With a cover courtesy of StreetWorm, for whose site see the adjoining link, I have now published my ninth book (discounting omnibuses). This time, as the title suggests, it’s a Sporting Autobiography. If you’re wondering how an overweight buffoon such as myself can have had any kind of Sporting Career, I suggest you read the book’s Preface, below, to discover exactly what kind of book this is…
I was on my own on the right, running with the ball, no-one coming to challenge me.
There was a big gap into the penalty area, and I had team-mates inside of me, running in on goal, ready for the crisp, low, diagonal ball that would invite them to score.
There was also a big gap between the keeper and the post, vulnerable to the low, hard shot, giving me the option. Which was it to be? The good of the team or personal glory?
In football, moments like this happen all the time. Sometimes, there isn’t the time to think, and instinct takes over, pushing the buttons and selecting between the cross and the shot, the lay-off and the piledriver, the team or the player. Other times, there is the luxury of thought, and then it’s down to the personality, the experience, the demands of the game. I saw Paul Ince go through on goal once, run half the length of the field with only the keeper to beat, round him miles out from goal and facing only the man on the line: it was the Cup Final, it was injury time, United were 3-0 up with the Double in their back pockets and with an unselfishness above and beyond the call of human nature, he laid it off to give Brian McClair a tap-in.
There was nothing that important riding on my choice. It happened 40 years or so ago, a Games Period on the Top Pitch at Burnage Grammar or High School in the First or Second Year, and I was 11 or 12. I’d never scored and I desperately wanted to put one in, but I was afraid of the digs and snipes I’d get if I bogged it up through being greedy.
The point of all this is that, although this kind of choice, and even these very circumstances crop up time and again in all levels of football, the choices are the same, and the player brings the same factors to bear deciding what to do.
Except I didn’t.
When I said I was running with the ball, what I meant was that I was kicking it ahead of me and running after it until I caught it up, and then kicking it ahead of me again. I was afraid of what my team-mates might say if I went for goal, because I knew, already, just what kind of a footballer I was.
So I decided. If I went for the goal, or I pulled the ball back for the cross, it didn’t matter, since I couldn’t kick it straight enough to save my life. Instead, I aimed very carefully halfway between the cross and the shot, and left it to fate and my ineptitude how it would turn out.
If you have guessed that, on this one occasion, my accuracy could not be faulted, then you will have already sensed what kind of book this is.
Those who are devotees of Australian literature and/or Australian cinema will immediately recognise the title of this book to be an hommage (or, as most Australians would put it, rip-off) of the famous and moving novel by Miles Franklin, which was made into an equally famous and moving film starring the famous and talented Judy Davis.
Sadly for devotees of Australian literature and/or Australian cinema, there is little or no connection between either of those proto-feminist works and the life and fumbling times of a hopeless sportsperson. Indeed, it is doubtful that devotees of Australian literature and/or Australian cinema would find their way anywhere near this dog of a book, but since they are Australian, and a disposition towards sport appears to be an indelible genetic trait, one can but hope.
If they do read this book, it will probably go a long way towards confirming their impressions of bloody wingeing effete hopeless Pommy bastards. If I had any illusions about things like that, I couldn’t have set down this chapter of accident, disaster and occasional but exceedingly limited triumph.
So what’s the point of this book? It’s very easy to write a sporting biography if you’re a superstar: people are more likely to buy your book, for one thing, which means publishers are more likely to want to print it, believing that they can pay you substantial amounts and still live in the lifestyle to which any of us might want to become accustomed.
If you’re a journeyman, you can sometimes break into the charmed circle of attention, by being witty and perceptive about what sport is like on the margins, where the game is accepted as being more ‘real’, though I have never found myself falling through the seats at Old Trafford because they only exist in the imagination.
If you are a total nobody, who has never achieved anything, never laid claim to private let alone public attention for his exploits in sport, in short a total and utter amateur, in thought, word and deed, you can regard yourself as having no chance.
The thing is, I’ve had a sporting career too. It hasn’t taken me to the heights, it hasn’t given anyone else lasting memories (though that lad I backheeled the ball past to score probably thought about it for several days), and you can scour even the smallest of local papers without ever finding my name in a match report, because it hasn’t been that sort of sporting career.
It also hasn’t been confined to one sport, not football, not cricket, because I never had the talent to concentrate upon any one sport and make it my life’s work, my profession. Inability is so wide-ranging, a true amateur can fail at as many sports as takes his fancy.
What My Brilliant Sporting Career is about is the sporting life of someone who was never ever, even in his wildest dreams, going to be called in at the last minute to salvage his Country’s sporting pride. In fact, to be truthful, I have doubts about my chances of being called in at the last minute to salvage my street’s sporting pride.
Not that that ever stopped me.
For years and years I played all manner of sports. Some more often than others. Some more adeptly than others, but not by the kind of margins observable without an electron microscope. All with the same kind of limitless enthusiasm that asks only for small amounts of realistic gratification, which has been delivered surprisingly often.
Long ago, I decided that it’s the complete amateur, and preferably the most hopeless of all, who gets the greatest satisfaction out of sport. Whatever your game, be it cricket, football, squash, pool or any of the others represented in these pages, if you play it often enough, long enough, time enough, there will come – however long removed or, however fleeting – that moment of magic. That moment when muscle, bone, sinew, tendon, hand, eye, everything that goes to make up a motion comes together perfectly, when you do something gloriously, unexpectedly right.
Professional sportsmen are professional for many reasons. Some of them are because they possess the dedication and determination to exclude from their thoughts and lives everything that is extraneous to the vision of them playing, being possessed of and by their sport. But mostly they’re professional because they can call upon these moments at will. The instant of sweet power as the boot draws back and delivers the rising shot from thirty yards that arcs beyond the reach of any earthly goalkeeper. The flowing drive that speeds the ball, almost without effort, past the despairing dive of the fielder and to the rope. The accuracy of touch and strength that sends the cue ball around uncountable geometric angles to rest in precisely the spot you would have placed it had you been able to pick it up and set it by hand.
They can do that all the time, you see, and whatever state of mind it produces in them, be it arrogance or humbleness or merely relief that it still happens the way they want it to, that the body has not yet begun the decay beyond what they ask it to produce, it cannot match the emotion of the man – or woman – who knows they lack that skill, but who for a disbelieving instant, find their bodies obeying to a degree of precision that will never ever come again.
Well, not in this game again.
Sometimes it’s like that. Most of the time it isn’t. Most of the time, it’s the way I describe it in here. Those of us who play for the fun of it have to make the most of what we get, and if it gets as good as this, we’re lucky.
If you saw me as I am – 5’10” of straining waistband, perspiring myopically through glasses slid permanently down a nose – you wouldn’t immediately take me for an athlete. If you saw me in the middle of one of my sporting endeavours, you’d congratulate yourself on how right you were. Take it from me, there is a lot of modesty on show, and precious little of it is false.
But, like you, I have had my triumphs, and I count them dear, because the rest of the time I’ve nothing to look forward to, nothing to look back on and, now I’m in my 50s and laid up with a dodgy ankle, a dicky knee, a suspect back and a groin that sometimes feels the strain, not a great deal of present.
But I consider myself to have paid my dues. Read the book and pay me some of them back.
Now you’ve read the extract, you’ll obviously want to know all the inglorious details, so here’s the link to Lulu.com for the paperback edition, priced £6.99 + postage and packing – visit http://www.lulu.com/shop/martin-crookall/my-brilliant-sporting-career/paperback/product-20607032.html
Details of the Kindle edition will follow when the book is published there.