If there was no such thing as football, I'd be eating grapes, reflecting on what went right. But here I am, spooning ice cream, patching together a themed life-narrative to diagnose the causes of my inadequacies. This is a blog post written by a graduate who still wants to be a footballer. This is a blog post about who I really am and how I'm really nothing.
Like most boys in the country, my relationship with football started early. There was enough space in our garden for my brother and I to play our own premier league games, and our neighbours were patient enough to throw our wayward shots back over the fence. At school, wayward shots were usually just underneath an imaginary crossbar. Every lunchtime my school-shoe skills would earn me serious social currency.
I could do things with a football. I could bring the ball from in tow to on toe and then weave at speed leaving a defender rooted to the spot. Football could make me move without thinking, and it made other people like me. If I scored a goal, I'd win a high-five. Otherwise, I'd get some vocal affirmation that I'd done something good. On the pitch I was worth something, I was valuable.
I lost touch with the football boys when they started using lunchtimes to flirt instead of kicking a tennis ball. We'd still play together for a team at weekends. It was cold, muddy, and the midlife-crisis dads cared too much if we lost. Football training was fitness training, where we'd mostly warm up or put down cones. Sundays consisted of car shares to villages and attempts to win headers against post-puberty teens twice my tiny size. My love for football didn't come from this team spirit or winning matches. It came from being absorbed in the ball at my feet and how I could use this to win respect off other people.
At 16, things changed. All of a sudden I was meeting people who didn't know I was good at football. This shouldn't have been a problem, but my persona on-the-pitch had become an important part of who I was off-the-pitch. Football had made me notoriously cheeky and dangerously cocky, which are not qualities that go well with someone who's painfully shy. Embracing post-childhood football is to absorb the bravado of sport into your identity, which wasn't me.
I took a disinterest in following football. As a child I'd been a keen supporter heavily invested in the results. In adulthood, the emotional investment needed to support a team seemed absurd, and amateur punditry became boring. I could still enjoy watching good football, but didn't care about player stats or which team won. It could have been part of growing up, a slip in mental health or just because my team got relegated. I felt distanced from those who cared about the beautiful game, despite the fact that football was what made me happy.
That was 5 years ago. I'm 23 now. If someone asks me what my hobbies are I'll still tell them football, because it's true. But 2 minutes later I have to say that I've no opinion on the ludicrous display last night or if Arsenal were trying to walk in. In school, I needed football to make friends, but now I need friends to play football.
I spent thousands of hours playing alone in the garden; at school; at weekends and round the house moving from room to room with a ball at my feet. Football was how I socialised, how I made friends and how I had any self-esteem. Football was my social crutch, and in adulthood it was taken away. Every time I meet someone new, they don't know I'm good at football and it makes me feel inadequate. If football didn't ruin my life, it certainly didn't prepare me for it.