Last updated: May 21, 2011 9:55 am

Five ages of a professional footballer

The autobiographical sharings of five leading English players paint a composite portrait of the strange life of the modern footballer
 
Wayne Rooney, aged 12

Wayne Rooney, aged 12

Stage one: Boyhood

“I was nearly called Adrian” are the first words of Wayne Rooney’s projected five volumes. “That was what my father wanted. A bit posh, I suppose, and doesn’t quite sound like me. In the end, though, my Mum talked my Dad out of it.”

Most English players’ autobiographies are keen to establish the author’s social origins at once: as a member of a tight-knit, loving working-class family. The message is that however much the player earns, he remains anchored and authentic. Early on, each of these five offers a long paean to his family. “I’m looking for my Mum in the jubilant crowd…” is how Chelsea’s Ashley Cole opens his story, while teammate Frank Lampard tells us he has inherited “my Mum’s perception, humanity and sensitivity”, and “my Dad’s ambition, hard work and vision”. Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard has happy memories of childhood holidays at Butlins.

You inevitably suspect cant, but, in fact, childhood was about the only time in their lives that these players were not treated as celebrities. Almost everyone they meet afterwards wants ulterior benefit from the relationship – no wonder the players feel nostalgic for childhood. “However crazy my life became with Liverpool and England, I wanted that protective wall of my family around me,” says Gerrard.

Even as primary school pupils, the players spend much of their time among future professionals. Lampard has been doing so since birth: his father is the West Ham stalwart Frank Lampard Senior, his uncle is the football manager Harry Redknapp, and his older cousin is the former England footballer Jamie Redknapp. Lampard grows up playing keep-ball with Jamie in Uncle Harry’s garden. Sometimes Bobby Moore drops by for tea and biscuits.

 

At the age of eight, Gerrard is already training at Liverpool alongside a brilliant goalscorer named Michael Owen. Cole and Wayne Rooney, who now plays for Manchester Utd, are nine when they join the respective academies of Arsenal and Everton. By their teens, the five authors are already on a career track. The schoolboy Gerrard is courted by Alex Ferguson (“top man”), and letters from other clubs regularly land on the family doormat. A crucial staging post – these boys’ equivalent of university entrance exams – is trying to get into the then national academy at Lilleshall. Gerrard is rejected. “Me! Captain of Liverpool Boys!” He admits that the brush-off hurts to this day. Lampard doesn’t get in either, but, curiously, their contemporary Jamie Carragher does.

With all this going on, school cannot matter much. As budding stars they are taught to view anything outside football as a distraction. That’s why footballers are seldom complete human beings. The only one of the five who seems to show any interest in his education is Lampard, who, unusually among England players since the first world war, attends private school. He is keen to emphasise to the reader that he was pretty nifty with a book, too. He gets 10 GCSEs, including, famously, an A* in Latin, before Lampard Senior tells him to leave school to concentrate on football.

Gerrard passes nine GCSEs, yet spends his last school exam pondering “exactly how I would burn my uniform”. Rooney, aged 11, gets a B for PE, with the comment: “Wayne is a very agile sportsman who’s worked hard throughout the year. He needs to maintain this level of work next year.” If Wayne Rooney can’t get an A for PE, who can?

Rooney leaves school and makes his Everton debut aged 16 years and 10 months. The other four leave school and become professional football apprentices. “Only now do I realise that it was one of the happiest times of my career, a life without the constant pressure I would come to know later,” says Lampard.

. . .

 
Steven Gerrard

Steven Gerrard during his Liverpool debut in 1998

Stage Two: Young Professional

The professional debut of these players isn’t some sort of Hollywood moment. They had seen it coming for years, much as an upper-middle-class boy knows he will go to university. All five make their debuts in the utterly familiar environments of their home clubs, though none of the group is quite as much at home as Lampard. When he stands on the touchline aged 18 ready to go on against Coventry, Uncle Harry, West Ham’s manager, puts his arms around him, and Frank Senior, the assistant manager, smiles from the dugout.

Perhaps the most confusing thing about life in the first team is that suddenly there are foreigners. The players have spent their youth entirely among English people. “My mind was closed to other cultures back then,” Lampard admits. “I was very much a home boy whose interests and tastes didn’t venture much beyond the boundaries of London and where I grew up.”

The foreigners are scary. The teenage Gerrard is worried when Liverpool appoints a French manager: “I was just terrified of this French set-up. I wanted it to be English, to be people I knew and understood.” Later, he is anxious too about England’s plans to appoint a foreign manager – to this day he retains an instinctive suspicion of foreign players and their supposed propensity to cheat. “Piss off to Spain or Italy, where they niggle, dive or pull shirts,” he writes.

 

Given these stereotypes, it’s no wonder that each nationality tends to stick together in a club. When Lampard arrives at Chelsea, the club’s training ground consists of six small dressing rooms. Lampard joins the “English section”; beyond that, “there was an Italian room, a French room and the rest of the world. It was a terrible set-up for a football club and didn’t help at all in building and promoting the team spirit.” Lampard spends the next few years working with foreigners, but their foreignness never quite wears off, even when he later has children with a Spanish woman.

At this stage in his ascent, the footballer has a scary encounter with another new force: the tabloids. A ritual of the modern top-class player’s career is an early hazing by the News of the World. If you are a talented player in England, your almost unlimited access to sex is balanced by having to perform it in front of the nation. At Liverpool’s Christmas party in 1998, a young Carragher, dressed in a Quasimodo costume, is photographed “working my way through a variety of angles” with a stripper. He doesn’t get caught that way again.

The News of the World excels at this sort of thing. It gets hold of a video of Lampard and England teammates Rio Ferdinand and Kieron Dyer cavorting with an array of girls in the Cypriot resort Ayia Napa, and exposes Ashley Cole, then at Arsenal, for being illegally “tapped up” by Chelsea. Rooney’s taste for prostitutes goes public. The tabloids bring unhappiness and paranoia into these players’ lives.

. . .

 
Frank Lampard

Frank Lampard playing for West Ham in 1997

Stage Three: Break with boyhood club

When Arsenal’s “Invincibles” finish the league season unbeaten in 2003-4, Ashley Cole thinks (or so he tells us): “I want to stay on at Arsenal and break David O’Leary’s 555 league appearances. Even beat John Lukic as the oldest player, running out until I am 40…” He loves this club, he swears.

However, a break with their boyhood club is a central drama of most of these men’s books. All the players let go except Gerrard, and even he came very close to going to Chelsea. Each footballer describes his break in detail, and what emerges from their accounts, cumulatively, is that it’s wrong-headed of fans to expect any footballer to think like a fan. True, all these players were once fans. But once they become footballers, they join a different species.

 

Rooney, for example, first goes to Goodison as a six-month-old in nappies and even wears his Everton kit to his trials with Liverpool, aged nine. He isn’t wearing Everton colours to be defiant. It’s just what he wears after school. Liverpool like the look of him nonetheless, and ask him back the next week. But in the meantime, Everton offer him schoolboy forms. Rooney signs for the club he loves. However, he admits: “Had Liverpool asked me to sign first and not have another trial, then I’m sure I would have signed for them and been a ‘Red’.” Even at nine he is not thinking as a fan; he relates to football as a footballer.

The players do have some genuine fans’ emotions. However, these are much weaker than their desire to make it as a player. Each of these books says at some point that footballers are motivated by ambition, not loyalty. The problem is that the fans don’t see things that way. As Carragher notes, “fans will never accept that a Liverpool player may want to leave for professional reasons. They cling on to the far-fetched notion that their favourite players wouldn’t even think of playing anywhere else.”

Being a loyal supporter is a shibboleth of English football, the game’s equivalent of motherhood and apple pie. Players are always being encouraged to talk as if they are fans first. That’s why Cole in his book still goes on about his love for Arsenal. “My heart and soul was tied to Arsenal with a fisherman’s knot. I don’t think even Houdini could have unravelled it,” he says. Fans hear these claims, and are tempted to believe them. Then, when the player leaves – in Cole’s case because Arsenal were offering him only a mere £55,000 a week – the fans feel betrayed and turn on him.

Lampard, Rooney and Cole enter their first clubs as fans, but swiftly become employees. When Rooney signs his first professional contract at Everton, he is aghast to find that “over a hundred press people and 12 different camera crews” have been invited to witness the moment. He sips water straight from a bottle on the table, and Moyes beside him whispers: “Use the fucking glass!” Rooney soon starts going off Moyes, and off Everton.

Lampard as a teenager at West Ham gets weekly abuse from thousands of fans, after his uncle and father lose popularity. When the 18-year-old is badly hurt and is stretchered off at Villa Park, some West Ham supporters in the away section cheer. Lampard dreads driving to his home ground on match days. “There wasn’t a single time that I left Upton Park after being slagged off or jeered by some of the supporters that I didn’t take their anger home with me,” he admits.

That his father played more than 700 games for West Ham doesn’t give the fans pause. Lampard devotes pages and pages to this long-gone time. “It’s important to me that people understand just how deeply I feel about what happened,” he writes. He says he has no feelings for his boyhood club any more.

Professional football is an uglier working environment than most of us ever experience, let alone in our teens. Fans might say that players are paid enough to put up with this sort of thing, but that’s a peculiar kind of morality. Even rich people can hurt. Lampard says: “I am actually quite sensitive, that’s how I am.”

. . .

 
Ashley Cole with Cheryl Tweedy

Ashley Cole and Cheryl Tweedy in 2006

Stage Four: Stardom

What’s it really like to be a famous footballer? It’s Carragher who captures it best. In May 2001 Liverpool complete their famous “treble” of cups by beating Alaves 5-4 in extra-time in the Uefa Cup final. Carragher describes the scene in the changing room afterwards: “Mentally, physically and emotionally we were too drained to celebrate. I threw off my kit, kicked off my boots, dipped myself into a bath that was bigger than a swimming pool and stared blankly at my teammates … We were too exhausted and bewildered to appreciate the view.”

The serial reader of these autobiographies soon grasps that being a multimillionaire professional footballer is often not much fun. The players can’t get up to much because of hassle from fans, tabloids and their clubs’ dieticians. The nation follows their every move: all this encourages isolation. In any case, players are discouraged from developing interests outside football. It just drains energy. And so they end up spending a lot of time sitting around the house. Rooney, whose only hobby is sleeping, takes up betting on sport out of sheer boredom.

The players are encouraged to marry young, in the hope that this will keep them at home, but it doesn’t always work out. All five players issue paeans to their Wags, but at least two of said Wags are now ex-Wags. Thankfully, Gerrard and Carragher largely spare us the details of their private lives. They only want to talk about football. Their books are the truer for it.

 

If only Cole had been as circumspect. The reader’s heart sinks when he reveals that he is about to propose marriage to Cheryl. Their chosen venue is Highclere Castle, and we feel their pain when their fellow celebrities Jordan and Peter Andre stage their own wedding there shortly before the Coles’ big day. Cole still recalls Cheryl’s reaction verbatim: “NO WAY! Right, Ashley, we’re changing venues!” Astonishingly, Cole also reprints his wedding speech in full.

Much of the fun the players have is on the team bus (Rooney and his United teammates play Shit Head, a simplified version of poker) or at the training ground (at Liverpool, Gerrard plays Bare Arse, in which one player shoots at another player’s bare arse). Every player believes that his own club has a unique team spirit.

There is the odd interesting personal revelation: Rooney likes to sleep with a TV set, a light and a vacuum cleaner or hairdryer switched on. But what you really want from these books is insights into life on the field. Of course Rooney and Cole are unable to deliver any. Here is Cole’s analysis of Cristiano Ronaldo: “His skills are slicker than his hair, and any defender has to be on top of his game to stand a chance of keeping tabs on him.” And here is Rooney’s: “Ronaldo is a great lad and loves to have a laugh.”

Luckily, Gerrard does provide the odd glimpse of football. He gives a wonderful account of the years spent unlearning his English love of the tackle. “For most professionals,” he explains, “tackling is a technique. For me it’s an adrenaline rush … the sight of the other team with the ball makes me sick.” When he tackles, he doesn’t hold back: “I can’t.” And so, in his early years as a pro, he keeps getting sent off. Eventually he learns to tackle with one foot instead of two. His is a rare detailed account of the mechanics of football.

. . .

 
Jamie Carragher

Jamie Carragher after England’s defeat by Portugal in 2006

Stage five: Elimination with England

The so-called “golden generation” of English football will forever be associated with failure amidst hysteria. Yet reading these five players’ accounts of international football, you see that they also have an artisan’s interest in their time with England. To them, playing for their country means close encounters with the best practitioners of their particular craft.

When Gerrard first joins the England team, the quality of training startles him. The other players pass the ball around much too fast for him. Shearer hits every ball into the top corner. And when Gerrard first runs into a Beckham cross in training, “it was a goal before I touched it. Honestly. Beckham puts his crosses in just the right place; it is in fact harder to miss.” Whenever England get knocked out of yet another tournament, the players get depicted as buffoons, but if you have actually played with them you probably can’t see it like that.

Internationals know that a newcomer in their world needs help, and so almost everyone rallies round – sometimes even the opposition. Gerrard comes on as a sub against Germany at Euro 2000, and, when the ball goes out of play, he turns to Germany’s Didi Hamann, his teammate at Liverpool, and confides, “I am shitting myself here, mate.” Hamann replies: “Relax, Stevie. Just do what you do normally.” That doesn’t stop Gerrard taking Hamann down shortly afterwards with “a full-whack tackle”, then shouting, “Fucking get up, Didi!”, and later complaining to journalists that Hamann had “squealed like a girl”.

Only one of the five authors is unfazed by his international debut. Admittedly Rooney is surprised to be called up aged 17 years and three months: when Moyes first tells him, he assumes it’s for England under-21s. But once the misunderstanding is cleared up, Rooney goes for a kickabout on the street with his mates.

 

Gerrard’s overcharged emotional tone contrasts with Rooney’s blithe emptiness throughout their two books, but nowhere more so than on the topic of England. Before Rooney’s first game in a big tournament, England-France at Euro 2004, he politely waits for manager Sven-Göran Eriksson to deliver his team talk, and then tells the other players: “Just give me the ball. I will do it.” Rooney’s self-belief is all his own. Yet most of our five players seem to share the national view that England is destined to win a tournament. After qualifying for the 2002 World Cup, Gerrard immediately thinks of England’s victory in 1966.

Self-belief peaks in 2006. Most of these books first appeared that spring, in a bid to benefit from the national hype. Rooney got his £5m from HarperCollins partly with an eye to his writing a Churchillian account of winning the pot. After the World Cup some of the books were reissued, with updates that tried to explain the unexpected failure in Germany.

The players endure long days in their hotel in Baden-Baden, but at least the games room is brilliant, and equipped with its own comments book. Cole recalls: “Stevie Gerrard cracked us all up when he scribbled ‘What a pile of shite’.” Oh, happy days.

Then they meet Portugal. “We were better than them. Miles better,” Cole reflects before the game. As the players wait to go out on to the pitch, Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo chat in the tunnel. Then they wish each other good luck.

All five memoirs agree on one point: Rooney did not stamp on Ricardo Carvalho’s genitals. Well, not intentionally. The sending-off was all Ronaldo’s fault. And so the game comes down to a penalty shootout – a climactic scene in all these books, like the shootout at the end of a Western. All our heroes bar Rooney are there, as if Eriksson had deliberately chosen these writers to kick.

First Lampard’s shot is saved. Owen Hargreaves scores, and then Gerrard misses. Next comes Carragher. As he later discovers, he has been chosen to take for the wrong reason. Eriksson’s assistant Tord Grip will explain afterwards: “He took one really well for Liverpool in the Champions League final.” But Carragher notes that although he has watched the DVD of the Istanbul match “a thousand times”, he has never yet spotted himself taking a penalty. “It’s frightening to think England’s assistant manager could be so ill-informed,” he comments. How did Eriksson and Grip keep busy in the months before the World Cup? It’s hardly as if a penalty shootout in the World Cup were a “black swan” event that nobody could have planned for.

Nonetheless, Carragher places the ball on the spot, and scores! Unfortunately the referee hasn’t blown his whistle yet. Carragher has to retake, and this time the keeper saves. Inevitably Ronaldo scores, and England are eliminated again, before Cole can take his turn.

A nation mourns, but not Carragher. Sitting on the team bus waiting to leave the stadium, he receives a text message that says, “Fuck it. It’s only England.” Those are Carragher’s thoughts exactly. Of course he is upset, but: “At least it wasn’t Liverpool, I’d repeat to myself, over and over. I confess. Defeats while wearing an England shirt never hurt me in the same way as losing with my club.” Carragher has a sociological explanation for his feelings: people from Liverpool, he says, tend to feel a distance from the English nation.

Rooney gets over the disappointment fast, too. In the changing room after the game, Eriksson tells him not to worry about his red card. “But I hadn’t,” Rooney tells us. “It was already history.”

Even after getting knocked out, Cole still believes the pre-tournament hype: “On our day, without doubt, we’re better than them, France, Germany and Italy. The World Cup had our name written all over it, and it should have been our time … But we didn’t play well enough.”

 

In other words, the reality of poor performances matters less than the greater truth of English superiority. Let’s leave it to a wiser man to provide the final judgment. “We were just not as good as we think we are,” writes Gerrard. It was “stupid” of him and the other players to go around “constantly claiming we could win the World Cup”. It mustn’t happen again, he says. “In future tournaments, we must learn to be humble.” Unfortunately it didn’t quite work out like that in South Africa last summer. The so-called golden generation is on its way out, and most of its books now fill the warehouses of second-hand internet bookstores, waiting to be pulped.

This is an edited extract from ‘The Football Men: Up Close with the Giants of the Modern Game’ by Simon Kuper (Simon & Schuster). To comment on this piece please e-mail magazineletters@ft.com

Related Topics

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

LIFE AND ARTS ON TWITTER

More FT Twitter accounts
SHARE THIS QUOTE