“Beef cheeks and cepes” says the narrator on the Great British Menu currently on telly in the background. It’s hardly the language to put my mind in the right frame to write a small piece about Football Autobiographies, but I will try nonetheless. I doubt whether there’s a football fan on the planet who hasn’t at some point bought or read a footballer’s autobiography. Back in the day of course, a football autobiography used to be written towards the end of a footballer’s career or when it had actually finished, and moreover usually written by the player themselves. Now of course it’s slightly different. Patience isn’t the driving market force anyone and I think Wayne Rooney is 2 books into his 6 book contract of ghost written autobiographies. Christ alone knows if he’ll have enough material for a full chapter let alone 6 entire books. I suspect not somehow.
The problem is with football autobiographies is that they tend to have a fairly specialist market. Nobody who follows Man United will buy Stephen Gerrard’s book and nobody 12 miles to the west will be parting with money to buy Gary Neville’s “Red”. As for someone like Roy Keane, even though he polarises opinion in his native Ireland, might find that people that most people who bought his book originated from Ireland, Manchester (I use the term loosely), Surrey and Nottingham. I didn’t buy it as it happens. The bit about the Alfie Inge Haaland tackle and immediate aftermath persuaded me not to buy it. I can’t believe that anyone outside of Stamford Bridge or a member of the EDL would buy John Terry’s prospective “Captain. Leader. Legend” book. Oh, a quick look on Amazon tells me that the title’s already been used as biography. There’s even a signed copy by Wayne Bridge. Quite a collectable.
Like some others I guess my first autobiographies were one’s that my father bought and had deposited in the bookcase on the middle landing of the family home’s staircase. The three that stand out are Emlyn Hughes “Crazy Horse”, Denis Law “An Autobiography” and the excellent “With Clough” by Peter Taylor. Dad was a Man Utd fan, exiled against his will in Devon.
“Crazy Horse” was the first one I read. Christ alone knows why my Man Utd supporting father bought an autobiography from the ex-captain of Liverpool. The chuffing turncoat. To me old Emlyn was just a captain on A Question of Sport. A cracking read it was too. Plenty of emotion and honesty in the whole book. From growing up in Barrow-In-Furness, struggling to make the grade at Blackpool, being signed by Bill Shankly and becoming a successful player at Liverpool before being put out to pasture at Wolves. There aren’t any major revelations and it’s a good solid book.
Its much the same when it comes to Denis Law’s “An Autobiography”. This was the first crack he made at a book and like the Emlyn Hughes effort it tells a story of a very hard upbringing in Aberdeen, personal issues with height, build and the fact that he had to wear special spectacles in order to correct a squint. It then goes on to map the career from Huddersfield to Man City to Torino to Manchester United and then famously back to Man City. It’s a good solid interesting read filled with detail and honestly. I’ve no idea why he wrote another autobiography “The King” later on in life.
“With Clough” by Peter Taylor is similar quality read and the story is told from the stoic calmness of the ultimate assistant manager who pragmatically goes through the story from their playing careers, to coaching, to management at Hartlepools, Derby County, Brighton and Nottingham Forest. It obviously misses out the 44 days at the dirty Leeds but David Peace has filled that part in quite nicely. Ironically in the book there’s absolutely no mention of any kind of fractuous relationship between the two of them but apparently when the book came out Clough had no idea Taylor was writing it and got no monetary recompense from Taylor even though he was the primary subject. By the time Clough had written his autobiography in 1994 it didn’t really add much more to the Clough story apart from a little extra hyperbole. Personally I thought that the Channel 4 documentary on him was more revealing. The sign of a man who came across better on TV than by words in a book.
My first bought autobiography was Bryan Robson’s “United I Stand” as I was a massive Manchester United fan in the mid 1980s. The book was probably the first case of somebody writing a book before their career was over, although I have a feeling that Derek Dougan’s “The sash he never wore” might’ve predated that by 12 years. Funnily enough “United I Stand” is probably a more interesting read for West Bromwich Albion fans than for Manchester United ones as the book mostly focuses on the early part of his career. The book follows the same template as Emlyn Hughes and Denis Law. It’s a triumph over a tough background and physical issues before the eventual success under Ronnie Allen, Johnny Giles and Big Fat Ron before joining him at Old Trafford.
I think I was then handed a copy of Eamon Dunphy’s “Only a Game” to borrow, but one I subsequently kept. This was an entirely new format of autobiography for me. The diary of a season. Of course, Dunphy is known for Ghost Writing Roy Keane’s book later on in life but “Only a Game” remains one of the real classics in football literature. Set in a gritty 2nd division two Millwall side in the 1970s it’s the tale of a season of transitional with the older pro’s gradually being put out to pasture in favour of up and coming young guns like Gordon Hill who would go on to sign for Man Utd. Dunphy is a bit of a moany character but the book comes across well and shows just how quickly things change in football with team selection and direction. Dunphy escaped to Charlton Athletic.
As I got older I think I went off autobiographies for a while but then started up again. Alex Ferguson’s was a good solid read. Terry Venable’s book was quite interesting at the start but then petered out when it turned to Spurs, Scribes West and blah blah blah. Jimmy Greaves “Greavsie” was alright but rather like Brian Clough in that he came across better on the telly than in a book.
I think then there was a general shift to critically acclaimed autobiographies from well known lower league characters such as Neil Redfearn and Mickey Quinn. The first one as solid as can be and the Mickey Quinn one deciding to focus on the anecdotal side of his career. Everyone loves a dodgy scouser, don’t they? Especially with the “Who ate all the pies” title, one of the songs he had to put up with during his career. Personally I preferred “He’s fat, he’s round, he’s worth a million pounds”. It’s not a bad book but it’s a little bit too crude to take seriously. Mickey proudly says “I was born with a gift to score goals. Left foot, Right foot, headers. I didn’t care if they bounced off my fucking knob as long as they went in”. Don’t get me wrong. I like a sweary tome but sometimes it’s nice to be surprised by sweary words. It’s all about context.
I found myself in Waterstones one day a few years ago looking through the sport’s section and I purchased Ronald Reng’s biographical account of ex Barnsley keeper Lars Leese called “Keeper of dreams”. It’s a book from an interesting perspective when Premier League clubs made the first tentative steps in recruiting all and sundry from abroad. It’s basically a simple story of a 28 year old german goalkeeper who never quite made it in his home country, in fact who never played a professional match who ended up signing for Barnsley when Danny Wilson got them into the Premier League playing a style of football not unlike Brazil. Leese was quite critical of Wilson’s training methods and the resentment of English players towards their foreign counterparts. He played in 20 games in two seasons for Barnsley before going back to Germany to relative obscurity despite becoming a cult hero at Oakwell. Well worth a read though. The author, Ronald Reng, has recently written the biography of Hannover 96 goalkeeper Robert Enke who sadly committed suicide in 2009.
“Steak Diana Ross” by ex Notts County player David McVay. The subtitle of “Diary of a Football Nobody” is pretty accurate. But it’s a really interesting book set in the gritty 1970’s with car chases involving players with Ford Capris and Cortinas, with stories of the Notts County manager Jimmy Sirell trying to keep hoardes of rioting Man United fans at bay with a bunion scapel and of a 19 year old centre half whose heart isn’t convincing him that he should actually be playing professional football. There nice references to the music at the time and models of cars sadly forgotten. It was a brave who took a knackered Fiat 128 on the M1.
I’ve the best and the most recent autobiographies I’ve read until last. The best is Stan Ternant’s “Stan the Man”. Stan, bless him is one of football’s lunatics and the book really makes you laugh, especially some of the anticson pre-season tours to Mallorca. The particular favourite is of a hotel official accusing Ronnie Jepson of cheating at Bingo. An argument ensued then ended with Jepson saying “Fuck off mate, or I’ll lob you in the pool”. The book also deals with his hatred of Neil Warnock and his time being patronised by Chelsea players when he was assistant to Ian Porterfield.
I purchased Chris Hargreaves’ “Where’s your caravan?” out of respect for what he did for Torquay United during his two and half seasons at the club. Believe it or not it’s not the first autbiography from a ex Torquay player I’ve bought. I purchased Lee Sharpe’s book just for the chapter on Torquay United which brought home to light just how many lunatics and desperados played for us under Cyril Knowles. I even read Garry Nelson’s “Left foot in the grave” after the furore had died down a bit. A little too much hype.
As for Chris Hargreaves, the book is a throwback to the standard 1970s/1980’s autobiography. Lots of heart and honesty but lacking in a bit of finesse. The italic sections of random thought irritated me beyond belief and some of the points in their hadn’t been researched properly. The bit about Kevin Hodges first managerial job being at Plymouth Argyle irked me seeing as it had missed Mr Hodges having an exceptional first season in charge of Torquay United where he was one disputed penalty away from gaining promotion.
At Torquay United we owe Chris Hargreaves a huge debt of gratitude for what he did for us as a player. He almost single-handedly got us out of the Blue Square Premier and back into the Football League. The physical exertions of this feat probably ended his career prematurely so he made a massive sacrifice for our cause. He was rewarded by the Plainmoor faithful voting for a centre half who’d been released mid season after his contract wasn’t going to be renewed and being pipped to the post in the Player of the Season award. That’s right, you read that correctly. He lost on a protest vote against a manager who got us promoted.
It’s worth noting that since writing this article I’ve bought 4 from Amazon for 1p each. Paul McGrath, Derek Dougan, Norman Whiteside and Alan Rough will be arriving through my door very soon.