Much of Robbie Fowler’s autobiography is boring. The story of this talented mischief-maker (such as the infamous “snorting” the touchline incident) doesn’t grab me. I normally love reading anything football-related – tell-alls, player biographies, histories, theories, economic manifestos, coaching manuals – whatever.
There is no story quite so dull, however, as that of the totally confident person. Fowler and his writer plainly struggled to find those rare moments in his life when he’s been unsure of himself. That uncertainty is confined to anxiety in those months he waited to be called up from Liverpool reserves. Even then, the worry stemmed not from doubt about his ability or concern about if he’d make it. It was more impatience as to when.
Amazingly, when things go “tits up” for him at Liverpool, and as he rides the bench for much of his later career, his confidence in his own ability never seems to waver. He never questions himself, and has no room for regret. The book (a favorite for Liverpool fans) is more interesting for the inside peek into club politics than it is for Fowler himself. A lack of uncertainly is a part of Fowler’s identity and was a big part of his effectiveness as a player. But in a narrator this quality leaves me cold.
As a genre, player biography is hard. The story of most professional footballers is hampered by the fact that they’ve done nothing else but play the game, and have little to talk about besides either their achievements on the field – with which we are already familiar – or how they blew their fortune, or dealt with addiction, scandal, etc. It’s the rare professional player who actually has a story. Or has the writerly flair it takes to make poetry from the day-to-day life of a footballer as did Eamon Dunphy in his memoir Only A Game?
His book tracks a disastrous year playing for Millwall – he drifts downward from a member of the squad to the reserves, and battles with resentment. He describes the ordinary pleasures of training, of partnerships with players, and the challenge of professional football in which the joy one takes from playing is always checked by anxiety about not playing – in reading this book, one realizes that this experience is far more characteristic of professional life than the glory of scoring a goal at Wembley. Dunphy was a great writer then, and went on of course to enjoy a career as a journalist.
A few players have stories that diverge from the script to tell us something important. Paul Canoville’s Black and Blue was named “Best Autobiography” at the British Sports Books Awards in the spring. Canoville was Chelsea’s first black player — and this is no story about triumph over adversity. He recounts the story of the racist abuse he took from fans, and, more compellingly, he describes the team’s inability to respond to it or to know how to support him. The story of his development as a player and his amazing social life (his relationships, his many children, his love for the London music scene) is woven into a nuanced exploration of what it was like to find yourself a living lightening rod. The book also confronts his battle with addiction and then cancer without turning those stories into cliché. It is a compelling read that speaks to anyone who has been subjected to discrimination — and it’s a sobering lesson about the passivity of those who bear witness to it and do nothing. It is also a straightforward account of a difficult life — one marked as much by uncertainty as by determination. It offers no real happy ending, no closure, just the rough contours of an actual life.
This brings me to Ken Loach’s much anticipated Looking for Eric – because in many ways, this film is about what we look for, as fans, from the players we adore. Looking for Eric opens with a crash. The hero of the film is a depressed postman, Eric Bishop, living a very depressing life in depressing Manchester. Eric takes his car the wrong way around a roundabout. He does this just after seeing his ex-wife across the street (he’s too shy and hurt to cross over and talk to her, too wracked by guilt and anxiety, and so even though she’s waiting for him, he skulks away). Lilly is the love of his life, and he walked out on her without explanation years ago. He is still haunted, however, by his love for her and by hers for him and he stunted by this fact. His friends are worried about him — the crash makes an urgent crisis out of his slow descent, and draws them together around the project of helping him.
One of these stand-up guys is a fan of pop psychology, and initiates a series of gentle interventions. He asks the group of friends to indulge him in an exercise — to first imagine looking at yourself through the eyes of someone who loves you unconditionally, and then imagine looking out at the world through the eyes of someone you admire. Eric Bishop chooses, as his fantasy point-of-view, Eric Cantona.
Turns out, the last time Eric remembers being happy was years earlier at a match with his friends watching Cantona play. Fandom and football play an important part in this film as the one place where the men are given permission to be themselves, to shout, scream, to “sing together” and laugh. It seems to be the one place where Eric gave himself permission to feel anything, in fact. (And on this topic, the film is brilliant.)
This lays the foundation for the film’s turn — at a particularly low moment, Eric hallucinates Cantona in his living room, and the imaginary Cantona (played of course by le vrai) proceeds to keep company with our melancholy postman and, in essence, coach him back to life. This coaching centers almost exclusively on getting himself back in communication with Lilly, his ex-wife. (“I like this woman,” Cantona says, “she’s got balls.”)
Though organized around the reparation of his relationship with his wife, this film is about really about men. Eric’s problem, Loach seems to suggest, is as much with the men in his life as it is with women. The film offers a flashback to explain: At a family gathering celebrating the christening of Lily & Eric’s baby, his father gets unnerved watching Lilly blow kisses to his son. “That won’t last long,” he says, as he launches into a nasty tirade about the dead-end trap of marriage and family. In this bullying (expressed as a deep hostility towards women) we get a glimpse of the hard-edged working class masculinity that is closer to Loach’s topic. Even as Eric is repulsed by this, and even as it’s clear this isn’t the kind of man he wants to be, the whole scenario pushes him away. His answer is to run away from it all and not talk about it. (At the film’s start, he can’t even say Lilly’s name.)
Thus the friendship with Cantona — Eric needs a father/brother/friend to lead him out of the woods. And so Cantona encourages Eric turn to his friends to help him through a crisis involving one of his step sons. Talking about his life, his feelings, and his problems has been, up to this point, unimaginable for him. Cantona helps Eric to realize his potential by teaching him to “believe in your teammates, because without that we are lost.” The film is packed with Cantona’s gnomic wisdom, “good lessons” like this and has a wildly optimistic ending. It’s a feel-good bromance with great footage highlighting Cantona’s career. (The French magazine So Foot quite rightly complained, though, that some of this footage feels like it’s there for those audience members who don’t know who Cantona is, or are not aware of the special fondness that Man U fans feel for him.)
I wanted to love it, but this “feel good” ending left me feeling let down. The film ultimately offers a romantic and facile solution to a very difficult situation. Eric conjures Cantona because he needs some of Cantona’s confidence. You can see that confidence in Canonta’s posture -– he strides through the film with chest thrust out like the French rooster. Eric, on the other hand, is skinny, pale, sits with his chest curled around itself, is rumpled and withdrawn. As an audience member I felt I was supposed to root for Eric to “sort himself out” but the fact of the matter is, as a person, I didn’t buy it. That’s the point at which the film got boring. I don’t buy that life is like football, and if you can just be “confident” the answers to big questions –- about what one wants, how to repair what’s broken in your life, etc. –- will magically appear. Considering these three texts together, Fowler’s and Cantonville’s autobiographies, and Loach’s “Looking for Eric,” I find myself thinking that sometimes “confidence” is just the uncomplicated psychology of someone who has never really kept company with failure.