What if? It’s a question fans of history and sports always like to ask, usually at a pub or in the depths of despair. What if this person did this, or a manager made that decision? When authors write about these decisions, they tend to be straightforward historical retellings. However, author James Durose-Rayner takes a different path to share the story of the lost star of his favorite team.
The main character of the book I Am Sam has no real name. He goes by many different descriptions throughout the book, but because he narrates the majority of the book he doesn’t need one. To follow my fellow Arsenal fans descriptions, I will refer to him as Mr. Arsenal. Mr. Arsenal is a major fan of Arsenal, is rich from his television work, and has a seriously messed up life. The fictional side of the book reads partly like a Nicholas Sparks book mixed in with some Zane – balancing multiple girlfriends, but among the chaos finding the one woman who is perfect for him. This woman also conveniently is pregnant with his child, which adds to the chaos.
Now for the soccer side – Mr. Arsenal and his co-owner Tim Sutton (“Sooty”) were given a contract to film a documentary as part of the background for the 2014 World Cup (the book takes place over the 2013-2014 season). In the process of preparing the documentary on the 1970 World Cup (because everyone is tired hearing about 1966), they come across references to Jon Sammels, who they call Sammy, an Arsenal player who during their trophy-competing days of the late 1960s showed a creative flair and athletic ability that clearly the English national team needed. However, caught in the politics of the day, he never got a sniff of the Mexico pitch as the England team under-performed in 1970 and failed to even qualify for the World Cup in 1974. The 1970 World Cup documentary turns into two documentaries as fictional story serves as a backdrop for historical knowledge about Arsenal, the top-flight of English soccer, and the politics around the national team at this time.
I suspect this book may be hard for non-Arsenal fans to stomach. Everything about Mr. Arsenal involves his obsession with the team (even naming his kids’ ferrets Giroud and Arteta) but the nice touch is he is not obnoxious about his team. He routinely comes across fans of other clubs but never disrespects their obsessions, which may make it more palatable to fans of other clubs. For Arsenal fans, however, this book will certainly give you a chuckle. They way he nicknames people in his life with Arsenal player names based on attributes, and bemoaning the common things Arsenal fans always complain about (“he bought another French U/21 striker?”), this book will have you nodding your head throughout.
The book is long, over 400 pages, but reads much like light fiction. It’s an easy, if not quick read. This book is good, except that it has a few subtle touches that moves it from good to a very good read. The best touch is the occasional use of a second narrator, a former commentator that narrates the two documentaries. Through his descriptions, we see the true character and passion of Mr. Arsenal, his dedication to his craft and his caring for his girlfriend. It’s a small thing but it shows the sign of a good author.
This book isn’t for everyone, and the plot falls way too easily his way – the sex is too good, the conflicts are always satisfactorily resolved, and everyone ends up loving Mr. Arsenal. But telling the story of Jon Sammels makes this a worthwhile read for any soccer fan, not just Arsenal super fans, on a beach this summer or over a few quiet Sunday afternoons. It’s not Fever Pitch, but it’s not a bad read.
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