Grant Woodward: Books that let us in to the world of sport are so rare

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MY wife, it would be fair to say, is not the world’s biggest cricket fan. On the one and only occasion she came to watch me play, she held up the match by deciding a spot slap bang in front of the sightscreen would be the perfect place to tuck into her picnic.

To say I was mortified would be something of an understatement, not least as I was batting at the other end.

Yet even she could tell something was up with Kevin Pietersen when he hammered a century for England at Headingley two summers ago and then revealed in his post-match interview it was “difficult being me in that dressing room”.

But if it was clear even to my wife watching on television that a messy parting of the ways between team and player was inevitable at some point in the very near future, the level of contempt for the England set-up and its key personnel contained in Pietersen’s just-published autobiography has still gone further than many expected.

The fact that KP has given his former teammates the sort of bludgeoning he once reserved for a cricket ball isn’t going to do much for the national team’s morale. But at least it has finally given those long-suffering readers of sporting memoirs something to get excited about.

Pietersen’s book is that relatively rare beast in an increasingly crowded market – a sports autobiography that actually has something to say. It has already split public opinion between those who view him as an ego-driven troublemaker and the camp who remain convinced he’s a misunderstood genius. If only all such offerings could stir this sort of sparky debate.

For too long the public have had scant reward for their fascination with sport’s biggest names. Instead of a peek behind closed doors, they have had to make do with a procession of ghost-written hagiographies padded out with bland anecdotes and banal musings.

Such books tell us precisely nothing about the subject we didn’t already know because their raison d’être doesn’t extend beyond the wish of the “author” to cash in on their soaring profile while keeping their coach/colleagues/sponsors happy. It simply doesn’t pay to rock the boat.

It was the unlikely figure of controversial footballer Joey Barton who best summed up these dire offerings with his scornful description of the flimsy tomes with which England’s World Cup flops regularly insult the paying public. “We got beat in the quarter-finals, I played like s***, here’s my book”.

The trouble is that the sporting world doesn’t take kindly to those who hold a mirror to it. This means it’s often only the recently retired or those in the twilight of their careers who feel they can put their necks on the line. It says much about the perceived damage that can be incurred that when one player did finally break ranks and lift the lid on life in the Premier League it was under the cloak of anonymity as the so-called “Secret Footballer”.

So it’s ironic that it was a footballer who put his name to what must rank as the most insightful sporting autobiography ever published.

For its searing, often painful, honesty, Paul Gascoigne’s My Story – published a decade ago – is as mesmerising as the runs with which he lit up pitches from Wembley to Istanbul.

It charts the journey of a North East boy born into poverty. An anxious child, this became more pronounced when his friend’s little brother was killed in front of him in a hit-and-run while Paul was supposed to be looking after him. Although just 10 at the time, Gascoigne never got over the feeling of guilt.

His dad suffered a brain haemorrhage and never worked again. When another childhood friend was killed in an accident, Gascoigne developed severe physical and verbal twitches. His death anxiety became an obsessive compulsion and he was put into therapy. The only place where these anxieties didn’t manifest themselves was on the football pitch. And not only did the game give Gazza sweet release from his demons, it also provided the means for him to drag his family out of poverty.

On his 16th birthday he signed a contract with Newcastle United. But he was still carrying puppy fat and felt that his manager, Jack Charlton, picked on him and undermined his confidence. Gascoigne turned to binge eating, gambling, smoking and, of course, drinking.

The rest we sadly know. But My Story makes clear that by the time Gazza introduced himself on the world stage at Italia 90, the die was already cast. It shows why it’s wrong to condemn him as someone who had it all and threw it away. The demons he was able to dodge on the football pitch were only going to be kept at bay for so long.

Pietersen’s book is not in the same league. Yet at least it achieves what should be the bare minimum of any sporting autobiography worth its salt. It lets us in, however briefly, to the otherwise closeted world of sport. And it doesn’t hold back.