There are swathes of Arsenal-related books out there. With a club that has such an eventful and extensive backstory as Arsenal do, then there are a preposterous amount of threads that a prospecting author can pick at and unravel as they see fit.
The problem with having so much reading material at your disposal as a Gooner, is that there is often a recurring theme or structure that the central narrative is housed within. No matter what the subject may be, if the epic tale smacks of the prosaic, then each turn of the page may feel like trudging through treacle.
This is where ‘I Am Sam‘ author, James Durose Rayner, has come up trumps. This book does contain a central Arsenal theme, and it is Gooners who will buy it. The framework that acts as the foundation however, is anything but mundane. It isn’t set in chronological order, nor does it simply go through the life of the central subject – a certain Jon Sammels – from birth to retirement.
What this tale does so well is it reels you in by setting the story in fiction. The career of Jon Sammels stays completely factual, but it is the story that Durose Rayner describes as you start the book that makes it so easy to digest.
The reading experience starts with the main protagonist who truly has it all – or appears to. His elaborate facade includes the sports car, the glamorous job in sports media, the flashy suits and a string of former and current lovers. The man lives life faster than the Maserati he drives. Not quite the archetypal London businessman however, as the story unfolds you learn how every step he takes at the start is beseeched by struggles – of which most of them are his own making.
Once familiar with his herd of friends and characters that float towards his magnetic personality, the author really begins to tie in the thread of Sammels. It starts with a documentary the main character and his business partner are making and the criticism levelled at England Manager Sir Alf Ramsey after the disappointment of World Cup 1970. Many thought the squad he picked were far too loyal to the Heroes of ’66, to the detriment of some truly talented players – such as Jon Sammels.
The more the characters delved, the more they uncovered about the player who was so maligned by a portion of his own fans. The tale begins to resemble a Dan Brown epic at this point – a mystery slowly being revealed which is peppered with fact and engages you thanks to its dramatic scenes. Of course, the stories that Brown penned are steeped in historical myth, but Durose Rayner mixes Jon Sammel’s backstory so well with the fictional yarn involving the characters aforementioned.
Imagine a graphic of a solar system. The Sun is the footballing exploits of Jon Sammels, and all the other planets which orbit around the fiery sphere are the storylines which whizz around it. It sounds complicated, but the author has taken the idea of a footballing biography and turned it into a book that anyone could read, regardless of footballing allegiance.
The greatest stories involving factual content are the ones that when you’ve finished reading, you discover you’ve learnt a wealth of information that you had no idea you had taken in. Teachers nationwide would all agree that most people soak in new data when they aren’t aware they are learning. This book is so enjoyable that by the end pages, you realise that the author has liberally sprinkled in so much about Jon Sammels that you feel you know him better than most.
Sammels was so much more than a player who possessed a lightning bolt of a shot. He was a player who belonged to a different generation, one where great forward football thrived. He was a sacrificial lamb to the footballing ethos at Arsenal at the time, and his kind-hearted nature was just another reason why he wasn’t taken to by most fans unlike the vocal local boy Charlie George.
So many other strands of tale come together to form a tapestry that illuminates whilst you enjoy the sometimes lurid and fast-paced lifestyle of the fictional main character. Alan Ball, Bertie Mee, Sir Alf Ramsey, the present day Arsenal team, and so many more pepper the story and give Arsenal fans little nuggets to nibble on as you get swept away by Mr. Arsenal, his company, his many ladies and his friends. It was just so easy to read that large chunks of time were spent racing through the pages.
The overall picture painted by Durose Rayner is vivid and will compel you to rip through the chapters at breakneck speed. It is Part One of a planned trilogy and I simply cannot wait to start the second book – which is entitled ‘ITV7’.
You can buy the book here. I heartily implore you to do so.