The problem with intelligent footballers
Image courtesy of WellOffside.com
There’s very little to actually recommend being a Northampton Town fan. All I can come up with is that it allows you to go through your life fairly uninterrupted. We’re a club with no baggage. Off the top of your head, what do you know about Northampton Town? George Best’s six goals in the rain and the ever-hilarious “Cobblers!” routine on Soccer AM, presumably. Two things that have nothing to do with us.
For a town whose size belies its fame (same population as Newcastle, bigger than Portsmouth and Milton Keynes, still only famous for Lesley Joseph and Alan Moore), it’s fitting that our players don’t make headlines. They don’t pierce the wider consciousness. Indeed, the only time any Cobbler has made a wider impact on the world was when our old substitute midfielder Ryan Amoo was sleeping with a (then alive) Jade Goody. It was apparently him who convinced her to get a breast enlargement. I’m saying nothing.
So, up until January this year, there was no hope of a Northampton Town player being “relevant” in even the loosest sense of the term. But our old manager Gary Johnson had presided over a series of signings during his disastrous reign, which meant that the circus came to town every other week and set up camp in our central defence. We needed someone experienced, a bit rugged, to play at centre back. So our new manager, Aidy Boothroyd, got his old mucker Clarke Carlisle in on loan.
Up until 12 months ago, Clarke Carlisle was just “him off Countdown”. A yoyo squad player who resembled a crash-dieted Abdullah the Butcher. His fame was predicated on the fact his game show exploits occasionally got him mentioned on those lists of “clever footballers”, in which a man only has to do something of minor intellectual worth while kicking a ball about to get feted as a scholar: Kenny Deuchar (practicing GP); Oliver Bierhoff (economics degree); Mehmet Scholl (likes gay Canuck indie).
Carlisle obviously has bigger plans than being Under-15 coach at Whateverthefuck Albion when he retires, though. So he’s making mainstream media moves in a big way, taking over the airwaves in a manner that would have Miranda Hart yelling “That gobshite again, is he never off the air?” at the TV. Rumour has it that Carlisle moved to a team battling relegation to the conference, when his ability level suggests he could be still playing for a side at least one-and-a-half divisions higher, is because we were prepared to offer him training leeway to make those appearances, something that Preston North End weren’t.
And what a list of appearances! Ten O’Clock Live, Question Time, ITV 4 commentary, chairmanship of the PFA, ambassador roles for the Kick It Out campaign, functioning as the first port of call for any broadsheet feature writer who wants a line from a player that’s longer than seven words… Clarke Carlisle is now an “Intelligent Footballer”. And that worries me.
When I say “Intelligent Footballer”, I don’t mean Joey Barton’s “sixth former that just discovered The Guardian and ‘The Queen Is Dead’ within a two week period” routine, or the Sepp Herberger/Brian Clough school of Algonquin wit redirected towards the training ground. I mean the “safe for the middle classes” footballer that Clarke Carlisle is slowly mutating into.
Let’s look at those media appearances. He went on Question Time twice and, over his appearances, made it perfectly clear that he’s the chairman of a union for sportsmen: socialism is great apart from when it involves rich people paying more taxes. It’s that outlook on life that makes it so hard to care when footballers are thrown against an alley wall by agents and chairman alike.
The rest of Carlisle’s Question Time views were truly worthy of the plaudits he was handed afterwards: racism is bad, the NHS is good, but it could be better. Valid sentiments, but being able to articulate them whilst also being able to keep a tricky false nine offside doesn’t make you James Crichton.
And his Ten O’Clock Live shot? It’s admirable than anyone can spend five minutes in David Mitchell’s company without cold popping him with a straight right, but why? Why is this necessary? And then you look to the social media skies, and you see all these G2 readers, all these people who fuck with The Archers, all these people who mention that they like tea in their Twitter bios… and they fucking love Clarke Carlisle bantering with David Mitchell. They’re straight up there yelling out some “I hate footballers normally because they’re grubby little oiks who earn more money than me, but this guy is wearing a suit, he’s speaking like One of Us, I like him” steez.
And it’s reminiscent of music: if a band are “for people who don’t normally like this genre”, then there’s something clearly wrong with them. I don’t normally like metal, but I love Within Temptation. I don’t normally listen to hip-hop, but there’s something about these Blackalicious guys. I don’t normally like footballers expressing themselves as actual living human beings, but me and India Knight both approve of Clarke Carlisle.
This isn’t an anti-Clarke Carlisle thing, even if the fact that his immense intelligence doesn’t manifest itself in being able to calculate how high a through ball is likely to bounce. It’s just that celebrating a footballer for having “intelligence”, however misguidedly, isn’t something that should be celebrated. It’s just smug for anyone to think that sets him above other players.
Look, inside the jumpers-for-goalposts fantasies some of us still misguidedly keep in our minds, football is an escape for kids who wouldn’t have gotten out of the kind of places I grew up in unless they either
slung crack rock became a professional footballer or had a wicked jump shot joined the army. Football is an inherently anti-intellectual pursuit, one that celebrates the left side of the brain over the right. Celebrating players for being able to churn out the kind of “intellect” that sounds like a redbrick lecturer on an off day isn’t a good thing for football, it’s just another way of putting football down, of implying that unless a footballer becomes a generic middle class media figure he’s only worthy of scorn.
You know what Clarke Carlisle really reminds me of in all honesty? When porn stars decide that they’re intelligent. So they get their blog, get their Twitter feed, get a magazine column, get a few speaking gigs. And they’ve got opinions. Feminism, indie rock, video games, low-end leftist politics. And they’ve got a platform because people used to watch them get plugged airtight by three 43-year-old men called “Peter”. And these aren’t particularly “good” opinions, and all we’re doing is being patronising. Oh yes, well done, you came from a demeaning profession but if I squint a bit you could be one of us. You could be a man cub. And that’s what Clarke Carlisle is. The Joanna Angel of football. And that’s not a thing any man should aspire to.