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Friday, 26 August 2011

A Review of 'The Smell of Football'

I am a massive fan of football in general, not just of my chosen side but the game itself, warts and all. I have also always enjoyed reading, even at school where reading a book voluntarily was frowned upon I often had my nose buried in a book. It makes sense then that my bookcase is packed with tomes on ‘the beautiful game’. One genre that is conspicuous by its absence though, is the footballers’ autobiography.

Usually I find these books fall into one of two categories, either a back slapping, self-congratulatory ego stroking exercise, where the author uses his book to show just how good pals he is with all the ‘top top guys’ in football. Or even worse the guy still in his mid-twenties, broaching such weighty subject matter as whether he should sign a sponsorship deal with Nike or Adidas. Time is finite and there are so many books worthy of your attention that I find it difficult to justify settling down and investing my time in one of these PR exercises.

So when I was asked to review “The Smell of Football” by Mick ‘Baz’ Rathbone as a reward for winning writer of the month at, my initial thought was to say thanks but no thanks. However after conducting a quick bit of research on the book I decided that maybe I should put my preconceptions to one side, and give it a chance.

I have to say I am delighted that I did. Mick (or Baz as he is almost universally known) comes across as an intelligent, articulate and most importantly, self-aware man. His insight into the game, at a wide variety of levels, is utterly fascinating.

Baz started his career as a talented full back at his ‘hometown club’ Birmingham City, his candid account of how he failed there due to his own mental fragility is startling for its frankness. Those of us who have no insider knowledge of footballers and what makes them tick, have often debated how important the ‘mental’ side of the game is. This book gives you a genuine glimpse into the world of a footballer and all the psychological challenges it entails, and the truths it uncovers are not only intriguing but may make you re-evaluate your opinion on some of those players who incur your derision on a Saturday afternoon.

The book covers Baz’s journey from a nervous, at times panic stricken teenager at Birmingham, all the way through to his time as a vital part of Everton FC’s backroom staff (as chief of medicine). There are stops at Blackburn (the peak of his playing career), Preston, a spell in management and his time training in physiotherapy (he also spent some time selling clothes from the back of his car!)

The book is full of genuine laugh out loud moments, some unique insights into the nutritional habits of footballers from Baz’s era (10 egg omelette anyone?) and anecdotes involving everyone from Sam Allardyce to Crstiano Ronaldo. Put together these would make a very enjoyable read, it is the inclusion of Baz’s honesty when addressing his weaknesses and how they almost ruined his career before it began, that make it an essential one.

I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to email a few questions to the author, and I must thank him for taking the time to answer my queries. Here is a transcript of that email interview.

1.If you were starting your career now, do you think that your psychological problems would have been addressed/noticed by the club?

If I look back on my time as physio at Everton, then – had I been a player there – it certainly wouldn’t have gone unnoticed. There are so many people around the team nowadays that it would be impossible for something like that not to be detected.

2. How far do you think you could have gone in the game if you had achieved your potential? England honours?

I played at Youth Level for England and was considered the brightest prospect at Birmingham as a 17 year old.
So, looking at it theoretically, full England honours wouldn’t have been out of the question – I certainly had the potential.

However, I think it’s important to remember that not having confidence is just as bigger drawback as lacking pace or technique on the ball. To play international football you have to both of those, plus lots of confidence in your ability too.

3. Did you ever consider writing the book without discussing your mental fragility? i.e just a collection of dressing room stories.

No, not at all. There wouldn’t have been any merit in that.
For me the first quarter of the book – which deals with my struggles at Birmingham – is what really sets it apart. The experiences of that difficult period of my career are what motivated me to write.
4. What is the most significant change you have seen in your years in the game?

I’d have to say the overall speed of the game. Matches today are so much quicker than they were when I first started out in football. That’s reflected in training nowadays too as it’s vital players are prepared for the level of intensity that awaits them on a Saturday.

5. Do you see a move away from the traditional pre-season "run till you drop" approach toward a more structured system?

Oh yes, that happened a while ago already. Most clubs in this country are well beyond that now.

6. As a former player would you be in favour of technology in the game? i.e goal-line video technology.

I would definitely be in favour of goal-line technology as that can quickly tell you one way or the other if the ball’s crossed the line. It’s either in or it’s not. Simple. 

Looking at other areas of the pitch, I’m not sure what else could be introduced that would be as clear-cut and easy to implement, so I’d leave it at that for now.

7. Are there teams in Premier League today that significantly fitter than others, or is everybody at a similar level?
I have a feeling Blackpool may have stayed up last year if they had been fitter and been able to keep their performance levels up for the entire game.

Top players these days are all naturally fit, so generally speaking it is a level playing field in the Premiership.

The difference lies in the fact that teams with less technical ability will have to play with their eyeballs out for 90 minutes just to try and get a result, which obviously means they’ll grow tired more quickly.

I thought Blackpool were superb last season, but they were just maybe lacking one or two players with a bit of the power you find in the squads of the Top Four clubs.

8. Finally, are you optimistic for the future of the game in this country?

Yes, Football’s one of our finest products, which I’m sure will continue to serve us well in the future. The sport’s being going for hundreds of years and is too big for people to let go to waste.

If you look at the national team, then I think maybe a bit more realism is required. The fact that we invented the game has no bearing on anything that happens today, and we’ve got to accept that a leveling-off has occurred internationally.

Population-wise, we’re a comparatively small nation, so I think the stats would probably show that we’re doing OK for a country of our size.

I can only give this book 5/5. I did consider docking a point for some of his musical references (Queen!) but that would be pandering to my personal prejudices. If you have an interest in football, even if you normally steer clear of autobiographies, this book will both enlighten and amuse in equal measure.

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