the square ball week: stories are not for saleBack
The man on the platform opened a can of cheap lager and drank, as if gulping away another mundane day of paper shuffling.
People watched, captivated by the sight. On other platforms, at other stations, other mundane people in mundane suits opened cans of cheap lager and gulped, but nobody took photographs of their tired faces.
This man had an aura. There are people whose actions raise them above the humdrum, who other people like to see; footballers, for example. For a large proportion of the population of Britain, the sight of a professional footballer among them provokes awe. People pay hundreds of pounds in tickets and travel to see them do stuff, so to see them in a public place doing other stuff feels like unbelievable access to a world you can’t otherwise enter.
It’s strictly forbidden to trespass onto a football pitch. When the people from the pitch are sat opposite you on a train, there’s nothing to forbid contact, except their aura. It’s an aura of achievement, an aura of excellence. It’s an aura that meant people wanted Tyler Denton’s autograph on his way out of Kenilworth Road on Tuesday night, in ways they didn’t on his way in.
The man on the platform had an aura, but it wasn’t an aura of achievement. Something set him apart from other mundane people in suits on stations across the country, but even if you knew who he was — and everybody watching knew who he was — you’d be hard pressed to identify any achievement in his life that earned this aura, that made him captivating, that made people want to photograph him.
“I know Maradona personally,” he once said in an interview. “I know van Basten, Gullit, I know all these people, that is my life.” That is his aura; not achievement, but association. Maradona, van Basten, Gullit; special examples of footballing achievement who would attract crowds to watch them open a can of anything, from Carling to whupass. Or more locally, Tyler Denton, Marcus Antonsson, Ronaldo Vieira; he knows all these people, that is his life.
Because he once bought the right to pay their wages, and now that makes him somebody.
So what is there to say to this man, when he sits opposite you on the train? He’s done nothing with his life. He’s not actually very interesting. All the points of interest are about his relations to other people. Tell us about Garry Monk, tell us about Steve Evans, tell us about Dave Hockaday. Nobody thinks to ask him to tell them about Massimo Cellino, because what is there to tell?
He bought a football club and he drinks lager on a train, and he knows some people we want to know more about. But he doesn’t get along with all those people, which also makes conversation difficult. Some people on the train want to ask where things went wrong for some of the other people he knows, and why they’re not around anymore. Steve Thompson, for example. What happened to him?
There are already cameras pointed at this man, though, and this is a social media age. People want to ask questions about things this man might not want to talk about, but earlier that day they saw on Twitter how a man got into trouble thanks to videos on a train. Things escalate when you don’t feel like you can have a private conversation, when before you speak you imagine the distorting comments and tweets piling up beneath a video of the moment when you opened your mouth, after a couple of beers, and said something. Do you want to walk into work tomorrow and find your boss watching a video of your train ride home?
But someone asks anyway. “Why did you sack Steve Thompson when we were flying under Redfearn?” And the bonhomie falls from the man in the suit like skin from a snake.
“Sorry man, when you come, be polite,” replies the man in the suit. “I don’t like you.”
“You don’t like me? Well I don’t like you.”
“No, I don’t like the way you present yourself. I didn’t come here to —”
At this point it’s fight or flee, for both. The man with the aura has been holding court among a group drawn to him by his associations with the football club and footballers they love; not him. And this question has penetrated that aura, because its answer begins with Massimo Cellino, and that’s not what Massimo Cellino is here to talk about. What is there, after all, to say?
And to the guy who asked, a discordant voice among the sycophantic, he’s staring down the wrong end of a viral video. SHARED: the man who stripped the emperor. What’s to gain? Days of hassle, or a quiet train ride home?
So things move on. It’ll never come to crisis in public with this man because the cost would be too high, and the gains too small. Some tired old bloke on a platform, drinking from a can of cheap lager. He bought something that made him interesting, like lots of tired old blokes whose auras are diminishing. There’s not really a story to tell, so he just talks and talks, saying nothing, until he’s asked to say something. Then he becomes angry.
There are better stories to tell from Luton. Tyler Denton’s goal on his senior debut might be lost down the side of history’s sofa, a little like Gary ‘Garry’ Kelly’s debut on the wing in the League Cup in 1991, in Leeds United’s title season; he didn’t appear again in earnest until late 1993, for what many thought was his debut. But some of us remembered then, and remember now; the photo of the young player in the paper in the white Umbro shirt, running down the line with his cuffs pulled over his hands.
Some of us will remember Tyler Denton’s goal too, the way the teenage debutant left-back came charging out of midfield, or rather from left-of-frame (because this goal will be treasured on video), and with a Luton defender diving feet-first towards him, made a sequence of split second decisions that make footballers so fascinating. Shoot? Yes. Left foot? Yes. Outstep? Yes. Top corner? Oh fuck yes.
What a story. And it’s a story Leeds United keeps writing. Gary Kelly and Ian Harte; Sam Byram and Charlie Taylor; Lewie Coyle and Tyler Denton. The full-backs come two-by-two, and we adore them because of the talent they have and the work they’ve done to be able to do things we dream about.
You could have all the money in the world and buy everything there is to buy but you could never buy the ability to do what Tyler Denton did in Luton, and you can never buy that story to tell.
You can only buy a mundane suit, a train ticket, a can of cheap lager, and maybe some attention, for one night, while you talk about the other people, who people really want to know about; the people who have done amazing things.
You can buy all that. But you can’t buy the love, my friend.