Phil’s Forty, 34: Page-turners.

My departure from PA Sport came when they said they were not going do any more books about sport.

Whether they stuck to that I have no idea. All I know is that for five years we produced some fantastic, ground-breaking, page-turners, and after I left I had a lot of fun fulfilling some private commissions.

The first book was the only real failure. As England edged to victory in the 2005 Ashes we began to pull together the official story of the series with match reports, analysis, interviews with the top players and coaches and comprehensive stats packs.

It was paperback, authoritative and affordable but as it was about to go to print the publishers decided they needed to make some changes. I can’t remember now whether they moved the photographs, added some content or took some away, and I don’t have a copy because they were all pulped.

The reason for that was having re-jigged the pages the publishers neglected to update the contents list. Half a dozen or more chapters were no longer where they should have been and the whole book had to be reprinted.

Our best book was also the most frustrating. The strength of our partnership with the Professional Footballers’ Association was such that they entrusted us with putting together The Players’ Century in 2008.

Professional Footballers’ Association, The Players’ Century in 2008.
Professional Footballers’ Association, The Players’ Century in 2008.

It was a beautiful book yet I don’t know anybody who wasn’t involved in the project who has a copy. The main cover pic shows Alan Shearer, right arm aloft celebrating a goal. Yet the first Shearer knew of the book’s existence was when he conducted the FA Cup Third Round draw at The Deep in 2014 and I took a copy along for him to sign.

Last time I looked online I couldn’t find it anywhere although it appears to have resurfaced now and at a knockdown price. Just buy it.

Let’s say the problem we had was a communication breakdown somewhere between our office in Howden and the highest level of the PFA. When Gordon Taylor rang me to say he’d lined up Sir Alex Ferguson as agreed to speak at the official unveiling of the book at the Lowry in Manchester it was too late. We’d been pushing for confirmation for weeks, Gordon thought someone had told us, and there we were with 48 hours to kick-off. Just not enough time to put together an event which would do justice to the book or the guest of honour.

Billed as “the official centenary celebration of the Professional Footballers’ Association”, the book is a delight. It kicks off with a foreword from Michel Platini and closes with Sir Alex giving his thoughts on the changing nature of a professional footballer’s life. It features fine writing from PA Sport’s talented journalists, many of whom have since progressed to top jobs in their trade, but it is the array of outstanding photography which dominates. Many are black and white shots from the PA Sport and PFA archives, and none more incongruous than a picture of some West Ham players stitching a rug, but it was 1953 when golf, computer games and supercars were rather more scarce than now.

As project manager I still wish I’d written a piece myself but it was important to showcase the skills of our writers, especially the rising stars. I put my mark on the book by making sure it was different from anything else, by resisting the temptation to follow convention. It was assumed the chapters would be set out decade by decade but instead we created themes – “The build-up” about match preparation, “Red cards” about infringements on the pitch and scandals off it, “Extra time” as an end-piece looking at some of the legends named PFA Player of the Year.

It was also my idea to replace page numbers with football stats, so page 59 recalls 1959, when Brian Clough played his first match for England, and  page 171 marks the achievement of Steve McClaren in playing 171 games for Hull City.

We followed that with a series of Official Football Yearbooks of the English and Scottish Leagues, the first of which charted Hull City’s first promotion to the Premier League. I liaised with Sir Bobby Charlton as he provided the foreword for the first edition, and the following year assisted Sir Bobby Robson with his contribution.

Kissing the Badge, and other books.
Kissing the Badge, and other books.

As a freelance, my links with the publishers, Bloomsbury, enabled me to secure commissions for two quiz books – Kissing the Badge, covering 20 years of the Premier League, and Armchair Olympian, setting the scene from the London 2012 Olympics. They led to several further projects for The History Press, notably “Never Mind the Penalties – the Ultimate World Cup Quiz Book”, with a foreword by Hull City’s former Ireland international Kevin Kilbane, and “Never Mind the Tigers – the Ultimate Hull City Quiz Book”, with Burnsy and Swanny doing the honours.

Not many people make a lot of money from writing books, which is something that takes a huge effort. But they bring a great feeling of satisfaction and they are fun as a few of the photographs indicate.

Never Mind The Tigers.
Never Mind The Tigers.

Niall Quinn bought a copy of “Never Mind the Tigers” when he called in at one of my signings in Waterstones. It was December 2013 and I was fitting in a quick Christmas sales session before going to watch City’s tea-time kick-off against Stoke City. Niall was eager to top up his Hull City knowledge before joining the Sky Sports commentary team for the match. I hope he enjoyed the book, because the football was dreadful.

“Never Mind the Tigers” peaked at number two in the Waterstones chart, but it still irks me that I was denied the top spot by one of the Bridget Jones books. I mean, does she even like football?

“Armchair Olympian” took a prime space in Waterstones window, and I prefer to note the proximity to the “Sunday Times bestseller” by Sue Johnston rather than “The Rough Guide to the Titanic.”

The Armchair Olympian.
The Armchair Olympian.

My gratitude to Waterstones for giving me such a prominent position didn’t however extend to leaving their shelves alone. Every time I went in I would check that my titles were visible, and do a bit of rearranging if necessary. Hence “Kissing the Badge” pulled to the front to share the spotlight with Gary Neville, Paul Merson and Pele.

Phil Ascough

It’s 40 years this year since Phil Ascough, our most prolific freelance contributor, arrived in Hull to begin a new episode in his journalistic career. Having spent two years on the weekly Doncaster Gazette, Phil headed east to the Hull Daily Mail. Apart from three years on the Royal Gazette in Bermuda and a short spell at the Teesside Gazette, he’s been here ever since. He worked for the Yorkshire Post and the BBC before returning to the Mail and becoming business editor. He moved into sports media with the Press Association in Leeds and then Howden, and set up his own PR consultancy in 2010. To mark the anniversary he has set out to write 40 essays looking at his career, our city and its people.