Terry Deary: Horrible Histories, horrible modern football

Are you sitting comfortably? That was how I introduced an interview back in 2002 with Terry Deary, bestselling author and lifelong Sunderland fan.

It was, of course, part of the Wear Down South series on celebrity supporters; Terry may not be a famous-for-being-famous, Newcastle-style celeb supporter (Ant, Dec and Cheryl springing effortlessly to mind), but he does occupy a lofty position in the field of literature, specifically books for children. Those books, as I explained back then, sell or disappear from library shelves faster than Enid Blyton: 210 titles in 41 languages at the last count, with worldwide sales exceeding 25 million. And that’s just part of Terry’s success story, as you shall discover. The last time we updated the interview, he was warming to the Roy Keane regime, full of admiration for a “rare manager who makes no excuses (injuries, bad refs, bad luck etc.) and doesn’t whinge when things go wrong”.

Time for another catch-up, but now something has gone very wrong, wrong enough to interrupt Terry’s record of season ticket ownership. It starts harmlessly enough, but then gets blood-curdlingly sinister as he sticks a knife into the heart of modern football. Steve Bruce had best not be shown this …

November, 1955. Under floodlights, a crowd of 55,000 watches Sunderland’s friendly with Moscow Dynamo. The Lads lose 1-0 but a boy of nine gazes in wonder at the spectacle. It is Terry Deary’s first visit to Roker Park.

There were no red and white stripes. Fixed in Terry’s mind half a century later are the players’ “satiny red shirts”.

He thought these were the Dynamo tops, but research by Wear Down South suggests that they were actually “pinky-red” and worn by Sunderland (surely a criminal offence), while Dynamo opted for white shirts and black shorts. Terry also vividly remembers the tricks and wind-ups of Len Shackleton, and the brilliance of the turf caught in the glare of the lights.

To this day, he finds something special in the atmosphere of floodlit games, though even he cannot explain how this feeling has survived some of the bleaker nights at Roker Park or the SoL (including, come to that, his own Roker debut; Argus in the Sunderland Echo deplored the “flat and uninteresting” Dynamo game, bad enough to silence the roar in the second half).

But Terry’s attachment to night games is also a throwback to a boyhood in which filial duty put Saturday games out of bounds. Born in Sunderland, in the same Hendon clinic as Sir Tom Cowie, motor trade tycoon and former SAFC chairman, he was a butcher’s son.

Saturday was a big day, and not only for football fans in those blessedly pre-Murdoch days. The neighbourhood would turn out in force to queue for the Sunday joint, there were deliveries to make and Terry had his bit to do.

When he was a little older and became a regular, Terry felt torn between the Roker and Fulwell ends. Roker he liked for its open-air expanse, but the Fulwell had a special magic: “Far more intense, the rougher end, and you got pushed and jostled, and slapped on the back when we scored. That just doesn’t happen at the new stadium. It’s not so raw.”

Players who impressed him? Jim Baxter for one. “Saw his debut. Mesmerised us.” And good old Cec Irwin charging up the wing. Away games? Only ever been to one, a 1-1 draw at Cardiff just after the 1973 Cup Final which, living in Wales, he’d watched on TV.

Like me, Terry almost feels sorry for younger fans whose support began with the dizzy Reid era: four seasons in the Premiership, two championships and a play-off final.

Even though they then experienced the collapse of the Reid team, they missed out on still darker times. Terry was there when we went down to the old Third Division in a play-off against Gillingham. I still wince at memories of listening in London to goal flashes on the radio.

Terry had taught in Sunderland and, standing in the shocked Fulwell at the end, watched a former pupil go by, her eyes streaming with tears.

He said nothing to belittle the girl’s grief, but took a more philosophical view. “I felt very sad,” he said. “But I thought, ‘actually it’s not the end of the world’. Passionate a Sunderland supporter as I am, relegation has never seemed disastrous. I quite like seeing us play in the lower divisions, stuffing the opposition.”

Terry Deary is now 64. He has been an actor and theatre director as well as a drama teacher. But it is for the Horrible Histories books that he is best known.

It all goes back to Monkwearmouth Grammar when a teacher told Terry’s class: “Write an essay about your hobby.”
Terry’s was trainspotting (“that blackens my name, doesn’t it?”). “Instead of just writing a factual description, I told it as a story and got something like 17-and-a-half out of 20,” he said. Surprised at how easily the words came, and despite “not being a brilliant student”, he began using the same tactic in other subjects. “I got away with it because I can express myself. It’s a great knack to have.”

His output has been prolific, but has also brought widespread acclaim. His Rotten Romans won a Blue Peter award. Someone worked out that he outsold Enid Blyton by four to one and that he was the most borrowed British author in school libraries.

He now lives in Burnhope, works tight office hours (“none of this writer’s block – the stories queue up waiting to be written”) and at the time of the interview was running a lot, in competitions and for charity. He hated cross-countries at school but took up jogging in his forties and completed a few Great North Runs. “One year I did so badly that I said ‘I’m finished’.”

A sobering encounter with the bathroom scales persuaded him to resume running. Realising that the weight had been piling on as he worked at his desk, drinking tea and eating biscuits, he began dieting, too.

“The pounds fell off,” he brags. “I am so much better a writer for being thin. I swear it makes a difference.”

If anyone asked him, Terry would play rather than watch football. No one does, so he buys a season ticket instead. For a couple of seasons, he bought two and would take a friend or business acquaintance. But after the “embarrassing standard of play” in the immediate post-Reid period led to hours, days or weeks of head-shaking, analysis and commiseration, he chose to “suffer in silence” alone in future.

Back when the original interview was conducted, Terry was untroubled by how badly we were playing. “But it would have no influence on my own ticket renewal. I would watch Sunderland if they stuck 11 Chelsea Pensioners in red and white shirts. I’ve seen a doctor about this but he says there’s no cure.”

So he must be thrilled now that things are now measurably better. Not quite.

In response to my request for his latest news and views, Terry – pictured at Penshaw Hill – wrote (pre-Bent saga) the following:

“I gave up my season ticket when Steve Bruce was appointed manager. I will renew it as soon as he leaves. Another of Alex Ferguson’s old boys living on their reputation as Man Utd players – Hughes, Robson, Ince, Pallister, Keane – losers and failures every one. I still follow the team avidly through the media – and dodgy internet streams – but a season ticket would be wasted on me anyway as I can’t spare the time to get to more than one in three. When I look at all the dramas with clubs in the Premier League I feel rather pleased that Sunderland manage to project themselves with dignity – players and board alike. Integrity has gone out of the game but Sunderland cling on to a little.

It makes me feel very old when I reflect on how football has changed in the 55 years since I’ve supported Sunderland. Now it is a media and entertainment carnival. My top gripes?

I am astounded to hear people like Bruce whingeing about having to play four games in a fortnight, “exhausted” players and the need for a winter break. Unbelievable that a few games of football can exhaust young men.

Other changes for the worst are the technology used to undermine honest referee decisions. What happened to accepting a decision then getting on with it? It’s called sportsmanship … but today’s managers and players have never heard of the word.

The rapid turnover of managers in a demand for instant success. It’s a game not a matter of life and death. (Bill Shankly may well have said “it’s more important than that” but he was a deeply stupid man to make such a sick comparison.)

The win-ugly mentality this promotes (Salut! Sunderland adds: in his last update, Terry said: “Thank God the days of Mick McCarthy’s “Win ugly” have gone. McCarthy’s record-breaking relegation season wasn’t bad because of the endless defeats – it was unbearable because of the lack of flair and passion.”

The untalented mediocre foreign players who are simple mercenaries with no sense of a club’s history.

Replica shirts? What are they all about? Do the beer-bellied, middle-aged men really imagine they transform into Wayne Rooney when they wear a shirt with his name on the back? Support a club? Wear a scarf.

If that all makes me sound like some stuck-in-the mud old reactionary I don’t care. Football is supposed to be a sport, played to entertain the spectators who pay for entertainment – when did it become about money, celebrity and merchandise.”

* Apart from the updates, and changes to take account of how long ago the interview appeared, this is essentially the original article as published in Wear Down South. To end on a positive note, let’s return to Terry’s professional life: “The Horrible Histories books – you can buy them for the kids by clicking here – are now a massive success on CBBC television, winning three BAFTA awards in the 2010 ceremony. This year I start work scripting a movie about amateur football based on some of my own experiences as a player (a few years ago). I will be working with a director (Stuart Brennan) who is a Smoggie and a star (Tom Watt) who is celebrated Gooner fanatic and journalist. It will probably start filming in the south in Summer 2011. Not exactly a hotbed of soccer down there but there are advantages in filming near London that can’t be ignored.

Interview: Colin Randall

5 thoughts on “Terry Deary: Horrible Histories, horrible modern football”

  1. Geoff, the pace of the game is much more than what it was 30 years ago. But as the speed of the game has progressed, so has the nutritional and fitness knowledge to accompany it. Not to mention squad rotations and resting players. Back then you only got one substitution per game. I don’t think there’s an excuse.

  2. Anyone who watches football regularly over a long period never quite understands the subtle and gradual increase of pace of the game over these years. Recently I watched the 1973 Cup Final again and was genuinely shocked at how slow it was. It wasn’t the game I remembered at all. So when Steve Bruce “whinges” about 4 games in a fortnight he’s whingeing about something considerably harder to do than it used to be in the 50s and 60s.

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