A Footballer’s Life
by Mel Sterland with Nick Johnson
Green Umbrella, £18.99
Reviewed by Andy Hockley
From WSC 262 December 2008 

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Mel “Zico” Sterland was a fine right-back who deserved more England caps than the one he picked up against Saudi Arabia in 1989. Given that there is plenty to say about his career, you might be surprised to learn that the title of this book is not the worst thing about it.

Firstly there is the writing style. Ghost­writer Nick Johnson makes no attempt to craft what amounts to a string of mostly uninteresting anecdotes into a readable story. He doesn’t even bother to check whether Sterland’s recollections of footballing events match with the records. Then there is the black-and-white, Talksport idiom into which Sterland slips effortlessly as he recounts his tales. More or less every character we are introduced to is pigeonholed as a “good bloke” or a “horrible bastard”, with supporting anecdotal evidence. Gazza, for example, is a “great guy”, as proved by how he goes up to Sterland’s wife on their first meeting and compliments her on the size of her boobs. Gary Lineker, on the other hand, goes “big time” and won’t sign an autograph. Emily Lloyd, with whom Mel appears in the film When Saturday Comes, is a “right stuck up cow”.

It’s also a bit difficult to grasp the logic and consistency of some of the pronouncements. Some players are particularly dirty, whereas Sterland himself is not averse to “booting” players regularly whenever he gets the chance, or feels that the player needs to be brought down a peg or two (he relishes getting back at Lineker in this way, for example). Similarly, he laments the demise of the apprenticeship system and the fact that players have too much power now, but then wishes he’d had the same power to refuse the pain-killing injections he was getting to allow him to play on through the damaged ankle that ultimately finished his career.

Ultimately, the most frustrating thing about this book is not the appalling writing, but the fact that there is clearly a story to be told. You glimpse it just occasionally, out towards the horizon, waving frantically, before it gets swamped yet again by wave after wave of tedious and uninspired anecdotes. This is a man who grew up in a family of nine children in what he euphemistically describes as the “scruffy” Manor estate in Sheffield; who broke into the local team he supported as a kid and became a fan hero; who moved on to become one of the few players to win both Scottish and English League titles (at Rangers and Leeds); who was accused and cleared of robbing a post office; who has a gambling and drinking problem; and who tried, at his ­lowest ebb after the injury, to kill himself.

It’s not, by any measure, an uninteresting life, and you’re left with the abiding impression that, with a co-writer who could have sifted through the boozy after-dinner reminiscences and asked the right questions, this could have been a good read. It’s not. 

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