Michael Calvin Interview

SPORTS REPORTER MICHAEL CALVIN PHOTO:PHIL COBURN

SPORTS REPORTER MICHAEL CALVIN
PHOTO:PHIL COBURN

When it comes to sportswriting, Michael Calvin is an A-list, award-winning powerhouse. Whether you’re reading his columns for The Independent and BT Sport or one of his many brilliant books, top-quality insight and analysis are guaranteed. Mike is also one of the good guys, which is why he’s back for a second interview with Of Pitch and Page and why he’s (hopefully) forgiven me for drastically underestimating his phenomenal output (see below). On the back of rave reviews for his latest book Living on the Volcano, I asked him about research, writing and what he’s learnt about football management.

1. What made you decide to make football managers your next project after football scouts?

Scouts are still subjected to institutionalised disrespect, as are managers. That gave me the incentive to try to humanise what can be a pretty de-humanising job. I’ve always been struck by the fact that, despite their ubiquity, football managers have traditionally remained resistant to deeper scrutiny. I wanted to find out what made them tick, as people and professionals.

2. Was it more difficult to gain managers’ trust? Was there any material that had to be removed at a later date for confidentiality reasons?

I was fortunate that quite a few of the managers had read my previous football books, Family and The Nowhere Men. They knew what I was about: I was looking for authenticity. They responded to the prospect of being portrayed accurately, and with a degree of depth. A 100,000 word book gives a writer an ability to contextualise, so they were comfortable enough to drop their guard. We worked in a spirit of mutual trust and respect, which is very rare in the modern game.

3. Did your opinion change at all as the interviewing/writing went on? It strikes me that you were always sympathetic to the manager’s plight, but was there anything that really left you ‘eyes opened’?

I think they understood I empathised with their problems. Several said ‘you’ve been in dressing rooms. You know the territory.’ The most powerful question a writer can ask is ‘tell me how you do your job’. This wasn’t just an interview request; I wanted to watch them work, on the training ground and in internal meetings to develop an understanding of their character and the breadth of their responsibilities. I sensed a cultural shift in the emergence of a new, more emotionally intelligent generation, aged between 34 and 43.

4. Living on the Volcano is your third book – do you find the writing process getting easier each time?

Actually it is my sixth! I did a book on cricket captaincy with Ray Illingworth when I was 21 (don’t ask the publication date) and one called Only Wind & Water, which was on a round the world yacht race in which I competed (the publishers promptly went bust!) I also collaborated with Gareth Thomas on Proud, which was named Sports Book of the Year 2015 (sorry for showing off!) I love the research and writing process; the more books one writes, the easier it is to get one’s head around the scale of a project.

5. Were there any managers that you were sad not to include?

The only outright refusal was from Sam Allardyce, who rather grandly announced he wanted to share his thoughts through the LMA. He has a book out soon, funnily enough…. I had to be really disciplined about the number of managers I studied otherwise Volcano would have rivalled War & Peace. I was happy with the cross section, but wouldn’t have minded including Nigel Pearson and Keith Hill, at Rochdale.

6. At last year’s Manchester Football Writing Festival, you spoke about how the move to Twitter-speed news may leave the book as the only option for longer, more considered sports journalism. Do you feel we’re seeing a growth in high-quality football literature?

I do, and it is not just limited to football. I think the standard of British long form sportswriting has improved immeasurably over the last decade, to the point where it is more compelling than its North American equivalent.

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Now for the Quick Fire Round: as a management expert, who would you choose to…

7. Win the Premier League on a budget of £50million?

Arsene Wenger (provided everyone else had £50m)

8. Secure Premier League safety against the odds?

Bit counter-intuitive this one, since he failed to do so last season, but Sean Dyche.

9. Get a young side promoted from the Championship?

Karl Robinson, given time and more resources than he has at MK Dons.

10. Take a team from League 2 to the Premier League?

Obviously dependent on continuity of budget, but a natural development coach like Paul Tisdale at Exeter, Eddie Howe at Bournemouth, or Wolves’ Kenny Jackett, whose mentor at Watford, Graham Taylor, did just that.

 You can buy Living on the Volcano here

James Montague Interview

James Montague is a very, very busy man. Earlier this month, Thirty-One Nil, his incredible journey through World Cup 2014 qualification, picked up the British Sports Book Award for Football Book of the Year. When I got in touch for an interview, I stupidly thought he might be taking it easy, basking in the glory of his triumph. How wrong I was. ‘Are you free to Skype now?’ he asked. I wasn’t – ‘How about tomorrow?’ I suggested hopefully. ‘Sorry, I leave early in the morning’, he said. ‘Another trip – cracking story coming up.’

Here today, gone tomorrow – that’s the exciting life of world football’s greatest correspondent. But worry not; I emailed him my burning questions and he answered them brilliantly on the plane to God knows where.

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1. Let’s start at the beginning – how did you get into sports journalism and how did that then lead to When Friday Comes?

It was all a bit of an accident. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, other than I was interested in the world and loved reading about sport, politics, and current affairs. I did a politics degree and managed to get an (unpaid) internship at the New Statesman. I was lucky. My parents lived in Essex so I could work at the evenings and weekends doing door to door canvassing for a double glazing company and just about earn enough to commute and stay afloat. After that six weeks, though, I was hooked, even though the one article I wrote for them (about an Amsterdam style cannabis cafe that opened in Bournemouth, that got their weed from a few grannies who grew it for them) was awful. It was cut from 2000 words to 500. I was gutted, but it was the best thing to happen to me. It taught me to be scrupulously self critical.

 It was almost impossible to get a job in journalism though. So I had a 9 to 5 job, studied for an NCTJ in the evenings and freelanced where I could. I thought I could finally leave my job after a couple of features I wrote gave me hope. An interview with Jay Bothroyd for GQ, when he was the only English player in Serie A, and a story on the Palestinian national team trying to qualify for the 2006 World Cup for Jack. I couldn’t get a job in journalism, but worked out that ideas had equal currency. If the idea is strong enough, original enough, and you can get the email of the right person, you can honestly get published anywhere.

I thought I cracked it. But no sooner had I got a couple of commissions at Jack, the magazine shut down. Which was demoralising until a few days later. I got an email from an editor at Time Out Dubai. I’d applied for a job months before and forgotten about it. They dug through their slush pile and read a restaurant review, of all things, that they seemed to really like.

Two weeks later I was on a plane to the Middle East. It was quite surreal, arriving at Dubai airport in July, 45 degrees outside. I was wearing a white jumper, white pointy shoes, a dinner jacket and a green felt hat. I must have looked like a bellend. King Rat of the wannabe hipsters.

Still, I didn’t know much about Dubai, or the Middle East, but I worked out pretty quickly that you could understand a lot about the place through football. It was uncanny. One of my first trips was to Yemen. The national team had been banned from a regional tournament as the players had all failed drug tests. Yemen wasn’t far off a narco state back then. About 80 percent of the population was addicted to qat, a leaf drug. Including its national team, it seemed. After that I went to every country in the region and used football as a way of understanding the place, from sectarianism to dictatorship to the economic rise of The Gulf. I was very lucky that this all coincided with Qatar and the emirate of Abu Dhabi buying their way into European football too.

2. In Thirty-One Nil, you speak very eloquently about the romance and randomness of international football. Was this always your first love, rather than club football?

I would say the two were equal in my affections, but international football was the gold standard. I grew up in a family of West Ham fans and don’t remember us winning a single trophy. I was 9 months old when we beat Arsenal in the FA Cup final. Other than that, I think the Intertoto is about the size of it. So maybe that coloured my thinking a bit. But the absolute pinnacle of the game was the World Cup. All roads in the club game led there. To that. There was no greater honour than for your players to represent England and go to the World Cup finals.

There was an excitement and a disappointment that couldn’t be matched anywhere else. Whether it was the semi-final against Germany in 90, that qualifier for 94 against Holland. Argentina in 98, taking the lead against Brazil in 02; these were exhilarating moments. And I could feel the hope and optimism (and misery and disappointment) of a whole country around me.

But after 2006 something changed. There was now a cynicism and disregard for the England team. I guess it was partly anti-climactic. We had been promised this golden generation and even then we couldn’t emulate Italia 90. There’s only so many brave defeats anyone can stomach. But it was also about the changing nature of the game. The money in the game. The supremacy of the clubs. The dominance of the Champions League. The World Cup used to be a showpiece for the very best players (even if they often weren’t in the very best teams), our window on the world and the talent that is out there. The Champions League now serves that purpose.

With Thirty One Nil I wanted to try and show that the international game is worth fighting for. That it captures something and represents something deeper than the club game. The huge sacrifices people make. The romance. The politics, the nationalism, the conflict. And I found all that in the teams who would never likely be at a World Cup finals.

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3. Thirty-One Nil is an incredible pilgrimage around the globe several times over. Did you write as you went along or was there a period afterwards where you collapsed from exhaustion and then collected your notes into a narrative?

I recorded everything with a microphone, on an outdated piece of radio equipment. Just as I embarked on the journey I was approached by the producer of the BBC World Service’s World Football show. They asked me to take a microphone to my next trip as I was on my way to Haiti. After that I was hooked and kept sending little mini documentaries of my trips. So I had all the colour and all the interviews recorded. There was no need to write as I went. I started writing it in September 2013. I was living in Hungary at the time with my then girlfriend. The last month was hell. The qualifiers finished in November and my last trip, to San Marino was December. I had about three weeks to finish. I don’t know how I did it. At the end I was exhausted, as the book had provided my metronome for the best part of three years. I was a bit lost. It didn’t help that my relationship didn’t survive the book writing process either.

In terms of structure, the World Cup qualification campaign provides the perfect structure. The natural drama and rhythm of qualification is the perfect literary device. In fact, i’d had the idea for Thirty One Nil, sometime before, during qualification for the 2010 World Cup. I couldn’t get it off the ground before the matches started though. But I was in Cairo for that crazy qualification match against Algeria and I thought: “this would have made an amazing end to a book.”

So I made sure I was there for the first planned qualifiers for 2014. I chose Palestine v Afghanistan. Although CONCACAF moved their qualifiers forward at the last minute, so Montserat v Belize was the first game. I was not best pleased! That wasn’t the only thing that didn’t go to plan with the book but it all worked out. Everything else that went wrong ended up being a better story. Including Palestine v Afghanistan.

4. The book is packed full of incredible characters. Can you pick a favourite, or is that an impossible task?

I spoke to so many people, but a few do stand out. Meeting Bob Bradley, who was in charge of the Egypt national team. A better man in football you will not meet.

I was fascinated by Omar Jarun, the American who played for the Palestine national team. He had never been to the West Bank before, and I accompanied him to his grandfather’s home town of Tulkarem, after spending two weeks on the road in Tajikistan and Jordan. That was quite emotional.

But I will never forget Samoa. The book is named after the world record international defeat, or victory, when Australia beat American Samoa 31-0 in 2001. That was kind of the starting point of the book. How do you pick yourself up after that? Why do you carry on?

But carry on they did. Losing by double figures every game. So I went to Samoa for the pre qualification tournament involving four teams: Samoa, American Samoa, Cook Islands and Tonga. I went expecting to see three massacres. Instead I met American Samoa’s goalkeeper, who had been haunted by the 31-0 defeat, a transgender centre back and Thomas Rongen, a Dutch coach who had been employed to kick their arses into shape. To be there when they won their first ever game, in front of a few dozen people, to see what it meant, is a moment i’ll never forget. There’s a brilliant documentary about it called Next Goal Wins. If you look closely, you can see me in the background, accidenally ruining their best shots…

5. As a whole, I found Thirty-One Nil to be a very optimistic book, full of the hope that football can bring to even the most war-torn of countries. Was that always the intention and if so to what extent was that challenged by what you found?

I’m quite an optimistic person at heart. I tend to write about a lot of misery too — conflict zones tend to be unhappy places — but people are brilliantly resilient. They live, they continue, because it is the only option. There’s a quote by Churchill I think: When in hell, keep walking. And I wanted to capture that; the dignity in the small acts of resistance against fate and circumstance.

But, yes, there were some tough moments. Being in Port Said after two dozen people had been shot dead and the city was placed under curfew. Meeting the Eritrea team who had fled the horrible repression back home when on international duty, knowing they would never see their families again. And knowing that their actions might have brought reprisals against their loved ones. And then there was Lebanon. This was different. I lived in Beirut for a time so I knew about the sectarianism in the country. It was reflected in the league. Teams had Sunni, Shia, Orthodox, Druze identities. It was one of the reasons the national team was terrible: those differences couldn’t be reconciled. Then along came Theo Bucker, a former Dortmund player from the 70s who managed to bang heads and get them playing. It brought the country together when they beat South Korea and made it to the final group stage of qualification. It was a proper rally around the flag moment. And then it turned out that several players had allegedly taken cash to throw crucial games. Bucker was distraught, and a country learned that when it comes to symbols of unity, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

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6. In the end, who were you supporting at the World Cup? Or were you too tired by then to even care?!

I took a break for a few months but was ready to go to Brazil. I’d gone to the Confederations Cup in 2013 and covered the protests there. It was a mess. Tear gas, rioting, violence. So I knew I had to go to the finals.

Of course, I supported England, but I also looked out for the underdogs. Iran and Bosnia in particular. But also the US. I spent a bit of time crashing on the sofa of the New York Times guys in Rio. Watching American fans on the streets fall in with football is a wonderful thing. It reminds me of what the English have lost.

7. Indiana Jones swears by his hat, his khaki and his whip. So what three items would the ‘Indiana Jones of soccer writing’ pick for his world football survival kit?

Other than the obvious stuff I need to work with (laptop, camera, microphone and radio recorder) I took a picture of what I packed when I went to Brazil. The one thing I pack now is a gas mask. I’ve been tear gassed so many times I’ve learned the hard way. A mate of mine who deals in military surplus got me a good deal on a Czech one. I also pack a bottle of vinegar (which you dab under your eyes to counter act the gas) and a shit load of wet wipes.

8. And finally, what’s next? Another journey around the football world?

Well, i’m kind of ruined now. I can’t help but get myself to an obscure fixture. I was just at the first round of 2018 qualifiers, Bhutan v Sri Lanka. That was incredible. But last week was the first round of WCQs I’ve missed in almost six years. I miss it. But I’m working on another book now, about the global flow of money in the game. That will take me to a few places I haven’t been. I don’t really know how to sit still.

Buy Thirty-One Nil here

Ian Plenderleith Interview

Having devoured the brilliant Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League, I had some questions for author Ian Plenderleith. The kind man that he is, he was all too happy to oblige, even from across the Atlantic. Like the book itself, his answers here are equal parts entertaining and insightful.

1. When did your interest in the NASL begin?

I remember being slightly perplexed by it back in the 70s when Shoot! would do an occasional photo-feature on British players who were in the NASL, and its grown-up sister publication, Soccer Monthly, did a lot of more in-depth features on the league. It was all weird jerseys, strange names and plastic pitches – the UK press always played up that angle. When I moved to the US in 1999, the NASL was like the wayward cousin who’d ended up in jail – no one really wanted to talk about it, because it was perceived as a failure, and in the US no one likes failure, not even glorious failure. There’s a ‘heroes only’ mentality in most US sports coverage.

So anyway, I wrote the odd feature on the NASL down the years, and the more I wrote about it, the more I realised what an under-told story the league was, and how it had been sorely neglected. Almost the only team anyone wanted to remember was the Cosmos, but there was so much more to the NASL than that – so many great stories to be told, and I felt there was an analysis missing of the league’s place in both US and world football history.

2. Was it difficult to find a British publisher for a book about an old American league, even if it did feature a lot of British players?

Surprisingly not. I gave a commissioning editor at Icon half a dozen ideas for football books, and the proposed NASL book was one that he and the several other people at the company really liked. Getting a book published can be a long and frustrating process, but in this case it really wasn’t.

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3. The book includes interviews with a lot of people involved in the league. Were they hard to get hold of and were there people who wouldn’t speak?

There were a few people that I knew from previous interviews, but the Facebook page of the NASL Alumni Association was a huge help – I got in touch with several players that way. They were almost without exception really co-operative and very happy to talk about the league, and then several of them said, “Oh, you should talk to so-and-so, his memory’s much better than mine,” and then they’d give me their number. Pele and Johan Cruyff didn’t return my calls, though…

4. It must have been a mammoth project to put together. Was the research process tricky?

The research was a real pleasure, mainly because I’m the kind of sad case who loves reading old newspapers and football magazines. I could finally point to my stacks of yellowing publications and tell my wife, “See, I knew they’d come in useful one day.” I bought yet more yellowing publications on eBay, and bid on old autobiographies by players like Frank Worthington and Alan Hudson. I did a lot of archival research in Washington DC’s magnificent Library of Congress, and a couple of people loaned me their scrapbooks of cuttings. I spent one winter’s night in a crappy hotel near Minneapolis/St. Paul airport going through three thick scrap books that Alan Merrick gave me, but I had to give them back to him by the next morning before my flight went. It’s hard to believe, but I was sitting there until the small hours with junk food, my laptop, and reams of match clippings from the 1970s, and I was thinking, “Yes, this is the life!”

5. Do you have a favourite NASL team? You do a good job of seeming impartial!

I ended up with a particular soft spot for the Minnesota Kicks – partly because of their incredible rise-and-fall story that I wrote about in Chapter Five, and partly because many of their ex-players were so helpful. When you’re a writer working on a miserly budget you become really grateful towards people who get what you’re doing, and who go out of their way to assist you for no return.

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6. What are your thoughts on Raul signing for the Cosmos? Could it spark a real NASL revival?

I don’t believe that single players signing for teams have that great an effect on a league’s destiny any more. Pelé signing for the Cosmos is the obvious exception, but the actual story of the signing is always much huger than any influence the player can have on the standard of play or the popularity of the league. A player like Raul, at that age, is not going to have a momentous affect on crowds, and he’s probably not going to dominate the play. I think I mention in the book that big name signings are a bit of a lose-lose prospect. If the players don’t perform well, people say they’re past it. If they shine, then you can say that even a has-been can do well in whatever league it is.

As for an NASL revival – that’s already well under way, but only in terms of this being a nascent second-tier league that resembles the old NASL in name only. It’s great, though, that the name and the names of some of the teams have been revived, because it’s a nod to the huge role that the NASL played in football history.

7. It feels like a very exciting time for US soccer. Do you think MLS is going in the right direction?

US soccer has been a fascinating work in progress ever since 1967. It’s always attracted a lot of attention from beyond the US because it’s seen as the great unconquered market in a country that has made its own unique major league sports. MLS has been steadily but unspectacularly chugging in a fairly good direction for the past decade. It’s the antithesis of the NASL, and that’s one of the reasons why it’s survived. But as I point out in the book’s conclusion, that makes it a somewhat less interesting league for now (something MLS is probably quite happy with). It’s at a crossroads now, though. Should it aim for ‘narrative’ signings like Gerrard and Lampard, which are basically marketing moves piggy-backing on the Premier League’s reputation and popularity in the US, or should it look more to the long term and focus on developing young players?

8. Do you feel European attitudes to US soccer are changing, especially after the national team’s strong showing at the 2014 World Cup? Do you think more and more players will choose to head out there, and maybe at a younger age like Giovinco?

I think a lot of European fans and journalists are still very condescending when it comes to US soccer. Their views are poorly informed, or outdated, or both. But the US game should care less about what these people think and concentrate on the structural problems that are holding back the US game at youth and college level. If they can properly tackle that in the next decade, then they will eventually have a frightening amount of talent at their disposal, and they won’t need to worry about being patronised any more.

Could bigger, younger names from abroad start coming to MLS? If team owners put forward enough money, anything’s possible, as long as the league’s centralised rules allow it. Get enough big names and you can charge more for TV rights, and if there’s global interest in certain players then the figures are potentially colossal. Is that the kind of league the US needs right now? I really don’t think so, but that’s not to say it won’t happen. But if it does, then those involved might want to keep a copy of my book handy so it doesn’t all end in tears.

 

Martin Greig Interview

2014 has been another great year for sports publisher BackPage Press. In April, their translation of Andrea Pirlo’s brilliantly original autobiography became an overnight bestseller and in October they released the English language edition of Martí Perarnau’s groundbreaking Pep Confidential to widespread critical acclaim. 2 books, 2 hits – with a success rate like that, if BackPage was a striker, it’d be challenging Messi and Ronaldo’s reign. I caught up with one half of BackPage, Martin Greig, to talk books and European football.

1. Do you see the boom in interest in European club football as a widening of tastes or a movement away from British club football?

I think it’s more a widening of tastes. The growth in popularity of Spanish football over the past 10 years has been very exciting, particularly as it has coincided with the resurgence of Barcelona under Frank Rijkaard and then Pep Guardiola. I don’t think people are moving away from British club football so much as revelling in the fact that they now have a much broader choice.

2. Do you feel like British football is currently lacking eccentric, articulate characters like Pirlo & Pep? Or is it more a case of European football being a bit more open, with more access for the media?

I think British football has characters, but Pirlo, Pep and Zlatan are exceptional personalities. It just so happens that these books have came out in close proximity, but there may not be any more like them for a long while. In Pirlo and Zlatan’s case, I don’t think it is a question of better media access. Gabrielle Marcotti made the point that the Italian press had witnessed very few signs of the quirky personality that emerges in Pirlo’s book. These players are doing it on their own terms, but the difference is that Pirlo and Zlatan have the confidence and class to steer away from the bland, cliche-ridden claptrap that often passes for footballer (auto) biographies.

3. Was tapping into the European football book market always a plan for BackPage?

Yes. Our first book, on Spurs and Dundee legend Alan Gilzean – In Search of Alan Gilzean – was aimed at a British market, but the plan after that was always to try and break into other markets. Our second book, Graham Hunter’s Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World, was the perfect vehicle to achieve this: the story of a team who had become a global phenomenon, written by a journalist with an international reputation.

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4. How did the Pirlo project come about? Were there other publishers competing for the English language rights?

It came out in Italy about 12-18 months before we published it. We have been following Pirlo’s career very closely for years and, when the book came on our radar, we knew we had to get a deal done.

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5. Did you make any changes to the Italian version?

Pirlo insisted on the subtitle ‘I Think Therefore I Play’ remaining the same in English. He – along with the Italian journalist who ghost-wrote the book, Alessandro Alciato – had a strong sense of the kind of book they wanted it to be. We made some minor changes, mainly trying to fill in any possible knowledge gaps with the use of footnotes, but we didn’t have to do much to it.

6. How was the translation process? Did the Italian co-author Alessandro Alciato work with Mark Palmer?

The translation process was a joy. Myself and Neil [White] had worked with Mark in journalism a few years ago. We knew he was an excellent translator, but also a superb journalist who knew how to tell a story in the best way. Mark read the initial manuscript and all the reviews. He told us it was really good, but as he was translating it he got more and more excited about the material. Mark went to Italy to meet the editor of the Italian edition, to help clear up a few issues, but had minimal contact with Alessandro, though I did meet him myself earlier this year in Madrid. It was before the book came out and, when I told him that I thought the book would be really big, he looked at me as if I had two heads! As an Italian, I guess Alessandro didn’t quite grasp the esteem in which a British audience holds Pirlo.

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7. How did the Pep project come to your attention? With this one were you involved from the outset?

A journalist called Lee Roden spotted a tweet by the author, Martí Perarnau, saying that the rights for his Pep book in Spanish had just been sold to a German publisher. Lee dropped us a line to say it might be worth checking out if the English-language rights were available. I remember getting a call from Neil about it. I was down in Manchester with Graham Hunter doing an event. We asked Graham about Martí and he confirmed that he was a very well-respected journalist in Spain with a close relationship to Pep. When we got the manuscript, we read the introduction where Martí quoted Pep as saying to him: “I’ll give you total access. Write about anything.”  We moved quickly after that!

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8. Was anything edited in or out of the English version? Was Martí involved in the translation?

Martí wasn’t involved in the translation, but he has been incredibly helpful throughout. We had a brilliant, football-savvy translator, who really engaged with the material, which gets quite technical in parts. As such, it didn’t take a big edit, though we worked very hard on getting the balance right in certain areas of the book. It’s obviously a sympathetic portrait of Pep – though definitely not uncritical in parts. Critics may say that it is overly sympathetic, but I think that is to completely miss the point. This is one of the best managers in the world laying out his coaching blueprint. It’s unprecedented. That was only able to happen because of Martí’s relationship with Pep.

9. Pep Confidential is published in partnership with Arena Sport. What’s the story there?

We’re friends with Pete Burns, who runs Arena Sport, which is an imprint of Birlinn. We had discussed working together in the past and, when Pep Confidential came up, we were rushed off our feet with Pirlo. We spoke to Pete about the possibility of joining forces, and it’s worked out well.

FINAL THOUGHTS

10. How have you found your experiences of newspaper serialisation? On the one hand, of course, it’s great exposure but on the other, sometimes people feel they’ve already read the best bits.

Some people may read every word of a serialisation and then decide they don’t want to buy the book, but I would argue they are in the minority. The argument is much more about awareness. I think the vast majority of people will catch bits and pieces, and if you can pique their interest, then they become potential readers. Newspapers get a real kicking these days, but traditional media remains very powerful. The media model is obviously changing and no newspapers are going to throw around big serialisation fees any more, but publishers and newspapers can still work together creatively.

11. What football book this year do you wish you’d been able to publish?

Dennis Bergkamp’s book was excellent. He’s one of my all-time favourite players and the book more than did him justice. I’m a fan of David Winner’s writing and loved Brilliant Orange, so it was exciting to read the Bergkamp book.

12. What’s on the cards for 2015?

We’re publishing the definitive book on Ferenc Puskas. We’re also starting sports book podcasts in association with Waterstones. We’ll be interviewing the author of one new release a month and the author of one classic sports book a month. We want to increase the conversation around good sports books. We’ve got two or three other projects which are not 100% confirmed yet. Obviously, Of Pitch and Page will be the first to know!

David Winner Interview

WinnerAs the proverb goes, from small beginnings come great things. With wires seemingly crossed, I was ready to give up on my interview with Mr Winner, author of Brilliant Orange, Stillness and Speed by Dennis Bergkamp and now #2Sides by Rio Ferdinand. I’d left the warmth of the Tricycle Theatre café and was about to enter Kilburn station when he called. Full of apologies, he asked if I’d had dinner. Ten minutes later, we were discussing Ronald Koeman’s Southampton team in an Afghan restaurant. Two hours later, I made my way back to the tube after an evening of lively football conversation with one of football’s most innovative writers and nicest men. Sadly, I only recorded about half an hour of our meal – here are the best bits:

Q. First things first, how did the project come about?

There were two other writers who were going to do it but for whatever reason, they couldn’t. Then in March, the publisher came to me and said ‘Can you do this in 3 months?’

Q. Had Rio read Stillness and Speed?

I’m not sure if he had or his people had, but they certainly knew of it. I guess that was the only reason to come to me, because I have no Manchester United connections and I didn’t know Rio. But it was nice that way. We have all of these silly prejudices as football fans, which is part of the fun but it also stops you seeing nice things. Talking with Rio every day and entering his mind was a bit like Stockholm Syndrome; you come to share their viewpoint. I started to feel very warmly towards United, when he spoke about Scholes and ‘Giggsy’. At one point I caught myself saying ‘Scholesy’ and I realised all of my Arsenal friends would actually disown me! When he spoke about Ferguson, I was seeing it through his eyes and I thought, yes, what a fantastic man. Not just a great manager, but a wonderful man. When it counted, he always did the right thing. To hear Rio’s view of Ferguson, you understand why he inspired his players. I rather love Ferguson now.

Q. How did the process work?

We did it mostly on the phone. We met initially, and there was one full day we had in Wilmslow, sat in the upstairs room of a pub, which was uncannily similar to the café in Holland where I used to talk to Dennis [Bergkamp]. But mostly we would speak on the phone while Rio was driving to training. He would drop his kids at school and then there was another half hour to Carrington. I’d know to stop when I could hear kids asking him for autographs.

Q. What was Rio like to work with?

He’s a very warm guy and I think he enjoyed the process. He’s rapidly maturing; you can see him growing before your eyes every time he’s on TV. He’s very outward-looking and he’s very curious about everything, not just football. He’s got his creative side with the magazine, his charity side (which is not just for show – it’s really important to him), and then there’s film, music, fashion. I don’t think he knows exactly what he’s going to do in the end but he’ll do something remarkable. There’s talk about him becoming the British representative for FIFA now, which would be very interesting. He’s very smart and very engaged in a nice way.

Q. The book feels very candid. Was there anything he didn’t want to discuss or asked to be removed?

He’s very open but there were a few things that he spoke about that he later decided he didn’t want to include for various reasons. One was a bit about a family holiday in Portugal with Anton and he wanted his brother to be a big part of the chapter. But when it was all done, Rio decided that with Anton back playing in England, he didn’t need any more shit. So everything Anton had said was either cut or put into Rio’s voice. There was also a bit of David Moyes stuff, a few unflattering observations and incidents that he wanted to cut out. He said he liked the guy and didn’t want to ‘cut his legs off’. Because it’s completely not a ‘settling scores’ book.

Cover - #2sides Rio Ferdinand high res

Q. Was it a conscious decision to avoid a traditional chronological approach?

There is a sort of rough chronology, in that it starts with childhood and ends with now. But in the middle of that, it can go anywhere. One of the things I hate about a lot of football biographies and autobiographies is that tedious structure where they start with some career highlight and then they just plod through the youth team, getting discovered, getting into the first team…It’s almost season by season and sometimes it’s just match reports. I can’t read them; I have a severe allergic reaction.

Rio had published a book eight years ago with a Sun journalist and it was done in a very skilful, ‘Sun’ way. Perhaps it was more accurate of who he was then, but he’s certainly not remotely like that now. So my pitch to Rio was ‘Look, I think there are all these different aspects of you and you’re not this tabloid character’. I told him to say whatever came into his head and think of it like scenes from a film; we wouldn’t know how it would all fit together until we had it all. He liked that approach. And the very first thing that he talked about was playing in the park with much older African guys, which turned out to be a perfect opening for the book.

I thought there would be more of a masterclass on the art of defending but that didn’t really develop. I had that experience with Dennis where he could break things down micro-second by micro-second and analyse from every angle, but I don’t think anyone else can do that.

Q. How did you find the ghostwriting process, compared to the biographer role for Stillness and Speed?

It’s much less work! With Dennis, it was a much more complicated process because there were lots of people to interview and I was sharing material with Jaap Visser, who was doing the Dutch version. With Rio, the main thing was to find the voice. He tells a lot of stories in reported speech but every time he speaks in the words of someone else, they all sound like Rio! So Fergie sounds like he grew up on an estate in Peckham, and so does Ronaldo. I couldn’t keep all of the distinctive parts of his speech but it was about taking the original style and making it flow better. When I took him a first, experimental chapter, Rio did a really clever thing. He read it aloud, and then said, ‘Yeah, that’s my voice’.

Once we’d agreed on the template, it was actually quite quick. I had about 25 hours of transcript and it was like a jigsaw puzzle, working out what could go with what to form a chapter. Then afterwards we worked out the order. At first, the publisher wanted to have a ‘juicy’ chapter first but Rio didn’t like that idea and neither did I. We wanted a book that reflected him accurately, in the same way that the Bergkamp book reflected Dennis very accurately. There, the idea was that he would play off other people in the same way that he did on the pitch. With Rio, he wanted to change his image and show he wasn’t just that guy who forgot the drugs test.

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