I’d hooked the ball over my shoulder, hoping it would land just inside their box, because for the last twenty minutes their centre-halves had been pushing up the park and our right-winger, an earnest young man on loan from a large Scottish club, had been making a succession of diagonal runs across their defence. But the older centre-half, Thirlwell, a guy I played with years ago, had seen immediately what I’d tried to do. He’d backtracked and hacked my pass back over our heads, returning it down the field. The ball, a sphere of ivory in the night sky, had gotten lost in the floodlights, re-appeared, bounced, and our keeper, Arterberry, had come out to catch, but had been up-ended by their centre-forward, a lanky and sly operator called Cooper who is top scorer in our division and on his way up the leagues to a more prestigious club and enormous wages.
Arterberry is out cold. That frightening dead-man inertia came over his body when he landed and the ball just rolled off his stomach. Our medics rush to him. I jog towards the sideline for water and to loosen out my knee, which is stiff with painkillers and permanently destroyed. It mocks this puerile comeback of mine as a half-time substitute in a mid-table game on a wet, pointless night in late March. Our manager, a tall, bellying Londoner looks at me as I trot over; then he looks away. I’m thirty-five next month and returning from a recurring injury that most would have retired on. It’s not that I need the money as such—I’ve been careful over the years, but if I can get another contract at even half of my current wage I’ll be able to buy a fine two-bed apartment back home in Leeds, one I’ve had my eye on for a while now, one I can rent out and make a few extra bob off after I retire. I skoosh water into my mouth, and onto my face, and peer around at the crowd of seven thousand or so. The few hundred of travelling support are tucked away up in the North Stand, but the whole place has gone utterly quiet with everyone fixating on Arterberry splayed on the ground, amid plumes of vapour and hunkering medics. Our stadium is an old thing in the middle of a small city in northern England, a city surrounded by long-stilled steel and iron works and a network of congealing canals. I often think the fans come here just to be among the decaying trusses that hold up the roofs of the deep single-tiered stands. Old men and women with their grandchildren people the seats, and pockets of pale and overweight blokes on cheap season-tickets who obsess over transfers, gather in a sprawling sky-blue-and-white horde across the South Stand. This club was never great, and seems to exist now only out of the ghost of some habit.
The rain is spinning in thin films down out of the black, over the edges of the roofs of the stands, and through the large rectangle of floodlights that frames the sky. My breathing has modulated and my heart is thumping coarsely. Our home supporters’ voices come up as Arterberry gets to his feet. They are chanting one of the club’s old classics, something about being on a beach in Bari. It’s a sort of over-unionised chorus that has begun, of late, to sound like a lament. I have been here six years, but for the last three I have been more injured than not. Yet the supporters love me, their limited but committed midfielder; I play as they would play. I scored on my debut in a cup quarter-final against their rivals, a club across the city now two divisions above us. I played well the first two seasons, scoring double figures and keeping us in the middle of this lower league. Then I hurt my knee during pre-season—a torn tendon, a repeat of one I picked up when I was twenty-three.
That first knee injury came days before I’d been meant to sign a contract at a big club in the top division. When I left, emptied out, the club recommended a knee-specialist in Munich, to whom I went for ten months, over and back, with no club and no wage and diminishing savings. I regularly bumped into another young midfielder there. A German guy called Michael, a polite, slight, muscular chap who played in the second division for a small club outside of Berlin. We chatted about swimming and gym work and the Bundesliga, and went for lunch on occasion. Once my knee repaired he convinced me to travel up to his club, and with no other offers on my plate I decided to trial and do a pre-season. I got fit again, became strong, and played well, so they gave me a two-season contract. They were an old East German club with a large following of what looked like mostly neo-Nazis to me, but they had a beautiful stadium, in the middle of a vast forest that shoe-horned around a dark, deep and peaceful lake.
I was in my mid-twenties then and after eight months finding my rhythm I became as rapid, nimble and healthy as I’d ever been. I never really drank and almost none of the Germans did either. Some of them smoked and a Turkish player, Umit, would sometimes take me to his parents’s café in Wedding where we’d puff happily for hours on a shisha. Other than that I spent my afternoons after training sessions visiting erotic massage parlours in town—local, Thai, Latvian—after which I would drive back out to my spacious apartment, prepare dinner, read and sleep. Being injured and being a good professional over the years had taught me how to suppress my energy between games and to live as a lesser god. I soon learned some football German and began dating a local girl called Stefanie, but during winter break in my second season, while on holiday with her in Kos, I slipped on the tiling beside the hotel swimming pool and ruptured a ligament that, in the murk of my knee, neighboured the one I’d torn before. I didn’t play again for a year. I blamed Stefanie and stopped seeing her.
I focused furiously on getting well again, but what disappointed me most was that it had happened at a time when I’d been dictating games, when my circle of influence around the team had widened and become more intense. My personality, then, had been extending through the field of play, sometimes into the opposition’s shape, and my opponents couldn’t dismantle it, no matter how hard they hit me. My Englishness had become exotic, and my range of passing had broadened in that forest in Brandenburg, short quick unlikely passes and long cross-field pings that switched play emphatically. I’d been casting out nets of influence over the pitch that allowed my inner-city Leeds swagger to appear, and when it did—a nutmeg, a no-look pass—it was cheered brutally by the loving crowd. I’d wave to them at the end of games and they’d howl back at me. I’d learned each team-mate’s preferred foot and how they liked to receive the ball. My tackling had become crystal, I almost never went to ground—staying on my feet and waiting for the opponent to panic at the gaps I kept filling. I once went three games without losing a ball. I scored eight times during the first half of that season, but more than anything else, my footballing intellect had begun to develop at a great rate. I wasn’t just picking out passes before the ball came to me, I could see the pass after that as well, imagining the game three vectors ahead of the fluxing present. I’d become a roving pivot between our defence and attack, and had begun to intuit when the opposition started reading me and would mix my play up between: passing, or keeping the ball, or turning on it, or holding. I’d begun playing from a viewpoint at once far above and deep within the eddies of play—in short, at this lesser but accomplished level of football, I’d approached some genius.
Before each game I’d watch the grainy videos I’d collected since my teens of my favourite player, the tall blond Croatian Robert Prosinečki. Then I’d lie on my bed, close my eyes and re-visualise his movement: when he lifted his head, when he controlled the ball, rolling it under his foot, the way he used his body to shield himself, and how he spun away from bewildered defenders at the least likely moment. I analysed him when he was young and turning out for Red Star Belgrade, then-kings of the soon-to-crumble Yugoslavian leagues. I modelled my play, as a young man, on the brio I detected from him. But once I’d recovered from that third knee injury I found that my body had tightened and I couldn’t meet the demands of his style. I fell away as a footballer, and changed from a creator of good ambition to one of near none.
One night, two weeks before I snapped my ligament in Kos, we had been playing a team from Cologne. Mid-way through the second half of a tight nasty game I received a pass that had been zipped at me from our left-back. I’d been on the midway line, with my back to the opposition’s goal, and as the ball sped to me through the sleet I feigned right and clipped the ball with the inside of my foot, back across my body and past my left knee. Then, feeling the entire earth rushing over my right shoulder, I spun left, and the pitch, the stadium, the lights, the forest cleaved open before me. The crowd’s voice surged as I pushed the ball towards the developing frames of possibility. Both of their full-backs were way beyond our wingers. One of their centre-halves got drawn left while the other advanced on me—a tall aging Pole, Grigor, who once played for his country at the Olympics. I ought to have shown him more respect, but I was young and full and I knew my midfield partner, Michael, would be running hard in a shallow arc behind me, so I made eyes left and shaped to pass but instead slowed, leaned back and scooped the ball high and right, and as the ball arced insolently over poor steadfast Grigor, Michael sped past me and advanced irrevocably beyond him. The ball bounced softly and Michael took a touch with his instep, looked at the keeper chasing out and rolled it to his left. The crowd bellowed.
Grigor slumped on the edge of the box, head down, but Michael was off, swinging his shirt in the air, sprinting to the corner flag where the ultras had poured down savagely through the stand. Our left-back jumped onto my shoulders and roared at the top of his voice while hurling his fist in the air, then he landed beside me and we chased towards Michael and the rest of the players. I jumped onto the huddle and bared my teeth at the corner of broiling white men, and roared banal non-words into them all. As I jogged back to the centre circle the same thoughts I always had when I was playing well in Brandenburg appeared: that I could run like this forever, that there was no limit to my Cartesian aptitude, that I was a conqueror here, that I was showing my football culture to be finer and that I was ready to return and present myself again in England, the only place where any of this had worth, or made proper sense to me; it was the only place where the admiration was appropriate, and, as my heart pounded and I tracked down their kick-off I thought: it is the only admiration that will last satisfyingly beyond my career, where I might be recognised for my deeds as an ageing, broad-shouldered and bronzed ex-pro in my forties and fifties and sixties, entering a café, perhaps, in some quiet West Midlands town, or a restaurant in Newcastle, or the clubhouse of a cricket club on a quiet Tuesday afternoon in a suburb in northern Leeds.
Arterberry has had to lie down again. They are calling the stretcher from the sidelines, and an ambulance pulls up at the mouth of the tunnel of East Stand. Our substitute keeper, Wilson, a young Northern Irishman, is warming up with a heartless vigour. I wonder how many times he has wished Arterberry dead. Along the sideline the goalkeeping coach drop-kicks shots at Wilson, who catches with a conspicuous mixture of method and what looks like instinct. He will never be a great keeper, he is too in love with technique, but he will earn well and convince many. I imagine when he is much older, should fortune offer him a moment of lucidity, he will look back on his sporting life as a mechanical insult to his trade. He runs onto the pitch fisting his gloves as Arterberry is carried off. Arterberry, prone in the stretcher, lifts his arm to the crowd, who cheer as if he were a miner lifted from a blast. The referee gives a drop-ball, which Cooper steps up to and hoofs disdainfully into the crowd behind our goal; they jeer. Cooper jogs, then strides back up the pitch and turns for the kick-out, and as the players gather around the centre circle, like steaming cattle awaiting feed, he looks over his shoulder, smirks and makes a what-can-you- do? type shrug at me. If I were younger I’d aim to nail him before the end of the game, but there’s too much at stake, and though the crowd may bay their approval, the manager would see through it and if I get a red card he’ll strike me from his reckoning for the three games I’m banned for and then, most likely, for the rest of season too.
I look to the seats above our dugout and spy an ancient Irish gentleman, Lawrence, who has not been to the ground for some time. He used to be a coach at my old schoolboy club. He was a goalkeeper then and had large beautiful hands and white, slicked-back hair. After training one day—I was fourteen and Leeds United had invited me to their academy for the summer—I stayed behind to practice with one of the other boys, Graham, who was as sweet a footballer as I have ever seen but never came to anything. As we walked back to the clubhouse to change, Lawrence appeared and asked me to walk with him.
It was raining heavily as we strode over and back along the centre line of the pitch for almost an hour, him advising me about going to Leeds at this age, and the sort of lads I’d be up against and how many people fail there, but that it is how you take the failure and what you learn from it that contributes to you as a footballer. As your body and mind develop, he continued, particularly in your central position, and if you are wise and lucky, you will get a sweet spot in your career when your body can carry your developing footballing mind, and your mind will in turn push the body beyond what you thought possible, creating new positions, new patterns, new time, he said, with rain pouring down his face, and you will feel this moment for a brief period in your life, son, and you must remain limber enough to feel it, to act and expand on it. This sweet spot, he continued, will happen during a game when the contours of adrenaline, exhaustion, familiarity, daring, and a recent history of good physical condition coincide, and you must treat that moment, or these moments, with a cavalier preciousness, and make them your own by making them memorable for those looking on, and if you can do this, son, even once, truly, then, he said, you will have achieved something as a footballer.
He is sitting in the stand now under a sky-blue-and-white hat. He looks old and cold. My stomach turns. My knee trembles. I think how wrong he was. I think how foolish I have been too, for believing for years in that crap and for believing too that that moment against the team from Cologne was the high point of my vocation, when in fact, I realise, jogging across the centre circle of the pitch, barking orders at our left-winger, that it was my lowest point. Throughout my career I’d so focused on moments in games when the aesthetic effect took precedence over the pragmatic decision, that I’d failed to realise through watching Prosinečki, for all of those hours, that it is the pragmatic that serves the aesthetic—that it is only from the core of good service that any beauty can bloom. If I’d analysed Prosinečki properly, I’d have seen that his decisions were always at the service of what was necessary, as he faced the manifold problems emerging before him on the pitch. Even though the most beautiful pass might be available to him during a game, he always chose the most effective, the one that few footballers ever see, or do see, but are too vain to take, playing in clichés of what is great, hitting entertaining passes—passes that are similes without sentences. But Prosinečki, as if playing for no crowd, always made the most moral decision on the ball. He solved the problems on the pitch in a way that developed the moment back upon itself, but with one small alteration that split the game open, and each alteration he made was balanced and fair and furthered an abundance that each game was already germinating, an abundance that did not require an opponent to be humiliated, an appropriate abundance that I and everyone else who speaks of him has misinterpreted as flair.
This and what I up to now have perceived as the high point of my career are two shades of the same ugly daub, and, I realise, my very worst crime was what I thought was my very greatest moment, the one those supporters in that small club near Berlin will remember me for forever. I would do well to go back and apologise to Grigor and to everyone who witnessed it, and to disown everything in my life that led to it, and beyond it, to now; but, there is nothing I can do, and no way for me to repent. I am a spent, age-thickened footballer mooching around a large circle with a line through it, in the middle of a city I care little for.
Wilson is shaping to boot the goal-kick up the pitch, but he spies our right-back dropping deep to take it off him. He rolls the ball out, and because Arterberry didn’t try this during the game our opposition is out of shape to receive the attack. The right-back turns out with the ball, raises his head, and with a dumb, morphinic excitement, I spy a gap opening towards the right side of their box. I take off, and our right-back floats a cultured back-spinning pass up the channel and as I sprint I can see my fellow midfielder come across to meet it. His shoulders arch, his neck muscles slacken and he glances the pass off the top of his head. The ball loops gently into my bending path and skims out in front of me, and I sense my opponent behind as I chase towards where the ball will bounce again, and skid and roll, and I feel like I am clear and free. A silence comes over me as I take a touch, but the touch is terrible, and has put me too wide and the ball is gone too long and my right leg has been clipped and I should really go to ground, and I can hear the crowd scream for me to do so, as if nothing would make them happier. But to my left I glimpse our striker—a young, athletic Liverpudlian—powering alone into the box, and if I can clip the ball across to him he will surely score. I know if I fall I will be reconnected with my past, so I straighten, and my legs, out of dumb momentum begin to gather and re-coordinate beneath me and I realise that if I propel myself and stretch for this disappearing ball and dink it back across the box, that somehow I will have done enough. I lunge, feet first, and scissor my right foot desperately at the base of the ball. As I connect and slide over the line, I can see the ball spinning handsomely back up and away from me, towards a space in front of our striker, whose eyes and mouth have widened, his arms have spread, his feet have skipped, his knees are bent and he lifts himself diagonally up to where my cross is going. The ball begins to slow into its languid arc, and as our striker’s body coils and as his eyes wince shut, bringing him into the great pre-impact dark that every footballer knows, I gasp deeply, once more, at the impotent, incidental and unforgiveable beauty of it all.