The fan - Hunter Davies indulges his passion for footie biogs

It's social progress when autobiographies of footballers are in hardback

At last, what a relief, Gazza: my story is out of the bestseller lists. For the past 15 weeks, he's been in the top ten in the Sunday Times non-fiction hardback list, beating piddling people who have done little in their lives, such as the former American president Bill Clinton, whose autobiography came out on the same day. Gazza's did twice as well. So far, 250,000 copies of his story have been shifted. Appalling, of course, what the world has come to.

But it's part of a modern trend. Fergie, Roy Keane, Beckham - their autobiogs all topped the hardback list, which usually has been dominated by literary or political figures, as it should be, come on, we do have standards. They are clearly being lowered. Just look at all the space in our newspapers devoted to stupid old football, whole sections, acres every day, compared with the poor old book reviews, which you can hardly find these days, even in the broadsheets. Disgusting, where will it end, etc.

Will that do, dear? I'm just trying to keep her happy. She goes on all the time about the football coverage taking space and attention away from proper books.

I've tried to tell her. Football biogs and autobiogs have a long and interesting history. For a start, you didn't get them back in the 1880s, when football became professional. Publishers just didn't consider the lives of horny-handed, working-class professionals worthy of notice. Football books did exist, of course, right from the beginning, but they were written by, about and for the posh amateur gents and their amateur clubs. Very soon, however, the popular press began to devote space to match results and our heroes, but they still didn't make it on to the pages of hardback books.

Footer biogs and autobiogs began in the 1930s. Probably the earliest, in the form we now recognise, was Herbert Chapman's autobiog in 1934. I'm still looking for a copy, but in my football library - more than 500 books so far - I've got George Allison's The Inside Story of Football, from 1938. A cheap paperback, it was published by Quaker Oats, complete with a competition for free gifts. By the look of it, he wrote it himself, but then he had been a journalist, before becoming Arsenal's manager.

After the Second World War, the autobiogs came flooding out. Usually in hardback, but pretty thin, 150 pages or so, nothing controversial. Not written by the star player himself, though they pretended it was. Mostly it was done by a football hack on the local paper who got a few hours with our hero, then cobbled it together from the cuttings. Much like many today, really.

One of my most treasured books is a first edition, with pristine cover, of the first ever autobiog by Stanley Matthews. Feet First was published in 1948 by Ewen & Dale, a firm long forgotten. There is no credit or clue to who actually wrote it. "I intended to start this book in 1939," it begins. Stan, at that time, was just 23, already a star. His father told him not to. "Who do you think you are - Fanny Walden?"

I've also got Eddie Hapgood's 1945 autobiog, Football Ambassador, and Football From the Goalmouth by Frank Swift (1948), each "edited by Roy Peskett", so it says. Presumably Peskett did the actual writing. I keep them in plastic, along with Len Shackleton's famous 1955 autobiog, Crown Prince of Soccer. It's famous because of Chapter Nine, which is entitled "The Average Director's Knowledge of Football". The chapter is totally blank. Before I secured a copy, I thought this was legend rather than fact. (It's actually just one page blank - page 78 - but amusing all the same, for 1955.)

A lot of early stars from the First World War and the 1920s, such as Billy Meredith and Hughie Gallacher, never got their biogs written until modern times. Publishers now realise that footer biogs do sell, not just those about Becks and Gazza, but of stars long gone.

Anyway, Gazza is my last soccer autobiog. I'm now doing a non-football life. He's Scottish, knighted, lives in the Bahamas. Here's another clue: he was once offered a trial by Man United. Before a three-hour session, we warm up by discussing football. See, pet, my football reading has not been wasted . . .

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