Christmas is a time when I stock up on books for the coming year. A couple I asked for this year were sports autobiographies which had hit the headlines in the months running up to the festive season. Irish footballer Roy Keane’s second effort, “Roy Keane – The Second Half; and South African-turned-English cricketer Kevin Pietersen’s “KP – The Autobiography”. The reviews of both portrayed men with a grudge and some amusing assaults on erstwhile colleagues. I have massive respect for both as players – the very best of their generations – and thought all the sounding off could be amusing; so I requested them for a bit of light reading, amid all the histories which were the main features of my list.
In the new year I decided to read them before anything else. I knew they would be entertaining and sail by easily. And yes, they did both. But they also surprised me. Because they both revealed a vulnerability and self-criticism which you would not necessarily have expected from these two supreme sportsmen.
Roy Keane’s heyday was in the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s, first at Nottingham Forest, and then at Manchester United. He was the supreme battling midfielder; but creative too, with a knack for scoring crucial goals. A box-to-box player, if there ever was one. Perhaps his most iconic performance was in 1999, when he led United to victory against Juventus in the semi-final of the Champions League, when he’d been yellow-carded and knew he would miss the final. There was not a trace of self-pity. He fought magnificently for his team and guided them through. Truly awesome. He was a difficult man and had a major falling out with the Ireland team manager, Mick McCarthy, on the eve of the 2002 World Cup in Japan, which led to him walking out. Eventually he fell out with the Man Utd management too, though the sense in his book was that he was manouvered out by Fergie and deputy, Carlos Quieroz.
Kevin Pietersen is one of the finest batsmen ever to play for England. His test debut was in 2005 against Australia, and he played a big part in the team that won the Ashes back from Australia – the biggest moment in England’s recent cricket history. Really, he should still be in the team – we don’t have a lot of great players at the moment – but he fell out with just about everybody in the management team, and paid the price. He earns the epithet swashbuckling: a man who will always go for the big chance, the six, when it presents itself. More often than not it will succeed; but from time to time it gets him out at crucial moments, and the press descends on him. I suspect that reaction is, more than anything, because he is South African by birth and upbringing, although his mother is English.
And yes, he, like Keane, is outwardly very arrogant. As many great sportsmen are. Apparent fools are not tolerated. The team ethos is adhered to, as long as it is their version. Mostly that works because they win games for their teams. But when the pressure is on and they aren’t happy, they can be very divisive. And Keano and KP are great examples of that.
I say outwardly, because in both books they are brutally honest about their insecurities, their regrets about actions and decisions. This honesty is what I found so refreshing about both books; and for me, it’s what made them fascinating reads. Yes, the slagging off, the bouts of paranoia and self-justification are amusing; but Roy and Kevin both open themselves up to the reader. They know there are times when they could and should have done better. But they are both impulsive, strong-willed, and sometimes that makes them act before they have really thought things through. They are hard on themselves about all of that. My respect for them grew as a result. Great players and honest men.
Roy Keane’s book is mostly about his experiences as a manager. It starts with his being forced (in his mind) out of Man Utd. He starts well at Sunderland as a manager, but when the team hits a sustained dip, his living in Manchester still comes under attack. He puts his family first. Once again he appears to be out-manouvered by the top management. Unfairly treated or serves him right for not compromising? The book obviously goes for the latter; you sense he is not great in negotiating a middle way. He is very self-critical about his time as Ipswich manager. Wasn’t sure he really wanted the job; didn’t seek out the right players; doomed to failure. It’s interesting that he always gave the impression that he was an uncompromising manager, probably because of his reputation as a player. But in fact he wasn’t decisive enough as a manager, in his own estimation. He’s now deputy to Martin O’Neill in the Ireland set up. One assumes he will be an inspiration to the younger generation. But I’m sure he is itching to get another management job and really prove himself.
KP’s book is fascinating on his journey from South Africa to England; on his philosophy of the game; on his development of his technique, especially against spinners; and, of course, his relationship with his England team mates. At the time that England became World No1, it started to deteriorate. He didn’t like the management once Duncan Fletcher moved on; his period as captain was a bit of a disaster. He became the tortured genius; tolerated because of his brilliance, but seen by the establishment as a problem rather than the solution. He should have been the latter because he was our best player. The team should have been built around him. It wasn’t; and in the end he was turfed out. He is self-aware in his account of all of this. He acknowledges he made mistakes, that he didn’t always think of the team first. He is very honest about his need to be “loved”, appreciated, and how he reacts badly when he isn’t. He writes about how he could be racked by uncertainty going into bat at times. Who, who has played, can’t relate to that? And he describes beautifully those moments when he gets in the zone and plays as well as any batsman in the world. There are exhilarating moments in this book.
But, but. KP loses me when he allows his animosity towards the England manager, Andy Flower, and wicket keeper, Matt Prior, get the better of him. What you get here is the sense that KP is unable to empathise with them; understand where they are coming from. They are all bad. And they can’t have been. Matt Prior is pilloried for his bragging in the dressing room, calling himself the “Big Cheese”. This does sound a bit gruesome; but does it deserve a chapter and a half of vitriol? Ridiculous metaphors about camembert and the rest. This seemed to me to be the ghost-writer, David Walsh, a highly respected journalist from The Times, getting a bit carried away. To me, it was to the detriment of an otherwise very good book.
This ghost-writer business is interesting. KP gets one of the top sports journalists around. Roy Keane gets Roddy Doyle, a very fine author of great Dublin stories like “The Van”, “The Commitments” and “Paddy Clark, Ha Ha”. His writing style informs the Keane book. There’s lots of swearing – presumably authentic – but with phrases on repeat, for effect. Simple, looped expression – very like Doyle’s novels. In the end, I found myself saying, come on Roddy, leave it to Roy.
But, you know, I’d recommend both of these books highly. They aren’t works of art; but they are fascinating insights into the minds of two of the greatest sportsmen of our age. Forthright, daring, fragile. Human.