God's footballer hears the voices of angels, above the choir at Molineux.
It's the done thing to sneer about football. It's lost it's soul, apparently. It's not what it used to be. Or it's just a bloated spectacle, with twenty-two millionaires kicking a ball around a field. I'm hearing more of this than ever before, now that my own club, Wolverhampton Wanderers, have rich owners, and are the current team accused of destroying the game.
Growing up in England, in the eighties, football was every politician's favourite curse word. The reason for every social ill. The fans were animals, to be kept in cages. Living for over a decade now in Glasgow, I can still see that football becomes the easy target. Politicians, writers, journalists, can all complain about the influence of the game, rather than address the social conditions that lead to problems.
An odd thing happened yesterday. I was running late for work. Booked to chair a literary event in the city, I was rushing across my local estate to get to the train, one I was pretty sure I would miss. Along the way, I passed some young boys, kicking a football around a patch of grass, with two stolen house bricks as goalposts. And, despite the urgency or my appointment, I slowed down to watch. Because that's what I do. That's what all of us -any of us who like football- do.
There's a magic to it. A social connection. Sure, you can complain about the wages footballers earn, but why would we want an industry where the money doesn't go to the talent? And sure, we can scoff and use the 'twenty-two millionaires' line, but why do we ignore that none of them started out that way? Pick any of the largest teams in the English Premier League, and look at the backgrounds of their players. We'll find some grew up comfortably, some might be second generation footballers. But a great majority have come from poor backgrounds. From towns and villages, or from run-down inner city housing estates, where the governments have dumped a generation of immigrants. Some are even from refugee families, or grew up in the middle of civil wars. Some of those rich professionals will have grown up in back breaking poverty. But they had a skill, they worked at it, and now they're watched by millions of people around the world, and cheered for that skill.
The one thing they all have in common, is that at some point, as children, they will have been kicking a ball about on a patch of grass, maybe with some stolen house bricks for goalposts. The height of the crossbar determined somehow, vaguely, by the extent of the goalkeeper's reach.
There's a magic to football. A connection to something else. I think the sports we like as adults are probably the ones we played as children. And I can be a class warrior about it at times. There wasn't much tennis going on where I grew up. There weren't exactly copious opportunities to learn dressage. Most of the celebrated Olympic sports were the preserve of the middle classes and the well-off to pack their children into big cars after school, and at weekends, and take them to a place where they could be taught by expensive coaches.
But everyone can kick a ball on their nearest field. And when you see children doing it now, you stop, or you slow your step, and you watch. For a second, maybe you're one of them again. Thinking, I could do better than that, give me a shot.
My team are kind of rich now. If we play the game of judging a team by the wealth of their owner. They can buy better players. They've assembled probably the best Wolves squad of my life -not that it stops them losing to daft mistakes- and some of the rough edges are being smoothed out. A national football writer recently said he hoped we get relegated so that fans can 'get their club back.'
I started supporting them in 1986. The fourth division. At that moment, there were probably 85 teams higher in the football league, and I could've followed any of them. But I fell for Wolves. Steve Bull, Robbie Dennison, and a guy nicknamed Rambo in defence. Molineux was a disaster area. Two of the stands were closed, one was a hundred yards away from the pitch, and the fourth...well the fourth was the South Bank and it's always been a magical place, even when it was crumbling and scary.
So what's changed, between then and now? From the days as a national joke, on life support, to the days of a national folk devil, with money in the bank? What has altered about the soul of my team, or the nature of football?
Absolutely nothing. Go pick up a ball, kick it. It's all the same thing. It's all the same magic. If I see you playing, I'll probably pause to watch. Just don't pass to me, my left foot is terrible.