It’s not the most prestigious award of its kind, and can’t match William Hill’s largesse, but our winner is not in, and is better than, the William Hill Long List.
The William Hill Sports Book of the Year Long List is dominated by sport at the top end – professional, monied, unexperienced by normal people save at third hand. Not so Jim White’s You’ll Win Nothing With Kids: Fathers, Sons and Football.
You’ll Win Nothing With Kids was serialized on Radio 4, so you’ll already know that it’s a first person account of Jim’s time running a boys’ football club. The focus is on one season, interspersed with flashbacks to the days, so long ago and so recent, when the team was new and the boys were 8 years old and innocent. Jim White is a top sports correspondent with all the top football access that that implies, and there are revealing contrasts between Premiership clubs and his club. Premiership clubs don’t have to deal with other parents, or dogshit on the pitch, but as the season wears on, one comes to feel that in all other respects…
This is a sports psychology site, at least some of the time, so it behoves me to confess that sport psychologists come out very badly. Jim’s job takes him to Sweden to interview Sven Goran Ericksson’s psychologist, Willi Railo. Railo takes him to the top of a ski jump:
We stood at the top of the jump, our knees bent against the height, the pair of us clutching the safety rail with both hands. Looking down its vertiginous run, my stomach made a bold bid to escape through the soles of my feet.
‘Dear God,’ I said. ‘What the hell would the sports psychologist say to somebody who was about to jump off here?’
‘I would tell them this,’ said Railo, peering gingerly down the launch pad. ‘If you had half a brain you would just turn around and go straight back down in the lift.’
He then roared with laughter, grabbed me by the wrist again and pulled me back inside before the urge to leap became irresistable.
‘Good,’ he said shutting the door. ‘We had to get that over with to see if you were serious.’
It doesn’t inspire confidence, does it, and it confirms my suspicion that sport psychology is at a primitive stage – a stage as primitive as attitudes dead set against it – and that, for now, almost anything can be put across as a good idea so long as it’s framed appropriately.
More encouraging is the advice White picks up from Brian McClair and Eric Harrison at Manchester United. It’s a working, living example of what I’ve said here before – that football owns some of the very best sports psychologists around; it’s just that they don’t call themselves that. McClair says, just let kids play – that’s how they learn, for themselves – but keep as much pressure off them as you can. It’s not about being uncompetitive; it’s about being fair, about not crushing a boy when he gets something wrong, about keeping the fun and joy alive as long as possible. Eric Harrison stresses vision – when you are about to take the ball, take a quick left-and-right crossing-the-road style glance at the state of play around you. Jim White saw Paul Scholes doing this, as have I since, and it’s just the kind of tip I’d have grabbed and used when I was 12.
Football is one of those arenas that bring out the best and worst in people – it’s a place for extremes, for feeling alive in amongst the peaks and troughs. I was struck in particular by Jim’s account of a crunch semi-final between his middle class boys and a side of tough estate kids:
Looking back on it, as I do quite often over the next few days, what strikes me most about the afternoon is the attitude of the opposition. Barney (Jim’s son)tells me on the way home how he had played rugby at an expensive boarding school the week before and the home team had constantly given it mouth, thinking they were hard and street and then tried to pick a fight after losing… (..) and yet here were lads from the roughest part of town, who were genuinely hard, but according to Barney, never once did they mouth off or try to intimidate. I felt ashamed that I had been so dismissive of them in my pre-match chat. These kids were hugely impressive in defeat, shaking hands, congratulating our lads. There was no petulance, no sulking. The ginge was particularly gracious after the game, wishing me good luck in the final.
‘Win it for us, eh mate,’ he said.
They behaved, these guys, like gentlemen. I don’t know if there is a life lesson here, but this game just continues to confound every known stereotype.
I really want that to be true – that bit about stereotypes.
There are some cheerier stereotypes to play with, though. Jim takes his team to play in a tournament in Belgium, and they come up against German and Dutch opposition. One of Jim’s fellow Brits enthuses about a rough tackle from an English lad:
‘That’s it, lads. They don’t like it up them. Get in there. Get stuck in.’
Karl, standing beside me, sighs.
‘For God’s sake,’ he says, ‘That is so typically English. That is what English football is all about – get stuck in, get stuck in, get stuck in. No wonder you never win anything.’
He has a point. But then soon everyone is conforming to footballing stereotype. The Dutch teams pass in neat, quick, at times mesmerising triangles. But they can’t seem to convert that into goals and it is not long into the day before they are arguing amongst themselves, shrugging in exasperation, shouting at their coach, moaning about tactics, making a fuss when they are substituted. Our English lads are all sleeves-rolled-up determination, grit in the tackle, lung-busting in their efforts, but with a tactical overview that does not consist of much more than chuck it in the mixer and see what happens. As for the Germans, well, they do have the most efficient warm-up routine I have ever seen.
What I can’t convey with quotations is the way Jim’s team worms its way quickly into your heart – their season begins to matter to the reader, too: their individual fates, so different from each other’s. They end up in a cup final – and a relegation battle – both every bit as nailbiting as anything the Premiership delivers, perhaps more so. There are times in every professional season when even the most one-eyed fan wouldn’t mind if his team’s players, the staff, journalists, everyone, just ****ed off and left the field open for a less nauseating set of characters. But you never want that, or anything like it, to come upon Jim’s team. There’s an echo there of that idea we all have of a kind of footballing golden age, one that’s never existed or could exist, in which we support our local team, which is made up of local players, who are the salt of the earth.
I won’t tell you if they win the Cup – after the Final, Jim comes away saying “I feel like I have won everything” or if they stay up – after the final whistle of the final game, Jim realizes for the first time that his son is now taller than he is. But I can promise you that, when you come to those last two chapters, you’ll care, and you’ll be feeling that little bit less cynical about football and that little bit better about the point of football, the point of sport, and about the future of both.