Premiership Papers Chapter 6
Slitter Shines With Glitter of Born Captain
By Samuel Fimus
Agincourt and Dunkirk, Guy Fawkes and Lady Godiva. Henry the Fifth. The names rumble through my head, dancing to irresistible ancient rhythms, as Kyle Slitter turns his leonine mane towards the waitress. Unlike Marxists, who only drink herbal varieties on the ground that proper tea is theft, Slitter sticks to English Breakfast. Milk, two sugars, as I sip on my suspect cappuccino.
But it isn’t just at tea-time where Slitter is the last bastion of Englishness in a land that has lost its values. He is also perhaps the last of a dying breed, that rare, magnificent, animal – the truly English footballer. The last link in a once glorious tradition. Decaying. Rotting.
He laughs when I put this theory to him, his natural good sense making him suspicious of writers and their clever theories. “I don’t know about that,” he says. “I just play the game the way I learnt it.”
Slitter learnt his game on Hackney Marshes, scene of battles since time immemorial. In his reckless appetite for the fight, his utter disregard for his safety, he must seem to white-faced Italian imports much as Boudicca appeared to their Roman ancestors.
“That’s how I’ve always played,” he says, leaning forward eagerly in his chair, tea forgotten. “It’s about the battle, isn’t it? Winning. That’s what I live for. Always have. Always will. Nothing else matters.”
We’re meeting at a genteel London hotel to discuss the launch of Slitter’s new foundation, Kits for Slits. I ask him what he aims to do with it, and he almost bounces out of his chair, irrepressible energy, his vital presence palpably disturbing some of the other guests.
“It’s about kits!” he shouts. “Kits for Slits, like it says! What we’re doing, we’re getting footballers in all the leagues to give us their dirty kit. We get so much these days, so much free kit, no one can wear it all, you know? And I want to give something back.”
His transparent sincerity, his desire to help, to make a difference, is admirable. Ignoring hidebound journalistic convention, I tell him, man to man, that I admire him.
For the first time he looks uncomfortable. Praise clearly does not sit well with him. He picks up his mug – he’d sent back the delicate china the tea originally came in, and asked for a ‘proper mug, thanks luv’ – and hides behind it. “Thanks,” he says, finally. “It’s nothing. The game’s given me everything, if I can do anything to help …”
He lapses into embarrassed silence, so I prod him. What will you be doing with the kits? He puts the mug back down, clearly happy to no longer be talking about himself.
“You’ve no idea how dirty kits get, Samuel,” he says. “Diving around out there, sliding in for tackles, all this six days a week. Filthy. Now normally we just take it home and get the wives to wash it, or give it to the kitman. But what I thought was, it’s a tough time now for so many people, you know? Everywhere you look, people losing jobs, struggling. I know these people. They’re my people. So what I thought, we’re going to create jobs here – footballers give us their dirty kits, we give them to people to wash, and it gives them some cash on the side, you know? And more than that, it gives them their self-respect back. I know what it’s like to be on the dole, no job – it’s not the money you miss, it’s that feeling at the end of the day, yeah, I worked hard today, did a job. So that’s what we’re going to do.”
I’ve learnt my lesson and refrain from praise this time. We talk instead of his role at Woolwich United. Captain. Leader. Hero. First over the trenches, Casabianca on the burning deck. His eyes burn with fire.
“I’m a leader. Never had a problem shouting at people, telling them where to go, to pull their fingers out. That’s going out in the game a little bit now, the youngsters coming in are quieter. It’s all this Twittering, Facebook, it changes things. I’m not saying it’s better or worse, it’s just different.”
I’m swept away by his passion, the quiet intensity that transforms everything he does. He clutches his mug so hard it shatters, warm tea pouring all over his hands, but he doesn’t even flinch, just keeps smiling at me, looks straight into my eyes and squeezes harder, crushing the clay between his hands into tiny little bits, Churchill crushing Hitler, Mrs. Thatcher breaking Scargill.
Has he always been like this, I ask? This magnificent, passionate leader of men? Can you learn to be a hero? Looking at him, fragile clay plastered to tea-spattered hands, existential rage lighting his eyes, I cannot think how anyone could learn it. Some men are born Gods, Greek Gods, with the special rage and power that implies.
He confirms my suspicion.
“Always. I remember when I was a kid, must have been 4 or 5, my Mam gave me my dinner and it was cold. I really let her have it, told her it wasn’t on, she was letting the side down. That even in practice, you have to keep performing. Give me cold dinner once and then you feel you can do it again, and again, and eventually you’re out there against Juventus or Real Madrid and cold dinner just won’t cut it, you need hot food, steaming hot, so hot it burns – and you can’t do it. You just can’t get it hot enough. Why not? Because you gave it to me cold once.”
Spontaneously, I shake his hand. Are you listening, Mike Bassett?
“Never gave it to me cold again,” he says, and we part.