The Marathon Man

Paul Grech Sunday, February 26, 2012 , , ,
For hundreds of Maltese runners, the Malta Marathon has become an annual appointment with a sport they love.  For hundreds more it has been the inspiration to pick up running shoes and go out running.

Only one man, however, can claim to have been there from the start and that man is Charles Darmanin.

As the runners line up at the starting point next Sunday, Darmanin will be doing so for the 27th time and if he crosses the finishing line in Sliema he will become the only one to have successfully completed all editions of the Malta Marathon.  Others were there with him 27 years ago and have continued running but he is the only one who is still doing the full marathon.

The longest serving active athlete at St. Patrick's Athletic Club, Darmanin’s first race for the club was way back in 1964 as a 9 year old.  Some feat, considering that the club itself – the oldest in Malta – will be celebrating the 50th anniversary from its foundation by Fr. Michael O’Meara in 1962.

Charles remembers the first two editions of the Malta marathon quite well. At the time, running such long distances was a novelty for Malta and it wasn’t easy to know how to properly prepare for it.  "I was in London a few weeks before and got pair of ‘Dunlop’ branded shoes for that first marathon,” he recalls.  “I thought ‘if the name was a good brand for Car Tyres then it must be also be good for running’.  How wrong I was! My feet ached for weeks after the event".

In 1990 took part in the first Malta International Challenge Marathon, another event that he has completed every year since whilst a year later Charles and his wife Antoinette became the first Maltese couple to complete the Malta Marathon.  In 1993, after 7 self-coached Malta Marathons he set the 2hrs 58mins time that is considered a bench mark time for the marathon.

The following year he improved his time in the marathon to 2hrs 56. Then at the age of 40 in 1995 he did his best time ever in the marathon of 2hrs. 51min.  That year he also became a qualified coach for the International Athletic Federation and started coaching a number of athletes in long distance running. Also in 1995 he completed the only 100krun that ever took place in Malta and did a personal best of 36min 18 sec in a 10 k race.

For Charles his best experiences came when he sacrificed his time in order to run and encourage the athletes he was coaching.  The worst experience, on the other hand, was when he came near to not completing the marathon three years ago when he had cartilage pains in his knee. Another time, in the 5th marathon, he pulled a leg muscle on the 21st mile but again he managed to jog to the finish line.

In the 2003 marathon he was guiding and running with six first time marathon runners. The toughest challenge for him was to keep the group together so he made them stop at fixed points to relieve themselves, since it would have been very difficult for someone to make up lost ground if one lost a couple of minutes. At the seventh mile a young English lady who was keeping pace right behind them and when they approached their pre planned 'pit stop' they made a sharp left turn into a side path with the lady following suit. "Obviously we all stopped in a line to take care of our business and for a few seconds this lady just stood there before she realised what we were up to. She turned red in the face laughed out loud and turned back to continue her race".

Asked once whether the marathon was hard and his reply was  “of course it is hard, if it wasn't hard everyone would do it!”  A phrase he once read made a particular impression with him and it goes that ‘when you're feeling anxious on that starting line thinking with doubts in your mind about seeing the finishing line, just keep in mind the 9 in 10 people who never run at all, the 9 in 10 runners who never enter races, and the 9 in 10 racers who never enter marathons.’ 

It is a phrase that he recounts to all the athletes he coaches along with a quote by the late Dr. George Sheehan ‘winning is never having to say I quit’.

"Nowhere is that truer than in running a marathon, where you win simply by not giving up on yourself," Charles adds.  As someone who has been there every year, he’s the living example of that philosophy.

This article originally appeared on the Times of Malta edition of Friday, 24th February 2012.


Sports Book Chat: Glenn Stout

Paul Grech Wednesday, February 22, 2012 , ,
There are few writers who are as capable as Michael Lewis at spotting interesting sport stories just outside of the mainstream and fewer still who can match his ability of bringing these stories to life.  Lewis, who came to prominence (at least as a sports writer) through Moneyball and who also wrote the book on which the Oscar winning The Blind Side is based, is above all an exceptional interviewer who manages to dig deep enough to get to the soul of his story.

Lewis, as you can tell, also happens to be one of my favourite sports writers and when you like someone's writin as much as I do his, you're not going to be satisfied with an occasional book. And it was this thirst to get to more of his writting that led me to the Best of American Sports Writing, an annual collection of the best sports writing from America and where invariably Lewis always features.

Yet a book that was bought specifically for Lewis' piece opened up a whole new world of fantastic writers and stories.  It was also a book that brought to my attention Glenn Stout who happens to be the series editor.  Although his own writing is not featured here, Stout does write the a preface to every issue and invariably always manages to make this an interesting read, which is no mean feat.

In turn, this led me to look out for more of his work and I discovered an incredibly talented writer who has written a multitude of books on a whole range of topics.  It also brought me into contact with a man who is always willing to talk about writing and help out when advice is sought from him.

What led you to become a writer, specifically a sports writer? Was that always an ambition for you?
Into adolescence all I ever wanted to be, or thought about being, was a baseball player, a pitcher, but at a certain point I began to realize that probably wasn’t realistic.  I don’t think I ever thought seriously about being a sportswriter, at least when I was young.  I came to writing through poetry which I started reading when I was 13, 14 years old, and was just blown away by the emotional power of words.  It changed my life.  By high school I was pretty certain I wanted to write.  Even though I was taking journalism in high school and writing for the school paper, I saw myself as more of a creative writer and went to college on a partial scholarship in creative writing, writing and studying poetry.  Of course there are no jobs for poets, so after college, while floundering around, I consciously tried to combine my interests in writing and sports.  I did get a few interviews for small newspapers as a sportswriter, but I had no real background, no clippings, and didn’t get hired.  Instead I worked in construction, sold baseball tickets by phone, painted, was a security guard, library aide, etc., ending up in Boston and listening to a lot of rock ‘ roll.

I came to sports writing late, when I was 27, 28 years old.  In 1986, while working at the Boston Public Library I stumbled across a story about the Boston Red Sox manager committing suicide in 1907.  No one had ever really researched the story before and I did, burying myself in microfilm.  Long story short – despite the fact that I had never written a non-fiction story since high school, I put together a pitch for the story and submitted it to two magazines.  One – Boston Magazine – responded.  The editor invited me to his office, talked to me about the story for an hour, and then gave me the go ahead.  As I was walking out the door he asked “You can write, can’t you?”  I said I could.  A week later I turned in the story, he bought it and asked me what I wanted to write about next.  I blurted something out and I was off.  I’ve never been without an assignment since, often specializing in history.

What words of advice would you share with budding sports writers out there?
The same advice for any writer in any genre:  read everything you can – poetry, fiction, and non-fiction - write as much as possible, develop a wide range of experiences and skills, don’t give up and be patient.  Younger writers today want everything to happen instantaneously.  Focus on the work and if you are good enough, and lucky enough, the rest will come.

Do you ever re-read your own books?
Parts of them, because sometimes I have to mine them for information for my next project, or to remind myself that yes, I really do know how to write.  It’s funny, but sometimes I have absolutely no recollection of having written what I have.  I’ll read something I wrote and in a panic think, “Did that really happen?  Is that true?”  Then I’ll look it up and find out, yep, that’s how it happened, but I have no memory of ever having written it.   I guess that’s’ what happens after publishing upwards of a couple of million words.

I saw somewhere that you read poetry outside Fenway Park at the opening day of every season. How did that come about, if it is at all true? And for how long have you done it?
In the mid 1980s, before I had published anything,  I was just looking for ways to combine my interest in baseball and writing.  I had collected a bunch of baseball inspired poetry, and written a bit myself, so I borrowed a small battery powered amp, put on an old uniform, loaded up on Bloody Mary’s and stood outside Fenway beneath the left wall and read poetry for three hours.  People seemed to enjoy it – or at least were amused –I found it incredibly energizing, and a few newspaper and radio and TV reporters did stories on me.  The next year I sent out press releases, and got more coverage.  I ended up doing it for nine years in a row, and actually met people through doing that who later hired me to write for them.

You've written about a whole range of subjects: how do you choose which ideas to follow through into books?
I try to find a balance between what interests me and what has commercial potential, but it has to interest me first, because if I am not interested there is no way I can interest a reader.  I don’t want to be bored while working, so I enjoy trying different projects and subjects and styles – oral histories, biographies, histories, anthologies, juvenile, columns, features, essays, blogs.  The last thing I want to do is write the same book, or the same kind of book, over and over.  Recently I’ve started consulting with authors who need help with book projects and was surprised to find that not only did I enjoy it, but I was good at it.  I am a working writer and I do this full-time, so I have to be open to possibilities, but I try to be selective as well.

Can you tell us something about your latest book Fenway 1912?
In many ways it is the best thing I have ever, ever done.  It completely recasts the early history of the park and makes other early histories obsolete.  I love finding out new information about something people think they already know everything about.  For a place that is so beloved, there was a staggering amount of false information floating around about the place and its origins, from a construction and architectural viewpoint, had never been explored.  I tell the whole history of how and why the park came to be built the way it was built, then tell the story of the Red Sox first season in Fenway Park, and how Fenway had a dramatic and profound impact on their performance right through the World Series, which was one of the most memorable in the history of the game.  Even the most knowledgeable Red Sox fan or baseball fan will learn something new on almost every page, yet I think the book is still accessible to the casual fan.

Judging by the subject I guess that you must have been pretty happy at the decision to renovate Fenway Park rather than build a new ball park.
To a point, because the new design, which I called “Fakeway” was really horrible.  But there are aspects of the renovation I find troubling.  Fenway is unaffordable today, and I find the amount of visual and aural pollution in the park due to a constant barrage of advertisements very distracting.  Fenway is a radical different place today than it was even ten years ago.  It has not been preserved, really, in any sense, but ironically has evolved that it now shares more in common with the retro parks it inspired – like Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards – than it does with the Fenway Park I grew up with.  But change is the nature of Fenway Park.  It has survived because it has constantly evolved and was never put under glass like an antique.  Change was present even in its first season .  The biggest change in the history of the park took place in September of 1912, when the park was added to accommodate them 1912 World Series.

You're also writing a series a books for kids, Good Sports. Is it more difficult to write for a younger audience?
Not for me, not any more.  For a number of years I was the non-fiction ghost writer for the Matt Christopher series of books, and wrote thirty-nine 20,000 word sports biographies of people like Derek Jeter and Mia Hamm, so I am accustomed to writing for that market and switching back and forth, even on the same day.  The work itself is not all that dissimilar to writing for an adult audience.  The research is the same, and the writing standards you try to reach, but the focus is a bit different.  The writing is more descriptive and direct.  The goal of the series is to encourage reading and provide interesting stories for kids that can provide a lasting lesson.

You've been the series editor of the Best of American Sports Writing series since 1991 (happy anniversary, by the way).  How did that come about?
It was pure serendipity.  An editor with Houghton Mifflin came up with the idea, and happened to ask an agent if she knew of another agent who might have a client who would be interested in serving as series editor.  She primarily represented cookbook writers, but had recently agreed to represent me on a book project I was trying to sell.  She told the editor she had a client who was perfect.  And I was.  I had read been a huge reader of literary sports writing, worked at a library and had access to material, and was an established magazine journalist, yet I was independent and didn’t owe anyone anything.  The editor asked me to put together a sample of the kind of stories I would select for such a book, I did, and he liked them.  I’ve been doing this ever since.

What exactly is your role in the BASW series? What does a series editor do?
My main duty is to survey publications and solicit submissions over the course of each year to put together a group of about seventy-five stories which I give to the guest editor, who then selects about twenty-five stories for the book.  I spend a few hours each day looking, and send submission requests each year to hundreds of magazines, have a facebook page for the book, a comprehensive e-mail list, maintain submission information on my website (, and in short do all I can to make sure I see and read worthy material.   But the guest editor is also welcome to include stories that have not been pre-selected by me.  Then I have to write a foreword to the book, the contributor biographies and some busy work.  It’s not a fulltime job – and neither does it pay like one – but it is rather constant.  At this point, however, it is part of the fabric of my life.

Have there ever been stories that you felt should be included but weren't? And the other way round?
Oh sure.  But on average the guest editor usually picks about 70% of the same stories I would have selected.  The only disagreement I really have is when a guest editor abuses their position and allows nepotism or personal relationships to affect their choices, rather than selecting stories entirely on merit.  Fortunately it doesn’t happen very often.

Has the emergence of blogs, with too many people writing without really considering how they're building their story or argument, diluted the quality of sports writing?
I don’t know if diluted is the right word, but blogs have expanded the range of writing in way that in some ways are good, and some ways not.

Do you consider blogs for the BASW?
I do, and have ever since they began appearing.  I believe our first selection from what today could be described as a blog appeared in the book in 2000.  I don’t care what the source is - I only care about the quality of the writing.

Do you take any measures to ensure that you do not have a bias towards a particular sport?
Not really.  If we select the best stories that seems to work itself out.  We’ve never dropped a story because were “too heavy” on one subject.

How is each editions' editor chosen?
My editor and I discuss it.  I always advocate for writers who have had success not just in newspapers or magazines, but also in book form.  I resist efforts to select a guest editor who is not best known as a writer.

I hear that this year's editor is going to be a woman. How exciting a development is that?
It’s about time, although on several occasions in the past wo0men have been approached and have turned the offer down.  In general, about ten percent of the work in BASW each year has been written by women, and I am an enormous advocate of women in sports – including my juvenile work, no American author has written more book titles about female athletes than I have.  My biography of Trudy Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel Young Woman and the Sea, might be the best book I’ve published to date, and my juvenile series, of which the latest title is Yes She Can! Women’s Sports Pioneers, is getting a terrific reviews.

Finally, what's in the pipeline for you?
By the time Fenway 1912 appears in the fall I hope to have another big project in the works and hope to continue my juvenile series Good Sports and spend some time supporting that through school visits – two more titles are finished and scheduled to appear this year.  The first title I worked as a consultant should also appear later this year, and I know the author and his editors are very pleased, so even though my role is somewhat hidden, I am excited about that  - it is an important book about an important subject – not sports.  And then every once in a while I’ll get a phone call or an e-mail asking me to work on something I’ve never thought of, and I’m about due for one of those calls.  I also have my own blog going,, and have recently started to realize that I’m something of a role model for younger writers. I try to be responsive to that and when I think I’ve learned something worthwhile, or have something to say that is not appropriate for another outlet, I make use of that.

This article was originally featured on the August issue of Swinging Balls.

Inter Managing a Downturn

Paul Grech ,

As Giampiero Gasperini exited his Inter job after only three league games, the complaints were eerily familiar.  Even though he kept a dignified silence there were plenty eager to point out that Inter had not made available the kind of players capable of playing his favoured 3-4-3 formation.  His own tactical rigidity and the strange reluctance to play Giampaolo Pazzini precipitated his demise yet such an outcome had looked almost inevitable ever since the defeat against Milan in the Italian Super Cup.

Eight months earlier, Inter had parted ways with another manager in similar circumstances. Rafael Benitez may have lasted longer than Gasperini but he too was disillusioned by Inter's summer activity.  Benitez wanted to freshen up the squad with the kind of hard working flank players that he favours but was told that there wasn't any money available.

A couple of weeks after he left, they brought in Andrea Ranocchia, Giampaolo Pazzini, Houssine Kharja and Yuto Nagatomo.

It was arguably even worse for Gasperini.  For most of the summer he had to live with daily rumours about Wesley Sneijder's impending departure whilst days before the transfer window came to a close he saw Samuel Eto'o leave.  When reinforcements did come in the form of Diego Forlan, it was with the caveat that he couldn't play in the Champions League until next February because an appearance in the Europa League qualifiers with Atletico Madrid, something that the Inter management only picked up when it came to registering their Champions League squad. Hardly the ideal way to prepare for the new season.

And so it is that they've now turned to their fourth manager in fifteen months a statistic that raises interesting questions about what kind of planning is going on at the club.  Gasperini was appointed only after Inter failed in attempts to attract Guus Hiddink or Andre Villas Boas and, even so, his was an extremely surprising choice.  The only thing that qualified him for the job was his availability - he was out of a job - because otherwise he was a bad fit both tactically and in character.  Indeed, his past as coach at the Juventus primavera weighed heavily against him.

But Gasperini cannot be blamed for any of that.  The same, however, cannot be said of those who actually made the decision to go for him.

Whenever the argument about the validity of having a sporting director crops up, one of the arguments in favour is that it helps bring about continuity.  Not at Inter, however.  The people that were looked at as possible managers had widely differing outlooks making it look as if the search was a haphazard one fuelled by the hype behind each potential candidate rather than a deep seated belief that their philosophies would translate well to the squad Inter had.

Then again, Inter is a strange case.  Their sporting director, Piero Ausilio, is a virtual unknown who was promoted into the role last December having previously headed their youth academy.

Instead the man with the real power seems to be Marco Branca.  His is a particular story, that of a striker who managed to achieve more than his talent would suggest was capable.  Serie A winner with Sampdoria in 1991 he spent just over two years at Inter in the mid-nineties scoring twenty three goals in fifty two games.  Inter and Sampdoria were just two of the thirteen clubs he played for during his career, including an injury plagued spell at Middlesbrough.

Then in 2002, just months after he had retired from playing activity, Branca was suddenly appointed as head of Inter's scouts.  A few months later and he became their technical director and that is where he has stayed ever since.  It is unclear what qualified him for such a rapid rise.

Inevitably, however, Branca's role only came under scrutiny since Jose Mourinho left and results started going downhill.  Those who have come to his defence  point to his presumed role in building the multiple title winning squads for Roberto Mancini and Mourinho himself.  But this too is unclear.  At the time there was also club legend Gabriele Oriali who played a key role in player acquisition.  Tellingly, Oriali left Inter a few weeks after Mourinho, forced out after Benitez demanded that Amadeo Carboni be placed in his role.

It is impossible to say whether Inter would have been better had they retained Oriali.  Owner Massimo Moratti's determination to drastically cut back spending - last January's binge excluded - cannot be underplayed and the loyalty displayed to the players who won them the Champions League has led to an ageing squad of players who feel entitled to play.

Inter aren't the first club that has struggled with continuity and having dominated the Italian scene for half a decade, a period of transition was inevitable.  Whether those charged at ensuring that such a period is as short as possible are up to the task, however, remains to be seen.

This article originally appeared in the November - December 2011 issue of Late Tackle magazine.


An Englishman In A Small Town

Paul Grech Friday, February 17, 2012 , ,

Gharghur is very much a typical Maltese town, with a multitude of narrow winding lanes all leading to a main square that is dominated by a huge church. Although the setting is unique and spectacular – built as it is into a disused quarry – Gharghur is also typical in that it now boasts one of the synthetic pitches that thanks to UEFA’s and FIFA’s money are replacing gravel ones all across the island. It is at the clubhouse adjacent to this pitch that I meet Ben Perry Acton as he and some of his Gharghur FC teamates pass the time before training kicks off by watching a rerun of one of the previous weekend’s Premiership games. English football has always had a massive following on the island, a heritage of the island’s colonial past, and there’s blanket coverage of all the games in the Premiership and even some from the Championship.

“I do yeah, every week!” is the enthusiastic reply about whether he follows Blackpool, one of his former clubs. “It is the first score I look for every weekend. I’ll never stop following Blackpool.” “Last season was brilliant as well as a bit devastating.  I think that Blackpool was every neutral’s favourite team.  They were a small club but had a lot of heart, they were entertaining to watch and very,very unlucky to go down.”  Other than Blackpool, Perry Acton played for other clubs, among whom is Bolton, yet these do not seem to have a similar hold him like the Tangerines and with good reason: his grandfather Bill Perry not only played for them but also scored the winning goal in the 1953 FA Cup final.

Ben Perry Acton (left) together with his FA Cup
winning legend grandfather
“He was one of the nicest men I’ve come across.  If you spoke to him you wouldn’t say that he had won an FA Cup.  He never spoke about it ever.  He loved his golf and was a family man. He was someone I really look up to and admire.  I loved him to bits and he’s greatly missed." Having such a famous grandfather did not put additional pressure in the form of heightened expectations. “No it didn’t put pressure at all,” he insists.  ”He came to watch a game to see me do will, not to shout this or that. People knew that I was a different player and to be honest if I was half the player he was that would be brilliant.  There was no added pressure growing up. “He was immense.  He took me to my training session and came to watch all the games. He gave me a lot of advice – not all of it in good ways! – but he knew what he was talking about and I took it all on board.  To this day I can remember what he told me. He was a great influence.”

It is clear that the prospect of following in his grandfather’s footsteps must have been a huge ambition for him.  Making, one would imagine, the decision to leave football a more difficult one. “It was in one respect.  I played for Wigan and Blackpool.  After being released by Blackpool, my confidence was knocked quite a bit.  I carried on playing with a team called Cliterhoe which is a side in the North West Counties and slowly started rebuilding my confidence to build my way up again.”  But then came the decision to leave. ”I’ve been coming to Malta with the family every year: my mum and dad have a holiday home in Sliema.  And I’ve been saying it every couple of years that I wanted to move over.  Then me and my girlfriend decided that time was right.  Not specifically because of football but because I love the island and everything about it.  It is so laid back  and we just thought that there was nothing to lose and to just go for it. When I moved here, my first intention was to find a club.  I went on trial with a couple of Premier League clubs – Hibernians and Sliema – but nothing came of them.  And then Pieta were interested and signed for them. Then, after a season, I moved to Gharghur. I love it here, I love the club, the people.  I live in the town even so it is nice."

The football itself has been good with one major difference.  ”I think that it is the pace.  It is a lot slower over here but you expect that.  The physical side is probably the same, you still get the odd shove in the back.  But mainly it is pace which is quite a lot slower. ”Fitness hasn’t been an issue.  I regard myself as being quite fit and I thought that I’d be one of the fittest at the club – which I probably am – but the rest aren’t far behind.” It was here that he enjoyed the highlight of his career so far, promotion as champions from the Maltese Third Division after they were down by two goals in the title decider. ”Oh, it was brilliant,” he says, eyes lighting up at the memory. “The town loves its football.  With the game and how dramatically it ended as well as the celebrations after the game, everything was brilliant.  Afterwards there were fireworks in the village, everybody was partying and it went on into the early hours of the day.  People still talk about it and everybody is still buzzing about it.  We got a new training complex and it put them on the map a bit.  Nobody put Gharghur as a force to be reckoned with.  We were a hard working bunch and it was all down to determination. Everything about the day was brilliant and I’ll remember that for the rest of my life.”

Talk eventually turns to the lack of Englishmen playing abroad. “In England you’ve got so many opportunities and so many clubs that you can go up and down the country to play.  That said, I definitely tell anyone who might be thinking of going to play abroad to go for it.  It is brilliant to experience different styles of play and to play in different countries.”  ”It can only benefit you.”

With a relatively short winter and sun shining almost all year round, Ben laughs when it is suggested that it shouldn’t be much of a problem to sell the idea of playing on the island to his fellow countrymen of whom there seems to be a shortage. ”I do think that there’s space but whether they want to come to Malta is another story,” he reflects.  ”For people who have been here, Malta is not the place most people would pick to go play in.  Especially among English players who look for more high profile destination.  I’ve told a few friends but up to now none of them have taken me up on my offer!”

This article originally appeared on TwoHundredPercent.
Copyright 2010 Paul Grech: Writer