In newspaper journalism, the sports section was sometimes, playfully, described as the Toy Department. While not completely dismissed, they were often not taken seriously.
This remains somewhat true when it comes to sports books. Avid readers might see them as nothing more than Christmas presents with as much substance as a pair of socks for Dad or glossy biographies that reveal so little about the subject that it was as if they were withholding information during interrogation.
Of course, this is a disservice to the kind of craft required to elicit insights from a superior athlete and reveal a human side to someone that many feel are built differently because they excel where we couldn’t. It is a unique skill for a sportswriter to get the reader to see an athlete through a different prism.
This is what I attempted to achieve with Away Days: Thirty Years of Irish Footballers in the Premier League. This is far from declaring that my efforts have hit the kind of notes that the best sportswriters do when creating their masterpieces, but if any reader finds it engaging in any way then it was worth the effort.
When first pitching the idea of the book – which focused on telling the stories of Irish players who have featured in the first thirty years of England’s Premier League – one publisher wondered whether it was worth the effort unless the end result produced the kind of juicy tales that would reveal the ‘darker side’ to professional footballers. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why sports books are not given the kind of recognition that other genres receive.
There is always another approach to take when it comes to writing and that is why dodging the type of tabloid fodder that would have come from narrowing in on extracting salacious content was my approach. I believed that there was more than enough to write about from the thirty different footballers profiled in Away Days that didn’t have to hook their story around their most embarrassing moments or worst mistakes. There is still plenty of raw emotion revealed and difficult topics tackled within the 256 pages, but the approach was a positive one.
Some of the best sportswriters, like Donald McRae and Wright Thompson, are master storytellers who just happen to focus on sportspeople. They have repeatedly used an approach that secures the trust of the subject and dives deep into their psyche without it ever feeling like they are simply searching for a headline.
Closer to home, the likes of Malachy Clerkin, Vincent Hogan and Niall Kelly pull this off with similar precision and that is why athletes are willing to say yes to them when an interview or book request comes to them. If the approach is not genuine then a bond can never be formed with the subject, and if a bond is not established then the piece of writing will be dull and a waste of everyone’s time.
In Away Days, I was lucky in that many of the players selected were people who I had previously worked with, so there was a level of trust already built up. Still, if my style of interviewing was too formal or too intrusive then they would have treated me like anyone else trying to use them for the wrong reasons. This was important to me as a writer, because as much as you are thinking about the reader who eventually picks up the finished book, you can never overlook the ones who are part of the journey to get there. Without the players, this would have just been a book about my thoughts on the Premier League. With the players, it is, I hope, an entertaining insight to the lives of thirty players who each enjoyed different experiences of being part of the most popular league in the world.
The first part of writing the book actually came with an interview. Or at least some messages fired out to players enquiring whether they would be interested in taking part in this project. Luckily, of the ten messages first sent out, nine replied positively. So it was then a case of making a start with the first one and discovering some sort of momentum from there. So it began with a chat with Stephen Ward.
The actual writing process came naturally enough. From my years as a sports journalist, I was used to writing as I transcribed an interview and that felt important to me rather than paying someone else to do that. I felt that I needed to put in the long hours of trawling back through the interviews and notes in order to be in a better position to write the story. It is only when you are fully invested into the process that you can find that sweet spot where you stumble upon a specific angle or come across a phrase or sentence that can shape everything that comes after. As a writer, you should feel challenged by the process.
It is important to have a support structure too. New Island Books understood when the original deadline had to be changed and they were excellent in proposing new ideas as well as offering guidance at key points. I also got to work with an editor in Noel O’Regan who knew what I wanted to achieve with the book and how I wanted to tell the stories within it. So that made the writing process a lot easier.
Ultimately, though, this book is about the players’ stories. I tried to bring something new out of each of them and deliver it in a way that helps the reader to enjoy the book in one sitting or else dip in and out of the chapters at their leisure. Sportswriting allows you to do that and while I have a lot to learn in that regard, this was, I hope, something that the players and readers appreciate for different reasons.
(c) Gareth Maher
Author photograph (c) Sportsfile
About Away Days: Thirty Years of Irish Footballers in the Premier League
Over the last thirty years, the English Premier League has grown to become the richest and most popular league in football – and the Irish have been at the heart of its success since the very beginning.
Through exclusive interviews with many of the greatest Irish players to ever play in the Premiership, and an in-depth analysis of Irish players’ involvement of the last three decades of the league, Gareth Maher showcases the astounding contribution that the Republic of Ireland has made to the greatest league on earth.
With insights from Seamus Coleman, John O’Shea, Niall Quinn, Shay Given, Jonathan Walters, Kevin Doyle, Andrew Omobamidele and many more, Away Days uncovers the good, the bad & the ugly of a League that has been home to almost two-hundred Irish players.
This is the telling of Ireland’s impact on the Premier League as told through the stories of the players who have experienced the title wins and the relegation scraps, the big-money moves and the cancelling of contracts, the hero’s acclaim and the villain’s disdain over three whirlwind decades.
Order your copy online here.