Neal Horgan’s ‘Second City – The Fall, Death And Rise Of Cork City FC’ is part diary of a season in hell for one League of Ireland club and part blueprint for something closer to heaven for the League of Ireland as a whole.
At its heart is a candid, compelling and sometimes hair-raising account of the effects on the players and management of the ownership problems and financial turmoil which engulfed the club in 2009, culminating early the following year with City being dissolved and demoted before the supporters rode to the rescue and brought it back from the dead.
Many of us were aware of some of the crippling difficulties the players faced off the pitch during that annus horribilis seven years ago, not least when things reached their farcical nadir on the day that the bus driver refused to bring the team to Dublin for a match against St Pat’s because he hadn’t been paid, and captain Dan Murray was forced to take to the local airwaves to plead for help before the situation was resolved.
But that was just one very public manifestation of what was going on behind closed doors. Now, Neal Horgan’s unvarnished diary reveals the full, crushing extent of the difficulties with which the club grappled throughout that season, and there are many times when, as a reader, you feel like tearing your hair out in sympathy and frustration with the players as, repeatedly, wages are late, less than they should be or simply don’t show up in accounts at all.
By rights then, this should be a fairly depressing read but that the story is most definitely not just a football version of misery lit can be attributed in large measure to Horgan’s skill as a writer and also to a brand of gallows humour which manages to mine moments of levity out of all the adversity. Remarkably too, this is a tale of relative success on the field as, despite the chaos off it, the team under the management duo of Paul Doolin and Tommy Dunne, somehow finish third in the league.
For that reason, one could make the case that, above all else, ‘Second City’ is a kind of love letter to the dressing room, a stirring tribute to the solidarity and comradeship which keeps a band of brothers going when all the odds are stacked against them.
But Neal Horgan is not content simply to be a fine, frontline reporter. “I needed to show just how bad things had actually become,” he writes, “so that this dark year might serve as proof of the urgent need for transformative changes in the league.”
And so, beyond describing the problem, he makes bold to offer some detailed solutions, based on diligent research – including comparisons with similar-sized countries abroad – and the kind of creative thinking one would expect from someone who has always believed passionately in the untapped power of the domestic game.
Even, and perhaps especially, when the going couldn’t have got any tougher.
Jonathan Wilson’s eighth football book is a huge, magisterial study of Argentinian football, and the culture and violence that informs it.
Pelé, for example, not known for his aggression, was so agitated during one Argentina vs. Brazil game in 1964 that he head-butted his marker, José Medino, breaking his nose.
The country – which was the world’s eighth largest economy in 1928; now it languishes around sixtieth position – has lurched from one coup to the next. Juan Perón looms large in the middle section of Wilson’s story. He writes movingly about the dirty war that went on in the background to the country’s 1978 World Cup triumph, and gets to share several laugh-out-loud yarns from its 1986 World Cup victory.
During the tournament, for example, Argentina's reserve goalkeeper, Luis Islas, broke a curfew. The coach Carlos Bilardo gathered the players together the following morning for a team meeting. He blew a gasket, saying he knew one of them had been out late and whoever it was would be sent home. He called on the guilty player to own up.
The goalie sat in silence. Bilardo's fury increased. He said whoever was responsible was a coward and was destroying Argentina's World Cup chances and asked the player to confess. The goalie still said nothing. Bilardo was spitting mad at this stage, and demanded the guilty party fess up, at which point Diego Maradona put his hand up and said: "Boss, it was me."
"OK,," said Bilardo, clapping his hands and heading for the door. "Training at the usual time this afternoon."
1: The Battle by Paul O'Connell (Penguin Ireland)
2: What Do You Think of That? My Autobiography by Kieran Donaghy (Trinity Mirror Sport Media)
3: Win or Learn: MMA, Conor Mcgregor and Me: A Trainer's Journey by John Kavanagh (Penguin Ireland)
4: Hand on Heart: My Autobiography by Ken McGrath & Michael Moynihan (Black & White Publishing)
5: Front Up, Rise Up:The Official Story of Connacht Rugby by Gerry Thornley (Transworld Ireland)