The Adventures of Darren Huckerby Finn

Maybe you don’t know about me, unless you read Feed the Goat: The Shaun Goater Story, but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr David Clayton, and he told the truth, mainly, but there’s much more to tell. I was quick and I could run with the ball and I did well at Coventry City with Dion Dublin. When Leeds United paid £6million for me, I was rich.

But when you got into the squad you couldn’t go right to playing. First you had to wait for the manager to shake his head at Mark Viduka’s weight, Michael Bridges’ injuries and Alan Smith’s temper. It was deadly dull and I got fidgety. As I sat on the bench, Mr O’Leary would say, ‘Don’t hunch up like that Huckerby’. O’Leary kept pecking at me for not scoring enough goals and it got tiresome. All I wanted was to go somewheres and I warn’t particular about where.

Hucks - Leeds

When I couldn’t stand it no longer, I lit out for Manchester City. Alf-Inge Haaland, he hunted me up and said he was going to start a band of winners, and I might join if I could follow the rules. We had to swear an oath and write our names in blood. It swore everyone to play for the team, and never dribble blindly towards the corner flag; and if anyone was in space, whoever had the ball must pass it to them. Everybody said it was a real beautiful oath, but it had me worried. Then Stuart Pearce says:

‘Here’s Huckerby, he don’t know the offside rule – what you going to do ‘bout him?’

‘Well, hain’t he a striker?’ says Alf-Inge.

‘Yes, he’s a striker, but you can’t never find him onside,’ says Psycho.

They talked it over, and they was going to drop me, because every player must know the offside rule, particularly a striker. Nobody could think of anything to do and I was most ready to cry. So I offered to learn the offside rule and stay onside from time to time.

Everybody said: ‘That’ll do. Huck can come in.’

I made my mark on the paper and collected my things. I went tip-toeing along to the Leeds Central railway station, and sure enough there was Shaun Goater waiting for me.

Now the way that Mr Clayton’s book winds up is this: I fed The Goat and he scored, and so did I, and Man City were champions of the First Division. Old Mr Keegan said I was coming along slow but sure, and doing very satisfactory. I was pretty-well-satisfied with myself too.

Hucks - Man City

But then in the Premier League the old thing commenced again. We had Nicolas Anelka, Robbie Fowler and Jon Macken and I was back on the bench. It was kind of lazy and jolly for a bit, laying off comfortable all day, and no football to play. But how slow the time did drag along after a month. When I came on I couldn’t score a damn thing and I was offside most of the time. We had a mean young midfielder called Joey Barton and he liked to give me a good going-over.

‘Shucks, it ain’t no use to talk to you, Huckerby. You don’t seem to know anything – you’re a perfect sap-head.’

I was six years older and I had an England B cap but that didn’t mean a thing to him. Joey warn’t never in a good humor; that was just his natural self, especially when the liquor took him. I warn’t scared of him worth bothering about but he was always cussing me.

‘You know one season you was caught offside 98 times. You think you’re better’n the First Division, don’t you? I’ll take it out of you.’

I was dog-tired of everyone pecking at the same old problems – my hunchback run, the way I couldn’t never stay on my feet. No-one tried to understand what it was like to be in my shoes. It was dreadful lonesome warming the bench with Kevin Horlock and Carlo Nash.

Mr Keegan sent me on loan to Nottingham Forest and I did ok back in my home town. I felt kind of sore about everything at Man City but I knew it was time to move on for good. Mr Worthington at Norwich City wanted me and that was good enough for me. I just needed to find a way to leave before Joey knew I was gone.

One night, I took my two First Division winners medal and my England B cap and I put them in a suitcase; then I done the same with my signed Shaun Goater shirt, one of Jason Wilcox’s judo black belts and a prototype ‘Dube’ that Dion gave me. It was about dark, now; so I walked down to Manchester Piccadilly, and waited for the first train to Norwich to come.

I was pretty tired when I got to my seat. The first thing I knowed, I was asleep. When the ticket collector woke me up I didn’t know where I was. I set up and looked around, a little scared. Then I remembered. I was free from Joey and free from the Premier League with all its mean linesmen and decent defenders. I knowed I was all right now. I felt powerful lazy and comfortable, like when Mr Keegan left me on the bench for a few games.

When I got to Carrow Road I warn’t feeling very brash. I’d never been to Norfolk and didn’t know nobody there. I catched a glimpse of a man going into the changing room. I went for it, cautious and slow. It was Marc Edworthy!

‘Hello, Marc!’ I says and skipped out.

He ran up and stared at me wild. I was ever so glad to see my old Coventry teammate. I warn’t lonesome now.

Hucks - Norwich 1

It was a mighty nice squad, and a mighty nice stadium, too. I practiced hard every day to get the hang of things, and by-and-by I could do pretty well up front with Paul McVeigh, Leon McKenzie, Matthias Svensson and Iwan Roberts. Mr Worthington said I must quit running offside all the time. I took notice, and done better. We won four games in a row and I even scored a goal. I wanted to win the First Division again but Marc didn’t believe we could go that far. I said come on, we’re better than the Tractor Boys, and West Ham and West Brom. So on we prowled.

‘I wish Dion was here,’ I says to Marc in January. ‘He’d call this an adventure and he’d score goals all day long. And wouldn’t he throw style on it?’

Marc manned the defence and I struck the goals. I judged Mr Keegan would have been proud of me as we went a-booming towards my third First Division title. The Norwich fans loved me and that was a special feeling I must say. They were taken with my style – the big shirts, the beach blonde mullet, the dives in the penalty area.

Hucks - Norwich 4

Marc had an uncommon level head. He judged that 40 points would fetch us to mid-table in the Premier League and then we’d be out of relegation trouble. Well, after 13 games we didn’t have one win to our name. We were in an awful peck of trouble. The league table made me so sick and scared I couldn’t budge from Ceefax. If you think it ain’t dismal and lonesome down at the bottom, you try it once – you’ll see.

I almost just give up, then. I scored more goals but even signing Dean Ashton warn’t gonna save us. Late one night Marc called me and he started talking wild about how we were relegated already.

‘You been a drinking?’ I says. ‘You’re a tangle-headed old fool, Marc. You did dream it, because there didn’t any of it happen.’

‘We’re still in the Premier League?’

‘Of course we are!’

If we worked hard enough, I told him, we would get out of the zone and be free. We beat Manchester United, Newcastle, Charlton and Birmingham but it warn’t no use in the end. We went down but the Norwich fans said I warn’t to blame. They said I could have a home there as long as I wanted it. I won the Norwich player of the season award and they voted me into their Hall of Fame, too. That was a beautiful night.

Marc was awful disappointed. I said never mind, we’d be back, I reckoned. But Marc went to Mr Worthington’s office and bullyragged him about the relegation. The numskull said things he never should have said, and so he had to quit for Derby County. I was real sorry to see him go.

‘Head up, Huckerby!’ Mr Worthington shouts at me in training.

I didn’t understand. I warn’t so miserable; the First Division was my home, after all.

‘Huckerby, git your head up when you run! That way you might pass to a teammate one time.’

They was tough times for all of us. Then in the middle of the season, Robbie Earnshaw arrived from West Brom. Earnie was tiny, gentle and sweet, like a dove, but they said he was a grown man. Together we scored a nice number of goals but Reading and Sheffield United was miles away at the top. Earnie warn’t at all happy with ninth place but I never said nothing about his days in the Third Division. If I never learn nothing else out of Joey, I learnt that the best way to get along with people is to keep peace.

The new season was started when a voice not twenty-five yards from me, says ‘Is that you, Huckerby? I’d know that hunchback anywheres.’

Hucks - Norwich 2

It was Dion’s voice – nothing ever sounded so good before. He grabbed me and hugged me, we was so glad to see one another. One thing was dead sure; me, Earnie and Dion would form a merry gang. Against QPR we all scored but the problem was the fools in our defence. Something was a-brewing, for sure. Then they sacked poor old Mr Worthington. We was in relegation trouble for a bit but we escaped thanks to our goals. I won the player of the season award again, and Dion was second. I done found a home where they loved me even if I couldn’t hit double figures no more.

Earnie headed for Derby County and in October we was bottom of the First Division. It made me shiver and so I kneeled down to pray. I knew I was full of goals, full as I could be, but why did they just trickle out from time to time? Why, it was astonishing, I felt as light as a feather, right straight off, and my troubles all gone. I would go to work and steal Norwich out of the relegation zone again.

We warn’t all right and safe until the last game of the season. That day we got too satisfied and we lost 4-1 to Sheffield Wednesday. Deon Burton scored two we played so bad. I scored our goal and the fans they was so proud and joyful. Norwich was free for another season and I had loved the adventure of it. As me and Dion waved goodbye, I was happy and satisfied, like a jug goggling out butter-milk. If I’d a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn’t a tackled it and ain’t agoing to no more. I’ve got to light out for the United States now, because Mr Roeder will have me warming the bench next season and I can’t stand it. I been there before.

THE END. YOURS TRULY, DARREN HUCKERBY FINN

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Football writers on the Best Books of 2015

Jack Pitt-Brooke, Football journalist for The Independent and i

GoldblattAt a time when the game of football itself is subject to endless dissection and analysis, The Game of our Lives by David Goldblatt tells the other story: what does football mean to us in Britain in 2015? Why does it matter? How do we experience it? How has it changed? From half-and-half scarves, to billionaire foreign owners, YouTube fan channels, and the rest, Goldblatt tells us with great narrative skill how we got here. Or, in the subtitle of the book, about ‘The Meaning and Making of English Football’. It is a remarkable piece of scholarship, showing an understanding not just of football, but of history, society and culture. Because the state of modern football, ultimately, is the state of us.

Matt Gardiner, sports bookseller at Waterstones and founder of Manchester Football Writing Festival

9781780893273(1)Living on the Volcano is another astonishingly strong book from the author of “Family” and “The Nowhere Men”. Mike Calvin has once again reached heights with his sports writing which seems to be unfair on his peers.  His ability to gain access to the people who really count is phenomenal and ensures once again that “Living on the Volcano” is a triumph.  The chapters which focus on the lower league managers are for me the strongest as we hear from men who don’t often make the headlines.  I for one can’t wait for what Mike does next.

Michael Calvin, Sports journalist for The Independent and author of Living on the Volcano and The Nowhere Men

The Soccer SyndromeCall me Mr Retro if you wish, but my football book of 2015 was first published in 1966. The Soccer Syndrome by the late John Moynihan has just been republished by his son Leo, through Ian Ridley’s Floodlit Dreams imprint, with an evocative new foreword by Patrick Barclay. It is a classic, an overdue reminder of football’s lost innocence which, in an age of corporate artifice, has rarely been more relevant. I worked with John as a young reporter; he was sardonic and perceptive, with a voice as rich as mulled wine. He understood football’s essential humanity – this is your chance to do likewise.

Paul Grech, author of Il Re Calcio: Stories From Italian Football

2015 has seen my shelf being enriched by a number of great new football titles.  As an avowed fan of Simon Hughes’ writing, I terribly enjoyed ‘Men In White Suits’, his analysis of Liverpool’s fall from grace in the nineties through the experiences of some of the players that shaped that decade.

From a football coaching perspective, I also enjoyed reading Carol Dweck’s Minset and Ian Leslie’s Curious.  Although neither one is a football specific book both have ideas that should inspire anyone who deals with coaching and indeed I wrote extensively about the impact of the latter book.

However, if I were to pick my favourite read for the year I would have to go for Michael Calvin’s Living on the Volcano.  This dissection of football manager, thanks to the experiences of famous and less well known managers, puts into focus the reality of football management.  Although I was never under the illusion that it is as easy a job as many seem to think that it is, there were passages in this book that still took me by surprise.

Martin Greig, co-founder of BackPage Press

InvincibleFrom the moment we founded BackPage – in 2009 – we wanted to publish a book on Arsenal’s Invincibles. Along with Pep’s Barca, they were the team that had most fired our imaginations.  We published the definitive book on Barca, but never got round to the Invincibles. Then Amy Lawrence wrote Invincible. At first I was devastated that we had been beaten to the punch, but on reading it I was simply thrilled that the subject had been properly documented. Invincible is excellent. Amy’s passion shines through. It is a sports book with a beating heart, like all the best ones.

Daniel Storey, deputy editor of Football365 and football freelancer

I believe in miraclesI Believe in Miracles is Daniel Taylor’s account of Nottingham Forest’s European Cup-winning team, told through the eyes of players, supporters, journalists, managers and club officials but knitted together perfectly by one of this country’s finest sportswriters. The book is split into two sections, the first regarding Forest’s rise to the league title, and the second the remarkable run to double European glory. At each stage of the journey the reader is given nuggets of information and anecdotes, all reminiscing about an achievement that will never be repeated.

There have been countless biographies and autobiographies written about each individual in that all-conquering Nottingham Forest era. This should be seen as the definitive book.

Sachin Nakrani, writer and editor for The Guardian and creator and co-editor of We’re Everywhere, Us

OstrichWe live in a world filled with season diaries (I should know, I’ve written one myself) and the job, therefore, of anyone who decides to go down that path is to avoid the obvious, well-worn methods of telling the story of nine months on planet football​ and provide the reader with something different​. Alexander Netherton and Andi Thomas achieve that with Are you an Ostrich? their take on the 2014/15 Premier League season with a book that is as sharp with its humour as it is with its considered, serious insight on the wider issues/topics-of-debate in the domestic game. So one one hand it creates a superbly surreal world in which Arsene Wenger cannot eat his breakfast without literally everything going wrong, while on the other offering the most powerful and intelligent take on why Ched Evans should not be allowed anywhere near a football pitch that I’ve ever read. Are You an Ostrich, which references the former Leicester manager Nigel Pearson’s infamous remark to a journalist near the end of the 2014/15 campaign, is a delight to read by two writers who have become experienced football diarists but continue to offer a fresh and must-read contribution to the genre.

Harry Pearson, football writer and author of The Far Corner

Touching DistanceMartin Hardy’s Touching Distance tells the story of Newcastle’s 1995-96 season, the year they could and – maybe – should have won the title for the first time since the 1920s. It’s built around a series of insightful and often funny interviews with key players including Peter Beardsley who relates how he informed his telephone-less parents that he had signed for his hometown club from Vancouver by sending them a postcard. Inevitably he got to Newcastle from Canada before it did. Ultimately Touching Distance is a bit like The Day of the Jackal – you know what the outcome will be but the author cranks the tension up so nicely that by the final chapter you start to suspect there might be an unexpected twist at the end.

Alex Stewart, freelance football writer

The Football's RevoltMy favourite football book of 2015 is only partly from 2015. To be precise, The Football’s Revolt, by Jan Le Witt and George Him, was originally written and illustrated in 1939 and reissued this year by the V&A. Witt and Him were two Polish artists who moved to London to work for the museum’s in-house design team, and also produced posters for the war effort, as well as their sumptuous children’s books. The Football’s Revolt tells the story of a match between Goalbridge and Kickford, a fierce local derby that gets out of hand when the football takes umbrage at being kicked so hard and takes to the clouds. The book at once manages to capture the intensity of football and its fans, while also undercutting that with sometimes very subtle humour. It is surreal and sly and celebratory, with a resolution that extols the simple pleasures of the game. The illustrations are lush and funny, perfectly complementing the style of writing. The Football’s Revolt is a great book for children, but will cause a wry smile to any football-loving adult who picks it up, and it is my football book of 2015.

Dermot Corrigan, football writer for ESPN, Irish Examiner, WSC and Unibet

Brilliant OrangeDavid Winner’s Brilliant Orange is not a traditional football book, but it’s still the best explanation of how and why the sport has evolved over recent decades. Johan Cruyff dominates, of course, but artists Johannes Vermeer and Jan Van Eyck are also brought into show how the Dutch are “a nation of spatial neurotics” for whom use of space is “a matter of national survival”.

Put more simply, with the ball you expand the pitch as much as possible, without it you restrict the space available for opponents to play in. Winner finds early evidence of this sophisticated tactical approach in the 16th century, when a visiting Spanish side [well, army] was squeezed of space in defence and thereby defeated – “anticipating by nearly 400 years the Total Football concept”. Spanish football caught up around 2008, and Cruyff’s influence at Barcelona is still strong. This book was published back in 2000, but is just as important today.

Ian Ridley, football writer and publisher of Floodlit Dreams

One of my favourite football books, and one that influenced me as a young football writer, was The Soccer Syndrome, by John Moynihan. It combines wit with perception, elegant writing with sharp opinion, and informs equally about the game at the highest level as well as on public park.

When his son Leo Moynihan approached me about re-issuing the book 50 years on to mark both its original publication and a half-century since England won the World Cup, I was delighted to work with him on it.

The result is a new edition, with foreword by Patrick Barclay and afterword by Leo, that we hope keeps alive the memory and spirit of John, who died a few years ago, and offers a chance to a new generation of readers to enjoy what remains a charming and relevant insight into English football.

George Rinaldi, English and Italian football writer and author of the upcoming Calcio’s Greatest Forwards

9781780893273(1)It comes as no surprise to say the most enjoyable football book I’ve read in 2015 was Living on the Volcano by Michael Calvin. It has become rather expected of Calvin to deliver such brilliance packed in to a small space, but he has done so once again with this superb reading of football managers. He isn’t afraid to scrutinise when he sees best, and also gives a number of different interviews with the Premier League’s top coaches. These managers do, however unfortunate, keep to a very stylised and cliché based response which might hamper the true feel of the book, but the writing is what I came for and it didn’t disappoint.

Adam Hurrey,

9781906850722The best football book I read this year was Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League by Ian Plenderleith. The North American Soccer League is a fascinating chapter of football’s not-too-distant past. On one hand, it was a hugely ambitious, forward-thinking enterprise; on the other, an unsustainable financial mess. Whichever cap fits, the NASL burned half as long it perhaps ought to have done, but surely twice as bright.

Ian Plenderleith’s deals dutifully with the well-worn NASL stories – Pelé, Cruyff, Beckenbauer et al – but it is the peripheral nuggets that really keep the pages turning. The decision to move franchises to Las Vegas and Hawaii, in particular, provides the author with some entertaining tales of ageing journeymen struggling with both the unbearable heat and the obligatory four-day benders.

If you’re into your footballing curiosities – and if not, why not? – Plenderleith’s meticulous (but never pedestrian) retrospective is as compelling as it gets.

Iain Macintosh, ESPN football writer, author and editor of The Set Pieces

I would say Matt Dickinson’s Bobby Moore: The Man in Full. That was very special.

Bobby Moore

The Young and the Previously Feckless

‘Ashley, sometimes you’re a little sensitive,’ Darren said as they sat playing Playstation one night. ‘Just admit it was birdshit and make some joke about it being lucky.’

Ashley was sensitive but he was also a victim. It was all well and good Fletch saying that he should lighten up but he was the one who’d told the press that Ashley’s best attribute was diving. That had really fanned the flames. The papers reported his new film franchise ‘Dive Hard’ and photoshopped him next to Tom Daley at the Olympics. At least they made him look like someone in demand. But what was he meant to do – wait for defenders to tackle him? No, there was no way his brittle bones could take that.

Young 1

Ashley had watched the clip hundreds of times – it was definitely birdshit. It dropped from the sky just as he was moaning at a teammate, just as he reached the vowel in ‘ball’ and his mouth was at its widest. There were no two ways about it, but he wasn’t about to confirm the rumour and become even more of a laughing stock. Not when his United career was finally on the up again. Sir Alex and Moyesy had lost interest in his twinkle toes but LVG still saw potential. Like Gok Wan, he had plans for a makeover.

‘Let me be honest,’ LVG began, as if that were a novel idea. ‘I’d never heard of you. When I saw you, I assumed you were one of the youth players, quick but naïve, like a little lamb to the football slaughter. But Giggsy tells me you’re actually nearly 30. I laughed and then checked Wikipedia. It turns out he’s right. We need some older players and we need a left-back. So act your age and play where I tell you, and we’ll get along just fine.’

Ashley agreed to the transformation and now he was a starter, despite not giving up those impossibly large shirts. Sure, they’d lost to Swansea but Luke Shaw was always injured and Daley Blind was Mr Versatility. For now, his spot was guaranteed. They said birdshit landing on your clothes was lucky – well, surely birdshit landing in your mouth was extra lucky.

Tackling wasn’t Ashley’s best attribute; that was diving. But he worked hard and learnt his new role. He even got booked in his first two games. He was following in illustrious footsteps – Phillip Neville, Quinton Fortune, Alex Buttner and John O’Shea to name but four. No longer could he gallop wildly down the wing at will, cutting inside onto his right foot like clockwork. They used to call him the best crosser in the Premier League. He had as many England caps at Darren Anderton. At Aston Villa, Martin O’Neill had compared him to Messi and Ronaldo. That was seven years ago; those ‘other world-class players’ seemed a long way away now.

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He had defensive responsibilities, especially with Tyler Blackett in the team. The United fans weren’t best pleased. ‘£60million on Di Maria and we’ve still got Youngy at left-back!’ they said. Their exasperation hurt but this time it made him more determined. Ashley wasn’t someone prone to self-analysis but he did think that perhaps he’d got a little too accustomed to life in the safe lane with the soft landings. Not anymore, however. Things had changed. He was a senior player now – LVG had said so. And Ashley would do anything to make the team, including eat birdshit.

The fans seemed somewhat disappointed when he picked up a groin strain. He wasn’t used to such adulation. Ashley vowed to come back even stronger; mentally, if perhaps not physically. On his return, he graduated to left midfield but he knew his role and held his shape. Occasionally, however, he showed signs of that attacking Ashley of old. Against Villa he got those twig-like legs going and beat the full-back to the byline. He fell like he’d been hit by a freight train but not before whipping in a perfect left-foot cross for Falcao to head home.

Ashley saved his best for the biggest stage of all. In the Manchester Derby, he scored United’s first and set up the second for Marouane. They were 2-1 ahead and they shared the hug of the redeemed. Heading wasn’t Ashley’s best attribute; that was diving. But he found himself in the striker’s position, six yards from goal with not a single defender’s boot to fear. With the pressure on, he panicked and headed limply into the floor. It looked like the ball hurt him and he seemed to ask for a penalty.

The new Ashley didn’t let that get him down, though. Instead, he whipped in a great free-kick for Chris Smalling to make it 4-1.  The man of the match award was his and the champagne bottle looked huge next to his little pea head.

‘Youngy, remember when that bird shat in your mouth?’ Fletch joked in the dressing room afterwards.

‘Fuck off, mate,’ Ashley replied. He was thinking of having it added to his ‘ink’, maybe even on his inner lip like Lil Wayne.

In the summer, LVG sold Fletch to West Brom. He gave Ashley a new contract.

Young tattoo

Danny Vincent and the 4-1 Formation – Part One

Danny Vincent ‘didn’t really follow sports’ and most importantly ‘wasn’t a football fan’. That’s what he told us during the coffee break on his first day. I’d waited a few hours to ask him, giving him time to settle in. There was an audible sigh, and then a weary resignation in his voice. He looked down at his feet like the boy who knows he’s done wrong. Maybe this was why he was starting his third job in two years.

It was a crying shame because I’d been eyeing him up for weeks. Few men enter the world of publishing these days, and those that do tend not to be of the athletic build. Take Jake, for example, our other new recruit. In his spare time, you’ll find him sedentary, eyes glued to a split-screen, fingers tapping away at a bit of plastic, an empty pizza box at his feet. So when Helen told me that Danny was ‘quite tall, pretty skinny’, he became The Great Hope, the focal point of team sheets scribbled on the back of Tesco receipts.

It was asking too much, I know, but The Big Game was fast approaching. Editorial vs Sales. The rules were strict – no Finance, no Production, no Marketing, no interns. We billed it as Wenger’s Arsenal circa 2010 versus Mourinho’s Chelsea circa 2005. Visionary creators against efficient doers; flair against money. Much office pride was at stake, and wages blindly gambled away.

Sales were confident, as you’d expect those silver-tongued devils to be. They were also well-drilled, thanks to lunchtime runs and gym sessions. I heard rumours of a practice match in the build-up, although their captain Malcolm would never admit it (‘You wish!’ was his cryptic response). Sales did everything together, a real band of snake-hipped brothers. They had youth on their side, too.

To stand any kind of chance, we would have to play to our strength, which wasn’t, it quickly became apparent, footballing skill. We made Djourou and Eboue look like Iniesta and Messi. No, instead our strength was size, size at the expense of agility. Solidity. Our inspiration was Scotland circa 2010 – the 4-6-0 formation. In other words, we set about building The Wall.

‘We do need an outlet, though,’ our keeper Tim argued at one team meeting. Oddly enough, the man blocking our goal would probably have topped our lithe charts. He’d been a decent winger in his day but sadly keyhole surgery was now keeping him between the sticks, resplendent in a tie-dye shirt and old-school roller-blading kneepads. ‘We win the ball and then what?’

It was a simple enough question but we were stumped. In the absence of a Pirlo-esque regista, we hadn’t really thought about ball retention. ‘Possession is nine-tenths of a whore,’ big old Ted once wittily quipped. And yet on a six-a-side pitch, the ball came back at you faster than a boomerang. How could we hold off the siege?

‘Ok, ok, ok,’ I said, quieting everyone down. Colleagues were waiting outside, wanting to get on with work-related things. On the screen, I drew a forward arrow next to the player in the middle of the five-man wall. The 4-1 formation was born.

‘Wait a minute; I’m not playing up top!’ Niall shouted from his kitchen in Harrow. The conference call software made his protest sound even angrier. He was right, though; a 55 year-old ‘talker’ wasn’t really striker material. Gary Mabbutt had scored 27 goals in 477 games for Spurs. We only had one game and 0.06 goals wouldn’t get us very far. ‘I can’t conduct the orchestra from the programme stall.’ Niall loved an arts-based analogy.

‘Well, I’m not either!’

‘Nor me!’

We had a problem; The Wall had become so strong that no-one would budge. That was my positive spin on it, anyway. Perhaps Sales were getting in our heads. We experimented with Jake as our target man but we never did work out which was his stronger foot. Gary looked like a very tubby Peter Beardsley but had none of his movement. Me, you ask? No-one even suggested it. It would be like asking David Seaman to dance on ice.

We had exhausted all options. That was why Danny Vincent was meant to be the ‘1’.

The Footballing Trials of Bobby F. Grant

Chapter One

June 2004

‘And finally, the moment you’ve all been waiting for,’ Pete, the team manager shouted from the stage. I watched sweat drip down from his forehead to his long nose and then on to the floor by his feet. The poor man was stood in a sauna with all of his clothes on. The audience was getting loud and my dad was the loudest. But this was definitely the moment he’d been waiting for. ‘The Ripley Rovers Player of the Year is…’

My dad and his mates played a drum roll on the table. Pete paused and looked down at the piece of paper in his hand. But everyone knew who it would be. It was always the same kid.

‘…Paddy Grant!’

Howooooh! How-how-howooooh! My dad did the awful wolf howl that he always did and I moved a little further into the darkness. My mum laughed a little next to him but I could tell she was embarrassed too. Even my brother looked a little awkward as he made his way up to collect his award. His teammates patted him on the back and cheered his name as he passed. I was proud of him too, don’t get me wrong. Paddy is a brilliant footballer, but it’s hard to be a brilliant footballer’s younger brother.

I hated going to these presentation nights but I’m not the kind of kid who makes trouble. If I’d asked my parents to get a babysitter, it would have looked a lot like jealousy. Which it was, I suppose. I never won anything at my presentation nights for Fortvale FC. ‘Ripley Rejects’ was what most people called us and I was probably the worst of them.

As Paddy sat back down, Dad put his arms around his shoulders in a clumsy hug. ‘Great work, son!’ he bellowed in his ear. Unless Paddy’s game was cancelled, Dad never came to watch me. I’m not saying that so that you pity me; that’s just how it was. Sometimes he didn’t even ask about the score in my match when we got home. He would sit in his chair by the TV and grunt a hello, as if I’d just gone out to the shop for a minute. It was Mum who took me to matches and cheered me on from the touchline. Poor Mum.

‘Hi, Bobby!’

It was Charlie, Paul’s younger brother. Paul was Ripley’s second best player but Charlie was smarter than me. He didn’t even try to play football; he did break-dancing instead and he was really good at it. He was a nice kid but I didn’t really feel like talking.

‘Hi Charlie, how’s it going?’

‘Not bad, thanks. These nights are rubbish, aren’t they?’

I nodded and hoped that might be it.

‘How’s your football going?’

‘Not great. How’s the break-dancing?’

‘Good – we’ve got the National Championships next month, so I’m practising hard.’

‘Cool, good luck with that.’

A talent makes everything alright, even your brother’s presentation nights. Charlie went over to his parents to ask for another Coke. I’d already had two and my stomach felt all fizzy. As Paddy had his picture taken with the guest of honour, local football hero Trevor Thorne, I went outside to get some fresh air. Unless Mum got her way, which she rarely did, I still had a few hours to wait before I could go home.

In the carpark, I sat on the wall and thought about things. I think this was my biggest problem – thinking too much. Paddy never seemed to think about anything, except scoring lots of goals. He never had doubts or worries like I did. What if I gave away a penalty? What if I just couldn’t tackle anyone? What if the whole of my team told me I was rubbish and asked me to leave? These were all sensible fears but they really didn’t help me.

It had been a really bad season with lots of heavy defeats. If I wrote a story about 2003-04, the picture on the cover would be me sat in the mud and rain, my head in my hands, as the other team celebrated another goal. Perhaps one of my teammates in the background would be shouting at me for making a mistake. The title would be in big, bold capital letters like a newspaper headline: ‘HOW MANY TIMES?’ And not even my family would buy it.

When I started playing football, I gave myself a rating for each game like they did in Match magazine. I wrote them down in a notebook but when the ratings dropped week after week, I just gave up. I would only allow whole numbers and I couldn’t face giving myself ‘0’. There was nowhere to go after that, except minus figures. But then perhaps that was correct; by playing, I was making the team worse.

After a little while, Mum came looking for me. She gave me her smile of sympathy and sat down next to me. I don’t think she was having a good time either. She deserved a daughter.

‘You ok, Bobby?’

I nodded and hoped that might be it.

Mum stroked my hair, even though I’d asked her to stop doing that years ago. Normally I’d stop her but I needed my number one fan. ‘Thank you. I know it’s hard for you but Paddy is very grateful and so are we. You’re a good boy.’

She said it like it was a really good thing but I wasn’t sure. Very few people were famous for just being really good people. You needed to be good at something. I didn’t want to become a saint or a monk.

‘Mum, I’m thinking about giving up on football.’

I waited for her to say ‘No, you’re great, keep going’ but she didn’t. She didn’t look surprised at all.

‘I love football but I’m rubbish at playing it. I want to find something that I’m really good at.’

Mum stayed quiet. It wasn’t the first time that I had talked about retiring.

Chapter Two

August 2002

‘Unlucky kiddo,’ Dad said, ruffling my hair without taking his eyes off the road. He hadn’t had much practice at this side of things with Paddy.

I’d just finished my trial for Ripley Rovers and it had been a disaster. A total disaster. ‘Paddy’s brother’ was like a weight around my neck, dragging me down. I couldn’t jump for headers and I couldn’t chase the fast wingers. I kept trying to shake my legs into life but it felt like that time we’d practised swimming with our clothes on. Halfway through, my Dad walked off to watch another match. He’d had enough and so had I.

I shook his hand away and shot him my best evils. I didn’t want his sympathy; I wanted his optimism. ‘Bobby, I’m not sure football’s for you but I think badminton might be your sport’, or ‘Billy, forget about football. You belong on the stage!’ Something like that. Even the suggestion that we went for ice cream would have helped. Instead, we drove home in silence. I wanted to cry but not in front of Dad.

Mum was a little better but her smile looked like hard work. It was like a warm-up stretch that you really didn’t want to do. I could tell that she didn’t know what to say.

‘Football isn’t everything, love,’ she started but then she stopped. I could tell she was thinking because her mouth twitched from left to right. ‘There are loads of other fun things that you can try, Bobby.’ Then she looked at me to see if I liked this idea. Right then, as I sat on my bed in my dirty, smelly football kit, I didn’t. The idea of ‘trying’ anything seemed stupid. I gave her my best scowl.

‘Ok, well let’s give it one more shot then, shall we?’ I didn’t answer but she carried on anyway. ‘I spoke to Sally and she says they’re forming a team for the kids that didn’t make it at Ripley. They’re having a training session next week – what do you think?’

I was seven. Grandad retired from his fabric shop at 70, Dad wanted to retire from the bank at 65, the Southampton right-back Dan Petrescu retired at the age of 34. I couldn’t retire at seven.

Petrescu

I recognised a few of the boys from the Ripley trials but most of them were new. The range of quality was incredible, like the clothes stall at the church fair. It was a real lucky dip. There were the no-hopers like me, the big kids who couldn’t move but could kick it a mile, the small players with lots of skill, and the quick players with no skill. We had it all. We would be playing in a league two divisions below Ripley Rovers but we would work our way up and beat them!

That’s what our new managers told us at the end of the first practice, as they passed around the registration forms. Steve and Chris were a strange pair; one small and square with a big face like Mr Potato Head from Toy Story, and the other tall with a big belly like Baloo from the Jungle Book. When they didn’t talk over each other, they were quite encouraging. At least they were at that stage, before we’d played any matches.

Thankfully, no-one was told not to come back – Fortvale FC was a rescue home that wouldn’t turn anyone away. It’s hard to say no to loyalty. It takes guts and it takes a real desire to make it to the top. Luckily, there was no chance of us making it to the top and so I became the first-choice right-back. They even made me captain for the final minutes of a 10-1 defeat. Mum had gone to sit in the car because the weather was bad, so she missed my proudest moment. I’m not sure she really believed me when I told her. That was fair enough.

‘Billy, make the tackle before he runs pa-’

And the left winger was gone, dribbling down the line to put in a cross.

‘Billy, step up, you’re playing everyone onside right no-’

And the centre forward was through on goal with just the keeper to beat.

No-one asked me to play – I was doing this to myself. I was choosing to do this for ‘fun’. When things got really bad, I’d look at Steve and Chris on the touchline as if to ask, ‘Why am I here? Why don’t you just take me off?’ For some reason, they never did. I think they were hoping one day I’d make the decision for them.

If I’d had friends on the team, it might have been different. We would have had fun in those short periods when we weren’t losing really badly. But sadly, I didn’t fit in at all. I liked books and drawing birds (we’ll come back to that later); they liked WWE and farting songs. Football was all that we had in common, and they didn’t even want to share that with me.

‘You look live you’ve lived a thousand years!’ Steve joked once after a really bad defeat, and so Chris nicknamed me ‘Turtle’. I think he meant tortoise but correcting him would have made things so much worse. The name stuck because it was true. I moved slowly and I never looked happy. ‘Turtle’. But you can’t do anything about your face. Mum says that when I was born, I looked like a really old man with all my wrinkles and they thought maybe I had been born backwards. Surprise, surprise, Paddy loves that story.

At the end of that first season, I was ready to quit. I didn’t want a transfer to the lower leagues, or a move abroad; I just wanted to retire. Over the summer, I tried playing cricket but I was even worse at that, if that’s possible. In rounders, I ran everyone out with the bases loaded, and I forgot to drop the bat. The pressure of team sports was too much; it gave me headaches. But I wasn’t ready to just be ‘the artistic child’. And so I signed up for another year of hell.