Surfing the internet recently a list caught my eye: “The top ten footballing authors.” My first thought was, why not a full XI, a complete team of soccer scribblers? Then I pulled up the names. Bog-standard memoirs didn’t qualify. These had to be men who’d strived to tell different kinds of stories. Quite a bit of striving had been involved in the list as well.
Yes, there is Terry Venables who collaborated on the football novel They Used To Play on Grass with that fierce and fabulous and nearly forgotten Scottish writer Gordon Williams, but there is also former Coventry City goalie David Icke, compiler of more than a dozen hefty tomes on “mass mind manipulation” including one on how 9/11 had been a great big lie.
There’s Francesco Totti and his Rome tourist guide. There’s ex-West Bromwich Albion manager Pepe Mel and his mystery story revolving round antique-dealing. There’s Steve Bruce and his trilogy – Defender!, Striker!, Sweeper! – which is also set in the world of antiques (ha, just kidding).
I know nothing about Jimmy Greaves’ The Ball Game but if I’m not mistaken the dust-jacket features what used to be termed a “leggy lovely”. Possibly Theo Walcott with his books for children is included to redress the balance and add some wholesomeness. Is that ten yet? I can’t remember the others but one thing the list obviously lacks is an author who’s put away the ball to display, well, balls and I think I may have found him in this Edinburgh hotel.
Arild Stavrum is en route from his home in Oslo to Aberdeen’s Pittodrie where he played for a couple of seasons at the turn of the century, enough to secure him cult status on the Beach End as the wild-haired, reasonably prolific, singsongy-voiced goal-grabber from across the sea. Like Walcott – like Frank Lampard, too – he writes kids’ books but he also concerns himself with the seamy side of the beautiful game.
Exposed at the Back, his second football novel, the first to be translated into English and the reason for this promotional trip, features murder, corruption, potentate football agents, bent refs, match-fixing, bungs, gambling addiction, celebrity obsession, the Beckhamisation of the game, the exploitation of youth players from Africa, the sexploitation of the players’ sisters, gay cover-ups and killer pitches. The Great Astroturf Conspiracy sounds like one for David Icke but Stavrum insists his theme has a basis in fact. “One of my characters is dying from the toxins he’s been breathing from his synthetic pitch,” he explains. “This is an issue in Norway, or it should be more of one, but the debate gets turned down. The pitches are spread with rubber granules ground from old tyres. The tyres contain chemical substances and really should be going to approved tips. But they’ve also been used in playgrounds and there’s been instances of the youngest kids, turned on by the oils, licking the surfaces.
“As a Norwegian footballer I had to play on plastic pitches a lot. Sure, they improved over the years but I had many injuries. And, if they’re so damn good, as the authorities like to say, then how come Norway has got worse as a football nation? They’ve tampered with the game in a way. Ronnie Deila’s old team Stromsgodset never lost at home because their astroturf was different to that of other clubs. And synthetic pitches have taken away some of football’s charm. The smells when it’s rainy or muddy have gone.”
Stavrum is a dreamer who drools about “this fantastic game called football” but frets about the greed in the sport so much that he proposes that “the most boring bureaucrat in Norway be put in overall control, dishing out the same flat fee to agents and everyone”. Now 42, he’s long since lost those trademark tresses. They were chopped off and sent through the post to an occasional press-box critic who promptly offered them as a competition prize, won by a school music teacher promising to use the locks to replace the handles on her cymbals. Still lean in his all-grey ensemble, he looks well capable of doing a job up front for our writerly XI.
Twenty-six goals in 54 games was his Pittodrie strike rate during the Ebbe Skovdahl years, a strange interlude for a club struggling to recapture past glories with Stavrum for one making the radical suggestion that removing Gothenburg images from the walls of the stadium might have helped in this aim. Strange, because while Aberdeen were only saved from relegation by the ruling that Falkirk’s stadium wasn’t SPL-ready, they reached the finals of the cups, losing both. But Stavrum, in rooting around for inspiration for his book, would overlook this mystery, as well as the one concerning his eventual transfer to Turkey’s Besiktas, when he left the north-east under a bit of a cloud.
“I got the idea from the Jon Obi Mikel transfer,” he says, referring to Chelsea’s Nigerian midfielder. “Here was this talented African kid who went to the English Premier League only he couldn’t go there direct because he wasn’t old enough and hadn’t played international games. That was when he wound up in Oslo. Imagine an African boy deciding one day: ‘You know what? I’m going to go to school in Norway.’ Three of his mates came with him although he was never at that school. Norway became this transit country for him. Didn’t our education minister not think that a bit bizarre? Lots of people tried to make money out of Jon Obi but I don’t suppose much of it found its way back to Africa.”
Okay, so Stavrum is obviously a clever fellow, confident enough to reference American political history in his fiction (Nixon) as well as contemporary American novelists (Jonathan Franzen) and to not be adverse to the odd Latin phrase or flowery description. You didn’t get any of this in the writings of Leicester City and England’s Frank Worthington whose One Hump or Two? surely rates as the worst book title ever, in any genre.
But isn’t that all down to him being a product of a good education system, a player who was still combining football with his studies at 19, and a culture which encourages its footballers to plan for beyond the game and to do with cleverness because in Norway the round ball is never going to make them very rich? This is all true, says Stavrum, and he knows players who later became doctors and lawyers as well as writers.
But of his experience of the British game, which was entirely wrapped up in those two years at Aberdeen, he says: “It’s both fair and unfair to say that your footballers don’t read, or don’t read anything of worth. Of course there are a few examples of the cliche, guys who only play football and spend their money, but not everyone is like that.
“Players spend a lot of time together, travelling on buses and staying in hotels. Everyone gets bored with talking about cars and girls eventually – even footballers! Maybe in Scotland you don’t have many players continuing with their education but when I was playing there guys did read books.
“At Aberdeen this was something fantastic. There were a few of us in the dressing-room who were always talking about crime novels. It became the cool thing. We’d read the books and pass them on. Eoin Jess was in the gang and also the physio John Sharp and a few others. Yes, they were crime books and we’d talk about how gruesome the murders had been. And here’s a funny thing: when we swapped the books we’d bounce them across the floor of the dressing-room like we were tough guys because, you know, football is a very macho game. But they were still books! And we were reading them!”
Stavrum chuckles some more as he recalls the elaborate depictions of death which used to fly around Pittodrie. “Jeffery Deaver was quite popular for The Bone Collector of course but I remember someone handing me back American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis in disgust saying that nothing had happened in the first 200 pages, just fashion and music. ‘That’s a pity,’ I said, ‘it starts to get really horrible from page 201.’ He grabbed the book straight back!”
At the same time as being a fully paid-up member of the Dons Book Club, surely one of the first of its kind in Scotland, our man was starting to play around with what would become his first football novel, 31 Years on Grass. “I always wanted to be a professional player. As a boy I wanted to be the best player in the world. But at school I loved writing essays.” When he was playing in Norway with Brann and Molde, the latter in a strike partnership with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, he got offered newspaper articles and short stories for magazines. Then when he moved to Aberdeen The Scotsman’s sister paper Scotland on Sunday signed him up as a columnist.
But he kept that first book quiet. “I didn’t tell my mother or father or brother about it, only my girlfriend. If it wasn’t going to turn into anything I wanted it to be a buried secret.” The girlfriend, Lisbet, later became his wife. In a cruel irony, Stavrum had just “given” his heroine in the new book leukaemia when Lisbet was diagnosed with breast cancer. Happily she is now fully recovered. They have a son, Ole, a keen footballer. “If he wants to make a career, great, but I won’t force him. When I see him play now with his mates it’s clean and fun and fantastic to watch – how football should be. Unfortunately the bad elements can come later so I’ve also signed him up for theatre school.”
The debut was well received in Stavrum’s native land while Exposed at the Back comes with a cover recommendation from Nordic noir’s prince of darkness, Jo Nesbo: “Finally, a football crime book!” The Harry Hole creator is a friend and fellow ex-Molde footballer. “We used to live next to each other in Oslo and Jo likes to say that Harry came out of that apartment building.”
So why is Scandi-crime – to which Stavrum now makes his contribution with the slaying of his super-agent – so insanely popular and why are its practitioners so deadly at it? “I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe it’s the weather or the darkness or the fact that everyone in Scandinavia leads such an organised life that we have to kill off people in our dreams.”
Some ex-Aberdeen team-mates have found their way into print. His friends included Jess, Derek Whyte and Robbie Winters although he won’t say who from that side has been an inspiration, good or downright dastardly. But he won’t hear a bad word against Aberdeen, a city and a team which remain dear to him. “When I came people said ‘How can you stand the weather?’ But I’m from the west of Norway and wind and rain is my life. The people were so friendly. I moved into a flat in the city centre and right away the neighbours were round to welcome me. It was so easy to be in Aberdeen and I loved it because it’s beautiful with all that granite and the special light and yes the rain, too. It’s a special place.”
l Exposed at the Back (Freight Books, £14.99).