The Authors XI (Bloomsbury) is defiantly amateur, the story of a writers’ cricket team scrabbled together last year to mark the centenary of AA Milne, Arthur Conan Doyle and PG Wodehouse’s Authors Cricket Club. It’s lovely, too: the revived team of writers, which includes historian Tom Holland, William Fiennes, Sebastian Faulks and Alex Preston, all take a different game in their first season as the starting point for ruminative essays on memory, history or the establishment, without ever losing sight of the game of cricket, which they love.
This, in a strange sort of way, is also the message behind The Stupid Footballer Is Dead by Paul McVeigh (Bloomsbury). McVeigh wasn’t a superstar of the game – he played in the top flight for Spurs (briefly) and then Norwich City. But he did learn how to maximise his talents, a skill he now puts to use in mentoring sportsmen and details in this book. It’s virtually a self-help guide for young footballers but provides fascinating insights into a world that baffles McVeigh, thanks to a culture where it’s ‘uncool to learn’. Most of all, he says, enjoying the game is key. Even though most of us are past the point where we might gain a professional football contract, there are enough intriguing life lessons here for McVeigh’s new take on a sports memoir to have broad impact.
Whether Stanley Matthews actually played professional football when he was 50 purely for the love of the game is something of a moot point: The Wizard by Jon Henderson (Yellow Jersey) shows this complex figure supporting strike action for the end of the maximum wage (£20 a week) while also extolling the virtues of a sportsman who was ‘never satisfied until meeting the lofty demands he made on himself’. Matthews’ belief in the importance of fitness and diet was unique at the time. However, what makes Henderson’s biography so interesting is the portrait it provides of an entire life, the Cold War love story after Matthews had finally hung up his boots a fascinating addendum to a career that came to a close at his testimonial at Stoke City in 1965. ‘We played only for the joy of the game, for the beauty of football,’ said one-time European Footballer of the Year Josef Masopust of that match. Quite