Games Within Frontiers


In this extract from the new edition of ‘Games Without Frontiers’, Joe Kennedy discusses and analyses his life playing football.

We are very happy, with thanks to Repeater Books, to be able to publish this extract from the new edition of Games Without Frontiers.

“What chance do the rest of us have to give a reasonable account of ourselves?”
Benjamin Markovits, Playing Days

The first time I played football, I’m reasonably certain, was the same day I first went to a football match. In the high Thatcher years, my parents both worked for Radio Tees, a commercial franchise representing Middlesbrough and Teesside, and in 1986 its employees took part in a charity football game against the staff of Radio Cleveland, then the area’s BBC station. It happened at Feethams; I went along with my uncle and cousin. After the game, some of the players came over to our sunny garden for a barbecue, and entertained me — I was four, maybe just five — by restaging some of the highlights with me scampering around their legs, chasing a ball. The last time I played, as I write this, was roughly nine weeks ago, just before the latest coronavirus lockdown, when I put in seventy minutes at left-wing in almost horizontal rain on a pitch right on top of the South Downs, and touched the ball about seven times in a 6-2 defeat.

An unsparing audit of my qualities as a footballer might read as follows. Despite being broadly built and tolerably fit, I’m a lightweight, getting knocked off the ball too easily and losing far too many of what jargon-hip coaches nowadays call Personal Battles. I have nothing to contribute aerially — in fact, being a winger is very much a case of negative freedom, of freedom-from, for me, as I started playing wide to minimise the amount of time I’d spend fluffing headers. My finishing is inconsistent, my decision-making nervy, my defensive positioning unwise, I fade from games, I take too many touches, thus slowing play, and I am liable to concede possession for a pittance with forced, tetchy passing. Against this, I cover a lot of ground, keep up with play, am decently paced for my age and shape, and I can cross and shoot with both feet. In small-sided games, but now and again in full-sized ones, I produce mirages of touch and technique that can gull someone who’s only seen me play that day into thinking that I’m refined. When I hit my stride I’m pretty pleased with my passing across most ranges. On balance, I’m a player liable to be exposed in the company of modestly able “proper” footballers, and a decent one in a kickaround.

In one context or another, I’ve played, with a handful of breaks — all of which were down to lassitude and made me unhappy — for thirty-five years, and, for all that I’ve made the case elsewhere in this book for football as something which always becomes meaningful off the pitch, many of my most striking memories of the sport are associated with playing. There was the glee of starting to play organised games in the first year of juniors with a colossal, bad-tempered PE teacher and realising that this was something I felt almost naturally comfortable doing (every single other sport has always been completely unintuitive for me). There was the group I played with three or four nights a week in my teens in any weather, until our pitch got bulldozed to make way for a supermarket at the same time as sixth form arrived with its inducements to different kinds of fun. There is, obviously, the squad I’m involved with now. Yet the one which will bear the weight of how I’ll feel about playing when I stop took place in Norwich, while I was a postgraduate student and then a very junior lecturer between 2007 and 2010.

For all that I’ve made the case elsewhere in this book for football as something which always becomes meaningful off the pitch, many of my most striking memories of the sport are associated with playing.

Eaton Park is in the west end of Norwich, splitting the out-of-town University of East Anglia and the leafy, scruffily pleasant area known as the Golden Triangle where, at the time, a significant proportion of those connected with the university lived. At its centre is an only partially used pavilion, and just before ten o’clock every Sunday morning for a couple of years I’d arrive here to see who had turned up for a pick-up game that had been organised, at first, by a slightly enigmatic Mexican PhD student in my department who composed, and wrote critically about, aphorisms. At the beginning, the games were played by a mix of predominantly foreign PhD students in English Lit and researchers from a plant science laboratory where our captain had a few friends, and we struggled to get numbers above five-a-side. Soon, however, word of mouth took effect, and the typical Sunday morning would see, on patchy grass off to the side of the official Sunday League pitches, eight-, nine-, ten-, even eleven-a-side matches featuring participants from an impressive spread of geographical origins as well as Brits who didn’t, for a range of frankly understandable reasons, want to play organised amateur football the English way.

Of the players I’ve shared a pitch with, most of the best were involved in that game at some point or other; all had the most reliable giveaway of talent, namely their enchantment of those around them to play better. There was an Iranian forward leaning on forty who’d played professionally back home and was oxymoronically talented, so good he never needed to make us notice it. There was a Brazilian who luxuriated deep in midfield and teased the game around him in subtle increments, playing two- touch, stringing his team into shape until he could discern a through-ball. There was a Dutch guy who played centre-forward in the most rudimentarily English way, skittling defenders about like Tommy Lawton or John Fashanu, a Japanese fantasista, a Serbian centre-half, and another Brazilian who resembled Kaká and made fools of us with stepovers. Despite occurring on the same mud, the play was generally faster and more intricate, and for the most part less banally aggressive, than the amateur games we’d watch the ends of after we’d finish, or while we took a break.

Banking so much on this memory stimulates a pestering insecurity. Nothing endorses or ratifies this footballing genre: no league table, no trophy, no goalposts most of the time. The park pick-up game is even less official than six- a-side on astroturf, because at least that has goalframes and pitch markings, and someone has to phone the leisure centre and book it in. Players who participate in this format of the game and nothing else are at the mercy of the collective perception, and the collective memory, of the group: anything you do counts only to the extent that anybody else cares about it. The “one instant, the one match” recedes with its normal velocity here, but there’s next to no last-glance socialised reconstruction of it as there is with the more official version of the game. You score a wondergoal, or so you think, and spend the next week replaying it mentally, but nobody seems to remember it at the next game, until you gently provoke them into doing so, and then they damn you with faint praise. “That goal you scored? Oh yes, it was… good.”

Players who participate in the park pick-up game and nothing else are at the mercy of the collective perception, and the collective memory, of the group: anything you do counts only to the extent that anybody else cares about it.

There are always questions, then, about the extent to which the accomplishments of the park player can translate into the mandated form of the sport, but I’ve both played with and watched pick-up football featuring individuals I’m convinced would not only dominate but genuinely overwhelm many amateur games. In the backend of my time in London, when I started taking this book seriously, in fact, I lived in a flat right on Peckham Rye Common, and football was played there any time the weather wasn’t completely inimical to it. Many of these games were intensely serious: though lacking posts and markings, and to some extent featuring a revolving cast, someone had usually been delegated to referee, and play took place as though it were properly, formally competitive. The cone-defined goals were miniature, a couple of feet across, which restricted the opportunities for lesser players to fluke long-range goals, and the emphasis was on movement and combination. I can’t prove it, but it’s highly likely scouts from senior non- league clubs wandered around the fringes of these games, whose participants, so far as I could ascertain, were mostly from west and central Africa, Turkey and Eastern Europe. It was never clear how you got involved, but there was no room for passengers anyway.

I watched enough of this football to begin imagining, maybe a little deliriously, if this was the truest pressing of the sport, and to fantasise about what might happen if it began to attract the same kind of dissident audience that had cropped up at Dulwich’s Champion Hill, half a mile away. Maybe there could be a meaningfully free or autonomous version of football. Maybe the organised eleven-a-side game was itself the aberration, an abstraction, a reification of the real thing: in fact, the thesis of the early part of this book could be read backwards to say something like this. The Rules of the 1860s were an act of enclosure, one might argue, and what we glimpse in the park, especially the best of it, is the remaining evidence of a commons which once was.

At the same time, I wonder about my angsty need to be validated as a player by something more than an of- the-moment clap on the back, and I don’t believe it can be reduced to the idea that we have a servile, or dumbly masochistic, relationship with the official sport. While it’s inarguable that there is plenty about football that is rotten, and that the liberties clubs take in regard to the fans who create their product are appalling, we keep coming back to it — and not walking away to the free, improvised, do-as- you-like version — for a reason. Perhaps that reason is that the authorised game works simultaneously along an axis of extreme limitation, of closed structure, and another of resplendent variety. Locking football into a competitive structure limits it and serves as the jumping-off point for its inveiglement into the commodity form, but it is also a relative guarantee against pettiness, meaninglessness, entropy.

As a kid of nine or ten I could spend hours, and I really do mean hours, reading the Non-League Football Yearbook, an imposing piece of work: across around a thousand pages, it contained the particulate details of every senior league and club in England, every cup competition, and plenty of information about intermediate football, Scottish Junior football, Welsh football, and so on. When you first blunder into football as a fan it feels like a relatively small reality with constrained possibilities: there are the big clubs, then the other league clubs, and the FA Cup. Once you poke about a little, though, football is revealed to be everywhere, trickling into every geographical space, opening onto a gigantic array of clubs, stadia, kits, playing styles, controversies, prosaic and anomalous and mythic narratives. That even the strictly rule-bound version of the game can concede such depth, such statistical sublimity, that the swiftly exhaustible rulebook masks a world unspeakably larger than itself, is one of the things which addicts us.

Once you poke about a little football is revealed to be everywhere, trickling into every geographical space, opening onto a gigantic array of clubs, stadia, kits, controversies, prosaic and anomalous and mythic narratives.

To play “properly”, even if you truly were the most terrible player in existence — and luckily I don’t think that I am — is to be a filament of this world. One can, for example, take part in a Sunday League game and find your name in the sports pages of a local paper which not only carries photographic reports of an area’s bigger semi- professional clubs, but also news of the nearest genuinely large side. If you play amateur football in Sussex, you might find yourself mentioned in the same sports section — on the same page! — as any genuine superstar who has played against (even for, these days) Albion that week: there is a temporary elimination of distance in which the game becomes, briefly, almost horizontal, a chronicle of mere facts, a statistical ledger.

So does it matter if we do it well? I care far more than is rational about how well I perform at football: after the last couple of heavy defeats, I’ve felt flat and colourless for a couple of days, convinced that the loss was my fault, guilty, anxious about being a passenger. In the early years of secondary school I’d have roaring arguments with friends who wouldn’t immediately countersign a complimentary picture of my abilities. I am almost forty years old, and though the tone of feeling I have in relation to my nagging suspicion that I’m no good has shifted from combative to depressed, the degree to which I’m bothered has never ebbed significantly. Perhaps this is all a question of individual personality, of thin-skinnedness — and I am pretty thin-skinned — or perhaps it’s a question of gender, of being unable to shrug off the coding of competitiveness despite being capable of sitting in a university seminar and thinking through this matter with scholarly distance with my students.

How many years were left on my clock? At what point was this foundational part of who I considered myself to be not going to be around any longer?

Or, perhaps, it actually is reasonable enough to care about this. Football is one of the few pastimes which is at once an objectively healthy thing to do and something you’ll probably have to stop doing for the sake of your health at some point not too far into middle-age. A year or so ago I noticed a teammate, perhaps four years older than I am, had smart new boots, and I asked him about them. Perhaps, he said, they’d be the last pair he’d buy, so why not splash out? And a tritone sounded: how many years were left on my clock? At what point was this foundational part of who I considered myself to be not going to be around any longer?

You can also read another extract from Games Without Frontiers, “Tactocracy, Rationalism, Ontology and the Ends of Football” here

Games without Frontiers is published by Repeater Books. New Socialist subscribers at £5+ per month can get a 50% discount on this or any other Repeater book.


Joe Kennedy (@joekennedy81)

Joe Kennedy likes things. He has written two books and is writing another.