Final whistle

Paolo Di Canio

Paolo Di Canio <em>Collins Willow, 286pp, £16.99 </em>

ISBN 0007106823


Roy Keane famously put the lack of passion in the Old Trafford stands down to an over-indulgence of prawn sandwiches among the corporate hospitality crowd. Or perhaps another explanation is that the Red Army's senses have been dulled by one too many ghosted footballer autobiographies. Decent ones are certainly few and far between, while pitiful efforts are huge in number.

Paolo Di Canio has probably attracted attention because of the admission by the Italian maverick that, while Ian Wright chose Martin Luther King as his ideal hero in the One 2 One advert, Paolo would have chosen Benito Mussolini - and not just because he'd know how to make the trains run on time, eh Paolo? Still, it is easy to read Di Canio's comments out of context, because he writes elsewhere in the book of his pride in being a member of West Ham's multiracial team. What is more interesting is that here, at last, is a player willing to admit to having some sort of fix on the world off the pitch, although including a recipe for tiramisu is probably taking matters too far.

The book that has deservedly grabbed most attention this year is Tony Cascarino's Full Time. Instead of employing the usual hack out to make an easy buck, Cascarino collaborated with Paul Kimmage, a former winner of the prestigious William Hill Sports Book of the Year award. The story is compelling. A former hairdresser, Cascarino somehow made his way into the Gillingham first team, for whom he missed a sitter (an open goal) in a crucial cup match against Everton, and then found himself catapulted into the big time through playing for Millwall and - through tenuous bloodlines that he admits here he didn't actually have - for Ireland, where he led the line in Big Jack Charlton's team of expats (although Jack was rarely unwise enough to let the loveable clown loose for a full 90 minutes).

From there, after performing dismally in the Premiership for, among others, Aston Villa, Cascarino made a whole new career for himself in France, starting with Marseilles, whose fans aren't easily impressed. Kimmage reminds us that there is a quality to journeymen players such as Cascarino, who are patronised at best, ignored at worst. His supreme achievement as co-author is that he does neither.

If Cascarino was never one of the greats, David Beckham has already become a symbol of 21st-century achievement, an icon of our money-obsessed, fame-fixated modernity. Andrew Morton's Posh & Becks was almost written out of existence by Mr and Mrs Beckham, so precious are they with their regal privacy. His book is a well-researched first stab at what has helped make this couple such a source of fascination. Morton's effort doesn't come close to his Princess Diana books in terms of revelation; but this is no surprise, because what matters is less the things David and Victoria actually do than what they represent. David Beckham's own My World has, predictably, almost as many photos as words. But the pictures tell a potent story: of a young man at ease with manufacturing images of himself that challenge our preconceptions of what a footballer should be. Adoring husband, caring father, fragile yet brattish, full of homoerotic appeal, Beckham is revealed as not quite a man with whom most fellow footballers would feel at ease.

Off the pitch, it was not a vintage year. But there were exceptions. David Winner's Brilliant Orange is a witty, pioneering analysis of a culture's hopeless confusion between football and national identity. In the admirable Sightlines, Simon Inglis made the difficult transition from being a chronicler of the shape of stadiums to explaining what these structures say to the crowds who visit them, and to the communities among which they are built. Charlie Connelly's Spirit High and Passion Pure is rare in its combination of football and travelogue, and almost a gem, too. Steeped in his own football fandom, Connelly journeys well. He has an eye for the unpredictable and a dogged liking for a hidden history that his foreign trips help him to uncover.

There is never any shortage of football books, but the width of the bookshelf doesn't make finding the quality any easier. Imagination from those outside the dressing room, which provides a story to tell from inside it - that's what makes a good football book more than an awkward oxymoron. Or as Roy Keane might more artfully put it to those who fail to cut it: "Who ate all the prawns?"

Mark Perryman is the editor of The Ingerland Factor: home truths from football (Mainstream, £9.99)