Book-ends for goalposts: it's sport writ large

From football to cricket to rugby, the stars are all telling stories – and the more 'kick and tell', the better. Stan Hey on the rise and rise of memoirs from the playing fields
Click to follow
The Independent Online

In just over seven weeks' time, men of a certain age are likely to find a sports biography filling their Christmas stockings, the end-product of sports stars filling their boots.

The biography could be of rugby players Lawrence Dallaglio or Mike Catt, racing drivers Sir Jackie Stewart (7,730 hardback sales) or Lewis Hamilton, former footballer Sir Bobby Charlton, cricket coach Duncan Fletcher or the recently ennobled cricket hero Sir Ian Botham (4,415). The shelves of our bookshops are positively creaking with the sheer weight of them.

Some of this barrage is down to seasonal opportunism, but the supply of sporting biographies continues to grow throughout the year, fixed as many are to the culmination of a major event when the eponymous subject has something memorable to say before the heat of the battle has cooled.

In the case of both Dallaglio (It's in the Blood) and Catt (Landing on My Feet), unflattering "kick and tell" comments about England's Rugby World Cup coach, Brian Ashton, were a key part of the race to publication in the days after England had lost the final to South Africa.

The ethics of such remarks, so close to what appeared to be a communal effort, are for the readers to judge. But what they certainly delivered were the flashing-neon headlines that justified the books' newspaper serialisation, which brought a quick return on some of the publisher's outlay and boosted the chances of hefty sales in the vital first few weeks.

Roddy Bloomfield, the 72-year-old doyen of sports books, brokered the deals for both books in his capacity as sports publisher for the Hodder Headline Group. Speaking last week, with his "head still spinning" from the rush, he suggested that the huge growth in sports books has one main engine.

"Promotion is the key – the opportunities now are so much greater than in the old days [when he was ploughing uphill with small-time sport publisher Stanley Paul], when you virtually had only one commercial channel open to you."

Bloomfield signed Catt two years ago and Dallaglio earlier this year, taking a punt first on their inclusion in the England squad, and second on a noteworthy outcome for his men in the World Cup.

"I was quite lucky really, with Catt being brought back into the side at his age. But the timing is all-important with a sports biography. If you can coincide with a major event such as the Rugby World Cup, you have a chance."

Bloomfield, in his old-school (Harrow and Balliol College, Oxford) way, does not discuss figures but suggests that the hype can be misleading, although it's rumoured he laid out a £250,000 advance for England cricketer Monty Panesar's story, after the spinner had played just 10 Test matches.

His blockbuster deal for the autobiography of Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, Managing My Life, was said to have topped a million.

"Most sports people are big earners in their own right now, and British publishers won't necessarily come up with sums that match their weekly wages," he says. "Equally, serialisation has always been there, and though the money's bigger, it's not that much more than the old days."

Bloomfield and some of his fellow sports publishers have, on occasions, been caught out by a national flop, such as the England football team's inglorious exit from last year's World Cup. "Not all my stuff does big business, and with football, a lot can depend on the success of the team rather than that of the individual."

With England's chances of reaching the European Championships next summer diminishing, publishing opportunities may be limited. "I'm not buying footballers' books at the moment," Bloomfield said in the aftermath of 2006, when Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, among others, launched autobiographies with varying success.

Rooney's five-book deal, commencing with My Story So Far, seems likely to fall short both in terms of volumes and in recouping its £5m advance.

Sports publishing has come a long way since Bloomfield's 1982 collaboration with Eric Morecambe, Over the Moon – Sick as a Parrot, a memento of the 1982 World Cup in Spain.

Biographies used to be scarce, which helps to explain why members of England's 1966 World Cup winning team – Sir Bobby Charlton, Nobby Stiles, George Cohen – have only recently published their stories.

Back then, football books were small-scale affairs, penned by hacks on the local "Pink 'Un". There was thought to be only a regional appetite for sporting biographies, and there was certainly official distaste in cricket and rugby union, where the "gentleman" and "amateur" codes prohibited players from commercialism.

Those few footballers to be published had to endure poorly produced books with punning titles based on the player's surname: as late as 1988 there was Tall, Dark and Hansen, from Alan, Liverpool's elegant de-fender and now a Match of the Day pundit. Jon Holmes, who began as a football agent in the Midlands 30 years ago – he now heads a London agency acting for sports people who have moved into the media – recalls trying to unload tomes by his client, England goalie Peter Shilton, at Stoke City's souvenir shop. "Five hundred?" the man in the shop exclaimed. "The most we've ever taken is 50."

"Back then," Holmes reflects, "the big players were reluctant to publish until their career was over. Now they're bringing out autobiographies after a year or two of their career. I think it's become an exercise for marketing celebrity rather than being a sportsman's last will and testament. I suppose we'll have the autobiographies of Cesc Fabregas, Theo Walcott and Andy Murray soon."

The breakthrough has coincided with greater television exposure and the consequent growth in earnings that has lifted sports people into the film and rock star bracket. "Football's watershed was the 1990 World Cup," says Holmes. "The team nearly won, Gazza cried and 26 million people watched the match on TV."

Sports books, too, had been improving as the occasional classic surfaced: Only a Game? by Eamon Dunphy in the late 1970s; Pocket Money, about the snoo-ker circuit, by Gordon Burn; and Out of His Skin about John Barnes, by Dave Hill in the 1980s. In 1992 came "the great cross-over", with Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch winning a sports prize and topping the national book charts.

Random House started the highly successful "Yellow Jersey" imprint a decade ago. Now autobiographies are ghosted by eminent writers – Hunter Davies for Wayne Rooney, Hugh McIlvanney for Sir Alex Ferguson – and by what sports desks on national papers call "The Number 1s" in their respective fields.

But what does it all mean at the sharp-end – the bookshop? In my local independent, Ex- Libris in Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire, co-owner and sports fan Jim Wolland says: "These autobiographies don't have much of a shelf life compared to general sports books.

"We'll have one or two for walk-in customers but most of the sales come at Waterstone's and Tesco, which can afford to buy in bulk and sell at a large discount. Then, after four to six weeks, anything left will be shipped to other outlets."

Indeed, in Wolland's "book barn" at the rear of the shop, where the unwanted and the unsold mingle with rare first editions, a brief search reveals two sporting autobiographies, ironically from the 2003 Rugby World Cup: England captain Martin Johnson's, and coach Sir Clive Woodward's Winning.

Sic gloria transit mundi.