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  1. Politics
31 October 2013

The Fan: It is the nature of football to acclaim the gifted young

In football, as in other forms of human life, people develop at different times, different speeds. They can also fall back or get injured. Successful novelists don’t have to worry about that, unless they fall off their wallet.

By Hunter Davies

As I walk through my house, from the front window looking on to a very quiet street to the rear room leading into our garden with its mature fruit trees – a walk that can take, oh, ages, as I am just so bloody smug – I think of those poor people surrounding me. That young wife with two babies and so little room. That middle-aged literary gent forced to live in a Hovel. That clever young woman who found a rat in her basement bed. All three born blessed, educated at a top university. What happened? Should I send soup?

I glance at our bookshelves, my eyes lighting on four Booker Prize winners – Keri Hulme, the winner in 1985, Ben Okri in 1991, Arundhati Roy in 1997, D B C Pierre in 2003 – and wonder about them. Acclaimed at such relatively young ages, did they fulfil their promise? And will this year’s 28-year-old winner, Eleanor Catton, go on to produce a solid body of work?

And so upstairs to my room and the Aston Villa-Spurs game and the man of the month, Andros Townsend, unknown a year ago, now England’s saviour. It is in the nature of football to acclaim the gifted young. A couple of good performances and they become the hope for us all.

There is a good batch at present, such as Ravel Morrison of West Ham, Luke Shaw of Southampton, Ross Barkley of Everton, Raheem Sterling of Liverpool and Wilfried Zaha and Adnan Januzaj of Man United. We are lucky at these times. But will they make it?

In football, as in other forms of human life, people develop at different times, different speeds. They can also fall back or get injured. Successful novelists don’t have to worry about that, unless they fall off their wallet. A succession of injuries not only weakens players but gets them labelled as injury-prone, which is tantamount to dying.

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There are the temptations: drugs, booze, gambling, women, all the usual pleasures. It might go to their head, convincing them they have already made it, no need to knock yourself out.

In football, willpower can help you carve out a great career, making the most of what you have. I don’t remember either Kevin Keegan or Alan Shearer being acclaimed as boy wonders. They had to work at it.

Joe Cole was a boy wonder and has had a reasonable career but I’m sure nothing like he expected. Damien Duff, I thought he was terrific when I first saw him, then realised he didn’t always seem to know what he was doing, or where he was running, a common failing among wingers.

George Best, obviously. Everyone spotted him and drooled and he did produce, till he was 27 and got distracted. Straight after him as the prodigy in Man United came Brian Kidd – his surname sounding as apt as Best’s.

On his 19th birthday in 1968, Kidd scored against Benfica to win the Euro final. I had interviewed Best in his digs in 1965, aged 19, so rushed up to Manchester in 1968 to interview Kidd. And yes, I acclaimed both as boy wonders. That’s what we did, what we still do. Kidd, now the assistant manager at Man City, had a decent career but got only two England caps. Watching Peter Marinello in 1970 when he joined Arsenal from Hibs, I remember thinking: wow. Arsenal fans dubbed him the new Best. I bet most Gooners can’t remember him now.

Footballers rarely give up when in their stride, thinking this is boring, worthless, I would rather be doing other things – which can happen to novelists. The reason for Arundhati Roy’s sparse output since her Booker win appears to be her preoccupation with politics. The nearest in football is Cantona, deciding he would like to be an actor.

Townsend played well, got a lucky goal and was man of the match, but I am not putting much money on him. At 22, he is old for a boy wonder. There is something worrying about him – not just his gambling habit, but being on loan to nine different clubs indicates managers know something we don’t know.

Januzaj of Man United, the Belgian with a Kosovan-Albanian background, is only 18 and has more all-round natural skills. But will he keep progressing? God knows.

Which means Matt Le Tissier. Now he was a boy wonder. He stayed at Southampton all his career, suggesting lack of ambition. That is a handicap . . .

  1. Culture
  2. Sport
3 October 2013

John Betjeman wanted more sex. I want more football

Sex doesn’t take up that much time, unlike football: you get 90 minutes, a chance to change ends, extra time and then often a penalty shoot-out. Football, it does put in your day.

By Hunter Davies

I used to think that when I grow old and have got no more work and no one wants me any more – when I’ve fallen down all the divisions, work-wise, and been reduced to writing a book for some Division Three North publisher – at least I will have football. I can just lie back and enjoy it, all the time.
 
John Betjeman, on his deathbed, said his one regret was not having had enough sex. My fear was not having had enough football. Sex doesn’t take up that much time, unlike football: you get 90 minutes, a chance to change ends, extra time and then often a penalty shoot-out. Football, it does put in your day.
 
Now I am going to die happy. For not only do I know what I’ll be doing, work-wise, for the next four years – some Premiership projects – but something else I never expected to happen has happened: a surfeit of lampreys. I mean Lampards. I mean football.
 
This was the other week: let me see. There was Monday-night football – gawd, I can’t remember which game, give me a chance, it was ages ago. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Chelsea, Man United, Man City and Arsenal were all in the Champions League. The ones that clashed, as they were on at the same time, I copied and watched the next morning, making sure I didn’t know the scores.
 
On Thursday, there was Swansea in Europe at six o’clock, followed by Spurs in Europe. Both excellent games and good victories. Then two games on Saturday and Sunday, finishing with Man City stuffing Man United. My cup overfloweth.
 
A few years ago, I might not have bothered much with a team like Swansea but now, with all the money in the Prem, even the socalled lowly teams have good players, who have cost real money. I am fascinated by Michu and wonder how long Swansea can keep him – and by Brady at Hull, Benteke at Villa. Every team has one decent player worth watching.
 
The other big change is that all the Euro group games are on the telly, four at a time, so you can record the clashes and also the top leagues of Europe, such as Spain, Germany, Italy and France. It costs a fortune in subscriptions but, come on, think how much you spend on other, more short-lived and passing pleasures.
 
I reckon that week – which was a beezer of a week, a proper cracker – I spent 44 hours watching football over seven days. That’s more than the average person’s working week. In the UK, it’s 40.5 hours. The average for Europe is 39.7 hours. In France, where they are frightful slackers, the average is only 35.6 hours a week.
 
Is it gross, pathetic, reprehensible, stupid, selfish, self-indulgent? All of the above. Fortunately,
 
I don’t watch any other TV. Can’t fit it in. If I do happen to catch something non-football, I have no idea what is going on. The crime dramas are too clever and confusing. The costume dramas: risible. The soaps: too quick. The comedy is unfunny, though I did laugh at Mrs Brown’s Boys. Just my level: obvious and vulgar, perfect for the average football fan. I like to think I do more work because of football. When I know something good is coming up, I rise extra early, work extra hard, in order to deserve it when finally I flop. I do cut corners all the time, never watching the preview stuff, the half-time chat, the studio discussions. I restrict myself to the game.
 
At half-time, I rush down to cut the grass or do some digging – or I totally surprise the family by talking to them. What a fright they get, having thought I’d passed away.
 
The coverage is so rich and so comprehensive these days that, even in a boring game, there is something to ponder. Especially the close-ups of the managers.
 
They are all actors, in that they know they are on show and every mannerism is captured. You see a hand go to pick a nose, then stop, realising. The ones that swig water all the time yet have not exerted themselves, sweated it out – surely they must need to go to the lavatory?
 
When it gets really, really boring, I start counting up the number of World Cups I might still live to see, given a good wind. I smile contentedly and sing to myself, “Heaven, I’m in heaven . . .”