Ghosting Big Ron
There is something magical about holding your first book, touching it, opening it, seeing it fall open on to something you actually wrote.
My first book didn’t have my name on the cover. I was a ghost writer. The name on the cover was someone much bigger than me, so big he was referred to almost universally as Big Ron.
Ron Atkinson had been involved in football for more than half a century and I was one of the very few football writers whom he didn’t know.
We were introduced by his publishers who had commissioned him to write his autobiography. I was to go down to his house in Worcestershire to see if he and I would ‘hit it off’.
Hit it off we did. Ron loves words and he loves talking football. His memory was pin sharp. He could recall the fit of the shirts when Honved played Wolverhampton Wanderers in 1954, where the skill and the sheer presence of the Hungarian footballers left an impression that would last a lifetime.
That made everything easier. There are some subjects for whom events blur into each other. Mick Jagger had to cancel his autobiography when he realised he could remember nothing of one decade. Not the drug-filled 1960s but the 1980s when his life was a succession of tours in similar stadia, playing the same old songs before retiring to a similar hotel suite.
The ghost writer’s trick is to find the subject’s voice. It is no use writing in high-flown poetic language if your subject is a fish-and-chips, spade-and-shovel kind of guy. If it were a film, you would be the director not the star. It had to sound like Ron.
Ron Atkinson’s life had also been very full. He had managed Manchester United for four years; he had taken two Midlands clubs, Aston Villa and West Brom, to within an ace of the league title and had taken charge of one of Spain’s great clubs, Atletico Madrid. He had a story to tell.
I remember, many years ago, sitting alongside a journalist when he was asked to write Darren Gough’s autobiography. “He is only 21,” said the journalist. “I warn you it will be a very thin tome.”
The Manager by Ron Atkinson is not a particularly thick tome – it runs to fewer than 200 pages. But it is a very full book and when it fell open in my hand there seemed not to be a word wasted. That, to me, more than made up for not having your name on the cover.