In a half-arsed attempt to be vaguely topical, this week’s Reading the Game is The Fix by James Dixon, which explores the first season of Champions League football. Of course, my cause isn’t helped by the fact that the opening round of games in what used to be the European Cup was played on Tuesday and Wednesday and I’m publishing this on Sunday.

In my defence, my week has been dominated by administrative tasks on behalf of the Middlesex Schools’ FA, whose U14 Girls Representative Team won their national cup yesterday. They are the last County to lift the trophy before the English Schools’ FA (ESFA) cups morph into ‘Champions League-style’ tournaments, which open with group stages, then send teams out into knockout rounds for the top teams and a Plate for the next best. Such is the influence of UEFA’s behemoth, ESFA have even christened these reformatted tournaments ‘Champions Cups’.

See? Vaguely topical!

Anyway, on to The Fix, which is centred around the 1992-93 European Cup. This was the first edition of the flagship European competition to feature a group stage, instead of quarter-finals and semi-finals. In that first season, as the author points out, the group stage was the only part of what was still the European Cup to bear the Champions League name. That this format change opened something of a Pandora’s Box and led to the current tournament – which will be replaced again by an even more elongated group stage in a few years – is explored by Dixon, who sets out how the seeds were sown by Silvio Burlusconi as early as 1987.

As fascinating as the machinations of clubs seeking to feather their own nests are, the meat of this book lies in the way it zig-zags around Europe, capturing not just the essence of key matches from the tournament but that it took place amidst rapid social and political change. The consequences of this are hinted at in the subtitle, which ends, portentously, with “why we all lost”.

While the key events of the 1992-93 season are discussed engagingly, Dixon takes care to place them in their context, both historical and in terms of what followed, with the power balance of the tournament shifting inexorably westwards following the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. There’s a particularly good chapter about how, prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, clubs from Eastern Europe had a regular presence in the latter stages of the European Cup. The complex relationship the Soviet Union had with the tournament was something I knew nothing about until I learned about it in The Fix.

The smaller clubs who used to have a chance to face a Juventus or Real Madrid in the First Round also take a turn in the spotlight, as they did before the format of the Champions League changed completely. These days, of course the Champions of Europe’s smaller nations are condemned to knock each other out to earn a play-off against a third or fourth placed club from a more prestigious League. A marketing expert might love the concentration of Europe’s biggest clubs within the Champions League, to the exclusion of the champions of Wales, Luxembourg, Northern Ireland and Malta, but I’d suggest that most football fans don’t.

Where the marketers and football purists meet, though, is at those games which combine the jeopardy of knockout football with a tribal rivalry. The 1992 ‘Battle of Britain’ between Leeds United and Glasgow Rangers was the tie which captivated the author at the age of eight and is, as you would expect, given a chapter of its own in which the players do as much of the storytelling as Dixon; this is an extremely well-researched book which features many quotes from players and managers and lots of historical information too.

The title, though, hints at a deeper problem that afflicted football then. The eponymous ‘fix’ was of Marseille’s League game immediately prior to the European Cup Final against AC Milan, although there have been suggestions that efforts were made to influence CSKA Moscow and Club Brugge, who were in the same group as Marseille in that first Champions League, although Dixon concludes there isn’t much substantial evidence to suggest that Marseille had won their group through match-fixing.

That isn’t to say that Marseille emerge from The Fix unscathed; incidents from previous seasons are examined and the club’s conduct under then-President Bernard Tapie could best be described as “murky”.   

Even if you believe that football was invented in 1992, just how much the Champions League has changed over the last three decades is startling. The Fix is an engrossing book and an excellent reminder that European football was once much more competitive and that the big clubs have been wielding influence long below this year’s Super League fiasco.  I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in football history – especially in a European context.

Like so much of my recent football reading, The Fix is published by Pitch Publishing; you can find out more at the Pitch website. As usual, I’m going to provide a link to the book at Stanchion, the independent football bookshop. Plus, if my book review has piqued your interest, you can hear James Dixon talk about the Rangers v Leeds matches and The Fix on The Brazilian Shirt Name Podcast, which I also enjoy.