For the second time, Reading the Game marks a Champions League match week by exploring the history of the European Cup and specifically The Undisputed Champions of Europe by Steven Scragg.
To be honest, it feels a bit odd that the final book of Scragg’s trilogy examining the history of the original European competitions is the first one I’ve reviewed in this series. The first book, A Tournament Frozen in Time was a superb celebration of the European Cup Winners’ Cup and the follow up, Where the Cool Kids Hang Out was a snapshot of when the UEFA Cup was at its peak. Both are excellent, so I came to The Undisputed Champions of Europe with high expectations.
In fact, I was looking forward to reading this book so much it was the 2021 ‘Christmas Night Read’. This is a tradition we’ve established in our family. I’m gifted several books every December, but I let my wife know that there’s a specific title I really want to receive, so that once the children are asleep I can settle down with a decent Rioja and read to my heart’s content.
The Undisputed Champions of Europe more than lived up to the high expectations I had for it. While Scragg’s earlier books coalesced around a series of themes rather than going through on a season-by-season basis, this third book comes closer to being a ‘linear’ history. Given the way the competition evolved and the periods of dominance enjoyed by a select group of clubs and the fact that an English club won the trophy seven times in eight seasons between 1977 and 1984, it would have been difficult to tell the story any other way.
Steven Scragg is a gifted writer whose style is usually breezy and easy to read but the chapter in which he covers the Heysel Stadium disaster of 1985 naturally takes a different tone. The author doesn’t hide his allegiances to Liverpool FC but nor does he seek to diminish Liverpool supporters’ role in what happened. At the same time, Scragg sets out how complacency and incompetence within the Belgian authorities and the UEFA powerbrokers alike set the scene for a dreadful but entirely avoidable tragedy. This is done without sensationalising the story and with a powerful clarity.
That chapter is possibly the most powerful among fifteen beautifully crafted sections of a brilliant read. While the word ‘incredulously’ pops up in a few places I wouldn’t have expected it to, that doesn’t detract from the overall effect, which is to provide a fitting conclusion to a trilogy of books, all of which I recommend heartily.
The Undisputed Champions of Europe is – like its predecessors – a Pitch Publishing title and you can even ‘try before you buy’ at the Pitch website. You can also get all three parts of the trilogy from the football bookshop, Stanchion. If, like me, you preferred your European competitions without group stages, you should get stuck into the set.