The game of sports ghostwriting

Mostly soul destroying, at times life changing . . . but always it’s somebody else’s story

Paul Kimmage began work on Brian O’Driscoll’s autobiography only to past the work onto Mark English, who ghosted The Test. Photograph: Inpho.

Paul Kimmage began work on Brian O’Driscoll’s autobiography only to past the work onto Mark English, who ghosted The Test. Photograph: Inpho.


Hunter Davies published the authorised biography of the Beatles in 1968 and the football classic, The Glory Game. He’s also ghosted a few football books, including Gazza. When word broke in March 2006 that 20-year-old Wayne Rooney was getting £5 million to write five volumes of his autobiography he scoffed at the news.

“I thought,” he says, “how stupid – a lad of that age? At 20, nobody was ghosting Shakespeare’s autobiography. Nobody was doing Mozart’s at 15. So I wrote this piss-taking piece for the New Statesman, and on the Monday I got a call from HarperCollins to say, ‘Would you be interested in ghosting Wayne’s autobiography?’ I said, ‘Brilliant. What a great idea. Long overdue – should have been done years before.’”

Davies met Rooney at the office of HarperCollins publishers. The football star’s entourage included his agent, lawyer, a brand manager and bodyguard, all dressed in suits, while Rooney rocked up in tracksuit bottoms and hoodie. Davies hatched a working arrangement to meet for eight three-hour sessions (each one uninterrupted by phone calls) excluding a few follow-up phone calls and other social encounters.

Jog memory

Rooney never cancelled any meetings, and never swore in his presence, something Davies attributes to Rooney’s mother who, he says, “would have slapped him if he’d been rude to somebody of my age”. The book was churned out in three months, in time to capitalise on post-World Cup fever in July 2006. Davies argues that the eight slots allotted to him were more than a lot of ghostwriters are given. For others, the process is a more gruelling affair.

Paul Kimmage, who has published two landmark books of the genre – Full Time: The Secret Life of Tony Cascarino and Engage: The Fall and Rise of Matt Hampson – conducted 27 interviews with Brian O’Driscoll before offloading the job in the tackle last January to his former colleague, Alan English. In order to get into the skin of Hampson, who was paralysed from a rugby injury at 20 years of age, Kimmage moved in with him for four weeks, at the end of a project that took, he reckons, four years to complete.

“The conversation I had with Matt at the start was: ‘If we’re going to do this properly this is going to hurt. It’s going to be very painful for you.’ I needed to know what it was like at the age of 20 to know you were never going to have sex again – you may not get married, all the baggage that comes with having that disability –to try and get inside the mind and body of someone who, like Matt has 24/7 care, who can do nothing for himself. If a fly lands on his nose, he doesn’t have the ability to swat it away. He has to stay there and be tortured by this housefly.

“This would be totally incomprehensible to anybody who’s ghostwritten but there were days when I got up and spent six, seven hours and had written 200 words. You think: ‘What the f**k am I doing here?’ What I’m trying to do is to just squeeze it, to get inside, to get to the absolute nub, to the essence of that person, and what they were thinking at that time, to be them. The Daniel Day-Lewis School of Ghostwriting is the school where I come from. I try as hard as I can to become that person. That means you wake up in a cold sweat at four o’clock in the morning. It just totally consumes you.

“It actually put some strain on my marriage. The only time in my 27 years married to Ann that I ripped off my wedding ring one night and slammed it on the table, which was silly. It only lasted a night. It put serious strain on my daily job in a newspaper, but this was an extreme book. It took a serious toll, but I have no regrets. At the end of it, it changed me – watching Matt Hampson deal with disability, and what other people have to deal with. I don’t think Wayne Rooney changed Hunter Davies very much.”

Stopped conversations

Paul Gascoigne

Christy O’Connor had an inside track when it came to ghosting Anthony Daly’s autobiography, Dalo. He soldiered with Daly on the Clare hurling team and spent six seasons as his goalkeeping coach for the Dublin hurlers. There’s an authentic, fly-on-the-wall feel to the book, as Daly looks back over the last 25 years he’s brought war into Thurles and Ireland’s hurling fields as a player and manager.

After the drive down to Clare following Dublin training sessions, the pair would often be jawing away outside O’Connor’s house at one o’clock in the morning. O’Connor says there was never a question Daly wouldn’t answer.

“There were times I wouldn’t phone him because I knew he would be in the horrors. You can see the pain Daly suffers from. It just illustrates the love he has for the game. He questions himself. At one stage, he asks himself in the book, ‘Do I have it? Am I not enough of a mean, bad bastard?’

“When they lost to Antrim in 2010 – it was a bad defeat – he doesn’t remember how he got back to his car. He was like a fella who was concussed from a belt to the head. He was on the M50, he couldn’t face home. He rang his wife. Drove to Galway. Baseball cap pulled down over his eyes. Booked into a hotel. Paid cash. Went up to the room and spent the whole night staring at the ceiling. He said he could have had a bottle of wine to take the sting out of the pain but he didn’t.

“He got up the next morning, didn’t have the breakfast. Drove back to west Clare, up around Fanore. Stopped off in a little teashop, having crossed into Clare although he thought he was still in Galway. He got a strong cup of coffee and the young fella says: ‘Jaysus, you’ll need that today.’ He got a bit of current cake, and pulled up over the side of the road at Black Head, had his coffee and bit of cake, and was looking out into the Atlantic Ocean, and he took himself apart: ‘What did I do wrong?’ He’s so honest.”

Honesty in a collaborator is the gold currency a ghostwriter looks for. Finding the right voice and getting enough material are silver and bronze.

Paul Howard remembers George Hook taking the manuscript he’d written up for his ghosted autobiography down to Wexford for holidays. It included a vivid account of the time he’d resolved to kill himself on the pier at Dún Laoghaire. Howard was worried he’d get cold feet. How many of the stories in it, he wondered, would survive? Instead the broadcaster came back with material to add in. “He didn’t have any desire to cast himself as the hero of the story,” says Howard. “It’s the piece of work that I’m proudest of in my life.”

There ain’t much glory in it, however, for the ghostwriter. Did you know Tom Watt ghosted David Beckham’s story? Becks hasn’t been slow, though, to accept awards for “the autobiography what I wrote”. As the Ewan McGregor character in the film The Ghost bemoans: the ghostwriter isn’t even invited to book launches, as it’d be like inviting a mistress to a wedding. Davies says you think of them as a friend, but they look on you more as staff.

English describes it as “unnatural relationship” – “You’re called in there to do a job. You’re going into the person’s home. You’re asking them to talk about their life. You have an intense experience with them for a limited amount of time – in my case about eight or nine months with Brian. Some ghosts might make the mistake that they’ve become a close friend of the person through spending so much time talking to them. While you’ve a vested interest in the book – you’re putting your name to it – at the end of the day it’s their story.”

Relationship deteriorated

David WalshRoche

“I came across information that linked him to doping, and I do the story. The fact that I once helped him right his book doesn’t mean that I still wasn’t a journalist. I went on The Late Late Show in a very high-profile public airing of our different readings of a doping story. He said he wasn’t a doper and I was basically saying he was. That made that relationship very interesting.”

Howard ghosted Steve Collins autobiography, but got caught in the crossfire of a dispute between the boxer and the promoter Barry Hearn. Collins praised Hearn as a great manager in the book. When he later broke his contract with Hearn, he tried to distance himself from those gushing sentiments, which were used as “Exhibit A” by Hearn’s counsel in their squabble in the Dublin High Court.

Null and void

Kenny Live

“I was subpoenaed to appear as a witness in the court case. I wasn’t called in the end, but they did demand the tapes and the manuscript, which had Steve Collins’s handwriting all over it to prove that it was his story. I was quite sore with Steve for trying to hang it on me. Even though he did what he did because he had to win the court case. I suppose that was the legal advice he got. I was just collateral damage. I was upset about it at the time. My reputation as a journalist was called into question.

“It’s funny looking back now, 20 years later, but he said in the court case that ‘the book was written by a journalist, a guy I called The Milky Bar Kid’ – I used to have these huge glasses at the time – I had no idea he called me that. To pick up the Irish Independent the next day and see that headline with The Milky Bar Kid was really embarrassing and damaging for me professionally at the time.

“I only got paid £1,000 to write the book. I have mixed feelings about it. Looking back, I’m really happy with the book. It definitely wasn’t worth the money and the anguish.

“Steve and I never spoke to each other again. I’m sad about that because I really liked him. We were great friends when I took on the book. He did me a lot of good turns in my career. When you start out in a sports writing career, you hope to hitch your wagon to somebody’s rising star. Steve was my rising star.

“I wish we hadn’t fallen out. So I always say that if somebody says to me, ‘I’m thinking of ghostwriting this book. What should I do?’ I say, ‘Just be prepared for a fallout – that you might never speak to each other again.’”

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