me what "trade paperback" means. The first edition was just a plain old paperback for £14.99, the trade paperback is a wee bit smaller and costs six pounds less at £8.99. But calling it the "cheap paperback" probably wouldn't do much for sales. Everyone likes a bargain, but no one wants to be told they're buying low grade goods.

Pelé, as you can see, is on the cover this time. For the plain old expensive paperback we went with Rodney Marsh and George Best and The Bloke Between Them, who turned out to be their agent, but was managing to look like a member of The Eagles - so the photo fit the title. While writing the book, I caught up with the agent by phone from California, where he's now in property. He couldn't remember much about the North American Soccer League, but vehemently denied the allegations in former Washington Diplomats' striker Paul Cannell's book that following a sponsorship deal, he once paid the Geordie striker in lieu of cash with a fat pouch of cocaine.

Three-times world champion Edison Arantes do Nascimento, though, sells more books than some dodgy no-name former wide-boy, so the agent's been despatched to the archives and the cover shows what I'm claiming in the book the NASL was not all about - Pelé, the Cosmos, razzmatazz blah blah blah. But I realise that's not what grabs a reader's attention. Every time I hand someone a copy of the book, or see them pick it up, the first thing they do is flick to the pictures in the centre. Every single person. Pictures, fellow hacks - if you're writing a non-fiction book, don't forget the pictures. Preferably of easily recognizable people.

Pelé is delighted to be on the front cover - you can tell from his face. You may quibble that he didn't know when he was running out on to the field that he was going to be on the front cover of Rock n Roll Soccer some four decades later. But you can't prove that he didn't. And that he's waving, "Buy! Buy!" It's what the game's been all about since the day he signed for the Cosmos.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Johan Cruyff in the NASL: the Anti-Diplomat

When Prince died last month, someone on my Twitter feed posted a snapshot of the page in a book they'd written that told an anecdote involving the singer. Less than a day had passed since the announcement, and already a writer was crying out, "Prince is dead, buy my book!" Well, as I'm always told, publishing's a business just like any other.
Cutting through the bullshit: Cruyff in DC
   
It's taken me a few weeks to write about Johan Cruyff. The day after his death, one of my publishers contacted me to write a piece about the Dutchman and his time in the North American Soccer League. They would try and place it with a newspaper. Good publicity for the book, you understand. It wasn't a good time, and in any case, I didn't want to. There were dozens of Cruyff appreciations being hacked out, as you'd expect. Nothing I said was going to add to the narrative, and I'd have been left with the same sensation I had when I saw the Prince tweet - Cruyff is dead, read all about it! I do read obituaries and I've also been paid to write them, so I'm not trying to come across as morally aloft. But there's a difference between using words to deal with your upset and manufacturing them to push your bloody book (again).

During these past few weeks, though, I did think about Cruyff a lot, just as I had done while writing 'Rock n Roll Soccer'. During that time, I thought how magnificent it would be to talk to him about the NASL. Doubtless, my publisher would have been happy too. But I really did want to know what he'd thought of the league, of the USA, why he went there, and what was his view of soccer there now. I wanted to know what he thought way more than I wanted to know what Pelé or Franz Beckenbauer thought. Cruyff, I imagined, would have torn it up and prompted me to start all over again. He would have said the unexpected, the slanted, the unpopular, the bizarre, the interesting. Not may soccer players manage that.

In many interviews I conducted for the book, I maybe suggested certain things in my questions. Thus prompted, the interviewee might agree, or they said, "You know, I'd never thought of it like that, but I think you're right." How great for the writer's ego! What I loved to hear, however, was the moment when they said, "No, it wasn't like that at all. That's bullshit. This is what it was like." I thought that Cruyff would do that with every question. He would make me feel small and stupid. Like the player and the person he was, he would come at every topic from a completely fresh angle, varying his replies from the ludicrous to the enlightening. It's a certainty that he would have made me write a better book.

Leading from the front: "He was
 the ultimate team player."
The players who encountered him in the NASL loved to talk about him. Who wouldn't want to remind people that they played alongside him? Or against him, like Rochester's Damir Šutevski, who admits in a game where Cruyff scored twice for LA (even though he only played one half, in his first game for six months), "I covered him but I couldn't stop him. He took me to the cleaners." Carmine Marcantonio of the Washington Diplomats recalls trying to compete with Cruyff and LA in a playoff game in 1979, and takes up the tale of chasing the player when he received the ball at the top of his own penalty area. "He got the ball, I caught up with him, I tried to grab his shirt, but I couldn't bring him down and I went down and dislocated my finger trying to hold him back. He went upfield with the ball, faked out two or three defenders and scored the winning goal. There's a picture with four of us on the ground and Johan putting the ball in the empty net."

Cruyff was promptly signed by the Diplomats for the 1980 season, "and that was one of the best years I had, being teammates with Johan", says Marcantonio. "He was the ultimate team player. He took more pleasure in assisting and would pass to a team-mate to score." Cruyff scored 10 goals, but also registered 20 assists in 25 regular season games. However, Bob Iarusci and Don Droege - also both on the Diplomats' team that year - agree that Cruyff disturbed the equilibrium of what had been a fairly successful side, and that he more or less usurped team coach Gordon Bradley when it came to tactics. Droege personally wasn't bothered: "I'm just a lowly American player, and I'm just happy to be out on the field. But the English players like Alan Green, Bobby Stokes, Jim Steele, Matt Dillon - you bring in a player like Cruyff and the whole dynamics are gone." Droege didn't recall any truth to the rumoured story of Cruyff wiping Bradley's chalkboard clean so that he could give his own team-talk, but adds, "I do remember talking with Bradley in the bathroom and him checking under the stalls to make sure Cruyff wasn't in there listening to us."

Cruyff claimed at the time he was in the NASL to help promote and develop the game in the US, but it was also thought that, like Pelé, he came out of retirement because he needed cash after making some poor investments. It's no longer relevant. It's only important that he graced the league with his superior enigmatic touch for a handful of years. "He was a great individual," says Marcantonio, "in that he almost wanted to run the show on the field, but wanted it done in a team concept. Johan was very domineering. Like any great player, he didn't shut up." And for that we can only be thankful.

(The story of NASL soccer in Washington DC, and Cruyff's role in turning around the Diplomats' 1980 season, can be read in Chapter 8 of Rock n Roll Soccer, 'Broken Teams in Dysfunctional DC: Cruyff, the Dips, the Darts and the Whips.' Buy it now for just $£ etc. etc.)

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Major League Soccer’s Existential Dilemma

Personality x 3: Chinaglia, Pelé, Beckenbauer
Wendy Parker's review of Rock n Roll Soccer at Sports Biblio last week highlighted the book's conclusion, where I write about the lack of personality in Major League Soccer compared with its fore-runner, the North American Soccer League. That's an aspect of the book that's been further thrown into focus this week as MLS concluded another season with yet another new champion, the Portland Timbers. All for the good, of course. Who doesn't like to see titles shared around? Who wants to be like Europe, where Barcelona or Bayern Munich win year after year?

On the other hand, there's a major existential problem here for MLS. Commissioner Don Garber is never slow to talk about where his league stands in comparison with its European counterparts. He likes to set vague future goals about when MLS will be big, bigger and biggest. Last week he was talking up the rotating championship title as a reflection of "one of the most competitive leagues in the world". Yet when we think about MLS, what are the equivalent keywords to the NASL's feverishly listed Cosmos, Pelé, Beckenbauer, Best, Cruyff, Chinaglia? You can't answer back with 'parity' and expect to hold anyone's interest. 

But didn't MLS sign David Beckham? Wasn't that the league's Pelé moment? Beckham may be a polite and wealthy young man, but his on-field and off-field personality fell way short of making an impact the size of Pelé's. His former team, the LA Galaxy, may be five-times record champion, but they don't yet have the stature or the style - in any respect - to be seen as the North American domestic giants. They just happen to be the team that has won MLS Cup more than anyone else, without offering many thrills on the way. They also boasted the league's and the United States' best ever player, Landon Donovan, but he needed to be one of many. Instead, he was just one of one. Now he's retired, leaving Toronto's Italian striker Sebastian Giovinco as the league's sole outstanding player in 2015.

In late October, I managed to get a ticket for Eintracht Frankfurt's home game with Bayern Munich. It's the only guaranteed sold out home game for Eintracht, and it's been that way for decades. Every right-thinking German soccer fan hates Bayern, and wants to see them defeated. Though in fact you could leave the word 'defeated' out of the previous sentence. Even as we despise them, we are fascinated at the way they can tear opponents apart with audacious attacking soccer. On the night, Frankfurt defended their asses off and grabbed a point in a 0-0 draw - the first points that Bayern had dropped all season. It's been a point of some pride in a mainly dire season for Frankfurt.

Bayern Munich - hated, but talked about. Rich, hugely successful, and inversely popular. They are a globally massive team. Am I really saying that MLS needs a team like Bayern to win MLS Cup year after year? Not at all. MLS could, however, urgently use four or five teams with some measure of Munich's magnetism. At the moment, parity means 20 clubs that vary from anaemic to presentable. There are still too many MLS games when the teams seem to think that the idea of soccer is to keep the ball as far away from both goals as possible. Importing veteran star names like Andrea Pirlo, Kaka, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard is a sign of stagnant imaginations in the league's front offices. These players won't make the league any worse, but neither they will they do much for its future. Eventually expanding the number of teams to 28, as MLS announced just this week, is making me feel tired as I type, and it's only nine in the morning. 
Fatal expansion: Former NASL commissioner
 Phil Woosnam presents quantity over quality. 


Garber pointed out last week that "we’re spending almost $120 million on DPs [Designated Players]. That’s six times what we spent five years ago. So if we’re able to grow our business, our owners are going to spend more money. And it’s not just going to be on our core roster. It’s going to be on areas where we can spend more on players that will improve quality." To paraphrase the commissioner - spending money on big name players means the league will attract even more money, and then we can invest that in long term youth development. That's a leap of faith that's hard to quantify, even with the aid of corporate flow charts. As a Plan for the Future, it's lacking exactly what you would hope for in a plan for the future - a clear-sighted vision, and a cogent means of getting there.

In the book's conclusion I generally show understanding for the MLS approach to building a league during those nascent years. Its caution, its prudence, and its need to develop in a way that will not frighten off new investors with concepts like relegation and bankruptcy. Yet, as that $120m figure above shows, parity and the salary cap have become fluid concepts according to the league's evolving needs. 

That salary cap isn't fooling anybody, and is increasingly meaningless when the league, with a ludicrous and shameless lack of transparency, will not even reveal its teams' profits and losses, transfer figures, or salaries (we have to rely on leaks, Forbes and the players' union for any of this information). What remains of parity's sham are the shackles preventing the emergence of teams with the kind of power and personality that - compared with the old NASL - is conspicuously missing. Still in place is a league more focused on its balance sheet than its league table and the quality of its play.

A possible solution? MLS should stop trying so hard to control its own history. Quit setting grandiose goals, drop the business-speak, and cease caring about how it shapes up compared with Spain, England and Germany. Retire Garber - he's steered the league to security, but his job is done. Bring in someone (former deputy Ivan Gazidis?) who has a genuine feel for the game. Remove parity and let the clubs chart the league's history, mistakes and all. Allow supporters to develop a team's culture, not the marketing department.

It wouldn't mean having to see the same team celebrate lifting the championship trophy year after year. The playoffs will prevent the dominant teams from serially winning titles and always give outsiders a chance. Even the mighty Cosmos only won four of the ten NASL titles between 1975 and 1984. They had charisma, but it was infectious. And as that league discovered too late - better a smaller, vibrant league than ill-conceived expansion for expansion's sake.

Friday, October 30, 2015

"Thank Goodness for Rock n Roll Soccer"

America's longest-running football/soccer publication, Soccer America, has reviewed 'Rock n Roll Soccer'. Here's Mike Woitalla's full appraisal:

One of my favorite soccer memories: I was 13, sitting next to my grandfather who was visiting us from Germany, in Aloha Stadium watching Team Hawaii play the Las Vegas Quicksilvers.

I noticed that Opa, not a man prone to demonstrating excitement, was practically giddy.

“Michael, that’s Eusebio!” he said. “The world’s best player ever besides Pele. … See No. 5? That’s Wolfgang Suhnholz. He played for Bayern Munich!”

This was in 1977. After the North American Soccer League had so much success in many parts of the country, it started franchises in the middle of the Pacific and in the middle of desert -- when Vegas was a third the size it is now, had never had major league sports, and no soccer culture.

“What the hell were they thinking?” writes Ian Plenderleith in 'Rock 'n' Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League.' After one season, The Quicksilvers moved to San Diego and Team Hawaii became the Tulsa Roughnecks."

Reckless expansion was of course a main factor for the demise of the NASL, which folded after the 1984 season.

But, boy, am I thankful that the NASL did some crazy stuff. Not just because of the memory of seeing my grandfather so delighted, or because I got to watch Pele play, or had Team Hawaii players visit my school.

The NASL inspired the generation of players who made the U.S. national team respectable, like New Jersey boys Tony Meola, John Harkes, Tab Ramos and Claudio Reyna, who went to New York Cosmos games. It spread the seeds that led to soccer’s current state -- neck and neck with basketball as the most popular team sport among American children.

“In 1967, 12,000 schoolchildren went through the [Atlanta] Chiefs soccer clinics, while 42 area high schools had begun to play the game,” writes Plenderleith.

But what Plenderleith does most expertly -- and is previously less covered than NASL grassroots’ impact -- is show the NASL’s impact on the global game, and how some of that stuff doesn’t seem so crazy in hindsight.

“Old World” soccer purists may have mocked halftime armadillo races, players entering the field on Harley-Davidsons, or the San Diego Chicken doing a pirouette, flopping and playing dead next to a fouled player. (Minnesota Kicks coach Geoff Barnett: “The referee goes nuts and comes over to me shouting, ‘Get that f****** chicken off the field!”)

But as Plenderleith writes, the NASL was “a league that got too much right to ignore.”

“The NASL introduced the idea that a soccer game could be an event and a spectacle, not just two teams meeting to compete for points. You weren’t herded into the stadium by policemen waving wooden batons. You were a customer …”

Some of the “manufactured atmosphere” -- which could also be considered “marketing techniques aimed at wooing a new generation of fans” -- may have been over the top. But …

“Once the game started you could watch a version of soccer easily recognizable as the real thing, but which promoted scoring, played down defensive duties, and refuted the virtues of a hard-fought 1-1 draw. …

“In the 1970s, Pele, Johan Cruyff, Eusebio, George Best, Gerd Mueller and Franz Beckenbauer all played in the same league. … It was a big money glamour league that aimed to entertain, while generating cash. In that respect, it was the Champions League and the English Premier League rolled into one.”

Plenderleith lays out a solid case for how the NASL was ahead of its time. FIFA may have fought the league’s attempts to tweak the rules, but later made changes that resemble some of those attempts. Publishing a wide range of game statistics, marketing to women, names on the back of jerseys -- that happened first in the NASL.

Clive Toye, the former New York Cosmos general manager, says, “We were constantly being visited by executives from English clubs to see what we were doing, asking why we were doing it.”

From all that the NASL got right to where it went astray, this colorful and important era of American soccer is in good hands with Plenderleith, a skillful writer and thorough journalist.

For those of us who lived through the NASL, 'Rock 'n' Roll Soccer' brings back wonderful memories and enlightens us on aspects of the league we may not have realized. For those too young to remember the NASL, it’s a chance to comprehend how soccer took a foothold in the USA and meet the fascinating characters who made it happen -- with laugh-out-loud moments, to boot.

Rock 'n' Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League by Ian Plenderleith (Thomas Dunne Books 2015) 350 pages.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Interview with the late John Best: Spartans, Stokers, Sounders and Roses

John Best was a player, a coach and a General Manager in the North American Soccer League. After coming over from his native England in the early 1960s, he turned out for the Philadelphia Ukrainians in the American Soccer League (1962-67), the Philadelphia Spartans (1967), the Cleveland Stokers (1968), and the Dallas Tornado (1969-73). He then coached the Seattle Sounders for three years before becoming GM at the Vancouver Whitecaps. He then returned to the Sounders, also as GM.
John Best, transitioning from
 player to coach in 1974
    John very sadly passed away a year ago. With the permission of his wife, Claudia, here are the highlights of an interview that John gave me in January 2014 while I was researching Rock n Roll Soccer.

RnRS: You started out with the Philadelphia Spartans in the National Professional Soccer League [which one year later merged with the United Soccer Association to become the NASL]. Can you tell me about the pay and conditions as a player in 1967? Were you well looked after?
John Best: Oh yes, very much so. The pay wasn’t great at that point in time, but it was as good as a lot of people were getting in the first and second divisions in England. I’m sure there were many [in the NPSL] who earned less, but in terms of being taken care of  - it was really unbelievable because of the quality of hotels and travel. We flew to games, stayed in the best hotels, and I remember after we played in St. Louis, [team owner] Art Rooney took the whole team out to eat. I don’t know that every team was treated that way, but certainly we were. And at the clubs I later managed we tried to maintain the high standards as well. It was a better experience than most people had in British soccer.

RnRS: Art Rooney was typical of the early NASL owner - a wealthy entrepreneur. Looking back, is it surprising to you that people like him wanted to get involved in soccer?
JB: Rooney owned the Pittsburgh Steelers. If you go back and look at the ownership of the NASL clubs all the way through that early period, you’ll find that it was extremely strong, and made up mainly of sports entrepreneurs. They were wealthy people, but very shrewd in terms of marketing professional sports. The problem was that the sport was unknown – you’re not just starting up a new sport, but you’re starting up with people with absolutely no concept or idea of that. It took a tremendous effort to grow the sport in those early years.
    I was very fortunate to play for the Rooneys. Later on I played in Dallas for Lamar Hunt, and then went up to Seattle as coach for an expansion team, where the ownership group were city elders, and [were] just very intelligent, proactive people. So you had a great opportunity to do a quality job, because you were left alone to do it, and with enough funding. I’m not suggesting that all ownerships were like that. There were amazing changes as time went by, and the majority of teams became corporately owned, and that brings a difference in attitude and perspective – when you have a meeting of CEOs of major corporations compared with a group of wealthy sports entrepreneurs. 

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Miles, Blondie, ELO, Defunkt - all part of Rock n Roll Soccer

Here's a round-up of some more reviews of Rock n Roll Soccer, and an interview at the US Soccer Players website. This contained my favourite question of all: "If you were going to make a playlist to go along with the book, what would be on it?" In the book, I already came up with an NASL soundtrack. But a playlist is different, right? So I had the excuse to rummage through old CDs and records and re-think the musical accompaniment to the North American Soccer League. Here's a sample:

Miles DavisBitches Brew (1972). From the album of the same name because it was, like the NASL, a one-off, revolutionary fusion of styles that drew from the past and the present, and pointed to the future.
Jeff Lynne, singing for the Blues (pic: bcfc.com)
Electric Light OrchestraLivin’ Thing (1976). The peak years of the NASL coincided with the peak years of stadium rock, and the fan cultures of both shared a lot of features – the game/concert as a big event, the spectacle of mass entertainment, the easy availability of recreational drugs. I’m no fan of stadium rock, but ELO was an exception, and this fine, typically upbeat track from the wonderful and aptly titled A New World Record is a good example of Jeff Lynne’s ease at being cheerfully influenced by US AOR. He’s a Birmingham City fan too.

The International Soccer Network wrote that  Rock n Roll Soccer "is the definitive history on the original NASL. Nothing out there rivals the detail and variety provided by this book. It is easily one of the best soccer titles of 2015, if not the best. Plenderleith, one of the best top journalists anywhere  [Steady on! IP], is a magician with words and history, making the entertaining NASL even more exciting. That is quite a task indeed. You can’t go wrong with this one. This is an absolute must for any soccer fan, regardless of where your allegiances lie. It has the honor of being one of our favorite soccer books of all-time. It’s that good!"

The NY-focused Empire of Soccer looked in particular at chapter seven 'The NASL v s FIFA and the World', which has scarcely been mentioned in other reviews. "One thing," writes Jake Nutting, "is abundantly clear from Plenderleith’s engaging staging of all the many grievances the NASL embroiled itself in – neither incarnation of the NASL has ever been about going with the flow. Owners were openly hostile toward what they deemed intrusive oversight from the overlords at FIFA. Ironically, the league’s focus in the modern era has shifted to aligning American soccer more with the rest of the world, but the bickering within our own shores has remained robust."

"This is a far more substantive book than you’d expect from its title," writes the blog Message In A Bottle at Island Books, an independent outlet in Washington State, "but then the NASL was a far more substantive operation than history has acknowledged. When it’s remembered these days, it’s usually for garish disco-era uniforms, gimmicky promotions, and overpaid, over-the-hill stars from overseas. All of that is at best only partly true, as Plenderleith shows. [He] excels in showing what the teams and players were really like and establishes a historical context for the league, definitively answering the interesting question of how North American soccer compared to the kind played everywhere else on the globe.

"Today MLS trails only the National Football League and Major League Baseball in average game attendance, thanks mostly to the spectacular support of Northwest fans who insisted that their MLS franchises carry the names of their lost NASL forebears. Rock 'n’ Roll Soccer speaks to everyone with football fever, but to us most of all."

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Day I Silenced Radio 5 Live

Here's the link to my interview late last night on World Soccer Talk Radio with Nate Abaurrea, which was thoroughly enjoyable thanks to his having closely read the book we were talking about - Rock n Roll Soccer (published today in the United States and Canada by St. Martin's Press/Thomas Dunne Books). That's not necessarily always the case, as I discovered when I was in the UK in 2001, attempting to promote my first book For Whom The Ball Rolls, a selection of adult-oriented, football-based short fiction (clearly not a category that anyone had a clue how to market, given its sales figures).   

Live and silent...thanks to me
I was booked in to appear on the Fi Glover Show on BBC Radio 5 Live, along with various other luminaries of broadsheet sporting journalism - Sue Mott of The Daily Telegraph and Jim White, at that time of The Guardian. We chatted in the booth beforehand. I was terrified. They were both very posh and confident. Jim told a funny story about something that had happened to him at a game at the weekend, and we all chuckled. They asked me about my book, pretended that they were really interested, and both promised to write something about it. Neither ever did, but hey, they're busy people, and a promise in the media world is worth as much as the sodden beer mat it's written on (a few years later my Dad bought me Jim White's book You'll Win Nothing With Kids, but eight years on I still haven't opened it. So there).

To the studio. Fi Glover wasn't there, and some bloke whose name I can't remember was standing in. He briefed us - we'd start by talking about my book, and then move on to a general chat about the sporting events of the weekend. Fine. The countdown - then the host introduced all of us. I was still terrified. He turned to me and announced my book to the world. "I haven't read the book," he said glibly, then added something like, "but presumably these are stories very much rooted in actual experience."

That was my cue. Was that an actual question? Was I supposed to agree with it? Say something like "Yes, they are" and see what he said next? Of course, looking back, it was a chance for me to promote myself by banging on about my vast experience of the football world, and how that had inspired me to write football-based fiction. At that second, though, my mind was a complete blank. National BBC Radio 5 Live experienced a five-second silence. It felt like five minutes, and I can still see the host's increasingly desperate face, waiting for me not to screw up his show in the very first minute. And here I was, the nervous debutant appearing in front of a huge and expectant crowd, and I'd clumsily conceded a penalty just 30 seconds in.


What's this about? "Er,
I don't really know."
Eventually I stuttered out something about the stories being more of a product of my imagination. That wasn't the right answer at all, and no one followed it up. We moved rapidly on to the sporting events of the weekend. Jim White told the same anecdote he'd told in the booth beforehand, and everyone except me laughed, like they were hearing it for the first time. Play the game, Ian. Maybe that's why he never wrote anything about my book, because I didn't laugh twice at his story. 

Now I was no longer being introduced as Ian Plenderleith, author of fantastic new book For Whom The Ball Rolls, but as Ian Plenderleith of When Saturday Comes magazine. Fine, if that's the way you want it. My nerves subsided and I started to talk. A lot. My friend Tim Bradford, who was at home making a tape of the broadcast, said that my normally accent-neutral voice gradually started sounding more northern, as though defiantly countering the well-honed tones of my southern counterparts. By the end of the show I sounded like I was from darkest Leeds, wilfully and bolshily contradicting everything that Sue and Jim said (okay, so that's why they never wrote anything about my bloody book). I can't remember much what we were talking about, but I do remembering slagging off Rangers and Celtic and the Scottish FA, and making a joke about Princess Anne being an actual horse.

The BBC never asked me back (though like Jim and Sue, they promised that they would). Tim gave me the tape, but I've never listened to it, and I don't even know where it is. Even if I wanted to hear me get into my stroppy stride taking on these titans of the established fourth estate, I could never face hearing again that five-second silence at the start of the show. And wishing that I had interrupted the sentence, "I haven't read the book..." with a full-on northern roar of, "Well then you're not doing your fookin' job very well, are you lad?" That's how you generate publicity.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Kicks against the Cosmos

The Kicks: simply Ace
The Minnesota Kicks once beat the Cosmos 9-2 in a playoff game, in one of the North American Soccer League's more bizarre results. But that's not the only reason why I think they embodied the League's spirit of rock n roll soccer more than their New York rivals. There was the spontaneous, organic nature of the Kicks' rapid rise from nothing to crowds of 46,000 within weeks of playing their first ever game. There was the free-scoring, attacking nature of their play. And there were the proto-Rave tailgates where - outside the Kicks' stadium before the game - thousands of young people enjoyed the summer weather, the drink, the drugs, and each other. Read more here in my piece at The History Reader, a spin-off site run by the US publisher of Rock n Roll Soccer, St. Martin's Press. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Booklist: "A gift to fans of America's soccer history"

A review of the US edition of Rock n Roll Soccer from today's Booklist, a trade publication for the book industry:

Rock 'n' Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League.
Plenderleith, Ian. Sep 2015. 368 p. St. Martin's/Thomas Dunne, hardcover, $27.99. (9781250072382).

Breaking from the common view that the original North American Soccer League (NASL) was a gaudy, failed experiment, soccer journalist Plenderleith posits that, although it may have been a product of the “brash, loud, and shameless ’70s,” its focus on entertainment and innovation made it “the league of the future.” Over 17 tumultuous seasons (1968–84), with investors ranging from potato-chip scions and used-car dealers to rock stars, and players mostly borrowed or bargain-hunted from English and other European leagues, the NASL provided lots to talk about - massive tailgate parties, goofy promotional stunts - if not much consistency. 

Some teams lasted only a season, while others changed towns along with their names. But Plenderleith makes a compelling case. Scrupulously researched and sourced, with first-person accounts knitted together in an enthusiastic, irreverent narrative, this is a gift to fans of America’s richer-than-expected soccer history. Major League Soccer is growing deep roots (and the new New York Cosmos are playing in the new NASL), but today’s younger fans may read this and wish they were there when the seeds were planted.
— Keir Graff