Winnings

31/12/2022

  1

I always took playing football seriously but, finally, couldn’t take winning seriously at all. If the great Liverpool manager Bill Shankly proposed that winning wasn’t the most important thing it, it was the only thing, I usually believed that winning was whatever got in the way of another value. Yet I didn’t agree either with the British notion of fair play; it wasn’t enough to lose with dignity. I suppose if I had thought about it, I might have seen Shankly’s remark as the deliberate antithesis of the idea that the important thing wasn’t to cheat — as if what mattered in playing fair was to retain a moral smugness no matter the magnitude of the loss. Shankly was a Scot brought up in a mining community on the South West coast who knew all around him as a child the cost of defeat. The English sense of fair play could be offered by those for whom sport brought together the wealthy from various elite educational establishments; people who perhaps saw anything that wasn’t cricket as suspect. Here a person who couldn’t be trusted on the pitch couldn't be trusted to replicate a certain value system in other areas of their lives. If these schools produced old boy networks then what mattered when a game was being played wasn’t whether you won or lost but the character that you showed in playing the game itself. Playing the game meant not the sport you were in the process of being involved in but the wider game that happened to be society. 

From the age of eleven, I thought I wanted nothing more than to become a professional footballer; however, something happened that made me wonder whether my attitude to the game revealed a misapprehension; a failure to understand what sport itself happened to be. Some might reckon what I wanted from sport was the spiritual though I’d be more inclined, retrospectively, to call it the aesthetic. I initially saw in football the means to put into an activity an effort that would take out of me a rewarding sense of exhaustion. This meant the training was as important as the game; the diet I adopted equal to any praise I might receive after a match. During these years I did well enough at school, usually getting the necessary grades that pleased my parents. The grades indicated a future that would take me to university if a footballing career failed. But I saw in education no more than a safety net while the net that interested me was the one in which I could put a ball. When my parents talked about doing well at school they offered it cautiously, aware of their own failure to do well themselves.

    While I couldn’t say my background resembled Shankly’s, nevertheless my parents were not wealthy and they wished they had gone to university when they were younger. They never couched this in the opportunities it would have given them for study, for meeting new people and colliding with new ideas, but as a hypothetical escape from the life they went on to lead. My father was a mechanic and my mother worked intermittently and usually part-time as a shop assistant. He would come home each day smelling of car oil and would take fifteen minutes by the kitchen sink removing grease from his hands with a heavy-duty hand cleaner my mother always despaired over as she insisted she needed to get to the sink. When she came back from work she sometimes commented on the tedium of endlessly putting items through the till before bar codes made it easier but no less dull. I sometimes heard my mother saying to my father that his job was disgusting but it seemed to have a purpose. Someone would come in with a broken car and he fixed it. All she did was move food items from a conveyer belt through to someone’s shopping bag. My father said that at least her hands were clean after a day’s work. 

I often think they talked like this to convince their son that he needed to do well at school, but though I didn’t do badly I never saw during these early years education as any more than a backup plan, even a fantasy. When I was a teenager very few professional footballers had degrees and I imagined myself not only playing for Liverpool or Man Utd, but also with a university qualification that needn’t leave my football- playing years containing within them a future anxiety about what I might do with the rest of my life. I read one player I admired saying his favourite bands were Joy Division and the Fall, and started listening to them too. I mastered the lyrics to songs by The Smiths while doing keepie-ups, listening to the songs on an outdated ghettoblaster I’d placed on the steps in the back garden as my mother would yell saying I should turn that damn racket down.

During my years at secondary school I was given time to train, play and go off for trials but I increasingly realised that my love of football didn’t contain within it a love of the profession. It was as though what I initially loved most was the freedom it gave me at school to take time off, to be admired by the teachers and to be praised by my peers and to be fancied by a few of the girls. I say this with no retrospective pride but just a little shame. Perhaps I am no more profound now than I was then but at least the pride manifests itself elsewhere today, and started to do so by the time I was sixteen. My purpose here is to speak of that pride’s limitations in my youth, and also of an incident that, from one point of view can seem immoral, but from another may have been for me the birth of ethics, and even the aesthetic.

Between thirteen and sixteen I had eight trials with professional clubs but the only one that accepted me was a local team in the city, a middling club in the league that rarely won anything but managed consistently also to avoid relegation. By this stage, I had planned to go to university a few miles away and football, while still a professional possibility, became also more of a casual vocation; something that saved me from a part-time job working in the local supermarket. My mother looked at me with disdain when I suggested this, saying there was nothing wrong with that, even if she had spent several years telling me how horrible the job happened to be when she was doing it. My dad said he couldn’t have wished for a better combination: his son playing professional football while pursuing a degree, even if the degree I’d chosen wasn’t much to his liking. Psychology, he said, wasn’t that one of those soft subjects? He wanted me to study chemical engineering or pharmacology. I insisted I could earn more than enough to pay for my degree and even playing for the second team I’d be okay financially. I offered it as a counter-remark but sometimes winning an argument doesn’t mean you’ve done much more than score a point off someone whose position is too weak for it to seem like a victory. My arguments defeated my parents but they were defeated long before that, and I could see that what may have appeared like high expectations from a certain perspective (who could deny that chemical engineering and pharmacology weren’t enviable professions?), can nevertheless be a product of low-expectations: that while the choices they offered me were for stable and even lucrative careers they were nevertheless still limiting

What probably provoked me to study psychology was a fascination with sports people and their ability to withstand pressures that most would be unable to counter. There you are in a stadium full of fans, the rest of the team standing behind you, the manager, the coach and the reserves on the bench, numerous family and friends either in the ground or watching at home on television. It is your turn to step up and take a penalty, one taking your team to the world cup final; a penalty to win the division or to avoid relegation. How do you do it without your legs buckling, your foot dragging, the ball going high and wide? There were numerous examples online of footballers who fumbled at such moments but most didn’t and yet I knew I would be one of the fumblers based on a few of the penalties I had taken several years earlier while playing for my youth team. I was seen as clearly the best player and at every opportunity the others would give me the ball. I often controlled the game, expecting the ball as I knew better than any of the others how to distribute it or put the ball into the net. There wasn’t an opportunity to score a goal they didn’t give me. I would take almost all the free kicks around the box and was expected to take all the penalties. In the first few months, I took seven and missed six. The seventh the goalkeeper fumbled after I shot weakly near the centre of the goal. I knew in every instance that in the taking of the penalty the full force of the shot was missing, as though a psychological weakness was more present than any physical strength. 

    Around that time I sometimes had nightmares that took the form of various well-known players missing penalties in high-profile games. I dreamt of a brilliant Italian footballer who got his team into the final more than anyone else, only to miss the last penalty, and thus the team lost the tournament. Another dream had an English player hammering the ball over the bar in an important World Cup game and so on. After a number of these dreams I swore to myself that I wouldn’t take another penalty; when the chance arose again I insisted that after my recent record someone else should take it. I stood back and watched a player who rarely scored a goal, often tackled clumsily, and frequently offered misguided passes, put the ball neatly in the back of the net. There seemed no nerves, no fret, no worry. During the rest of the season, he took another five and scored them all. Nobody even suggested I take another and I was both relieved and resentful.

I never really did get to know this penalty taker I played with during three seasons. Yet I observed him often, and observed him far beyond the moment when he took a penalty. One evening when we were in a local pub after winning the youth league, most of us now still only sixteen but with an indulgent publican, everyone else was boisterously getting befuddled while he drank without getting drunk. It seemed that everybody else had nerves enough for the relief of victory and the release of all that tension required only a little alcohol to make us drunk. But he didn’t seem excited at all even though he had scored the second of three goals from the penalty spot, a goal at a moment in the game when a miss might have demoralised us. We were 2-1 down, it was seventy-five minutes into the game, and we needed at the very least to draw even, though only a victory would guarantee us the league. He scored calmly and with eight minutes left of the game I scored the winning goal from a corner kick administered by our penalty kick taker, who had become responsible for all dead ball kicks in the opponents’ half except for free kicks around the box — which I still took. Anyway, my point is that if anyone was responsible for us winning the game it was him, and yet he showed little excitement, even enthusiasm over the victory. When asked why he wasn’t more enthused I overheard him say it wasn’t likely to change his life. 

I knew he was probably right and so it turned out to be. He never did get taken on by a professional team. He was too slow on the pitch, too unimaginative in his passing and too hasty in his tackling. He often appeared out of sync with the other players and was the type you wouldn’t wish to give the ball. The qualities that made him a mediocre player generally seemed to be what made him such a great taker of penalty kicks. If nobody passed him the ball he wasn’t perturbed but neither did he care whether he missed the penalty or not. He scored consistently out of what appeared indifference. Had that indifference incorporated all areas of his life? 

2

More recently, on returning to the city, to continue working as a counsellor after a few years employed in Glasgow, I saw sitting outside a supermarket someone familiar with a small cup a few inches in front of him. I put a pound in it and continued into the shop. But while buying a few items to take into the Meadows, where I was meeting a few old footballing friends for a light kickabout and a few drinks afterwards, I sensed that I knew perhaps quite well the person I’d just seen. On the way out I didn’t say anything to him and he didn’t say anything to me. I looked directly at his face and I was in no doubt it was Niall. I dropped a rolled-up five-pound note into the cup and kept walking. “Don’t be a stranger” he called after me, before laughing. The strange thing was he hadn’t changed much even if his circumstances were terrible. He was the same age as me but I am sure people would have thought he looked younger. His hair was as black as it was fifteen years earlier and, though greasy, still looked like it could easily be glossy. There were lines on his face but no more than on mine, and, like me, no suggestion that he had gained weight, nor that he looked emaciated. Over the years, in Edinburgh and in Glasgow, I’ve often given to people on the street but never comfortably, as if feeling that whatever I gave was never enough and that I was buying off my conscience rather than doing very much for someone’s life. I gave for me and not for them. Giving to Niall made me aware of this general discomfort in more pronounced form.

In the park, a dozen of us played for an hour on a cloudless afternoon when the temperature was close to the mid-twenties. The park was busy and around fifty people over the course of the game had gathered to watch us. Though we had thrown down our bags as goalposts, and one team wore T-shirts and the other was topless to distinguish the two teams as we didn’t have strips, those who stopped and began to watch could see they were watching a game played at a far higher standard than the usual park kick-about. I enjoyed such moments, playing an informal game of football and seeing the surprise on people’s faces when I might take the ball around several players, or receive a high pass with my back to the goal, trap the ball under my foot, drag it back slightly, then turn and fire in the direction of and ideally between the makeshift posts. People would rarely clap let alone shout and holler but I received more pleasure catching someone in the crowd looking on admiringly, then offering them a cheeky smile in return, than I did when there was a stadium full of people in the handful of professional games I played for the team. I felt with one important exception in those games that any creativity was always secondary to a pragmatic need to put the ball in the net, often believing that football was a game rarely of skill and ingenuity for the player but a game of frustration and irritation for the fans: one that, as a player, you tried to alleviate. They came to a football match with all the tensions in their lives, and a missed shot at goal often seemed closer to their life experience, one they needed to be annoyed by more than a beautiful pass that might please them. 

    Sure, a goal scored from forty yards, that would have them looking at each other in a rare moment of acceptance that the player has done something well beyond their own capacities, was very much admired. But most of the time it seemed to me that football was a game of scapegoats put on a pitch, and that the fans waited to see them fail so they could offload their week’s frustrations. I am not saying this is generally true but it was what I often felt, as both a fan who has watched many games, and as a player who played in a very small number of professional ones. It was a feeling I never quite alleviated while playing seriously between thirteen and twenty-one and what I enjoyed so much about playing informally was that every shot, every pass and every tackle was devoid of anxiety. When I scored a goal the small pleasure wasn’t as great as when playing for medals. But it was as though that pleasure was predicated on alleviating the anxiety. There was immense tension in a miss and of course some ecstasy in a goal but always anxiety — and never more so than in the idea of taking a penalty kick.       

    After the game, most of us stayed in the park, opened a beer, a pack of sandwiches, a pack of crisps or peeled back the wrapper on a chocolate bar, relaxing in the sun. Chatting to a friend I’d been in contact with since secondary school and who played in the same youth team, and who gave up playing semi-professionally after university, I said to him I’d seen begging a person we used to play with, the lad who would always take the penalties. “Niall” he said, knowing the name rather than recalling it. Gerry saw him often: he worked at the university and the supermarket was close by. He often went in on his way to work to pick up a pastry or on his way home, picking-up a bottle of wine or a beer. He added that Niall had been there for at least the last couple of years, and they talked often. What he knew was that Niall slept in a tent during the warmer weather and in homeless hostels when it dipped below a given temperature. I might have noticed he had with him a few items, including a pop-up tent he could assemble in seconds. Where possible he slept up behind Blackford Hill, walking into town each day to raise funds for a few items: more or less food and some alcohol. He stopped as soon as he made enough money and usually returned to the hills. Gerry said he gave him cash when he saw him but knew he would have enough even if he didn’t. I asked if they ever talked about football. He said they never did. 

That evening, returning to the flat, I thought a little about Niall and recalled how often I gave time over as a teenager to thinking how his mind worked since it seemed to work very differently from mine. I remembered that while he was very calm when taking a penalty he could often get irate when the referee made a bad decision, and yet it was rarely through petulance that he acted; it was often a sense of injustice rather than personal gain which led to him arguing with the ref. On one occasion a player of ours was yanked to the ground during a free kick just as Niall was about to take it, and instead of going ahead he stopped, walked up to the referee and said he wasn’t going to kick the ball until the opponent had been at least booked. The referee said he hadn’t seen the incident and Niall reckoned he should at least consult the linesman. The player ended up booked less because of what had happened than that the referee wanted a quiet life and for Niall to go ahead and take the kick. A few of us laughed afterwards in the changing room about it but Niall wasn’t smiling. He said that if we can’t find justice on a football pitch with twenty-two players, a referee and a set of rules, what chance was there of doing so in life? There were a few incidents like that during those three years and some no doubt saw in Niall a problem with authority. Niall saw instead that authority was the problem not him and he was probably right. 

I didn’t see Niall again for a while. I lived out past Fountainbridge, near the canal, and worked at a hospital in Morningside, in clinical mental health. It was similar to the job I was doing in Glasgow and the move was less a question of careers than lifestyles; my partner and I planned to have a child and reckoned since our in-laws were here it made more sense to move back when we both had the opportunity. Sylvie worked as a social worker and I sometimes thought that our jobs, while quite distinct on paper, could on occasion have been inter-changeable. In the evening when we asked each other about our day, we knew that much of it was similar. 

The one day when things really were different happened to be Saturday afternoons. I played football regularly now with the guys but after a few casual kick-arounds in the Meadows, and with the weather turning, we formalised it a little by hiring a five-aside pitch over at Peffermills each Saturday, afterwards going for a pint at a pub a few of us liked, a mile away on South Clerk Street. Sylvie went to yoga, on to a sauna and then met a couple of friends for a coffee. I said that I was much closer to my roots on Saturday afternoon than she was with her activities. I could imagine without difficulty my father playing football and going to the pub; I couldn’t imagine our mothers thirty years ago stretching their muscles on a mat, steaming themselves afterwards, then taking a coffee and cake, and talking over a couple of hours in a cafe that simply wouldn’t have existed. She admitted it was true — when we went to visit my parents I always had the football to talk about with my dad; Sylvie couldn’t discuss yoga with her mum. Once when she tried to differentiate between the various forms - Iyengar, Vinyasa, Ashtanga and Kundalini - I could see on her mother’s face a similar expression to the one I recalled on my mother’s that day when I alluded to working in a supermarket: a disdain that wasn’t easy to distinguish between resentment towards her daughter and self-contempt. It also brought to mind the expression on Niall’s face when I popped five pounds into his cup. In the moment of the gesture I supposed I was expressing kindness, but often such gestures struggle to avoid a sense of condescension. 

I often wondered too if my job was part of the condescending professions, the sort of employment that creates a gap between the person receiving help and the person offering it. Is there any way of making it seem like the ‘client’ is as necessary as I am, since without them I would be without work? Without me, they might not need to recognise themselves as damaged, vulnerable, or weak. And while the money I gave to Niall may have seemed a generous gesture, fully aware of itself as a charitable act, what about all those penalties Niall took that left me able to sleep at night? As far as I knew he never had any idea how helpful he had been to me; I knew exactly how helpful I had been to him that day outside the supermarket. 

3

Yet I suppose the help he had given me without knowing it, and the help I had given him, well aware of the help I was offering, was perhaps minor next to what seems the most ostensibly generous gesture of my life, and the one that led me to give up any intentions of pursuing professional football. When I was thirteen, a friend and I, while waiting for the bus after going into the city on Saturday afternoon, went into the slot machine arcade just outside the stop, wasting whatever money we had left-over that we hadn’t spent on music or DVDs, clothes or (in my case) sports gear. I didn’t spend very much in the arcade and saw it as something to do while waiting to go home. But I could see it was giving to Colin the buzz I was getting from football, and while I’ve suggested that playing the game was what mattered, for Colin there was hardly a game at all — only winning or losing. There was no skill involved in playing one-armed bandits, just the brief moment when you would put the money into the machine, pull the long arm and wait to see if three cherries, lemons or bells would come up. No doubt they are more sophisticated now, and there were more sophisticated machines in the arcade then, but Colin and I stuck to the simple ones initially. Afterwards, I stopped playing and Colin became ever more involved in gambling. By the time he was sixteen, he managed to falsify his ID to gamble in betting shops and it was when we were both eighteen that it looked like he was indeed going to gamble his life away. Colin and I were in the pub with a few other friends on Sunday afternoon when I told him that the following weekend I was playing for the first team. Two forwards were injured in a derby game with the other main team in the city. He looked at me with modest admiration and immense enthusiasm, saying he was going to put all he had on us winning by three clear goals or more. The opposition was weak and we were expected to win easily. 

Had the game been more testing, the manager would probably have put the two players on painkillers and got them to play and suffer the consequences later. Nevertheless, I told Colin that to win by at least three goals wasn’t guaranteed and he said he well knew that: but to gamble on us winning was hardly gambling at all. The money to be made was in winning by a wide margin. By the middle of the week, he secured a loan of £20,000 and put it all on the game, saying he wasn’t sure whether he should have told me. He said if he won that would be £200,000 and he’d give me £20,000 and would buy a flat with the rest of the money. He was thinking of borrowing the cash anyway for university. If he won, he could buy a two-or-three bedroom place, rent out a room and with a part-time job he would go through university without owing anything. Many people were getting into enormous debt by going to uni, gambling that their degree would earn them a decent income afterwards. Doing that meant relying on strangers to give you a job years into the future. By betting on the game he was gambling before the event and would be reliant on a friend to help him secure success. He offered it with a logic that seemed both insurmountable and terrifying: his future was in my feet.    

I would do my best I said but that motivation wouldn’t include a share of the profits if he won. I might have been willing to try and secure his future but taking a cut of a £200,000 win could well have ruined my own. I didn’t want to end up in prison, even if it wouldn’t have been by losing a game but by winning it by a specific margin. All I had to do was play very specifically towards a large victory that would suit Colin but would suit the management. 

I expected to be doubly terrified. There I was playing my initial first team game and a good friend had borrowed £20,000 sure that he had invested well. But what seemed to happen instead was that each pressure cancelled the other out, or rather my professional concern felt less important than the wish to help a friend. As we scored within the first fifteen minutes from a corner that I took (no Niall to take them), so I saw that another couple of goals could come without difficulty. For the corner, I aimed as usual for the centre of the box and expected at least a couple of defenders to mark closely our other new forward but no, his six-foot-three frame had nobody within a yard of it and he nodded the ball into the net without even having to jump. The second goal came fifteen minutes later. I took a free kick from twenty-five yards away and curled it around the wall and it went in off the post. It looked like the goalkeeper couldn’t see the ball from behind the wall of players, or guessed it was going wide. Anyway, he hardly moved. We were 3-nil up by halftime and in the second half I don’t think I’ve ever felt so free playing a game outside of a casual kick-about. I tried a couple of long dribbles when usually I would play the ball off to people running into space left and right. It was greedy but exhilarating and, even if those going down the flanks looked exasperated that I hadn’t passed the ball, they also appeared to admire my chutzpah, later going at the goal themselves more directly. At another moment I tried an overhead kick that flew well over the bar and then not long after a volley shot that hit it. Usually, I would have been more cautious, trapping the ball first, dragging it to the side and shooting after creating a bit of space. But for the first and perhaps only time while playing football at a serious level I played as though free, caring little for what the manager thought, while also seeing my fellow players less as cogs in a well-oiled footballing machine designed by the manager and the coach, than eleven individuals all trying to express their given abilities. 

We won 5-0 and the manager was furious. In the dressing room, he insisted we were lucky that our opponents were so poor, that the lack of cohesion we showed in the second half would have cost us a couple of goals against proper opposition. He then looked at me with sourness saying that I could show off all I liked, that he could see football didn’t mean very much to me since I could go off and get a well-paid job after university. But not everybody has that luxury he said, looking around the changing room at players who had left school at sixteen and knew that if they failed at football any other option would have been less lucrative and attractive. I could see he was channelling an aspect of my parents’ resentfulness allied to professional savvy. It was his team and he didn’t want an 18-year-old university kid convincing the players they could play much more freely instead of conforming to a rigid system that made his reputation as a manager. He was known to win games by calculation rather than by flair and I needed to be disciplined for my flamboyance.

Of course, my friend was ecstatic over the result and he did indeed buy a flat for around £180,000 and tried several times to give me the remaining £20,000. I insisted that his generosity would land me in prison and, with the manager already suspicious, I didn’t want to risk taking money from someone who had gained a small fortune from our victory. He said he would keep the money aside and spend it on the next game.

I didn’t play for the first team again that spring and played six games the following season during my second year at university. I started four and was substituted in two; came on as a sub in another two and played an entire game twice. I knew by the end of my second year that I wasn’t going to pursue the profession and after I didn’t play once for the first team in my third year, they dropped me in my fourth. Colin never did put the twenty-thousand down on another game in which I played and oddly it appeared that the big win killed his craving for a gamble rather than exacerbated it. I talked to him about this more than a year after the win. He said what he found so surprising was that he got to love football for the playing itself and not the money involved. He had before seen football as a gambling opportunity but that afternoon he was in the stand, a £20,000 loan on the game, and there were moments where he was in the match and not in the bet. Admittedly not very often, he added, but there were three or four times when he wished he were on the pitch, exercising some of the freedom that he knew must be even more exhilarating than passively watching a result you have no direct control over — no matter how much money is on the match. He told me this over a pint during the summer while we were watching a Euro championship match between Spain and Italy. We were outside in a beer garden, sitting on one end of a long wooden bench shared with four Italians more engaged in the result. He said he had taken up running a few months earlier, that it gave him if not the thrill of gambling, a sense of reward that gambling couldn’t provide even when he won. I told him it was interesting what he said about that afternoon. It was one of the few occasions that I had played professional football without any sense of constraint and I had to thank him for that. The money was well spent, I said, as if he had been the person to whom I had to answer rather than the manager. He found such remarks amusing and said it would be very expensive indeed if he had to put a large sum of money down every time I wanted to play a game of football freely. He told me that the £20,000 was in the bank. Did he want me to bet on my next professional game? I shook my head and insisted no; best not.

4

I was still in contact with Colin during the years I worked in Glasgow and still saw him two or three times a year when I would come through to Edinburgh and visit my parents. He graduated in chemical engineering, practised it as ethically as he could manage, but still earned large sums of money and now, about to enter his mid-thirties, had bought a five-bedroom house in the Grange. His wife was a lawyer and they were childless, a subject I’d never broached but well-knew that lack of money wouldn’t have been behind their tardiness. It was not long after I’d moved back to Edinburgh, a month after seeing Niall on the street, and I told Colin the story. I said to him that if it weren’t for Niall perhaps I would have given up playing football seriously much earlier than I did. I couldn’t sleep for the thought of missing a penalty until Niall started taking them, I told him that now he lived on the streets and often sat begging outside a supermarket near the university. I told him a few other things that Gerry had told me and, at the end of the conversation, he said that the £20,000 was still in the bank.

   How do you give £20,000 to a man without a home, perhaps without a bank account and with pride, someone who claimed he only needed enough to live on and would give the rest to others? After I told him what Gerry had said to me, I saw in Colin’s face an expression that I can only describe as desolate, a look on his visage indicating that the gambler in him was still there; and not because he wanted money but that he too wished he could live without it. He suspected that day when he put borrowed money on the game it wasn’t the winning that was so elating but that he had taken the risk; that he thought so little of money rather than so much about it he was willing to borrow it and lose it at the same time. I said whatever his reasons it allowed me to play a game of football as if it were an aesthetic experience rather than merely a sporting one or a financial one. I was supposed to be playing football but during my brief professional career playing seemed such a small dimension of the activity, and working instead of playing appeared more appropriate. That day I played.

I didn’t doubt that Niall would be wary of receiving the money but I’d also heard from Gerry that he had on occasion been moved off from various spots. I said perhaps he would accept the cash if he could buy a small piece of land outside Edinburgh and a tiny kit house. The following Saturday I spoke to Gerry after the game in the pub and asked how Niall was doing; did he still sit at the same spot? Gerry hadn’t seen him for a couple of weeks and then about three weeks earlier he showed up again. It seemed that others wanted the spot having heard how much Niall could make there. Niall refused to move and later that evening just as Niall was packing up the same two people came and pushed him around, saying that he had made enough. It was their turn now. He had made good money that day and for the next two weeks lived off it and stayed in and around his tent by Blackford Hill. He thought they weren’t wrong — he had done well sitting outside the supermarket, and maybe it was time somebody else did so. He just didn’t want it to be two thugs taking turns who probably weren’t homeless anyway but who just saw an opportunity. He said to Gerry, when Gerry once again saw him there, he was back but thinking through his options. When Gerry said this I told him that I might have found indeed an option for him. 

Colin and Gerry never really knew each other and I’d never told Gerry of the money Colin made on a game I had been playing. I didn’t tell him that day either but I did say I had £20,000 that for various reasons I didn’t feel was mine. I reckoned that somehow I had always owed Niall, always felt that when I played he had my back, and most especially when he took the penalties. I explained that I’d been looking into kit houses and a plot of land. Niall could continue living as freely as he did but with a small house he could call his own and land that belonged to him. I showed Gerry a few homes on the phone and I asked if Niall could be persuaded. Gerry said it might seem perverse but he wondered whether Niall would accept charity. Niall never saw begging on the street as people giving him money. He earned it as a kind of human statue; a testament not to British wealth, as you found with numerous stone edifices throughout the city, but to its opposite. It is partly why whenever someone stopped and gave him cash, if they wished to talk he would engage in conversation, telling them about the history of Scottish poverty. He talked about the miserable jobs people did to build the wealth that allowed for statues to Hume, Scott and others, but for many, their lot was poor housing, cramped conditions, long hours and dangerous work. He at least could choose his hours, could live in nature, Niall would say, and make enough money that he could sometimes give chunks of it away to people who needed it more than he did. Gerry said it would depend on how Niall could couch it in his head; whether he could see that owning a bit of land and living in a tiny house was augmenting his freedom and not restricting it. 

A couple of weeks later I got my answer. When Gerry had told him that someone he used to play with wanted to give him £20,000 he looked initially amazed, asked who it was, and then, when Gerry told him, wasn’t entirely surprised. Niall said that to Gerry he had watched that bastard’s back for several years when he couldn’t put the ball in the net, when there were only twelve yard’s between the ball and the goal, and a gormless goalie who didn’t realise the coward he was facing. It was a claim I could have heard Bill Shankly make, and could hear in it Niall’s disdain for fair play. Gerry offered the remark as if Niall had been half-joking but I knew he wasn’t, and realised that during those years Niall had been watching me as closely as I had been watching him. Of course, he would take the money but he would buy the land himself with cash he’d saved and hidden somewhere, but the kit house I could pay for. I owed him he had said, laughing.

Maybe it was the three pints I had after an arduous game of football but this time I felt elated, not unlike the day that Colin won his bet but for what in every apparent way seemed different. Whereas usually I walked along South Clerk Street and would turn off and walk by Melville Drive before going up by Bruntsfield Links, this time I carried along the road, onto Nicholson Street and, as I was passing the supermarket, I saw Niall there. I folded another fiver into his cup and he looked up and said that was a signature gesture. I said I needed to offer more than that, added that he knew why, and supposed it proved I was indeed no stranger. He said perhaps, as though aware that sometimes gaps can never be closed and I wondered if some fundamental instinct in the gambler was an attempt to close it. 

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Winnings

1

I always took playing football seriously but, finally, couldn't take winning seriously at all. If the great Liverpool manager Bill Shankly proposed that winning wasn't the most important thing it, it was the only thing, I usually believed that winning was whatever got in the way of another value. Yet I didn't agree either with the British notion of fair play; it wasn't enough to lose with dignity. I suppose if I had thought about it, I might have seen Shankly's remark as the deliberate antithesis of the idea that the important thing wasn't to cheat as if what mattered in playing fair was to retain a moral smugness no matter the magnitude of the loss. Shankly was a Scot brought up in a mining community on the South West coast who knew all around him as a child the cost of defeat. The English sense of fair play could be offered by those for whom sport brought together the wealthy from various elite educational establishments; people who perhaps saw anything that wasn't cricket as suspect. Here a person who couldn't be trusted on the pitch couldn't be trusted to replicate a certain value system in other areas of their lives. If these schools produced old boy networks then what mattered when a game was being played wasn't whether you won or lost but the character that you showed in playing the game itself. Playing the game meant not the sport you were in the process of being involved in but the wider game that happened to be society.

From the age of eleven, I thought I wanted nothing more than to become a professional footballer; however, something happened that made me wonder whether my attitude to the game revealed a misapprehension; a failure to understand what sport itself happened to be. Some might reckon what I wanted from sport was the spiritual though I'd be more inclined, retrospectively, to call it the aesthetic. I initially saw in football the means to put into an activity an effort that would take out of me a rewarding sense of exhaustion. This meant the training was as important as the game; the diet I adopted equal to any praise I might receive after a match. During these years I did well enough at school, usually getting the necessary grades that pleased my parents. The grades indicated a future that would take me to university if a footballing career failed. But I saw in education no more than a safety net while the net that interested me was the one in which I could put a ball. When my parents talked about doing well at school they offered it cautiously, aware of their own failure to do well themselves.

While I couldn't say my background resembled Shankly's, nevertheless my parents were not wealthy and they wished they had gone to university when they were younger. They never couched this in the opportunities it would have given them for study, for meeting new people and colliding with new ideas, but as a hypothetical escape from the life they went on to lead. My father was a mechanic and my mother worked intermittently and usually part-time as a shop assistant. He would come home each day smelling of car oil and would take fifteen minutes by the kitchen sink removing grease from his hands with a heavy-duty hand cleaner my mother always despaired over as she insisted she needed to get to the sink. When she came back from work she sometimes commented on the tedium of endlessly putting items through the till before bar codes made it easier but no less dull. I sometimes heard my mother saying to my father that his job was disgusting but it seemed to have a purpose. Someone would come in with a broken car and he fixed it. All she did was move food items from a conveyer belt through to someone's shopping bag. My father said that at least her hands were clean after a day's work.

I often think they talked like this to convince their son that he needed to do well at school, but though I didn't do badly I never saw during these early years education as any more than a backup plan, even a fantasy. When I was a teenager very few professional footballers had degrees and I imagined myself not only playing for Liverpool or Man Utd, but also with a university qualification that needn't leave my football- playing years containing within them a future anxiety about what I might do with the rest of my life. I read one player I admired saying his favourite bands were Joy Division and the Fall, and started listening to them too. I mastered the lyrics to songs by The Smiths while doing keepie-ups, listening to the songs on an outdated ghettoblaster I'd placed on the steps in the back garden as my mother would yell saying I should turn that damn racket down.

During my years at secondary school I was given time to train, play and go off for trials but I increasingly realised that my love of football didn't contain within it a love of the profession. It was as though what I initially loved most was the freedom it gave me at school to take time off, to be admired by the teachers and to be praised by my peers and to be fancied by a few of the girls. I say this with no retrospective pride but just a little shame. Perhaps I am no more profound now than I was then but at least the pride manifests itself elsewhere today, and started to do so by the time I was sixteen. My purpose here is to speak of that pride's limitations in my youth, and also of an incident that, from one point of view can seem immoral, but from another may have been for me the birth of ethics, and even the aesthetic.

Between thirteen and sixteen I had eight trials with professional clubs but the only one that accepted me was a local team in the city, a middling club in the league that rarely won anything but managed consistently also to avoid relegation. By this stage, I had planned to go to university a few miles away and football, while still a professional possibility, became also more of a casual vocation; something that saved me from a part-time job working in the local supermarket. My mother looked at me with disdain when I suggested this, saying there was nothing wrong with that, even if she had spent several years telling me how horrible the job happened to be when she was doing it. My dad said he couldn't have wished for a better combination: his son playing professional football while pursuing a degree, even if the degree I'd chosen wasn't much to his liking. Psychology, he said, wasn't that one of those soft subjects? He wanted me to study chemical engineering or pharmacology. I insisted I could earn more than enough to pay for my degree and even playing for the second team I'd be okay financially. I offered it as a counter-remark but sometimes winning an argument doesn't mean you've done much more than score a point off someone whose position is too weak for it to seem like a victory. My arguments defeated my parents but they were defeated long before that, and I could see that what may have appeared like high expectations from a certain perspective (who could deny that chemical engineering and pharmacology weren't enviable professions?), can nevertheless be a product of low-expectations: that while the choices they offered me were for stable and even lucrative careers they were nevertheless still limiting.

What probably provoked me to study psychology was a fascination with sports people and their ability to withstand pressures that most would be unable to counter. There you are in a stadium full of fans, the rest of the team standing behind you, the manager, the coach and the reserves on the bench, numerous family and friends either in the ground or watching at home on television. It is your turn to step up and take a penalty, one taking your team to the world cup final; a penalty to win the division or to avoid relegation. How do you do it without your legs buckling, your foot dragging, the ball going high and wide? There were numerous examples online of footballers who fumbled at such moments but most didn't and yet I knew I would be one of the fumblers based on a few of the penalties I had taken several years earlier while playing for my youth team. I was seen as clearly the best player and at every opportunity the others would give me the ball. I often controlled the game, expecting the ball as I knew better than any of the others how to distribute it or put the ball into the net. There wasn't an opportunity to score a goal they didn't give me. I would take almost all the free kicks around the box and was expected to take all the penalties. In the first few months, I took seven and missed six. The seventh the goalkeeper fumbled after I shot weakly near the centre of the goal. I knew in every instance that in the taking of the penalty the full force of the shot was missing, as though a psychological weakness was more present than any physical strength.

Around that time I sometimes had nightmares that took the form of various well-known players missing penalties in high-profile games. I dreamt of a brilliant Italian footballer who got his team into the final more than anyone else, only to miss the last penalty, and thus the team lost the tournament. Another dream had an English player hammering the ball over the bar in an important World Cup game and so on. After a number of these dreams I swore to myself that I wouldn't take another penalty; when the chance arose again I insisted that after my recent record someone else should take it. I stood back and watched a player who rarely scored a goal, often tackled clumsily, and frequently offered misguided passes, put the ball neatly in the back of the net. There seemed no nerves, no fret, no worry. During the rest of the season, he took another five and scored them all. Nobody even suggested I take another and I was both relieved and resentful.

I never really did get to know this penalty taker I played with during three seasons. Yet I observed him often, and observed him far beyond the moment when he took a penalty. One evening when we were in a local pub after winning the youth league, most of us now still only sixteen but with an indulgent publican, everyone else was boisterously getting befuddled while he drank without getting drunk. It seemed that everybody else had nerves enough for the relief of victory and the release of all that tension required only a little alcohol to make us drunk. But he didn't seem excited at all even though he had scored the second of three goals from the penalty spot, a goal at a moment in the game when a miss might have demoralised us. We were 2-1 down, it was seventy-five minutes into the game, and we needed at the very least to draw even, though only a victory would guarantee us the league. He scored calmly and with eight minutes left of the game I scored the winning goal from a corner kick administered by our penalty kick taker, who had become responsible for all dead ball kicks in the opponents' half except for free kicks around the box which I still took. Anyway, my point is that if anyone was responsible for us winning the game it was him, and yet he showed little excitement, even enthusiasm over the victory. When asked why he wasn't more enthused I overheard him say it wasn't likely to change his life.

I knew he was probably right and so it turned out to be. He never did get taken on by a professional team. He was too slow on the pitch, too unimaginative in his passing and too hasty in his tackling. He often appeared out of sync with the other players and was the type you wouldn't wish to give the ball. The qualities that made him a mediocre player generally seemed to be what made him such a great taker of penalty kicks. If nobody passed him the ball he wasn't perturbed but neither did he care whether he missed the penalty or not. He scored consistently out of what appeared indifference. Had that indifference incorporated all areas of his life?

2

More recently, on returning to the city, to continue working as a counsellor after a few years employed in Glasgow, I saw sitting outside a supermarket someone familiar with a small cup a few inches in front of him. I put a pound in it and continued into the shop. But while buying a few items to take into the Meadows, where I was meeting a few old footballing friends for a light kickabout and a few drinks afterwards, I sensed that I knew perhaps quite well the person I'd just seen. On the way out I didn't say anything to him and he didn't say anything to me. I looked directly at his face and I was in no doubt it was Niall. I dropped a rolled-up five-pound note into the cup and kept walking. "Don't be a stranger" he called after me, before laughing. The strange thing was he hadn't changed much even if his circumstances were terrible. He was the same age as me but I am sure people would have thought he looked younger. His hair was as black as it was fifteen years earlier and, though greasy, still looked like it could easily be glossy. There were lines on his face but no more than on mine, and, like me, no suggestion that he had gained weight, nor that he looked emaciated. Over the years, in Edinburgh and in Glasgow, I've often given to people on the street but never comfortably, as if feeling that whatever I gave was never enough and that I was buying off my conscience rather than doing very much for someone's life. I gave for me and not for them. Giving to Niall made me aware of this general discomfort in more pronounced form.

In the park, a dozen of us played for an hour on a cloudless afternoon when the temperature was close to the mid-twenties. The park was busy and around fifty people over the course of the game had gathered to watch us. Though we had thrown down our bags as goalposts, and one team wore T-shirts and the other was topless to distinguish the two teams as we didn't have strips, those who stopped and began to watch could see they were watching a game played at a far higher standard than the usual park kick-about. I enjoyed such moments, playing an informal game of football and seeing the surprise on people's faces when I might take the ball around several players, or receive a high pass with my back to the goal, trap the ball under my foot, drag it back slightly, then turn and fire in the direction of and ideally between the makeshift posts. People would rarely clap let alone shout and holler but I received more pleasure catching someone in the crowd looking on admiringly, then offering them a cheeky smile in return, than I did when there was a stadium full of people in the handful of professional games I played for the team. I felt with one important exception in those games that any creativity was always secondary to a pragmatic need to put the ball in the net, often believing that football was a game rarely of skill and ingenuity for the player but a game of frustration and irritation for the fans: one that, as a player, you tried to alleviate. They came to a football match with all the tensions in their lives, and a missed shot at goal often seemed closer to their life experience, one they needed to be annoyed by more than a beautiful pass that might please them.

Sure, a goal scored from forty yards, that would have them looking at each other in a rare moment of acceptance that the player has done something well beyond their own capacities, was very much admired. But most of the time it seemed to me that football was a game of scapegoats put on a pitch, and that the fans waited to see them fail so they could offload their week's frustrations. I am not saying this is generally true but it was what I often felt, as both a fan who has watched many games, and as a player who played in a very small number of professional ones. It was a feeling I never quite alleviated while playing seriously between thirteen and twenty-one and what I enjoyed so much about playing informally was that every shot, every pass and every tackle was devoid of anxiety. When I scored a goal the small pleasure wasn't as great as when playing for medals. But it was as though that pleasure was predicated on alleviating the anxiety. There was immense tension in a miss and of course some ecstasy in a goal but always anxiety and never more so than in the idea of taking a penalty kick.

After the game, most of us stayed in the park, opened a beer, a pack of sandwiches, a pack of crisps or peeled back the wrapper on a chocolate bar, relaxing in the sun. Chatting to a friend I'd been in contact with since secondary school and who played in the same youth team, and who gave up playing semi-professionally after university, I said to him I'd seen begging a person we used to play with, the lad who would always take the penalties. "Niall" he said, knowing the name rather than recalling it. Gerry saw him often: he worked at the university and the supermarket was close by. He often went in on his way to work to pick up a pastry or on his way home, picking-up a bottle of wine or a beer. He added that Niall had been there for at least the last couple of years, and they talked often. What he knew was that Niall slept in a tent during the warmer weather and in homeless hostels when it dipped below a given temperature. I might have noticed he had with him a few items, including a pop-up tent he could assemble in seconds. Where possible he slept up behind Blackford Hill, walking into town each day to raise funds for a few items: more or less food and some alcohol. He stopped as soon as he made enough money and usually returned to the hills. Gerry said he gave him cash when he saw him but knew he would have enough even if he didn't. I asked if they ever talked about football. He said they never did.

That evening, returning to the flat, I thought a little about Niall and recalled how often I gave time over as a teenager to thinking how his mind worked since it seemed to work very differently from mine. I remembered that while he was very calm when taking a penalty he could often get irate when the referee made a bad decision, and yet it was rarely through petulance that he acted; it was often a sense of injustice rather than personal gain which led to him arguing with the ref. On one occasion a player of ours was yanked to the ground during a free kick just as Niall was about to take it, and instead of going ahead he stopped, walked up to the referee and said he wasn't going to kick the ball until the opponent had been at least booked. The referee said he hadn't seen the incident and Niall reckoned he should at least consult the linesman. The player ended up booked less because of what had happened than that the referee wanted a quiet life and for Niall to go ahead and take the kick. A few of us laughed afterwards in the changing room about it but Niall wasn't smiling. He said that if we can't find justice on a football pitch with twenty-two players, a referee and a set of rules, what chance was there of doing so in life? There were a few incidents like that during those three years and some no doubt saw in Niall a problem with authority. Niall saw instead that authority was the problem not him and he was probably right.

I didn't see Niall again for a while. I lived out past Fountainbridge, near the canal, and worked at a hospital in Morningside, in clinical mental health. It was similar to the job I was doing in Glasgow and the move was less a question of careers than lifestyles; my partner and I planned to have a child and reckoned since our in-laws were here it made more sense to move back when we both had the opportunity. Sylvie worked as a social worker and I sometimes thought that our jobs, while quite distinct on paper, could on occasion have been inter-changeable. In the evening when we asked each other about our day, we knew that much of it was similar.

The one day when things really were different happened to be Saturday afternoons. I played football regularly now with the guys but after a few casual kick-arounds in the Meadows, and with the weather turning, we formalised it a little by hiring a five-aside pitch over at Peffermills each Saturday, afterwards going for a pint at a pub a few of us liked, a mile away on South Clerk Street. Sylvie went to yoga, on to a sauna and then met a couple of friends for a coffee. I said that I was much closer to my roots on Saturday afternoon than she was with her activities. I could imagine without difficulty my father playing football and going to the pub; I couldn't imagine our mothers thirty years ago stretching their muscles on a mat, steaming themselves afterwards, then taking a coffee and cake, and talking over a couple of hours in a cafe that simply wouldn't have existed. She admitted it was true when we went to visit my parents I always had the football to talk about with my dad; Sylvie couldn't discuss yoga with her mum. Once when she tried to differentiate between the various forms - Iyengar, Vinyasa, Ashtanga and Kundalini - I could see on her mother's face a similar expression to the one I recalled on my mother's that day when I alluded to working in a supermarket: a disdain that wasn't easy to distinguish between resentment towards her daughter and self-contempt. It also brought to mind the expression on Niall's face when I popped five pounds into his cup. In the moment of the gesture I supposed I was expressing kindness, but often such gestures struggle to avoid a sense of condescension.

I often wondered too if my job was part of the condescending professions, the sort of employment that creates a gap between the person receiving help and the person offering it. Is there any way of making it seem like the 'client' is as necessary as I am, since without them I would be without work? Without me, they might not need to recognise themselves as damaged, vulnerable, or weak. And while the money I gave to Niall may have seemed a generous gesture, fully aware of itself as a charitable act, what about all those penalties Niall took that left me able to sleep at night? As far as I knew he never had any idea how helpful he had been to me; I knew exactly how helpful I had been to him that day outside the supermarket.

3

Yet I suppose the help he had given me without knowing it, and the help I had given him, well aware of the help I was offering, was perhaps minor next to what seems the most ostensibly generous gesture of my life, and the one that led me to give up any intentions of pursuing professional football. When I was thirteen, a friend and I, while waiting for the bus after going into the city on Saturday afternoon, went into the slot machine arcade just outside the stop, wasting whatever money we had left-over that we hadn't spent on music or DVDs, clothes or (in my case) sports gear. I didn't spend very much in the arcade and saw it as something to do while waiting to go home. But I could see it was giving to Colin the buzz I was getting from football, and while I've suggested that playing the game was what mattered, for Colin there was hardly a game at all only winning or losing. There was no skill involved in playing one-armed bandits, just the brief moment when you would put the money into the machine, pull the long arm and wait to see if three cherries, lemons or bells would come up. No doubt they are more sophisticated now, and there were more sophisticated machines in the arcade then, but Colin and I stuck to the simple ones initially. Afterwards, I stopped playing and Colin became ever more involved in gambling. By the time he was sixteen, he managed to falsify his ID to gamble in betting shops and it was when we were both eighteen that it looked like he was indeed going to gamble his life away. Colin and I were in the pub with a few other friends on Sunday afternoon when I told him that the following weekend I was playing for the first team. Two forwards were injured in a derby game with the other main team in the city. He looked at me with modest admiration and immense enthusiasm, saying he was going to put all he had on us winning by three clear goals or more. The opposition was weak and we were expected to win easily.

Had the game been more testing, the manager would probably have put the two players on painkillers and got them to play and suffer the consequences later. Nevertheless, I told Colin that to win by at least three goals wasn't guaranteed and he said he well knew that: but to gamble on us winning was hardly gambling at all. The money to be made was in winning by a wide margin. By the middle of the week, he secured a loan of 20,000 and put it all on the game, saying he wasn't sure whether he should have told me. He said if he won that would be 200,000 and he'd give me 20,000 and would buy a flat with the rest of the money. He was thinking of borrowing the cash anyway for university. If he won, he could buy a two-or-three bedroom place, rent out a room and with a part-time job he would go through university without owing anything. Many people were getting into enormous debt by going to uni, gambling that their degree would earn them a decent income afterwards. Doing that meant relying on strangers to give you a job years into the future. By betting on the game he was gambling before the event and would be reliant on a friend to help him secure success. He offered it with a logic that seemed both insurmountable and terrifying: his future was in my feet.

I would do my best I said but that motivation wouldn't include a share of the profits if he won. I might have been willing to try and secure his future but taking a cut of a 200,000 win could well have ruined my own. I didn't want to end up in prison, even if it wouldn't have been by losing a game but by winning it by a specific margin. All I had to do was play very specifically towards a large victory that would suit Colin but would suit the management.

I expected to be doubly terrified. There I was playing my initial first team game and a good friend had borrowed 20,000 sure that he had invested well. But what seemed to happen instead was that each pressure cancelled the other out, or rather my professional concern felt less important than the wish to help a friend. As we scored within the first fifteen minutes from a corner that I took (no Niall to take them), so I saw that another couple of goals could come without difficulty. For the corner, I aimed as usual for the centre of the box and expected at least a couple of defenders to mark closely our other new forward but no, his six-foot-three frame had nobody within a yard of it and he nodded the ball into the net without even having to jump. The second goal came fifteen minutes later. I took a free kick from twenty-five yards away and curled it around the wall and it went in off the post. It looked like the goalkeeper couldn't see the ball from behind the wall of players, or guessed it was going wide. Anyway, he hardly moved. We were 3-nil up by halftime and in the second half I don't think I've ever felt so free playing a game outside of a casual kick-about. I tried a couple of long dribbles when usually I would play the ball off to people running into space left and right. It was greedy but exhilarating and, even if those going down the flanks looked exasperated that I hadn't passed the ball, they also appeared to admire my chutzpah, later going at the goal themselves more directly. At another moment I tried an overhead kick that flew well over the bar and then not long after a volley shot that hit it. Usually, I would have been more cautious, trapping the ball first, dragging it to the side and shooting after creating a bit of space. But for the first and perhaps only time while playing football at a serious level I played as though free, caring little for what the manager thought, while also seeing my fellow players less as cogs in a well-oiled footballing machine designed by the manager and the coach, than eleven individuals all trying to express their given abilities.

We won 5-0 and the manager was furious. In the dressing room, he insisted we were lucky that our opponents were so poor, that the lack of cohesion we showed in the second half would have cost us a couple of goals against proper opposition. He then looked at me with sourness saying that I could show off all I liked, that he could see football didn't mean very much to me since I could go off and get a well-paid job after university. But not everybody has that luxury he said, looking around the changing room at players who had left school at sixteen and knew that if they failed at football any other option would have been less lucrative and attractive. I could see he was channelling an aspect of my parents' resentfulness allied to professional savvy. It was his team and he didn't want an 18-year-old university kid convincing the players they could play much more freely instead of conforming to a rigid system that made his reputation as a manager. He was known to win games by calculation rather than by flair and I needed to be disciplined for my flamboyance.

Of course, my friend was ecstatic over the result and he did indeed buy a flat for around 180,000 and tried several times to give me the remaining 20,000. I insisted that his generosity would land me in prison and, with the manager already suspicious, I didn't want to risk taking money from someone who had gained a small fortune from our victory. He said he would keep the money aside and spend it on the next game.

I didn't play for the first team again that spring and played six games the following season during my second year at university. I started four and was substituted in two; came on as a sub in another two and played an entire game twice. I knew by the end of my second year that I wasn't going to pursue the profession and after I didn't play once for the first team in my third year, they dropped me in my fourth. Colin never did put the twenty-thousand down on another game in which I played and oddly it appeared that the big win killed his craving for a gamble rather than exacerbated it. I talked to him about this more than a year after the win. He said what he found so surprising was that he got to love football for the playing itself and not the money involved. He had before seen football as a gambling opportunity but that afternoon he was in the stand, a 20,000 loan on the game, and there were moments where he was in the match and not in the bet. Admittedly not very often, he added, but there were three or four times when he wished he were on the pitch, exercising some of the freedom that he knew must be even more exhilarating than passively watching a result you have no direct control over no matter how much money is on the match. He told me this over a pint during the summer while we were watching a Euro championship match between Spain and Italy. We were outside in a beer garden, sitting on one end of a long wooden bench shared with four Italians more engaged in the result. He said he had taken up running a few months earlier, that it gave him if not the thrill of gambling, a sense of reward that gambling couldn't provide even when he won. I told him it was interesting what he said about that afternoon. It was one of the few occasions that I had played professional football without any sense of constraint and I had to thank him for that. The money was well spent, I said, as if he had been the person to whom I had to answer rather than the manager. He found such remarks amusing and said it would be very expensive indeed if he had to put a large sum of money down every time I wanted to play a game of football freely. He told me that the 20,000 was in the bank. Did he want me to bet on my next professional game? I shook my head and insisted no; best not.

4

I was still in contact with Colin during the years I worked in Glasgow and still saw him two or three times a year when I would come through to Edinburgh and visit my parents. He graduated in chemical engineering, practised it as ethically as he could manage, but still earned large sums of money and now, about to enter his mid-thirties, had bought a five-bedroom house in the Grange. His wife was a lawyer and they were childless, a subject I'd never broached but well-knew that lack of money wouldn't have been behind their tardiness. It was not long after I'd moved back to Edinburgh, a month after seeing Niall on the street, and I told Colin the story. I said to him that if it weren't for Niall perhaps I would have given up playing football seriously much earlier than I did. I couldn't sleep for the thought of missing a penalty until Niall started taking them, I told him that now he lived on the streets and often sat begging outside a supermarket near the university. I told him a few other things that Gerry had told me and, at the end of the conversation, he said that the 20,000 was still in the bank.

How do you give 20,000 to a man without a home, perhaps without a bank account and with pride, someone who claimed he only needed enough to live on and would give the rest to others? After I told him what Gerry had said to me, I saw in Colin's face an expression that I can only describe as desolate, a look on his visage indicating that the gambler in him was still there; and not because he wanted money but that he too wished he could live without it. He suspected that day when he put borrowed money on the game it wasn't the winning that was so elating but that he had taken the risk; that he thought so little of money rather than so much about it he was willing to borrow it and lose it at the same time. I said whatever his reasons it allowed me to play a game of football as if it were an aesthetic experience rather than merely a sporting one or a financial one. I was supposed to be playing football but during my brief professional career playing seemed such a small dimension of the activity, and working instead of playing appeared more appropriate. That day I played.

I didn't doubt that Niall would be wary of receiving the money but I'd also heard from Gerry that he had on occasion been moved off from various spots. I said perhaps he would accept the cash if he could buy a small piece of land outside Edinburgh and a tiny kit house. The following Saturday I spoke to Gerry after the game in the pub and asked how Niall was doing; did he still sit at the same spot? Gerry hadn't seen him for a couple of weeks and then about three weeks earlier he showed up again. It seemed that others wanted the spot having heard how much Niall could make there. Niall refused to move and later that evening just as Niall was packing up the same two people came and pushed him around, saying that he had made enough. It was their turn now. He had made good money that day and for the next two weeks lived off it and stayed in and around his tent by Blackford Hill. He thought they weren't wrong he had done well sitting outside the supermarket, and maybe it was time somebody else did so. He just didn't want it to be two thugs taking turns who probably weren't homeless anyway but who just saw an opportunity. He said to Gerry, when Gerry once again saw him there, he was back but thinking through his options. When Gerry said this I told him that I might have found indeed an option for him.

Colin and Gerry never really knew each other and I'd never told Gerry of the money Colin made on a game I had been playing. I didn't tell him that day either but I did say I had 20,000 that for various reasons I didn't feel was mine. I reckoned that somehow I had always owed Niall, always felt that when I played he had my back, and most especially when he took the penalties. I explained that I'd been looking into kit houses and a plot of land. Niall could continue living as freely as he did but with a small house he could call his own and land that belonged to him. I showed Gerry a few homes on the phone and I asked if Niall could be persuaded. Gerry said it might seem perverse but he wondered whether Niall would accept charity. Niall never saw begging on the street as people giving him money. He earned it as a kind of human statue; a testament not to British wealth, as you found with numerous stone edifices throughout the city, but to its opposite. It is partly why whenever someone stopped and gave him cash, if they wished to talk he would engage in conversation, telling them about the history of Scottish poverty. He talked about the miserable jobs people did to build the wealth that allowed for statues to Hume, Scott and others, but for many, their lot was poor housing, cramped conditions, long hours and dangerous work. He at least could choose his hours, could live in nature, Niall would say, and make enough money that he could sometimes give chunks of it away to people who needed it more than he did. Gerry said it would depend on how Niall could couch it in his head; whether he could see that owning a bit of land and living in a tiny house was augmenting his freedom and not restricting it.

A couple of weeks later I got my answer. When Gerry had told him that someone he used to play with wanted to give him 20,000 he looked initially amazed, asked who it was, and then, when Gerry told him, wasn't entirely surprised. Niall said that to Gerry he had watched that bastard's back for several years when he couldn't put the ball in the net, when there were only twelve yard's between the ball and the goal, and a gormless goalie who didn't realise the coward he was facing. It was a claim I could have heard Bill Shankly make, and could hear in it Niall's disdain for fair play. Gerry offered the remark as if Niall had been half-joking but I knew he wasn't, and realised that during those years Niall had been watching me as closely as I had been watching him. Of course, he would take the money but he would buy the land himself with cash he'd saved and hidden somewhere, but the kit house I could pay for. I owed him he had said, laughing.

Maybe it was the three pints I had after an arduous game of football but this time I felt elated, not unlike the day that Colin won his bet but for what in every apparent way seemed different. Whereas usually I walked along South Clerk Street and would turn off and walk by Melville Drive before going up by Bruntsfield Links, this time I carried along the road, onto Nicholson Street and, as I was passing the supermarket, I saw Niall there. I folded another fiver into his cup and he looked up and said that was a signature gesture. I said I needed to offer more than that, added that he knew why, and supposed it proved I was indeed no stranger. He said perhaps, as though aware that sometimes gaps can never be closed and I wondered if some fundamental instinct in the gambler was an attempt to close it.


© Tony McKibbin