Writing wrongs

How footballers' biographies are simply a form of propaganda in a feeble attempt to sway public opinion in their favour

We may never know quite why Jaap Stam left Man Utd for Lazio. Some pundits seem to think that the sudden sale of a hitherto key player had nothing do with his published comments. “Rev­enge for a literary atrocity? Forget it,” sug­gested the Independent’s James Lawton, who is inclined to think Stam’s manager had long since lost faith and was simply waiting to line up a replacement before selling him.

The News of the World dis­agreed, reporting that Sir Alex Ferguson had been “furious” at Stam’s “breach of football’s unwritten code of silence” as though the episode were unique. In fact the Stam saga highlights one of the ways in which football has fundamentally changed in recent times.

Books by international footballers used to be little more than bland, inoffensive resumés of a player’s career peppered with ancecdotes that would later be pressed into service on the after-dinner circuit, from breaking night-time curfew before important cup ties to the chairman who could never remember his own players’ names. Barring a few musings on topical themes of the day they offered little, if any, insight into the player’s personal opinions. And they were nearly always written at the end of a career – if scores were settled they were done so long after the target had ceased to be a team-mate. Now, however, players and managers are encouraged to go into print while still at their height of their fame, and by “serious” publishing houses who wouldn’t have considered tainting their catalogues with football books a decade or more ago.

Examples of the old style can still be found: Alan Shearer’s autobiography of 1995 set a new benchmark for banality, later matched by Harry Harris’s near-heroic failure to relate anything of interest from the career of Ruud Gullit. Sometimes an eagerness to go into print stems from a desire to exert some control over information in an age when football is covered from every conceivable angle in every form of media.

This can be done with the best of intentions – books brought out by Paul Merson and Tony Adams notably confronted personal problems that had already been the subject of extensive press enquiry. More often, though, previously calm waters are disturbed, with consequences that may not be to the benefit of the biographee. Glenn Hoddle’s position as England manager was fundamentally compromised by the book that dished the dirt on England’s 1998 World Cup campaign even though it was, astonishingly, sanctioned by the FA. In order to make a significant amount of money a footballers’ biography now has to provide a tabloid with several days’ worth of headline material.

Thus the serialisation of Jaap Stam’s Head to Head followed on from advance promotion for David Batty: The Autobiography, in which the Leeds midfielder “who has never shirked a tackle in more than ten years in the top flight” made accusations against a former manager, Howard Wilkinson, that has led to threats of litigation. Sir Alex Ferguson himself is it seems no longer on speaking terms with either his former assistant Brian Kidd or Gordon Strachan, a key member of his early 1980s Aberdeen team, having rounded on both in his book Managing My Life.

Jaap Stam appears to have been persuaded to produce a book prior to the start of his fourth season at Manchester United on the basis that it would generate some easy money (although the £100,000 he is estimated to have made amounts to little more than a fortnight’s wage). But he doesn’t appear to have stopped to think that referring to work colleagues by the harshest of four letter words in the national press could cause a deterioration in dressing room relations, an absurdity compounded by Stam then complaining about the newspapers having blown his comments out of all proportion.

Of course, Stam can scarcely claim to be a victim – Lazio are said to be paying him £75,000 per week, a significant improvement on his Old Trafford deal, and he is due to pick up “loyalty bonuses” of around £250,000 for each year remaining on the four year contract signed with Man Utd just six months ago.

Whether the furore that surrounded Stam’s book either helped the player to engineer a transfer or gave the club a reason to jettison him, it’s been an ugly epsiode and will provide another counter-argument to be cited the next time a player seeks to gain public sympathy for press intrusion or misrepresentation. 

From WSC 176 October 2001. What was happening this month