Paul Tomkins - Author extraordinaire
Renowned author, Paul Tomkins, has released his latest book on Liverpool FC, "Dynasty". LFChistory.net got to know the man behind the writer and also what Dynasty is all about.
Tell us a bit about your background...
I’m 37, and grew up on the outskirts of West London. I did a degree in graphic design, and played football semi-professionally in the ‘90s, before my season ticket at Anfield came through. My granddad played for Aston Villa between the wars, but I only found this out long after I’d become a Red. I became a Liverpool fan at a very young age, about seven I think, and went to my first match in my late teens. Having had to give up my career and all sport due to ill health, I began writing columns for a number of independent LFC sites from 2000 onwards as a hobby, and published my first book, ‘Golden Past, Red Future’, in 2005. This led to the official LFC site approaching me to write a weekly column later that year, without pay, but with the promise to help promote my books.
But I do hate the notion of being seen as ‘the voice of the fans’ – every fan has his or her own unique view, and I’m just giving mine. I think my playing and viewing experience marks me out as something of an ‘expert’, but the more I learn about the game the more I realise I don’t know.
I also don’t pretend to be an authority on fan culture, but have always respected the ‘laws’ of the Kop and the traditions of being a Red. I think I understand the game itself fairly well, and that’s what I focus most on.
Have your books "Golden past, Red future" and "Red Revival" aged well since you wrote them in terms of your thoughts on Rafa's mindset or actions at the time?
I hope they will always age well in terms of the achievements those books documented, but the downside of any book that focuses almost exclusively on one moment in time is that some aspects will date, like my belief that Djibril Cissé could come good in his second season; he did to a degree, but was never the player I expected. But I always believe in giving players and managers time – too many good players, like Henry, Bergkamp, Vidic, Evra and Pires have taken time to adjust to English football in recent years, and then you have a manager like Alex Ferguson who had an awful record in his first five seasons at United. If only they’d sacked him, as their fans wanted!
But books are altered by subsequent history. Last October I published ‘Above Us Only Sky’, and almost immediately the American owners, who had seemed to be doing a good job, became public enemies no.1. At great personal expense, I scrapped plans to reprint the book at a time when it was selling very well (and demand continues to this day), because I could not stand by what I had written. Part of the reason for writing ‘Dynasty’ was to try and create something that wouldn’t age as quickly; only a small percentage of the book is about Benítez, so the majority will stand the test of time.
Also, I’ve learned a lot since writing those first books, and will hopefully continue to do so. So I have to accept that, whatever the book, further down the line even I won’t agree with what I’ve said in print, although I think I get a fair percentage of stuff right.
Do you still see Rafa right on track?
I think it’s only after a manager has been replaced that you can be conclusive about his contribution. A work in progress is always harder to judge. I don’t necessarily agree with everything Rafa does, but I trust his judgement and certainly don’t think I know even 20% of what he knows about the game. Part of my job, as I see it, is to try and understand how he works and what he’s thinking. He’s had quite a lot of money to spend, but Liverpool’s squad is still only the third-most costly in the country, and he took over a team 30 points adrift in the league and very poor in Europe for the previous two seasons. I also think the top four in England have for the first time ever become more-or-less the top four in Europe – at the very least, they are all amongst the top six or seven teams. So my opinion tends to be that without Rafa, we’d now be more like Spurs and Newcastle, who have spent similar amounts. Then there’s the money coming into clubs like Manchester City, which is off the scale.
I do have doubts from time to time, but they tend to be eliminated before too long. One area that was concerning me was the failure of the strikers in his system; was the team not set up to see a centre-forward flourish? But then he signed Torres, and that went away. I didn’t like zonal marking at first, but then we had two excellent seasons with it; last year was a setback in this regard, but I still see more goals conceded with man-marking. They just don’t get flagged up in the same way.
Do Liverpool fans demand too much of Liverpool in the Premier league which is getting stronger every year?
Yes, some do. As you rightly say, the league is getting far stronger every year. I began going to the match semi-regularly in the early ‘90s, sharing a season ticket initially, and then, after a couple of seasons as a semi-pro, got my own season ticket and went regularly, home and away, up until 2002. So while I grew up with Liverpool’s domination, I was accustomed as a match-goer to failing football and a lack of silverware. So for me to see the Reds as the top-ranked team in Europe is a source of enormous pride. While I share other fans’ ambitions of a 19th title, I try to be happy with what we have got rather than fixate on that which we have not. Steady improvement is the key, but Rafa can only do so much against teams full of £30m players.
Part of the research that went into ‘Dynasty’ was to find how much teams had spent, comparatively speaking, over the years and expensive their teams were. In ‘real’ terms, Liverpool’s team was at its most costly in the ‘90s. Up until June, Rafa had the lowest spend per-player, in real terms, of any Liverpool manager. Graeme Souness has the highest.
Liverpool FC has followers all over the world. Do you have a global audience?
Very much so. I always sell a limited amount of signed special editions of each book via my website, and as well as from Liverpool, and England as a whole, I get orders from all over the world. It must be getting on for 200 different countries I’ve sent books to, which never ceases to amaze me. I also get emails from every corner of the globe. My sister moved to Australia five years ago, and one of the builders working on her house was a Liverpool fan who reads my column. That said, he thought I talked rubbish!
Considering you have M.E... how does your disease affect your daily life?
M.E. is a neurological condition which causes fatigue, muscle pain/weakness, headaches, sleep disturbance and many other symptoms, and which is worsened by physical exercise, stress and mental exertion. I went from being a semi-pro footballer and long-distance runner working a stressful long-hours job in the ‘90s to some days struggling to walk a mile or climb the stairs a decade later. The condition can be quite unpredictable with regards to good days and bad days, but any form of overdoing things definitely leads to a worsening of the symptoms. If I go to a game these days, I have to rest for a few days beforehand to make sure I’m up to it, and afterwards I am unable to do very much for at least another few days; which, with partial custody of my young son, and energy needed for my writing, makes daily life more of a challenge. Sometimes it gets me down, but there are plenty worse off than me. I’ve never wanted sympathy, but a wider understanding of the condition would be helpful.
You are a prolific writer of articles on the internet and written six books in three years.. It must be exhausting for you...
Well, it’s only really one ‘proper’ book a year. I started the first in late 2004, while ‘The Red Review’ was ostensibly Oliver Anderson’s work (which I ended up heavily rewriting), and ‘An Anfield Anthology’ is a collection of internet pieces, albeit with other bits and bobs specific to the book.
I write, design, typeset and publish the books myself, so it takes its toll. The only thing I have help with is the proof-reading and the blurb for the cover.
Each year I find it a bit more of a struggle, but it’s either this or Incapacity Benefit. As I can’t work regular hours I have to work for myself, and paid freelance writing is very hard to come by in my condition. Given the low profit margin on each copy, if the books don’t sell well, I can’t pay the rent. It’s as simple as that. That adds stress, which impacts on my health, and it’s a vicious circle. And sales are heavily affected by the Reds’ results, which for me only leaves more riding on the team doing well. Having said that, I am grateful to my readership for sticking with me, and enjoy having a chance to get my views across. Perhaps through my illness, and the deep, suicidal depression it initially caused, I’ve had to learn to be a glass-half-full kind of person.
Your latest book, Dynasty ... what's it all about?
It’s a reassessment of every manager of the club over the last 50 years, going back to Bill Shankly – this is the start of the 50th season since he took charge. As well as outlining the historical facts in great depth, I wanted to find new and unique ways of accurately analysing the managers’ achievements, rather than just trotting out the same old platitudes.
For this purpose I put together a Brains Trust of writers, authors, statisticians and high-profile fans, including people like Brian Reade, Oliver Kay, Neil Dunkin, Ged Rea, Les Lawson and Shankly’s son-in-law Vic Gill, as well as some very longstanding Reds (one of whom, John Crossley, went to his first game in 1936). Their task was to rank every single player out of 10 in terms of what he gave to the Reds’ cause. Working with the player averages from almost 40 contributors, I devised coefficients to assess how good each manager’s signings were, and how strong each squad was at the time each man took charge. Worked into the equations was also stuff like how much each player cost, what he was later sold for, his age, and how many games he played. It’s not a statistical book, but this was just a small part in assessing the quality of the personnel.
On top of this, there’s a look at how strong rival teams were at the time, and how much money, relative to the transfer record of the day, the major sides, including Liverpool, cost in the 60’s, all the way through to the current day. So hopefully the book puts each manager’s achievements into the context of the era in a way that can be related to the modern day.
How did you research your material for Dynasty?
I referred to all manner of books written about, and/or by the managers in question, as well as the autobiographies of many of the players. There was also a number of internet sites that were handy for certain specialised aspects of the research. It’s obviously harder for me to write with true authority about what took place before I was even born, but hopefully I’ve managed to understand and capture the strengths and weaknesses of all the managers to an equal degree. Some older fans have told me that even they learned plenty from reading it, so that’s a great compliment for me.
Was LFChistory.net of any use to you?
Very much so. It was probably the most important source in a number of respects. The statistical information, relating to appearances, goals, etc, was very handy, as were the player biographies and information about specific games. I have to hand it to you guys – LFChistory.net is an excellent site, a deep well of information on the club we love.
Have you gained more appreciation of any of the managers you have been studying in preparation for your book?
Definitely. I always prided myself on trying to make sure I knew a lot about the club, but one of the greatest pleasures in writing this particular book was discovering so much more about the men in question. I gained more appreciation of all the managers to some degree or other, even Graeme Souness. While his signings remain mostly awful, and his temper rubbed players up the wrong way – not to mention other numerous failings – he was right in trying to modernise the club at a time when there was understandable resistance to new methods by some of the old guard. But a change towards more continental habits later proved to be necessary.
Are you planning any new books in the near future?
Not at the moment, although I always have a number of ideas and options kicking about. I hope I’m able to write more, but to bastardise the football cliché, I’m taking it ‘one book at a time’.
Interview by Arnie (firstname.lastname@example.org) Copyright - LFChistory.net