A novel approach to the subject of Jon Sammels
By Kevin Whitcher
‘I am Sam’ is a newly-released novel that features Jon Sammels on the front cover, and in the plot. The Gooner chatted with its author, James Durose-Rayner to get the story behind the book.
KW: What would you say to Arsenal fans who pick up 'I am Sam' thinking it is going to be a book about Jon Sammels?
JDR: They are buying a novel in which the central character is a huge Arsenal fan. The story is dominated by a documentary he is making about Jon Sammels' time at the club, with a mix of factual recollection and opinion about the player. Jon saw the book before it was published and endorsed the way he was wound into the story. I think Arsenal fans will enjoy reading about him in the context of the book. So although it’s a work of fiction, there are a lot of references to fact where Jon’s career is concerned, which is a tale all of its own. I think the combination works well and hope readers will agree.
KW: You were born in 1964, so I suspect were not fully aware of the whole Sammels debate at the time it was happening. How did you develop such a passion for the player that his tale has become a central aspect of your novel?
JDR: To me Jon Sammels was a smiling face on a sticker in a Figurini Panini book from the 1968/69 season whose name I had to be corrected by my stepdad.
"James it is Jon Sammels not Jon Samuels," he told me.
"Is he good?" I asked.
"Yes, but he plays for Leicester now," he answered.
It was pre-season 1971/2 and I was sat on the kitchen rug browsing through the sticker book that I was given by my stepdad’s brother who was offered a trial with Arsenal in 1969 as a goalkeeper, but who turned them down. He was a Sheffield Wednesday supporter who only wanted to play for one club. True story.
Me? In the sticker book I thought Terry Neill looked like my real dad - and that's when I thought. Yeah, Arsenal. My real dad (sounds bad as my stepdad was a brilliant guy) was also a big Sheffield Wednesday fan, but he always encouraged me to follow my club and one of the first things he told me was about Cliff Holton hammering four goals for The Arsenal at Hillsborough in a 4-1 win for us in the mid-fifties, He also told me about Redfearn Froggatt, Albert Quixall and so on - but that's quite a different story. The Arsenal is what this is about, however, I remember it to this day and I was hooked. Arsenal were always my team.
What you need to know is that I always wanted to do an Arsenal book, however my wife indirectly pointed the way after she had run out of books whilst we were over at the house in Cyprus. She had picked up an early bio penned by Bob Wilson and slung it after reading three pages. "I'm sorry James but I'm not that bored," she said.
I therefore needed to write an Arsenal story that anyone could read and a fiction based on fact story I felt was the best way of telling it.
I read ‘The Damned United’ and it was okay but ‘The Worst of Friends : the betrayal of Joe Mercer’, I thought was much better. However it would still never appeal to the independent reader or more importantly to the opposite sex, so I needed a different take. This was or is the big thing re: I am Sam. One online review explains the story and how fact and fiction interweave if you want more detail.
I looked for a player that could give me a story and Jon Sammels was the first that sprung to mind, but the book certainly never started off like that. The man that I found out Jon to be changed everything, as initially my story was going to be very dark. Did I know the history re: Jon? I'm a proper Arsenal supporter and have gone through the pains of being humiliated v Tranmere in 73 and totally brokenhearted v Ipswich 78 and yeah, of course I did. However there was also a lot I didn't know as I'm no different to the next man - I didn't know lots of things and that is where the research came in. There is nothing in the novel that hasn't been documented in the press or media or that has been told to me personally by Jon. Research and facts are key, but it is worth noting that it is better delving in the past archives at what was said 'back then' rather than the present as over time things get a little rose tinted. Ask your grandparents!
Did I ask Jon an opinion re: x, y or z? I did but not really as I knew from talking to him that he would only have nice things to say about everyone. He is just a lovely guy, but the book tells you that. In the end I just wanted clarification of a few things and I reckon I got that.
KW: Did Jon make any contribution to the book himself?
I let Jon know what I was doing fairly early on, and he immediately texted me asking if there was anything I needed, I might wish to call him. There wasn’t as such, however after I had completed the spine of the book, I texted him to ask if he had an email address as I would let him see how the book was going. Strangely he didn’t as he wasn’t online. I was out of the UK at the time, and on getting back to the UK I rang him.
“I can’t believe you knew how I was feeling,” was one of the first things he said to me. With the book 95% completed, there were a few holes that needed filling and during a 90 minute conversation, he helped fill a few. Strangely, when asked questions about the team or big matches he tended to parrot quote the AFC history books rather than give me his version of events, however when it came to personal stuff, he was very honest to the point that I felt both upset for him and to a certain point embarrassed that I was an Arsenal fan.
The big thing that may come back to bite me in the arse was trying to answer ‘why didn’t sections of the Arsenal support take to him?’ I had trawled through the archives like you wouldn’t know and watch every match I could. This was a researched book even though I have a decent long term memory. I can’t remember what I did the other day, or that’s what the wife says!
From reading bits and pieces in the initial research I copped a conversation with some kid he was signing a shirt for who mentioned his relationship with the Highbury crowd, and he replied that he was a bit upset that was all he would be remembered for, however in his 140 page bio, he dwelled on this quite a bit. Charlie George mentioned him being a first class guy, but the most insular person he had ever known. Whether Charlie actually explained it that way or it was the guy who penned his bio, who knows? Confidence is a big thing and mind games are a big part of sport.
Jon played a different type of game back then to what the football fan liked, especially the Arsenal fan. That’s a valid point, but not quite the point.
Football back then was an aggressive ‘man’s game’ with heavy tackles, racing around and diving in which was mirrored by the supporter who wanted nothing more than to go kick the other supporters head in. Although Jon gave his share of challenges – a fight with Alan Ball and the Rouen goalkeeper spring to mind, he was no Peter Storey. In fact his nature over the camera (check photo with Brian Moore in putting together ‘I am Sam’ on my website) is quite feminine, which is a valid point, but again, not quite the point.
Jon was no Charlie George or John Radford when he scored. Arms up in the air and shake your mate’s hand and a jog back to the centre circle and that was your whack. He did once do a somersault after the goal in the semi-final versus Huddersfield in 1968, but that was out of character. This too is a valid point as body language shows you care.
I watched Arsenal versus Liverpool 30/11/70 – his second game back after a cracked ankle and at him puffing and wheezing. I noticed this years ago when my wife bought me the 1970/71 VHS one Christmas. A professional footballer puffing and wheezing after walloping a shot over the bar? Mmm. What I didn’t know was that Jon was partially blind that game – a game where he was man of the match – and thought he was going to have a stroke. A couple of Panadols later and it went. Fans hate unfit and lazy players, but this was never the case. Jon was diagnosed with a hole in the heart at 62 years old. Jon never went in for over-elaborate flash goal celebrations or did the headless chicken act with no end product because he was managing his body. His sole thought was always on getting on with the game. This is the point, and it has never ever been mentioned before.
Jon said that he didn’t really want it making public, which I tried going around the houses a bit before I thought f*** it – It wants saying. I’m not having AFC history books making him out to be some guy that runs away because he’s getting booed. It needs answering. The hole in the heart crippled Asa Hartford’s near on record-breaking move to Leeds in September 1971. It was a really big thing at the time. Jon’s medical problem had sailed beneath the radar when he went to Leicester, but it was there. Asa was deemed ‘Goods not worthy’ yet Jon was one of the most graceful footballers of his era, hiding exactly what probably ruined Asa Hartford’s career. The undiagnosed hole in the heart problem helped create the body language which was the main reason that he was a target for the boo-boys.
KW: Don Howe doesn't come out of the book very well, and I found the angle on him very interesting. Did you get this from Jon Sammels, the reportage at the time or conversations with other Arsenal fans you knew?
JDR: What you have to remember is the book is fiction based on fact. The fiction is in the characters such as Mr Arsenal (who we get to know as Lee), Sooty and Eddie etc. whilst the fact surrounds the documented Arsenal history.
It states in Chapter 18, ‘The Dividend’:
“Do you actually know him?” asked the suit as regards Sammy.
“Nope,” I replied.
“Then how can you be so frank in giving an appraisal?” he asked.
“I’m a ‘reading between the lines’ sort of person,” I replied. “You get close to someone then you lose the truth – that edge – for fear of upsetting the equilibrium that’s been formed. Sammy as a person was like that – an absolutely fantastic footballer and a true gentleman, however he would have very little on the negative side to tell you about any of his fellow pros.”
Regards Don Howe, Jon Sammels told me that Don was a brilliant coach who helped both Peter Storey and Bob McNab improve their game. He also told me that it was Don who brought him off at half time in the home tie v Cologne, which was very upsetting for Jon and the beginning of the end for him as an Arsenal player.
Jon is too nice a man to do any mudslinging, and you will find that as soon as you speak to him. That game v Cologne was a poor team performance full-stop where Bob Wilson, who I love as a man but who wasn’t even in the top six goalkeepers of his era, let in a goal direct from a corner. Storey was the only one to come out of that game with any credit, but Jon was made a scapegoat of sorts.
For me, Don Howe was a brilliant tactician that hand his hand forced pre-season 1970-71 due to key players having injuries.
You mentioned in the ‘Eternal Truths’ piece on the Gooner website re: Big Frank and the best 11: “In the long run. It can be a problem until eventually they find the perfect blend, which must be there. And it may just happen by accident. Maybe somebody gets injured and another player might come in and it might just be the perfect blend.”
That happened in August 1970. What should always be noted is that the best 11 doesn’t necessarily mean the best 11 players.
What is also true was that although Don was a well-respected coach and first class tactician he was an absolutely awful manager. The Mee/Howe relationship was not too dissimilar to the Mercer/Allison relationship at the time or to a lesser extent the Clough/Taylor relationship. One can’t work without the other and vice-versa.
Don’s tactical mistakes are well documented. The 1969 League Cup Final for one. He openly admitted that he made a mistake. Don Howe walked out on the club in May 1971 to try his hand at management, and posed in his dressing gown and slippers for all the press men. He said he didn’t feel wanted. He left the club taking half the back room staff with him, and caused the club some considerable trouble and embarrassment.
What has never really been said was that Don was interviewed for the Leicester City job prior to him going to WBA – who he got relegated in 1973. What has also never really been said is that if Don had joined Leicester City, Jon Sammels certainly wouldn’t have gone there. That may be reading between the lines and forming an opinion, but it is also fact.
In my opinion – and that’s all it is, Frank McLintock, who was never the best player for the Arsenal but certainly the best on-field motivator that the club has ever had, carried the side throughout the 71-72 and 72-73 season and then got kicked out by Bertie Mee before it became The Alan Ball Show. The history which surrounds the Double side is similar to the Invincibles. History tells us what a great achievement it was, however the harsh reality of both those is that in the same season with the right tactics and the right players Arsenal could have won everything. And by everything I mean everything.
KW: The love life of 'Mr Arsenal' resembles a rollercoaster ride at times, and some of the stuff, such as the incident with the tall dwarf's wife in Foyles, will live long in the memory. On your website, you state, "To write about certain subjects, you have really got to have experienced them". Is this all out of your imagination or have you drawn from personal experience?
JDR: Yeah, you have to write what you know, and have experienced certain things. That goes without saying. I like most people can exaggerate reality, but the basis certainly has to be there.
Arsenal are the ultimate in cool. The city, the stadium, the history. I needed a comparison to show just how cool Arsenal and London actually is and I chose Birkenhead and the character of young Stuart and his family for that. London is a world away from Birkenhead and that’s what I wanted to put over, without slighting the north western town or its people. I also wanted to put Arsenal over in a good light, and I tried putting it over in that Mr Arsenal always came over as both polite and courteous, and despite his idiosyncrasies was a person who would never knock another man’s city or indeed his team. Arsenal are class. I really, really needed to put that over.
Mr Arsenal himself? David Beckham I thought has a link with Arsenal, and was probably the most iconic footballer of his era. Beckham in an Arsenal shirt would have looked brilliant circa 2000. That was what was in my head. The coolest player on the planet at the coolest club. That’s where that came from.
The Tall Dwarf LOL. He is based on a real person called Lorenzo who frequents the Coffee Shop in Vrysoulles. The self-same coffee shop that in my head I relocated from Cyprus and on to Grays Inn Road in north London. In reality he does an awful lot of fumbling with his hands. Turkish George is in reality a professional gambler who went potty when he knew I’d labelled him that in the book, and the bald Greek Andreas – (Translation) ‘The kind old gentleman in the green suit’ was a Greek Cypriot terrorist pre 1974 who was shot in the back three times.
The lookalikes - Nicole/M. There's a bit of truth there, however it would be wrong of me to name names, but yeah they are based on real people. I looked for the girl next door look as opposed to stunning. The girl next door will always look after you and still look brilliant – the stunning one looks great but could lead you a merry dance, not that Jeanette did in the story however. I could say more on that but I won't, although Mark Randall springs to mind.
There’s a lot of my kids in the book when they were younger – at four and six rifling the mini bar at a hotel in Beijing and denying it or indeed with the teeth and cats in Morocco. I liked that bit - that was nice.
KW: Does the Arsenal footage referred to in the book actually all exist? I am aware of some of it from the ITN archive, and the more obvious YouTube, but something like Sammels' goal for England under 23s against Austria - is that a flight of fancy or is it out there somewhere?
JDR: I read somewhere that a lot of the matches at Highbury were filmed for tactical use, although I have no idea how many. Maybe some of the old timers at the club could tell you how much.
ITN Archive stock a bit, but not much. Brazil, Ajax, Lisbon are all on the archive but Arsenal have never made it public by buying it all up. KRO filmed the Feyenoord match where Sammels scored his 20 yarder in front of 60,000.
The Under 23 goal was special as that is when Jon was at his peak and being tipped for full honours. It was a special goal because it was not only a goal for his country, but was taken on the volley and was described at the time as quite a Cruyff-esque finish. Whether it actually exists or not is another thing. I wanted to make a big deal out of this as it was special, as was how the lead character’s girlfriend went about getting it.
The finding the footage thing was a different way of putting Jon’s Arsenal career over, as he rarely scored a scrambled goal. My thoughts were if Youtube highlights can make a dog average player look amazing then maybe I could relay something similar with Jon.
In 1967 he had the world at his feet, but come 16 March 1968 and the 0-2 defeat v Wolves at Highbury, it was when he first noticed the mumblings from the crowd and then during ‘68 and ‘69 he sought a transfer away from the club and was regularly and mutually left out of the side, prior to him signing an incentive-based contract, which due to Arsenal’s Fairs Cup and Double success would make him and Frank McLintock two of the highest paid players in Britain. Jon’s agent was Ken Stanley - the agent to George Best.
KW: The sequel to 'I am Sam' is 'ITV7'. Is this going to be the continuation of the story of the main character Mr Arsenal? Will it interweave with Arsenal past or present as your current book does? When is it likely to be published?
JDR: ‘ITV7’ is happening right now and its spine is almost complete. It is a continuation of the characters, and you get to know more about Mr Arsenal and his life as ITV7 fills in a lot of holes to the I am Sam story. You also find out that his life has a massive twist right at the start. It is very much Arsenal-based, but not so much with a single story to tell a story, more a series of stories.
With ‘I am Sam’ I used ‘takes’ from a retired West Ham supporting journalist to give a different angle. With ‘ITV7’ I am using ‘takes’ from his ex-wife to give a different angle, which without sounding effeminate, means I’m writing it as a woman, which has been very strange to say the least. Strange, but rewarding as the story is quite nice.
The new characters that come along are based around some extremely nice Arsenal people on Twitter who have let me use their names – yourself for one. For example, in one instance they are doing a documentary based around The Invincibles and both yourself and Stevie Kell are being interviewed. It’s only minor characterisation, but it is 100% Arsenal. There’s also a nice story within it surrounding Arsenal beating Real Madrid at the Bernabeu which is told by his wife.
As I am looking at it, the story will run from start of this season until the New Year, although at the minute, things for Arsenal are on the up and if we can take points from Chelsea, Man Utd, Spurs and Liverpool we might be in with a shout. Very long odds I know, but you can tell there’s a change in tactics, therefore I might let ‘ITV7’ run a bit longer. It takes about six months to go from finishing the story to publication. This is the major ball ache. Hopefully it may be out in the summer.
‘I am Sam’ by James Durose-Rayner is published in paperback by Clink Street Publishing and is available for £11.99. ISBN numbers is 978-1909477834.
A press release about the book can be downloaded here.
Buy I Am Sam