The English Game (Netflix)

    The beautiful game: how to replace live football this spring

    13 April 2020

    There may not be any matches going on, but there are still plenty of ways football fanatics can get their fix…


    The best podcast for fans of lower league clubs

    Despite the coronavirus outbreak, Britain’s multitude of football podcasts keep on rolling, even if the lack of match action to argue about has meant most of them have had to switch to general footy chat.

    The Totally Football Show, hosted by James Richardson, is one of the best of the bigger football podcasts vying for our attention. As well as reporting on Covid-19’s impact on football, they’ve also taken in such random topics as Ronaldinho’s recent imprisonment, the Champions League of 93/94 and Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle team. Not The Top 20 is another absolutely cracking podcast and in the last couple of weeks has continued to provide excellent insight into the goings on in the Championship and Leagues One and Two. It’s essential listening for fans of lower league clubs.

    Quickly Kevin, Will He Score? has made a timely return. Co-hosted by comedian Josh Widdicombe, it’s a show all about 90s football. Previous interviewees have included Jim Rosenthal, Darren Anderton and Matt Le Tissier, and I particularly love the episodes focused on terrible 90s football documentaries and the specials analysing the crime novels written – or, if you believe the conspiracy theories, not written – by Steve Bruce.

    For a football podcast to binge on, try American Fiasco, which tells the tale of the US national team’s disastrous run at France 98. It might not seem like an obvious subject for a 10-part series, but presenter Roger Bennett tells a remarkable story of failure very well indeed.


    Calcio by John Foot

    If you can find time between trying to homeschool kids, doing some of your actual work and contemplating the end of the world, then I highly recommend getting up to speed with some of the all-time great football books.

    For sweeping histories of individual football cultures, there are two books that jump to mind immediately. John Foot’s history of Italian football, Calcio, is both detailed and a breeze to read, while Alex Bellos’s Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life deserves its classic status. For more a focused history, Simon Kuper’s Ajax, The Dutch The War is also worth seeking out.

    Duncan Hamilton’s award-winning Brian Clough book, Provided You Don’t Kiss Me, evokes Ol’ Big Head superbly, and David Peace’s novel, The Damned United, does that too, albeit in a very different way.

    Finally, I’m recommending my three absolute favourites…

    Full Time: The Secret Life of Tony Cascarino, written with Irish journalist Paul Kimmage, flits between light and shade as it chronicles a career that took Cascarino from Gillingham to Marseille via the 1990 World Cup with the Republic of Ireland, and is told with a flair missing from most footballer’s autobiographies.

    The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, about the unlikely rise of a tiny Italian football team witnessed and documented by the late American writer Joe McGinniss, is probably the football book I recommend most regularly to people with no interest in the game. The story is full of so many ‘stranger than fiction’ twists and bizarre characters, including the eccentric manager Jaconi and the mobster club owner, that, two decades on from its publication, I still can’t believe it hasn’t been turned into a film.

    A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke by Ronald Reng is probably a little heavy for these tough times, but as I said in a previous Spectator Life piece, it is ‘possibly the best football book of all time’, and therefore can’t leave it out here.

    Reng was a close friend of Enke’s, a talented German goalkeeper who committed suicide in 2009. The book is a graceful evocation of a life and career that ended in desperate circumstances, and a clear insight into the kind of excruciating pressures that top-level sport can bring to bear on individuals.


    Diego Maradona (Getty)

    Asif Kapadia’s Diego Maradona follows in the same vein as his previous documentaries Senna and Amy in piecing together the life of its famous subject via archive clips overlaid with audio interviews. Football fans will absolutely love it, as it charts Maradona’s extraordinary career, with a focus on his highly-successful but turbulent time at Napoli. It’s up on All 4 now and you’ve got about two weeks left to watch it, so don’t miss out.

    Kevin Gunthrie as Fergus Suter in The English Game (Netflix)

    On Netflix, The English Game, a new period footy drama series by Julian Fellowes, has recently been released, and Sunderland ‘Til I Die, an enjoyable car crash of a show about the goings on at the struggling north-east club, is back for a second series on April 1.

    There are, of course, many terrible football films out there, and Netflix is also home to one of the very worst. Green Street stars Elijah Wood as an American journalism student who, for convoluted reasons, ends up in London and is, for further convoluted reasons, taken under the wing of a bunch of West Ham hooligans. The script is so crap that it makes Hollyoaks seem like the work of Aaron Sorkin, and Charlie Hunnam’s disastrous cockney accent simply has to be heard to be believed. Worth watching not because it’s so bad it’s good, but because it’s so bad you’ll marvel at how it ever got made.