THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

The publishers paid a fortune for the rights and the papers serialised them, but few others have coughed up to read the life stories of Rio, Ashley, Frank and Wayne. Barney Ronay finds out why

It hasn’t been a great summer for England’s World Cup players. Forget the red cards and penalty misses, the terrible wives and girlfriends, the slow congealing of arrogance into bewilderment. The real problems start when you log on to Amazon and check out the book section. Rio Ferdinand: sales ranking 302; Frank Lampard: 393; Wayne Rooney: 1,038; Ashley Cole: 2,181. In literary terms, our boys have taken a hell of a beating.

Only Steven Gerrard has bucked the trend. His My Autobiography has sold about 85,000 copies. But what about the rest of these turkeys? Never mind the obvious fact that, without exception, they’re tediously written, self-aggrandising and produced by young men with little to talk about beyond a nascent career in the game. This is football. Everybody loves it. So why aren’t they selling?

Bad books can still become best-sellers. The problem might lie somewhere else, possibly with the people whose names appear on the front. Whining, chippy, ungrateful, out of touch: who does that sound like? The modern Premiership player doesn’t have a particularly good public profile. There does, however, seem to be more to it than just that. Reading Ashley Cole: My Defence and Ferdinand’s Rio: My Story back-to-back, one thing stands out above all others: these people really don’t sound very happy.

My Defence has been the worst received. Open it on any page to see why. “Okay, from the off, this is not an autobiography,” reads the first sentence. So what is it, exactly? A score-settling exercise? An attempt to airbrush the Cole “brand” ahead of a bid for full-fledged Beckham-ness?

It really is a terrible read. This may have something to do with the haste with which it was cranked out, but that doesn’t explain the feeling of intense and galvanising injustice that infests almost every sentence. It is billed as an attempt to establish Cole’s innocence in matters as diverse as breaking FA rules and sticking a phone up his bum, but reading My Defence is like beating yourself repeatedly over the head with a small Ashley Cole-shaped hammer while repeating: “I never done it… I never done it… it weren’t me”. Actually, it’s much worse than that.

The book is basically about one thing: Cole’s wage dispute with Arsenal. “There is fair and then there is taking the piss,” Ashley warns us, ahead of the book’s defining moment. The story so far: Ashley is unhappy at being paid £25,000 a week. An “insulting” £35k is rejected. Ashley is offered £55k. He turns that down, too – he has set his heart on £60k. Many times we hear the refrain: “I couldn’t believe they were willing to lose me for £5,000.” Cole is told of Arsenal’s final offer while driving. “When I heard Jonathan repeat the figure of £55k I nearly swerved off the road. ‘He is taking the piss Jonathan!’ I yelled down the phone.”

Included in the book’s Times serialisation, this passage is now infamous. Cole has given Arsenal fans a definitively concussive stick to beat him about the head with. More broadly, it stands on its own as an entry-level primer into the peculiar existence of the Premiership footballer, his alienation from the concerns of the rest of society. Oddest of all is the fact that Cole, his agent and his ghostwriter thought that publishing these words would achieve the objective of portraying him as a reasonable man sinned against by others. There is a mixture here of grasping, deluded entitlement and sheer, claustrophobic idiocy.

Ashley does end up getting his beloved £60k, but by then the die is cast, the pitch queered, the lack of “respect” evinced. And so the stage is set for the infamous chance meeting with José Mourinho, Peter Kenyon, Pini Zahavi (“a wonderful guy”) and Cole’s agent Jonathan Barnett. The only aspect of this part of the story you won’t have read somewhere else is that Ashley, his agent and everybody else involved on his side are totally innocent of any wrongdoing, despite what the tribunal might have said.

What humour you find is only ever unintentional. Moving tribute is paid to Freddie Ljungberg, “the man who gave me the courage to wear ripped jeans”. Ashley’s (terrible) wedding speech is printed in full and the day’s drama chronicled (“she tried to get me to wear a top hat but I weren’t having it”). Cole isn’t helped by his ghostwriter’s insistence on leaving “weren’t” instead of “wasn’t” and “don’t” for “doesn’t”. So we get, “there weren’t no stopping it”, “he weren’t going to get my signature” and – my personal favourite – “it’s a carrot that don’t belong in fair justice”. By the same token, this is a work of literature that don’t belong on any sensible bookshelf.

Rio: My Story isn’t anywhere near as bad. At least it makes some concessions to entertaining the reader. Ferdinand seems aware of the low public esteem in which his profession is held. “I love reading,” we’re told early on. “I feel strongly about the fact we went to war in Iraq,” he assures us. Later on he tries to collar Gordon Brown in a hotel to discuss inner-city deprivation (“unfortunately he had gone out”). The early pages are entertaining. We hear of his love for school dinners (“the Arctic roll was blinding”). Soon young Rio is going to ballet class (“there were loads of birds”) and starting secondary school where, fortunately, there are “loads of good-­looking birds”. He writes thoughtfully about the murder of local boy Stephen Lawrence.

There are some laughs, too: Glenn Hoddle in England training “making a swooshing noise with his mouth when he connected with the ball. It was louder or quieter depending on how hard he struck it.” We also hear of Ferdinand’s shock at Gazza’s omission from the 1998 World Cup squad, despite the fact that in training “he was wearing a big black bin bag… to sweat out the drink”. Strange indeed that the England coach could resist that level of professionalism. Like Cole, Ferdinand has issues to confront. His version of the Ayia Napa sex tape attempts to be reassuring in a boys-will-be-boys kind of way, but ends up sounding fairly horrific. Similarly, his account of the missed drugs test is strangely underwhelming. He just forgot about it. Then the FA made an example of him. End of story.

Ferdinand’s reserves of goofy charm elevate his book to a literary plane far superior to Cole’s graceless tirade. But there are still common elements, characteristics that might explain the public antipathy to these superstar autobiographies. Ferdinand is also on a mission. He talks of the public “jealousy” he has faced. He scorns the stereotype of the mindlessly acquisitive Premiership footballer. In his introduction he demands “a hearing”, as though this is the one thing we’ve been furiously denying him all this time.

Of the others, Lampard’s expressed this seam of whining self-justification most fully, but it is there to greater or lesser degree in the rest. Maybe it’s our fault. The currency of the Premiership is limitless financial reward combined with limitless public intrusion. It seems to stretch the men at the centre of it into some very strange shapes. These do not sound like happy people. No wonder we don’t really want to read their books.

From WSC 238 December 2006. What was happening this month

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