Sports books for Christmas: The rise of the working-class hero as Saint, bad boy and television celebrity

Whether scholarly or anecdotal, socially mobile footballers' tales are in vogue. Glenn Moore turns the pages of history
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The Independent Online

The people's game is increasingly the academics' game, and not just in Hamilton. Somewhat late in the day historians have realised that footballers' lives are an intriguing example of social mobility - and perhaps, given the game's popularity, the chance to turn a quid.

Thus the appearance of Terrace Heroes: The Life and Times of the 1930s Professional Footballer by Graham Kelly (Routledge, £22.99pbk). No, not that Graham Kelly, but a senior academic at the University of Central Lancashire. Kelly's book considers the lives of 10 1930s' footballers including the renowned Joe Mercer. An interesting but dry read, it is compromised by a reliance on contemporary, usually bland sources. Kelly observes that the working-class players become honorary members of the middle class, primarily through playing golf and travelling in taxis. For some the change proved permanent for, upon retirement, while most either remained in the game or took up blue-collar occupations, some used their relative wealth and fame to embark on business careers.

Much has changed, as can be seen by the mind-boggling price of Terrace Heroes in hardback, £65. The quality and candour of ghosted autobiographies have also improved. Both football fans and social historians will be better entertained, and educated, by The Saint: My Autobiography by Ian St John with The Independent's James Lawton (Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99), and My Idea of Fun: The Autobiography by Lee Sharpe with David Conn (Orion, £17.99).

It may seem odd to bracket these two, but there are similarities. Both men were affected by the early death of a male role model, St John's father and Sharpe's grandfather. Both were then strongly influenced by footballing father figures, Pat McCourt, a local coach, in St John's case, Alex Ferguson in Sharpe's. Both, in an indication of the social mobility of the modern footballer, became television celebrities.

There most comparisons end, although there is a curiosity. St John grew up in the bleakest of circumstances. His Lanarkshire childhood was scarred by desperate poverty as well as family tragedy. Kelly's "Heroes" may have been middle-class in England, but such was the lot of the professional footballer north of the border that St John continued working at the Motherwell Bridge Engineering Company even while leading Scotland's attack. That juxtaposition led to a few headlines when he was one of a gang of apprentices justly sacked for skiving, then reinstated at the union's insistence. The poor wages led St John into a conspiracy to throw a game, a plot that collapsed when the goalkeeper refused to go along.

From such penury St John went on to become a member of Bill Shankly's first great Liverpool team, to management, then to television, where he achieved a wider fame as the straight man in Saint & Greavsie. He writes of breaks in Rio de Janeiro, of playing golf with Sean Connery. It is a long and admirable haul from having holes in his shoes and living with five siblings in an unheated two-room flat and yet there is an undercurrent of bitterness and many scores are settled. Perhaps that is because his unhappy experience as manager of Portsmouth, when he was conned into an impossible job, hurts still.

He might have healed the wounds elsewhere but his wife, Betsy, refused to countenance another stint. St John has no great complaint at that - he admits if it were not for her strong personality he might never have left the poorly paid but safe goldfish bowl of the Scottish game.

Had Sharpe's teenage crush, Debbie, been as strong when, after a poor run of results, Ferguson ordered Sharpe to move out of the house they had made, and back into digs, his career may have been sustained. Instead it declined, partly a result of illness and a lack of fortune with managers, but also his own fading motivation. Yet Sharpe seems far more content with his lot than St John, though that may be because the book concludes with him still savouring his success in Celebrity Love Island.

Sharpe had an easier childhood than St John, but had to learn fast when he went from parks football to Torquay, with its Murderball, then to Manchester United with a dressing-room of internationals, in the space of a year while still 17. His bravery on the ball rebuts accusations that he was soft but he did like a laugh - the title is deliberate, and that dogs him all the way down to Garforth Town. Ferguson soon disapproved but Sharpe's analysis of the Godfather is even-handed.

Jose Mourinho, one suspects, would have shared Ferguson's view. This is supported by the portrayal in Mourinho: Anatomy of a Winner by Patrick Barclay (Orion, £14.99). A slim but well-informed read, without Mourinho's input but with strong contributions from those who know him, from Portugal, Spain and Britain, it puts flesh on the headlines, usually with a well-turned phrase.

From the aristocrat, with his Armani and Amex, to the self-styled working-class club. The game's accelerating development is highlighted by the tales in T he Crazy Gang: Vinnie, Harry, Fash; The Inside Story of Wimbledon FC by Matt Allen (Highdown, £18.99). All the leading figures are quoted, with revealing input from Don Howe. The violence is underplayed, and Sam Hamman gets off lightly, but it is entertaining and already recalls a bygone age.

And finally, in a crowded field, Tony Hogg's lavishly illustrated, sleekly designed and lovingly researched Who's Who of West Ham United (£25, Profile Sports Media) is a textbook example of the genre, albeit overly slanted to the modern era. The perfect gift for Irons fans and, with its depictions of players discovered while working in the mines, or retiring to run post offices, a social history document in itself.

Recommended are Joe Royle: The Autobiography by Joe Royle with Bill Thornton (BBC Books, £16.99); Butcher: My Autobiography by Terry Butcher with Bob Harris (Highdown, £18.99); Swap Yer: The Wonderful World of Football Cards and Sticker Albums by Rob Jovanovic (Orion, £8.99).