Only a Game? The Diary of a Professional Footballer - Eamon Dunphy, 1987, Penguin Books Ltd
Eamon Dunphy is nowadays more famous for being the ghost-writer of Roy Keane's infamous autobiography. And in Ireland he's their best known journalist, a man whose love of a strong view and the sauce has made him as nationally notorious as the Manchester United captain.
And Only a Game is where it all started. Dunphy's career, which began as a Busby Babe who didn't make the grade at Manchester United, had taken him to South-East London and Millwall's Den. There, as a cultured midfielder under the management of club legend Benny Fenton, Dunphy played a leading role in a near-miss promotion charge for the Lions in 1972-3.
The book takes the form of Dunphy's diary of the following season from pre-season training until, it is hoped and expected at the start, Millwall secure their place in the old First Division. Except, Dunphy being Dunphy, it ends in the complete collapse of his relationship with Fenton and a transfer to Charlton Athletic a division below. Millwall, too, end the season in mid-table ignominy.
In what is a span of barely three months, Dunphy gives us a unique insight into the hopes and fears of a rank and file pro footballer. From the fun of a pre-season summer trip to the seaside with his team-mates to the fateful day when he heads to the Valley, Dunphy spells out the neuroses that haunt him and his fellow professionals.
From young hopeful Gordon Hill being tormented by the older lads (Hill, who is a target for considerable Dunphy bile throughout, would go on to join Manchester United and play for England) to the sorrow felt when he sees his contemporaries and friends being shifted out by Fenton as the manager tries to build a new team, Dunphy is never less than candid about what goes on behind the closed doors that separate our heroes from the fans.
The 'good pro', to whom the book is dedicated, has a job just like anybody else and the same political games and petty arguments take place in the dressing room too.
And the advancement of age is a factor too. Dunphy is disturbed when he reaches his 28th birthday. His transfer introduces the thought that he doesn't yet own his own home despite long being married. The setting may be fully 30 years ago, but Dunphy's ability to personalise his team-mates and bring the culture of the dressing room alive, still stands up to scrutiny. He even finds time to comment on the issues of the day - international call-ups and managers whose public profile is getting out of hand (for Brian Clough read Jose Mourinho). This book remains highly relevant.
This is no normal autobiography or star player's diary of a season filled with lame plaudits and statistics. The book's appendices contain the bare facts of Millwall's season and a 'where are they now' section written in 1987 by respected South London Press hack Peter Ball; but Dunphy's prose tells far more than that.
An often forgotten book, it is to be sought out and devoured. Serving both as a timepiece and a pointer to future matters in football, Dunphy lay a marker of excellence that he would largely follow throughout his journalistic career.