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.

Buy #2Sides here

Recommended Summer Reading

Top 8 Paperback releases, May-Sept 14

1. Red or Dead by David Peace (Faber & Faber, 1st May)
Peace’s much-anticipated follow-up to The Damned United sees Bill Shankly’s Liverpool reign given the Brian Clough treatment. Expect tension, repetition, interior monologues, and profanities aplenty. At over 700 pages it’s no light read but Frank Cottrell Bryce has called the novel ‘a masterpiece’.

2. GoodFella: My Autobiography by Craig Bellamy with Oliver Holt (Trinity Sports Media, 2nd May)
With beach season approaching, May sees the release of a bumper crop of autobiographies. Keith Gillespie, Alan Stubbs, Kevin Kilbane and Clarke Carlisle all have interesting things to say but Craig Bellamy would be my pick of the bunch. The Welsh forward is a love-hate figure and his colourful career is sure to contain a fair few juicy anecdotes.

3. Stillness and Speed by Dennis Bergkamp with David Winner (Simon & Schuster, 8th May)
This highly original look at the Non-flying Dutchman’s career has already been longlisted for the Best Autobiography/Biography British Sports Book Award. Click here for my review.

4. The Manager: Inside the Mind of Football’s Leaders by Mike Carson (Bloomsbury, 8th May)
More Premier League bosses have been sacked this season (10) than in any previous campaign. In this thorough and insightful study, Carson speaks to 30 of the biggest names in football management including Jose Mourinho, Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger to find out what it takes to succeed.

5. Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life by Alex Bellos (Bloomsbury, new ed 8th May)
There are plenty of books looking to cash in on World Cup fever this summer (most notably David Goldblatt’s Futebol Nation) but this updated classic is the one-stop shop for all matters Brazilian. The detail is astonishing, yet it’s also as entertaining as the players themselves.

6. The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Football is Wrong by Chris Anderson and David Sally (Penguin, new ed 5th June)
It seems it’s not just books about Brazilian football that are getting a summer makeover. Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson’s definitive history of tactics, has been brought up to date and this stats myth-buster has a bright new jacket and a World Cup chapter. Prepare to have your view of the beautiful game changed forever.

7. Fear and Loathing in La Liga: Barcelona vs Real Madrid by Sid Lowe (Yellow Jersey, 7th Aug)
A great title for a great book about a great rivalry. Spanish football expert Sid Lowe gives us the full and bloody history, both on and off the pitch. Politics, culture, economics, language and of course football – tension and drama as far as the eye can see. Click here to read John Mottram’s review.

8. The Nowhere Men: The Unknown Story of Football’s True Talent Spotters by Michael Calvin (Arrow, 14th Aug)
Ever wondered how the likes of Jack Wilshere and Raheem Sterling were discovered? This fascinating look at the hidden world of football scouts tell you everything you want to know about the sport’s unsung heroes. One of 2013’s most highly-acclaimed sports books.

Stillness and Speed: My Story

Stillness and Speed: My Story

By Dennis Bergkamp

Simon & Schuster, 2013

In his introduction to this excellent study of the Dutch master, David Winner suggests that ‘A footballer like no other ought to have a book no less distinctive’. And distinctive this book is, although you feel its winning format could very soon become the norm. Footballing autobiographies have long been a cause for mockery and/or scepticism. Much hinges on the unspecified role of the ghost writer; is this shadowy figure sticking faithfully to the player’s words, or taking all manner of artistic license? Stillness and Speed negates that question and the question of ghost writers altogether. ‘My Story’ may be the subtitle and ‘Dennis Bergkamp’ may grace the spine, but this is very much a collaborative project. Instead of ‘assisting’ with a standard autobiography, Winner builds a brilliant biography around in-depth interviews with The Non-flying Dutchman. Would he have come to life in the way he does in conversation, if he’d written his own story? It’s unlikely.

The levels of interaction are the greatest strength of the format. Winner is a terrific interrogator, fun, fierce and provocative, always ready to ask the difficult question and persist with it, chipping away at the cool reserve. When discussing penalties, for example, Bergkamp finds himself firmly on the back foot, fending off criticisms of his national team’s shoot-out performances.

DB: ‘You’re telling me he [Frank de Boer, Euro 2000] took the penalty wrong?’

DW: He did take the penalty wrong. It was terrible.

DB: ‘No, it was a miss.’

DW: It was a terrible penalty.

DB: ‘He missed the penalty, therefore it’s not good. You can’t have a good penalty that is saved. I’ve tried to explain that…’

The professional that he is, Bergkamp fully commits to Winner’s innovative style, even responding to what others have said about him earlier in the chapter. In ‘Intermezzo’, covering his unhappy spell at Inter Milan, he advises Winner on who to speak to, saying ‘We need an opinion, don’t we? … I don’t mind, as long as I get a chance to react.’ And after ‘Their Truth’ (three cautiously critical interviews with the manager and two teammates), we get ‘My Truth’, the carefully considered retort. It’s the football writing equivalent of Lars Von Trier directing an episode of Eastenders.

So what do we learn? Bergkamp’s dogged pursuit of footballing perfection extends to a keen interest in both physiology and geometry (‘you have to get all angles and the maths correct…It’s like solving the puzzle’). The Dutch legend is as eloquent as you’d expect on the subjects of touch, time, passing and space. Have YouTube at the ready, as we’re treated to in-depth studies of key assists and goals, including that one against Newcastle. And it turns out there’s warmth beneath the ice; while he was never too bothered about making friends in football, once he’d settled at Arsenal he became the team prankster, putting Martin Keown’s clothes up step-ladders and pulling Ray Parlour’s shorts down at training.

All very entertaining but then there’s the other, more intriguing side of Dennis that conforms to that age-old Dutch stereotype. Quiet and polite he may often be, but he’s also confident, driven and obstinate. He’s an ‘adventurer’ who has always made his own decisions, whether that be choosing Inter over the Dutch-haven of AC Milan, or refusing to travel by plane. He had no idols growing up and he’s never been a follower – for Bergkamp, football is all about being unique. Early on, he tells us, ‘My best trainers were the ones who let me do my own thing: Cruyff, Wenger and Guus Hiddink’. Those who tried to dictate his play, on the other hand (namely Louis Van Gaal and Ottavio Bianchi), quickly found themselves with an unhappy player on their hands.

As you’d expect from the writer of the classic Brilliant Orange, many of Winner’s most detailed and illuminating sections here concern matters Dutch. Stillness and Speed begins and ends at Ajax under the watchful eye of the footballing revolutionary Johan Cruyff, with Bergkamp first as a Cup Winners’ Cup-winning school kid and later as the coach of De Toekomst (‘The Future’). In between these bookends, twin chapters ‘Player Power’ and ‘Power Player’ deftly unravel the national team disappointments at Euro 96, World Cup 98 and Euro 2000. As Thierry Henry puts it, ‘That Dutch team with Dennis didn’t win anything – crazy! Too crazy for me.’

Where the book feels surprisingly hollow is in the 130-plus pages on Bergkamp’s 11 years at Arsenal. Abandoning strict chronology, Winner opts for a thematic approach, with chapters on fitness, cheating, leadership and penalties. Detail is substituted for overview. We’re told of ‘The Plan’ that Dennis signed up for but we’re not really told aboutits development, its ebb and flow. Instead of season-by-season analysis, these chapters are dominated by laudatory quote after laudatory quote from the likes of Ian Wright, Tony Adams and Thierry Henry. The surface is more stroked than scratched; Nicolas Anelka, Bergkamp’s strike partner for 2 key seasons (1997-9), is only mentioned once in passing, while Arsenal and Holland teammate Giovanni van Bronckhorst is never mentioned. Instead, a chapter is given over to Bergkamp’s interest in golf. Perplexing, frustrating, but Winner did warn us; a distinctive book for a truly distinctive footballer.

Buy it here