West Ham Till I Die
Book Review

A review of My Life In Football by Trevor Brooking

Last autumn I won a signed copy of Trevor Brooking’s latest autobiography in a competition on the fabulous West Ham Till I Die website, so here’s a review:

Early on in the book, Sir Trev owns up to his laziness. Or maybe that’s too strong a word? – ‘A laidback approach to life’ probably sums him up better. It’s a bit of a running theme throughout the 18 chapters. ‘Leisurely’ is the word Brooking himself uses to describe his running speed as a player!

I particularly enjoyed the little anecdote about his first date with future wife Hilkka, an au pair from Finland. They first met and chatted at Brooking’s brother’s wedding (also to a Finnish girl), but it took Trevor 3 months to get round to asking her out for a date! He took her to see a film about the Great Train Robbery simply because he wanted to see the film himself, and that was followed by a meal at The Golden Egg restaurant in Oxford Street (for those too young, The Golden Egg was a Wimpy Bar-type chain of restaurants/grills that specialised in egg on toast). “It wasn’t the most sophisticated of evenings”, muses Brooking.

Hilkka wasn’t impressed with the choice of film, and when she asked, “Why did we have to see that?”, Brooking explained that, “I didn’t know how the evening was going to unfold so I thought at least I’d enjoy the film!” You could never accuse Trevor of dishonesty! And it did make me laugh when he goes on to say that, “over the years Hilkka grew to appreciate my unassuming nature and generosity of spirit, qualities that I discovered were not always helpful on the football pitch”.

However, for a man who’s often been accused of sitting on the fence, this book is full of forthright opinion, which is it’s great strength, especially regarding the England team and youth football. Brooking has clear incisive views on how the game should be played, and if anyone is unclear as to what the West Ham Way is all about then they will be left with no doubt after reading this.

Brooking’s admiration for Ron Greenwood and John Lyall, whom, along with Brooking’s Mum and Dad, the book is dedicated to, and his total belief in their coaching methods is sacrosanct (although he’s not afraid to criticise some aspects of Greenwood’s man-management skills). I found it interesting that when Brooking himself had two short, but successful, periods as caretaker manager of West Ham he used the exact same coaching sessions put on by Greenwood and Lyall all those years ago, without varying from them.

Brooking says that in the mid-1960s, when he joined the club, English football at the time was ‘noted for it’s aggression and power’, but ‘Greenwood believed football was a game of beauty and intelligence’. On page 83, there’s as good a definition of the traditional West Ham philosophy as I’ve read anywhere:

“Ron Greenwood’s coaching gospel was based on attacking football, forward runs, good passing, creating space and maintaining an offensive momentum. We worked hard on the training ground to devise new ways of making space and in my opinion there were few better passing teams than us at the time. Our one-touch game was built on confidence and when we were passing the ball well we were a match for anyone. It was an exciting way to play and I was delighted to be part of it. The players loved the simplicity of it, but there was a downside. When we lost possession of the ball the space we had created for ourselves was suddenly exploited by the opposition.

“To be honest our style of play wasn’t suited to the kind of one-goal victories and grinding draws away from home that underpinned so many successful league title-winning campaigns. Our game was about entertainment and five-goal thrillers. We loved it, and so did our fans. The trouble was, rival teams loved it too! They knew that if they stopped us playing, we could be muscled out of games. I’m sure there were occasions when we could have demonstrated greater resilience but we always went out on to the field determined to play our way. That is what the manager wanted, and he had the full support of a benevolent and patient board of directors”.

Brooking does remark that ‘there would be, just occasionally, some unedifying episode that suggested some fans were losing patience’. Indeed there is a whole chapter titled ‘Nightmare In Newport, Mayhem In Mansfield’, dedicated to trying to explain why West Ham could be such a soft touch, especially against lower league opponents, and he recognises that those cup humiliations were, unfortunately, also part of the West Ham Way.

My personal opinion, and one explanation as to why West Ham could be such a soft touch is that Bonds and Brooking together in central midfield were not a good partnership. I know that goes against the grain, and that Brooking frequently refers to Bonzo as his ‘minder’, but, in my opinion, the pair of them were too attack-minded, and left too much space behind them. Personally, I think we saw the best of Brooking when he played with a more authentic holding midfielder like Geoff Pike, or Ray Wilkins for England, rather than the gung-ho Bonds alongside him in midfield.

It does rile me though, when the likes of Alex Ferguson, Sam Allardyce and Greame Souness make disparaging comments about the West Ham Way. “We never feared playing West Ham”, remarked Ferguson in his book, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it was never about putting fear into opponents, but more about an open attacking style of play (besides, West Ham have never been a big enough club, with big enough resources to compete at the top level). But the way players were coached at West Ham was good for English football, and the national team has benefited enormously over the years from the products of that coaching (Moore, Hurst, Peters, Brooking, Ince, Cottee, Rio, Frank, Carrick, Cole, Defoe).

Conspicuous by his absence in this book is Sam Allardyce, considering it was his 4th season as West Ham manager when the book came out. Big Sam hardly gets a mention. Indeed, when Brooking is discussing the choices for England manager in 2006 (he was part of the FA selection panel), he said he initially wanted Martin O’Neill but he was about to join Aston Villa, and he didn’t agree with going after Scolari, and, of the three English managers considered – Allardyce, McLaren, and Curbishley – he said he thought it was too early in his career for McLaren, so Curbishley was his choice. Tellingly, he doesn’t say anything at all about Allardyce, which actually says a lot for me.

Trevor Brooking’s laidback approach did not apply to learning his ball skills at a young age though. Here he was far more disciplined. I’ve read Diego Maradona and Bobby Charlton biography’s amongst others, and what stands out about the childhoods of the greats is that they were hardly ever without somesort of ball at their feet. In Brooking and Charlton’s case, they practised relentlessly with a tennis ball, until they became almost two-footed. I say ‘almost’ because Brooking says that he is actually right-footed (I never knew that). Maybe it’s because he struck so many great goals with his left foot, including the famous one against Hungary that got caught in the stanchion, that people thought he was left-footed?. The fact that Brooking practised so much on his weaker foot when he was young meant that when the ball fell on his left side he could comfortably control it or strike it without having to switch onto the right. It’s one of the reasons that English players today look so awkward – they are so one-footed that they have to switch feet and swivel the body just to get the ball under control. Brooking despairs at the number of players who can’t use both feet that have got to play for England in recent times.

Brooking’s father (an aggressive, uncompromising centre-half in the local Police team) would throw a ball at Brooking’s bad foot in the back garden when he was 4 years-old, until he was able to use it competently. His Dad also organised games with him and his brother, in which they were only allowed to use their weaker foot. Brooking says that you have to learn to control a football at a young age. “I used to argue with the government about sport in schools. You can’t begin at 11. You’ve lost them by that age. You’ve got to start with them at primary school age”.

He also remarks that a recent survey discovered that 98% of all academy players in the Premier League had Twitter accounts. “Quite what it is they think they have to tell the world at that age is beyond me, but it gives some ideas of their priorities”.

Nevermind the government, it must be hard even trying to change things at the FA. Sven was locked into a conventional 4-4-2 but Trev thought, ‘Why have a set or rigid system? – surely it depends on the players available and their individual strengths’. And Sven didn’t get on well with Howard Wilkinson, the FA technical director. And David Platt. the U21 coach, didn’t get on with Les Reed, coach of the under 20s and younger groups; the pair barely spoke, reveals Brooking.

However, Brooking reserves his biggest criticisms for the England set up in the mid-70s, and the way the defence-minded Don Revie constantly chopped and changed the team. I’ve seen a lot of programmes and articles about the so-called ‘Football Mavericks’; those long-haired boozers of the 70s and 80s – Stan Bowles, Alan Hudson, Rodney Marsh, Frank Worthington, Tony Currie, Charlie George, Matt Le Tissier – who, despite their God-given talents and brilliant skill only managed a handful of England caps between them, but it’s often forgotton, that in terms of style of play, Brooking was very much part of that group, and got treated just as shabbily by England under Revie. Infact, in an era when long-hair was the norm, and the drinking culture was firmly entrenched as part of the game at all clubs, the short-haired teetotal Brooking was probably the biggest maverick of the lot!

It was only when Ron Greenwood tookover in 1977 that Brooking really began to flourish in an England shirt, forming that telepathic partnership with Kevin Keegan. But even Greenwood isn’t safe from Brooking’s criticism when it comes to the disappointment of the 1982 World Cup. Brooking, quite rightly, in my opinion, feels Greenwood was wrong to go against his nature in that final 2nd round group game against Spain that England needed to win to reach the semi-finals. It finished 0-0, and Brooking believes the more defensive-minded Don Howe, Greenwood’s assistant, had too much influence on the tactics going into that match. Brooking and Keegan, both returning from injury, came on as subs in the 2nd half, and both were extremely upset (Keegan very angry) not to have been in the starting line up.

You can sense it still hurts Brooking whenever he thinks about the 82 World Cup, and he genuinely believes England could have won the trophy (for me, having been too young for 66, it’s certainly the best England team I saw in my lifetime). Brooking said he met Greenwood many times in the years before he died in 2006, and they often ended up talking about the summer of 82, but Greenwood always stuck to his guns, insisting that at the time he didn’t think Brooking and Keegan were fit enough to start. “It was unlike him to be so cautious”, says Brooking, “He changed a lifelong set of beliefs about the way the game should be played for one match. I’d have preferred to lose 3-1 knowing that we had at least had a real go at them, And, deep down, I think Ron would have preferred that too”.

The only downside of the book is that I think Brooking lets some of his laziness – sorry, laid-back approach, seep into the structure and content of the book. At times, you can’t help thinking that chunks of it are written by Evening Standard journalist Michael Hart (after all, the book is My Life in Football, by Trevor Brooking with Michael Hart). There’s a whole chapter entitled ‘Hounds and Clowns Of The Seventies’ that is completely pointless, just some basic pen pictures of players that read like they’ve been lifted from Wikipedia – famous players that everyone knows everything about already, and Kevin Keegan had been covered already in the Espana 82 chapter, so it reads like duplication.

That style extends to the potted history of West Ham in the late 80s through the 90s (a time when Brooking wasn’t at the club, so not really relevant to the story). It’s a bit rich for Brooking (or Michael Hart rather?) to criticise the Bond Scheme, without mentioning the fact that Brooking himself had been part of the propaganda, his face on the cover of the brochures, openly campaigning and supporting the scheme at the time.

Brooking (or is it Hart?) twice calls Harry Redknapp a wheeler-dealer and makes all the usual insinuations. He highlights the money wasted on Rigobert Song (without mentioning we actually sold him for a small profit), and talks about the 4.4 million spent on Gary Charles in both transfer and salary, which isn’t actually correct because, fortunately, West Ham had sensibly taken out insurance on Charles’ dodgy knee. It may well have been serious alcoholism that finished Charles’ career, but officially it was the knee and the insurance company paid up the rest of his contract when it was terminated. To put that into perspective, Charles cost the club, in transfer fee and wages, less than Vladimir Labant whose 4 year contract was also ripped up, but, unlike Charles, paid up in full by the club.

There’s no mention of Lambant, even though Brooking was on the board in a sort of Technical Director role when the player was signed. Neither is there any mention of the other questionable signings that were made when Brooking was Technical Director (Don Hutchison for 5 million and a lengthy 4-year contract on a high salary, Youssef Sofiane, David James when we already had a good goalkeeper in Shaka Hislop). Neither is there any mention of the questionable decisions to extend Steve Lomas and Ian Pearce’s contracts by another lengthy four years, even though they were both ageing (those deals cost the club £1 million each just in agent fees according to the Chairman’s report). The book remarks upon how high the wage bill had become in Redknapp’s last season, but neglects to mention that it rose even higher under Roeder, when Brooking was on the board.

Although Brooking is honest enough to admit they made a big mistake by getting caught out by the new transfer window at the beginning of the 2002/03 relegation season when they failed to sign another striker, and ended having to play Ian Pearce at centre forward.

However, the chapters that cover Brooking’s two periods as caretaker manager offer a good insight into managing in the modern game and the attitudes of the modern player. Brooking was clearly appalled by Sebastian Schemmel’s attitude and behaviour (another player signed by Roeder/Brooking – Harry had decided to let him go after his loan period). He also describes how Edouard Cisse threw a strop after being substituted in Brooking’s first match in charge at Man City. There’s also some interesting insight into the reasons why Brooking decided to bring Paulo Di Canio back into the fold, after the he had fallen out with Glenn Roeder. “I knew Paolo was a class act… My feeling was that, if he was fit, we’d be better off with him than without him. In the back of my mind I knew it would be handy to have him on the bench if we needed a goal”. But Brooking was careful enough to consult the other players for their opinions too, not wishing to disrupt team spirit by bringing Di Canio back.

I was surprised to read that Brooking was offered, and turned down, the job of West Ham manager back in 1989 when John Lyall was sacked – I’d never heard that before, but by the end of the chapters on his time as caretaker, I was left with a feeling of frustration. If only Trevor wasn’t so laidback, and had more drive and ambition to be a manager – forget all the weighing up of the pros and cons of Bilic, Bielsa, Benitez, Emery and Laudrup when all along there is one man who would make the perfect West Ham manager, and he fits the bill on every single level. Indeed, so much time and effort has been spent by people trying to explain the West Ham way over the years, so many articles and arguments, when actually The West Ham Way, both on and off the pitch, can be perfectly summed up in just two words: Trevor Brooking.

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