Important Unimportant

Important Unimportant

19 days ago

I’ve loved football all my life, and Foul and Fair is a reflection of that love. My earliest memories of the professional game go back to the when I was around 9 or 10 years-old in the late 70s, but I can remember playing football on the playground at school and at friends’ birthday parties before that. I don’t remember getting into football, because I can’t remember a time before I was hooked.

The magic of football, I think, is that it really, deeply, matters; and at the same time it absolutely doesn’t. There have been times when my team, Fulham, have delivered magical seasons which have delighted me. Watching the 2018 Championship Play-Off Final on television with my two sons (then 14 and 11 respectively) was two hours of joy, nervousness and delight and a shared experience that we will always have. Fulham’s run to the Europa League final in 2010 was another profound moment as a fan which left me buzzing for days afterwards.

But football isn’t just about the glory moments. In the early 90s I was a Church Youth Worker in Oxfordshire, my first job after University, and it was a struggle. There were some lovely people at the church, some of whom I’m still friends with, but it was a lonely time for me personally. My day off was a Tuesday, and with my local friends reluctant to plan stuff for midweek. I got into the habit of travelling down to watch Fulham home games on Tuesday nights (and Saturdays when my schedule permitted). On the way there I could put aside all the work and personal issues because I was just thinking about the football, anticipating what might happen. While I was there, I could immerse myself in the game, the atmosphere, the experience. Standing on the Hammersmith End at Craven Cottage, the world outside the ground didn’t exist and everything else could be put on pause. All that mattered was the football, shouting and singing and hoping my team would give me a day, a game, even just a moment to remember and treasure. On my way home, my focus was generally still on the football. Even if it hadn’t been particularly good (which, being Fulham in the early 90s, was often the case), the break it gave me from the trials of real life was invaluable.

And that gets to the heart of what makes football so great: of all the unimportant things in the world, it’s the most important. As I write this, we are in the middle of General Election campaign, and also the Euro 2024 finals. Who wins the former is going to have far more impact on millions of lives than how England do at the latter. NHS waiting lists, the economy and politicians regaining the public trust are so much more important than whether Phil Foden is being played out of position on the left wing, or whether Gareth Southgate knows what he’s doing. Yet for many of us, it’s the less-important football that is taking up more of our time and our focus.

Football doesn't matter, and yet... In my time as a grassroots coach I’ve seen the game have a profound impact on some of the children I’ve worked with. Players whose confidence had been shattered by shouty, judgemental coaches at other teams have started enjoying football again, and used that to rebuild confidence in other areas of their lives. Lessons about respect that football teaches – if the coaches are willing to model it themselves – can have as much impact on day-to-day life as any politician, albeit in a different way. Football matters more than just the success or failure of eleven millionaires chasing a bag of wind about a field, and – as one of the characters in Foul and Fair points out – not everything that counts can be counted. As club coach at MAN v FAT Bournemouth, I’ve seen football play a part in some profound life-changing journeys, with men regaining physical and mental health as part of a fantastic, supportive community. Football, sometimes, makes a difference.

Foul and Fair is unashamedly a book about football, but it’s more than that. It’s a book about doing things the right way, about priorities, and about a man struggling to get his life back on track after losing his way. I hope that whether readers are football fans or not, they’ll find plenty to enjoy within the pages.

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