Like most I played football in my younger days. I was never a great player by any stretch of the imagination (and boy did I stretch it). My problem was simply this. I was not blessed with great pace. However I did have quick feet and a quick brain although thanks to the lack of aforementioned pace I was never sharp enough to transcend the spark birthed when my grey matter collided across to the physical green of the field. Lazy, Berbatovesque in manner perhaps. I'd like to think looking back. I most definitely spent more time on hair styling than cleaning my boots.
However, I did have some fundamental basics that helped me get selected in the first place.
"He's got feet like an Italian footballer" it was often remarked. Quick feet with the ball at my feet. Fundamentals. A bit of close control with the ability to weave in and out, nonchalantly. Or clumsy depending on your view point. Looked clumsy rather than actually being clumsy.
Standing with foot on ball, what with the no pace issue, and yet I some how found a way through. See for all my apparent lack of physical presence I still had that uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time. And on occasion score a goal of such rare beauty or brilliance that others would just shrug and mutter 'fluke' under their breath. The green eyed monsters.
I was much maligned. But I knew deep down I was simply someone who made the most of what he had. And in doing so, sometimes under their breath, they'd whisper a plaudit or two. I'm certain this one time I heard the praise. Hallelujah.
I played for a local team; Olympique Wingate. Majestic name for a team of misfits. I played mostly upfront.
We dazzled in organised friendlies and league games against other local teams in the Waltham Forest area (Leyton/Walthamstow/Wanstead mostly). Usually at the Hackney Marshes, Marsh Lane Leyton or Wanstead Flats. Eleven aside. Also competed against the odd non-league opposition when 'on tour' in the South East.
I can honestly hand on heart say there were the best days of my life. The bravado, the banter. The football was a good laugh too. I remember one game I was injured (ribs) but travelled and in our desperation came on in the second half because we had no other subs to select from. Spectacular entrance it was. Taking the ball with my first touch and going on a dinking mazy run through about four or five of their players El Diego style before being Schumachered by the opposition keeper and flipped over. Penalty (not taken by myself, I was searching for missing limbs) was missed. We lost that game. 4-0 down we actually got it back to 4-4 then took the lead before losing 6-5. It's sadly not available on DVD.
Another fine memory was being told by a player he would drown me in the local river if I didn't shut up, I had vexed him so much during the duration of the match. He was a team mate. The nutter.
One of the great games was against our deadly rivals, a side that came to be when our original team split into two over personality clashes (insert schizophrenia joke here) and selection disputes and went their separate way. We played them in a seven-a-side match every season. Fiery encounter, plenty of punch ups. Another high scoring epic this. 6-5 down with two minutes left, we won 7-6. Pandemonium.
For all the dramatics and criticisms, I scored a few goals. Yes, much maligned, but my personal stats read quite well.
36 goals in 37 appearances - the pinnacle of my paradoxical career. It was a messy business long before Lio was even a gleam in his fathers eye. This type of goal-hanging ratio from a winger-cum-striker with the feet of an Italian playmaker and the speed of a snail on ketamine was something that kept me going even with the doubters doubted me.
Add to it I had a rather feisty attitude in-game. I was box office, love me, hate me. I had a massive gob. Calling out 'penalty' when the foul was committed outside the box - by about three metres and generally winding up opposition players talking nonsense, celebrating in their faces. Perhaps looking back, everyone was at it. Sunday league and such.
Damn it, if I played football for real I reckon I'd be one of those cult hero type figures that get discussed on footie websites and terraces all the time with people debating whether I was gifted or just had everything gift-wrapped.
"He's sh*t but he's good". Get that on a t-shirt. Eat your heart out Ginger Pele.
On one (rare) lapse of form, I struggled in and out of the side and wasn't quite able to locate myself in the correct part of the pitch when said ball was crossed in. I was yards off the pace and lacked that something strikers just have when on form. For the record, I could also not header the ball to save my life. My football was played on the ground. Worked for Ian Rush. So all the high crosses into the box were followed by an attempt to either scissor kick the ball, fly through the air kung-fu style or acrobatically attempt to scorpion. All miserable failures. My poor form compounded further.
I couldn't hit a cow's arse with a banjo. Such was my luck I could have pushed a banjo glued to a piano off a building with two hundred cows grazing directly on the ground below and the piano-banjo hybrid would still have missed. Worm-hole would no doubt have appeared to suck in the piano-banjo before it hit the cows, taking it to another far gone place in the universe, mocking me as it blinked and disappeared.
No matter what I tried pre-match to psyche me up, it never worked. The more games played with no goals, the more I thought about scoring in the next game and the less likely I was of actually doing so because of the misguided effort I was putting in. The monkey on my back was eating through my shoulder blade. This type of pressure, it grates and it harms self belief because you spend most of your time thinking about it that you subconsciously allow it to control you.
So there was this one particular game. Away. Crunch match. Against a team that were unbeaten and we were not expected to beat. We went a goal down. I was up front with The Mullet (my strike-partner). A gentleman, fair in life and play. He was the type of footballer who worked for the team and never for personal glory. A naive fool I guess.
First half I believed I was actually doing quite well. Running (like the wind caught in a cup) into space, working the channels. I looked busy. I felt busy. I was sweating God darn it. Doing the donkey work for the team in an attempt to bring the midfield players into forward positions. It didn't quite work because:
a) The balls pumped forward were easily dealt with thus losing possession.
b) When I attempted to do a Robbie Keanesque 'deep role' our midfield were too busy getting over-run with defensive duties, on the backfoot, and thus no offensive intent was ever prominent in our favour.
It also didn't work because I was doing a bad impersonation of the player who had the teams copyright for this particular role; The Mullet. One Robbie Keane? Imagine two Keanos dropping deep. Double the pointing and shouting. Proper 'mare that.
We lacked cohesion. Midfield bypassed, the two strikers dropping back to help them becoming isolated then bombing forwards to latch onto hoofed balls and failing.
So there I was lost in a sea of disorganisation and disarray, drowning, sharks circling. At half-time we decided no more pumping the ball Wimbledon style for us to run onto. Slow, patient build-up the battle cry. Possession play the key. I guess on that bitterly cold afternoon in the heyday of Brit Pop, we re-invented expansive football for the Sunday amateurs.
Second half was far better. Fluidity with the ball at our feet. The equaliser however was a scrappy and unbecoming to our evolutionary comeback. The ball bouncing around their defence for The Mullet to pounce onto and toe-poke in.
Delirium regardless. Belief embraced.
I spent the next ten minutes running around, trying so hard to get onto the end of a cross or through-ball I could begin to taste my own blood. All in the name of team work. My work ethic was stupendous considering I had the lungs of a flea and the acceleration of a decommissioned locomotive. I was thinking about where I should be positioned, who I should look to play in, where the ball might be placed, which defender to get up close to and turn. Think think think. All the push and run still had no end product (other than that scrappy lucky equaliser).
I was now trying harder than ever and was still light years away from scoring.
I then had an epiphany.
I'm a striker. Plain and simple. I lash at the ball, I score. It's my job. For all my weaknesses, I'm the one who has the annoyingly good knack of being in the right place at the right time. So what the fudge am I doing working my guts out when I should be hanging around, remaining invisible, lurking in the shadows, waiting like an assassin who doesn't break into the home of his target, but instead waits for the target to open the door to pick up his morning bottle of freshly delivered milk.
The lazy assassin who lets things pan out to his favour. Then breaks milk bottles. Sure, you have to be patient, but if there's a bottle left outside the door, then the door will open.
Instead of playing to the teams tactics and working in tangent with The Mullet, I gave him a wink and a thumbs up to signal I was about to go all deep deep cover. He sighed. He knew I was about to instigate selfishness. Like the Bat signal in the Gotham night sky but instead two fingers stuck up at everyone. I don't need your help. I'm going to help myself. And by doing so help the team. Even if you don't like it.
I proceeded to not give a toss about anything other than getting my boot onto the ball and the ball over the line by simply not thinking heavy thoughts. By allowing fate and destiny and luck to rain down on me because if hard work and blind running had failed me in the 70 minutes thus far, then the complete opposite might do the trick. Instinct. Raw instinct. That's my fuel.
I decided, I'm going to score, it's going to happen, so screw it, I'll wait for it to happen.
Welcome to football philosophy by the marshlands magician.
Like Neo in the Matrix without the shades, just plenty of mud, socks rolled down, shirt tucked out, I let go of everything and let that instinct take over. No more thoughts about the tactical half-time clipboard. I started to daydream and wonder if the Brylcreem had dried out of my hair (I had a smart barnet back then and took extra special care of it).
Next thing I know, I look up, ball is played across the penalty area and I strike it inches wide. Had no idea how I wandered into said position. Coincidence? Fine by me. I wasn't not paying attention, I was simply allowing myself to escape the constraints of formation without jeopardising the teams structure. In other words, I followed the progression of the ball as it was played forward and moved into the most likely position the ball would find itself in. Football 101.
Into the final ten minutes and I get a second chance. On this occasion I followed the ball as our midfield dynamo rampantly surged forward looking to play someone in. I jinxed into the penalty area and could see The Mullet had done the same thing. We were both going to go for the same ball.
Midfield dynamo had played a disguised pass to the winger who cut the ball across the pen area behind the back-line. I held back momentarily. The Mullet stabbed at the ball, it hit the keeper and a defender and bounced back up to within hitting range for the The Mullet (he's on the floor at this point). All he had to do is lift his foot up to re-direct the ball goal-wards. Before he could blink I darted in and blasted the ball over the line for the 2-1. Winning goal. It was easier for me to leave it for The Mullet, who had carved out the chance, but he wouldn't mind. He wasn't about the glory.
Jubilant scenes. The win meant a lot thanks to the oppositions gloating pre-match. Meant a lot because my goal drought was over.
We won and in my selfishness I made sure of it. But in that moment I couldn't have cared less for the team. I wanted to get onto the score sheet and did so by sacrificing everything for the sake of my ego. Ruthless, relentless and self-centred. The by-product of the team winning was a bonus.
The Mullet told me post-match that he did not react and would not have done so even if I had stood watching, regarding the second goal. That made it all the sweeter.
My goal ratio per game improved tenfold after I ended the dodgy goalless patch with that goal. I don't expect this to prove inspirational to say someone like Jermain Defoe and his current tumbleweedy predicament. In fact I'd hazard this as inspirational as say giving him a Jimmy Greaves goals video to watch. The very fact people are discussing his drought (i.e. coaching staff) will play on his mind even more when he's running out for us. Expectancy can weigh you down. Even more so the expectancy for more failure.
You have to sometimes detach yourself from it all. Stick yourself in a bubble and just let it happen. Won't mean a thing to someone who hasn't played football (no matter the level). But you know how at some point in your footballing life you've scored a goal out of nothing and as you score it you find yourself in a daze like you're watching someone else score it and in the aftermath as you celebrate you think 'how the hell did I just do that?'.
It's not a fluke. It's that raw instinct that takes over your mind and soul. Be it a 30 yarder or a Lineker special. Some times you need to channel that type of belief to get through one game to the next. Unlike JD I wasn't returning from injury and then a suspension, stuttering in and out the side. Then again, I also wasn't being paid 50k per week to ply my trade.
Eye of the tiger, JD, eye of the tiger.
My career eventually ended thanks to four in-growing toe nail operations, that's two ops each on both big toes. My love for chemicals didn't help either and the many seasoned trips to Ibiza's peak season, walking around clubs looking for someone only to eventually work out I was looking for myself hardly helped my fitness. I like to compare myself to the Original Ronaldo. Living life to the full, not giving a care for anything else including the football towards the end. I even got fat (although I'm not too shabby in the gut these days).
Granted, my winning goal was not a classic or craft of Zlatanesque beauty. And I neither expect JD's to be one when he finally breaks his Premier League duck. I'll happily accept the ball to caress his bum cheek as it trickles over the line with the assistant referee waving his flag to confirm its a goal. Or just lash it without remorse (the football, not his bum cheeks).
Football. It's a simple game. Get onto the ball and kick it towards goal, chances are if you're not thinking too much about it you'll score. Perhaps I'd be better suited to football management or coaching. Probably not.
Spooky would have a heart attack if he even attempted a comeback out of retirement to play five aside, and thus prefers the potency of a pen to a studded boot.
Olympique Wingate; Formed 1991 - defunct 1995 (11 a side), Reformed 2003 - defunct 2004 (5 a side).