I’ve been hunting for one of these little beauties for quite some time. But, you know how it is, notoriety stimulates demand and demand leads to an increase in price, particularly when the product is in short supply. And, make no mistake, these books are becoming increasingly rare, changing hands for several hundred pounds whenever one appears for sale online. How the publisher would have wished for a time machine: when the books were originally published the take-up was low and it is reported that copies had to be pulped.
The books in question? Three football-related fictional thrillers, published by Paragon Press between 1999 and 2000 and, purportedly, written by ex-Manchester United defender, latterly Aston Villa manager (and now Newcastle manager, Ed.), Steve Bruce. The books are titled Striker!, Sweeper!, and Defender!, and all feature as their main character an ex-footballer, now football manager, called Steve Barnes. The copy of which I am now the proud possessor is Sweeper!
So, why the fantastic prices? Why the notoriety? On the face of it, there is nothing unusual about footballers putting pen to paper: there have been countless autobiographies––Tony Adams’ Addicted; Joey Barton’s No Nonsense––there have been kids’ books––Theo Walcott’s TJ series––there have been some genuinely funny exposés––Paul Merson’s How Not to Be a Professional Footballer––there have even been other thrillers––Terry Venables teamed up with Gordon Williams to write the Hazell series of crime stories under the pseudonym P. B. Yuill. How do the Steve Bruce penned works stand out from this crowd?
Well, listen to social media chatter and the answer to the question is because they are so bad. Search up the titles and pretty much every review highlights the inconsistencies in plot; in names; even in production. Any glowing reviews are clearly ironic in nature, written very much tongue-in-cheek. It was enough to get me intrigued. How bad could these books be? Can a book be so bad that it becomes good?
And now I am in a position to judge for myself. I read my copy of Sweeper! in one sitting. That in itself is something of a recommendation: I have probably never achieved that feat with a book since childhood. Admittedly, the book is quite short––very large type and 128 pages. It took me almost exactly one hour to read it from cover to cover. My verdict? Well, I’ve read worse. While it was never going to win the Booker Prize, it wasn’t so execrable as the Internet had led me to believe. Don’t get me wrong, I recognise its failings, but I don’t feel as though it had been an hour of my life wasted; indeed, some of the many digressions from the main plot were genuinely humorous. So, has Steve Bruce a potential career as a novelist? I think not: mainly because I suspect that Steve Bruce had nothing to do with the writing of the books in the first place.
Paragon Press, or Paragon Press Publishing as it sometimes appears, was founded by Reggie Sharpe, or Reggie Sharp as he sometimes appears. It was the early days of self-publishing, before Kindle opened the floodgates. In his way, Reggie Sharpe was something of a pioneer. He published several educational texts under his own name on the Paragon imprint. And, I suspect it is Reggie who is the ghost writer behind the Steve Bruce titles.
At the time the books were written, Steve Bruce was manager of Huddersfield Town, with his assistant manager being John Deehan. In the books, Steve Barnes is manager of Leddersford––sometimes Leddersfield––Town and his assistant manager is Jock Durham. The back cover of Sweeper! shows a photograph of Steve Bruce and states that the story is “told entirely in Steve’s own words”. Quite possibly true: his own words, just not necessarily said at the same time, or in the same order!
To me, the narrative reads like someone trying to impersonate Steve Bruce, not how I would imagine Steve Bruce to write if he were describing a fictionalised version of himself. There are lengthy descriptions of training sessions and tactics, which seem authentic enough to an outsider, but which would sound rather naïve to the ear of a seasoned footballer.
It has been suggested on the Internet that the figure of the broom-holding janitor––the eponymous Sweeper!––on the front cover of the book is Reggie Sharpe himself. Perhaps a further nod towards authorship?
Speaking in 2016, Alec Bruce, Steve’s son, said that his father had not written the books; in the same year, Steve himself said that he had. Who to believe?
Clearly there was some sort of agreement between Steve Bruce and Paragon Press in order for his name and image to be used to publicise the series, but perhaps the biggest mystery is why Steve Bruce agreed to this bizarre publishing collaboration in the first place?
© Donnie Blake
Donnie Blake swears he writes all his own books.
Check out the first book in Donnie’s football crime series Artie Yard and a Very English Pickle on Amazon.