IN the first of our ‘Long Reads’, Si Hughes describes the process of writing two books for different publishers at the same time, with deadlines weeks apart — and some additional insight into the life of a journalist.
THERE was a meltdown when Hull City came to Anfield.
“Wi-Fi not working…,” Tweeted the Liverpool Echo’s James Pearce after somehow managing to access 4G on his mobile phone from the vortex that was the new Main Stand’s press box in its earliest weeks. “Send help,” he requested.
The redoubtable Sunday Times writer, John Aizlewood, who is not a prolific user of social media by his own admission, routinely provides his own — original — match coverage.
Nutrition value details from the fare offered in the press room are usually released half an hour before kick off when John has settled into his seat wherever he happens to be.
You will find ‘cheese pie which tasted of neither cheese nor pie,’ from Burnley, ‘cottage pie made from cottages,’ at Aston Villa or ‘fairground sausages’ in Norwich.
He’s worth following, John. From Liverpool in late September, though? Unreported chili con carne replaced sheer panic until the IT crowd arrived an hour or so into the game. Though the problem was eventually fixed with 15 minutes to go only now can it be revealed that the meat was indeterminate.
I’m not really sure whether anyone really wants to know about the processes of journalism — how it happens, or sometimes how it doesn’t happen: the specifics that contribute towards making a story; whether or not, indeed, connectivity chaos or the ‘claggy mash’ of Sunderland is of any interest to anyone at all. Some of you reading this are probably muttering inwardly already: You lot don’t deserve to be fed anyway. I just know it.
I deliver this with some trepidation then: an account which explains why and how I have spent the last 12 months writing two books with different publishers at the same time, both of which had deadlines within six weeks of one another.
The story begins way back in 2010 when I met Howard Gayle to interview him for my second book, Red Machine inside the Trinity Mirror offices on Old Hall Street in Liverpool. I’d never encountered Howard in person before but I knew his life had been unique: there can only be one first black man to play for Liverpool and only one first black man to score for Liverpool. I was aware too of his fearsome reputation, being someone who will not compromise his own conscience; someone with good reason to distrust the media.
Red Machine focused on the stories of Liverpool players from the 1980s but not necessarily those which all related to football — and certainly ones largely untold. So Howard was high on the list of people I wanted to see.
It was the afternoon of the day in Spring when Liverpool played Benfica at Anfield in the Europa League quarter-final. Rafael Benítez was still the manager. The clock was against both of us and so it was agreed that we should meet again, only this time I figured out it was better to do it in a place more convenient and comfortable for him. I like interviews to create a sense of place. A featureless boardroom at TM Towers where middle-managers usually procrastinate did nothing for either of our spirits.
A few weeks later we gathered in the teachers’ staff room at the school where Howard runs a social inclusion project in Toxteth — or Liverpool 8, as he corrected me. It came as a surprise, when, after I’d turned the Dictaphone off, he asked whether I’d be interested in writing his autobiography.
It was an honour to receive the offer and to be trusted. I had enjoyed his company and he’d been very open indeed, providing me with the type of content which meant I could not wait to get home start writing.
I’ve never asked him why he thought I’d be the right person to work with after only two introductions. I began to consider the proposal in front of me: I was white, 26 years old, and a relatively inexperienced journalist from the north end of Liverpool. Howard was black, twice my age and from the south end. Though he looked well, he had experienced things in life that I probably would never have to face.
Maybe he appreciated that I would ask questions those closest to him would not. Through speaking to other journalists, I knew Howard had rejected opportunities in the past to write his story in full. Ultimately, I recognised this was a project well worth being involved in. Stories that transcend football interest me the most. The opportunity was too tempting to reject.
There were a few obstacles in the way, though. Number one was the fact that I did not yet have a publisher for Red Machine. Number two concerned the issue of working with on Howard’s autobiography before the interview in Red Machine went to print. It would have been unfair on him and misleading for the reader to let any further detail established between us shift the mood of the delivery of the original interview. With that in mind, I spent a couple of nights completing the 8,000-word piece more or less immediately and did not look at it again until an editor asked questions about facts or pointed out spelling mistakes.
Howard was attracted to the idea of self-publishing but I was unconvinced. As the journalist it concerned me that all of the editorial responsibility would fall on me when I made it clear at the beginning that all I really wanted to do was write the story. Funding was also a concern: the cost of the print, the design and ensuring that legally, we were safe to publish. Quite a lot could go wrong.
We continued to meet as I tried to get to know him better, often at the Soul Café on Bold Street. The interviews in those early days were as much about the copy I could get from him as much as it was me trying to place myself in his shoes; beginning the education of trying to appreciate where he had come from and where he was going to. I wanted to take the reader inside the mind of a black youth growing up alone in Norris Green.
In the meantime, Red Machine was published. It’s fair to say that Howard was not entirely satisfied by the outcome. I was celebrating my birthday in Buenos Aires when the text came: ‘Read the chapter,’ he said. ‘How do you feel?’ I asked. ‘Not happy…’
A telephone call followed. ‘You’ve made me out to be a thug,’ he claimed — a claim which I dismissed as being unfair. I reminded him that in the interests of the autobiography, I could only write about my findings from those first two interviews even though our relationship had developed since.
That conversation took place nearly three years ago. Red Machine came and went, then there was Men in White Suits. Half of Howard’s autobiography was more or less done but we still didn’t have a publisher. I had also signed a contract to do Ring of Fire with Transworld — a project I was starting from scratch. The players that represented Liverpool in the 2000s were spread across Europe rather than just the UK and Ireland, as in the previous decades. Transworld wanted it delivered within 10 months.
A conversation with James Corbett from deCoubertin brought Howard’s autobiography to life. It would have been a brave decision by any publisher to take it on considering the array of unsettling themes explored and Howard’s honesty and determination to portray his life on paper as accurate as possible.
With signatures signed, it meant that I was commissioned to complete two books at the same time. I was happy to embark on the challenge firstly because I thought it was just about possible; secondly, because I did not want all of the work with Howard to amount to nothing; thirdly because our secret meetings could not go on forever.
The clock was ticking. I realise that sounds dramatic but the last year has felt like a series of 24. There was no middle ground. Good days were marked by a spike in adrenaline while pounding away at the laptop. Bad ones felt like falling down and being further behind in the race for the finish line.
In some ways it did not help that the current Liverpool became interesting again through the appointment of Jürgen Klopp as manager. There was the additional concern of an arduous Europa League campaign to cover for the Independent with away fixtures taking up the best part of three days and needing focus, thus reducing time that could have been spent on books while intercepting momentum also.
For Ring of Fire, the first person I went to meet was Gérard Houllier. The last person in Men in White Suits was Roy Evans. It seemed to make sense. A rendezvous was agreed in Paris at the start of July, 2015. Sickness, an air-traffic control strike and faulty metro trains on the hottest day of the year did not help preparation. I arrived at my hotel only a few minutes before Gérard was scheduled to pick me up on the Rue de Rivoli in his Mercedes Benz. His driver Xavier steered us through the rush-hour traffic to downstairs bar at the Hotel Normandy where we spoke for several hours.
Invariably, you always get more with managers when they are out of work or retired because they are the ones with everything to think about, the people with thoughts jumbling around their head like a pair of shoes in a washing machine — as Alan Partridge would say. It explains why Benítez does not feature in the book. He is still active, his time is constrained and he has more to lose by being absolutely transparent.
Upon dictating everything said between me and Gérard in a Marais bar later that evening, I realised the editing process would need to be thorough and that ultimately I would need to cut 30,000 words by at least half in order for the narrative to flow.
Jamie Carragher was next up and the arrangements for this were easier to organise because we live in the same area of Liverpool. At the beginning of the process, I decided that I should try and interview either Carragher or Steven Gerrard but certainly not both. I was told that the strength of Red Machine and Men in White Suits had been the new material and considering Gerrard was due to release his second autobiography, I leaned towards Carragher, hoping Gerrard might oblige by offering a foreword instead — which thankfully, he did. Carragher ended up sitting down with me three times before the summer of 2015 was out. I was keen to reflect the levels of mental strength required to play out your entire career at a hometown club and how being able to treat fear as a friend rather than an imposter helped him along the way.
Rick Parry was third up and like with Carragher he agreed to see me more than once. His Anfield Wrap podcast interview with Tony Barrett, Kevin Sampson and Gareth Roberts had prompted me to think about him because clearly he was ready to speak about his experience as Liverpool’s chief executive. After six hours of recording, Parry joked that I must have felt like Anthony Clare from the radio series, In the Psychiatrists Chair.
In the autumn of 2015, I conducted four interviews: with Phil Thompson, Danny Murphy, Dietmar Hamann and Michael Owen. Each was very different. Thompson happened at the David Lloyd gym in Kirkby, next door to Liverpool’s academy on Arbour Lane. Thompson was Houllier’s assistant and he talked for hours about the traditional values that made Liverpool the most successful club in English football.
I saw Murphy in a hotel near to the BBC Studios in Salford, just a few miles away from the scene of his greatest moments as a professional footballer. His career is living proof that you can score three winning goals at Old Trafford and still not convince everybody about your ability and worth. I was very hungover indeed when I met Murphy and at four that morning I was still dancing to Oasis (badly) at Mojo in Manchester’s city centre. Murphy helped my recovery by guiding the interview, speaking well and offering insight I did not expect.
Hamann told me to be at a greasy spoon café in Alderley Edge at 10.30 on a Monday morning. There, he reminded me what it takes for a foreign player to succeed in the Premier League even if your education has been at Bayern Munich and surrounded by some of the game’s most forceful personalities.
Owen, meanwhile, was one I thought could go either way depending on whether he’d let me stay at his Cheshire stables for longer than the hour being offered. He surprised me on a human level and was far more open and reflective than expected.
Seven interviews down had taken me to Christmas, leaving three months in the New Year to arrange, complete and write the final four. I was away on my honeymoon for the first half of January. Meanwhile, we’d agreed on a title for Howard’s autobiography after several months of deliberation. Most of the interviews with Howard were recorded but around half of 61 Minutes in Munich still needed to be dictated and interwoven in a way the reader could appreciate it most.
Neil Mellor invited me to his house on Wirral and he gave the book a snapshot of the politics that has undermined the academy’s success since its inception. Flying to Munich in February for Xabi Alonso was combined with Liverpool’s Europa League tie in Augsburg. And then came the final two…
I had hoped to somehow combine a week of sit-downs in Spain with fixtures that would conveniently align, allowing me to spend time separately with Fernando Morientes, Javier Mascherano and Fernando Torres. Instead, after provisional arrangements were agreed, Morientes was sacked as manager of Fuenlabrada and Barcelona’s game in Madrid with Rayo Vallecano was switched to a different date, meaning I could not see Mascherano — although he was keen to do it.
Torres was vital because I viewed his interview as a coup considering he hadn’t gone on the record before, explaining the reasons why he chose to leave Liverpool for Chelsea in 2011. So I awarded him a priority status and tried to arrange other people around him.
This meant flying at 6am from Stansted to Venice the morning after Liverpool had lost to Manchester City on penalties in the League Cup final at Wembley before driving two hours into Slovenia for Albert Riera, then driving all the way back to Bologna to catch another early flight the following day to Madrid for Torres.
I knew Torres reasonably well and was aware that he might challenge the official version of events. I had written a magazine about his life during his first season at Liverpool and his agent, Antonio Sanz, had helped with interview arrangements on a trip to Madrid in the spring of 2008. I had gotten on well with Antonio and this must have helped when convincing Torres that it was a good idea to speak to me.
He was very nervous initially and the mood was more serious than in any of the other interview in the book. Yet as soon as he began to speak about the period beginning in 2009 when Liverpool started selling its best players without replacing them adequately enough, his manner became emotional and as a consequence, more expressive and revealing.
And so, I was almost done. Ring of Fire was supplied to Transworld with a day to spare. This left me with a little more time to complete 61 Minutes in Munich.
There was much still to consider, however — especially for Howard. It was his life and not mine, after all. I was relieved to find that he was satisfied with the voice inside because I did not want it to sound like I was the narrator. And yet, upon inspection of the first draft there was much detail to add — “the flesh on the bone” — as he told me.
I realised that many of memories around the sensitive issues explored had been buried for so long that reading about himself had prompted a revisiting, enabling the smaller most intimate details to spill from his mind.
— Simon Hughes (@Simon_Hughes__) October 3, 2016
August proved to be the toughest month. Editorial debate led to the missing of the print deadline by two weeks. This happens a lot in the publishing industry but when it happens and you have another book out at the same time, it’s the last thing you want in terms of finding the energy and attention to deal with both.
They’re out now.
I hope they work for you.