Remembering Cliff Bastin

Cliff Bastin was a huge star in his time, nicknamed Boy Bastin when he got into the Arsenal team at the age of 17, winning every honour then available in the game by the age of 19, holding the Arsenal goal-scoring record with over 150 goals, till Ian Wright broke it in 1997. Thierry Henry broke Wright's record this season.

RECENTLY, when I was at Queens Park Rangers to cover a match, a young reporter told me that before setting out, he had rummaged around for a book and come up with Cliff Bastin Remembers which he duly showed me. The autobiography of the precocious Arsenal and England pre-War star, which I'd "ghosted," my first book, when I was 17 and 18 years old and which came out in December 1950. He told me he had paid a whacking �80 for it to a second hand bookseller of soccer titles and that this was now the going price. And that he knew of a copy signed by Cliff himself going for �180! Needless to say, none of this money goes to me, but it is fascinating to see how the book has survived. Moreover I was sitting in the Press Box at Fulham before a game, when a fan brought me the book for myself to sign. I think he had paid about �40 or �50 for it. My mind goes back all those years to the writing of the book; and the deep disappointment when my preferred publisher initially turned it down! Well might the Latin poet Terence have written, "Habent sua fata libelli," "Books have their own fates," for you just never know what a book is going to do.

Cliff Bastin was a huge star in his time, nicknamed Boy Bastin when he got into the Arsenal team at the age of 17, winning every honour then available in the game by the age of 19, holding the Arsenal goal-scoring record with over 150 goals, till Ian Wright broke it in 1997; having figured in European and domestic competitions which never even existed in Bastin's days. Moreover, most of Cliff's goals were scored not from centre-forward, like Wright's, or Thierry Henry's who broke Wright's record this season, but from outside-left. A position in which he, astonishingly, got 33 First Division goals in a single season.

The odd thing about it was that I undertook the book as a labour of love, almost an act of piety, as an impassioned Arsenal fan who felt that as great a player as Bastin, who had retired in season 1946/7, deserved a book of his own. I'd made a rapid journalistic start, though at that time still working unhappily as an articled clerk with a huge legal firm in the city of London, so I did have certain credentials when I wrote to Bastin at the Cliff Bastin Cafe on the North Circular Road, which I'd passed from time to time, while being driven in the family car.

He wrote back to me, thanking me for my "glowing tribute" and said he had been approached by Findons, then a publisher of slim paperbacks, who'd suggested his book be sold at a shilling, which he had taken as "something of an insult." In due course, he agreed to write the book with me, and I'd spend Saturday mornings boning up facts at the invaluable British Museum Newspaper Library in Colindale, north west London, Sunday evenings round at Cliff's place, fed by his wife on thick cheese sandwiches.

When the book came out some said that Cliff was "conceited" and it would prove to be controversial, despite the fact that I'd no intention of making it so. It was simply that Cliff had a thoroughly objective take on his own talents, and that he lived almost in a self-contained cocoon, emphasised by the fact that from his latter career, he had been afflicted by deafness. Yet even as a teenager, nothing had really excited or impressed him. Thus, when the illustrious Herbert Chapman, Arsenal's innovative manager, came down to Exeter, in Devon, where 17-year-old Cliff was playing for the local club at inside-forward, always his favourite position, he was utterly unimpressed.

Refusing to sign for the Gunners when he met Chapman in a lawyer's office in town, he was no keener when Chapman followed him to his home and sat with him in the kitchen, intent on persuading him. Cliff told me that the one thing which concerned him was that he had a tennis match to play and that the light was fading! In the end, Chapman got his way only when Cliff's mother came into the kitchen and agreed that he should sign.

Chapman turned him into a left-winger, though he played both there and at inside-left most successfully for England, not least on their 1933 Continental tour when he scored England's goal in their first-ever game against Italy in Rome, a 1-1 draw. The following year, though unbeknown to himself, he was paid a colossal compliment by Hugo Meisl, the father of Austrian football. It was disclosed by Hugo's brother Willy, who became a prominent journalist living in London. Reviewing the book, he wrote that it was obvious Bastin was liked a lot and considered an outstanding player, then told how he spoke to Hugo just before the 1934 World Cup finals in Italy. Hugo said that his team was too tired to win the title but that given just one player, they'd be able to succeed. The player? Bastin. When the book came out, it was very widely and prominently reviewed with an emphasis on Cliff's sometimes downright views. He did upset a number of people, not least his famous partner and inside-left for Arsenal, the little Scot, Alex James. Tom Whittaker, by then the Arsenal manager, pre-War the father figure and trainer with the "magic hands", wrote the foreword, but when I met him, denied he had ever received the book. The publishers were furious, since they'd given Cliff early copies to take to Highbury. Cliff was furious because he had given them to Whittaker himself. It turned out Whittaker had privately said he wished he'd never written the foreword! As for Robin Owen the publisher at Sporting Handbooks of a clutch of successful post-War soccer biographies — Hapgood, Lawton, Swift — he rejected the book, saying this wasn't how it should be written. A little firm called Ettrick Press brought it out. Books indeed have their own fates.