Shooting From the Hip, Speaking From the Heart

Posted by Paul Tomkins on March 4, 2005, 08:52:40 PM

I get asked a lot of questions. Some I can answer. Others 末 such as 'why don't you go (ahem) yourself?' 末 I judiciously choose to ignore. Since returning to the world of internet football discussion, after a two-year hiatus, I've tended to keep to the football itself 末 what happens during, and surrounding, the game itself, steering clear of too much personal flavour. A recent email discussion with an esteemed scouse author led him to question why I don't put 'more of myself' into my work. (He wasn't the first).

   Then again, others have objected when I've touched upon personal experience. That's the problem with feedback: it can provide you with all sorts of conflicting information. Clearly there's no pleasing all of the people all of the time. But then again, I've never tried to pander to tastes (or, despite the rumours, tasted panda). I write what I think, and people are perfectly welcome to take it or leave it. But when it came to writing the preface to my book on LFC, I wanted to cover certain 'About the Author' issues, to give people a flavour of where, and how, my views on Liverpool, and football in general, originated. It was as a result of that process that I created this article, which is, in essence, an online version of that chapter, but one which takes a slightly different tangent.


   Experience

   One area I do still touch upon is my own playing experience. In case you hadn't heard, I was FIFA World Player of the Year in 1983. The award was handed over to me in my back garden, by my uncle, and was made from an old biscuit tin.

   Flights of fantasy aside, I never learned more about the game than during the seasons I spent as a fairly-decent but far-from-spectacular semi-pro. I started out at that level as a once-prolific striker who found he could no longer score goals (the downside of suddenly facing goalkeepers capable of actually making saves), before a tour of duty that included central midfield, left back, right back, left midfield, right midfield, and 末 as the manager changed formation to the fit with the fashion of the day 末 both right and left wing-back; before finally getting another spell up front, and rediscovering how to coax the ball into the back of the net.

   As well as all the obvious insights to tactics and pressure, not to mention all the niggly 'professional' fouls that don't take place in the more casual environs of lower levels (such as a centre back grabbing your scrotum when you're through on goal 末 try sprinting while that's happening), it taught me important lessons about seeing things from a player's point of view: such as how crowd abuse can destroy confidence. Playing in front of a couple of hundred people means you hear every scathing, cutting, personal remark. They have paid to get in (it was only a few quid to watch me 末 although I doubt no one paid for that particular privilege 末 but they have paid all the same), and they take their shots. And they don't hold back.

   "Oi you, yes you 末 big nose 末 you're a fucking useless bastard, you dozy son of a bitch" came one particularly hurtful cry as I hugged the touchline, longing for a role infield like a soldier yearning to be displaced from the flak of the frontline. Stunned, but not going to take such abuse without a pithy retort, I wracked my brains but could only muster: "Well that's the last time I supply you with a free ticket then, Mum".

   Football fans, eh?

   I try to see things from the player's point of view. That's hopefully one of my strengths. It's easy to say "they're being paid 」60k a week, they should be able to this, or do that" but they are still human beings; we're not yet paying to watch robots. When you pay 」30 to watch a game of football, you have a right to expect that the players weren't on the lash until 5am the morning of the game. But you cannot expect them to play every game with faultless proficiency.

   I think I understand the game fairly well, having played at a decent level, and grown up surrounded by family members who played professionally or to a high amateur standard. Also having been a season ticket holder at Anfield for the best part of a decade, I've seen my fair share of the recent moderate-highs and moderate-lows. While I know what it's like to be an armchair fan, I also know what it's like to make a 400-mile round trip to Anfield for every home game, season after season.

   But I've never been what you would call a 'professional fan' 末 someone whose entire life revolves around the game, and who would have a nervous breakdown if forced to miss a pre-season friendly in Norway, or a Uefa Cup tie in Azerbaijan with Liverpool leading 15-0 from the first leg. I went to a fair few away games each season (my first, at Derby's Baseball Ground, early in 1991, was the club's biggest away league win for almost 100 years 末 it's only down from there, I could have assumed, and rightly so). I have travelled to see the Reds in Europe, and I can tot up a fair few 'brownie points' to prove my allegiance to the Red cause, but there have always been more passionate and dedicated fans, whose tales of what it means to be a Liverpool fan will always be more insightful than anything I 末 a mere illegitimate 'OOT' 末 can possibly offer. I try to stick to what I know, and what I do best.


   It's all gone 'Pete Tong'

   In the 'old' days I used to also discuss my match-going experiences, and how football fit into my personal life. But then my personal life went tits-up in almost every conceivable fashion, and football was the furthest thing from my mind 末 publicly discussing it, or indeed my personal relationship to it, was not on the agenda. In the thrall of a serious depression, I would watch a Liverpool match during the final two years of Houllier's (once-bright, once promising) reign, and find my mood only darken, and my outlook on life grow ever-more bleak. My life was shit, and football wasn't exactly helping. What was once a grand passion had become rather meaningless and hollowed-out.
   
   Maybe a flair-full, gut-busting title-winning side, topped off with the incredible cake-icing of the then-captain, Sami Hyypia, hoisting aloft the Champions League trophy, could have lightened those dark days for me. I wouldn't have altered my life in any significant way, but it would have distracted me from my woes 末 football as escapism rather than all-encompassing religion. It's all water under the bridge now, but it would have been nice to have seen what kind of elixir football could have provided. As it was, I was thoroughly miserable, and so too, it has to be said, were Liverpool. Even people whose lives were perfectly-knit and full of rapturous joy were reaching for the Prozac when it came to visiting Anfield. Insomniacs found it the best sedative money could buy.

   While football is often compared to religion, can we also legitimately 'lose faith'? We all know that we cannot convert to another belief system (if you ditched Liverpool for Arsenal's free-flowing football, you were never a fan), but can we lose hope, and stop worshipping at our usual alter on a Saturday at 3pm? (The mention of Saturday afternoons is of course now an anachronism, given football is sometimes played at any time except Saturday afternoons.

   The lesson life was teaching me was to get football into perspective 末 although admittedly much of the appeal of being a football fan is getting everything horribly out of proportion. (For ninety minutes you rage against officials, players, rival fans, and the result affects your entire week. And that's the good bit about being a fan).

   Family and friends come first. So does your health 末 I've learnt that the hard way. And yet is that an acceptable thing to acknowledge?

   Bill Shankly made what became a famous comment about the importance of football. Despite it being retrospectively cited, in order to prove him as some purblind old fool, it was of course uttered with his tongue tongue firmly in his cheek. If irony is where the actual meaning differs from the literal, that is a perfect example. Football has never been more important than life or death, and Shanks 末 now charging about in the great game of 5-a-side in the sky 末 knew it only too well. (As do Liverpool fans, after two stadium disasters in quick succession in the 1980s). But football remains part of what makes life worth living: without it, our existence would be less-rich.

   As I've suggested, the last few years of my life have been pretty grim. I say this not as a maudlin attempt at self-pity, or to elicit any sympathy, as I have no need for either. There are millions far (far) worse-off than myself. But everyone's personal trials, tribulations and travails are their own, encapsulated, as they are, in their own private bubble. We can only truly experience what we ourselves experience, for all our ability to empathize or to live vicariously. The trick is to put your pain into context: to gain perspective. Any loathsome self-pity I feel can be quickly wiped away by one news item, such as when families were swept away by the Christmas tsunami.

   I now use the same method to get over a bad result. Until 2002, nothing would drive me more insane than 'get over it, it's just a game' following a defeat. But of course it is just a game. But 末 and here's the key 末 don't make the mistake of thinking therefore it's the same as tiddlywinks, or shove ha'penny, or bar billiards, or Rugby Union. It's a game, but it's as good 末 and important 末 as a game gets. You can make it a religion, or a way of life. And that's all well and good. But anyone can be reminded to the contrary.

   Until 2002 I was a season ticket holder at Anfield, and the annual renewal of that ticket was one of my top priorities in life. At the end of 2002 my life was turned upside down and shaken violently: I was that small figure in a plastic orb with snow falling all around. My marriage disintegrated, and as a result, my long-term illness was affected, and my health, under the stress and strain, deteriorated. I was no longer able to hold down the part-time job I'd been struggling with, as I just wasn't physically able to cope, let alone mentally fit. (Being bullied by my boss over my illness didn't help). I had to move out of my marital home into cheap and squalid rented accommodation, leaving behind my baby son, fearing I'd be edged out as my ex-wife quickly met someone new, whom I feared would become my son's 'father'. My friends, of course, were really her friends, given I'd moved to a new city for that particular life.

   The nadir was the home game against Man United in December 2002: it had been a traumatic week, and I sat numbly watching Jerzy Dudek's distinctly unfunny clown routine ( "watch me throw the ball through my own legs" ), and I could only muster a wry smile at how the football was continuing to mirror my life. In May 2001 I was on honeymoon, in Spanish bars watching the Reds win the second and third parts of the Treble, and topping it off with the fantastic 4-0 win at the Valley to secure our return to the Champions League. Nine months later my son was born the week the Reds won 4-0 at Leeds and 6-0 at Ipwich, and the club was in the Quarter Finals of the Champions League, not to mention top of the league. Life was on the up and up.

   Ten months later we were losing at home to Manchester United courtesy of one of those goalkeeping howlers that will go down in history, while I packed my possessions and loaded cardboard boxes into the car on a cold winter's day. The next two years were a series of brief highs and long-lasting lows. (How better to also sum up the final Houllier years?)

   My response was to work hard at maintaining a relationship with my son from the other side of town, and, health-permitting, do all I could to spend as much time with him as possible. Where once the weekend was about going to Anfield, it was now more-often-than-not about my son.

   Fortunately the divorce itself was amicable, and I never needed to don a super-hero suit and cape and scale a public building with red underpants over my tights. When my little boy was born I remember being worried about him growing up to support a team other than Liverpool, or not taking an interest in the sport at all. Suddenly I really couldn't give a fuck.

   (That said, he does possess a Liverpool kit, and when I came back from a game earlier in the season, he was telling everyone I'd been to play for Liverpool. How do you shatter such illusions? There was nothing else to do but play along with it and, in Photoshop, superimpose my head onto Djibril Ciss's body with the hope that he was too young to pick up on the blatant discrepancies in skin colour).

   With a blank canvas, I had to rebuild my life virtually from scratch. Without wishing to sound like some nauseating born-again religious zealot, that's what I've been doing, and, with everything back in perspective, I'm not only more content, but also more equipped to deal with Liverpool losing the Cup Final in extra time, and not feeling like the bottom of my world has caved in. I lead a relatively "normal" life, but it's taken some getting used to giving up all the things that I once thought mattered.     

   I had no option but to give up my season ticket to Anfield, as I could neither afford to buy it, or pay the travel expenses; nor was I well enough to make the regular journey from the midlands, or willing to lose out on time with my boy. As you can probably guess, it was the least of my problems. Now, when I look back, I wonder why I feared life without that little red booklet with its thin hologram-adorned slips of paper.

   The removal of Houllier last summer signalled the perfect time for me to return to 'public' football debate. My life wasn't exactly rosy, but the worst had passed. If I was still in the process of rebuilding my life, then I felt able to handle discussing someone rebuilding Liverpool's fortunes. The internet had proved my salvation: chatting to like-minded Reds and making new friends in fellow fans from around the world, and meeting new women through a very reputable dating website (www.loose-and-immoral-and-totally-unfussy-women-from-the-ukraine.com 末 all dates come with a free paper bag).

   If any of this makes me less of a fan 末 or not even a real fan 末 in your eyes, then so be it. I really couldn't give a toss anymore about such pathetic distinctions. At the end of the day (and no football discussion is complete without that phrase) I support Liverpool for me 末 not for anyone else. Just as everyone should support the club in their own unique way. (Although if you go to Anfield, you sing the correct songs, and act in a manner befitting of the club's great tradition).

   Why do we have to justify ourselves to fellow Reds? Is there some eternally-damning judgment awaiting us on our passing (from this mortal coil, I mean 末 not on our ability to chip the ball to a teammate), like St Peter at the Pearly Gates, where we won't be allowed admission into Football Heaven unless we've conformed to the role of 'fan' as dictated by some self-deified Burberry-clad hoolie who will instead opt to send us to hell. (Or in other words, to Goodison Park every week).


   Optimism

   I don't think I am the eternal optimist some paint me as. (Not literally, you understand 末 I'm not sure B&Q stock an "Eternal Optimist Red', and I don't have hordes of Liverpool fans queuing outside my door, paintbrushes in hand. At least not since last summer). I laugh when I'm called an optimist, as I was dubbed a pessimist on the rather fine private email forum I used in recent years. 'Off the record' I may be a little more scathing, just as I am in the immediate aftermath of a match, but I'm not interested in controversy. It's about trying to find the truth, once the dust settles. I find it easy to rant and moan, but harder to take a deep breath and think. The former may serve a purpose in letting off steam, but the latter is what I aim to do when I write an article, or indeed, a book on Liverpool FC.

   I am merely striving to find some level of honesty and balance. When a new and hugely-successful manager takes charge, weeks after winning the world's best league, in conjunction with the Uefa Cup (despite having spent next-to-no money), you have to start with a level of trust and open-eyed faith, and take it from there. I am not arrogant enough to think I know more about the game than Rafael Benitez, and while we all have our opinions (which comes as part of our entitlement, as fans), everyone has to take into account the time it takes to put a plan into practice. A new manager deserves more leeway than one who's had time to put his plans into action, and who is still not delivering. I like to think stuff like that is common sense.

   We all have the players we cannot stand to see in a red shirt, whose appearance provokes an irrational 末 or perhaps perfectly rational 末 antipathy. I've had a few over the years. Oyvind Leonhardsen used to do my head in 末 I pulled out so much hair people thought I had alopecia. Emile Heskey was the most frustrating of recent years, not least because I knew just how good he could be. (So did Houllier: notice the indentation on Le Boss's forehead from banging his head against the wall. Only Emile himself seemed oblivious to his potential). Salif Diao is another, although his ability just seemed insufficient. But you have to give players time, and an adequate chance to shine. Snap judgments do no one any favours in the long term.

   I know what it's like to have an absence of confidence, and to find yourself struggling to control a simple pass without it bouncing up off of your shin. I also know what it's like to be 'in the zone' where you can pull down a 60-yard pass arcing over your shoulder and kill it dead with one touch (well, sometimes). I know what it's like to have new teammates look me in the eye after a handful of games and think 'this lad's got nothing to offer us'. I also know what it's like for those same teammates to later look to me to score the winning goal, or drag the team out of a hole. It was all me: the same me. I hear the phrase "he's a confidence player" used about certain professionals, but all players need confidence 末 especially flair players, as it takes more confidence to do creative things than it does to steam into a tackle at 100 mph. But all footballers are human.

   I try to understand the player's circumstances when making an assessment. Look at Luis Garcia: a new country (which speaks a different language), a new style of football, and a pregnant wife 末 who gives birth four months into the season. (Coinciding with his loss of form). Anyone who's had a baby knows the stress, the upheaval, and the sleepless nights. Footballers remain human.


Celebrity

   At times it can be weird being a very minor web celebrity. (Which, incidentally, is the second-lowest form of celebrity in the world, officially ranked just below village tarts who everyone gossips about, and directly above Tara Palmer-Tomkinson).

   By this, I mean I may be told of a website forum I've never heard of, where my articles are copied and pasted (an act which in itself doesn't bother me), because people are saying "Tomkins is this 末", or "Tomkins is that 末". It's odd when people I've never met, or spoken to online, talk as if they know me, passing comment on what kind of person I am, or what agenda they feel I have. I see the same with Chris Bascombe, who can come in for some shocking abuse. I find that criticism only tends to hurt when it comes from those I know, or whose opinions I value 末 and only when it's personal. As I'm openly (and constructively, I hope) criticizing others, I can't object when I receive some in return. So long as it's fair.

   I expect the same over my plans to write my book Golden Past, Red Future. I've already felt a small backlash, and a certain amount of 'he's blowing his own trumpet'. (I was once emailed a video clip of a man blowing his own trumpet. I guess it's only possible if you are a contortionist. However, 'tromboning' is a whole other issue).

   I can find myself irked by criticism of my website articles from people who have made no effort to do something similar themselves, and also because they are receiving the information for free (it's cost you nothing, so why go to the trouble of emailing me to say I'm a twat? Just don't read my stuff, it's far easier). The book will be different as, kleptomaniacs aside, people will be paying to read what I have to say, and therefore won't accept half-arsed arguments. (I'd better go find the other half of my argument-arse, so I can produce full-arsed arguments).
   
   I am writing the book as a way of being pro-active, and trying to use the reputation I've built up over five years and hundreds of articles. It is not about making money, as every author I've spoken to says that just doesn't happen. (Instead, I was tempted to write a simplistic novel about a young footballing magician who dazzles his school friends at The Academy 末 called Darren Potter and the Philosopher of Azkaban's Incredible Keepie-uppies. Maybe next year). My book (the real one) might open some doors, or lead to something different for me. Without trying, there's no knowing.

   Publication of the book is set for the summer, with the presses rolling once my season review is completed in May. It's an exciting time for me, although I do have recurrent nightmares that as soon as the book is printed and ready for sale, Benitez will find himself sacked by the crazed Italian Mafia boss who has purchased the club, simultaneously announcing plans to give Gerrard, Carragher, Alonso and Morientes to Manchester United in return for Phil Neville; as well as changing the club's name to 'Rectal Examination FC' and building the new stadium in Liechtenstein to cut labour costs and capitalize on cheap steel prices. (In which case the book will have 150 pages torn out in a haphazard fashion, and subsequently retail for a very reasonable 13 pence at a car boot sale near you).

   I'd like to end with the short tale which I have printed out and pinned above my workstation. It also helps me get things into perspective. I doubt many people know that I am often in physical pain when I write (if only I could introduce some brevity, eh?), and some days I am unable to get around without severe muscle and head aches. (Some days are better than others 末 much in the way Morrissey said, with a high degree of accuracy, that some girls are bigger than others, and that, indeed, some girls mothers are bigger than other girls mothers). But I know people with the same condition as me who cannot even move a single muscle. I have a disability, but I am not seriously disabled, and for that I am grateful. And while getting to games can be a very tiring 末 exhausting 末 experience for me these days, on the occasions I get to go, I only have to think about the following story.

   It comes to me courtesy of Jonathan Swain, who is ably assisting me on the book, and whom modesty prevents me from calling the Pako Ayesteran to my Rafa Benitez. (The truth may prove him to be the Phil 'Yes Boss' Neal to my clueless-and-confused Graham Taylor, as I mutter "do I not like that" at anyone who'll listen, with regards to a factual innacuracy).

   It is 2003, and Jonathan is attending a game against Arsenal at Anfield, with his friend, Nadeem.
   
    We edge inch by inch to the ground. Pull up as close as possible, barter with a policeman to let us stop and get the ramp fitted and the big man out. The surge of excitement as you pass through those gates ... the singing痴 already well under way and although he痴 wrapped up in two coats and scarf and gloves I swear I can see him shivering in anticipation as we come out of the tunnel.
   
   The Kop is in full voice and the hairs on my neck are at attention, a wall of sound that beats the Ultra Sur at the Bernabeu without even trying. Find our seats, beautiful, right in the corner ... his ventilator means he can稚 scream and shout or tell Heskey to move his fat arse, but he痴 drinking it in.

   Afterwards he痴 in real pain. He壇 never moan and his eyes are shining with what he痴 experienced 末 even though Pires has ruined the day with a curler into the top corner 末 but you can see it. We spend forty minutes in the disabled loo, holding his hands up to the dryer to get some warmth back and the blood flowing again. It will take him maybe three days to actually feel his hands properly after this cold and rain, but does he care?

   Does he bollocks."


   My enthusiasm for Liverpool Football Club is back, and hell, maybe I really am an eternal optimist after all. But maybe I've just got it in perspective at long last?

   My new philosophy is to try to look to positives (wherever possible), as to me the hope of a brighter tomorrow is what kept me going through some dark days (even if I was at times blind to that fact), and football is no different 末 so long as you can see sprouting chutes of green you to prove that spring on its way, you can rest assured that a blinding summer is not far behind.

   Football, like the seasons, is cyclical too. Our winter of discontent has lasted long enough, has it not?
   
ゥ Paul Tomkins 2005
As ever, to register your interest in purchasing Golden Past, Red Future when it is published this summer, please email tomkins_lfcbook@btinternet.com or visit www.paultomkins.com



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