Graham Hunter Interview

Guillem Balague and Graham Hunter

Caledonian Hotel, Edinburgh

On Thursday night, the Scottish capital played host to two giants of the Spanish football media. Calling upon their wealth of knowledge, experience and connections, Messrs Balague and Hunter compered a lively, entertaining evening of anecdotes and debate. Treating Messi’s emergence as the catalyst in a major turning point in Spanish football, they traced the fascinating Barcelona journey from Cruyff to Luis Enrique, taking in Laporta, La Masia, Ronaldinho and Guardiola along the way. The second half of the show saw them field an array of questions from the audience. Suarez, Fabregas, Neymar, De La Peña, Van Gaal, Almeria: you name it, they discussed it.

Afterwards, I caught up with the inimitable Graham Hunter, author of Barca and Spain.

Q. Thanks for your time, Graham. What a great event! You looked like you were having fun up there – how do you find talking about a book compared to writing it?

When you talk about something you’ve done, it does feel a bit embarrassing. You certainly do it to the best of your ability but I certainly don’t do it to garner appreciation. You do it intensely to try to communicate something. Since the first minute I’ve written about football, that’s what I’ve done. I remember it was an enormous surprise when anybody thought anything of what I wrote – you never lose that sense of something being worthwhile.

It’s not through any sense of false modesty that I say that I found the books really hard to do. I was trained as a newspaper man and it’s only subsequently that I’ve gone on radio and television. When you’re a newspaper man, you’ve got blank pages every day and part of the adrenaline is planning how to fill them, not just filling them with shite but working out what’s important, what’s a feature, what’s an interview, what’s a news story. Books take a fucking hell of a long time to come to fruition. I was saying to Guillem at lunch that he either assimilates facts more quickly or writes more quickly than me. I find it difficult.

When I talk on stage, it would be an outright lie to say it’s not a pleasure to talk to people about football all night, but you’re nervous. You watch a sea of faces and you’re worried, have they heard it before, am I being boring, do they feel like I’m repeating what they’ve already read? You worry about that. But when you connect with people because they ask you questions, then that’s untrammelled joy. Above all, what I come away with is the sheer joy of connecting with other people who feel the same about Spanish football as I do.

Q. The BackPage Press guys were saying that when they first approached you to do the Barca book you said no.

A thousand times! They spoke to me on the phone having read an article in The Sunday Herald about Xavi. They explained to me over and over again their passion about why they needed a book written about this subject. I said to them, ‘Everybody knows these stories, I’ve got nothing that people don’t know!’ The two things that convinced me were their persistence but above anything else, they told me ‘We’ve got this dream, we’ve started this company, against the odds, we’ve taken out a loan, we’re working part-time because we’re working as sub-writers for newspapers to finance the company. You’re the second book that we’ve asked anyone to do.’ Bascially, they suckered me into it! I didn’t believe I had anything new to say but now it’s been published in 13 or 14 countries, I was wrong and they were right. That’s the only time in my life I’ll say that about them!

Q. Where Guillem has focused on individual figures, you’ve focused on the team element. Do you feel each requires a different approach?

There’s no way to compare. I think he [Balague] is a lot shrewder than me. If you pick Pep and Messi, that’s extraordinarily astute. Both them and their entourages fully participated with him; he picked well. He’s also been more proactive in what he’s chosen. With BackPage Press, I’ve been led to my projects. Guillem has been sharper and good luck to him for that.

Q. In terms of that fascinating ‘access all areas’ approach to sports journalism, what advice would you have for someone looking to find their way?

Leave England. Things in Spanish football have become a little more closed than they were when I moved over, but England has a very closed football society. It doesn’t mean that players and managers don’t talk to journalists, because they do when they want them to write their books! In terms of the culture, of explaining their art and their philosophy, England is Neanderthal. It’s all about secrecy; you won’t be allowed in because you’re the enemy. Whereas in the advanced countries, there’s a symbiosis between football directors, managers, players and journalists. It doesn’t always work, it’s not always harmonious, but it does lead to more intelligent and open debate.

Q. If you could write a ‘behind the scenes’ biography on any footballer or football manager, past or present, who would it be?

I think the second Sir Alex Ferguson book is distinctly less well written and distinctly less well interpreted than the one he did with Hugh McIlvanney. So it’s very tempting to say Sir Alex Ferguson, from 1999 to now. But my ultimate choice would be Cruyff because I still believe that he’s the single most influential man in football ever – player, coach, football director, philosopher. Not all his ideas were original, but pound for pound he’s the most important personality.

Q. And finally, is there a next project in the pipeline?

There have been two suggested to me, but it would be naïve of me to share them with you. I would only accept one that was right for me because I’ve found these two tiring on top of my other work. Ollie Holt, Matt Dickinson, Henry Winter are exceptional at what they do, carrying on their work as brilliant frontline journalists and still writing well. I find it hard to do, so I’ll take my time in choosing.

You Don’t Know Me, But…

You Don’t Know Me, But: A Footballer’s Life

By Clarke Carlisle

Simon & Schuster, 2014

Along with most of the football-loving population, I have a natural scepticism when it comes to player autobiographies. Like the ‘True Scotsman’, they tend to be all bluster and skirt, with nothing underneath. Messrs Keane and Bellamy aside, few footballers are daring enough to name and shame their fellow professionals, and understandably so. With so many players extending their careers in football through coaching and media work, burning bridges at retirement is to be avoided like the plague. There is, however, another kind of honesty, one that doesn’t play on scandal but instead offers genuine insight into the realities of footballing life. Clarke Carlisle’s You Don’t Know Me, But is a winning example of this. Touching on everything from finances to dressing room politics via addiction, depression and racism, it’s a real breath of fresh air in a fusty genre.

In many ways, Carlisle is an atypical member of the footballing fraternity. He’s won two rounds of Countdown, presented documentaries on racism and depression, and he’s the former Chairman of the PFA. While it’s not the main focus of the book, Clarke’s cerebral side is still given plenty of platform, particularly in ‘Part of the Union’, one of the book’s stand-out chapters. Discussing FIFA’s response to racism, Carlisle argues, ‘There is a disgusting disparity between the sanctions imposed for offences that will cost the governing body money and those that are unethical or immoral.’ He goes on to add, ‘It is not the exclusive remit of black players to fight racism, it is for everyone to fight.’ Carlisle is equally eloquent and forthright on the subject of his own alcohol dependency and depression, brought on by a bad injury at the tender age of 21. ‘I didn’t have the wherewithal to face my responsibilities. From my warped and clouded viewpoint, all I could see was myself.’ Carlisle reflects on his troubled past with the frank assessment of a man who is very aware of his fortunate position.

But in other ways, Carlisle is incredibly typical. As with Tony Cascarino’s Full Time, You Don’t Know Me, But… is written by a footballer who has been through the English leagues, experiencing both great highs and great lows. Blackpool, QPR, Burnley, Preston, Northampton, York City – Carlisle is no superstar and he knows it. In his own words, he’s ‘a kid from Preston, from the humblest of beginnings and with moderate ability’. The modest, unaffected narrative voice is a really appealing feature; for all his more high-brow aspirations, Carlisle is full of the joys of the ‘playground’ banter that brings a team together: ‘It’s incredibly immature, but the whole working environment of football is.’ Whole chapters are dedicated to pranks, fights, preseason tours and Christmas parties. The tone of the book reflects the combination in Carlisle’s character brilliantly, blending his intelligent observations with cruder touches of humour.

The structure of You Don’t Know Me, But… is also a real masterstroke and key to the book’s success. What better way to address the harsh realities of football than by showing a former Premier League player scrapping for a living in the belly of League Two? Carlisle’s present day trials and tribulations, interwoven with flashbacks to a career of success and failure, paint a very powerful portrait of an average football career. Transport, housing, bills; these are still everyday concerns for all but the very top players, and even then, there is always the danger of the good life being whipped out from under your feet when you least expect it.

It seems an odd phrase to use for a footballer’s autobiography, but You Don’t Me, But… is a multi-faceted memoir. In its candid handling of mental health issues, so long a taboo in the macho sporting arena, it’s a significant addition to books by the likes of Sol Campbell, Keith Gillespie and of course Ronald Reng. But Carlisle’s book also addresses some of the key issues of modern football politics and, perhaps most significantly of all, offers everyday details from the largely everyday career of an endearingly everyday footballer.

Buy it here

8 Autumn Titles to Look Out For

Now that the international fun is over, it’s time to return to the club game we all know and love. Here are 8 football books to read in the coming months:

1. A Season with the Honest Men by Gerry Ferrara (Pitch Publishing, 1st Aug)

I can think of no better preparation for the new club season than a Miracle of Castel di Sangro-esque story set in the glorious surroundings of the Scottish First Division. A life-long Ayr United fan, Ferrara takes us on an incredible, behind-the-scenes journey through scandals, pranks and tantrums as his team chase that all-important promotion. Great characters guaranteed.

2. Rock n Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League by Ian Plenderleith (Icon Books, 4th Sept)

With the MLS now well-established and on the rise, it’s easy to forget that it was only founded in 1993. Before that, there was the North American Soccer League, home to teams called the Tampa Bay Rowdies and the Tulsa Roughnecks, and players called Pelé, Johann Cruyff and George Best. Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer reveals in all its glory the colour and chaos of the world’s first truly international league’ – a must for all fans of cult sports stories.

3. Bobby Moore: The Man in Full by Matt Dickinson (Yellow Jersey Press, 11th Sept)

The only World-Cup winning England captain and a West Ham defensive legend – but what more do we really know about Sir Bobby Moore? Dickinson, The Times Chief Sports Correspondent, is a man well-placed to write this definitive biography. For the first time we get a ‘warts and all’ view of Bobby’s life both on and off the field.

4. Guardiola Confidential: The Inside Story of Pep Guardiola’s First Season at Bayern Munich by Martí Perarnau (BackPage Press, 2nd Oct)

From Andrea Pirlo to Graham Hunter, Glasgow-based publishers BackPage Press are building a great reputation and a brilliant football list. Their latest book, by Spanish football expert Martí Perarnau, looks at Guardiola’s high-profile return to management at Bayern Munich last season. If their other books are anything to go by, this will be packed full of excellent detail, analysis and insight.

5.#2Sides: My Autobiography by Rio Ferdinand (Blink Publishing, 2nd Oct)

This isn’t the first book that Rio has written but it looks likely to be the most outspoken and interesting. John Terry, Roy Hodgson and David Moyes will be just a few of the topics that the former Manchester United defender offers his opinion on. Plus if you needed any further persuasion, the brilliant David Winner is collaborating on the project.

Cover - #2sides Rio Ferdinand high res

6. The Second Half by Roy Keane and Roddy Doyle (Orion, 9th Oct)

What a fascinating prospect this is – one of football’s fieriest characters working alongside one of fiction’s funniest writers. According to the blurb, this book ‘blends anecdote and reflection in Roy Keane’s inimitable voice. The result is an unforgettable personal odyssey which fearlessly challenges the meaning of success.’ Something tells me Sir Alex won’t be the only person threatening legal action once this publishes.

7. My Autobiography by Luis Suarez (Headline, 9th Oct)

Fear not football fans – despite the Uruguayan’s big-money move to Barcelona, this explosive book will still be published this autumn. The Diving, the goals, the biting, the accolades, the racism – all will be covered in this candid account of the amazing highs and lows of Luis Suarez. ‘El Pistolero’ in his own words – not to be missed.

8. Ossie: My Autobiography by Leon Osman (Trinity Mirror Sports, 10th Oct)

From one side of Liverpool to the other, and from a man of controversy to a man of understatement. Now 33, Osman has played nearly 400 games for Everton and remains a pivotal figure in their ball-playing midfield. The first name on the team-sheet during David Moyes’ tenure, ‘Ossie’ also has 2 England caps and hopefully lots of stories to share with us.