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

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).

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Books should be for everyone, says Els, 8. Publisher Scholastic now agrees
booksAn eight-year-old saw a pirate book was ‘for boys’ and took on the publishers
Life and Style
Mary Beard received abuse after speaking positively on 'Question Time' about immigrant workers: 'When people say ridiculous, untrue and hurtful things, then I think you should call them out'
Life and Style
Most mail-order brides are thought to come from Thailand, the Philippines and Romania
Life and Style
Margaret Thatcher, with her director of publicity Sir Gordon Reece, who helped her and the Tory Party to victory in 1979
voicesThe subject is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for former PR man DJ Taylor
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

£70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions