Although publishers are increasingly wary of handing out multi-million pound advances, footballers' autobiographies remain as popular as ever. Joyce Woolridge looks at our seemingly insatiable interest in the life stories of Premier League stars

One morning in 1996 I opened a letter on the bus to work. I thought it was a bill, but instead it asked me if I was interested in writing what became Brian McClair's autobiography, Odd Man Out. "The people at WSC suggested your name," it concluded chummily, "please give us a call." Which I did, nipping out to a phone box during a break.

McClair and I later ate cheese toasties on expenses in a cavernous bar in Manchester and talked about the books I'd just bought, one of which he had recently read. I got the job. The advance was modest, the book sold well and received some gratifying reviews, thanks chiefly to McClair's wry intelligence. This made up for the fact that, with an eye to what he might do next as his playing career ended, he openly declared his intention not to say anything remotely controversial. Even then, Manchester United's solicitor, who read the manuscript because it was an official publication, found things to remove.

This just wouldn't happen now. David Beckham's My Side sold half a million copies, making it the biggest selling UK football autobiography ever. The highest profile footballers' lives were propelled into the celebrity publishing market with its bidding wars, lengthy author selection process and multi-book deals for staggering advances. Currently there is a "new realism" about the money on offer for the football autobiography, following the debacle of 2006 when several major publishing houses had their fingers incinerated by the Infamous Five.

England's putative World Cup heroes – Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard and Joe Cole – were offered millions between them to tell some version of My Story. Only Gerrard's autobiography performed well. Liverpool books tend to outsell others anyway, but Gerrard's was by far and away the best. Cole's and Ferdinand's bombed.

Rooney's purported £5 million advance, trumpeted as the biggest book deal in sports publishing history, resulted in the uninspiring and largely unsold My Story So Far. As Stanley Matthews's boxing-barber dad remarked when the young Stan was first approached about doing an autobiography: "What folk will bother to sit down and read the comings and goings of a lad of 23? When you have really lived and have a story worth telling that may benefit the community, then by all means get down to the task of writing your story."

But Bobby Charlton's magisterial blockbuster two-parter, ably penned by James Lawton, demonstrates the rewards that can accrue if the subject is a national institution backed by a massive promotional and distribution budget, and the big football autobiography is coming back into favour with publishers. Autobiographies of Gary Neville and Paul Scholes are currently in the pipeline. The latter should be fun for his "ghost", given that Scholes is notoriously a man of very few words, most of which are "No".

In contrast, fewer relatively big names, especially ex-players, can now get publishing deals with the major houses. Small regional publishers will publish their books, but for royalties only. Ditto the so-called "journeymen", whose autobiographies, like Garry Nelson's Left Foot Forward, can be more interesting and revealing. Local heroes may find a lucrative niche market.

What has changed very little over the last 25 years, and indeed since Eddie Hapgood's Football Ambassador, the first professional footballer's autobiography in 1945, is the format of these sporting lives. The title of Hapgood's book is instructive. In contrast to the Great War, when they were shipped to the trenches, in 1939-45 footballers were valuable assets as fundraisers and morale boosters. The professional's autobiography was a marker of his newly enhanced social status as one of the heroes of the "People's War". The form taken by these stories and most since is what literary theorists term the exemplary life: optimistic narratives of apprenticeship, triumph over adversity and later stability and growth.

The language may have got saltier and no one admits to making rugs in the evening for relaxation, like Nat Lofthouse, but the song remains the same. A major motivation for venturing into print then was undoubtedly financial but, like today, when top players clearly don't need the money, the lure of enshrining one's thoughts and achievements in a hardback legacy is immensely seductive. Handing your mum a confessional autobiography which depicts you as foul-mouthed, permanently pie-eyed or a serial shagger is a step too far for the majority. One frequently heard comment is "I'll do a proper book when I finish", but this is rarely the case. When the boots are hung up, management and coaching, the commentary box, ambassadorial roles, veterans leagues and the like mean that what happened in the dressing room still stays there.

There have been some rare footballing lives in the last quarter century which have departed from the relative comfort of the exemplary life. Paul Gascoigne's Being Gazza and its follow-up, thanks to Hunter Davies, won Gascoigne many fans with its mixture of the comic and tragic, giving readers prepared to be sympathetic an understanding of the genesis and extent of his problems. Keane: the Autobiography, supposedly the best selling book in Ireland ever behind the Bible, won praise for the "brutal honesty" of Keane's observations, though opinions are divided about how much these were embellished by his malcontent ghost, Eamon Dunphy.

Professional footballers, with a few exceptions, continue not to write or indeed read their own autobiographies. Despite this, the British public continues to have a voracious appetite for footballing lives, whether autobiographies or biographies, not shared by any other European country. Reality TV has reinforced the belief that stories should be told by those who live them; professional football without footballers' autobiographies would be, as they saying goes, Hamlet without the prince.

From WSC 295 September 2011

Related articles

Classic match ~ Crystal Palace 2-2 Man Utd, 1995
21 May ~ Today’s FA Cup final between Manchester United and Crystal Palace is a repeat of the famous 1990 final, when they played out a thrilling 3-3...

Sign up to the WSC Weekly Howl - a small portion of despair and enlightenment delivered to your inbox every Friday