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Learning from the beautiful game

Essay | 10 minute read
A trio of books on football sparks a meditation on Britishness, success, failure and the sporting life for one writer

On 11 July 2018, I walked out of my building at 7 a.m. and saw a white van coming down the road with two large St George’s flags flying from its roof. I raised a fist and roared: ‘Come on, England!’ The driver pressed his horn – beep, beep! – and I set off running, buoyed by this gesture of patriotic solidarity. I ran up East Hill, holding my breath against the traffic fumes, on to Wandsworth Common where I go running most mornings to stretch my limbs and clear my head.

During that summer’s World Cup in Russia, I spent my runs thinking exclusively about the England football team. On 11 July, twelve hours before England played Croatia in the semi-final, I ran around wondering: could we combat Croatia’s classy midfield by bringing Eric Dier in to partner Jordan Henderson? Was Harry Kane tired? It was going to be difficult against Croatia, I thought, as I ran. I was hot, so I untucked my t-shirt, which reminded me of how Dier struck the decisive penalty in the shootout against Colombia, that took England through to the quarter-finals, with his shirt untucked.

When I was a child, topics such as which players wore their shirts tucked or untucked obsessed me. At under-11s, I represented my school, town and district, but looking back I sometimes think I didn’t so much play as try to emulate my heroes. As a goalkeeper, and a Manchester United supporter, I wanted to be Peter Schmeichel so much that I started walking out for Sunday league matches with a red towel draped over my shoulder, just like the Great Dane at Old Trafford on rainy Saturday afternoons. Diving through the air, stretching my latex-gloved palm to try to tip the ball around the post, I wondered how I looked. As a footballer, I was a shameless plagiarist, insufferable stylist and seduced by the glories of failure.

Now, in my mid-thirties, I have reached an age when, had I made it as a professional footballer, I would be sitting in my Cheshire mansion wondering how to spend my remaining time on earth. Athletes are a long time retired. Will Greenwood, the World Cup-winning England rugby player, told me: ‘I would give anything to get my boots back on and have one last crack at the Welsh’. The England batsman Geoffrey Boycott said: ‘I might have five, maybe ten years of life left, but I would swap them all for one more season of cricket’. Likewise, in his recently published autobiography, Between the Lines, the ex-Manchester United midfielder Michael Carrick writes of winning the Premier League in 2007: ‘I’d give anything just to see some of the scenes again and get taken back to that magical time’.

Photo of Michael Carrick/Unsplash

At that ‘magical time’, Carrick was twenty-six. He is the same age as me, which is one of the few reasons that reading his book was interesting, especially the early chapters about Carrick’s life before he became a professional footballer. His talent was forged at the Wallsend Boys’ Club in North Tyneside which is famous for producing an endless conveyor-belt of professional footballers, including Peter Beardsley and Alan Shearer. Carrick writes movingly about the amateur coaches there who nurtured his talent, sacrificing their time to help channel the energy of working-class boys, encouraging them to be competitive without feeling under pressure. For these boys, becoming a professional was feasible, and not just a distant dream, because they had seen others from their community succeed.

Carrick was a subtle and original midfielder but, unfortunately, his autobiography is like many players’ books, in that, as soon as we reach the chapters about his life as a pro, the prose flattens into a PR-friendly monotone. Another book published this autumn, which is also about an ex-Manchester United player, Ben Thornley, is livelier. In part, this is down to structure; Thornley, and his ghost-writer Dan Poole, make the smart choice to intersperse passages from Thornley’s point of view with an oral history that features David Beckham, Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs and other luminaries.

Like Between the Lines, Thornley’s book, Tackled, is at its best charting its subject’s formative years. It captures the camaraderie and rivalry among boys who want to be footballers; sleepovers on the eve of Sunday morning matches, the early starts and hundreds of miles parents put in helping you pursue your dream, the way any patch of grass is fair game for a kick-about (‘If a house’s window hasn’t been broken by a football, it’s not been lived in,’ says Neville).

The other reason Tackled proves compelling is that Thornley didn’t really make the grade at United, so his book is unusual for being a tale of talent unfulfilled. As a member of United’s celebrated Class of ’92 (a crop of United players who won the FA Youth Cup in 1992), Thornley was, according to Giggs, ‘an intelligent player’ and Sir Alex Ferguson rated him highly. I remember Thornley making his debut in February 1994, a handsome eighteen-year-old with the world at his feet, skipping past West Ham defenders in a fractious 2-2 draw at Upton Park. Two months later, Thornley suffered a horrific injury and was never the same player afterwards. He left United and dropped down the divisions, his career fizzling out, while the players he grew up with – Giggs, the Neville brothers, Paul Scholes – became legends. Thornley’s story speaks to our universal fear of falling short and being left behind, thrown from a glorious trajectory into obscurity.

I have always loved football. I don’t mean that in the way that David Brent in The Office says, ‘I bloody love football’, when he’s trying to pass as a blokey bloke, or David Cameron, who forgot he was supposed to support Aston Villa, mixed up his claret and blue and said he’d like immigrants to support West Ham. I mean I love stadia, tacky merchandise, fan phone-ins, the endless discourse that surrounds something that doesn’t really matter. Nothing is more stirring to me than match day traffic, the sight of the M6 gridlocked with families decked out in red, club pennants hanging in their rear-view windscreens.

But I didn’t think I loved England, at least not until this summer. I’d always followed their fortunes at tournaments but I was indifferent to them the rest of the time. Possibly this was because I’m part Chinese, and being made to feel other by children at my school, and by life-long enquiries/jibes about my surname, alienates me from a sense of national belonging. Also, I grew up in Cornwall which never quite feels like England. The first time I visited my wife’s family, I travelled to the end of the Metropolitan line, stepped out into the cosy suburban air, and thought: ‘This must be England’.

I’m not alone in having a complicated relationship with England. Many people are put off by the jingoism and entitlement that surrounds the team; the way England fans think their team has a God-given right to do well feels like an empiricist hangover. On top of that, the Football Association exudes a deeply uncool parent–teacher association kind of vibe. I remember United putting four goals past Leicester City during Ferguson’s heyday, which coincided with one of England’s nadirs, and United fans chanting at their opponents: ‘Are you England in disguise?’ Like a lot of people, I’ve never felt the England team represent me.

Photo by Jordan Mcdonald/Unsplash

So what was different about this summer? First of all, I wasn’t alone in rediscovering my enthusiasm for England. In his new book, How Football (Nearly) Came Home: Adventures in Putin’s World Cup, Barney Ronay, who was in Russian covering the tournament, says of the delirium that gripped England fans: ‘You got the sense this was about release, escapism, people sucking the sweetness out of the moment at a time when so many other moments have been so much more dour and difficult’.

This seems unarguable. England fans were reportedly warned not to sing pro-Brexit songs during their final group-stage match against Belgium. Had they done so, it would have been at odds with the tone of the moment, as fans got behind Gareth Southgate’s young, diverse England team. The historian Eric Hobsbawm said of national football teams: ‘an imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people’. At the World Cup, every time the camera panned across the likes of Jesse Lingard, Jordan Pickford and Dele Alli during the national anthem, I felt we were showing our best face to the world.

Southgate had already impressed me, earlier in the year, when he essentially told Boris Johnson to do one after the then foreign secretary floated the ludicrous suggestion that England should boycott the World Cup because of the Skripal poisonings in Salisbury. But the sanity and subtlety that Southgate brought to the job of England manager, and the way it rubbed off on his players, only really became apparent in Russia. Beforehand, he had encouraged fans to lower their expectations, to throw off what Ronay calls ‘the strange presumption that England should win’. This was one reason the players looked and sounded so relaxed at the World Cup, to the point that I could almost believe they were unaware of England’s failures at previous tournaments.

Photo by Fauzan Saari/Unsplash

Southgate talked about his players ‘writing their own stories’ and so it proved in Russia, especially in the second round match against Colombia. Ronay points out that Dier’s decisive penalty was ‘a pretty horrible kick in truth’. Certainly, it was not a clean strike, and skudded along the ground, but it went in and was a moment of pure catharsis, as England won their first penalty shootout since 1996, and banished the ghosts of past failures. In the dazed hours following the Colombia match, I remembered a line from Swimming Studies, Leanne Shapton’s memoir about sporting obsession and growing up: ‘I think about loving swimming the way you love a country’. Did the joy I felt, and the palpable sense of an unacknowledged weight being lifted, mean that I loved England? Was football the means for that love to find expression? I don’t know. But Dier’s penalty was the moment when I realised not only that I care about England, but that I care a lot.

Ronay’s book is engrossing and at times, while reading it, I relived the events of the summer, wondering all over again if maybe, just maybe, we could win it. Of course, we couldn’t. I was right to fear Croatia would prove too classy for England. Luka Modric took control of the midfield and ran us into the ground as the second half went on and into extra time. But as Ronay writes, ‘England lost well’, to an excellent and deserving opponent.

Regardless of my nerves and the result, I made sure I enjoyed the semi-final because, as Mark Chapman said on BBC Radio 5 Live seconds before kick-off: ‘These don’t come around very often’. The last time England played in a World Cup semi-final, I was nine. If it takes us another twenty-eight years to reach one, I’ll be sixty-five. But there are plenty of reasons to believe it will not be so long next time, not least the way in which England have kicked on under Southgate this autumn, beating Spain and Croatia. In fact, the only downside of the World Cup in Russia could be that we will go to the next one – if we qualify – with expectations. But perhaps this new England will be able to handle that.

Between the Lines: My Autobiography by Michael Carrick (Blink Publishing)

Tackled: The Class of ’92 Start Who Never Got to Graduate by Ben Thornley with Dan Poole (Pitch Publishing)

How Football (Nearly) Came Home: Adventures in Putin’s World Cup by Barney Ronay (Harper Collins)

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