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on 7 January 2003
Until recent years there was a scarcity of good writing on football. Anodyne biographies and glossy club histories were pretty much all one could find. However, there was one book that broke the mould of football writing and which has been extremely influential on many of the best books on football today: Eamonn Dunphy's Only A Game.
Dunphy was a much-travelled, hardworking and relatively skilful midfielder. Only A Game is his account, in diary form, of the 1973/4 season at Millwall, then in the old second division. The season began with great optimism as Dunphy, realizing that he had not too many years left in football, saw this as perhaps his final opportunity to achieve something significant in his career. His account of how the season quickly turned sour is compelling, and if the end to the ‘story’ is in some ways unsatisfying it is because this is not a fairytale but a slice of reality.
Throughout it is clear that Dunphy has literary aspirations, and he is indeed a good writer. Above all, however, the book has all the best qualities of a personal diary: honesty, frankness, occasional contradictions, and immediacy. Only A Game provides a particularly fascinating insight into a time when professional footballers earned similar salaries to the rest of us, when the game was not awash with money, glamour and foreign stars, and when the ‘hard men’ ruled and matches frequently descended into muddy pitched battles – in this respect the book has genuine historical value. Dunphy is very good when discussing the nature of his profession, and he brilliantly conveys the unglamorous side to the game. As an antidote to the numerous showbiz biographies of footballers, Only A Game is perfect.
Only A Game can be recommended both to football fans and to those who have only a passing interest in the game. By turns it is funny, sad, angry and bitter; but it is unfailingly human. As a work of football writing it is extremely important: Only A Game was one of the earliest books to demonstrate that football could have its own rich literary genre.
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on 24 October 2002
With Only a Game?, Dunphy made his name and his account has had many imitators, the latest being Tony Cascarino. Nick Hornby also picked up the format for Fever Pitch - installments game by game - from this.
He takes the abortive season he spent with Millwall in 1973 and infuses his account with a career's worth of understanding. How a coach can lose the respect of the team, how the manager is weakened by having to accommodate a captain who is fundamentally uncommitted, how the need to impose oneself undercuts the ability to play to one's potential.
Yes, it's lots about football: the mundane details of training, the changing room, the team bus etc, but the acuity of his observation breathes life into it. Moreover, though his subject is footballers, the book has to say has much about any group you may be part of, any office, any team, any group of people. Why respect comes and goes; how a new entrant changes the dynamics of the group; what it's like to go from being near the end of a career to over the hill, and what it's like never to make it at all.
Dunphy is compelling in his insight, deeply sympathetic in his analysis, and - while flawed as a person - somewhat like Alan Clarke, this attracts you more deeply into what he is saying.
Miles above the standard sports book, this is revered as a classic, and deservedly so. Its wisdom stretches far beyond the football field. Whatever you think about the Keane book, this is well worth reading.
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on 7 July 2012
The real strengths of Only a Game? are the level of reflexivity and that Dunphy doesn't pull any punches. The narrative does more than describe a season, but tries to explain and to provide a real insight into the mind and life of a player and a club. Moreover, Dunphy tells it exactly how he sees it and he doesn't spare the blushes of players or coaches. He is scathing about the professionalism of the coaching routines, the facilities, the manager's decisions, how the game was being run by chairmen and directors, players who he felt were not being `true' pros, and forensically picks apart the strengths and weaknesses of opposition teams. He's equally open about his own performances and shortcomings, including his emotional turmoil at being dropped and his frank exchanges with his manager. There are some silences - he never really discusses the role of his family and friends, barely discusses journalists and the role of the media, or the fans. Instead the book very much focuses on the players and coaching staff. Having now read the book, it is easy to see how he sided with Roy Keane in the Saipan affair - Only a Game? details the same frustrations Dunphy had whilst at Millwall as Keane had for the Irish international set-up; and like Keane, Dunphy was obsessed with professionalism. Overall, an interesting book that gives real insight into the beautiful game.
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on 27 March 2000
In an age where a Footballer's haircut is front-page news and players endorse everything from Crisps to Hair Growth treatments, this book is a reminder of what foootball is about- hard graft and a love of the game. Eamon Dunphy gives an unbelievably accurate account of life a a professional footballer. As somebody whose cousin plays professional football, I knew that the beautiful game wasn't about sponsorship deals and boot endorsements. No matter how much the sport is sanitised and taken away from the real fans, football is still about blood, sweat and tears. It's easy to forget that pro- footballers are human beings and within a football club there are bound to be personality clashes. I couldn't put this book down. I also recommend 'A strange kind of glory- Sir Matt Busby and Manchester United'. Dunphy is not afraid to speak the truth and honesty shines through in all of his books. Pure class.
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on 2 October 2012
I recently attended a football book launch at Southend for Roy McDonough's autobiography Red Card Roy, introduced by BBC commentating legend John Motson.
Motty held up a first edition of Dunphy's book, proclaiming Red Card Roy to be the best football book he had read in more than 30 years, after the Irishman's own honest appraisal of his life in the Second Division with Millwall.
After finishing McDonough's amazing tale, I had to give Dunphy a go too, and I can see just why Motson was a big fan of both stories.
The comparisons are many; the mundane manual-driven coaches over complicating the training programme, the fear of first-team exile and the negativity towards your own team-mates and club when it eventually arrives, the loathing of semi-pro players who don't have to make real tackles to earn a crust and the clueless 'suits' in the boardroom.
Oh, and then there's Harry Cripps and Theo Foley. The similarities are quite surreal.
This gritty, truthful diary of life at 70s Millwall must have provided a massive culture shock in its day, the same that Red Card Roy is doing right now. Although, McDonough's tale takes brutal honesty to a whole new level in football writing.
Thanks Mr Dunphy, you were certainly a great pioneer of football writing. Thanks to Motty for the pointer, too!
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on 9 October 2009
I don't know if it's the best, but it's certainly up there. This is the story of a journeyman footballer, told via diary entries, playing for deeply unfashionable Milwall in the 1970s. The journeyman pro was to become a first class football analyst (or controversialist, depending on your viewpoint) on Irish tv in later years but this story can be told in isolation. It's a page turner of a book, raw and unadorned and should have a place on the shelves of anyone who loves football and books.
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on 28 February 2008
This is one of, if not the best book ever written about Football. Like the cantankerous one or not (Mr Dunphy), you have to admire his writing panache and passion for the sport, even if his skills on the pitch were never amazing. He takes the mundane and elevates it to something approaching religious fervour. An absolute ripping read for anyone who has ever wondered what it was like to play the beautiful game back before it became glam and corporation infested.
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on 18 January 2013
I first read this when I was a teenager and recently re-read it after a lot of life 'experience'! Hugely informative, this gritty realism of professional sport is perhaps a better indicator of what the vast majority of today's journeymen Footballers go through than the ghost written pap of some of the premier league's prima donnas
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on 22 December 2013
For Danny Blanchflower, Tottenham Hotspur's Northern Irish legend of the 1960s, football was undoubtedly 'The Glory Game'. But as the self-questioning title of this diary - written during critical months of his abortive 1973-4 season with the then Second Division Millwall - suggests the former Republic of Ireland international was rather less convinced of that claim. His approach - purloined from American baseball star Jim Bouton's Ball Four- clearly worked: it managed to convince the notoriously difficult-to-please journalist Brian Glanville who described Only A Game as "The best and most authentic memoir by a professional footballer about his sport that I have yet read."

Why? It is probably the frankness with which this much-travelled and relatively skilful midfielder expresses himself in this account; it is in marked contrast to the anodyne autobiographies of Premier League's prima donnas and glossy club histories that often pass for literature about football. He is scathing about players like Tommy Craig who he felt were not being 'true' professionals, and picks apart the strengths and weaknesses of opposition teams, such as Sheffield Wednesday and West Ham United. He also vividly captures the unglamorous side to the 'beautiful' game: his emotional turmoil at being dropped; how it feels to be nearer to the end than the beginning of a career, and the negativity you feel towards your own team-mates and clubs when exiled from the first team. The minutiae provided gives Only A Game? credibility: you can easily envisage the changing room banter; the reading material on the team bus; the overly earnest coaches, with their manuals always at hand, over-complicating training, and his frank exchanges with his manager Benny Fenton. There is some historical value in his diaries also. Dunphy's entries provide a timely reminder of an era when professional footballers earned similar salaries to the rest of us, and had to travel back from away games on the same trains as their supporters.

Though you can see Only A Game's influence on popular football literature - like Charlton Athletic's Garry Nelson's two books and novelist Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch - it isn't quite the mould-breaking classic it has often been described as. As ex-Liverpool and Plymouth Argyle player Brian Hall notes in the postscript to the 1986 edition that Dunphy has a "taste for overstating his case". And so it proves. He persistently derides his young team-mate, Gordon Hill - yet he would go on to play over 100 games for Manchester United and represent England. His prose is often dispiritingly workmanlike - his plain delivery eschews polysyllabic words or elaborate metaphors in favour of cliches and short sentences. And his hard-earned reputation as a cantankerous controversialist is already in evidence here as he makes irrationally contradictory statements: Dunphy is open about the shortcomings in his own performances - but he is then unwilling to accept he is not good enough in that season to cement a first team place; he tells us how he likes his manager Fenton in pre-season, but only weeks later he is openly lampooning him, and questioning his competence in his role.

Reading this abruptly-concluded diary leaves me convinced it should be sharing the same title as another of his acclaimed books: A Strange Kind Of Glory, his look at Sir Matt Busby and Manchester United.
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VINE VOICEon 27 January 2014
Interesting account from Millwall midfielder Eamon Dunphy of half a season at Millwall (things open brightly and gradually deteriorate) widely regarded as one of the most authentic accounts ever written of the life of a professional footballer.

As such, it is atmospheric and, if far from riveting, somehow compelling. Reminded me a little of 'The Glory Game' by Hunter Davies - his account of Tottenham - but differs in that it's written by a footballer, albeit one who perhaps later became better known as a journalist.
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