How to ghost-write a football book

Find a subject

I first emailed Stephen Constantine in September 2010.

I was organising a football tour to Nepal (a long story) and remembered, years earlier, reading about an Englishman who managed their national team in the late 1990s. I found Stephen’s website and emailed him, asking for advice. To my surprise, he replied.

“That’s quality,” he said, speaking about the tour. “I will help in any way possible.”

The Nepal tour took place in May 2011. When we got back, I sent some pictures to Stephen. As I read his Wikipedia page – national team jobs in Nepal, India, Malawi, and Sudan, plus a year as Millwall first team coach – I grew more and more interested about his career. So, on 1 July 2011, I sent him an email: “Have you ever thought about doing an autobiography?”

“Sure,” he eventually replied, after some persuasion. “Why not?”

Find a publisher

Before deciding whether to buy a book, publishers like to see three chapters. At this point, Stephen was managing in Cyprus, and I lived in London, so we spent hours chatting over Skype. After months of interviews, transcription, and writing, we had three chapters.

They weren’t perfect, but they were good; a mixture of behind-the-scenes insight and funny stories. I wrote a covering letter and, on 8 March 2012, sent the chapters to BackPage Press, a new, exciting publisher based in Glasgow. On March 27, they emailed back.

“Thanks for being patient with us,” they wrote. “I’m sorry it’s bad news, but this isn’t a project we can work with you on…we started up BackPage because publishers kept rejecting our ideas for sports books, so please don’t be disheartened.”

I took their advice. I emailed another nine publishers – Pitch, Sports Books, Carlton, John Blake, the list goes on – and they all said the same thing, more or less. “We like it, but…”

I even tried three or four agents, as they – and only they – can pitch to the mega publishers like HarperCollins. They too were uninterested.

“It lacks that certain spark of tone and approach that can take a story from magazine piece to bestselling book,” said one agent. “In truth, it all felt just a bit parochial.”

By December 2012, my “Submissions” email folder was overflowing with rejection. At this point – nine months after my first email to BackPage – I finally became disheartened, and gave up.

Try again to find a publisher

In November 2015 I had a drink in the upstairs room of the Euston Tap with my friend and fellow journalist Tim Abraham. He asked about Stephen’s book; I told him it was sitting, unloved and unread, in a cobwebbed corner of my laptop.

Tim, a Liverpudlian, told me about DeCoubertin, a Liverpool-based sports publisher. Fuelled by five pints, I promised to submit my three chapters the next morning. On 4 January 2016, I received this reply from James Corbett, the founder of DeCoubertin.

“Sorry for the delay in coming back to you on this,” he wrote. “I wondered if you are still looking for a publisher?”

While trying to hide my elation, we agreed a small advance, split 50-50 between Stephen and me, and signed a contract in April 2016. Publication was pencilled in for May 2017; the deadline was 31 December 2016. “Will that be a problem?” asked James. “No problem at all,” I replied.

I was wrong.

Write it

In 2016, Stephen was managing India for the second time. For the book to work, I had to interview him in person: Skype is fine, but you can’t do proper, in-depth interviews while staring at a screen.

In June, he flew to England for a family holiday, so we met at his mother-in-law’s house in Brighton. After a week of interviews – roughly 20 hours’ worth – we had reached his first spell in India, which ended in 2005. This, I realised, was going to take longer than planned.

The interviews were just the start of it: every hour of tape took around two hours to transcribe. Renowned writers employ transcribers. In Living on the Volcano, for example, Michael Calvin thanks Caroline Flatley for her “endless hours of transcription”; in Sam Allardyce’s book, ghostwriter Shaun Custis thanks Scott Custis and Molly Baker for “transcribing hours of interviews”. I was on my own. I would often stay up until 11pm or midnight, pressing stop and play, forming ideas as I typed.

I work full-time at the BBC, so I wrote at weekends, or when I got home from work. Sometimes I woke early to get an hour done before setting off. I took my laptop everywhere: I wrote on the top floor of double-decker buses or in quiet corners of pubs. On a trip from London to Ayr United (another long story) I researched and wrote 1,500 words on the Afro-Asian Games, which must be a first for the West Coast Main Line.

The target was 80,000 words, but by October we only had 40,000, even after a number of top-up interviews on Skype. So, one Friday morning, I finished a nightshift, got the train to Stansted, and flew five hours to Limassol, where Stephen has been based with his family since 2006. We spent all weekend chatting in his office; during breaks, I would flick through his scrapbooks, or admire the pictures and pennants on the wall. For the first time we had broken the back of the book.

After finishing every chapter, I emailed it to Stephen. He would reply with changes, or details he’d forgotten, marked in red. Occasionally, he would write: “I don’t speak like this.” A ghost, I learned, must park his own ego. You are a conduit – a shaper of other people’s stories – rather than a creative writer. I imagined Stephen reading each chapter aloud. If it sounded wrong, I started again.

By December 2016, we had written 70,000 words. The tunnel, which we entered in 2011, had light at the end. And then, on 4 December, my first child was born ten days early…

Somehow, we finished the book on time. I ended Christmas Day on my in-laws’ sofa, laptop on my knee, glass of prosecco in hand, with printouts from national-football-teams.com lying by the box of nappies on the floor.

Edit it

A writer sends a first draft to his publisher like, I imagine, a parent sends his child to their first day at school: proudly, nervously, and wondering what on earth will come back.

Thankfully, James Corbett and his assistant at DeCoubertin, Jack Gordon-Brown, both liked it. But they weren’t uncritical. In every chapter, there were at least five or six suggestions, or questions to answer. Our copy editor – the outstanding Ian Allen – also picked up at least a dozen mistakes or inconsistencies. I was, once more, spending every spare hour on the laptop.

I also began to have doubts about some parts. Until January, the priority was finishing the book; after January, we had to make it perfect. I shortened paragraphs, replaced commas for full-stops, and tried to curb my own enthusiasm for – you guessed it – parenthetical dashes. Once, I drifted into a world of my own while eating dinner with my wife. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“We need to finish with that section about Norman Smurthwaite,” I replied, to some bemusement.

With Mr Smurthwaite in his rightful place, the final version was typeset, sent to the printers, and published. The release date is 25 July; I received ten copies two weeks ago. It was a strange, dream-like moment, one I couldn’t imagine while plugging away on the train to Ayr almost a year earlier.

When you hold the book – as I hope you will – you’ll see the life story of football’s most-travelled manager. It’s a good read, I promise. But when I hold it, I see six years of my own life: the ideas, knockbacks, the interviews, the nappies, and the endless, endless printouts from national-football-teams.com.

From Delhi to the Den, by Stephen Constantine with Owen Amos, is available now with free worldwide delivery from decoubertin.co.uk. From 25 July, it will also be available on Amazon and in all good bookshops.

How to ghost-write a football book
4.96 (99.2%) 25 votes