Saturday, April 9, 2011

Chapter Eight of Hampton from the Halfway Line

Day One of the world as we know it.


Maidenhead, Berkshire

I was a fan, first and foremost. I think it’s reasonably well known, out in the world, that I’m an Arsenal fan. A Gooner. I support England during the big competitions as well. Course that’s not nearly as appetizing or rewarding. In fact, being a supporter of our national team is one of the more dismal and unbearable pastimes imaginable – an almost unwatchable side for quite some time and now a laughingstock to boot. An overwhelming majority of us in Britain have existed under the illusion that we are a world football power; and we have had to be smacked about the head over and over and over again for forty years now to convince us that we are not. Like fans of cricket and rugby, I think more of us are getting it, finally. Kind of like our grandparents in the waning days of empire.
But back then, summer of 1990, when Novak was set to move to Arsenal, it didn’t take much on the football front to push the entire country into a xenophobic hysteria. One dominating performance, against even a serviceable side, and we could be led to believe that the matches leading up to the actual lifting of the Jules Rimet trophy were just a formality. First we sing “God Save the Queen” then watch all cower before the might that was England. All right, maybe we’re still that way. Of course now we couldn’t even dominate a Malta or an Andorra, and we actually drew at home to Macedonia and away to Israel. Can you imagine what Sir Bobby Charlton was thinking from his seat at Old Trafford for the Macedonia debacle? Macedonia. You know, first decent night since … 300 B.C.
Novak was little known in England before that World Cup. There are many reasons for that – English clubs banned from Europe for one thing. English fans had neither hosted European clubs in our cities nor traveled to watch our teams take on the continent’s best since the Heysel deaths in 1985.
Actually, before that World Cup, I don’t think many soccer fans around Europe even knew he was American. The few times he offered a rare quote to a journalist, on the air or in print, he spoke what sounded like authentic German. He’d not made himself available to his native country’s soccer federation, in the face of desperate home front badgering to do so. His name made him sound sort of pan-Slavik. If it were a Graham Greene novel, he would have been an incognito American sent by the State department to undermine our national game. Not that we weren’t perfectly capable of undermining our national game by ourselves.
He was not one of the stars but an important player nonetheless for a Wüppertal side that had climbed steadily up the Bundesliga throughout the period of the aforementioned ban. Fascinating stuff. They had been a settled, lower division club for years and had come up once or twice to the first division with only a handful of famous wins in the 70s to their name. No one really took great notice of them over here until they came out of what seemed to us to be absolutely nowhere to pip Cologne for the league title in 1989.
I, for one, certainly didn’t give a toss, because my club were in the process of winning our first championship for eighteen years. And that is the last time I’ll mention Arsenal and 1989 and beating Liverpool on the last day of the season at Anfield to win the League.
Took everyone outside of West Germany by complete surprise, did Wüppertal. But the German football public had been watching this club slowly collect useful players and gain confidence and imprint their stylized scrappiness onto the league for just about the whole decade. And they’d had some famous European nights for several seasons, by that time, in a decade well influenced by German football.
Wüppertal won the German cup for the first time during a watershed, promotion season; and over the next few years rightfully earned the reputation as a cup side. As we learned later on, I think Novak had something to do with that. Obviously, he has a hatful of cup medals and near misses to prove it. That’s really no accident. Wherever he showed up, his club became a struggle for teams to knock out of cup ties and progressed in practically every competition they entered.
Having said that, the Arsenal squad he came into were coming off that championship season from two years before, and we were not exactly strangers to cup finals. But there are those who would grudgingly allow that he solidified us in the middle of the park and showed us a thing or two about steel and dignity and calm professionalism. A real George Graham kind of player in the final analysis. Is that what was needed at the time? Debatable, leaning toward doubtful.
Of course, the first thing Novak said to me, when we met initially to flesh out this project, was to remind me that I had not included him in my All-Time Arsenal XI for an interview I gave to the Independent about five years ago. My midfield was Brady, Viera, Rocastle and Overmars.
“You’re joking, right?” he said. “Overmars? Three seasons at the club? Fine. The double. Great.”
I remember feeling slightly stupid. Not that I would ever put Novak in my all-time Arsenal midfield, but that perhaps I should give it another look without quite so much weight given to my joy at how successful the club were at the time of that interview. I’ll think about it. Another thing he said about Mark Overmars was that if I was taking into account how much money we brought in by selling him to Barcelona, then that could be a mitigating factor in his overall value to the club. I wasn’t thinking that. I was thinking about the little Dutchman tearing up the left wing and scoring against Man United to win the title and how happy that made me; and about all the relatively dodgy left wingers we’d had down the years.
But that World Cup. Many journalists and novelists and poets and supporters and people of all walks of life, in England, have written about that World Cup – many because of Gazza’s famous tears in Turin. Whole books have been dedicated to examining exactly why everything changed for football and entertainment and popular culture and priorities and values in this country at the moment our most famous and controversial star lost his rag during the semifinal loss to West Germany.
We all saw straight man Gary Lineker gesture to the bench indicating that the boy was barmy and needed looking after, but most of us ignored that. Typically, of course, Gascoigne was crying for himself (and not, specifically, for his beloved countrymen) because his yellow card, he knew, would suspend him from the final were England to advance. A lot of us knew that. Football people knew that. But even football people cried because they could not imagine England being in the final without Paul Gascoigne. He made them a real team that could stand toe-to-toe with the Germans, Italians, Argentines and Brazilians.
There were some – nearly all of them Spurs supporters -- who couldn’t appreciate England’s World Cup triumph in ’66 because the great Jimmy Greaves was left out. That’s a bit over the top, but I do understand the sentiment. Not one Arsenal player featured in Bobby Robson’s World Cup squad, and they’d won the league a season before.
Anfield. Nil-two. Injury time. Michael Thomas. Somersault. Sorry.
However, millions of Brits, in the collective hysteria that sometimes grips an otherwise intelligent people (see Diana), watched him cry and then stared in grief at the newspapers and the TVs the following day featuring stills of Gazza’s red, puffy, tear-strewn face. Since we lost the match in unbearably tragic circumstances (to which we’ve since grown accustomed), we (not me, but “We”) equated his visible, natural, poignant grief with the crushing sadness and great pride we were feeling for our country. How we had fought the great champions. How unlucky we were. How brave. It was real “we happy few” stuff.
The country’s most famous Geordie did what he could to bring us down to earth, a week later, by wearing fake tits during the team parade in London, but the damage had already been done. Perfectly sensible, middle-class Englishmen and women became football zombies ready to fork over every ‘p’ they earned to join the silly bandwagon. Football instantly became a marketable commodity that would make a lot of people very rich. And, naturally, quite a few charlatans have come on the scene to make a bogus bob or two.
Speaking of scalawags, I wrote a book about my own experiences of being a football supporter and was stunned and overjoyed by the overwhelming response – not to mention the sales that have never stopped to this day. Let’s be honest. My timing, for the first time in my life, was spot on. The reviews and the success gave me confidence in my abilities as a writer and as a literary person, and I was off to the races. I am a writer. I am a novelist. And I am proud and relieved to be able to say that. The resulting comfort allows me to afford today’s ticket prices without taking out a second mortgage.
And I do owe it to football – the pre-Gazza’s tears variety. Because what I wrote about, in my diary-style narrative in the medium of match reports, concerned mostly the agony and pathetic obsession of supporting my club, Arsenal, throughout the 70s and 80s. If you follow football at all then you might know this team today as a world brand typifying speed, style and balletic grace. But, if you read my book, “Out in the Cold,” you will discover that it was not always like that.
My book was about what makes us, as supporters, as fans, participate in an activity of this nature that brings us mostly anguish and various degrees of wet. It was about other notions of human behavior, as well, which led nicely into the writing of my first novel. Thankfully, the obsession element resonated for a lot of people – and not just soccer fans. Many women learned, for the first time, what goes on inside a man’s head. That and a couple other of my books tended to offer the fairer sex unaccustomed insight into the male psyche.
Some women felt that it was actually worse than they'd imagined.
Others commented, “I'm glad to know there's something going on in there."
You might not know this, but Arsenal won the league the year before that world cup, the 1988-89 season. Remarkably, and this is worth noting, they had not done for eighteen years. A lifetime for this damaged young fan, during which I had come to accept the fact that I would die -- a morose trainspotter’s death in a meat pie-soiled anorak -- before ever seeing an Arsenal captain lift a championship trophy.

Now pay attention, please, as I attempt, for both your benefit and mine, to tie the first of what I hope will be a tolerable number of intriguing story lines together. I’m thinking someone will edit out this background bit. For even though I’ve always believed that ‘asides,’ when used cleverly and sparingly, can have a beguiling literary effect, I’m just not sure that … well, we’ll just have to see how it goes, eh? Still early doors.
I don’t think it’s ridiculous to suggest that I was on the brink of turning a corner in my life about the time my subject was turning a corner in his. At least one corner. You don’t want to be turning too many corners at once, mind, especially not in the same direction or you end up … you know. In a perfect world, it’s ‘turn … ease off … go straight on for a bit.’ Consolidate matters. Feed the wheel! Kind of like a race car – to give the idiom a metaphorical “turn.” God.
What I mean is, not only had he and his lover of seven years split up the previous year; not only had said lover given birth to their healthy baby girl not six months after the breakup; not only had Novak finally earned his advanced degrees and been hired by Selwyn College, Cambridge; but – and this is the exciting part – he was ratcheting up his football career several teeth as well by signing with the Arse.
Honestly, who else but an Arsenal supporter would be so presumptuous to venture that a move to Highbury -- from a Bundesliga champion; two-time German Cup winner; European Cup semifinalist; UEFA Cup finalist; Cup Winners’ cup winner and Cup Winners’ cup finalist, all achieved incomprehensibly between 1983 and 1990 -- would constitute a step up? I ask you.
His life had been in revolt at the same time I was taking my first tentative steps toward producing a sustained piece of writing and finally making something of my life. I made the decision to switch from attempting radio drama to attempting straight, personal prose and chanced onto a style that suited me and would carry me forward with eventual (and much appreciated) fanfare.
Marianne Papineau is the other person in this story. The previous Christmas, she had moved with their baby back to Paris. There she would be nearer to friends and relatives and could realize her long-awaited dream of studying principally the work of Camille Claudel at the École des Beaux-Arts. Afterward she would hopefully launch her sculpture career in the Parisian art world. As a side benefit, she would succeed in putting some distance between herself and Novak after she dumped him.
Did I just say, provocatively and controversially, that “she dumped him”?
We’ll put that off to another time. Back to what’s really important here.
Most excitingly for Arsenal fans, we are now in position to determine whether or not players like Novak, between 1990 and 1995, helped pave the way for the club to turn its own corner under Arsene Wenger and arrive ripe for everything the new Premier League was about to lay on a silver platter for the big teams to gobble up.
Novak would describe his years in North London as something like bailing water while waiting to be reinforced. The night of that cup final defeat in Paris would be his Khartoum, his Alamo.
Novak around 1990 was a relatively clean slate to us, a bit under the radar. On one hand, those two wonder goals for the USA in the quarterfinal loss to the West Germans, when he was already reported in the press to have been signed by Arsenal, gave us an impression that we were getting some kind of assassin of our wildest dreams. That was false.
He wasn’t that type of player, as I will attempt to sort out for you. Not a man, if you will, for getting forward.
On the other hand, it was kind of nice to know that deep down somewhere he had that in him – goals, I mean. You don’t score two goals in the World Cup against the eventual champion and then forget how to do it. They may make it look easy on TV, but ask any professional who’s played at the highest level. It ain’t. I struggle even to get a sniff at goal against fellow, aging lager louts.
Even Novak eventually would have to come to terms with his legitimate, and no longer dormant, finishing ability. The video doesn’t lie. He knew where the net was after all. But he knew, as well, and the clubs he’s played for knew, that there were many other valuable qualities that he could bring on board to fortify a team and help them win games. For a club to forever try to position him for scoring chances, in effect putting him in the way of the more consistent scoring stars, was effectively negating those very qualities. Such attributes, in the long run, were going to deliver success to the club and extend his unlikely career.
Among those who make their living shoveling coal down in the engine room, Novak was in the upper echelon. And back then, shoveling coal and carrying water is what most British players were best at doing. He’d never been a goalscorer at Wüppertal. As he matured, he grew in class and developed an uncanny ability to do seemingly three or four different tasks at once. By the time we got him he was quite a reliable player.
He’s admitted to me that if Arsenal had tried to set him up as some sort of early-90s version of Frank Lampard, someone who could dictate play, get forward often and, most importantly bulge the bloody net; then he would immediately have been found out, caught out, dropped to the reserves and released without fanfare.
“That’s not why Graham brought me in,” he said to me at one point. “And he was astute enough to know that a couple of lucky blinders in one match (albeit a match being watched by millions all over the world) was not going to alter his plans.  He knew what I could do, and he stuck to his guns; and he stuck by me.”
And Novak will be the first to admit that Americans in that World Cup were given obscene amounts of time on the ball. The opponents figured these college kids were sure to hand it back to them soon enough without having to apply even baseline levels of pressure. That was generally true, but, as we saw, each of their opponents suffered from unforgivable lapses of concentration that led to an unheard-of number of mistakes, which the yanks were, to their credit, able to convert into really a hatful of goals.
What opponents refused to take into account, however, was that these ‘college kids’ had been recently bolstered by the Midwest-raised Novak and a couple other European-based players with dodgy American citizenship.
“The American boys were committed players. During the build-up, thankfully, those pulling the strings agreed that our only chance to avoid a cyclone of suffering was to assemble and cultivate a resilient side.”
“And crossing your fingers,” I added.
“It can be done, making yourself hard to beat. We did it at Wüppertal. Others pointed to Jack Charlton’s Ireland. Of course, you have to have the players.”
They didn’t win the group outright, as Italy took maximum points, but they scored the most goals. They put three past the Czechs in the opening draw, one in the Stadio Olimpico against the hosts in the commendable loss, then went through with an astonishing four in the second half to knock the Austrians out deservedly. It was shocking the way teams played against them with such staggering disrespect. But, you know, a very poor world cup.
West Germany? They watched, along with the rest of us, the Yanks’ unlikely progression to the quarterfinal stage – the U.S. of course having seen off a profligate and distracted Costa Rica two-nil. Still the Germans were arrogant enough and more than talented enough, I suppose, to underestimate them just as imprudently as the sides that came before them. And it very nearly led to a humiliation which could not possibly be described in words – except perhaps by one of those really long German words that sound like five words.
Eventually West Germany showed its pedigree – classic David and Goliath stuff, except Goliath won. Kind of like watching Man United home to Burton Albion or someone.
I don’t know if the Americans, with their pitiable reputation at the time, cast some kind of spell over their opponents or what. Kind of like when you’re playing chess against someone whom you know to be an inferior chess player; and then, before you know it, you’ve lost your queen and both rooks. Then you’re kicking yourself for not having paid better attention during a couple of key moments.
Everyone predicted, with good reason, that the Americans would be three games and out with most likely three heavy losses – maybe a draw to Austria given that both probably would have been eliminated by the time they met. Come the day, it was Novak and company who still clung to a lifeline.
And did any punter in the world hit the jackpot by laying money on a ‘USA-3 Czechoslovakia-3’ result? Three-nil up and coasting at halftime, the Czechs. One has to wonder just what the hell they were up to in the dressing room. Pilsner?
The final quarter of an hour was like an old second-division derby or one of those matches on the last day of the season where the loser is relegated, and so all the players run around like their shorts are on fire.
That World Cup, that tournament, was a moment in time that was, in many ways, atypical for Novak. We’ve had long conversations about it and many enjoyable pints along the way. As a journalist, you have to guard against getting too matey with your subject because your objectivity can suffer as a result. You see it happen all the time in news coverage of politicians and government officials for example, as well as less weighty issues in sport. And I’ll admit I’ve become fond of the bastard. Does that change how I write about him? Perhaps. Does it cloud my professional judgment? I certainly hope not, but I’m sure that many critics will have a go at my opinions and analysis. That’s fine. One of my favorite hobbies is having a friendly go at people myself. I welcome it as a means of advancing our understanding of a given topic. If no one were to comment or have a go, then I (not to mention the publishers) would worry.
But his, I’ve found, is a varied and multi-layered story that could be studied from several vantage points and at different depths. It’s history, after all. Sure, it’s not Julius Caesar and the course of western civilization we’re talking about. That’s my next book. But this is what we football fans talk about down the pub or at the office or on the terraces and, hell, even at funerals. We discuss and debate our own version of trends and epochs and man-made disasters. We make them sound more heroic and more important than they really are, maybe. But it’s much easier to get back to one’s real life after musing about your favorite pastime over an ESB or a glass of Montepulciano. Whatever portion of my thoughts here or whatever bits of my interviews with Julius Novak make it into print in the end, that’s basically what you’re getting – pub talk, water cooler talk, match talk … funeral talk.

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