A Lifetime in Football

How the lives of our dear football heroes have changed, and their biographies. Star players shared their memoirs as early as the 1920s, but there was no sex, no drugs, no clubbing, no modelling, no depression, no drying out, no sign of Wags, no rubbishing other players, no criticising managers - all of which for the past 20 years has been essential if you want a half-decent advance from a half-decent publisher.

Charles Buchan (1891-1960) published his autobiography in 1955, and this is a reprint of it, the sort of football book we never see today: a football biography totally devoted to, er, football. It presents his memories of great games and great players from the 1900s to the 1950s - with no personal stuff at all. He doesn't even tell us harmless stuff, such as when or to whom he got married.

There is one fleeting reference to some high jinks while on a tour to Budapest in 1913. The players put their shoes outside their hotel rooms at ten o'clock, suggesting they were all safely tucked up in bed, but in fact they had all nipped out to "the most famous nightclub in the city". And that's it. No booze or bunk-ups. Just on to the next game.

Perhaps the most remarkable omission, in what is supposed to be his autobiography, occurs on page 60 when he describes being called up to the Grenadier Guards in 1914. "We were so keen at the time that all we wanted was to get out to France," he writes. "A short spell in the trenches quickly changed my opinion, but I stayed there, with the exception of a leave of ten days, until March 1918 when I returned to England." Four years at the front, during which time he won the Military Medal for bravery, becoming a sergeant and then an officer - thrown away in a paragraph. Gawd, I wish I'd been his ghost writer.

The point of the book is the football - and it is fascinating, if you happen to be a football fan. The first-hand descriptions of great players of his time, such as Steve Bloomer and Billy Meredith, are excellent, as are those of the managers he worked with, including Herbert Chapman.

Buchan was born to Scottish parents in the East End of London and studied to be a teacher at Woolwich Polytechnic. Then, in 1909, Arsenal came along. He played four games for them as an amateur and put in a bill for 11 shillings - to cover his travel costs to away games and training - which they refused to pay, the rotten sods. He went off and joined Leyton in the Southern League instead, and stayed there until 1911, when Sunderland signed him for a record transfer of £1,200. Yet out of this, all he got was his £10 signing-on fee.

There is a lot about money here, and the early struggles of the footballers' union. When he moved to Sunderland his weekly wage was £3, which at the time he seemed to think was pretty good - being three times what a lad of his age would expect from ordinary work and double that of an experienced craftsman.

He started off thin and titchy at Sunderland, then shot up three inches in four months, during which time he played badly and got booed. But then he turned into one of Sunderland's all-time greatest stars, staying 14 years, scoring 211 goals, plus playing for England.

In 1925, at the age of 34, Buchan was approached again by Arsenal. Sunderland wanted £4,000 for him, which Arsenal refused. In the end they agreed to £2,000, plus £100 per goal. He scored 21 goals that first season - so Arsenal coughed up £4,100 in all. Chapman made him captain and together they created tactics and formations that led to the team's domination of English football in the 1930s. But he was skipper when Arsenal were beaten by Cardiff City in the 1927 Cup Final, the Cup leaving England for the first and only time.

In 1928 he retired and became a full-time football writer, working for the Daily News, later the News Chronicle. For some reason, it is only on the last page (written in 1955) that he mentions what he is best known for today: Charles Buchan's Football Monthly, founded in 1951, which he edited and published. At its height, it reached a circulation of 250,000. All copies are now a collector's item. Oh, Charlie! I can forgive the lack of sex because we can get all that sort of stuff at home these days, but I wish you'd said more about your Football Monthly. Still the best footie magazine - ever.

A Lifetime in Football
Charles Buchan
Mainstream, 224pp, £9.99

Hunter Davies's "Postcards from the Edge of Football" is published by Mainstream (£20)

By Hunter Davies

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in Who owns Britain?

2010-10-18