Book review: Where’s your caravan? – Chris Hargreaves

Playing for Oxford, Chris Hargreaves seemed to be the right player at the wrong club, then latterly the wrong player at the right club; if you catch my drift.

His autobiography ‘Where’s Your Caravan‘ is the story of a journeyman professional; 20 years, 10 clubs. I thought the title was a simple reference to this fact, but, is a reference to his hair. It’s a joke I think I understand; I guess, in the world of football, the aggregation of a million weak jokes (banter) makes everything more hilarious.

The story has virtually no central narrative – he bounds from one season to another at break neck speed – but, in a sense, that’s the point; few careers are a straight line incline. Few outside Hollywood films enjoy a Drogba like career pinnacle; most just bumble along before fizzling out. There is a high point, of sorts, in his play-off final goal and promotion with Torquay, but it’s not like the story builds to that moment.

Much of the book covers clubs and times that you won’t care much for. Not that it matters a great deal; the banter, drinking, hilarious near-death experiences and childish pranks are the same year after year. It’s only the clubs and players that you might vaguely recognise, that change. Apart from the drinking and fighting, Hargreaves is careful not to admit to having taken part in any of the the womanising or drug taking that seems to happen around him; particularly in his early rave days. He seems always to be in the mix but is at pains to stress he’s a loyal family man and fitness freak.

He paints his wife as either a hard drinking lush, or a rock of stability with the patience of a saint. She is a constant, although he alludes to a relationship that has been strained. It suggests that there’s a darker story about Hargreaves that he’s not prepared to tell; which is his right. Personally, the relentless booze, birds and banter is quite enough for me. One mild night with Mickey Lewis at a wedding reception taught me that hanging out with footballers is probably better done sparingly or not at all. Hargreaves’ career of hijinks grows tiresome and therefore largely reinforces my view.

You won’t learn much about Oxford United from the book, apart from Hargreaves’ assertion that John Dempster was a good player (yes, that John Dempster). The reasons given for our relegation in 2006 are as expected; a venal owner tired of spending money, a series of kneejerk managerial appointments leaving the club with a fragmented squad of bewildered youngsters and mercenary and disinterested pros – Jon Ashton, I’m looking at you.

You will learn a bit more about Chris Hargreaves. He is a member of that lower league elite pivoting around Soccer AMs Helen Chamberlain. His relationship with pretty much every person in football – the imbeciles, morons and nutters – is that they’re all absolutely Top Lads. However, Hargreaves has had run-ins with pretty much every Top Lad he’s ever met. This contradiction in his relationships is a re-occuring theme throughout, possibly because he wants to secure a management or coaching job at some point in the future and doesn’t want to go as far as upsetting people.

As club captain at Oxford, he set about undermining Jim Smith on his arrival. Darren Patterson had just started making an impression on the squad following the departure of the ‘isolated’ Brian Talbot. Smith’s arrival (alongside his takeover of the club – something Hargreaves neglects to mention) creates further instability. Admittedly, installing Smith as manager at the point of takeover was a pretty blunt instrument, and you do get the impression that Smith had lost his touch a little, but you have to question what value Hargreaves felt he was offering by making a difficult situation decidedly worse.

Not that this is an isolated incident, you realise that in his entire career over two decades he renewed his contract on only a couple of occasions – one of which was an awkward guilt-laden one-year extension at Torquay. Otherwise, he signed two year deals and then left for another club at the conclusion of each one. This either makes Hargreaves a mercenary, or never quite good enough to keep, or a combination of the two, of course.

What makes the book is Hargreaves’ melancholic interludes about his life post-football. He didn’t really give up on football, football gave up on him. As he got older, he popped out the back as it trundled on in its inextricable way. He is left with a broken body and a wife, children and all the other things that you and I have to contend with every day – bills, mortgage, tedium. It seems strange that this comes as a shock to someone pushing 40. But then Hargreaves never really seemed to grow up. He’s prepared to do anything to support his family, but a lot of that ‘anything’ seems to be media work or football management, hardly the foundation rock he claims to desire.Eventually he opens a sports shop, which is something.

The almost universal view of Hargreaves is that he is indeed a Top Lad. He certainly comes over as a nice guy who never quite got to grips with the realities of life. He never won a contract that financially cocooned him from these realities. He’s far from unusual in that respect; but in terms of Oxford specifically, at a time when we needed steady, pragmatic professionals at the club, it makes you wonder whether he was, in fact, another part of the problem, not the solution.