I’ve never heard anyone scream when they’re really hurt. I don’t know why that is: maybe shock, maybe adrenaline, maybe you’re just that bit busy thinking about the consequences. I didn’t scream, but I groaned with the sheer inevitability. The explosion seemed centred just below my right knee. The pain both quick and flowing, flowing up and around, and then I hit the ground and one, two, three lesser pains of impact made me lose track of the first.
I knew it was coming. I wasn’t fit, I wasn’t concentrating. I hadn’t wanted to play.
I’ve not wanted to play much in the last year or so. As much as I love football, I love it as a game you can win. You can’t win as a reserve, all you can win is a chance in the firsts and that wasn’t happening for me. There’s really no point in turning out in the Central League. No skill, no one’s trying. There’s no single way it improves your game or your chances of playing in the first team. Bad pitches faced by empty stands. Twenty two men who are — basically — not good enough for some average football teams, pervaded by an atmosphere of death. Death because the ground smells of death when it’s empty, rotting everywhere. Death because the only people who can find time to sit watching this pantomime for two hours on a weekday afternoon are the retired and the lame.
The pain of whatever I’ve done to my knee, my leg, was, is more burning than anything else. I can’t move it, much.
It twisted under a challenge, a challenge that if I’d have cared I’d have gone into harder. I’d have gone through the guy. No-one stops me getting a ball I want. That was one of the first things I knew I was good at, commitment. If others could run faster, or kick harder, or move the ball with a flick of the instep as if it could pass straight through you: I could work harder. And that you cared, as long as you were averagely good at the rest, raised you above everyone.
Around the door, clustered in the corners are cracks in the tiles. Everywhere is tiled that isn’t gloss-painted wood. Everything is smooth and made to be wiped clean. To be disinfected, to remove the past. But there are cracks, and scratches and I can’t help seeing patterns and telling the future, seeing tea-leaves clustered in a cup. Right now they say I’m fucked.
If you’re not in the team you’re nothing. The game is cruel: I think it has to be, no distractions and no sentiment for anyone outside the twelve. I’m nothing, I’ve been nothing here since the first team started winning without me. If I wasn’t nothing, I’d be the dressing room on Saturday, but instead I’m in the treatment room. It’s Wednesday and I’m lying on a table. The treatment room isn’t for treatment, it’s a storeroom for the disappeared. It smells of that sweet mud-grass, wet canvas and leather. Rotting.
These smells used to seem like opportunity. The smells were the first things that made me aware of the differences between playing at school or in the park and playing in places it mattered. Lineament, I didn’t know what it was for, was it the same as embrocation? What was the tape for? Why were these places quieter, but then louder? It was because it was now serious, and I loved it. It was still a game, but it meant everything. And I was good. I kept getting better, and then getting paid, and then getting asked to move, to play with people who took it even more seriously, to work harder. To show more commitment. To want it on behalf of not just you and your teammates, but for those watching, and for your mum and the people who’d been nice.
And there had been lots of them, nice people. Like Mr Rose, he taught English and PT. He gave me books to read, George Orwell, Jack London, that seemed to be about something different that those we had to read for class. He encouraged me to practise football rather than just play. He put my name down for the county team after a while, then he knew a man who would come to watch me play. I thought he was lying, everyone talked about scouts, a man in a raincoat on the touchline would be from Wolves looking to replace Ron Flowers.
He wasn’t from Manchester, nor was he looking to replace anyone. his job was to watch hundreds of young players and look for the ones that might make it. Not the brilliant ones: no, they would be ‘snapped up’ — and it always was in those words — by clubs with more money than the one Jimmy worked for. But Jimmy was a good man, and he did have a raincoat. He didn’t often come this far north, but he did say I should come for a trial.
I don’t remember anything about the game, just the ground, those smells more intense than ever. The noise in the room louder and the shouts across the pitch bouncing off the empty stands and banks.
I’d never really even been on a train that went more than a few miles, I was homesick before we reached Coventry. But I go to Birmingham. There was a place to stay, in a lodging house with some other players. There were tight streets, the ground squashed against terraces that I understood, even if I couldn’t work out the accents of anyone in then them.
And I did well, for a while. I was making good money — more than enough for me. I loved this bit of town straight away. I didn’t miss home. I barely went back. There wasn’t really anything there but my mum, who understood that I had to keep trying. And when my mum died, there was no point in going back, nor even thinking about home. I realise now that there didn’t seem to be as many reasons to try.
It’ll be weeks before it happens, but I’ll never play here again. I can read that. I’ll hobble, then I’ll walk more easily. But I’ve seen people fall as I did and while they get up, they’re never the same. It’s coming to the end of the season, the worst time to be injured. Nothing to aim for, no matches to count your progress against. Decisions to be made and the easiest one is not to risk it.
I’ll wear my suit, I’ll smile. I’ll be in after everyone has gone. The noise and the smells will be gone for another year. Paint will be smeared across paint, freshening up. The present will hide the past, thickening up. The tiles will be washed clean again.
The manager will be good, deep down he’s a decent man. He’ll call me to his office, tell me I’m to be released then gave me a minute to think. My contract is up, he’ll remind me, and with no prospect of me being fit enough even to run in the near future the club can’t justify keeping me on. I’ll stare out over the car park at the warehouses, the factories beyond the railway bridge. They will keep going, everything else will keep going.
Across the desk, empty save a blue-green cup and saucer a half-inch of sweaty liquid still in the bottom of it from this morning, he’ll tell me that it could be an opportunity. “Liam,” he’ll say — although it’ll be the first time he’s ever called me anything but ‘Robinson’ or ‘Number 8’— “work hard, keep trying. you get yourself fit, maybe drop a division.” He’ll put in a word for me with one or two people. It’ll be nothing personal, and if it was up to him he’d keep me on. But the chairman, but the money. I’ll stare out over the car park. Just stare.
I’ll think about what release means: I could find a new club for next season. Begin the struggle again, prove my worth to whatever system was in vogue, run for things I wouldn’t catch. I’m not fit, I can’t catch anything, so I’m out. And I’ll stare out over the car park, and then, through the side door, avoiding anyone I can, I’ll crunch across the flaking asphalt towards the gate and Trinity Road and the future because I have to go.