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A biography that mirrors its elusive subject
on 22 December 2010
I really wanted to like James Morgan's life of Spurs great, Alan Gilzean. Too much sports writing is doomed to cliche or by the fixation with celebrity; too many sports publishers trot out the same old anodyne autobiographies. This promised to be something different - the definitive biography of a reluctant and elusive 1960s star.
Alas, I put it down with mixed feelings. The "search" for the elusive Gilzean, we learn in the final chapter, had been concluded before large sections of the book were written. Gilzean had refused to cooperate with the publication, the author agonized over whether to write it - in the end deciding to do so. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this, but to frame the book as the search "for a lost legend" when the author already knows the answer strikes me as somewhat dubious. At the same time we learn quite a lot about Morgan during the course of the book and his motivations seem largely honourable. It was a strange contradiction that ran through the heart of his work.
On its own merits the biography is a perfectly decent effort, although one I suspect Spurs and Dundee fans will find more enjoyable than general football followers. Gilzean was a centre forward in the great Dundee team of the early 1960s, winning the Scottish First Division and competing in the European Cup before heading south to Tottenham Hotspur, where he was the longstanding forward partner of Jimmy Greaves.
Tall, rangy, with an outstanding first touch and superb aerial prowess, Gilzean is often compared to Dimitar Berbatov, who followed him in the white of Spurs. His achievements in Scotland were staggering, although in English football they were roughly comparable to the Bulgarian's. He scored more than 100 Tottenham goals, won the 1967 FA Cup, the League Cup and Inter Cities Fairs Cup; a fine record, but not exactly the stuff of legend beyond White Hart Lane.
Sometimes the author is guilty of hyperbole (Gilzean was apparently the best header of the ball "in the world"; his team-mate Martin Chivers, for a period in the 1970s, was supposedly the best forward in the world, which might be news to Gerd Muller or Pele) and Gilzean's prowess and achievements are exaggerated in what seems like an attempt to justify the book - when really it's not necessary. But overall this is a well-researched - if not slightly too heavy in detail - biography that puts to shame many other efforts on stars of the 1960s. The best bits are when he tracks down former team-mates, particularly those from Tottenham - yet these players can be elusive as Gilzean himself.
In the last chapter Morgan comes face to face with his subject and the conversations were intriguing. How this book would have benefitted from Gilzean's voice throughout. By the end we're not really much closer to finding out why Gilzean chose to eschew the sportsman dinners and punditry life of the ex-pro. It seems like he's just a decent private man who wanted to live an ordinary life after football. Much like many of the men he played with. I wonder what he made of this book?