When I first discovered that my big sister had started going out with a retired footballer, two thoughts bubbled up into my mind: “Ooh, I hope he’s minted and still gets tickets”; and “Please God, don’t let it be Frank Worthington”. Because in the mind of the general public, it’s either/or when it comes to retired footballers. They either spend their time sitting on a throne made out of bricks of £50 notes, or they’re scowling at the world behind a paper-shop counter or run-down bar, gazing wistfully at faded cuttings from The Pink ’Un on the wall.
The fact that my sister deliberately didn’t introduce me to him for more than a year and we’d only spoken on the phone twice (once to mediate in a row, and once to congratulate him and Big Sis on having a baby) only prolonged the imaginary voyages into surrealism. The initial meeting could not be anything but a profound entanglement of crossed wires, as we had wildly differing aims. Him: looking to get off on the good foot with new extended family; and seeking to get over the point that, although he used to be a professional footballer, there was far more to him than that. Me: “So is it true that [Manager X] got sacked from [Club Y] for being caught with [Player Z]’s girlfriend?” Him: looking to gain insight on his partner from someone who has known them all their life. Me: looking for an opportunity to weigh myself down with swapped shirts, signed balls, pennants and any other assorted paraphernalia, until I looked like a Crackerjack contestant. Him: looking forward to proving that he was going to be an excellent father and a valued family member. Me: “So anyway, here’s a picture of the squad – can you mark the gay ones, please?”
The first thing I noticed, when we met over my mother’s kitchen table, was that he was absolutely massive, 100 per cent pure-bred League Two defensive-midfield stock. He absolutely towered over us. Yes, there was the slightest trace of a beer gut, but nothing that three push-ups couldn’t cure. The second thing I noticed was that he could match me fag for fag. This was very reassuring. As I passed my packet over to him for the fourth time and I lobbed up soft questions about the weather and the vagaries of the north-west motorway system, I couldn’t help feeling that I was in a scene from The Bill, where Good Cop exchanges meaningless banter with Dodgy-Looking Suspect before bringing up the subject of all those murders in the area.
Luckily, I didn’t have to. He asked if I didn’t mind if he stood up, due to a dodgy knee that was not enjoying my parents’ breakfast-bar stools, and the in-route was located and exploited. I’d been led to believe that my sister’s bloke was a fringe player in the reserves, but nothing of the sort; he’d had a blinding start to his career, going from a trial with the local club to getting in to the first team of a club in the north and making an immediate impact in the space of a year (he wasn’t bullshitting, either: I’ve seen the clips on YouTube of old regional highlights shows, and he pops up at an alarming rate).
Alas, said knee started playing up and he bounced around the lower divisions, making it back here a decade or so ago, which was when I stopped listening and started probing – on behalf of my sister, you understand – because I’d heard a lot about the activities of said club and wanted to know if he was involved with the murkier incidents and was fearing the worst. And sort of looking forward to hearing about it. But no – he’d come back mainly because he missed his family, he never took advantage of his position as a footballer to treat other people like shit, and he got disillusioned with the game very quickly and was desperately looking for a way out. And then he met my sister.
So, the entire conversation was both very reassuring and a bit of a let-down. No, he wasn’t an arrogant prick who was going to treat my sibling like dirt. And yes, his job was every bit as mundane as mine. It proved without a doubt that all footballers are completely entitled to wall themselves off and make themselves completely unavailable to the general public, because we’ll never understand them in a million years.
He told me he could go back if he wanted to – as a matter of fact, he knew a non-League manager in the area with links to a Scottish club, and all he had to do was get on the former’s books for six weeks to get re-registered, and he’d be in. “But, y’know, I’ve got a family now,” he said, as he lobbed his new daughter over a shoulder. I nodded, as if I could totally understand what he was saying. Inside, I was thinking: “What, are you mad or something? I’d be up there like a shot.”
He still knows most players, retired and active, in the area, but he’s not looking to get back into the game. He used his money as wisely as anyone could have done in the current financial climate and he’s having a serious think about what to do next. I really like him – which is an absolute first for any of my sister’s paramours – and really hope they get married soon. Mainly so I can get on a table with a few other players and leech off them instead.
From WSC 263 January 2009