The much maligned striker
With Emmanuel Adebayor in mind, I've revised an old tale about the much maligned existence many strikers dwell within.
I score, therefore I am.
Like most I played football in more youthful years. 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, in manner perhaps. 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. Well, I can clearly remember that being said the one time. Quick with the ball at feet. A bit of close control with the ability to weave in and
out, nonchalantly. Or just clumsy luck depending on your view point.
I was the polar opposite of Jermaine Jenas. He had all the athleticism a professional footballer would wish to be blessed with but lacked the mental tenacity and footballing intelligence to bring it altogether with explosive consistency. I on the other hand possessed the lungs of a asthmatic squirrel. If Jenas had my brain he'd have destroyed the world.
I still had my moments. 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.
No pace right? But I could still muster a short burst of acceleration and was able to lose my marker then suddenly stop the ball and shift into another offensive position leaving the player behind for dead. When defenders we're on the backfoot, I relished the opportunity.
I was much maligned. But I knew
deep down I was simply someone who made the most of what he possessed. And in
doing so, sometimes under their breath, they'd also whisper a plaudit or two.
I played for a local team; Olympique Wingate. Majestic name for a team of misfits. I played mostly upfront and occasionally out on the wing.
dazzled in organised friendlies and league games against other local sides in the Waltham Forest area (Leyton/Walthamstow/Wanstead mostly).
Usually at the Hackney Marshes, Marsh Lane Leyton or Wanstead Flats.
Eleven aside. We also competed against the odd non-league opposition when
'on tour' in the South East. Plenty of epic clashes thanks to rivalries and ether.
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 this 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. A spectacular entrance it was. Taking the ball with my first touch and going on a mazy run through about four or five of their players El Diego style before being Schumachered by the opposition keeper and flipped over. The penalty (not taken by myself, I was searching for missing limbs) was saved. We lost that game. 4-0 down at one point, 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 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 and head-locks. 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 in a season - the pinnacle of my paradoxical career before finally retiring after my 'best friends' discarded me to the scrapheap. A life of hallucinogenic drugs waiting for me as I looked to blame in-growing toe nails for my on field downfall. I was messy long before Lio was even a gleam in his fathers eye.
Alas, my goal-hanging ratio for 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 and believing during that prolific season.
Add to it I had a rather feisty attitude in-game. I was box office,
love me, hate me. I had a massive gob, generally
winding up opposition players talking nonsense, celebrating in their
faces. Perhaps looking back, everyone was at it. Sunday league ethics and such. But I was a grand pain in the backside.
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. He's the sh*t". Get that on a t-shirt.
But I suffered like most with a lack of form resulting with a lack of goals.
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
head the ball to save my life. My football was played on the ground.
Worked for Ian Rush. I over compensated for the lose of 'right place, right time' by doubling my work rate in other areas of the pitch. But this simply dug me an even deeper hole.
When I thought I was in the right place, a cross into the box was duly met by an attempt to either scissor kick the ball, fly through the air kung-fu style or acrobatically attempt a scorpion. All miserable failures. My poor form compounded further.
I couldn't hit a cow's arse with a banjo. Has anyone actually managed that because I can never get past the farmer with the shotgun? 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. A 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 psych myself 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. Subconsciously, it controls you.
So there was this one particular game. Away. A 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.
During the 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 damn it, sweating! 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 an Adebayor 'deep role' our midfield were too busy getting over-run with defensive duties, on the back-foot, and thus no offensive intent was ever prominent in our favour.
It also didn't work because I was clashing with the
player who had the teams copyright for this particular role; The Mullet.
One Adebayor? Imagine two dropping deep with one of them resembling more of a Robbie Keane, shouting/pointing/waving/blaming.
We lacked cohesion. I lacked cohesion. I was lost in a sea of disorganisation and disarray, drowning, sharks circling.
At half-time we decided no more pumping the ball Stoke style for us to run onto. No more reactionary football based on what we should be doing to get a stranglehold. Rather seek to dictate the tempo and play to our own style. Slow, patient build-up the battle cry. Possession play the key. Then turn it up a notch. I guess on that bitterly cold afternoon in the heyday of Brit Pop, we re-invented expansive football for the Sunday amateurs.
half was far better. Fluidity with the ball at our feet, players playing with spacial awareness, keeping the ball, playing into space, moving into space. It was neat and tidy and that slow patient build up gathered momentum. The equaliser came but was scrappy and unbecoming to our evolutionary comeback. The
ball bouncing around their defence for The Mullet to pounce onto and
toe-poke in. It didn't matter.
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. I occupied space as the lead focal point in our attacks. Very much a straight forward target man existence. 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. I score therefore I am.
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 **** 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.
Why was I trying so hard to escape a hardship that I allowed myself to be imprisoned in when I held the keys in my pocket?
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 operation 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. Even if you don't want to admit it works and it's what we need to truly make the defining difference.
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. Everyone else was doing their job. Mullet was dropping deep. I was allowing the game to dictate my positioning rather than transcend the game, stop thinking, and become one with the stink and smell of the muddy pitch.
I did this 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 would be my fuel.
I decided, I'm going to score, it's going to happen.
Welcome to football philosophy by the marshlands magician.
Like Neo in the Matrix without the shades, 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).
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 was allowing myself to escape the constraints of formation without
jeopardising the teams structure. I was always in support, but I wasn't conforming to the obvious positionally when seeking to attack the ball.
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 potential pass.
Our 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 who was brilliant to react and deflect it onto a defender which then saw it bounce 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 but in the second he took to look up he spent it looking at another defender lunge into the mix. The Mullet froze. In that same second I darted in and majestically blasted the ball over the line for 2-1.
It would have been safer for me to
leave it for The Mullet for the 50/50, but he wouldn't have minded. He wasn't about the glory. I was.
Jubilant scenes. The win meant so much to us thanks to the oppositions gloating pre-match. It also meant a lot because my goal drought was finally over. I felt alive again.
won and in my selfishness I made sure of it. 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 bruised ego.
Ruthless, relentless and self-centred. The by-product of the team
winning was a bonus. Just for that moment. I had to rediscover myself. I had to play to the best of my abilities. Otherwise I'm just a hollow clone of myself.
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 Adebayor and
his current tumbleweedy predicament. His season has been erratic from the moment his protracted transfer saga concluded with him signing permanently for us after a successful loan spell last season.
Admit it, most of you welcomed him back to the fold. He was excellent last season. Always is until second season syndrome kicks in. So goes the story arc. His on field form aided by van der Vaart, Adebayor wasn't just that guy who comes deep, holds onto the ball and works the channels. He scored a few too. Missed a few, but he had no confidence issues. For the price paid and in terms of comparisons to other supposedly 'available' Premier League strikers it was every bit the bargain it appeared to be. Then came injury, red card, international duty. No consistency. No purple patch of form in front of goal.
Soon that deal looked a waste as the standard reaction is to dismiss everything else and default to the 'he only plays well when there's a contract up for grabs' mantra. We do like to scapegoat when a player isn't playing well. Some even criticised Bale when he was a little out of sorts claiming he was 'believing his own hype'. With so few games left now, there is little room to move away from the despondency. However, a purple patch now would propel a relatively ineffectual season to one with a glorious conclusion.
Expectancy to succeed can weigh you down. Even more so the expectancy of 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. I lashed the ball in to rejuvenate my season. I think Adebayor requires a more telling moment of genius to reignite that lost spark. A proper chest-thumping 'look at me and deal with it' moment.
Eye of the tiger, Emmanuel, eye of the tiger.I'll still happily accept the ball caress his bum cheek as it trickles over the line with the assistant referee waving his flag to confirm it's a goal. Or just lash it Spooky style without remorse (the football, not his bum cheeks).
Football. It's a simple game. Get onto the end of the ball and kick it towards goal, chances are if you're not thinking too much about it you'll score. Regardless whether you're a two-bob amateur or a multi-millionaire.
I don't want to see any player in Lilywhite fail. I still believe. It's up the player to do the same.
Career clubs - Olympique Wingate; Formed 1991 - defunct 1995 (11 a side), Reformed 2003 - defunct 2004 (5 a side).
I would have a heart
attack if I even attempted a comeback out of retirement to play again, and thus prefer the potency of a pen to a studded boot. Which is why I won't be playing against the Spurs Legends in May (although one or two of The Fighting Cocks will) - stay tuned for more information about the John White memorial match.