In 1996, I was sent by a clever sports editor to write about football for The Times. The European Championships were about to be contested in England, and the point was, I genuinely had no idea what they were. When I met the sports editor and his deputy (David and Keith) to discuss their Euro 96 idea, they were very, very impressed – and not entirely in a good way – by the extent of my apathy and innocence where football was concerned. Suspicious, they ran a few names past me to see if there was a giveaway flicker of recognition. Alan Shearer? Nope. Teddy Sheringham? Nope. Les Ferdinand? No, or not unless he was anything to do with the outbreak of the First World War. Terry Venables? Ooh, hang on; some sort of crook? I remember Keith bizarrely mentioning Ruud Gullit, and saying that of course the “G” was silent – which was terribly confusing to someone who’d a) never heard of him anyway, and b) never seen the name written down.
Because I ended up writing about sport for four years, in a thoroughly enthusiastic way, I’ve always wanted to write a book about it. A lot of things occurred to me about the nature of sport while I was covering it (and learning about it). I asked myself a lot of questions – for example, about how important sport is, and about the value of writing about it. Does it educate the emotions, or just make you miserable (which isn’t the same)? Does it broaden the mind, or the opposite? Does it help with geography, or does it just make you feel terrible that you’ve now been to Coventry umpteen times and still never seen the cathedral? Do facts about sport displace other knowledge? I know for a fact that football warped my brain, because there was a day when I saw the headline “Adams in talks” in a newspaper and I assumed it was a story about Tony Adams, the footballer. When I realised it was about Gerry Adams (and merely referred to a breakthrough in Northern Ireland politics), I was actually much less interested.
I now realise that I was open to sport in a quite dangerously enthusiastic way. I succumbed to the drama of all sporting occasions, from darts to dog agility, from footie to fights. To be honest, I got worn out by how much history was made in front of my eyes, week after bloody week. Meanwhile, of course, it was a tough and lonely job for a middle-aged and practically friendless woman in profoundly alien territory. The good news was that I wasn’t expected to write like the other people in the press box. No one wanted me to deliver terse 600-word match reports about how Giggs volleyed from 25 yards and grazed the crossbar in the 19th minute. And luckily for me, every sporting occasion contained so much potential for commentary and analysis that I really relished the fact that all the other writers were programmed to report only on the progress of the match, thus leaving the other stuff for me. The bad news, however, was that I still had to file my piece “on the whistle”, and that I got zero respect from many of my fellow sports writers. This I found very hard – even when (as I now see) I should have been able to tell myself that they were, often, preposterously self-important gits whose respect was worth sod all.
So it’s a mixture of memoir, essay, whingeing after the fact, and recollected drama. It’s a very personal book. In the end, it’s about perspective – and how sport ultimately isn’t a good enough place to hide from the realities of life. They say no one ever went to his grave wishing he’d had less sex. But I think it would be right and proper for many people to confront death accepting the fact that they really, really should have watched less football. I don’t for a second regret saying “Ooh, why not?” when I was invited into this world. After all, I loved it so much I stayed for four years, despite all the discomforts and the cold-shouldering. What I fell in love with was the fact that sport is the best subject in the world to write about, if you like seeing how little things relate to big things (which I do). But I was wrong to think the job wouldn’t change me, because it did.