The Fan: The players that didn’t quite make it

Modern footballers are about as hard to get access to as the Queen. Outsiders, on the other hand, have stories to tell.

Didier Drogba silhouetted at a press conference in 2010. Not all footballers make it into the spotlight. Photo: Getty Images.

On my hols, thanks for asking, I read two books, two more than usual. The first was the novel Stoner by John Williams, which I had put off reading because people like Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan had raved about it. But it was well good.

Even weller was Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen and … Me, co-written by Keith Miller and an unknown, unsuccessful footballer – at least, unknown to the vast majority of fans – called Mike Yates (the “me”). At 16, Yates was level pegging with Gerrard and Owen, having starred with them in all the Liverpool youth teams. Then, in 1999, Steve Heighway, who was running the Academy in Liverpool, said: sorry, pal, you’re not going to make the first team. And he was out. Like 95 per cent of boy wonders.

I have always been fascinated by those who didn’t make it. Years ago, I was offered the chance to ghost Gary Lineker’s autobiography. I said no: I can’t think of what to ask him that I don’t know the answers to already. A few months later, I thought of an angle: from every stage in his young career, I would dig out his contemporaries, those who seemed just as likely to go far, and get their memories of him and their own stories. But it was too late. Some other hack had got the job.

Reading Yates’s story, as with Stoner, I found myself rushing to the next chapter, despite knowing nothing much would happen. An added fascination of the book, which I was given while I was in Barbados, was that not only was it published in Barbados, but it was co-written by someone who has lived in Barbados for the past 35 years: Keith Miller.

How had Miller got access to so many big names? He includes excellent interviews with Jamie Carragher, Jamie Redknapp, Gareth Southgate, Ian Rush, John Barnes, Steve Heighway, Jason McAteer, Gordon Taylor and others.

Modern footballers are about as hard to get access to as the Queen. Top clubs are as impenetrable as Fort Knox. Players are guarded by agents, managers, lawyers, accountants, sponsors, security. Clubs have become brands, their training grounds ringed with steel, their academies run in secret; even mention their names or flash their logo and you could be in court. Yet Miller is an outsider, living 4,000 miles away.

I had lunch with him at my hotel, Cobblers Cove, and found that he was originally from Liverpool, he was brought up a Red and he’d gone to Liverpool John Moores University. On holiday in Barbados in 1978, he met and married Sally, a local girl, and got a job teaching at a boys’ school, Mapps College. He eventually became headmaster – by which time he and his wife had begun a little publishing company that produced a tourist guide called Ins and Outs of Barbados.

Today, almost every tourist in Barbados finds a free copy in their room and those in Trinidad, Saint Vincent and elsewhere also get Ins and Outs, as the Millers have expanded the idea round the Caribbean. So, he has his own company, Miller Publishing, and his own imprint, Wordsmith International. That meant he could self-publish.

It was by chance that he met Mike Yates, the player who never made it. He happened to come to Barbados to do some coaching with local youths. They became friends. Mike, after moving down the leagues into non-League, is now back at Liverpool, working as a youth coach. Hence Keith was able to get introductions to Liverpool’s background hierarchy. Keith did all the interviews himself, making endless trips back to the UK, and also did a few sessions on Skype. The reason he got them to contribute is that they are serious – about football, not personalities, and about players’ memories of being coached and the problems young players face today when they’re headed for the scrapheap.

The late success of Stoner, originally published in 1965, shows that a supposedly forgotten novel can have another life. Keith Miller has shown that you don’t have to be a professional football hack to write a good book about professional football.