The Gay Footballer (first 50 pages)

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“I didn’t choose to be gay. I just got lucky.” ― Unknown idiom  

  1. Stretching off

From someone called ‘Rainbow Robin.’ He said: “At James Spade. You’re an inspiration. You gave me strength when I thought there was none. God bless you.” And then there are four kisses at the end. Man.

This one’s from Chris Corveil. Chris says: “At James Spade. Your bravery is an example to us all. Proof that real men do still exist. Love, your number one fan.”

Oh wow, this one. I’d forgotten about this one. “At James Spade. You saved me life. I mean that literally. I had the noose around my neck but you showed me a better way.” Jesus. I mean, if that’s really true then I should feel something – happy? – right? I did a good thing. Or rather, some good came out of what I did.

Next we’ve got ‘Jane and Fortune’ – probably not her real name – who says: ‘At James Spade. Stand tall brother. The whole countries [sic] behind you. We’re PROUD to support you.” I see what you did there, Jane. Very clever.

Now, who’s this? A person going by the name ‘Alpha2Omega,’ and he says. ‘At James Spade. When I’m healed next May I’m gonna be the first trans PL star and.’ Actually wait, I’m not going to read that bit. It’s something awful about not needing testicles to have good ball control. I’m sure you can fill in the blanks.

And a guy – or at least I’m assuming it’s a guy – called ‘Mister Long Leg,’ whatever that means, just said “I love you Jam.” I think if you ever met me you’d probably feel a bit differently mate, but thanks, I guess.

And on and on and on. Blah, blah, blah.

Christ, it’s hard reading these back again. So much love and admiration and self-satisfied bullshit. A liberal wet dream.

And it’s all just a lie.

At the time I didn’t think about it too much. It honestly all just sort of happened. You know how sometimes you set something in motion and it overtakes you? Well, yeah, that’s what happened. I flicked a domino and, without knowing it, sat at the end of the chain was the launch button for an atomic bomb.

So it looks like this is my confession. I’m not sat here with a handgun and a bottle of scotch. I’m not going to kill myself at the end. I just want to set the record straight. There isn’t a real ‘why.’ I just did it.

I’m not a bad guy. I’m just a guy who was offered an opportunity to live his dream. Sure, I took advantage of some people, and yeah, maybe appropriated something quite important to a lot of people around the world, but I don’t know, no one got hurt. Not really.

My name is James Spade and I’m Europe’s first openly gay footballer. Only problem is I’m not gay.

Still, never let the truth get in the way of a good story, eh?

 

  1. The warm-up

Let’s start at the beginning then. Well, as close to the beginning as is interesting. A lot’s been made recently about my parents, and how much they really knew, and how much they were really around when I was growing up, but suffice to say they loved me and did everything they could to give me a better life than they had. They were both well educated and worked very hard, but that meant that one or both of them were often away with work.

My two main companions were the television and football, and I remember never being as happy as when these two passions met. Seeing the best players on earth weave their magic on the greatest stage of all was just mesmerising.

You know how you can sometimes chart certain feelings and events back to their precise point of origin? Well, my dream to be a footballer started on exactly May 27th, 2009 at around 10pm. I was 12 years old and I’d snuck upstairs into my friend’s flat – along with half the kids from the road – because his dad had this huge projector screen where he was showing the match.

My second favourite team in the world FC Barcelona – second behind West Ham, of course – were playing Manchester United in the Champions League final in Rome. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and my Father-Son-and-Holy-Ghost Lionel Messi dancing around the pitch as if they’d already seen it all happen before in the future. It all looked so easy, like they were simply colouring in an image of perfection that they’d already sketched out.

As Carlos Puyol lifted the enormous trophy above his head, I could feel tears trickling down my face. It was just the sheer emotion of it all; the idea that the stakes could be that high somewhere, and those guys could raise their game that much and perform when it really mattered.

That was it for me. I knew what I wanted to do and I set about making it happen. I was up before school every day lifting tiny weights to work on my strength. I did shuttle runs after school to improve my fitness. I dribbled a ball with me everywhere from then on – to and from school, around school, over the weekends to the shops, wherever. I worked on my left foot so that both my feet were as good as one another.

And soon it was summer holidays, so I made myself a chart. I knew what my end goal was, so I just needed to break it down day by day, and I knew that over 10 weeks I could get there.

I continued working on my basics, and recruited some of the lads from my road to help me with putting it into practice. There were decent players everywhere around Stratford and Leyton and Plaistow back then, so you could always find enough for a match.

I’d play 11-a-side on a full-size pitch with kids my age twice a week, and then every other day I’d be on the basketball court with the other boys, playing for nutmegs and doing skills. Goals never really counted there; you had to score with flair. Go through someone’s legs, or round their body, or humiliate them any way you could.

I swear, some of the most naturally talented players in the country used to stroll down to that basketball court and spar with each other. When I wasn’t playing, I just watched. I saw how they feinted one way and went the other. I saw how they moved the ball one way, and then quickly hooked it back in the opposite direction. And I saw how they got in each other’s heads and played games with the nonsense they used to chat.

After that Summer I got back to school with my chest properly puffed out, and couldn’t wait for our first match. I’d noticed I’d grown a bit over the break too, and suddenly I was taller, faster and stronger than everyone else.

The first game of the season was against a school in Barking and we won 9-0. I scored five goals in the first half and had to be taken off by the coach to make it fair on the opposition. I made a big deal of it at the time – acting angry and rowdy – but secretly I couldn’t have been happier.

After the game I was waiting for the bus home when someone who was dressed like a teacher, but wasn’t, came up to me and introduced himself.

“Do you follow the Irons, boy?” He said.

“West Ham? Sure I do,” I said. “Who else is there?”

“Good on you son,” he said. He paused, as if he was struggling to translate something from a foreign language he barely knew.

“I was hoping you’d come down to the youth pitches on Saturday and have a trial. I was watching you out there today. You’ve got something.”

I tried to play it cool and said “yeah, sure, why not,” as if I had something much more exciting to do on Saturday, but inside I was screaming for joy.

 

***

 

That man was Neil Campbell, and he oversaw all youth development at West Ham Football Club back then. He took a shine to me, and if I’m honest, I took a shine to him too. If my dad couldn’t be there to watch me play, I was always glad when Neil was there.

Two years on after that first trial, I was 14 playing in the under-16s. And one year later, I was the youngest player in the under-18s at just 15.

I’d never felt so good. On the pitch, it was effortless. I could see where everyone else was and exactly where the ball was going. It was like I was moving slightly faster than everyone else. I played nominally as a striker, but dropped deep to pick the ball up and create chances. I had as many assists as I had goals.

Nothing else mattered. I daydreamed my way through school during the day, and then got down to the pitches at night to train, or watch the other teams play.

My best friend Barney was a couple of years older, and lived a few doors down from me. He was a holding midfielder in the under-18s, and we had this incredible understanding. He was a master of winning a ball and then putting it into space for me to run on to.

He came from a nice family; similar to mine in a lot of ways. Both of his parents were in advertising and ran their own firm. The walls of their house were covered in art and photos and famous adverts, and Barney was obsessed with it.

We got called ‘posh’ a lot, because of how we spoke and what our parents did and where we lived. Hanging around in the car park and the dressing room with the other before and after games, we always both found it a bit hard to really engage with the other kids. For a while I told myself that we were just into different things, but when you actually asked most of the others what they liked, the answer was not-a-lot-really. I think they were just bored with life a lot of the time.

It never seemed to really bother Barney a lot, but I wanted to fit in. My accent went up and down and all over the place – and I could tell sometimes it sounded ridiculous – but I needed some common ground. Why didn’t they like me? I was the best player in the team!

I’d try to overhear films or rappers or clothes or girls that the others were talking about, and teach myself a bit about them to have a conversation, but off the pitch, still none of them were really bothered about me.

To anyone else, they’d look like a checklist of minorities, but when you’re in the middle of it and you’re the minority, it’s pretty draining. I wanted them to like me, but every time I thought like I was getting close, I’d catch one of them telling someone else that I was a ‘fag’ or a ‘rich prick’ or something.

The lads liked me more on the pitch, I guess, but probably because I made them look good. We used to win every game but still none of them really wanted anything to do with me after the match.

But Barney was enough. We shared our dreams for the future together, laughing, but at the same time, hoping that if we wanted it badly enough, it’d come true. I think for me that dream was most-definitely football, but for him, being a designer or a film director or something else creative was even more exciting.

I never really smoked, but one night after a game Barney and I shared some hash on the walk home. I remember saying to him that despite all the rubbish we’d talked over the years, I just wanted to play once for the proper team. To have my name on the back of the famous claret and blue, and walk out of the dressing room out the tunnel in front of all the fans I’d stood shoulder to shoulder with so many times already over the years. That would be enough. I wanted it so badly.

 

***

 

Our next game was against an Arsenal team with a lot of talented players. They’d clearly done their homework because wherever I went, I had one of their lads virtually inside my shirt. I still got the ball, and kept it, but every time I was getting little niggles; kicks around calf, studs on my feet, elbows in ribs, usual stuff, but it was starting to take its toll by half-time.

I was trying to stay neat and tidy and move the ball quickly onto other guys who weren’t being marked as tightly, but with my back to goal, near the left-hand touchline 35 yards out, and my shadow seemingly a yard off the pace, I couldn’t resist. I turned 180 degrees, dragging the ball under my foot as I went, dropped my shoulder left, back where I’d just come, but then played the ball off my standing foot in the opposite direction, through his legs and out into the centre of the pitch. I shouted “nuts!” before running onto the ball and curling it into the top right-hand corner of the net, away from the despairing goalkeeper.

Looking back, I shouldn’t have done it. The goal should’ve been enough. But after 40 minutes of aggravation, I had to let that guy know that I wasn’t going to stay in his pocket all match. I lost control of myself a little bit I guess.

The team celebrated, and I looked over to him and smiled. He shouted something, pointed at me and spat on the field.

As the second half started, this guy seemed to have been switched to left-back, and so I had a new marshal, second-guessing me to every ball. He was in my ear, telling me I was no good and that he was going to shag my mum, and all that other nonsense that people say on the pitch. I used to just shut it out. It washed over me. If anything, it actually helped me focus on what was actually important.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, we held out at 1-0 under severe pressure all second half, but then with five minutes left on the clock, the ball broke to me on the edge of our penalty area from one of their corners. I controlled it and moved past my man with one touch and then accelerated away with the ball. They’d been pushing for an equaliser and had left only one guy back – my friend from the first half – and he was advancing on me from the halfway line. His eyes lit up when he saw me and I still remember the look on his face. It was a grimace; almost drunken in its singularity and stupor.

As he charged towards me, I knocked the ball one way, dropped my shoulder, and then sidestepped the other side of him. Time seemed to slow down and all of a sudden it was so obvious what was going to happen. What was always going to happen. I got two strides – just far enough to feel a smile spread across my face – when I felt a messy, inaccurate collision. Just pure, undirected impact, which tangled both my legs together so far that they seemed to have swapped places. Before I knew it, I’d landed face-first on the bare, hard grass, where I lay stunned and motionless for what left like an hour. My hearing seemed to have slipped out of line because I just had this fuzzy ringing in my ears. I tried to roll over onto my back but was stabbed with so many individual pains running up with right leg that I think I lost consciousness for a second or two.

And that was it. My right shin and ankle were in pieces. Next thing I remember is the ambulance driver telling me I’d be lucky to ever walk again. Through my tears I could see the guy who did it just smirking in my general direction, but then I must’ve passed out again.

 

***

 

Artefact one. Caller on Radio 5 Live football phone-in – one day after coming out.

 

Caller [name redacted]: “I mean, look, it just comes down to this right. He’s sexually attracted to men, right. So where’s the last place you want him? In the middle of a field, surrounded by fit men, running around. How’s he supposed to concentrate?”

 

Host [name removed by request]: “(sighs) He is a professional…”

 

Caller [name redacted]: “Let me put it like this, right. Imagine if any other player was dropped onto a pitch and expected to play his best when he’s distracted by 20 lingerie models flouncing about. Any normal…”

 

Host [name removed by request]: “I’m just going to have to cut you off there I think.”

 

***

 

I think about that kid every so often. I wonder where he is now? I wonder what he thinks about me when he sees me on TV or sees me in a magazine? Maybe he doesn’t even recognise me. Maybe he’s dead.

 

***

 

This is probably a good time to mention Christine. We met pretty much the day I moved to East London, but it took me a year or two to notice her, if you know what I mean.

She was a bit of a tomboy, and me, Barney and her used to run around together whenever we could. We’d cycle around West Ham Park together, watch the football together, set off fireworks together. Usual stupid kid stuff.

Then one day she looked different. I noticed her shirt was tighter and her hair flowed down her back and she smelled like flowers, rather than mud and fried food.

All of a sudden all that fun, easy conversation just dried up and I would start to panic when I saw her. I found myself making notes at night about things I could talk to her about on the walk to school the next day. I started combing my hair.

Barney of course spotted all this and found it hilarious. He’d tease me mercilessly at football training, always telling me that she’d turned up unannounced to watch us play, then knicking the ball off me while I goofily stared off and mouthed ‘where?’

And then finally one night, swollen with desire and cheap supermarket own-brand lager, I kissed her. If it was a shot on goal, it would’ve been scuffed off my shin-pad, but as my old man used to say, they all count. She smiled and giggled and asked if she was my first kiss. I blushed and said yes, and then blushed even more at the unspoken insinuation that it wasn’t her first.

I used this to my advantage though and constantly pestered her for ‘practice,’ which she took to with similar enthusiasm. It soon became clear though that despite her head start with the opposite sex, kissing was as far as she’d gone, and we discovered the next stages of sexual adventure together.

We fell into a wonderful rhythm, and thinking back now, that was probably the time I was most happy in life. It all felt so natural; whatever I wanted, she wanted, and vice versa. We did everything together, and a few times she really did come and watch me play football.

If you thought I was insufferable on the pitch when no one I cared about was watching, then imagine how I behaved when I was trying to show off. Boys two and three years older – and nearly twice my size – got humiliated with a smile, and one youth team manager got so fed up with my antics he even tried to drop me. Problem was, we were down 2-0 at half-time and he had no choice but to throw me on and win the game.

If this all sounds arrogant, it’s because it is. But it’s that kind of game, especially when you’re that age and in London. I remember all these games and performances still through the same thought processes I had at the time, with all the heraldry and grandeur that they entailed.

When she told me she loved me, it caught me off-guard, but then I think girls always mature faster than boys. It wasn’t anything that I’d even considered, but she was already looking forward and wanted to express that she was as emotionally committed as she was physically. It meant more than I thought it would. You have to remember what it felt like to be only just 15.

We had just lost the youth FA Cup Final – unfortunately we did occasionally lose – and I’d felt like tearing the dressing room apart after the match. I was rarely that emotional about football, but it got to me that day. Weird how you can sometimes hate losing more than you actually love winning.

I felt then in that moment what I imagine a lot of other guys felt towards me later in the my career; that feeling that some people are just along for the ride, and will never be truly good enough. It was an odd emptiness that I’d spend the rest of my life trying to run away from.

When the team bus dropped us back at the training ground Christine was waiting for me, and she must’ve known something had happened. I don’t think I said a word as we trudged back home, but she invited me up into her bedroom anyway and softly whispered in my ear that no matter what happened she’d always love me. That stirred me out of my catatonia and made me realise that maybe football wasn’t the only thing worthwhile in my life.

 

***

 

But anyway, it was Christine’s face that first greeted me when I woke up in hospital about eight hours after two separate surgical procedures had repaired all the bones and muscles and nerves and ligaments below my right knee.

I think when I saw her I instantly burst into tears. Call it relief, or love, or the copious amount of painkillers coursing through my body.

I remember squeaking out quite pathetically “Am I ok?” and that was her cue to start crying. For a split-second I had to reach down and actually touch my leg because I thought that might’ve had it removed altogether.

“We’ll be ok,” she kept repeating, chanting, like a mantra. If was as much for her own benefit as mine I think.

 

***

 

Things were hard after that. The club stuck by me and paid all my bills, including full-time rehabilitative physiotherapy, but I really struggled.

The physio was an old army grunt called Marcus – never Marc – who seemed to take incredible pleasure in my agony. We’d start with a massage, which at first I thought would be nice and relaxing, but in reality it meant 30 minutes of him pummelling various parts of my body with the points of his elbows, and pulling my fingers and toes almost out of their sockets.

That was just to ‘warm up.’ After 10 minutes I could barely speak because the pain was too great. After 20 minutes I’d be drenched in sweat. After half an hour – when the actual physiotherapy on my leg began – I’d be close to tapping out.

Yet it was still downhill from there. I’d do stretches and crunches, lifts and pushes; all designed to increase strength and what he called, range of movement. It all felt so alien, like it was someone else’s shin and ankle dangling limply the other end of my knee. My shirt would already be soaking wet, but before long I realised I needed to wear a headband and sweatbands too.

I’d hobble up and down this little padded channel in the backroom of the gym while Marcy-boy screamed promotional slogans at me. I’d alternate with and without crutches, trying to hold my weight for split seconds at a time. I think I gave up every single time; not because I was weak, or because I didn’t want to get better, but simply because I had to. The body has limits. Or at least mine did.

Marc obviously took this personally – like I was giving up just to spite him and make him look bad – but really the opposite was true. At that time I would’ve done anything just to shut him up and prove that I wasn’t the pathetic weakling he seemed to think I was.

At the start of the ‘warm down,’ he always said: “finally then, let’s have some fun.” I couldn’t work out if he was being ironic or if he really meant it, but what it involved was us both putting on boxing gloves, sitting opposite each other and then just lashing out for one minute at a time. He always went first. So after almost two hours of tenderising my body, he’d finally just throw me on the grill to caramelise my skin nicely.

I remember one time leaving the centre and bumping into Neil Campbell. It was probably after only three or four sessions, when I was close to my lowest point.

“Afternoon James,” he said. “It’s great to see you up and about. On the road to recovery.”

It didn’t sound like a question, but it felt like one. I was so defensive at the time, and he represented all the bitterness and undirected rage building up inside of me.

I grunted something in reply and tried to keep on walking.

“Listen,” he said, “I’ve got a few bits of home exercise equipment for you that I found. They were my daughter’s I think. A high-tension elastic band for stretching and some Velcro weights to help build a bit of strength again. They’re yours if you want them?”

Again, I think I just grunted something negative and continued to avoid eye contact.

“Well, they’re in a bag for you anyway. Why don’t you just take them?”

I figured if I just didn’t respond or move then maybe he’d leave.

“I don’t see your parents anywhere today. I take it they’re not coming to pick you up? Can I at least give you a lift home?”

I snapped. “Look, I don’t want your pity. I don’t want your weights. I don’t want to get in your car ok. Just leave me alone, alright?”

“I’m sorry you feel that way. I was just trying to help. Maybe next time, eh?”

“Unless you can wind back time, or you’ve got a new leg for me, don’t bother, ok?”

What an awful, awful thing to say. I don’t really feel too bad about some of the people I’ve let down, or some of the things I’ve said, but that one still sticks in my throat. Sometimes when I’m trying to sleep I just find that repeated on a loop over and over again, and I can see his face fall for just a second, before he then plasters a fake smile over the top and keeps trying to cheer me up again.

Even despite this moment of callousness, and me storming off – well, hobbling off, in as dramatic and pointed a way as possible – he was kind enough to look in on me again once a month or so. He’d try and cheer me up with stories about how my team was getting on but as the weeks passed, it felt less and less like ‘my’ team and more and more like just another team. There was now the odd name I didn’t recognise, and someone new – someone younger – playing in my position and wearing my shirt number.

I was just too depressed, and the combination of hearing about what the team was up to and my post-physio exhaustion just made it worse.

 

***

 

School sent me months’ worth of work to catch up on – that while I was concentrating on my game they had turned a blind eye to – so that kept my mind relatively active. It took me a while to get back in sync with studying though; like every other muscle, the brain needs regular exercise.

My school was a funny one. Technically you had to pay, but almost everyone was there on some sort of welfare, state-supported deal. If you were smart enough – and passed the entrance exam – then you got scooped up out of the rougher, public schools and ushered into this shining beacon of light, where kids wore uniform and didn’t smoke in lessons and didn’t threaten teachers.

I liked the place, but passively rather than actively, because whenever I was there it was just the transitional times in between training and matches. Without trying too hard though I had always gotten along fine, swimming in the middle of the pack and excelling in the odd test or essay if I could really let my imagination run off somewhere.

If I’m honest with myself now, I looked down on a lot of the kids at the time, thinking that they were just stuck in the cycle of having to study to get boring jobs for the rest of their lives, while I’d be off traveling around the world, playing football on TV and winning trophies.

The second month of schoolwork was delivered to my door by a boy I recognised, but I was embarrassed to say I didn’t know his name or anything else about him. He was an African lad, and very polite. On some level I desperately wanted to invite him in and talk to him about anything; just gossip about who’s doing what with whom, even though I wouldn’t really know who he was talking about.

As he shuffled off, and called me ‘Jack’ in the process, I realised that I didn’t really have any friends apart from Barney. And if it wasn’t for him and Christine I would be almost entirely alone. I was caught between quite a few places that I didn’t really fit into – school, East London, the football team – but now I was barely even physically present in any of the spheres.

My parents made me a lot of promises when I got injured that they’d be around more. Not just to look after me, but to keep me company too. And they said they’d also make sure that some of my aunts and uncles and cousins, who lived out in Colchester and Ipswich, would come into town and stay with me when they did have to be away still. That didn’t happen though. None of it. Every weekend it was the same excuses. From my parents every meeting or trip was ‘the big one’ that they couldn’t miss, and every week was ‘the last time’ they had to be away. But even when they were home, they were writing presentations or reading. I couldn’t feel too bad though because they were barely speaking to one another, let alone to me.

I had to look to my books for comfort.

 

***

 

When you’re used to doing a lot of running and competing, you can’t just suddenly stop, because your body becomes addicted to those actions and the natural chemicals they produce. Having the rug pulled out from under me like that sent me into the kind of deep depression that I’ve only just begun to be able to recognise. My rehabilitation got my blood pumping, but it just felt like grinding the muscles down rather than opening them up. I missed the adrenaline and that feeling of the wind rushing past me.

I talked to Barney about this finally and he joked that maybe I was turning into a dog. I know he was just trying to raise my spirits, and not treat me any different than he had before, but I think I just scowled at him and told him I was tired and needed to be alone. He was virtually my only contact with the outside world; otherwise it was just the occasional meal with my parents before they had to leave again, and my bi-weekly showdown with the ex-meathead in the gym.

But then finally one day I’d had enough of the physio. I was honest with myself about what I was feeling; that I wasn’t getting anywhere, I was in constant pain and I hated everyone involved. Everyone said I had to be patient, and keep mentally strong, and yada yada yada. I knew they were right, and I would say the same thing to anyone in my situation too, but it’s different when it’s you. You hold yourself to a different set of standards and rules, and when you know deep down that you’ve made your mind up, it’s simply a matter of how long you can rail against it.

One day I simply refused to go to my session with Marc and turned my phone off in a sulk. I could picture his bulldog face turning in on itself when I didn’t show up and that made me feel better than I had done for a good few weeks. I shuffled outside to smoke a spliff in my dressing gown, and then made an enormous cup of tea and four slices of cheese on toast. I didn’t even want to get high or play computer games, but I figured that that was probably the thing he disliked the most, so it was an extra ‘up yours.’

I’d just taken a break halfway through my breakfast when I heard a rat-a-tat-tat at the door. My heart stopped. My first thought it was one of my parents, but then I realised that obviously they’d use their key. Then I guessed it must be the postman and hoped that he’d just leave whatever he was trying to deliver on the doorstep outside. Then I heard him.

“James! It’s Marcus. I know you’re in there you little toe-rag. Come here!” He could really roar.

Christ, I thought. Could I just pretend I wasn’t in? I mean, what’s the worst that could happen? He wouldn’t kick down the door would he?

“I will kick down this door! I spoke to your father and he’s given me permission to do that, and then take the cost of a replacement out of your weekly cover from West Ham.”

Oh man.

 

***

 

“Now, sit down James please. I’m happy to put this whole incident behind us, because I know this isn’t easy, but you need to start being honest with me.”

I was embarrassed and pissed off and stoned but for the first time in ages I felt properly alive, like everything was happening to me in full colour and surround sound again. It felt good to have my heart thumping again, even if it was mainly out of fear.

“Do you want to tell me why you did what you did this morning? It might seem like a small thing, but it’s thrown my whole day out of line now hasn’t it? You know I’m just trying to help you right?”

I meant to look at the floor and just shrug again, as usual, but instead I burst into uncontrollable tears.

“I’m sorry,” I remember choking out. “I’ve lost everything. It’s all fallen apart. I hate myself and these crutches and lifting weights and I wish I could just cut my stupid leg off!”

My body went limp and I found myself balled up with my head resting on his lap. His huge concrete arms were around me and I was shaking uncontrollably.

“It’s okay mate. Get it all out.”

He rubbed my back and actually made that kind of placid shushing noise you hear people cooing over babies.

“I really do know what it’s like James. Like, exactly. I suffered the same injury as you, only it wasn’t just one leg, it was both of the bastards. And it cost me my dream too; a spot in the SAS.”

I suddenly felt like the smallest, pettiest person in the world.

“We were on the base one evening, celebrating the birth of an officer’s first child, and we’d had a few drinks. It seemed like a good idea to try a bit of balls-out abseiling – don’t ask me why – so we rigged up and took it in turns to down a beer, free-wheel down a fifty-foot wall and leave it as late as possible to slam the brakes on. I went last, and all the lads down at the bottom were giving it the big ‘un. I latched in and, well, you can probably fill in the blanks.

“The point is that I know that the physical stuff is only a small part of it. You want to lash out at everyone and everything, but you have to keep it together. You have to treat it one step at a time and trust that if you think about today, then tomorrow will start to look after itself.

“I know it’s hard work. I know it doesn’t feel like you’re getting anywhere. And I know you hate me. But I also know that if I don’t push you, and don’t treat you like an arsehole sometimes, that you definitely 100% won’t ever play football again. At the moment it’s 50/50. I’d do anything for a 50/50 chance at the SAS.

“So what do you reckon? Are you with me? Are we going to get you back out there in a year’s time?”

I started to cry again.

Things were different between us after that.

 

***

 

Artefact two. Chants overheard on the terraces at Leyton Orient – two weeks after coming out.

 

“Beat by a homo, you’re getting beat by a homo, beat by a hoooooommmmoooo…”

 

——-

 

“One nil,

to the nancy boys,

one nil,

to the nancy boys…”

 

——-

 

“James Spade’ll shag your dad,

He’ll even shag you,

And he’ll maybe shag your mum,

‘Cos she’s a fella too!”

 

——-

 

“He’s here,

He’s queer,

He takes it up the rear,

James Spade,

James Spade!”

 

***

 

I started to take care of the mental side of things – I knew that for those few hours a week, I was going to have to put the work in that I’d never really had to before – but I still had quite bad physical pain most nights.

So I started smoking weed increasingly more. This made my isolation seem welcome and of my own construction, when the reality is that the few people in my life probably drifted away as much as I pushed them.

Worse though were the drugs they had prescribed me – tramadol, mainly – which had some strange side effects. My moods went up and down irrationally, I put on weight and I stopped wanting to see people. Even Christine.

She’d arrive on my doorstep and I’d want to open up to her like I had with Marcus, and just be honest and tell her I really needed help, but as soon as I saw her I clammed up.

“So, what do you want to do?” she always used to say, with a smile.

“Dunno,” was always just my shrugged answer, avoiding eye contact.

“What you thinking about?” was another of her favourites, always after I’d been quiet for longer than usual.

“Nothing,” I’d always lie, while inside half of me was screaming just tell her you’re hurting and you need help.

She’d still invite me along to stuff, but I’d always throw it back in her face and make her feel guilty.

“Come to the cinema?”

“I can’t, can I? I’ve got physio. Every Tuesday afternoon. Don’t you remember?”

“Sorry,” she said meekly. “How about tonight?”

“Well I’ll be exhausted won’t I? You know what he makes me do. Just go with someone else okay.”

And then the next week it was: “Come with me and Rach to watch Barney and the guys play?”

“What, on my crutches? It’s muddy as hell, and it’s a mile walk!”

Or another evening: “Fancy sharing this wine my dad left?”

“You know I can’t drink on my painkillers, but you go on, do whatever you want.”

I could drink on my tramadol, and I did, but just not around her. It was a pretty great feeling. This numb, tingly, euphoria that just emptied my mind of all its problems. All the little knives that barbed me were blunted slightly by the drugs. Sometimes it took one pill; sometimes a couple; sometimes a couple and a four-pack of beer and a joint.

 

***

 

Looking back now it’s clear how I pushed her away – in an oddly passive, but still forceful way – and it’s a credit to her that she actually put up with me as long as she did. I took it all out on her for some reason.

It makes no sense thinking about it now, but when my head wasn’t occupied entirely with either not passing out from trying to walk repeatedly on a shattered ankle or not buried in a textbook, it just swam with rage and resentment.

So the time came when Christine had finally had enough. It was our two-year anniversary and I could tell that she had a fresh resolve. In retrospect, I think not planning to go out or even getting dressed up to cook her a meal was my way of subtly – or maybe rather not so subtly – pushing her to do the manly thing for me.

“Hi,” she said, standing oddly on my porch, rather than just walking straight in. She hadn’t dressed up or even put any make-up on. “Can I come in?”

“Yeah of course-”

“We need to talk,” she said, striding past me to sit down in the living room.

I sat next to her and initiated physical contact for the first time in god-knows-how-long, just trying to hold her hand, but she quickly whipped it out of the trap and folded it back into her lap. She looked down, took a deep breath and then she just said it.

“We need to break up Jammy. This isn’t working anymore. I don’t even know what this! We sit in the same room as each other, out of habit more than anything, and I try to talk to you and you just grunt and then I go home and I cry. Night after night. And I started to think, ‘why am I doing this?’ Because I don’t love you anymore, not really. I’m sorry, of course. I don’t want to be blunt but I just have to say it and be honest. But the other night it dawned on me: I don’t have to do this. I’m sorry, but you’ve become…”

“A burden,” I shouted. “Is that what you were going to say? I’ve become a burden? Oh, I’m so sorry for the inconvenience, Christine. Sorry for breaking my leg and having my life ruined. That must’ve really gotten in your way. If only I didn’t have to stay virtually motionless for six months because I can’t walk or even really go anywhere because of the pain and the drugs I have to take.”

“Wait, wait, have to take? So the surgeon told you to smoke weed all day, on top of taking twice the amount of medication that he prescribed? I know, I checked. And, and, and I suppose the NHS recommends that you never get dressed or wash yourself ever, right?”

“You know what Christine, I’m glad you’ve finally told me how you really feel, because I’ve felt the same for a long time actually. Even before all this rubbish happened to me I was getting a bit fed up with you, always nagging me and just asking questions and waiting to be told what to do like some sort of pathetic lap-dog. You were good for one thing, and I should’ve just put a stop to it then.”

She just starred at me then, with her eyes dilating, and that was the worst bit.

“You’re… I mean, this isn’t you Jammy, I know it isn’t. I’m sorry this has gone the way it’s gone, but I think we’re probably both going to be better off just putting this all behind us. I’m sure if we spend a bit of time apart we’ll be able to move on. We’ll probably be laughing about all this before too long won’t we?”

“Oh yeah, great, thanks Christine. That’ll be easy won’t it? I’ll just pop out to a club and meet someone else, no worries. Yeah then we’ll get together again, won’t we, the four of us, and laugh about how you just decided to leave when I needed you the most. You might as well just go now. I’ll be fine. I never really felt that much for you anyway. Every time I said I loved you I was really just thinking that that’s what you wanted to hear before you’d open your legs for me again.”

She just shook her head and gave me a really pitying last look, before getting up and leaving and I can’t really remember what happened next in all honesty. I had felt pretty empty beforehand, so just cleaning out another corner of my life didn’t seem to make much difference to be honest. I told myself that it was on my terms; that I’d won, whatever that meant.

Despite everything I’ve done, I regret hurting her the most now. I got the chance to try and set things right again a few years later but I didn’t get quite the reaction I was hoping for. Christine, if you’re out there, I hope you don’t still hate me. The rest I can take, but not you. I wish I could be the person I was turning into when I was first with you all those years ago.

 

***

 

And so Barney remained my only connection to the outside world – to the football team, to everyone and everything – but I could see he was getting fed up with me too. It was a heavy burden for such slight shoulders.

As with Christine I think I was using provocation to try to get him to act out towards me. I needed a good shaking, and finally one night I got one.

“I’m buzzing Jam, I can’t sit still. One game of the season left and if we just get a draw against Leicester – bottom of the league, haven’t won in two months – then we’re champions. Can you believe it?”

“Huh,” I said, distracted by nothing.

“Why don’t you come along next week? Everyone would love to see you. Now I think about it, you played a good few games this season, so you deserve to celebrate.”

“Yeah, I did play a good few games didn’t I? I’m pretty sure I won quite a few good games by myself actually didn’t I? In fact, I’m amazed the rest of you have managed to not mess it all up since.”

He smiled, as I’d been joking, but we both know I wasn’t.

“Well, we’ve struggled of course, but just about stumbled along without you!”

“Who’s playing up front now? Still that Larry guy? He always was bloody useless.”

“He’s playing really well actually-”

“And who’s playing in my position?”

“I am actually, Jam-”

“You are?” I laughed. “No offence mate, but come on!”

“Things have changed James,” he said, suddenly serious. “It’s been months. What did you expect to happen? The league would just be put on hold, and our team would disband or something out of respect? Life’s moved on, man. It sucks, I know. And it’s gonna continue to do so. The world hasn’t just stopped turning because you want it to.”

I started to say something but he talked over me.

“I’m playing well. Larry’s playing well. We’re all playing well. Do you know what, we’re a better team without you. There, I said it. I didn’t want to, but it’s true. Before it was just ‘oh, give the ball to Jam and get out of the way,’ but now we can all play and express ourselves.”

“Good. Great. Do whatever you want then. Why did you even come over here then, just to gloat? Oh Barney, aren’t you so amazing. I suppose you’re starting for the First Team next weekend?”

He just sighed and sat down again. I don’t think either of us had realised that we’d both stood up and were inches away from one another.

“Jesus Jam, what’s happened to you? I thought you’d be happy for us! Where’s all this bitterness come from? It’s not our fault. It’s certainly not my fault! I’ve been here almost every day, talking at you while you stared into the middle-distance. Look around you Jam! Everyone else’s gone mate. It’s just me left, and to be honest, I’m having second thoughts as well. You should see what kind of state Christine’s in…”

“Christine! Oh I bet you know all about that, don’t you? You’ve always had a thing for her. I bet you had her right round to yours the other night. Shoulder to cry on, was it? I bet you both had a great little time telling each other what a bastard I am, how mean I’d been to you. I’ve played right into your hands here haven’t I?”

“Oh Jam shut up. Just shut up! You got hurt – that’s rubbish, I know, really bad luck – but it’s not the end of the world. You’re stronger than this. You’re still you for God’s sake. If you keep behaving like this you’re going to turn around in six months and realise you’ve got no one left. So cheer up. Calm down. And just be my friend again!”

I felt like I’d been physically slapped in the face. I’d never seen him this angry. He just stared at me, boring deeper into my being with his eyes. Finally he put his arm round me.

“Look, the guys still ask about you, and if you can get your fitness back, then we’d all love to have you in the team again. But until then, get back involved. Come watch the games, come speak to the guys. They’re much friendlier to me now. I think they always liked you too; they were a bit intimidated is all. Just be present. Show everyone you’re not giving up.”

I took a deep breath. I felt like if I shut my eyes I would sleep for the rest of the week.

“I’m going to do it, Barney. Thank you. And I know there’s nothing between you and Christine. I was just talking nonsense.”

“Come along for the Leicester game. Go on.”

Even after everything I’d done, and all the times I’d tried to slam and kick the door shut, there was still just a thin sliver of light shining out.

 

***

 

Artefact three. Excerpt from TV interview – three months after coming out.

 

Host [name removed by request]: “So the question on everyone’s lips is: is there a special someone in your life at the moment?”

 

James Spade: “(laughs) No, no. Unfortunately not!”

 

Host [name removed by request]: “By my reckoning that would make you about the country’s most eligible bachelor.”

 

James Spade: “Very kind of you to say. Given the situation though it can be hard to meet someone. Do you guys out there know anyone who might be interested?”

 

Shouts, applause and laughter from the audience.

 

Host [name removed by request]: “I think you might have a few takers! Maybe a few givers too…”

 

James Spade: “(laughs) Very good, very good.”

 

Host [name removed by request]: “(laughs) I’ve just had a thought: maybe we should set you up a Grindr account?

 

Hoots of approval from the audience.

 

James Spade: “What, right here?”

 

Host [name removed by request]: “Right now! Why not?”

 

James Spade: “(laughs) Why not indeed. Ok, let’s do it!”

 

***

 

The first time I kicked a ball was almost 12 months later, so about 18 months after my injury. I could’ve managed it earlier but if I’m honest, I was afraid. What if it felt wrong? What if I’d lost my touch for good? All of my fears and insecurities bubbled up, and I sought out any other distractions I could.

Finally I felt strong again and I felt fit, but staring at that ball on the ground, it looked huge and ominous, and delicate and elusive, all at the same time. I was sure that if I connected with it I’d shatter my leg again, or even worse, swing and miss it completely.

Barney juggled the ball nonchalantly and then rolled it my way. I took a deep breath and stuck my right leg out in an utterly alien movement to trap the ball. It stopped under the sole of my trainer and my body’s balance just felt right again. It’s hard to describe, but having a football there – the position I always used to have it on the pitch, the ideal platform for me to start moving quickly in any direction – made me feel more stable than I had for too long.

I moved the ball in all four directions, one after another, and tried to dance over and around it like I always had done. My coordination wasn’t quite normal, but my mind was ticking over almost as quickly as it used to, manoeuvring my body before I could even think where to go next. Even just moving on the spot I could feel the slight gusts of wind moving past my feet and my face and it felt incredible; even better than running at full pelt across the field to celebrate.

 

***

 

I felt on top of the world starting my first proper match back. Arsenal too; one of my real enemies. The lads gave me a fantastic welcome, and in training my game was close to being back to its best; no-one could get anywhere near me, and I was spraying the ball around the pitch with ease.

As I suited up though I felt something I hadn’t felt for probably five years: nerves. Those doubts that I’d felt touching a ball again a few weeks earlier had resurfaced, and with them came much worse feelings of embarrassing myself in front of the rest of the team, or even worse, letting them all down.

I tried to tell myself it was only natural, and that I’d always felt nervous before a game. I knew that wasn’t true though. I used to waft by on such an air of confidence that the occasion or the opposition or the crowd were irrelevant until the final whistle.

Peering outside then though and even the 10 or so guys in thick coats ringing the pitch looked intimidating. With their faces permanently set to ‘impress me,’ they were all in the business, so there purely to um and arr, and mark and judge.

We jogged out, warmed up and went through our usual rituals. The lads were joking around and I was laughing in the right places but not engaged at all.

The whistle blew and although my heart was pounding I couldn’t get my legs moving. I was rooted to the spot and the game was happening around me at a hundred miles an hour. I was just so aware of everything I was doing that I couldn’t actually do anything, if that makes sense. I could feel all my thoughts plodding along about two seconds after the ball passed me by. I’d miscontrol it, run into players on my own team, and I was so afraid of getting another bad injury that I’d panic the second an Arsenal player ran towards me.

At half-time I was substituted and I couldn’t even bear to watch the second half with the rest of the team.

***

 

I knew straight away. What happened next was merely a formality. I went in to see the boss in an odd sort of disembodied state; knowing what was going to be said before it was said, and seeing it all happen at the same time.

My contract was terminated. The boss said that they knew from the first training session that I’d lost my edge. The reason no one had tackled me was that they could see I was fragile and lacking the strength to properly compete. The Arsenal game was just that one final test, because after all I’d been through, the club didn’t want to have to make the decision.

I saw Mr Campbell on the way out and he told me to keep in touch. I said I would, but I had no intention of doing so.

 

***

 

After two years of ups and downs, this was the worst. Since I was old enough to dream, I couldn’t comprehend anything else I wanted more than to play for the Irons. Now what?

I eventually saw sense and did give Mr Campbell a call, and he came round to the flat. In what I can now see as the most fortunate meeting of my life, he came equipped with two fantastic opportunities for me; two final, final lifelines which gave my spirits the boost they desperately needed. At 17 I felt like I’d already endured enough misery and disappointment to last a lifetime.

He’d convinced one old friend of his to let me into Stratford Academy of Excellence to finish off my A-levels, and another old friend to let me try out for Leyton Orient F.C. in the summer after I’d finished my exams.

He’d been around the block had Neil Campbell. He knew everything and everyone east of Shoreditch, and had clearly put himself out there for me. It meant a lot. Not just that someone still (maybe) believed in me, but that someone would do something so generous for me, even after I’d behaved like a arse towards him more times than I care to document here.

 

***

 

A few months passed and after getting my head down properly, I’d finished my A-levels (and done alright actually; and not just alright actually for a footballer) and got myself signed by Leyton Orient.

They were my next-nearest team, with a decent, passionate fan-base. When I joined we were in League Two, having just been relegated the season before.

Everyone told me to be sensible and go to university but, hell, you can go study Ancient Greece anytime; it isn’t going anywhere is it? At 18 though, I still had a chance to play professionally and that was enough really.

After a lot of soul-searching, and playing every day after school again, I’d managed to build my confidence back up and, perhaps more importantly, stop thinking about my leg snapping in half again every time I went near another player.

I did well in my trial match at Orient, and got invited to train for the team for a week to see how I handled it. I wouldn’t say the standard was lower than what I remember from now-almost three years ago at West Ham, but it was certainly a different game. I was playing wide left, which I liked, and because I was almost as strong with both feet, I could – ahem – go both ways.

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