Monday, June 27, 2011

Chapter Thirteen of Hampton from the Halfway Line

I was concerned about this chapter because of the intense football focus, particularly the business of football; but I find the narrative ultimately beautiful. And who doesn't love a curry?


13

Maidenhead, Berkshire

What can I say about George Graham that hasn’t been said? I’ll just lay it out there straightaway. I decided not to delve into Graham for this particular book project for a couple of reasons. First, from a football perspective, several books have been done about him. I wrote the introduction to quite a good one. So I didn’t want to waste priceless commercial space by being derivative. Second, for the non-football audience, particularly “stateside,” who may pick up this book – for whatever reason – the name George Graham will mean absolutely naught. And even after I had a fair go at personifying him to the world, the average reader still wouldn’t give a monkey’s.
Just ask my wife. I can find reason to drop a Graham reference into practically any conversation, so weighty a tome is this figure in my mind’s library. The unavoidable but clever line often will have to do with a person’s “defense” mechanism. Or about motivation. Or about someone who is feared, revered, or despised. Or doing something precisely because everyone says you can’t. Or every time I hear Frank Sinatra or the Gypsy Kings sing “My Way.” Or about someone who is intrinsically great without having the particular desire to be liked. Or it might have to do with “strolling.” Whenever I see a mum with a pushchair – or, now that everything’s become Americanized, stroller; I think, you know, “stroller.”
But a writer does himself no favors wasting time with obscure commentary in a book intended to attract a diverse audience – a diverse audience of soccer fans, that is. At least that’s what the editor, with whom Rosalie and I are “collaborating,” is hoping for. And the publishers. And Rosalie McMahon who sold the publishers and me (sort of) on the idea. I have my doubts, but, hey, they paid me a fair bit of bob up front. Seriously, though, it is important to me that each new book be somewhat ambitious.
Along those lines, I sometimes feel I’m taking a bigger risk with this book than I took with the novel for young readers. I know at least as much and am as passionate as anyone about this game, yet I’m becoming almost petrified at the notion of writing another word. Leave it out for now, eh?
Well, the subject of Graham came up today – how could it not? – when Novak joined me at the still sparkling Emirates Stadium for the Arsenal-Tottenham derby. A vastly superior Arsenal side prevailed, if nervously, over a ridiculous Spurs side with their snazzy and fashionable, yet (one can only believe) ultimately doomed new manager. There was, as usual, much to discuss at the interval.
And I have to say that Novak can be the most delightful of match companions when he wants to be. That, in spite of the double dose of attention we received at being seen in public together. Good Lord! When I attend the football with my mates or my wife or with some anonymous person from my professional world, rarely am I picked out. Except by familiar faces, season-ticket holders, from Highbury days gone by. Mine is a face and person that blends in to the crowd, I should think, especially at a London sporting event. I’m white, I’m bald, a bit puffy, mildly dodgy, I smoke (in between bouts of quitting), and I wear a leather jacket and blue jeans. I wouldn’t look twice at me.
I admit more people who attend football matches these days read books as well and might occasionally look in on an author event like at the astonishingly immense Apple Store on Regent Street or a signing at Waterstone’s in Piccadilly or pause for thirty seconds on one of those book channels on satellite telly. The Piccadilly Waterstone’s, by the way … the company refers to that location as their flagship. They could very easily call it a battlestar. I do believe scores of Londoners and business travelers and day trippers and tourists have wandered aimlessly in and out of that store, up and down escalators, without even knowing where they were. Brilliant for the book business, admittedly. I once became so lost in that store -- eight floors, innit? – that I nearly cried for my mum. And I was forty-three years old. I knew going in I should have held hands with a buddy.
So, all right, I suppose lots of people who don’t really even read could inadvertently have seen my face on a poster in a Waterstone’s or somewhere.
‘Buy Ben Hampton’s new novel. Lovely stuff.’
Jesus. But … erm … combine my marginal fame, such as it is, with Novak’s vague notoriety, and even the most casual follower of popular culture tends to look our way and smell a rat. A single, mildly recognizable personality in a large cosmopolitan city like London is one thing. But when you see two together you just know that both are something-like famous, because one of them might be and the other one could be and they’re … together.
D’you know what I mean? The fact that there are two of them at the same time is just … significant. Am I explaining this clearly?
It’s like, “that guy looks like familiar. And that other bloke, wasn’t he in the Guardian, something about a film? Certainly, that’s uh (snapping fingers) … he played for Arsenal when they were shit, and uh … whatcha callit … the … the “Revolutions Per Minute” guy. Football. It’s football-related. We’re sat at a match. It must be.”
Every time I looked around, I saw people poking their neighbor while looking our way. Then both of them squint at us, whisper to one another and ask yet another person for confirmation of whether or not they have indeed spotted a celebrity. Or double-spotted. My favorite is when the third person confirms in the negative and convinces his mates that we are no one. So shut up, he says, and concentrate on the queue.
One time I actually heard a woman comment (or did I just imagine it?) that I couldn’t possibly be Ben Hampton because Hugh Grant played me in a movie, and, well, come on. That hurt. And Hugh Grant did not play me in a movie. Colin Firth did. Some would say he’s even better looking than Hugh Grant. I can’t decide.
Once, in the late 90s, I went to a match at Highbury and met Novak, who was in a group of people from Cambridge. We were re-introduced by mutual acquaintances. I first had met him, peripherally, when he was at Arsenal. It was quite nice that day at the old ground and exciting. We managed to sit near to one another at matches in, I believe, ’01 and again in ’04. My new life was surreal, sitting at my beloved Highbury, in superb seats, with an ex-player whom I admired and having him treat me like I was the important one.
Sure, I admired him.
Novak had mostly stayed away since leaving at the end of that ’95 season. His last appearance for the club had been that match in Paris when Nayim chipped Seaman from the halfway line and we lost a Cup Final. Quiz time. Which chapter do I not mention Nayim? Ah, memories. A miserable season. 12th place. Graham sacked for stealing the supporters’ money before returning it. The end of an era but the cusp, if you will, of a new and glorious one in which we continue to revel and, like gluttons, demand more.
One of the only bits of humor that came out of that Cup Final inevitably involved Novak. Seaman slumped in the goal, head hanging between his legs, alone, disconsolate and, if he has any shame at all, humiliated. A keeper’s nightmare. Who appears in the television picture but his pal and teammate of five seasons. Novak placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder. The goalkeeper looked up for a moment, appeared to grin slightly, then put his head back down. Novak helped him up, and they left the pitch together.
Much later in the evening, I’m told, toward the end of the training room questioning, an alert and industrious Times reporter asked the courageous netminder, “What did Julius Novak say to you in the goal there at the end?”
A chastened Seaman chuckled, “He said, ‘Do not read the papers tomorrow.’”
Hopefully, someone offered a similar suggestion to Big Dave seven years later when Ronaldinho would chip him in the World Cup.

No. I won’t be getting much into George Graham here because the editor and publisher believe that hundreds of thousands of non-footballing book buyers around the globe will purchase and read this book and recommend it to their friends and ring up chat shows about it. And there is too much that is interesting about our main character and too many pithy words that can be written, by the can’t-miss, beloved author, about said hero and the modern culture of football vis a vis the times in which we live. Therefore, too much is at stake – so goes the thinking -- to waste even one paragraph on a run-of-the-mill, if colorfully controversial coach. I’m willing to go along with that, especially that nice bit about the author.
Watching the match before us, it was obvious just how much had changed in English football since 1995. Highbury gone, for one thing. Not one Englishman on the pitch for Arsenal, for another. By Novak’s last season at the club (which, not coincidentally, was Graham’s), foreign players were beginning to creep into the English game in increasing numbers, stamping their refined and overwhelmingly positive influence on our country’s bustling style of play.
But they had yet to be allowed to overrun all of our top English clubs. So there was still an opportunity for a significant pool of non-world-class English players to get priceless first-team experience, particularly, but not exclusively, during competition against the best European clubs. A match against England in 1995 was still a comprehensively dicey affair for any country. Of course, we were periodically shit then as well. The arrangement that is the Premiership has aided in bringing on a temporary, but deadly serious backslide of our national team. We hope it’s temporary.
The England team, from time to time, pops up in the top ten of the FIFA rankings. Realistically, many observers, myself included, put them as low as fifteenth best team in the world. Why did they fall so far? Shall I tell you something you already know? Because the people who own most of the top-flight football clubs in this country are greedy and grandiose egotists who don’t really care about the game. The individuals who have bought the top clubs outright – and those groups who assisted with the financing -- want an immediate, large, safe and perpetual return on their investment. Wouldn’t you?
And how does a big club virtually guarantee largesse for their owners and financers? By qualifying for the land of plenty, the UEFA Champions’ League – every season if possible. And sell a lot of shirts. What we know is that if a club get in to this exclusive society just once, the financial windfall is so great the club can then afford to reinvest in more international-quality players to bolster their squad, thus keeping the overwhelming majority of outsiders where they belong – on the outside. But most English clubs themselves are not getting rich and English football at the grassroots is not being strengthened because owners are still directing too many pounds to players’ salaries. Just the same way they did with the new money derived from the now-defunct idea of flotation back in the late-90s. Of course not every club that makes it to the heights stays rich for life. Can you say, Leeds United? My apologies, but that felt very good.
Now what is the most expedient way for a club in the big footballing nations of Europe (Italy, Germany, Spain, France, Portugal, Holland and, I suppose, England) to better their chances of finishing in the top three or four of their league competitions, thus qualifying for one of the sexiest and most exciting money-spinning operations on the planet? Buy the best players available, obviously. But, because satellite TV giants pay obscene amounts of money to the English Premier League and to UEFA to beam their matches everywhere in the world – even a Wigan Athletic v. Birmingham City match, English clubs can afford to pay among the highest wages in the world and attract the very best players from every footballing nation in the world.
How many Brazilians were interested in playing their club football in England before 1995? Not more than a few. Mirandinha at Newcastle, of course.
Even before the skill quotient went through the roof, surpassing Julius Novak and others in the process, English football was always the most exciting style to watch on television. Mostly because there was never a pause in the action – hammer and tongs from the off.
And for the last fifteen years, following a perfectly appropriate EU ruling, there is no limit to the number of alien workers a European football club can employ or field at any one time. Makes sense. For many years, though, European clubs could field no more than three foreign players at a time. For example, the great AC Milan teams of the late 80s featured three outstanding Dutchmen (Van Basten, Rijkaard and Gullitt) and eight Italians. Inter Milan fielded three superb Germans (Matthaeus, Brehme and Klinsmann) and eight Italians. And so on.
Remember how angry and perplexed Man United were when they had to count their Scottish, Irish and Welsh players as foreigners whenever they played in a European competition? So they had to choose three from, for example, Giggs, McLair, Irwin, Keane, Hughes, Cantona, Schmeichel and Kanchelskis to accompany the English citizens in the team. That was ridiculous, even though it made my mates and me at Arsenal quite happy at the time. United never won the Champions League until this rule was changed.
These days, English-born players who, fifteen years ago when Julius Novak played, might have found a place in the old first division (now the Premier League), must make do in what used to be called the second, third and fourth divisions.
Does Novak believe he could have played first-team football for a top club today? He absolutely does not, and I agree.
These plucky Englishmen, my countrymen, are, without ceremony, bumped down the food chain by foreign players, because the exotic imports are more technically astute, mature and accomplished, at a younger age, than many of their English counterparts.
The clubs are bound to the caprice of their owners and the expectations of financiers. They are not bound to help strengthen the national team so that we can compete with the likes of Brazil, France, Argentina, Spain, Italy and, to a lesser extent, Germany, who have suffered similarly to us. At the moment, to compare the England team with these nations, as far as football, is something more than a stretch.
And, I don’t know if I can believe this (and I honestly don’t care; it just helps make my point), but according to some Portuguese Website, Darren Bent (recently lighting it up at Charlton, now lucky to get a game at Spurs) earns nearly as much in basic wages as Real Madrid legend, Raul. If this is true, then something has gone utterly wrong. I don’t recall ever watching a Real Madrid match where Raul did not score a goal. The man has been a lion for his club, spanning something like 500 matches and has a career strike rate not dissimilar to that of Alan Shearer. Ever heard of him? Yet BSkyB smiles on the likes of Darren Bent.
Our national side’s new, legendary Italian manager, Fabio Capello will somehow have to take a feeble, ungoverned band of primadonnas and transform them into working class fighters, true lions – the England of old, who couldn’t win anything as well, to be honest.
But how about the 1982 World Cup? The year Novak visited Spain, became a Valencia supporter, stalked Marianne, sketched her nude body in an art class and was discovered by W├╝ppertal, we went out in the second round not having lost a match. A proud side. There’s no pride anymore. Would you pay money to watch England play today? You do; but you shouldn’t. And you immediately feel foolish for having done.
But that’s international football. This is club football we’re watching today. My club. And club football is rapturous. Club football helps shape lives. It helps us focus for a couple of hours a week on something other than the inevitability of our own mortality. Say, a different reason to be depressed.
That used to be me, in a big way, from age twelve to about age thirty-five, through to the time Novak played there. I actually daydreamed about those years whilst sitting next to the ex-midfielder in the West Stand. I glanced at Novak just before the halftime interval. The look on his face said two things to me. First:  he could look out at his former club without memories of abuse from the North London supporters. Second:  he finds the team before him in red and white unrecognizable.
“Are you enjoying it?” I asked.
When I was in my early twenties and dating a lot, I became accustomed to my companions not enjoying themselves. So I periodically check in.
“I’m enjoying the day, your company, the noise, the singing and the skill on display,” Novak answered. “I’m probably enjoying it differently than you and most of the supporters. Sorry I don’t have a ready joke.”
I truly wasn’t expecting such a sickly diplomatic answer.
“A simple ‘No’ would have done,” I said, keeping my eyes on the action. Another speculative Spurs foray thwarted in its infancy. “Oh, the doom of waking every day knowing you’re a Tottenham supporter, I can’t imagine.”
Novak laughed.
“You know what I mean,” he said, returning to my question. “I wasn’t an Arsenal supporter before I joined the club. I was an admirer. And I never hated Tottenham. But as a supporter of whatever club I enjoy watching, I’m afraid I’m fickle rather than loyal. I wasn’t born into that kind of culture.”
“I forget,” I asked. “Do you support anyone?”
“I’m kind of into Cheltenham Town these days on the domestic front.”
“Very noble of you. You’re a better man than I am. Not too familiar with Cheltenham, beyond the Gold Cup of course. I think I might have an uncle in Malvern who supports them – or maybe it’s Gloucester City.”
Robbie Keane blazes wide.
“I think you’d know,” Novak said. “There’s massive hatred from the City end. They believe it should be themselves playing Leeds and Forest. They’ve been, like, seventy years in the same league.”
“Cheltenham don’t play Leeds, surely.”
“What? You call yourself a British football writer?”
“Uh, no! As a matter of fact, I …”
“Never mind,” he cut me off, then boasted with vicarious pleasure. “Apparently, then, you missed our recent win over the very same … Leeds … United? Remember them? Champions’ League semifinalists not too long ago, if I’m not mistaken.”
“Mmm. Name sounds familiar,” I said. “Leeds, you say? Isn’t that up near Pudsey?”
“I believe it is, yes,” he played along like a true Gunner. “Also in the same league as mighty Cheltenham are the likes of Nottingham, Millwall and Swindon. Some pretty recognizable names, I think you’ll agree.”
See how fun football talk can be? We stand, and no one’s hearts are in the applause for a turgid first half.
“The old Third Division,” I said. “Pretty high up for Cheltenham.”
“Taken in context of man’s ability to walk upright, Cheltenham, you’re right; I’d call it a meteoric rise.”
“Absolutely. So you beat Leeds. You must be having rather a comfortable time of it.”
“We’re mired in the drop zone, actually,” he said, “along with poor Luton Town, recently docked ten points.”
“Oh yeah,” I remembered. “Poor Luton. Technical paperwork violations will get you every time.”
“You’d think they’d hire someone to fill out the proper forms.”
“Shame.”
“The shame is … is Leeds, really,” he laughed.
I joined him in laughter over the fall of our old rivals. As an Arsenal supporter, I always believed it to be Leeds who were the most hated club in England, rather than us.
“Right,” I agreed. “It wasn’t the team as much as it was the fans. Filthy, they were.”
“Remember the chant?” he asked.
“Do you mean, WE ALL HATE LEEDS SCUM!”
Two men standing in the row behind us overheard our conversation.
“Leeds fans?” said one of the men, nose horribly broken, who looked a few years older than me. “Scum.”
His mate, of similar age and facial disposition, chimed in. “Two of the bastards mugged my granddad and great uncle for tickets back in ’78. Is that not fucking scum of the earth.”
Novak grinned and said, “Yeah, cheers.”
“Didn’t I hear something about your being a Valencia supporter?” I asked Novak, getting all personal on him again in an American way. On the other hand, he is the main subject of this fucking book I can’t believe I’m writing.
“That’s true,” he answered. “I far prefer them, over the long haul, to any of the other top sides in Spain. There are seasons, like recently when I enjoy watching Villareal or Sevilla or Majorca; but my heart always comes back to Los Che. I’d humbly call myself a supporter.”
“So that came about from your season playing there? The big swansong?”
“Oh, no. Remember the story of my seeing Marianne for the first time?”
“Remember it?” I said. “That’s probably going to be chapter one, mate.”
“Get outta here.”
“We’ll talk,” I gave him an assuring pat on the forearm.
     We stroll around the Club Level as replica shirt-wearing hordes queue for overpriced, but supposedly testicle-free Bockwurst. Neither of us were hungry, having shared a muttar paneer from The Standard Tandoori on Holloway Road beforehand.
“What about Valencia then?” I asked.
“I tagged along on a train trip to Spain with a couple I knew from school,” he said. “The guys my companions were meeting out in the Valencian province happened to be Valencia fans. One of their dads had quite a few tickets for a match being played while we were there. The whole family were Valencia mad.”
“Just for the record. ’82?” I inquired.
“Yeah. The superstar Mario Kempes had gone, and the club were about to enter a major downturn. But they’d won the Super Cup the previous autumn over Forest. They’d had to upgrade the Mestalla Stadium for the World Cup, however, and it went a fair distance toward breaking them.”
Once Novak began filling me in on the roots of his fandom, I recalled that Valencia had beaten my Arsenal not long before that in the Cup Winner’s Cup Final boasting the likes of Kempes and one of Novak’s heroes as a teenager, Rainer Bonhof.
“I went to the match,” he continued. “I was completely overcome by the experience, and Valencia earned a place in my heart. I don’t think I need to explain.”
“You don’t,” I said, as we settled back into our seats. “So how do you like the new ground?”
“Suppose it had to happen,” he said in that wistful way traditionalists have.
We are sitting in the kind of stadium that most of the big clubs of Europe have enjoyed for twenty years or more. Yes, I loved Highbury. It can never be replaced. I’ve written all about it. We’ve all written all about it. You know how I feel. I’m nostalgic. I’m romantic. I’m a sappy, stupid fool about Highbury and all those priceless, never-to-be-forgotten memories that began for me way back in the 1960s. But I’m fifty years old, and this place is wildly comfortable.
Hello, Emirates Stadium. Where have you been all my middle-aged life? After all, we are a ‘European Giant,’ and we will, as long as the market demands, entertain the other celestial bodies of continental football. And Chelsea. This is rarefied air we’re breathing, and we know it. We are smug and we are superior. And many of us suffered for decades to get where we are today.
Today, my euphoria is dampened but once when Novak leans over and asks, “How many British players have you got out there today?”
My answer, had I bothered, would have been zero.
“They’re not foreigners to me,” I answered with Gunner pride. “Not with that little cannon on the badge.”
He twisted the knife, jingoistically. “You do know this is the English Premier League.”
“You weren’t even born here,” is all I can think to say.
“Didn’t you and your friends used to chant that at me?”
I don’t care what he says – or anyone else for that matter. They can all go eff off, the jealous twats. This is a new Golden Age. And it started just as we said au revoir to Novak.
The club quickly built on the rock-solid core planted and harvested by George Graham over the previous eight seasons. The living-legend, Arsene Wenger followed by bringing in Viera, Petit, Anelka, Overmars, Henry, Pires, Wiltord, Kanu, Ljungberg and Sol Campbell; and we’ve never looked back. I’ve just given myself goose pimples.
Except that we do look back, don’t we? Because I’m writing about a player who came just before our current Golden Age – a player who was there at the end of the George Graham era. A period during which, I should like to point out, they were, in fact, not shit.
I admit it. I used to whistle, boo and groan during Novak’s five seasons at Highbury. And, yes, I’ve even booed my latest literary subject directly. Afterward in the pub, you’d hear punters going on about Novak, “He scores two bombs against West Germany and can’t even put away a sitter against fucking Leicester. Where does Graham find these useless muppets?”
On the days or series of matches Arsenal were shit or at least when they played absolute bollocks football, he was an easy scapegoat. Because, face it, nil-nil is not only bloody useless, unless you’re away to Sampdoria in a cup tie and up a goal on aggregate, but, much more often than not, excruciatingly dull to watch as well.
Was he wrong for the side? Yeah, I’d have to say. On balance, I don’t think he made us a better team by his presence. Arsenal are a big club – a rich club located in one of the world’s great cities. And, for me, we were a bit in the wilderness there domestically, for most of Novak’s time, when we didn’t at all have to be. We had one of the best managers in Europe at the time – George Graham – and could have attracted the kind of players we needed to contend for the league championship every year. There was really no excuse for having brought in Novak and some of these others who were nothing more than squad players in my view.
And, for me, the makeup of the squad was all down to wages. The questions are: Who was responsible? The trustees? Were they cheap or too conservative? George Graham? Did he want to show that he could win without the shameless expenditures of the other big clubs? Could he only operate with an egalitarian unit of employees loyal to his cause? Did big-money superstars irritate him to distraction? Did the board not trust him to administer their funds, the supporters’ funds, my funds? Did they trust him and he was stealing?
As Jack Nicholson wondered in Prizzi’s Honor, “Which one-uh-deez?”
Why were we never able to buy Roy Keane or Paul Gascoigne or Eric Cantona or Alan Shearer or some of the European or South American stars who chose sunny Italy or Spain? Gabriel Batistuta or Romario or Hristo Stoichkov or Gheorghe Hagi come to mind.
Why is the Premier League such a destination today for the best players in the world? Can it be anything but wages and the ability to offer top dollar to the best players? Darren Bent earning more than Raul? When Arsenal started paying the sums we could actually afford to spend, there’s been nothing to stop us. It was very frustrating from a supporter’s standpoint.
In light of that, then, you can’t really blame Novak or any of the players, really, for those seasons when we all munched on peppermint Setlers to relieve indigestion brought on by too many nil-nils. George Graham, like so much -- if not all -- of life, was indeed a mixed bag. He lifted us over the moon then steered us over the falls to our deaths.
The second half at the Emirates was excellent, miles better than the first. Berbatov equalized for Spurs. Then the substitute Bendtner sent us into rapture with the winner. I doubt seriously if Julius Novak will ever return.


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