Author of a different kind of football book: Fighting back with the Gunns

In his memories of a distinguished career the goalkeeper recalls family tragedy, professional triumph and how he once flattened Fergie but lived to tell the tale
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The Independent Football

With a surname like Bryan Gunn's, the temptation to indulge in wordplay with the title for your autobiography must be strong. We should be thankful the former Scotland goalkeeper's new book is not called Said and Gunn, Son of a Gunn or Gunny: Shooting From the Lip. There again, had he chosen something reflecting one of his myriad anecdotes, it could have been I was Alex Ferguson's Teenage Babysitter or even How to Flatten Fergie and Live.

Instead, Gunn and his publishers settled on In Where It Hurts. At first glance the title serves neatly, if unambitiously, for what the reader may assume is a collection of tales about plunging bravely among the studs of attackers, which, of course, the 6ft 2in Highlander did in around 600 matches, the vast majority for the club he now serves in the unusual role of ambassador, Norwich City.

In this story, however, the hurt referred to is the kind that cuts like a knife rather than the disappointment of defeat. But then the terms that define the key threads in the plot frequently cross over into a sporting context. Tragedy, for example. To Gunn and his wife, Susan, the concept does not include the Rob Ulla-thorne back-pass that bobbled over his foot, Paul Robinson-style, to gift Ipswich a goal. Rather it is epitomised by the death of their daughter, Francesca, before she had turned three.

Or courage. That is represented here not by the way Gunn put behind him an error-strewn Scotland debut, a 3-1 defeat by Egypt with his parents watching, but by the manner in which the family rebuilt their lives while raising epic sums for research into leukaemia, the disease that took Francesca. And though there are footballing fightbacks within its pages, resilience and defiance are nowhere better manifested than by Susan's emergence as an artist of international standing.

Which may make Gunn's literary offering sound somewhat worthy, if not dull. Like the man, though, it is shot through with sharp humour and astute observation. After chatting with him in the Norwich players' bar over high-class fish-cake and chips - well, this is Delia Smith's club - one senses these qualities were formed during an association with Sir Alex Ferguson which continues to be cordial into its third decade.

"I was his first choice at Aberdeen," explains Gunn. "But as babysitter, not goalie, unfortunately. Jim Leighton was No 1. On Saturday nights Fergie would come into the dressing-room and say, 'Right, who's sitting for me?' The others magically melted away. Being a naïve boy from Thurso, new to the big city, I got roped in.

"After a few weeks, I actually looked forward to it. Fergie paid me a tenner and his wife fed me. I also got on well with his boys, Darren, Jason and Mark. We played snooker or football. And I still had my night out on the town on the Sunday."

The relationship survived the frustration of playing the occasional big game and immediately making way for Leighton again, not to mention the night he floored Ferguson. It was 1983 and Gunn was on the bench in Gothenberg as Aberdeen beat Real Madrid to win the Cup-Winners' Cup. As the Scottish contingent leapt out on to the rain-lashed cinder track at the end, his outstretched arms sent the gaffer flying into a puddle.

"Me and Jim always suffered Fergie's elbows and kicks in training - his way of toughening us up - so that was payback time," says Gunn impishly. "I was picturing the new car I was going to buy with my bonus. As I ran on to the pitch I was thinking, 'A Ford Cortina! Yessssss!'"

The year of 1986 proved a life-changing one for Gunn, the first of a few over the next decade, and for Ferguson. In the space of a month, one left for Norwich, the other to Manchester United. "One of the last things Fergie said as I was leaving was 'You sure you want to go?' I've often wondered whether he meant 'If you don't, I'll come back for you in a month'; or maybe 'I'll be taking Jim to United and you can be No 1 here'."

Chris Woods had left Norfolk for Rangers, creating a vacancy for which Ferguson recommended Gunn. He was nursing a hangover from his leaving party when his new manager, Ken Brown, collected him and drove him, to his dismay, to West Ham to play for the reserves. From that inauspicious start, he became an integral part of the most successful side in Norwich's history.

"It was a gamble for me and the club, but although Fergie had told me to set my sights higher than Norwich, I didn't need to. We finished fifth, then fourth, and third in the first year of the Premier League, which took us into Europe where we went on to beat Bayern Munich."

Gunn remembers the 1992-93 season for more than just the results. While on a lads' holiday four years earlier, he had met Susan, then a 22-year-old with her own bridal-design business in Bolton. He proposed within 48 hours and Francesca was born two months before he went to the 1990 World Cup in Italy, again as back-up to Leighton.

"We had a charmed life," explains Gunn, using another expression often applied to his trade. "Then Francesca became ill. There was a game in the autumn of '92 at Chelsea where we were two down and won 3-2. Susan brought her to watch and I had a lovely photo taken with her on the pitch. But she was very poorly and getting worse.

"Soon after that we lost 7-1 at Blackburn. The team stayed in a bleak hotel and it rained endlessly. I just wanted to get back home. With hindsight you think, 'Why the bloody hell was I playing?' Very soon afterwards, Francesca died. She was sleeping between us. I realised what was happening and woke Susan. We cradled Francesca and cried."

Francesca would have been 16 on 11 October. Every picture they have ends when she was two and a half. Gunn's old team-mates Robert Fleck and Ian Butterworth have daughters of the same age, so when they see them they cannot help but wonder what she would have been like.

They moved on by helping to generate money for childhood leukaemia projects - £800,000 and counting - and with the help of Melissa, 14, and Angus, 10. "Nigel Worthington said when he got sacked by Norwich that he had lost his job, but he still had his health and family," Gunn says. "Those things are paramount."

Melissa has played in goal but now plays netball, although her father says with a mixture of love and exasperation: "We reckon she could be a great defence lawyer. She's very good at arguing." Angus is also a keeper, a fan of Robert Green and Petr Cech, and already plays for Norwich's Under-12s. "He says he wants to play for England, but I've registered him with the Scottish FA, too, don't you worry."

After injury ended his playing career, Gunn became the sponsorship sales manager for Norwich. Noting his interpersonal skills, the Championship club recently appointed him ambassador, which involves representing the club in both city and county, and even in Suffolk. "When I go to a game at Ipswich, the stewards shake my hand but I still see them having a wee snigger over that goal I conceded in the derby."

First wincing at the memory, he breaks into a grin. "But the record books show 'Ullathorne og'," says Gunn. "They don't say anything about me."

Another brush with fame: New Gunn making headlines

"Susan's the famous one now," Bryan Gunn says of his wife's growing reputation as an artist, which was enhanced this year when she received a major award from Sir Peter Blake. "I'm now Mr Susan Gunn!"

A former art student, she had put her creative talents on hold to be a wife, mother and fund-raiser. Her sporting passion is golf and it was a chance meeting at a golfing dinner with a former art school principal, Bruce Black, that encouraged her to resume her studies.

"Susan ended up winning the Sovereign European Art Prize in January," the proud husband says. "It was for a painting on gesso and Sir Peter was head of the judging panel. The prize-money has gone into upgrading her workshop and materials.

"She is currently exhibiting alongside Damien Hirst and Gavin Turk at the Fine Art Society in London. Sometimes it goes above my head, but I'm happy to be pouring the wine at the private views."

In Where It Hurts: My Autobiography by Bryan Gunn with Kevin Piper (Vision Sports Publishing, £18.99)

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