How the rise of Man City’s star player reminds me of editing Jilly Cooper’s columns

For a brief, fleeting moment many years ago I created an environment in which she flourished as a writer.

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I like to think I helped Jilly Cooper become a success. I’ll start again. I like to think that for a brief, fleeting moment many years ago I created an environment in which she flourished as a writer. So really, I know how Pep Guardiola feels about Kevin de Bruyne.

De Bruyne had problems elsewhere. He’d fallen out with previous managers, failed to blossom, till – bingo! Pep took him under his wing at Man City, arm round his shoulder, told him how marvellous he was, but explained what he must do to get better, and created a formation that allowed him to thrive.

Man City look as if they might steam ahead in the Prem and be out of sight by Christmas, while De Bruyne is being talked about as a possible world player of the year, forgetting that Messi and Ronaldo are still among us.

This is a feature of things suddenly going well in football, and in life. You think: “Wow, they’ve cracked it, who can stop them now?” Events, dear boy, events: other folk doing better, stars losing their touch – that’s what will stop them. Then we could be saying Watford, what an amazing team, there must be a reason they are doing so well this season – let’s look back and think of one quickly.

Meanwhile, De Bruyne continues to be greatly improved, benefiting from Papa Pep’s patronage.

I thought when De Bruyne first arrived in the Prem that he was Prince Harry’s illegitimate, more handsome younger brother. Then I thought: he looks a moan, hardly smiles, does not seem popular with his team-mates. He never seemed to fit in at Chelsea, was sent out on loan and then sold by Mourinho to Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga. Now look at him thriving at Man City.

That happened with Jilly. She became by far the best read, most popular writer on the Sunday Times. Previously it was thought that readers bought the paper for the posh critics, such as Harold Hobson and Dilys Powell.

It was back in the early Seventies that, for a brief moment, I was brought in to edit the women’s pages. I inherited Jilly, and also Molly Parkin. Molly came from a fashion background, couldn’t type and had never done interviews. I sent her to interview Cyril Knowles, the Spurs footballer, for whom the fans were singing “Nice One Cyril”. She knew nothing about football – women’s pages never covered such topics. She took a fashion photographer, not a sports snapper, and got lovely pics of Cyril and his family.

She came back to the office, and stood behind me as I typed, talking me through what had happened. Not that I could type properly. Just two fingers, self-taught on my student newspaper. But I like to think that was the beginning of Molly’s own writing career, and her subsequent books.

With Jilly, I got her to cut some of the awful puns she worked into almost every sentence. I wanted her to extend her range, cover more serious topics – not that I was much of an example. I took her out to lunch and discovered that Leo, her husband, had been married before. I suggested she should write about being a second wife – how did that feel? She could still make jokes.

I’m sure neither woman lies awake at night thinking “good old Hunt”, just as Kevin de Bruyne will think: “Yes, I showed those bastards who did not believe in me.”

I was only ever a boss for a short time. I much preferred writing to editing. Most managers feel the same: they would much rather be playing. But they discover a secondary, secret pleasure in helping people, often without getting full credit. I felt a quiet pleasure when a good story came off with someone else’s byline on, knowing I had thought of it.

In football, everyone can see what happens, read the scores, scan the stats. Managers often get credit when it is scarcely deserved, and abuse when that is not deserved either. But Pep must be going to bed with a warm glow at seeing De Bruyne doing so well. Just as Pochettino surely snuggles down every night with fatherly thoughts of Harry Kane, my boy... 

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 appears in the 26 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Poor Britannia