The Telegraph featured an interesting and admirably honest interview with the wonderful Curtis Woodhouse the other day, which confirmed my immense liking for the footballer turned British title winning boxer. The former Birmingham City and Sheffield United footballer spoke very candidly about quitting football in 2006 to pursue his dream of becoming a boxer, admitting that he had come to "hate" being a footballer.
"Emotionally and mentally, I didn’t want to be there," he told Gareth A. Davies. "I hated every moment of my life. Can money subsidise the way you’re feeling, make you happy? Not for me. I was earning a lot. I got paid every week and it was impossible to spend the money you were earning. You bought everything you needed … but I hated my job. I hated getting up in the morning to go to work."
There was no further elaboration about exactly why Woodhouse despised football to the extent that he was willing to sacrifice a lucrative and comfortable career in the sport and instead become a professional boxer. Therefore, intrigued to discover more, I searched online and found some other fascinating comments that Woodhouse had made in an interview with Donald McRae of The Guardian earlier this year. "I love boxing," Woodhouse declared in this article. "There's loads of shit in boxing but, when the bell rings, the truth comes out. Football is swamped in bullshit. Even when the whistle blows people are diving and cheating. Football lost its soul because there's so much money in it. There's no integrity. Boxing is brutal but it's honest. When the bell rings we bleed the same. That's why there is so much respect among fighters. It's the better sport by miles."
The interesting thing about these comments is that I found myself agreeing totally with Woodhouse's sentiments - perhaps because, like him, I also quit the football industry a few years ago, albeit a career in the journalism side of the sport, rather than as a player.
Reaching my present state of dis-satisfaction and dislike for football was a gradual process. As a child I was a fanatical sports fan, with particular affection for cricket, tennis and rugby league, but it was football, along with boxing, that were my abiding passions and obsessions. I never had the guts to get into the boxing ring, so pugilism was always an enthusiasm that was channeled passively, by reading and watching TV. In contrast, football was a physical as well as an intellectual pursuit; I played it on the street corner and in the playground at school, I watched it on TV whenever I could and every week I bought Shoot, Match and Roy of the Rovers magazines. I would even make careful notes of football results and statistics in the notebooks and wall charts which I lovingly devoted to my favourite players and teams.
When adulthood finally arrived, I found myself studying for a degree in English and Theatre Studies but with little clue about what career path I ultimately wanted to pursue. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I had always harboured an idle dream about becoming a football or boxing journalist (I loved writing, I loved football and boxing, so what career could be more ideal?), however, I had absolutely no idea of how to break into such an industry, and no experience whatsoever, having spent my days at university drinking and smoking rather than acquiring relevant experience on, say, the university newspaper.
After graduating, I ended up working in a bookshop. But, one fateful day in 1999, I spotted an advertisement for a job as a staff writer on a start-up football newspaper entitled Football Gazette. Unbelievably, thanks to a fictitious portfolio of articles I threw together which I passed off as having written for a university newspaper, I managed to land the job. On a princely salary of £12,000 a year, I was duly installed as the paper's third division correspondent and a general feature writer.
Despite a ridiculous daily commute from south London to Hitchin in Hertfordshire, I loved working for Football Gazette. It was everything I had ever dreamed the life of a football journalist would involve; I travelled from place to place, meeting interesting and passionate people who loved football as much as I did. I investigated and wrote a feature on Plymouth's promising youth team system, I interviewed Barnet's flair player Darren Currie, whose agent was kind enough to give me a lift back to London in his car, and I wrote sub-Charlie Brooker reviews about various football-related TV shows.
I made it my mission to expand my footballing knowledge and expertise so it was as broad as possible. As a consequence, I inevitably scaled down my interest in boxing; there simply wasn't enough time in the day to wholeheartedly devote myself to both sports. In my spare moments, of which there were very few, I daydreamed about how my work at Football Gazette would help me land a publishing deal for my long-gestating biography of my footballing hero Matthew Le Tissier - a book, incidentally, which would double up as a manifesto for the importance of flair and imagination in football and would therefore change the face of English sport forever. (Ah, the idealistic folly of youth!)
Even the lows of being a third-division football reporter were memorable and entertaining; for example, I was stuck for a weekend in a B and B in Carlisle while hoping, and failing, to interview Michael Knighton. Then there was the time I incurred the wrath of a local reporter in the West Country who insisted, very rudely, that I turn off my tape recorder because he simply had to speak to a Plymouth player alone in order to secure an 'exclusive' (the player in question merely repeated his comments to me pretty much verbatim two minutes later, which pleasingly rendered my rival's 'exclusive' useless).
In short, I found my work stimulating, while the people I worked with and encountered were, for the most part, witty, warm and great company. I thought I had found my vocation for life.
Sadly, Football Gazette went under after a few months, and I was forced to look for employment elsewhere. I ended up working for a succession of footballing websites over the next four or five years, some as a freelancer and some as a full-time member of staff, and gradually the charm of the industry evaporated. Ironically, the level of football I was now covering was, on a technical level and in terms of media profile, much, much higher - the European Championships, the Champions League, the Premiership and even the World Cup - but as the quality of football increased, so too did the quantity of "bullshit" surrounding the game and those involved with it.
I'm generalising wildly, of course, but I found higher level footballers far more remote, precious and paranoid compared to their friendly and down-to-earth third-division counterparts. The fans of top-level clubs also irritated me, characterised as they were by an overwhelmingly self-obsessed sense of entitlement. In contrast, I'd always found lower-division supporters to be much more approachable, philosophical and realistic.
Professionally, I also found that my experiences at matches and tournaments were increasingly peppered with incidents that I found unpleasant and uncomfortable. At one international youth tournament I greeted a group of young English players (none of them yet established stars although they were already, of course, on obscene salaries) with a cheerful hello, only to be completely blanked and laughed at. I endured an interview with a full England international before a Champions League match where he refused to even look me in the face, and then loudly commented to his club's press officer, deliberately within my ear-shot, that he couldn't be bothered with "any more fucking interviews". I had to put up with over-sensitive press officers who seemingly wanted to control and micro-manage every question that their precious charges were asked in an interview. Even worse, I had to watch while the well-established broadsheet and tabloid news hounds hogged all the sausage rolls in the press hospitality area; indeed, sometimes it seemed they were more interested in the sausage rolls than the football.
Most infuriating of all, were those people I encountered who seemed to be in the football industry because it struck them as a 'cool job to have', or because they were well connected socially with other journalists or members of the media. To be frank, the ignorance about the game and its history displayed by some of these clowns was downright embarrassing, but then these people didn't need knowledge or journalistic talent because they possessed the qualities which get you far further in life - namely, the ability to network and a talent for bullshit.
There were exceptions, of course. Among the players the nicest people I often encountered were 'foreigners', such as Thierry Henry (charm and warmth personified) and Hernán Crespo (an utter gentleman). Strangely enough, given their organisations' low standing among football fans and the media, I also found that many of the writers, press officers and publications people at UEFA and FIFA were highly professional, friendly and cooperative and possessed higher ethical standards than those who worked for clubs or the mainstream 'critical' media. Indeed, it struck me that the importance of maintaining neutrality while writing for the likes of uefa.com* and fifa.com ensured that these outlets possessed an impartiality which rendered them far more reliable and trustworthy than the reams of biased and controversy-baiting drivel predominant in the rest of the media.
Nevertheless, despite the many good people I encountered and worked with, my cynicism with football gradually grew. The beautiful game that had ignited my passion as a child, seemed to me now to be a giant, impersonal moneymaking automaton, obsessed with wealth, control and status, at the expense of romance, integrity and imagination.
With the cruel persistence of water torture, my feelings of dissatisfaction with football plagued me for a couple of years, until I decided enough was enough. I'd had my fill of suspicious press officers, re-writing bland press releases and trying to persuade agents not to ask for money to interview their pampered, millionaire clients. So I left the game that, to be frank, I no longer had a passion for. I chucked in football journalism and became a teacher instead. Working with children aged 11-16, who are for the most part refreshingly devoid of the bitterness of the middle-aged and disappointed, enabled me to regain the carefree idealism of my youth. I found myself engaging with issues, people and a vocation that I felt meant something and represented something important. (Mind you, none of the kids I taught could believe I'd exchanged a life of watching football for long days in a classroom.)
For nearly a decade, I focused on my teaching career and barely gave my previous existence as a football journalist a second thought. In my spare time I hardly watched football any more. Instead I returned to reading about, watching and studying boxing and its rich and varied history. Eventually, after dipping my toe back into journalistic waters on a very casual basis, I decided that I missed the craft of frequent writing, and that I wanted to write about boxing as much as I could, in-between and around my teaching commitments, of course.
So I began to research a book on the Georgian prizefighting era, I also began writing and compiling Boxiana: Volume 1 and I started this blog. With no contacts at all in the boxing industry, all the legwork for Boxiana has been conducted via Twitter and other forms of social media and something that has struck me thus far is the unswerving integrity and pleasantness I have encountered throughout the boxing world, particularly compared to the rampant bullshit that has infected football. It's been quite a novelty to find that my messages and emails are usually returned, rather than ignored, and that people are actually interested in speaking to me or helping me, rather than being automatically suspicious of my journalistic motives.
Perhaps I've been lucky, and I'm sure there are plenty of arseholes in boxing as well as in football, but compared to the unwieldy and arrogant football industry, the world of boxing seems to me to possess much more class, honesty and integrity.
As things stand now, I couldn't be happier. I can write about boxing to my heart's content, but my career as a teacher means I don't have to worry about it being my sole source of income.
So, Curtis Woodhouse - I couldn't agree with you more; I hate football too.
*(Full disclosure: I worked full time at uefa.com. The content team there were first-class).
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Luke G. Williams