American writer and participatory sports journalist George Plimpton once wrote a piece on playing golf at night. It was very late, and extremely dark, and with the course entirely to himself he decided to play four balls per hole. To make this activity more interesting he imagined the balls as having their own player and he assigned the identity of a different American columnist to each one. Soon his players took on certain characteristics and ticks, and their conversation came to dominate his head. Out of this came a keen rivalry in the group, which led to his imagined players gambling on every stroke.
Interested to see if this literary device could be adapted to suit football, I arrived early at the Bent Brief pub in Southampton and staked claim to one of its two pool tables by laying on it £60 in pound coins.
I have played enough pitch and putt, a small amount badly, to know that if I attempted night golf I would still be hacking around on the course right now. To save time, and to spare the efforts of whoever’s responsibility it would be to repair the playing surface after my damage, I decided instead, as I’m reasonably competent at it, to hold a pool tournament between eight imagined characters linked to football.
We would start with a winner-takes-all game of killer (£5 to enter), and then switch to regular pool in a knockout competition with quarters, semis and a final. The winner would take the money left on the table. The previous night I made all the necessary preparations, working out the order of play for the game of killer and holding the draw for the knockout.
I set my scorecards down on the table left of the jukebox and started going over the rules with the players. This is when Papiss Cissé interrupted to say he was sorry, but couldn’t take part due to being unable to reconcile the gambling aspect of the exercise with his religion.
We hadn’t even finished the rules and already one of my imagined players was dropping out. Naturally, this was disappointing, but Cissé was so utterly charming and apologetic that I had to respect his beliefs and admire his courage for sticking to a principle. Robbie Savage, on the other hand, was a different matter.
With Cissé out, Savage progressed to the semis of the knockout unhindered. This fact was not lost on the gloating Savage, and he gave a full volume, fist-thumping celebration in the faces of the other players. It was extraordinary while it lasted, and then he settled into a steady patter of exalting his pool-playing talents and knocking the chances and abilities of the others.
My suspicion was that this was a deliberate ploy by Savage to stimulate some side bet action, but he was verging too far and my fear was that one or two of the group would not tolerate him any longer. Mark Lawrenson, one of the elder statesmen in our midst, was on to this before I, and he tried diffusing the awkward situation with a string of old school one-liners and puns centred on ‘bent’ and ‘brief’.
Lawrenson hoped injecting a bit of humour would bring a semblance of order back to proceedings, allowing us to start our game of pool. No one laughed at Lawrenson, but Savage had at least gone quiet. Lawrenson’s idea had worked, to a point, and it would have been brilliant had he decided to quit there and then.
Instead, with his ‘bent’ and ‘brief’ repertoire exhausted, he began telling ‘pool’ related jokes. Forty minutes later Lawrenson ventured further, telling unrelated to the game of ‘pool’ jokes that simply made reference to the word ‘pool’, and it was just when ending a particular one about a father giving his little girl a glass of water to give to the man at the front door collecting for the local swimming pool that it happened.
Considering his combustible reputation, Joey Barton had been pretty docile, but I had noticed during those last ten minutes of Lawrenson’s joking diatribe that the gritty and often controversial midfielder was counting to ten rather a lot and making strange panting noises with his mouth and nose, which, in retrospect, I guess, were breathing techniques to clear and calm his mind.
Without warning, Barton jumped on Lawrenson and pressed him against the wall, using the pool cue across Lawrenson’s neck to hold him in place. Lawrenson should have kept his own counsel, but he couldn’t resist telling Barton that he had leapt more like a kangaroo than a Joey. It was then that Barton in one swift and terrible action brought the butt of cue down below Lawrenson’s belt, an appalling attempt to give the BBC pundit three Adam’s Apples. It took all our breath away. Even Robbie Savage was speechless.
Barton was asked to leave immediately, and when it became clear his victim could not muster a response, not even a semi-comical one, Lawrenson left unable to continue. Plimpton’s imaginary players bickered, that’s all. Mine had made religious objections, told too many inappropriate and offensive jokes and acted violently. We hadn’t hit a ball yet!
Finally the game of killer was underway, with Paul Scholes breaking up the pack nicely. He didn’t say much before or after his shot, and I started doubting the wisdom of my player selection.
Next up was football tactics writer Jonathan Wilson. It took an age. He had an obvious and simple pot, but that did not prevent him from assessing all other shots available on the table and their possible outcomes. Just when you thought he had finished his analysis and was ready to do what needed to be done, he fished out his smart phone and started accessing all kinds of data to assist him in making the right choice.
Eventually he took the easy pot and missed. The ball rattled in the jaws of the pocket and hung tantalisingly over its edge. He cursed his luck and spent the rest of the game making observations on the tactical play of the other players, that and wondering about his semi final in the knockout competition against Robbie Savage. Wilson had also benefited from a bye following Barton’s expulsion.
It was Savage who was actually next on the table and he made no mistake with the ball left teetering over the pocket by Wilson, but he was a tad fortunate to avoid going in off as the cue ball whizzed back down the table. Football journalist Gabriele Marcotti stepped up and dithered at the table for a short while before sinking a difficult pot and leaving little on for Kenny Sansom, who eagerly snatched the cue out of Marcotti’s hand.
Kenny moved around the table doing his Norman Wisdom impression and elicited a laugh from the others when he feigned heart attack after catching the eye of one of the Bent Brief regulars and telling the others he’d thought Joey Barton had returned. Then he concentrated on his shot, but such was the quality of Marcotti’s safety play, Kenny found his options limited to a position of hit and hope. He struck at the balls with great ferocity and potted the white.
It was all very entertaining, but it was when he finished his disastrous shot and I went to cross his name off the killer list that I realised Sansom wasn’t supposed to be playing. He was not invited. I explained this and how even though three players were now not playing he was ineligible for Killer, which he was out of now anyway following his miss, and that he couldn’t have a place in the knockout. He understood my reasoning and said he was just passing by and thought I wouldn’t mind his joining in. The other players insisted he play in the knockout, and I complied. With a simple bit of scribbling out and the adding in of his name, the imaginary Kenny Sansom replaced the imaginary Mark Lawrenson in quarterfinals.
Luis Suarez now placed the cue ball and took his shot. It wasn’t bad, but like Jonathan Wilson his ball refused to go down and hung perilously on the pocket’s lip, waiting to fall in. As Suarez walked away he left what others saw as a trailing leg and came into contact with the side of the table. The impact was minimal, but it was enough to cause his ball to drop.
Savage was first to complain and said there was no way he was having that. The others agreed and said it was a poor show on Suarez’s behalf. Suarez himself was on the floor rubbing away at his shin in an extremely affected way, like his leg might fall off if he didn’t. Though he was on his feet in seconds to protest his innocence when my decision to call his action a foul eliminated him from the game.
Kevin Keegan took the cue from Suarez and made no mistake with his shot. Paul Scholes then made a fantastic double and showed his accuracy and control over pool balls to be almost as great as his accuracy and control over the football. Robbie Savage completed a routine pot and Marcotti produced another splendid effort to suggest he was the one to beat. Kevin Keegan suffered from following Marcotti and missed, because, as Jonathan Wilson pointed out to everyone, Marcotti had grasped all the fundamentals of the game and was not only attacking well, but was demonstrating great defensive tactical thought and skilled command over the cue ball.
Scholes, Savage and Marcotti were the only players left. Based on research and calculations conducted on his smart phone and observations of what he’d seen so far, Wilson said that in all probability Marcotti would win on account of him being the better player. Savage took instant dislike to the Blizzard man’s insight.
He confronted Wilson and suggested both he and Scholes would triumph over Marcotti, as they each understand what it means to compete and win at the highest level. Savage went on to explain that Marcotti’s experience was gained from watching sport and that he would not know how to handle real pressure when it came. Scholes nodded. Wilson, like Marcotti, is a man familiar with the intense pressure caused by writing to deadline, and so he dismissed Savage contemptuously with the wave of a hand and a rather cute disbelieving chuckle that sounded like something that should have come out of a hamster.
In a pure act of intimidation Savage eyeballed Wilson. He then turned his attention to the slightly embarrassed and lightly perspiring Marcotti, and eyeballed him. Savage offered up a bet that Wilson and Marcotti both declined. Savage wandered off thinking he’d made his point and won. Wilson returned to his smart phone and began factoring in the Welshman’s desire to win.
Scholes took on and impressively sunk the next. So did Savage and Marcotti, who once again left the cue ball in an almost impossible position for Scholes. In a barley audible whisper Scholes asked for the cue ball to be cleaned. It was the one meaningful thing he’d said all game. Kenny Sansom performed the duties, reprising his Norman Wisdom impression, and cleaned the ball and took all of the credit when Scholes got lucky with a ricocheted ball that crept into a side pocket. Kenny was again very entertaining.
Savage asked Wilson for an opinion on who he now thought would win, and Wilson promptly told him he hadn’t changed his mind and that all evidence and reasoning pointed towards a Marcotti victory, but that they all had a chance. Savage told Wilson that he wasn’t being funny, but he was not going to listen to a man who’d been knocked out without potting a single ball. The others laughed, but not as loud as Wilson did when Robbie missed the pocket with his shot by a few inches.
Marcotti scored with his shot and again displayed his touch for the game by leaving Scholes in difficulty. This time it was too much for the Quiet Man, his shot to nothing produced exactly that: nothing. Marcotti graciously accepted the £40 prize money, saying he would donate it to my holiday fund, and selflessly congratulated the others on their performance.
I decided a drink at the bar would provide a nice break at this juncture. It was there, while sipping on a rum and coke, when it came to me. I ought to reinstate Joey Barton to the knockout competition and, like so many before, give him a second chance.
Back at the table I informed the players of my decision. The only two who didn’t threaten to walk if Barton returned were the journalists Wilson and Marcotti. I wasn’t sure about Scholes. I could barley understand the Ginger Prince when on the rare moments he decided to contribute he mumbled something or other, so I’d stopped listening to him a while back. Though I did have the distinct feeling he would’ve preferred to be with his family and wouldn’t have minded walking away anyway.
Marcotti was most vocal in his support for Barton’s returning to the competition. Wilson agreed with Marcotti, but mostly he was internally processing his thoughts about taking on Barton and then possibly Savage for a place in the final. He was excited at the prospect of taking on two of modern football’s hardest competitors, and if he lost to Barton? Well, he was just as excited by the potential Barton and Savage semi final grudge clash that was growing even juicier by the second with this falling-out. Again he let out that hamster-like chuckle.
By now, after he realised I wouldn’t budge and that Barton would play, Savage had taken to calling me pal in a way that gave me much unease each time he said it. He said it a lot as he kept reiterating there was no way he would play if Barton did. Suarez of all people went into a speech on rules, ethics and sportsmanship. It was surprisingly articulate, with many good and well-made points, but I had to look away from him for fear of laughing at the irony. Kenny Sansom said he wouldn’t play either if Barton came back, which I thought was a bit rich considering he himself wasn’t supposed to be playing, and Kevin Keegan said he was with Kenny, Bobby and the Uruguayan fella on this one.
So I picked the remaining coins off the table and went back to the bar, leaving my imaginary players to it.
Days after writing this story, Papiss Cissé wore the Newcastle United team shirt advertising a loans company. According to the media he had previously said he would never wear the shirt, because the company and its practices conflicted with his interpretation of the religion he follows and the responsibilities he takes from it. The media then informed us that discussions between him and his club were taking place to resolve the issue. Now he has apparently reversed his decision and will proudly wear the shirt in front of millions of fans worldwide.
That’s if he ever made the original decision not to wear the shirt as was reported in the first place, and, what I’m basically trying to say, is that even though what was said about him and the Newcastle United shirt may have actually just been a highly successful PR manoeuvre by the loans company to regularly communicate their messages to as great an audience as possible, I do regret not trying harder to persuade him to stay and play pool.