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24 April 2024

Even now, I still fantasise about being a footballer

I’d have little chance at Man City, but Spurs? No problem. I am sure my tortoise could get a game for them.

By Hunter Davies

I had to have an interview to get into a secondary school, back in 1947. We had arrived in Carlisle from Dumfries and in England the eleven-plus had started, which I had missed sitting. Most of my new best friends in Carlisle soon knew they were going to the grammar school, but I had no idea where I was going. My parents never understood the education system, either in Scotland or England.

At the sec school, the headmaster asked me what I wanted to do in life. I replied that I wanted to be a footballer. I got accepted.

The school turned out to be a sec technical, one up from a sec modern. You won’t remember it now, but when the Butler Education Act came in, and the eleven-plus began, there was supposed to be a tripartite system. Pupils could move between schools – which turned out to be, in the main, bollocks.

The grammar schools were the elite, looking down on the sec mods. But by chance, the system did work in Carlisle. At 16, after GCEs, I was able to transfer to Carlisle Grammar School. Oh bliss. Among the brainboxes at last.

For many years, I still wanted to be a footballer, scoring the winning goal at Hampden for Scotland against England.

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Today, when watching games on TV, the fantasy of being a footballer still comes into my head. Which is mad. Yes, they are all rich, even the average lump in the Prem is on £3m per annum, but oh the stress, the worries, the injuries, the heartache at not being picked, a new manager hating you, such a short working life.

And yet, while sitting there slumped, crisps and Sauvignon blanc to hand, I find myself thinking: which players would I not like to be up against today?

Kyle Walker is so tough, fierce, committed, a bit clumsy, but so strong and still so fast. He would always outrun me. If I were a defender, playing against Erling Haaland, oh my God, that would be a nightmare. He is not human.

I was always small and weedy, so my fantasy was always pretty potty, but then I look at Messi. Come on, I could have been him. If I’d had the Latin.

So what team would I fancy playing for today? Little chance, alas, at Man City, but Spurs? No problem. I love them dearly, but they are so inconsistent; the defence is appalling. I am sure my tortoise could get a game for them.

Then I think of the managers I would like to have. Pep would be inspirational, but I feel you would get blanked and ignored if you were not doing the business. Klopp would still have given you an arm round the shoulders. Newcastle’s Eddie Howe seems a good, fair bloke. Roy Hodgson would be ideal, but he has left the game, being almost as old as me. We could have bonded over our bad backs and dodgy hearing. Yet he has been an inspiration for anyone in football. Amazing the career he has had, the jobs he has done, the time he spent at the top. He managed 22 different teams in eight different countries and was still managing this season in the Prem at the age of 76.

So let’s salute Roy. He is my fantasy football man. The football person I would like most to have been.

No, hold on – I also admire players who go on to do something else after playing, like Gary Lineker. I could have done that. Oh yes. I do have the smile and the awful jokes. I did interview Gary once, when he was still at Spurs. The first surprise was where he lived – a Georgian gem in Primrose Hill. Such an unusual home for a footballer. They prefer the flash, new and gated.

As I arrived, two youths were leaving, rather scruffy, rather nervous. They turned out to be from a football fanzine. Gary had agreed to give them an hour of his time. So kind, I said, helping those young lads. Gary said he was thinking selfishly. His ambition was to continue in the football media when he retired, and felt he should have experience of all aspects. Clever, huh? But I would have done that, oh yeah. Having been to grammar school.

[See also: Stuck at home ill, thank goodness I have football’s follies to keep me entertained]

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This article appears in the 24 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Age of Danger