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The Smell of Football


Hands up if you know who Mick Rathbone is? No? Don't feel too ashamed, I was in exactly the same position before reading The Smell of Football. A quick glance at Wikipedia told me that he played for Birmingham, Blackburn and Preston; that Halifax were relegated from the Football League during his only spell as a manager, and that he went on to be a well-respected physio with Everton.

• Rathbone: Strength of body, strength of mind

Obviously my first thought was that this autobiography must have been one hell of a hard sell to the publishers, especially when the likes of Paul Scholes and Gary Neville have also released theirs recently.

But just a few paragraphs in, you start to understand exactly why this book was commissioned, with Rathbone's warm and informal writing style making it seem like he could be stood beside you directly telling the story of his fascinating life and career. The Smell of Football is not just an account of a player who failed to live up to his early potential, it is a chance for Rathbone to bare his soul on the book's pages and attempt to exorcise the demons that have haunted him since his early playing days.

Representing your hometown club is an ambition of young footballers across the land and it seemed Rathbone was on the road to great things when he starred in Birmingham City's youth team. But the dream quickly became a nightmare when he was called up to the senior side. He reveals how he was gripped by terror - not nerves, but genuine terror - when asked to play with his boyhood idol Trevor Francis, recalling how he would kick the ball into a nearby farmer's field so he wouldn't be picked to train with the first-team. There is also an insight into the drinking and bullying cultures that were prevalent at clubs in years gone by, but that were considered normal at the time.

Through the entertaining anecdotes and expertly-used self-deprecating humour, there is always a serious undercurrent as Rathbone tries to get to the bottom of exactly why he was racked with self-doubt and overcome by fear whenever he took to the pitch. With no-one to open up to, he endured three years of emotional turmoil and it was only after leaving the club for Blackburn Rovers that he was able to finally free himself from the shackles of his own insecurities.

The book moves along chronologically as Rathbone takes in a lengthy spell at Blackburn before retiring at Preston. Then comes his burgeoning career as a physio and an inadvertent and disastrous spell as Halifax Town boss, with the latter my favourite section of the book as he vividly describes the tumultuous life of a lower league manager at a club with no money. What shines through - from his time as a player, manager and physio - is Rathbone's sheer love of football and dedication to whatever challenge is put before him.

His time as physio and head of sports medicine at Everton brings tales of hotel-room medicals and deadline-day drama, when he is asked to catch a private jet to confirm that Marouane Fellaini is fit to make a late switch to Goodison Park in 2008. Those looking for any scandal or dishing of dirt will be bitterly disappointed with this book I'm afraid, as Rathbone talks fondly about all of the players he was worked with - though he admits he was a bit scared of Thomas Gravesen.

Rathbone's autobiography is a frank, honest look at one man's life in football, but it also chronicles the vast differences between the game then and now. I can honestly say, without hesitation, that you can forget your books by Scholes and Neville because The Smell of Football is the best football book of the year by a country mile.

Mick Rathbone's autobiography, 'The Smell of Football', has been longlisted for the prestigious William Hill Sports Book of the Year award and is available to buy from Vision Sports Publishing.


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