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Disunited

Just a short update to let readers of this blog know that my alter ego Anthony Camber has released his latest novel. Called Disunited, it’s a comedy with added drama about a top young footballer who comes out as gay. Serendipitously it arrives to coincide with LGBT History Month and the Football v Homophobia month of action. Luckily it arrives before an actual footballer has actually come out.

Disunited is available as an ebook for Kindle, Kobo, iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch (and other devices via Lulu) and also in paperback from Amazon.

I remain staggered that I can make the final tweaks to the content on Tuesday and have professionally printed and bound copies in purchasers’ hands by Friday morning. I love living in the future.

Read the publication post on the Anthony Camber blog…

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Embracing the obsessives

Broadly, a subject has three types of audience: uninterested, interested, and obsessive. There are probably nuances here and Gartner would undoubtedly conjure up a four-quadrant chart and charge you several grand for it, but humans like things in threes so that’s where I’m going.

Each of us occupies one of these roles for a subject (the role might change over time). I count hate as interested: you have an opinion. I’m uninterested in Eastenders; I’m interested in X Factor (I want to kill it with fire); I’m obsessed with the Olympics.

Where this gets interesting is how these partitions are considered by content producers.

In almost all cases, newspapers and TV news programmes aim at the interested, ignoring obsessives and uninteresteds.

Consider TV news coverage of football. It assumes you follow the game — it never explains offside, or the league format (unless it changes), so it’s not for the uninterested. It doesn’t have three people arguing over the merits of a free kick, so it’s not obsessive either.

It’s similar with economics: if you don’t understand what GDP actually means (as opposed to the acronym’s expansion), you’re out of luck. But I bet economists regularly scream “it’s not as simple as that!” at the screen. The uninterested and the obsessive aren’t the targets.

The exceptions in news programming seem to be with science and to a lesser extent technology. With coverage of space exploration and physics, the target seems to be the uninterested almost exclusively. Mars is described as the fourth rock from the sun, cold, etc, almost every time, and Higgs is “the so-called God particle”.

Imagine if BBC News said: “Today in the Premier League, which is the richest and most important football league in England, the Liverpool FC club, which plays at a large stadium called Anfield…”

Producers might argue their coverage is as deep as the audience’s knowledge, and the audience knows more about football than about Mars. True, up to a point: but I think the audience knows far less about economics (and politics) than correspondents assume.

With science, it seems the interested and obsessive audiences are deliberately left adrift. The recent coverage of Neil Armstrong’s death was mostly lightweight, and the BBC’s online obituary leads with this excruciating paragraph:

In 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the Moon and arguably the most famous man in the Universe.

As Wikipedia would say: citation needed.

Even a specialist, nominally interested-aimed show like Horizon often fails: there’s too much enforced drama, and the target appears to be someone who progressed only recently from uninterested. I can’t help but think this reflects the status of the production team.

The obsessive science audience is today not considered at all on TV, with the possible exception of The Sky At Night. I think this is very much down to its longevity and to Patrick Moore, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, once he leaves us, the show is quietly shelved as “coming to a natural end”.

Earlier in the year Professor Brian Cox gave a televised lecture on quantum theory. At last, I thought: targeting the high-end interested and the obsessive. And yet, amidst the actual science, there had to be celebrity involvement — Jonathan Ross doing maths, etc. I can picture the production meetings, where confused barely interested TV bods desperately tried to drag the target towards them.

A journalist I follow on Twitter was nevertheless confused by the lack of footage of Cox silhouetted by sunsets and wondered in a tweet whether he had now jumped the shark. I gave her the 140-character version of this post. She didn’t reply.

Irritatingly TV can cater for obsessives. The Big Brother auxiliary shows (such as Big Brother’s Little Brother and its Desmondesque successor on Channel 5) and similar spin-offs are targeted at hard-core fans. And for this year’s Olympics the BBC provided, for no additional cost, up to twenty-four channels of uninterrupted sport. If you wanted fencing prelims, you could watch them (and you still can, until January). BBC1 and BBC3 dipped around, catering for the interested with blanket coverage. (The uninterested had the even-numbered channels.)

The medium that has embraced the obsessives like no other is the internet, of course. (There are obsessive magazines too, like Maximum Carp and Carpology and so on, but the net out-obsesses these comfortably.)

Which brings me back to to Mars.

The seven minutes of terror before Curiosity’s touchdown were just before 6.30am UK time. The interested might’ve watched BBC News in the hope of some coverage. I’m an obsessive and watched NASA TV online, which showed the action from the control room live. Even this, annoyingly, cut away later to clumsy interviews, when all I wanted to do was listen to the mission control loop. (That was available on the net, Roger told me later. He’s a hardcore obsessive.)

But NASA’s usually great at cultivating obsessives. I can watch and listen in to Curiosity briefings and teleconferences live, uninterrupted by a journalist talking over the science. The Curiosity team also took part in a Reddit AMA that produced a bunch of intelligent, occasionally high-end obsessive questions.

Does it matter that mainstream TV doesn’t cater for science obsessives? I don’t know. I’d like to think it matters. The BBC argues that BBC1 and BBC2 have a general remit, and then dedicates sixteen days of BBC1 6am-1am to sport for the Olympics. Is it too much to ask for an hour of proper, obsessive science a week? A month?

But then, I’d probably have read it on the internet already.

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Spurs are on their way to Wembley

“Do you want me to call it off?” Mum stood framed in the bathroom doorway, hands on hips, looking down at me sprawling in pain.

“No! I’ll be fine!” My bladder had screamed full all the way home from school and was busy wreaking its revenge. I wasn’t going to let it deter me: it was Thursday 14 May 1981, and I had a ticket for the FA Cup final replay between my team, Tottenham, and Manchester City. I’d been to plenty of football matches – I had a season ticket – but never a match this important. Never Wembley.

And how could I face my school friends the next day if, after bragging that I was going, I then stayed at home – because of a bladder strain. That choice would haunt me forever. Nothing short of a detached limb would stop me going.

I wasn’t going alone, of course. My cousin Mark, altogether more worldly-wise at 18 or so, also had a ticket – and a car. It wouldn’t be our first trip together: we’d gone to London a few years before, just the two of us I think, to see 2001 at the cinema. No, not the original release; it might have been the tenth anniversary, though – 1978. I’d have been nine, he fifteen. Hmm, surely not? Possibly. Times were different then, all flares and hair and grainy film.

We drove to Wembley, or thereabouts. I have no memory of the walk along Wembley Way with the gathering thousands, or of the queue, or of the hunt for the correct stairwell, or of the steep climb to our seats – oh, perhaps I do. It seemed near-vertical back there, vertiginously deep in the top corner of the Royal Box side, not far from the left goal line from the usual TV perspective.

It was a tense match. Spurs took the lead early, never a good sign, with City levelling only a few minutes later in the goal nearest us. Five minutes into the second half they went ahead through a penalty. The supporters around me – all Tottenham fans – became nervous. After 70 minutes Spurs equalised: jumping, screaming, relief. Twenty minutes to find a winner.

Six minutes later, it happened. The finest goal I’ve ever witnessed in person. Ricky Villa, substituted in the drawn match the previous Saturday, took the ball deep into the penalty area past one defender, two, jinking left and right, and fired a shot—

I’ve never seen, heard or felt anything like it. Fifty thousand people simultaneously screaming, exploding in joy, hugging, bouncing. Astonishment, disbelief.

And then the interminable wait. Fourteen minutes, plus injury time. Just keep the ball. Just. Keep. The. Ball.

At the final whistle we could breathe again. The celebrations began. From our vantage point we couldn’t see the team climb the 39 steps to the Royal Box, nor could we see Steve Perryman lift the trophy; we simply cheered when everyone else did. We cheered as, presumably, each player in turn held the cup aloft. We were drunk on cheers.

I’m not sure how we got home without Mark crashing the car. Sober, but still drunk. A high I’ve never forgotten and know I can never recreate.

Football’s a game played by overpaid, often unlikeable twats; owned by oligarchs; run by idiots; watched by thugs and bigots. But sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s played by sublime craftsmen at the top of their trade, and watched by passionate, loyal fans who experience the greatest highs and deepest lows with friends and strangers on the terraces across the country. But it’s still owned by oligarchs and run by idiots.

Cup Final day is not what it once was, even ignoring the rosifying memory lens. This year it’s not even the final match of the season. It’s lost in the Premier League and Champions League cash-chase, another victim of the sport’s insatiable greed. The loss of the FA Cup’s prestige arguably began when money begat exclusive TV deals. Once, the FA Cup Final was the only live domestic football match on TV, and the build-up began on both main channels at dawn with Cup Final Pro-Celebrity Eggy Soldiers or some such; now the single terrestrial broadcaster has no work to do. No romance to talk up. No semi-literate panel to parade. No Moore v Coleman/Motty contest to hype (Coleman, obv.).

All we have is the game, yet another live game in a season of yet another live games. Eagerly awaited by the teams and the fans, and the obsessives, but few others. Of course I’m only saying all this because the year ends in one and by rights that means Spurs should have been there, dammit.

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Someone has to be second

At last, a professional footballer has come out: Anton Hysén, son of eighties mulleted Kop legend Glenn. OK, he plays in the fourth tier of Swedish football – unlikely to hear the siren call of Abramovich gold or to wear his country’s cap any time soon – but he’s a professional footballer, he’s out, and he’s proud. And it has to start somewhere. Well, start againJustin Fashanu was first, twenty years ago.

Hysén emerges blinking into the rainbow just a few weeks after England cricketer Steven Davies. Both still young, eligible and non-munty, both hopefully with long careers to come, neither willing to sacrifice their personal happiness to the bigotry and intolerance of a dwindling minority of thugs and churchgoers.

The received wisdom is that Davies will have an easier time of it from spectators than Hysén. If your IQ is high enough to appreciate the rules and nuance of cricket, I suspect the theory goes, you won’t stampede to the exit in a froth of green-inked indignation whenever Davies adjusts his box.

Conversely, football is watched by walking tattoos: illiterate, innumerate, unthinking yobs judging sexuality by the chunkiness of a scarf’s knit and the heft of a fatty overhang.

Not true, of course. Gays watch and play football. Bigots watch and play cricket. The lazy stereotypes of the footballing thug and the TMS-addicted, bespectacled connoisseur of cricket are just as prevalent as that of the mincing, bitchy, promiscuous, diseased, cottaging queen. They exist: but are they the norm? Which way lies the trend?

It’s entirely possible that Hysén will receive no abuse from crowds, and that Davies will. Next time England play the West Indies in Jamaica, I virtually guarantee it.

However, just as we have the wisdom of crowds, we have the dumb predictability of crowds: past performance is a good indicator of future performance. The chances are that Hysén will receive more stick than Davies, though my hunch is that Swedish football crowds are more tolerant than English or Scottish ones – and vastly more tolerant than those of some other countries like Croatia or Russia.

I confess I am fascinated by how this will play out. How will the men themselves react to any grief they receive? How will their teammates and opponents respond? Or the stewards, or the police, or the rest of the crowd?

This is a social experiment being conducted in football for the first time in a generation, and in cricket for the first time ever. When rugby’s Gareth Thomas came out not long ago there was abuse from one crowd in one match – and the club and the authorities came down hard. Sadly there’s no guarantee that football and cricket would follow suit.

And Hysén’s experiences in tier four of Swedish football, whatever they are, might not transfer unchanged to the Emirates or Old Trafford, or even to Greenhous Meadow of League Two’s Shrewsbury Town, the rough equivalent of Hysén’s current club Utsiktens BK. Davies, though, is an international cricketer already and was part of the recent England tour of Australia. You can be sure that other gay footballers, other gay cricketers, and other gay people in other sports are watching this experiment with a wary eye. It could open the big gay floodgates, or bolt the closet door shut for another generation – or both.

Let’s assume that Hysén has the strength and character to play on despite any heckling and that Davies continues his Surrey and England careers untroubled by the vein-popping rage of Disgusteds of Tunbridge Wells. What then?

Would an English or Scottish football club – in any division – buy Hysén? (Dear journos: please ask them. Any answer you get, even no answer – especially no answer – is illuminating.)

Will the tabloids – and the tabloidesque broadsheets – publish the standard falling-out-of-a-club-at-5am-shocka story, or the kiss-and-tell exclusive, and treat them identically to straight sportsmen?

And my favourite: what will happen when either man finds a boyfriend? This will be a story, make no mistake; while the men might wish for privacy the media is unlikely to allow it. Undoubtedly the Littlejohns and Widdecombes and Phillipses and Moirs and Greens will be temporarily defrosted from their 1970s lives to be intolerant for money, or to selectively quote a poor translation of an old book of short stories, or to spout the usual guff about soap’n’showers, marriage and paedophilia.

But this is news only while it is novel. Nobody remembers the second million-pound footballer.

So who’s next?

 

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A knock at the door

(April 2013 note: I used some of the ideas from the short story below in my novel Disunited, written as Anthony Camber.)  

 

“Come in.”

The door opened, wafting sparkles of dust between the slices of pale December light struggling through the blinds. He approached nervously, like a schoolboy summoned to the Head’s office. But I was the scruffy one, in a training kit smeared with the day’s mud, and he was wearing a designer suit. Too much bling.

“Sit down, son,” I said, tossing some unfinished paperwork onto the desk, with all the rest.

“Cheers boss.” He perched. I hate it when they perch, it means trouble. At his age he should be strutting and sprawling, I thought, flashing back to when I was eighteen. A different world. Back then I didn’t have his salary, that’s for sure. Or his talent.

“Well?” I was still the boss.

An awkward pause. Please, not a transfer request.

“I need to tell you something.” Like I said, he was perching.

“OK.” Keep it light. “Don’t worry, I’ve got Max Clifford on speed dial.”

That forced a weak smile, no more. He stared at his shoes and fiddled with a ring. Fine: the day’s schedule disintegrated in my head, which at least meant the paperwork could be forgotten for another few hours.

“It’s just…”

“Come on lad. What is it? A fight? Paps caught you in a nightclub? Got some girl up the wossname?”

“No!”

“Drugs? Listen, we’ve all done a little–”

“It’s not drugs. I’m not stupid.”

“A sex tape, then.”

“I haven’t done anything wrong.” His eyes blazed, the passion the fans loved him for, the passion that sparked into genius on the pitch. And now I knew there was trouble.

I was leaning forward – being confrontational, as usual. Bad idea. I forced myself to sit back, the leather chair creaking and crackling into the silence.

Calmly, despite my rocketing heart rate: “So tell me why you’re here.” I breathed slowly, deliberately, remembering penalties scored and missed, mine and others.

He hesitated. Mouth open and shut. A decision. Eye contact. “I’m gay.”

Freeze-frame for a second, or five. “I’m not in the mood for jokes.”

Another second. “No joke.”

“Because if this is a wind-up, I’ll–” I was forward again, agitated, visions of hidden cameras, Noel Edmonds, stupid gold-plated laugh-at-the-idiot-footballer trophies.

“Boss. I promise, no wind-up. On my mother’s life.” A pause, another choice made. “I’m not ashamed of it. It’s not a phase. And I’m not gonna hide it.”

I made a noise, some kind of neigh, as the air escaped my lungs. They didn’t cover this at the coaching academy.

Deep breath. Big sigh. I took in the room, not very fancy as these things go: desk, sofa, certificates, all seen better days. And photos of those better days, of a younger, clear-eyed me – shimmying round a defender, that look on his face; the cup-winning team, all scarves and smiles. Jeez, shorts were short then.

And here and now: a boy, no more than that, albeit a hugely talented, highly paid, coiffed and tailored one, perching – still perching – before me. A dust mote flashed in the light and I followed it, carefree, immortal, until it vanished in the shadows. I felt suddenly very old.

“No,” I said.

“Boss, I’m not joking.” I was quite sure of it.

“I don’t care. I will not allow it.”

“You can’t stop me.”

“No. I can’t stop you. I can’t stop you drinking, smoking, clubbing, and all those other things lads your age do. But when it affects your performance, the team’s performance, I can drop you.”

“You wouldn’t drop me.” Standard teenage arrogance.

“Try me.” His next line was knee-jerk, obvious.

“Then I’ll quit.”

This wasn’t getting us anywhere. Time for a different approach.

“Listen, son. There are no gay footballers. There’s a reason for that.”

“I’ve read all about it. Justin Fashanu, he was gay. He played at the top level.”

“One player. One. Who was abused, transferred. Cloughy knew what he got up to, kicked him out. He ended up killing himself, you know that?”

“It doesn’t have to be like that!” He was angry now. I should have tried to calm it down, but…

“That’s just the way it is, kiddo. Get used to it. Get a girlfriend. Get on with your life, forget all this gay nonsense.” Stoking the fire. I regretted it instantly, expected a barrage of abuse in return.

Instead he just laughed, the bitter laugh of a future denied. My head throbbed. I rubbed my temples, filling time, as no words came.

Quietly, he broke the silence. “It’s the twenty-first century, man. I just want to live my life.”

“I know.”

“Gareth Thomas, the rugby guy. He came out, no problems.”

“There was a bit of trouble, but… I know. But rugby’s a different sport, a different crowd.”

“Football’s not so different.”

My turn to laugh bitterly. “You’ve never played at Millwall.”

He grinned. The tension evaporated. Sunshine striped across his jacket, contours of light over his face.

I stood and adjusted the blinds. “You realise the first black players had bananas thrown at them,” I said. “They still do sometimes, despite everything. You still hear monkey chants.”

“People are afraid of difference. But difference is nothing to be ashamed of. No reason to hide away. The more black footballers, the better it got. The more gay footballers, the better it will get.”

“But to be first – it’s bound to affect your game. And the rest of the team.”

He shrugged. “Someone has to be first. I’ll sort the team out. I can do the tabloids, the TV, talk to the fans, get them behind me.”

“It’s not our fans you should be worried about.”

“Sure. But if Viv Anderson could do it, and Brendan Batson, and Laurie Cunningham, and Cyrille Regis, and all the others, including Fashanu, I can do it.”

“They couldn’t hide being black.”

“Damn right. And they didn’t want to either. They weren’t ashamed of being black, and I’m not ashamed of being gay.”

I had to admire his determination, and he knew his footballing history. He was full of surprises, this boy. But he was so young. Could he deal with the abuse when it undoubtedly came? The barracking, the filth, even the death threats? He was so young.

“Why now?”

“You telling me there’s a good time?”

Fair point. “But in a couple of seasons, when you’re more mature…”

“Boss. I’ve read the bio. You were married at 21, kid at 22, and no saint before that. I don’t want to hide away, skulk around in the shadows, spend the best years of my life afraid of being recognised or, worse, not getting any. It was different for you.”

I had to agree.

“And…” he hesitated. “In four years, there’s Brazil. I want to be in the squad. And I want my boyfriend there too, if I have one. One of the WAGs.”

I laughed at that. Footballers are always footballers. But he had more.

“And then in Russia in ’18, I might be married. And captain.”

“Christ, you’re nothing if not ambitious.”

“How do you think I got here, fancy clothes, flash car? I’d never have kicked a ball if I didn’t believe I could do it.”

“So what about 2022? With your attitude you might still be in the team at thirty. But you can’t be gay in Qatar. It’s illegal. You heard Blatter, he says gays should refrain from…” I waved my hand, he knew what I meant.

A look, a defiant smile. “That’s why I’m doing this.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Blatter doesn’t matter. He’s an old man. Old thinking, old ways. We make the world we want to see. If I come out now, be the first, stand up and be counted, be successful, others will follow. They won’t be afraid. It’ll take a few years, but by ’22 there’ll be dozens of us – out, international players. Whether I’m playing or not, I’ll be in Qatar. With a husband, and kids maybe. And I won’t be the only one.”

“It might still be illegal.”

“What are they gonna do? Flog us all? Kick us out?”

I looked at him, the man-boy, the heart of the team, the fire of youth. He wasn’t perching any more. He was right, damn him. He was too young, he was naive, he was hopelessly, recklessly optimistic, but he was right. At some point you have to make a stand. At some point you have to do what you know is right, regardless of consequences.

“OK,” I said finally, slowly, a plan forming. “OK. I’ll talk to people. Max Clifford won’t like it, though.”

“He can get stuffed.”

“Just… don’t say anything yet. Let me arrange things, get the timing right. You – you tell whoever needs to know before it all gets out.”

A grunt. “My family, my mates, they’ve always known. They’re like, whatever.”

I should have expected that by now. “Good. Right. Clear off. Keep quiet. Get ready.”

“I’m ready. Cheers boss. I’m ready.” He stood, face in the light again, as it always was, as it always would be. We shook hands with a smile and he left, flashes of dust billowing again in the echo of the closing door.

I drank in the silence, the room, the discarded paperwork. The rollercoaster of life. Still time to jump off. I picked up the office phone, hesitating over the keypad. A deep breath; time for penalties. I dialled the number.

“Hi darling,” I said. “It’s time for me to come out.”

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Old men, cretins and elephants

If ever further proof were needed that football is run by old men and cretins, I give you two recent items of news. And I’m not going to even mention John Terry.

First, the Confederation of African Football (Caf) bans Togo for two tournaments for the heinous crime of being ambushed by gunmen while travelling between venues at the recent Africa Cup of Nations. This ridiculous punishment was imposed because, apparently, the Togolese government “interfered” with the team: it told them to pull out of the tournament as a result of the attack.

Government interference in sport is, of course, a bad thing and not uncommon. But this letter-of-the-law kneejerk by the Caftwats betrays a bumbling level of crass insensitivity rivalled only by Kay “the entire eastern seaboard of the United States has been decimated by a terrorist attack” Burley on Sky News. It’d be like the International Olympic Committee kicking out Israel for trashing their rooms in Munich in 1972.

Second, the vague wafting of arthritic hands that supposedly constitutes action against homophobia by the Football Association. A campaign has been in development for two years. Two years. What are they doing, breeding elephants? Two years is about 49 different owners for Portsmouth. How much money has the FA spent in two years generating, approximately, FA?

Ah. The budget was ten grand. Take that, homoph- too late, all gone, spent. Ten grand is approximately half a day’s hard-earned for that fine, upstanding, former England captain John Terry (whoops, I did mention him after all). Roman Abramovich could drop ten grand on a platinum-iridium toothpick, and then drop the toothpick.

And what have those many, many thousands of pounds bought? A “hard-hitting” video – intended to go viral rather than actually, you know, get shown anywhere, because that would cost money – that the FA intended to launch this Thursday at Wembley. This launch has now been cancelled: apparently the FA wants to consult more widely and talk to focus groups before releasing it. In other words it’s got cold feet and wants to pretend the video never happened.

This video, according to John Amaechi who’s seen it, consists of 90 seconds of unchallenged homophobic bigotry in an office and at a football match, with the tagline: “This behaviour is unacceptable here [in the workplace]. So why should it be acceptable here [at the match]?”. And that, my friends, is what ten grand buys you these days. Dialogue the bigots would gleefully recite verbatim to hur-hurs from their thicko mates, and a tagline the length of Brighton pier that doesn’t even have the balls to tell people to stop doing it.

Football: where old men and cretins give peanuts to idiots to make counter-productive videos that nobody will see anyway. Ah, the beautiful game.

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