'A Life of Brian' by Dave Thomas
Renown Clarets author, Dave Thomas has provided Vital Burnley with his review of the Beast's new book...
Life of Brian by Dave Thomas
I love books that are different… and this one certainly is. Routine football biogs or autobiogs just start at the beginning and finish at the end and blandly tell a story with a few bits of gossip, or this manager didn`t like me or that one dropped me in the reserves for no reason; and by the end of it I`m thinking why did I bother reading that? Well, there is a bit of managerial stuff in the Beast`s book of course but the way it all unfolds is far from just a routine mechanical format. I suppose the best way to sum this up is by saying that whilst most football books speak from the ghostwriter`s pen; this one speaks from Brian Jensen`s heart, and he has a lot to say.
I particularly wanted to get a copy to see what he had to say about three managers - Cotterill, Coyle and Laws. He didn`t let me down. There are rich pickings when he talks about Cotterill and several insights into Owen Coyle. Of Laws we learn little, but then Brian is beholden to him for the goalkeeper`s jersey so that`s to be expected. Mind you he does mention Gudjonnson`s claim that Laws had lost the dressing room and the respect of the players, and doesn`t refute it.
What we do learn is that Brian Jensen is emotional, demonstrative, fiercely determined, outspoken, a real family man, is/was desperate to play for his country, agonises over his performances; basically thought that Cotterill was a $£%&, and is a damned good cook.
The authors, Dan Sorensen and Hans Krabbe, more or less lived with Jensen for ten days ("we have booked ourselves in as flies on the wall") and in this way got some true insights into the daily life of "an honest working man." There are parallels with one of the finest football books of all time 'The Glory Game` by Hunter Davies. Davies lived, ate, and breathed with the team for a season and was allowed access to areas that no modern journalist could ever hope to repeat. But Sorensen and Krabbe come mighty close. They present it as the story of a man who was barely known until 2009 and was then catapulted into the headlines via his Carling performances and the season in the Premiership.
It is a 'portrait of a Danish goalkeeper who made the big breakthrough late in his career after a desperate struggle to convince a series of sceptical managers of his true talent`. And none of them according to Brian was more sceptical than Steve Cotterill who according to the goalkeeper coach almost ruined not one goalkeeper but two.
Sorensen and Krabbe are good. They have the knack of conjuring up images in just a few words.
"We met a proud and courageous man. Proud of his family and career, he has worked so hard for both. He is also brave enough to admit that his life is stressful, and he has anxiety and doubt about his abilities. It is far from the glorified image of football`s superstars we usually see. The Premier League also has ordinary employees who must walk the dog, go shopping for groceries, be loving husbands, save up for a dream car and remember to call their mother."
The book looks at just a handful of games in particular; the first being the 1 - 0 win over Man United, when Jensen saved the penalty. It was that save that convinced the authors that there was a story to be told. The second was the one against Wigan at Turf Moor when Burnley lost after taking a 1 - 0 lead. It was the game where their first goal was one of those Burnley comedy goals; the goalkeeper slips, another defender is involved in the mix-up, and the Wigan player is presented with a gift. This was the game where after the incident Jensen went off with an ankle injury. The more poisonous of the journalists present either made fun of it or accused him of engineering the injury to save face. If you read the chapter you will be convinced that this was nothing fake. It`s during this chapter that you get an insight into Jensen`s inner turmoils, his desperation for the injury to heal and to play the next game, fearing that if not, he will lose his place. Hanging on to the jersey is his raison d`etre. His family is the foundation that keeps him focussed in a home where you get the clear picture there is love and warmth where the two boys "tumble down the stairs" when they are called for the family meal.
Because of this innate 'worry` character trait the last thing he needs in his career is a Steve Cotterill and yet it gives him a bloody-mindedness to carry on despite on occasions being "reduced to a nervous wreck." The one who gives him confidence and total re-assurance is Owen Coyle. He doesn`t labour it deliberately but the contrast between the two comes over loud and clear. For me, this is a gold mine as I bring Entertainment, Heroes and Villains near to completion, a detailed look at Steve Cotterill, Owen Coyle and Brian Laws at Burnley Football Club.
Before long the book goes into the great night when Blake scored his wonder goal and Burnley became world famous overnight but it`s the Wigan game and aftermath that reveals most about the character of Brian Jensen. Sprinkled throughout are snapshots of Burnley history, the Orient game, where did the name 'Beast` come from, early days in his career, and a measure of notoriety and false paternity tabloid accusations at West Brom, his wife Maria berating two fans behind her who abuse Brian throughout a game, picking up the kids from school and nursery… and then picking himself up off the floor in the Wigan game after he has lain there "like a beached whale on a desolate coast." And after the ignominy and embarrassment comes the next few days of scans, ice packs, support boots, crutches, loneliness, anxiety, treatment, worry and the barbs of the News of the World reporter Chris Bascombe that enrage him.
If you want to know how a goalkeeper feels with the spotlight on him, the Wigan chapter should be compulsory reading. But Coyle telephones him on his way home from the private hospital in Gisburn. His words are consoling and reveal classic good man-management not censure. "I need you next weekend, you have saved us so many times," says Coyle. It`s all he needs to hear.
Contrast that to his predecessor and the start of chapter 7: "I had it to hell with Steve Cotterill."
The chapter ends with: "An arrogant beggar who had his head so far up his own ass that it was quite painful… goalkeeper coach Phil Hughes told him that in his opinion, the manager ruined the confidence of not one goalkeeper but two". And in between it is just a gem of a chapter as it runs through his beginnings and career so far and grabs the chance to reveal more of his dislike of Cotterill.
The average footballer on an average wage nearing the end of his contract is a working man on tenterhooks, is the theme of chapter 8. And in this there is the picture of an Owen Coyle who is either a canny beggar or just plain devious as he continually delays Brian`s new contract negotiations. Ironically it is Brian Laws who extends it and Jensen gets the best pay deal he has ever had. If I have read things properly Coyle, after he had left Burnley, wanted Brian to have a contract clause that allowed him to leave to any Premier Club offer (just in case he was wanted at Bolton we may deduce), and that there was contact between them before the new Burnley contract was signed.
The book stops before he loses his place to Grant and not because he has done anything wrong or dropped any clangers. How Brian therefore feels about Brian Laws now is therefore presumably mixed - gratitude for the best salary he has had, only recently has he been able to buy his dream car; but presumably deep torment that he has now lost the jersey. His comments about having to play for the reserves on a cold Tuesday in Rochdale are unsurprising.
Chapter Nine had me feeling just so sorry on his behalf. All he wanted was to be able to say he played for his country - just once. But he was never selected and he cannot understand why. Neither can an array of Danish journalists as unknowns from small Danish Clubs are preferred. It`s quite a heartbreaker of a chapter, describing the slaps in the face he receives. Coach Martin Olsen was urged to select him but the nearest he got was an invitation to be part of a training squad. Brian weeps when he hears his dream will not happen. This is a passionate and emotional guy, and once stood up having had a few beers too many to berate Brendan Batson at a West Brom dinner because he felt he had been so let down. He had to be led away. Meanwhile Phil Hughes sends Olson a video of Brian. But all to no avail. Hughes clearly rates him and is a member of the goalkeeper`s union. "There is nowhere to hide" for a goalkeeper he says. Think Wigan and the publicity of the aftermath.
And then Coyle: "Eloquent, gracious and friendly… playful eyes… humour and ambition… in balance with himself, life and the job he loves." Coyle telephones Chris Bascombe the News of the World guy and gives him some verbal grief for the report he wrote about Brian. It comes across how protective he is of his players. Jensen was astonished to hear that Coyle had phoned Bascombe on his behalf. You can feel the unspoken admiration.
'When Coyle left the magic disappeared` begins The Epilogue, which then concerns itself with the fateful Liverpool game that confirmed relegation, and then touches on the effect of the Coyle departure. It was clear to Jensen after the MK Dons Cup-tie that Coyle was history. Jensen has mixed feelings. Coyle did so much for him and rebuilt his confidence but on the other hand his new contract negotiations had not been settled and he was:
'Damned irritated when he disappeared. Now it seemed as if he had only thought about himself and his own opportunities for a golden contract. I was disappointed as he had plenty of opportunities to extend my contract`.
Reading between the lines, there was contact between Jensen and Bolton but it came to nothing, along with another offer to return to Denmark. But Jensen is grateful to Brian Laws for the best contract he has ever had though he is once again wracked with doubt as to where he figures in the new man`s plans. It was ever thus at every club for just about every player when new managers walk in the door.
The authors reveal that the players felt let down by Coyle. 'He made boys into men and got them an invitation to dine at the top table, but his exit has sent them back onto the street`. Nevertheless Jensen praises him.
'He was simultaneously boss, friend and role model. A guy who earned tremendous respect and who you could chat and confide in.`
But, 'when he disappeared the tyre was punctured. Burnley`s players will never forget when months of constant progress ended with Coyle scarpering down the motorway to a club with massive debts`.
Jensen makes no criticisms of the Laws appointment and is cautious with his remarks about the new manager but his comments about players are revealing:
"Laws is markedly different from Coyle. He is the sophisticated guy not saying much, while Coyle was constantly banging on and larking about… When Coyle left the magic disappeared… at times there was insufficient effort from several players… some constantly found excuses… a lousy attitude affects the squad… we had too many who just spit the dummy out and it got worse… they said Burnley`s spirit disappeared with Coyle. But there was no Burnley spirit; it was a Coyle spirit and it evaporated with him`.
Maybe those words reveal publicly the core problem at the club after Coyle left, the confirmation of what we all suspected; that some players almost threw in the towel, and it has taken two objective, Danish journalists to set it down in black and white.
The more I read the book the more I get out of it. The boy from the wrong side of the tracks made it into the champagne world of the Premier after years of toil and struggle. 6000 travelling Burnley fans will never forget his penalty saves at Chelsea in the Carling Cup. A far bigger global audience will never forget his penalty save on the night Burnley beat Manchester United.
Well done to Tony Dawber at Dawber Publishing for getting it translated and available to us. Jensen`s is a great story, beautifully observed and truly uplifting.
BEAST: BRIAN JENSEN FROM NORREBRO TO THE PREMIER LEAGUE by Hans Krabbe and Dan Sorensen,Dawber Publishing 2010. Paperback £10.99 order through www.dawberpublishing.co.uk