I used to play football, now I write books.

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When I was at school, the teachers told me I had the lowest attendance rate they had ever seen. One reason for that, was, I used to bunk off, because by Year 10 I had enough of school and was bored of it. I didn’t appreciate education like I do now. I don’t think any of us did really, did we? The other reason for my lack of classroom time was because I had to go to the chiropractor or hospital most weeks because I fractioned my spine playing football. I remember exactly where I was when I felt it go and I also remember it vividly because of the events that led up to it; and then the subsequent years of misery which still keeps me awake at night. 

I went to a ‘mates’ house the night before a game. He was drinking with his mates who I knew well enough but wasn’t a massive fan of and I wasn’t drinking. The reason I wasn’t drinking was because I had been given the number of a contact for a well-known football club by somebody who had been watching one of my matches for the school. Now, I didn’t play for the school until year 10. YEAR 10. And the only reason I got into the team was because certain people didn’t turn up that day and I overheard the teacher mention it to my mates and I piped up saying I would play. Scored 2 goals on my debut and was part of the team until the end of school. I never went to the trial in year 7 because I was made to feel like I wasn’t good enough, even though I knew I was. At that time, I didn’t have the knowledge of knowing people are pricks and are mostly always wrong. I went from being popular and in all the sports teams in Primary School, playing for the borough, training at the QPR school of excellence, to not even trying out for the football team in secondary school. I honestly, to this day, don’t know what was going through my head. I still see not going to that trial as a negative turning point in my life. Anyway, in the end, I actually did alright for the school. By Year 11 I was playing and starting almost every game and enjoying it a lot.  Highlights being scoring the extra time winner in the County Cup (I think) semi-final and scoring 6 goals against Vyners first half then having to come off injured at half time. So, I got this number, only told my Mum and we called it. Someone from the club was going to come and watch one of my games for my Sunday league team. Cut a long story short, I was at this little gathering the night before, and some two-bob-cunt decides to give me a dead leg for ‘banter’. I wasn’t laughing and I’m quite good at banter.  

The next morning, I was fucked. My leg was killing and I could barely run. First kick of the game, my back went. I felt this weird pain I had never felt before but because I knew somebody was there to watch me, I carried on playing. A dead leg and unbeknown to me in the moment – a fractured spine. I vividly remember scoring a goal second half but still unable to move properly; feeling the sharp agonising pain every time I tried to. After this game it was just all down-hill. I went to a chiropractor who was less than useless. This chap, turned me, twisted me up and down and probably made it worse. There was one particular time that I was in the car park in Eastcote behind all the shops just after having treatment and I collapsed to the floor because I couldn’t walk at all.  What should have happened is, me getting referred for an MRI scan as soon as I went to him. But of course, some people only care about money and this place clearly put their profits over my health. Eventually, I did have an MRI scan and the fractured back diagnosed was revealed. I was told I would have to have something called ‘PARS repair’. I was also told that I would have to be in a back brace for a year and that there was a 2% chance it might go wrong and I could be left disabled.  

Firstly, I was 17 when I finally got the diagnosis, which was nearly a few years after being injured. I knew I was at the age where most players had already been signed and I was pissing about with my life and not concentrating on what I wanted to do. Secondly, and to my detriment, I cared about what I’d look like in a back brace for a year. I liked annoying the ladies, and the back brace was not the look I was going for. Thirdly, I thought with my luck I’d be in the 2% and that was a genuine fear at the time. However, in hindsight, I think I used it all as an excuse. A get out of jail card. I hadn’t made it to where I said I was going to all my life and that injury was the perfect reason to give as to why I didn’t meet expectations. I still haven’t had the operation. I’ve lived my life over again since that time, which is scary as it feels like it was yesterday, and I always feel like I am somewhat stuck back in that time zone. Of course, I’ve toyed with the fact I wasn’t good enough, my body not strong enough, my skill not to the standard, but I don’t believe it. I know I could have. You only have to watch some of the players that have turned pro to see that it’s not always the best players who make it and some of the best players to ever play actually did start at non-league level and came on the scene late (Jamie Vardy anyone?).  But anyway, it’s not the point. The point is that part of my failure was because of the lack of belief from others in who I was and what I wanted to do and be. It was also however, a lack of education on how to succeed in a certain industry.  

As my first novel is nearly ready to be put out into the world, I’ve been thinking about some of the difficulties I’ve bumped in to along the journey of creating a believable story. I tried to write a novel when I was 18 and I got to about 10,000 words but some of the reasons why I didn’t complete that book then could have been the reasons why I didn’t complete this book either. (If I didn’t persist). Half way through this novel I actually wrote a rambling rant at myself shouting a potential reason, “Read some god-damn books James, who do you think you are trying to write a book when you’ve barely read any!!” The only difference from when I was 18, is now… I’ve lived more. I’ve still not read many fictional novels but I’ve read A LOT of other stuff. I’ve watched a lot too, and I’ve paid attention to my surroundings and the world. I also feel like since 18, I’ve educated myself. What some people were learning in class at school whilst I was bunking and playing football, I learnt gradually by sitting at home for years depressed and somewhat reclusive (apart from nights out drinking). I’ve appreciated learning new things more and more as I’ve got older. I think when you suffer with mental health problems, especially depression/anxiety, you have a lot of time to get to know yourself. Both your new self and the self you were before you had the illness. I’ve definitely been self-critical of past selves. I’ve known myself for a while now though; the good and the bad of me.  

Writing the blog post I Wish I Had Cancer definitely helped with handling the problems that I was experiencing at the time. Whilst I still suffer with depression and anxiety, the panic disorder that was controlling my life is now under my control. I remember sitting in a room with my old boss who told me he used to suffer with panic-attacks too and that eventually I’d be able to control it. At the time, I genuinely thought I would have to live with it forever, and that feeling of hopelessness is bleak. He was right though. After taking medication and partaking in CBT through Mind, the education on what I was experiencing allowed me to have the tools to battle back against the illness. The thing is, I had to learn how the disorder worked, in order to successfully handle it better. Knowledge is power and all that.  
 
The best thing to come out of that blog is the fact I had so many great messages and comments sent my way. From old friends and news friends, and people I had never spoken to before. Even today, I get people reading it and sending me messages. “I would have never thought you suffered with depression, you always come across as so confident, and whenever I see you, you’re always having fun”. That’s the point isn’t, nobody knows what people feel inside. Nobody knows what happens when their mate gets home from a fun night out. Even people I wouldn’t have expected to suffer with mental health problems told me at the time that they could relate to so much of what I had said.  

You know, no matter how people see me. and everyone’s perspectives on me will be different depending on how and when we met; I’ve always seen myself as a strong man. I look back now, on some old photos and I don’t even recognise myself. I can’t even remember the years, like I’ve had a mind blank. Maybe it’s just old age. But I look at these photos now, and I look skinny, I look ill, I look so painfully unhappy – and now it’s so obvious I had depression. It’s obvious now because I’ve educated myself on the topic but back then, I just was drifting and existing but the feeling of sadness and nothingness didn’t have a definition. I was lazy, a bum, useless, embarrassing etc. All the names you would expect to be called if you’re in your early 20’s doing nothing but sitting at home every day gambling and eating chicken cottage.  
 
The last thing I really remember about my true youth, is being around 19 or 20 years old and going back to have one last shot at playing football. I had a few games here and there for a few different teams but this was an attempt to play properly. I signed up for a team and it was like I had never left the pitch. I had a year out before this, after a team I had played for were about to put me on as a sub and then realised another player’s Dad had come to watch him and the Manager said to me “Sorry James, I’m going to put bla bla on today, his Dad’s here”. Now, that might seem like the nice thing to do, but trust me, every kid who has grown up without a Dad and has wanted to do anything in Sport, knows what it’s like week in week out and that was the last straw for me. Got dropped off that day, never went back. I went to play for the first ever team I ever joined, for just a game and absolutely tore it up. I had some kind of comfort and closure in seeing people notice the player I had become. By this point I was strong, confident on and off the pitch (probably crossing the line into cocky) and had been training with some really good coaches and some excellent footballers (many of whom were good enough to turn pro but never). After this though, I just stopped caring. I had been playing with a fractured back for a long time, and the pain was exhausting. It actually stopped me from breathing. Yet, come the end of my teenage years, I turned out for a team and I enjoyed it. Felt unfit of course, but I remember scoring an absolute worldie on the half volley that went flying in top corner from about 30 yards out. The other team with their hands over their mouths and their own subs bench cheering the goal. Coming up to me after the game spudding me. And that’s what I lived for. Praise for something I was good at. Managers from both teams coming up to put an arm around me and saying “good game”, people speaking about me positively, girls on the side lines giving me high-fives when I scored and went to do pre-thought-out celebrations with them. Everything that comes with having a talent and having ambition. When the talent faded, when the ambition died, I wanted to die to. Sometimes I still do.  

The problem was, my back was in agony and the recovery time was too long to achieve anything I wanted to. So, I stopped again and the black hole opened up and swallowed me. Before I knew it, the next time I played football properly was at Goals when I was in my mid-twenties with work mates and was unable to do anything of great note really or able to move in the same fashion. It was frustrating. I could still clearly play, because it doesn’t really leave you, but getting whizzed past by 19-year-old kids who play for Academy’s isn’t the cure for depression.  

There’s a real problem with mental health and footballers because they reach these heights (much higher than I ever did) and then they’re let go. Some go into management, some go in punditry etc, but those jobs are rare. I know the FA are trying, but right down the food chain, even to grass-roots level, their needs to be support for players who feel lost when it all comes to an end. There’s enough money in the game to make sure nobody dies just because they can’t turn pro.  
 
You know I’ve had people who I played with who have turned pro, who have gone on to be Premier League players, who have inboxed me on Facebook to see how I was and to see who I was playing for (nobody, I’m in LNER getting pissed out of my face). Reminiscing about when we played against each other or whatever. I had someone come up to me a few years ago and say that when we were younger, they really wanted to be able to play football like me. You know some people I played with who don’t know me that well might roll their eyes and say “you weren’t good enough”, but they can take comfort in knowing that I only feel upset when I get these messages and compliments. I don’t get any satisfaction from people bringing up something I used to be good at. I could write a whole blog on how much I’ve tried to forget that version of me because remembering it has led to me not being able to move forward productively. It’s led to me wanting to take my own life on numerous occasions, because I know I can never go back and try again. I’ll die with regrets.  

The only thing that really kept me alive during this period was having other passions. Even in the darkest of moments, I still always wrote. I’ve always written stuff, right back to primary school I remember writing books upon books of lyrics to my own songs that I made up and scripts for WWF performances. My brother and I used to perform them to our Mum and then the piece of paper with the script in it would be stored in a folder so I could continue on with the storyline. You know when you’re a kid you do these things, but you don’t realise that your passions and talents could actually be used as a viable career. That’s not just me, that’s so many people with skills that are not living and working to their full potential. It’s disheartening to sit at a computer scrolling through Indeed and having to apply for these, dead-end, low-paid jobs, that make your soul slowly die. Yeah, I’ve had jobs that I didn’t mind doing and that I was good at, but I’ve never got home and been buzzing that I put a promotion on someone’s account or that I talked to a suicidal bloke who was threatening to jump off a roof.  

If lockdown has taught us anything, it’s that people are not who we think they are. Shelf-stackers are musicians, comedians are delivery drivers and artists of all kinds are everywhere. Like football, it’s not always the best who rise to the top. The people who sing for a living, or dance, or act, or create Facebook or Amazon – needed talent and a good idea – then knowledge of how to make it happen. A lot of people have the talent, have the good idea, but lack the knowledge. If I go back 15 years with the knowledge I now have, I make my dreams come true. I needed guidance and mentoring but it wasn’t available to me, like it was to others. How many people in lockdown have you seen unveil their hidden talents? Cooking or make-up or whatever it is you’ve seen people do on your timelines. Imagine how long some of these people have held their love for something in, and how they wish they could do what they’re good at, as a job – but just don’t know how to go about it. I can tell you from experience, there’s nothing more depressing than sitting on a jobs website and applying for mind-numbingly depressing work when you know that you are good something, but do not have the cv or educational paperwork which would allow you to start applying for jobs in the field you belong in. It’s exhausting, it’s frustrating and it can make somebody incredibly sad. 
 
So, did I tell you I wrote a book? Well, I did. I started writing it when I was in Australia because I had run out of money early on in my 3-month trip and basically spent most of January 2019 scrounging to stay alive. I think I wrote about 30,000 words in this time and then a mixture of writers block and lack of planning kicked in. In hindsight a first-time novelist, probably shouldn’t try and write a book which flicks back and forth from the past to the present, in quick succession. It’s confusing when you’re writing it and trying to remember what you wrote 6 months ago for example. Luckily, after completing the novel, I had the whole of 2020 to try and make sure that it was error free and perfect (spoiler: even the best books have errors, so expect to find 1 or 2). Of course, I planned to release the book last year but I wanted to do a proper release. I wanted it to not just be online, but to be in indie bookstores, maybe even in a few big bookstores. Why not eh? Obviously, Covid 19 put pay to that, like it has many other opportunities that I was looking to explore. I did start to send the manuscript to agents for example, but a lot of the early responses I was getting was that they were looking after their current clients and didn’t know where the industry was going to be at so were not taking new authors on. Maybe just an excuse, because they didn’t like that book has the word ‘cunt’ as the fourth word, but there we go.  And don’t get me started on the lack of diversity within publishing.
 
Whilst 2020 was a hindrance in some ways, it was a blessing in others. It allowed me to engage with a new community, and inject the knowledge of an industry I was about to enter, into my veins. Even though I write, I’ve never called myself a writer. Even now, on the brink of having a novel being bought by people who actually want to read what I’ve written, I still feel like a pretender. At some point though, I needed to change tactic. I spent far too long, writing screenplays and scripts for television shows and then hoping somebody would come along and find them in a draw and make me the next big BAFTA award winning writer. I needed to put myself out in to the world where other people were helping each other learn and grow and because I was out of work during lockdown, I was able to focus more on building relationships and letting go of any anxiety about becoming the person I am.  

The power of social media and the time created by lockdown, allowed me to naturally engage with writers, actors, filmmakers, producers, authors etc in a way I hadn’t done before. I was putting things out there and getting responses. I asked questions and I gave opinions and I was getting answers and genuine conversations. I asked about the history of Eastenders and working-class writers, which opened up a portal of stories and experiences. Some of the people who contacted me have worked on the show and still contact me now, sending me any opportunities that they think might help. One person actually DM’d me and signed me up for a London Screenwriters’ Festival membership. It’s that kindness, guidance and inside experience that you need to achieve things, in any field. As someone said to me recently, “you don’t know, what you don’t know”. 
 
It’s small things on a long road to a certain goal but it’s changing the mistakes I made before. Imagine if I had a mentor guiding me in football, who showed me where the opportunities were. Or if I had a person who noticed that I was suffering with depression and picked me up and educated me. The difference is, now I understand that it is rare for opportunities to come knocking and rarer for people to help you when you don’t even know yourself, that you need the help.  

The novel, became more of just an achievement that I wanted to fulfil. If I released it when I was supposed to, last year, it would have just been, something I wanted to do, and then did. However, last year it evolved into more of a project. A slice in a bigger pie. The goal now is really to prove that working-class men that haven’t been to University or been given the opportunities that others have so easily received, can write and create art that others can enjoy. My personal hope is that the book also leads to some opportunities for me to work in an industry that I want to work in. I want to write for television. I want to work in the film industry. I want to engage with agents, film-makers, producers and creatives of all kinds, to learn and create together. Hopefully the novel can open some doors. And further to that, as I step up on the ladder, I want to drag people up with me. People like me who have always wanted to have a job that can involve their talents and passions. I used somebody who is a talented working-class artist to design my book cover. I had a certain vision from the start for how I wanted it to look – cartoonish with certain characters implemented on the back and front. They’ve also helped to create the adverts for the book that will be used on the day. A vital part in making this all happen. Same goes for the working-class editor I used to beta read my book and check for spelling and grammar. I’m a story-teller whose writing style is to write how I’m speaking or thinking the story. That’s not always grammatically correct, but working together to find the balance between being correct grammatically to a point but also not losing the voice of the characters was an interesting and educational journey. Growing together, that’s the point. I can put the book on my CV now, and they can put down their input on their CV. 
 
Anyway, I’m ranting now. Once you write a book with 64,000 words it’s easy to just drift off into monologues upon monologues of thoughts. I hope the book does well, and I appreciate any support towards it. Whether you buy it or share it on your socials, thank-you. But seriously, buy it. It’s good. It’s about you and it’s about people you know. Yeah, it’s a romantic comedy of sorts, but ultimately, I hope that you see it’s about grief, love, mental health and life.  
 
Also, I think I might start playing football again. For too long I’ve missed doing something I loved and cared about because I couldn’t play to the standard I wanted to. Let’s play anyway. Let’s see what happens. Old man with fractured back coming to a team near you soon. I’ll start training tomorrow. 

Novel comes out 29.01.2021

Resources:

Mind

Clark Carlisle Foundation for Dual Diagnosis

Mental Health and Football (PFA)

james-gunn.co.uk

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