I realised I was ignorant and hardly knew anything about him.’ As reasons to write a book go you could argue it is as good as any, but when it comes from The Times’ chief sports writer and he’s talking about one of the most famous English footballers of all time, it’s a startling admission.
Matt Dickinson’s new biography of Bobby Moore has certainly caused a stir and, if the sales figures are anything to go by, quite a few West Ham fans will be waking up on Christmas morning to find the hardback lurking next to a satsuma in their stocking. It has been dubbed the ‘darkest’ and ‘least flattering’ biography of Moore ever published, but the writer himself insists although it is a warts and all account of his life, it doesn’t judge or portray the World Cup winning captain in a negative light.
‘I did fret a little bit at times and wondered ‘do we want to know all this’ about someone we have decided to gloss over,’ explains Dickinson. ‘But actually I’ve been really pleased with the reaction from the West Ham hardcore which has been ‘yes we do want to know it’.
‘We want to know the man in full and what he was like. If you gloss over someone and make them out to be a saint, it’s actually pretty boring. We want to know about their flaws and what they’ve overcome – it makes it more admirable. ‘When you look at things like the cancer he overcame, it makes him more heroic for what he achieved.
Dickinson certainly approached the project with a blank piece of paper, admitting he knew very little about his subject other than the obvious before he started to research the book. ‘I think most books come from a person knowing a lot about one subject and feeling they want to expand upon it,’ he says. ‘I went on a radio show with some sports writers of my generation, what you could call the post ’66 generation if you like, and our sum of knowledge was: Bobby Moore, won the World Cup and died terribly young. I just thought for an iconic figure that was bugger all really.
‘It began to nag at me why I knew so little and I started making a few explorations and the more I realised I didn’t know, the more intrigued I became. ‘One of the first triggers, before I’d pitched the book to anyone, that made me think the book could be worthwhile was when I was in Denmark watching an England U21 international. I was in the back and beyond in a town where Bobby Moore went and played in when he was short of money after he had retired at Fulham.
‘I met a couple of guys there who had this little scrapbook and it was this great episode of how Bobby Moore, a World Cup winning captain, could end up playing in front of 400 people in a Danish third division game. ‘I came back and started looking up the biographies of him and Wikipedia and things like that and this episode was always reduced to barely a mention, if it was mentioned at all. ‘I thought this was extraordinary and, as no one had ever written about it, gave me a strong urge to investigate further.’
Dickinson insists Moore’s brush with cancer in 1964 was one of the most significant moments in the man’s life, but again was shocked at how little was documented about the incident and the way it shaped his thinking and actions in years to come. ‘At his request clearly it was never mentioned,’ he adds. ‘There wasn’t one word of it in the authorised biography. I thought this must be a life-changing moment for someone, having testicular cancer at 23, but it’s not even mentioned.
For a sports writer whose whole professional career has been in the era of the Premier League, Dickinson’s journey into the less glossy world of 1960s football was an interesting experience. Did, for instance, his experience make part of him wish football was still like it used to be in ‘the good old days’?
‘You can flit from one extreme to another,’ he laughs. ‘I did a piece saying I’ve been back to the good old days and the good old days were crap for a TV viewer as you only had one camera where you can’t see a thing. It was crap for players playing on those pitches, crap for players given the money they were on, rubbish equipment.
‘I’ve watched the video of that great England v Brazil game in 1970 and you can see Pele dive. So there is a lot of fake moralism about it, especially in regards to player loyalty. ‘Bobby Moore wanted to get out of West Ham and who can blame him. Spurs wanted him and he wanted to go. They were offering more money and a better chance of winning trophies but we have this wonderful idea of these players who were one club men. Having said that a lot of them were loyal at gun point effectively.
Perhaps the saddest part of Moore’s story is after he retired from playing, failed business ventures coincided with a period where the game he gave so much to virtually turned its back on him. West Ham, of course, famously turned him away from Upton Park as he didn’t have a ticket while the FA could not find a role for him despite the fact he was England’s most capped player and the only ever English captain to lift the Jules Rimet Trophy aloft.
‘I think it was certainly misguided and a colossal opportunity missed,’ said Dickinson. ‘One thing I hope I’ve been able to do is put it in the context of the time. ‘It wasn’t just Bobby. It doesn’t make it right but there was no player knighted after Stanley Matthews in 1965 until after Bobby Moore’s death. I think Bobby Charlton was a year after that and I suspect the two events were interlinked.
‘West Ham should have got him back at least as an ambassador. One of the reasons that didn’t happen, or at least I was told this, was that John Lyall was worried that if the club brought him back if he lost five games then he’d be in the manager’s seat. ‘The FA had a massive snobbery. The international committee thought if we started inviting ex-players in then all our nice jobs and junkets would go. So there was a combination of snobbery and it was in a culture where the ex-hero wasn’t looked after.
The irony is that Moore died in 1993, just as the Premier League was starting to take effect and football enjoyed a new boom. Had he lived, it is likely his later years would have been far more befitting to a player who had graced the game for so long. ‘Sky have changed everything in that regard,’ added Dickinson. ‘Look at Geoff Hurst – it was Geoff Hurst flogging insurance in the 1980s but it all changed at the start of the 90s.
‘He didn’t push it but he started getting phone calls from corporations phoning up to say ‘turn up because you are Geoff Hurst.’ Bobby would have had that but unfortunately died at the wrong time. He died just when he would have had a second wind as a legend.’ While Moore may have passed away before he could enjoy a slice of Rupert Murdoch’s riches or a trip to Buckingham Palace, the outbreak of public grief upon his death showed how much he was loved.
It is hard to imagine many of today’s generation of players provoking such a reaction in years to come and Dickinson admits that the huge wealth modern footballers enjoy and the 24- hour scrutiny of them make it difficult for fans to relate to their heroes in the way they perhaps could in yesteryear.
‘One of my favourite stories was Bobby Moore queuing for the bus on his way to make his debut against Manchester United,’ he added. ‘He’s there behind all the fans at the back of the queue waiting to get to the ground and typically he is too polite to push to the front. ‘Even though he moved up in the world and had a mansion in Chigwell, a few guys I know from that area say local kids could go and knock on his door and ask him for his autograph. He’d sign it for them and tap them on the head and say run along lads.
That’s the Bobby Moore as many West Ham fans remember him. And while Dickinson’s book may show he wasn’t perfect, enlightening the world to his flaws won’t make football supporters love him any less.