Meet James Corbett: Journalist, broadcaster, acclaimed author, authority on FIFA, international sport politics and an historian of Everton Football Club.
His writing has taken him from producing a fanzine in his friends bedroom to being detained by Israeli border guards before hitching a lift to freedom with the Afghanistan National Football team.
He has interviewed some of the biggest names in world football and worked alongside Evertonian legends.
We are delighted to welcome James Corbett to tell us about his writing career so far, his work on The Everton Encyclopedia, the relationship forged with Neville Southall and his love for Everton Football Club.
The James Corbett Interview
2012 was a huge year for Liverpool born James Corbett who not only collaborated with the legendary Neville Southall MBE on the Everton and Wales goalkeepers autobiography, Neville Southall: The Binman Chronicles, but also published his highly acclaimed work, The Everton Encyclopedia.
Approaching 650 richly illustrated pages and some 350,000 words, including a biographical entry of every player to don the famous jersey of Everton Football Club, The Everton Encyclopedia has become a definitive bible of Evertonia.
But before we talk about James Corbett’s landmark labour of love, we have to go back to the origin of his sports writing career, one that begins in the mid-nineties as the schoolboy co-founder of the Everton FC fanzine, Gwladys Sings The Blues.
“I started Gwladys Sings The Blues when I was 15, going into fifth year at school. It was me and two of my best mates, really. We went to the match together, went to school together, hung out together.
“We loved When Skies Are Grey and When Saturday Comes and the whole fanzine culture and felt that we could offer our own take. David Pearson was a fantastically talented artist and Daniel Hignett very sharp and acerbic.
“I was quite well organised and brought it together. Rory O’Keeffe, who is the year above us at school, joined us later and was a bit off the wall. It was a nice mix and we had some good times. There was no real desktop publishing back then, no scanners or fancy print techniques. It was literally a pritt-stik and scissor job.
“We were helped by the fact that we all came from very supportive families and everyone we knew went to the match. In our sixth form I think something like a quarter of our year had Everton season tickets and we’d be bouncing ideas off each other all the time.”
Even at such a tender age, Corbett knew exactly what career path he wanted to pursue. It was this knowledge, combined with an eagerness to stand out from the crowd that drove his ambition.
“Looking back, I guess I was quite precocious doing that at 15, but I was always very driven, always knew I wanted to be a journalist, wanted to write. I knew it was a good way of setting me apart from my contemporaries and it served me well. I was freelancing for national magazines when I was 17 and when I was offered a place at the London School of Economics they undercut all the other Unis by giving me a low offer, which I’m sure was due to me being a bit different.”
Corbett’s talent for writing was not bounded by journalism alone and his first venture into writing books ran alongside the publishing of Gwladys Sings The Blues. A combination he has successfully continued throughout his career.
“I was freelancing after I left Uni’ and had worked on a book when I did the fanzine. The club (Everton) were going to publish it when I was still at school (or just leaving), but it was frankly never quite right and I mothballed it. For the first time post uni I had a bit of free time, developed it and was lucky enough to encounter an Evertonian executive at Macmillan who took it on.”
Corbett’s first book, the initial major stepping stone towards The Everton Encyclopedia was Everton: The School of Science, published by Macmillan in 2003.
“I was paid decent money to do the School of Science, but back in 2002/03 mid-list authors could do that. The dynamics of publishing have changed inexorably since then, so my young hopes of doing a book a year and living off the proceeds were soon wiped out!”
Everton: The School of Science was followed in 2006 by England Expects, together with a contribution to The World Cup: The Complete History, coming after the death of its author, Terry Crouch.
In 2010, Corbett’s collaboration with Everton statistician Steve Johnson, Everton: The Official Complete Record was published in partnership with the club, alongside a second edition of Corbett’s own Everton History.
Long term writing projects are undoubtedly close to Corbett’s heart. In particular the work on his beloved Everton cannot be described as anything other than a labour of love. However, it is seemingly a love-hate affair with journalism and all it entails that energizes the man and his work.
“Journalism is the best and worst job in the world. Professionally – although you’d never admit it at the time – I don’t think I’m happier than stomping around some far flung place with my kit and guys like James Montague of the NY Times and CNN, the freelancer Andrew Warshaw or Mike Collett of Reuters.
“It’s just utterly brilliant and bonkers and the stuff that happens to you you can’t make up. It’s probably a bit like being a footballer. I’ve been detained by Israeli border guards in a tin hut on the Jordanian border for hours and hours, been stranded and then hitched a lift with the Afghanistan National Football team. In what other job could you do something like that?”
“At the same time it’s an industry that is in a dire state. It hasn’t come to grips with the internet age – or at least monetising this flow of information, and the arse has fallen out the market. I was paid almost exactly the same for my first published article 17 years ago as I’d get today – and a lot of the time you don’t get expenses either now. So you have to innovate and work across mediums.”
It is this ability to work across mediums that has permitted Corbett to strike a successful balance between journalism and writing books.
“I think I follow the story. I had two great years doing World Football Insider, covered a dual World Cup bid race, the World Cup finals, a FIFA presidential race, but looked ahead and saw a gap of a couple of years before the next big story. So I left, finished the Everton Encyclopedia, then got introduced to Neville and worked with him. Now I’m back doing journalism features and a bit of reporting and we have a World Cup in 16 months. I also have some book projects on the go.”
Corbett’s body of work so far is quite something, made more remarkable when you take into account he will not be celebrating his 35th birthday until November this year. There is also the-not-so-insignificant-matter of setting up a publishing house back in November 2009. Struggling to get several book projects off the ground, and with an ambition to offer other sportswriters a platform, James took the decision, despite what he himself describes as a ‘misplaced snobbery’ towards self-publishing, to launch deCoubertin Books.
“My view is simple: actors set up production companies, bands their own labels, chefs their own restaurants – why shouldn’t writers do the same?
“I think some people were a bit sniffy when I set out on this, and some people thought I was a bit mad, but now they’re taking us seriously, and more people like me are setting out on the same adventure. I want it to be a crucible of outstanding sport writing, like the Observer Sport Monthly once was. I also don’t want to forget I’m a writer first and foremost.”
The independence afforded him by the setting up of deCoubertin Books eventually paved the way for Corbett’s collaboration with a personal hero of his, goalkeeping legend Neville Southall. The Welshman may have a reputation for being awkward, stubborn and generally difficult, yet Corbett found the Everton FC icon anything but as they worked together on Neville Southall: The Binman Chronicles.
The stereotypes surrounding Southall are ones that Corbett vehemently opposes.
“The reputation is a load of bollocks, and I think that the book has gone a long way to redressing that. That said, I probably had my own preconceptions about him too.
“He’s one of the nicest, politest, most decent and obliging people I know. He’d do anything for anybody. Writing the book was hard work because of the timescales we were working to, particularly towards the end, but we just drank tea, took the piss out of each other and had a laugh.
“It was weird in the sense that he was my boyhood hero and I was sat for hours in his front room, but then I’ve met plenty of famous – and more famous – people than him over the years. And certainly plenty of people with more airs and graces than him. I won’t say you become blase about these things, because you are always aware of how privileged your position is, but you stop being starstruck after a few years of frontline journalism.
“I think probably one of the most satisfying moments of my career was Neville saying he was pleased with the book, because I know better than most people how exacting he was through his career. And once it went to the printers we just had a brilliant time going out and promoting it. Great times.”
The crowning glory of James Corbett’s work to date, surely has to be his mammoth tome: The Everton Encyclopedia. Now unanimously regarding by the Everton family and beyond as a seminal footballing opus.
The key to the book’s benchmark status is the painstaking detail applied by Corbett through the utilization of unique and original research harvested from the remarkable and recently opened Everton Collection. An unparalleled archive consisting of more than 18,000 items of unique football memorabilia, vigilantly accumulated over more than a quarter of a century by yet another Evertonian legend, Dr. David France OBE.
The book itself, a huge undertaking and 17 years in the making, is a testament to Corbett’s drive, determination and unquestioning love of Everton Football Club.
“I always knew I’d do it, it was more a case of when. To be honest it took a lot out of me in the end, and I was completely knackered the final third of last year. There were issues with the printers that I won’t go into, but were completely and utterly beyond my control, that caused it to be delayed by 6-8 weeks, which, having worked flat out on it for so long, was just shattering.
“Most people who had pre-ordered it were great, but some were less so (that’s being diplomatic). The issue was resolved and the books look great, but that – after 17 years – that was the hardest part; once all the work had been done!”
Whilst the acknowledgements and plaudits for The Everton Encyclopedia have been rightly embraced by Corbett, it is apparent that the relationships built, and support he received whilst working on the book are equally, if not more important to the author.
“David (France) is a good friend and I’ve benefited a lot from the institutions he’s set up. The Everton Former Players Foundation have always been very supportive and the collection is unbelievable.
“Unfortunately the redevelopment of the Central Library and its lack of a dedicated archivist for the past couple of years meant I didn’t use it that much since 2010. But the website was a great help. Likewise Billy Smith’s Blue Correspondent website, which is just brilliant.
“I think quite apart from all that, David – along with my grandfather, who died last year – has taught me what it is to be an Evertonian. It’s difficult to explain, because I always thought it was intangible and in a way it is. But it’s also a way of thinking, looking after what you believe in and love, and supporting the institution and wider ‘Everton family’. He’s writing about it himself, a kind of Evertonian manifesto. You’ll no doubt see it for yourself in the fullness of time, it’s great.”
Given the monumental amount of work required to complete such an important, landmark work as The Everton Encyclopedia clearly is, certainly few would begrudge Corbett at least a short sabbatical. However, with deCoubertin Books planning to publish the autobiographies of not one, but two Everton Football Club legends in 2013, it seems James Corbett’s insatiable appetite to document all things Everton is undoubtedly yet to be curbed. There are also other exciting projects in the pipeline for Corbett to get his teeth into.
“For deCoubertin – we’re working on a book about Middle East football, with my friend and colleague James Montague. It’s absolutely fantastic and hugely relevant given the Arab Spring. There is more Everton-related stuff on the way. I can’t say more for now, but there’ll be an announcement very soon.”
James Corbett’s voracious passion for writing shows no diminishing signs – long may it continue.
James Corbett was speaking to Neil Adderley, February 2013.
For more details of James Corbett’s work visit: deCoubertin Books
Visit James Corbett’s blog on world football: Mondial Blog
Follow James on Twitter @james_corbett