Anyone who has read any football biography will be familiar with its typical format. The opening chapter will be a factual account of the subject’s career-defining moment (and probably the reason you bought the book in the first place). Once this is complete, the story will wind back to the cobbled streets of their childhood to allow the subsequent chapters to tell the story as to how they got to that pinnacle.
Everyone wins with this format. The authors don’t have to waste time and energy finding a groundbreaking way of telling the story. The publisher doesn’t have to risk its investment in offering something new to the world. And the reader gets a familiar, easy to follow story that means they get some good solid value for money.
It’s rare, then, that someone comes up with a genuinely good idea for a football biography, and you wouldn’t really expect Gareth Southgate to be the one that did. Southgate, however, had two things in his locker; he is one of the more intelligent and self-aware footballers of his generation; he knew that in reality apart from rolling a decisive penalty into the hands of Andreas Kope in the Euro 96 semi-final, he didn’t really have a story to tell. The second thing he had was a career long friendship with Andy Woodman; lower league journeyman goalkeeper and, at the time of publication, Oxford United number 1.
The idea, then, was to illustrate the extremes of professional football; Southgate the mega rich international footballer (and, even then, some would say, underachiever) and Andy Woodman, one of the thousands of footballers who wallow around the toilets of the footballing world before being spat out without making a dent in the games’ history books.
They drafted in David Walsh, the Times journalist who has become famous for being almost a lone voice in the pursuit of Lance Armstrong. Another isolated voice in that particular fight was Paul Kimmage, another open critic of Armstrong and the author of the original drug bust cycling book; Rough Ride. There’s a tradition in cycling writing that tends to explore the human spirit. It’s not a surprise really, cycling doesn’t have the same intense theatre that football has, and from the outside much of it looks the same. What’s really interesting about cycling is what goes on inside people’s heads when taking their bodies to extremes.
Kimmage also wrote Full Time; Tony Cascarino’s biography, which similarly broke the mould in revealing the fear sitting at the heart of most footballers. Walsh manages the same thing with Southgate and Woodman. Southgate’s fear was about not fulfilling what he felt was an obligation to maximise his talents; he laments never having played for a top club and that his England legacy is his missed penalty. In the end, the thing that drove him to become as good as he was is also the thing that nagged away and left him jaded; the relentless pursuit of unobtainable perfection.
Woodman’s fear is perhaps more familiar to most, a fear that is desperately underplayed in football due to the relentless portrayal of the game as a UNMITIGATED! SERIES! OF! THRILLS!. Woodman’s need was to survive; to remain in employment and support his family, in an atmosphere where manager’s are always looking for something better and fellow players are happy to step all over you in a similarly desperate attempt to survive.
The book says almost nothing specifically about Woodman’s time at Oxford United. The club wash his kit (unusual) and cut costs by taking away orange squash from the players’ post-training drinks. That’s not really a surprise, he was a player at the time of publication and he was hardly going to upset that particular applecart, particularly at that point in his career. Southgate makes virtually no reference to his club career highlights of playing in an FA Cup final or winning the League Cup in 1996 because this isn’t the story you already know. However, the point of the book is to explore the more abstract concepts within the human psyche, something prevalent in Walsh and Kimmage’s cycling writing, a refreshingly different approach to football writing.
The book says a lot about Oxford in the abstract. It has cameos from a number of familiar names; Joey Beauchamp is the player who Woodman and Southgate played against in the youth team at Crystal Palace. He was the player with more talent than Southgate, but without the mental strength to be successful. Billy Turley was a goalkeeper chasing Woodman’s slot at Northampton. Andy Scott was Woodman’s team mate at Brentford. Then, of course, there’s Ian Atkins, who pretty much sustained Woodman’s career.
Around Atkins’ time, fans were highly critical of the cabal of ex-Northampton players that were in the squad. They were his favourites and this is what was holding the team back. But reading the book you realise that, yes, lower league managers have their favourites, but it’s because they too are in constant survival mode and need people around them they can trust. Woodman wasn’t a spectacular goalkeeper, but he had the character to take on board a plan and execute it. We would later become blighted by managers who tried to play their way out of Oxford’s problems with the likes of Courtney Pitt and a phalanx of flighty Argentineans which dragged us further into the mire.
Woody and Nord should make you think differently about footballers, and particularly those you and I watch on a weekly basis. This, of course, makes it a very good book indeed. They are stuck between the celebrity of their profession, and the everyday mundanity of worrying about their future. Our reaction to players is predicated on the former; that they are well privileged and well paid and they should perform or be fired. Sometimes it’s worth thinking through the latter.