Saturday 16 December 2017

Sportsmen and their fans short-changed by ghost route

Republic of Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane.
Republic of Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane.

Eamonn Sweeney

Brendan Cummins has one, Keith Gillespie has one, Alan Quinlan has one, Jack O'Connor has one, Rory Kavanagh has one, some lad who used to be sub goalie behind Stephen Cluxton has one. Ronan O'Gara has two and so do Brian O'Driscoll and Roy Keane but they still have some ground to make up on Alex Ferguson who has about half a dozen in various guises.

They are sports autobiographies and they are a curse. There are enough of them out there to fill a small, or even medium-sized, bookshop.

They have proliferated on the shelves like some peculiarly intensive variety of fungus until it seems that we have surely reached Peak Autobiography. But, in the words of Joe Dolan there will be more . . . and more . . . and more . . . and more.

There are occasional exceptions. Jim McGuinness' book, or rather the book written by Keith Duggan about Jim McGuinness, was always going to be interesting because the former Donegal manager sets such store on the psychological side of management and is a complex and often contradictory character. There was a compelling reason for that book to be written. But most of the time the sports autobiography is simply churned out to make a handy few bob for unadventurous publishers.

Too many of them resemble grotesquely elongated versions of old Shoot magazine columns, supposedly written by top footballers, and aimed at pre-pubescent boys. Lazy, formulaic and utterly disposable, they garner a few headlines when they come out and are soon forgotten despite often selling in quantities large enough to ensure the publishers won't be leaving this particular bandwagon any time soon.

There have been few more impressive Irish sports stars in recent times than Brian O'Driscoll and Henry Shefflin. Almost everything they did on the field was tinged with excitement. Yet in the last two years both men put their names to autobiographies of surpassing dullness.

O'Driscoll's top revelations were that he had once spent a night in some American nick after a misunderstanding and on another occasion tried to get some people free into a Dublin nightclub. This earned the book praise for being "searingly honest". Shefflin's book, meanwhile, made O'Driscoll's seem like Mad Max: Fury Road.

There's no shame in this for either man. Both of them were better at what they did than most of us will ever be at anything. The best set of autobiographies I've ever read were by Clive James. It's no insult to suggest Brian Cody probably wouldn't like to have Clive taking frees in a tight All-Ireland final. Many people think that the best autobiography of all is Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov. The observation that he'd have been a less-than-ideal partner in the centre for Gordon D'Arcy hardly diminishes the Nabster's reputation either.

Why should sports stars' stories be interesting? Their performances were what mattered about them and are almost impossible to recapture on the page. The best book ever written about the Rolling Stones still isn't worth tracks nine and ten on Exile on Main Street. And you'll learn more about any great novelist by reading their books than reading their biography. Almost everything we need to know about most players was there on the pitch.

After all, most of the books tell the story of men in their 30s who have by necessity ended up with a pretty narrow range of experience. They're often rushed into print soon after their retirement, or even while they're still playing, with the result that the kind of mature reflection which puts things into a more interesting perspective tends to be absent.

I suspect that quite a few people buy the books as a gesture of thanks or respect to the man, and it's nearly always a man, profiled. There's probably a fair few too which get bought for young men by well-meaning people who reckon that someone who likes sport will surely love a book about sport.

They're the literary equivalent of soap on a rope, tendered by relations who have no idea what else to buy. I suspect too that many of these books end up as unread as Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time.

Even the better ones don't seem absolutely kosher. Roy Keane's two autobiographies are both good reads but owe a great deal to the ghost writers. When Eamon Dunphy wrote the first one, Keane (right) sounded a lot like Dunphy, a tilter at windmills and scourge of entrenched establishment mediocrity. When Roddy Doyle wrote the second one, Roy seemed like a Roddy Doyle character, much more affable and prone to laddish jests about the likes of Robbie Savage and Dwight Yorke.

Which brings us to the worst thing about sports autobiographies: they're not autobiographies at all but transcriptions of interviews with the subject carried out by a ghostwriter and put into the first person. The convention is to pretend that they are autobiographies so that you see the sportsmen involved being congratulated for their literary skills.

This deception wouldn't matter so much were it not for the fact that it means most of the books are entirely bereft of an individual voice. The slick professional hack job means many of them end up sounding exactly the same. It also means that there's no real sense of discovery about the books because, as anyone who's ever written anything of any length knows, you often only find out what you think of something during the process of writing itself. By going the ghost route sportsmen are shortchanging not just the audience but themselves.

The result is something which makes very little impact on the reader. The reason sportsmen can write more than one autobiography is that usually everyone has forgotten what was in the first one. And the nature of the relationship between ghost and subject, with the former at the service of the latter, means that there is very little self-scrutiny going on. Even the McGuinness book suffers from the fact that the man in question rarely tires of insisting how right he's always been about everything. It's a common theme in these books and the effect is oppressive, like being buttonholed by a garrulous egomaniac in a railway station bar.

It makes me think of my fellow sports journalist Alan Partridge, whose autobiography Bouncing Back was criticised for the over-use of the phrase, "Needless to say I had the last laugh," which could have served as the title for a majority of recent efforts in this field by Irish sportsmen. In the end, the great Partridge was forced to watch a large number of his books being pulped.

Most sports autobiographies could benefit from the same treatment. Before they've been published.

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