Football: Ghost-writer's unlikely haunts

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The Independent Online
IN A FORMER life I was a ghost-writer. There is no shame in this. Ghost-writers generally collaborate with people of interest. And some very good writers have spirited the odd line (one or two are rumoured to haunt the works of Shakespeare).

Hugh McIlvanney, sports journalism's answer to Wagner, helped Sir Alex Ferguson to compose his autobiography, an eloquent memoir of the Manchester United manager's journey from the proximity of the Govan shipyards to Buckingham Palace which spares neither shins nor egos along the way.

Among my souvenirs is a cheque from Sir Matt Busby for pounds 8, a bonus for assembling a few of the great man's thoughts for a short newspaper article during the course of my job in 1969, when a three-bedroomed detached house in south Manchester could be bought for about pounds 5,000. I tell people that I was Busby's cheapest signing on account of having everything except ability.

George Best sent me the wrong way without even trying for almost three years, but the risk of becoming a wizard of drivel while ghosting Best's newspaper column in the early 1970s was worth it for the occasional insight. In February 1972, for example, he spoke of wanting a transfer from Manchester United because the team was not good enough to be successful. The conversation remained confidential because the newspaper was not willing to pay extra for the story. "I'm not going through all the aggravation it will cause for nothing," Best said.

He once wrote the column himself in retaliation to what he called "Have a go at Best week". This related to criticism of his performances in matches against Newcastle and Manchester City, plus comments about his personality attributed to the actress Susan George. The authentic Best was far more entertaining than our weekly collaboration.

Working with Bill Shankly on his autobiography in 1976 was a fascinating experience, not least because the founder of the Liverpool dynasty never ceased to think of himself as a footballer. Although he retired as Liverpool's manager in 1974, visitors to Shankly's home would often find him in a tracksuit. Inquiries about his health would inevitably prompt the rubbing of a thigh or a calf. "Bit of a muscle strain, but I should be OK for Friday," he would say, eyes gleaming at the prospect of his weekly five- a-side kickabout.

Some people were disappointed that Shankly's book was not as humourous as they expected it to be. But it was not his intention to present himself as a stand-up comedian. Although he did not seriously think football was more important than life or death, it came a close second.

The hours spent taping interviews were continually interrupted by telephone calls. Shankly was still in demand. During the course of one conversation he told the caller to hang on and disappeared into another room. He returned with a Rothmans Football Yearbook, glancing across at me and saying, "I'm running every bloody club in the country". He was loving every minute.

Recounting his arrival at Liverpool in 1959, Shankly said the grass at the training ground was so high that Jimmy Melia could hide in it standing up. He also mentioned Melia's enthusiasm about the training routines he introduced, and said that the midfield player told him how anxious the team were to please him. At this point, speaking conspiratorially behind a hand directly into the tape recorder, Shankly said: "Jimmy Melia will be getting swollen-headed."

One morning Shankly draped a newspaper over the back of a chair and pointed towards an offending headline, simultaneously reaching for a pair of spectacles. It was the first time I had seen him with glasses, and my face must have betrayed surprise.

"Er, aye, just for reading," Shankly said. "I came back from a match at Anfield and told Ness [his wife] that the referee had given a penalty against Liverpool, and he was right. And Ness said, `Bill, if you've started agreeing with referees you'd better get some glasses'."

Kevin Keegan was still a name on the Liverpool and England team sheets when when we worked on his first book, which was published in 1977. Keegan's father, Joe, a Geordie miner who moved to Yorkshire when work became scarce on the Durham seams, was such an influence that Kevin said he had "played football for Dad". Joe died before the book was finished, but not before Kevin had recounted a catalogue of entertaining childhood anecdotes.

I spent a day with Joe. His friend, Harry Wadsley, drove us from the Keegan home near Doncaster to a favourite pub on the outskirts of Rotherham. During the journey Harry played a cassette recording of Liverpool's 1974 FA Cup final win against Newcastle United. The two men knew the commentary by heart and their excitement increased as the tape reeled on. I was convinced that they expected Liverpool to win by a bigger margin than 3-0 and that Kevin would at least score a double hat-trick.