Goalie Graham's grass-roots footie writing success
Publishers told Notts Trent lecturer Graham Joyce his anecdotal book on grass-roots football wouldn't sell – because it wasn't about a celebrity. But now he's up for the biggest prize in the sport-writing business, as Jennifer Scott hears
GRAHAM Joyce first grew interested in reading because the primary school teacher who led football training was also in charge of Friday afternoon storytime. He was one of those teachers you never forget, the dedicated kind who inspire his young charges. Every weekend, he would pile all the lads into a van and drive them to matches all over the country.
And through this teacher sprang two of the loves that have shaped Graham's life: football and literature.
In fact, the first piece of biographical writing Graham ever did, called My Story was a story about winning a schools football shield.
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Graham did grow up to be a writer but not – as you might expect – of football stories.
Instead, he has spent the past 20 years penning intense psychological thrillers – until now.
A call-up to England (well, England Writers' team) two years ago revived his childhood pastime as a sports writer. A blog he wrote on his experiences as the team goalie quickly metamorphosed into a ticklishly funny 207-page memoir called Simple Goalkeeping Made Spectacular.
The book – a compulsive anecdotal one-two that flicks from football to life in general and back again – was rejected by various large publishing houses with the words, "It's funny but it won't sell because it's not about a celebrity."
Eventually it was picked up by a smaller house, Mainstream Publishing, and found its way to bookshops in August.
Mainstream clearly knew what it was doing. For Graham's book has been shortlisted for The William Hill Sportswriters Award, known as the "bookie prize" (as opposed to the Booker Prize). William Hill offers the biggestsports writing prize in the world – £25,000. The winner from the six-strong list will be announced on November 26.
As you may have guessed from the title of his tome, Graham's childhood stargazey dream was to be a goalie – Gordon Banks, if he had a choice.
"Banks was the hero. He was the person I wanted to be like as a goalkeeper," he recalls, his eyes already far away, as though conjuring memories of great saves from the yellow-jerseyed one. "I was always trying to imitate his posture in goal – until somebody told me I was standing like a monkey."
He "bagsy-ed" the goalie's jersey at the age of 10 and never gave it up.
"For some reason which is difficult to fathom, that was my position.
"I made it my own and I never, ever wanted to play anywhere else."
He spends some time in his book trying to fathom the bloody-mindedness of your average keeper.
"I was just fairly happy trying to deny other people goals!" he laughs. "I had quick reflexes. I was a decent shot stopper and I was quite a brave goalie."
Although fairly strapping in stature, Graham is far too good-humoured to be intimidating – at least, off the pitch.
On the pitch, you suspect he may undergo something of a Dr Jekyll-like transformation – although perhaps not quite on the scale of Peter Schmeichel, who famously tipped from mild-mannered gent to raging, red-nosed lunatic when placed between the posts.
"I feel it's me against the rest of the world," he says, dead seriousness underpinning the jocularity. "The only thing that counts is what happens at my end of the pitch."
The book is full of laugh-out-loud observations about the plight of goalies.
The laws of the game are, so goalie paranoia runs (and they may have a point), constantly out to get them.
"Fifa are always trying to come up with new ways of making your life more difficult so these pampered goalscorers will get more glory," he complains, before giving a detailed explanation as to how different stitching on the footballs makes them swerve "like a lurid, plastic beachball at Skegness" (and sometimes, as at Sunderland-Arsenal last weekend, you have both to deal with two beachballs at the same time).
And while fans, pundits and players may gloat: "dodgy keeper" whenever a clanger is dropped, you won't see keepers laughing at each other's mistakes, he says. They're all too aware their own errors could form the next comedy clip on Match of the Day. Keepers form a unique brotherhood, albeit one with a garish uniform.
So, aside from his fellow sufferers-between-the-sticks, who else will Graham's book appeal to?
"I think it will appeal to anyone who plays the sport at the grassroots level because there isn't much on the market about that at the moment," he says. "It will appeal to the people who have got no further than the school team or the pub team. And also, because of the humour, the long suffering wives and girlfriends, if their husbands come home moody on a Saturday afternoon."
Graham grew up in a coal-mining village north of Coventry. His dad came down to the Midlands from Spennymoor, County Durham and spent his whole life in the pit, retiring just before Thatcher closed it.
A pipe-smoking uncle used to take Graham to watch Coventry City, bringing along a little stool where his nephew could stand to see the action from the terraces.
Graham also used to go to the Derbyshire Miners' Holiday Camp at Skegness.
"We used to play football against the other campers every week," he recalls. "One week we'd be having our shins kicked by Shirebrook's finest. Another week we'd be facing Notts Miners, then a stone-faced team from Barnsley."
After rising through his school teams, he moved on to "violent pub teams" in the Sunday league.
He quit "the stupid game" around 15 years ago.
"It was disillusion at the casual violence," he says. Plus the cartilage in his knees had worn away. He had an operation on one but was left with osteoarthritis.
"I remember sitting in the bath, thinking I should do something else with my spare time, like write a book. It was a watershed moment, that bath!" he grins.
He took himself off to a Greek island, bizarrely, lived in a shack and wrote his first novel, Dreamside.
Since then, he has written a further 14 books and won a clutch of literary prizes.
His career as a goalie seemed far behind him – until he got the England call-up. Well, England Writers.
England Writers are a team formed from a disparate rabble of journalists, a horror writer, a children's writer and a professor of maths. The rule is that you have to have a published book to your name.
The Writers' Italian equivalents had secured enough sponsorship to stage a World Cup.
So Graham has travelled Europe with his team, who sometimes fund themselves and sometimes find sponsors.
England Writers have proved even less successful than the real England in terms of silverware. Some of their international rivals have managed to bend the rules to sneak ex-professional players into their ranks. Still, it's fun, Graham says.
One highlight was a trip to Lillehammer where they beat Norway 2-0. WAGS were allowed to accompany the team. It's not clear how Graham's wife Sue, a former lawyer, feels about being a WAG, but she and children Ella, 13, and Joe, 11, enjoyed watching dad hurl himself around in the mud.
"They loved it because we won," says Graham.
The family lives in Leicester but Graham has taught on the creative writing MA at Nottingham Trent since 1996. The course has produced such local luminaries as Nicola Monaghan, Stephan Collishaw and Clare Littleford.
He is well-placed to analyse his abrupt change in writing style.
"It's a much lighter style than I use when writing my thrillers," he says. "Since there's been so much interest in this, I'm thinking of writing another one."
In its mixture of football and story-telling, Graham's life seems strangely reminiscent of those happy, primary school days.
He travels down to London to play a game once a month. It hurts a bit.
"After a game I'm limping but I can't give up on it now," he says. "I'm a shadow of what I was as a goalie – which wasn't much. But when I'm playing football, I'm not thinking about anything else except that ball. You can completely shut off all the internal noise. And as a writer, there is a lot of internal noise, so it's a wonderful antidote."
Simple Goalkeeping Made Spectacular, published by Mainstream, costs £8.99.