I love football. I always have and always will. I enjoy playing, and spent much of my childhood on my PS3 and laptop playing FIFA and Football Manager. I watch lots of matches too, having been a season ticket holder at St Mirren Park in my first two years of secondary school. The sport has always been something that me and my father have bonded over, and often on Saturday nights we watch Match of the Day together. However, my relationship with football has been less positive in the last couple of years. The beautiful game has even reduced me to tears.
As I grew up I gradually accepted that I would not become a professional footballer. It was obvious from fairly early on, though. I have never been as well-coordinated as some others and my technical ability just isn’t good enough. I do have a good football brain which meant that I managed to do well in the centre of defence throughout my high school career, but I didn’t grow too much past the age of 14. I went from being taller than most of my peers to being average height, which doesn’t suit a Scottish sweeper very much; most teams like to lump the ball up the park. I’m also quite skinny, which can be perceived negatively by some who feel that as a defender I would be muscled off the ball by a bigger and stronger attacker. I strongly contest this, and believe that my football intelligence means that I can be the Willie Miller or David Narey at my level.
In September 2017, I moved to Cividale del Friuli in north-east Italy for nine months. Before I arrived, I asked one of the teachers at the school where I worked to find me a football team. I thought it would be a good way to make some friends and would allow me to keep fit while enjoying my favourite sport. Unfortunately, I found some obstacles in my way preventing me from becoming a star for Forum Julii Calcio.
I discovered that I would need international clearance to play for the team and that this would take several months to come through. This was frustrating as I just wanted to get going and take part in the beautiful game. I also found training challenging at first due to the language barrier. It was difficult to concentrate on football when I was trying to translate Italian at the same time. It was my first experience of men’s football too, as I had only played at youth levels before. Adapting wasn’t easy. I ended up not playing until February, after a bureaucratic process which included a medical examination. This period was frustrating, but I held hope that once I was freed to play, I would make a big impact.
Sadly, this never happened. I only made a couple of appearances for the team and these were restricted to cameos which would only make up around 15 minutes all together. The team was stuck in a relegation battle and the manager couldn’t afford to take any chances by throwing me in. I completely understood his reasoning and don’t blame him at all, but I do maintain that I could have had a positive effect on the team’s results if I was given the opportunity. In training, I was always put in more advanced positions when really I’m better as a defender. I couldn’t perform my best.
I found myself in a cycle that I couldn’t get out of. My form in training wasn’t good enough to merit a first-team place, but I couldn’t improve without playing competitive matches. There was little that I could do. The coach was apologetic but it was clear that his priority was to keep the team in the division. It was the highest level the club had played at in its 50-year history and the coach, along with many of the players, had fought hard to win promotion the previous year. He kept loyal to most of his promotion-winning team, something which I respect very much. Also, I wasn’t going to be there the following year so there wasn’t much to be gained by developing me as a player. It was rubbish for me, but not illogical.
One match I was told to warm up at half-time. I had been an unused sub in the previous game so hoped that I would get a chance in this encounter. As the minutes went by I began to realise that I wasn’t going to play again and I could feel tears of frustration at the back of my eyes. We scored a last-minute winner, but I couldn’t even celebrate. Jubilation was all around me yet it made my feelings worse. I just wanted to be part of it all so badly but I was being denied that. The decision not to play me was justified as the team had won the match. I didn’t hang around for the celebrations. When the final whistle blew, I went for a shower and cycled up the road while our players were cheering and dancing in the changing room. When I got home, I cried.
Even though the football side of my time with Forum Julii Calcio wasn’t a success, the social side was brilliant. Two of my teammates, Danny and Alessandro, took me under their wing and we became great friends. For the first few weeks Danny gave me a lift to training and when we went for team dinner after training on a Friday he would always drop me home. I was very lucky to have them, as they made settling into life in Cividale much easier. All of the players in the team made me feel welcome. From my first training session they spoke to me a lot (even though I didn’t understand) and helped me with my Italian. They slagged me off too, which might not seem very good, but it meant that I was part of the crew. They soon referred to me as Scozia (Scotland in Italian) or quickly (the only word that one of the guys knew in English). I will never forget the camaraderie and I was extremely happy when the team staved off relegation. They had made me feel like one of them.
Once I returned to Scotland I found a team. After a promising start in training I found that similar problems started to occur. I had to wait for international clearance from Italy, meaning that I couldn’t play for quite a while. It didn’t take as long as previously, though, and I made my first appearance in November, coming off the bench. My first game was tough, as teams in our league are very physical and my match sharpness wasn’t quite there. I struggled, and came off feeling embarrassed and disappointed in myself.
I played better in my next game and made a couple of decent sub appearances before again finding myself at the side of the park for the whole match. The team lost this time, at least meaning that I could pretend to myself that I could have changed the result. There were even a couple of times that I wasn’t picked for the squad. That hurt. I felt like I wasn’t good enough and on one occasion even considered giving up the game altogether. Was it worth getting my hopes up and getting excited for games just to be disappointed?
I found myself repeating the same cycle as in Italy. I wasn’t match ready so it was risky for the manager to play me, but the only way to get match sharpness is through competitive games. I didn’t really feel like part of the squad; when you’re not playing you feel like you’re not contributing.
Fortunately, one week in December we had a lot of call offs, so I found myself playing the full 90 minutes on the left side of midfield. I played well, and it was great to be out there again. I felt free and enjoyed it a lot, even though we lost. That was our last game before Christmas, and I wish it hadn’t been because I felt like I was getting into the swing of things.
Last weekend, we had a friendly and I started again, this time on the right wing. I did okay but could have done better. I hadn’t played for a few weeks though so I’m bound to be rusty. I’m still adjusting to the men’s game too. I feel now that I’m more of a part of the squad as well. The boys slag me off just like they do to each other which is good. I’m excited to get back to competitive games this weekend, and maybe soon I’ll get a shot in the heart of defence.
I’m glad that my falling out of love with football was only brief as playing the sport is one of my favourite things. I can’t imagine I would have quit for long, but the fact that I was considering it shows how low my lack of action was getting me. I would like to coach and I got some experience of this in Italy with a youth team. I think I would be better at it than playing; I’ve always been better with my mind than I am with my body. My experience of not getting on the park has helped me understand hot prospects who don’t quite hit the heights expected of them. It is important for managers to have faith in young players – in the long run, they will pay you back.
For any player who finds themselves stuck on the bench most weeks I would encourage you to talk to your manager, and if that doesn’t work, find a new team. The feeling of playing 90 minutes after a long period of being a bench-warmer is a liberating one.
This might all seem trivial, and you might think I was getting upset over nothing, but football is great and brings joy (and heartbreak) to millions across the world. In the words of Peter Mullan in My Name is Joe: “I know it’s just fitba’, but it’s important to us, ye know wit a mean?”
I do know what he means.