"Flying into the eye of a hurricane," says Pete Davies. "That is comparable." He is choosing from his authorial adventures a similar thrill to the one he got from writing the best book about football ever published. "The plane just shaking and rocking and rolling and then suddenly" - he pops his cheek with his finger - "you're in this perfect stillness, surrounded by an extraordinary structure, incredibly beautiful, 60 thousand foot of cloud around you – ‘God's stadium’ is the phrase I used to describe it. A very tight eye, about 10 or 15 miles across. An extraordinarily impressive thing to see."
On 4 July, 1990, Davies experienced his other perfect storm, at the Stadio delle Alpi in Turin, after England's semi-final defeat by West Germany at the World Cup.
"At that moment, I knew: it's done. That's the story. It doesn't matter who wins the final in Rome. By that point, I was living in the middle of a fabulous story. But what took place in Turin was so overwhelmingly dramatic that I walked away that night from the stadium knowing I'd got it, and couldn't wait. I literally did not stop writing all day every day until it was done."
What Davies wrote, in 58 days flat, was All Played Out, the best book about football ever written. Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch is routinely called the best football book but is, more correctly, the best book about being a football fan. On page 229 of the paperback edition, Hornby writes that All Played Out is "brilliant" and would later say that it "helped me get Fever Pitch published" in that it made him realise that books could be written, and sold, about football that weren't stats tomes or the ghosted autobiographies of ex-pros.
Davies, then 30 years old and with two promising novels under his belt, spent the year before Italia 90 watching and talking to England's players at their clubs and for international friendlies and qualifiers. He won the trust of England manager Bobby Robson, and with it his squad, so that he had full access to the players throughout the World Cup: pre- and post-match, at hotels and training camps. With his press pass, he joined the journalists, the most hated pack in the football jungle after the hooligans, with whom Davies also mingled, along with regular fans at home and in Italy, at all England's games and some others.
All Played Out was so revealing of what football was like that no-one in the game would again permit this sort of access: it was a book that had not been written before and could not be again. Reading it, 24 years on, when a tweet can spark a week of press debate, tabloid or otherwise, and every player has his uneven edges filed off by media training, terrified of losing sponsors, is a reminder – a brilliant, surprising, energetic, nostalgic reminder – of how much football has changed. "It's extraordinary," says the book's editor, Tom Weldon, then a young editor at Heinemann, now CEO of Penguin Random House. "It was only 24 years ago but it seems like a distant century, a different era."
And it very nearly didn't happen.
"There's a chapter in the book called One Inch Of Woodwork," says Davies. It refers to the crossbar onto which a Polish 25-yarder thumped, in the final minute of England's final qualifier. They needed a draw away to Poland and the game finished 0-0. "If it wasn't for that, there would have been no Italia 90 for England, no Gascoigne crying in the semi-final. And there would have been no book, which is secondary."
Not secondary to its author.
"Well, you know, things go as they go. I'm not the important element here. The story, what happened, was so... so important. That World Cup, for the game in England. The way the game is now derives, to a very great extent, from the transformation that Italia 90 affected. Prior to Italia 90, football in England was perceived as a squalid, hooligan-ridden embarrassing sump of gormless violence. Our team was crap, our supporters were worse, and you did not talk about it over dinner. Whereas now, it's hard to go anywhere without people talking about it. It simply wasn't a polite topic of conversation, it was an embarrassment. Therefore nobody wrote about it. There was no such thing as a good football book in 1989."
Early that year, Davies did not have plans to write one. He did have a New York agent, a huge sports fan with whom conversation turned to the USA's hosting of a World Cup in five years' time. Davies remembers "the fact that the biggest sport on Earth was a complete and utter mystery to them. I thought, 'Let's explain it to them'. I wasn't thinking about All Played Out at all; I was thinking, 'How can I get to go to the World Cup and get paid for it? Let's write some stories for a New York magazine.'"
Davies told his English agent, Rachel Calder, about his plans. She had heard from Tom Weldon, who was, he says, "a young editor, and I loved football. So I had gone round asking agents if they had a writer on their books who could write a book about England at the World Cup in 1990. Rachel suggested Pete."
Says Rachel Calder: "He was a fan and genuinely curious as to how this sort of event worked on several levels. He wanted to know the things that fans wanted to know, but he could report on it." One inch of woodwork came later, but two agents and three conversations meant Davies was World Cup-bound, with a crucial first stop in west London.
"Bobby Robson agreed to sit down and have a chat with me at Lancaster Gate [former HQ of the Football Association]. He was such a lovely man, such an enthusiast. He loved the game so absolutely that once he started talking, that was it. And if you kept asking questions - explain that to me, why did you feel that, what about this - he just loved it. So what was supposed to be an hour ended up going into the evening, and then he said, 'I've got to go to Charlton. Get in the car with me and come along.'
"During that drive, he said to me that he could drop Gary Lineker. The tournament is a year away, there is a doubt over qualification and he is just talking unguardedly, because that's the way he was, and he's said he could drop Lineker and play Barnes and Waddle through the middle. He instantly panicked and clammed. 'That's not going in the papers, is it?' He instantly thought, 'Jesus, the headline if it gets reported I said that.' And I said, 'Don't worry about it, it's for the book.' He said, 'You could get fifty grand out of the newspapers for that.' I said, 'That's not what I'm here for.'
(There are very few mentions of money in All Played Out; mentions of fax machines aside, they are the only things that make the book feel old. Two in particular: that a sponsor's pot, split by the players, Robson, coach Don Howe and the physios, totalled about £1m, or less than £40,000 each, and that in 1990, Glasgow Rangers were the richest club in Britain.)
The FA had agreed to the book on the condition that if Robson said it's all right, it's all right, and Davies earning Robson's trust led to exactly that. Davies says now that 50 per cent of All Played Out comes from his work in the year before Italy. Spending time in Glasgow with Terry Butcher, then of Rangers, who told the author that he threw away his Simple Minds CDs when he found out where the band's Old Firm loyalties lay. Before a friendly against Brazil, wrote Davies, "Gary Lineker and Peter Beardsley drove down the M4 to Wembley – one in a Jaguar, the other in a Mercedes – a little like the way they played football together. They went extremely fast, jockeying smoothly back and forth – and everyone else on the road just seemed to melt out of the way." Steve McMahon, he writes, summing up the midfielder's on and off-field persona perfectly, "didn't have an ounce of bullshit about him."
Davies's knowing reportorial skills were no less sharp when he got to Italy. He went to 12 matches in six cities over 27 days, including all six in England's run to the semi. On a day off, he commits fully to the World Cup experience and watches the 'official' World Cup porn film at a cinema, with Ron Jeremy stretching an Argentina shirt, and shorts, as Diego Maradona. On others, he hangs around with the England squad, which leads to the book's most astonishing passages, in which England players, especially John Barnes and Chris Waddle, criticise Robson's tactics. They do so intelligently, and with no malice for a manager they loved, but that they do so at all is testament to the trust Davies earned. His abilities off the page as a writer are matched by his skills on it. The book is strong as reportage, memoir, journalism and travelogue. That it recreates England's almost-finest hour, as part of a larger moment when football changed, is both splendid and important.
"It was so intensely emotional," says Davies. "There was so much freight around that tournament. It was not just about sport. Culturally, it was so important, so transformative. You can't underestimate how much affection Robson inspired by what he and the squad achieved, but it was the manner of the achieving of it, the passion that was on display in Turin was..." and it's at this point that Davies's voice breaks a little. He pauses, then continues slowly and softly. "I'll not experience that again. Involuntarily, talking about it now is tearing me up."
Davies does not hide his emotion in the book, either. He is unable to conceal his excitement about just being at a World Cup and, a couple of days before England-West Germany, he himself is all played out - feverish, fed-up and exhausted. This would be a pattern that continued through another eight non-fiction books he would write in the dozen years after All Played Out was published, including The Devil's Music, the book for which he flew into storms; Catching Cold, about the 1918 flu epidemic; and I Lost My Heart To The Belles, on Doncaster's women's football team ("It was like having 15 sisters for a year"). Total immersion in the world of his subject after scrupulous research, followed by fast writing of a manuscript and then, nothing, "I used to completely wipe out after each book," he says.
After finishing This England, about the Labour election victory in 1997, Davies remembers "walking into the publishers, handing in the manuscript, having a coffee and a chat, then walking to the nearest travel agent, on The Strand, and asking for the cheapest flight going now. They got me a flight to Portugal that night, and I landed in Faro, in the small hours. There were no buses running, so I walked into the town and there was a bus station. I sat down, then got on the first bus that was going along the coast. Went to a really nice little place called Tavira, slept off the travel, got up the next morning, and spent the next couple of weeks roaming around Portugal."
His last book, American Road, about a two-month convoy across the pre-highway States in 1919, came out in 2002. All Played Out, which sold 10,000 copies in hardback and 50,000 copies in paperback in its first year of life, is the only one of his 11 books in print. In 2010, it was renamed One Night In Turin, to tie-in to the release of a documentary of the same name, for which Davies used the book in writing a script. Now, aged 55, he lives just outside Huddersfield, has a season ticket for Huddersfield Town and works for Sainsbury's.
"I look back on writing, and hell, it was good," he says, "but you have to look after yourself. I was the world's most fortunate bloke at that time, and I'm a really lucky guy now. Life is really good. But just for me, as a fan, to take part in that way, where I am enjoying the World Cup as a fan, but I can walk into the England team hotel when I want? Ring up and say to a player, 'Do you mind talking to me about last night's game'? To have that... Ah! Spectacularly enjoyable."
He's getting married on the day of the England-Italy game. "Mercifully the kick-off isn't ‘til late, so there'll be a screen at the reception for those who need it. We have of course been charged with poor planning. My partner's son, Marc, 14, football-mad, has been first in line with good-humoured disapproval. I tell him he should read All Played Out. He says nah, he's seen the film. Young people. "
It will also be 24 years to the day after Davies watched Italy play USA at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, which forms the main part of chapter 13 in the best football book you'll ever read.
One Night In Turin, formerly known as All Played Out, is published by Yellow Jersey Press.
Article taken from Issue 39 of Esquire Weekly, out now. Click here to subscribe.