By Tim Quelch
April 24 2012
This book should be compulsory reading for all aspiring young footballers and their parents. Please be advised it is a story that carries severe health and character warnings. It is one that reminds me of ‘If’. No, I’m not talking about Lindsay Anderson’s ludicrous fantasy about public school revolution. Nor do I mean the insidious melody penned by David Gates of the flared American band, Bread. I’m referring to the poem by Rudyard Kipling; the one that goes something like: “...If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, But make allowance for their doubting too...Or being hated, don't give way to hating...If you can dream - and not make dreams your master...If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster And treat those two impostors just the same... you'll survive life as a journeyman footballer, my son!”
That’s not meant as an insult. Had it not been for a badly treated knee injury, Roger Eli might have become, say, the Danny Graham of his day. It’s just that Roger was the ultimate journey man. The “I’ve been everywhere man... of travel I’ve had my share, man...” sort. For Roger played in Bradford, before joining European Cup champions, Forest under Cloughie and Leeds United under Eddie Gray, then shifted on with bewildering speed to Wolves, Bury, Northwich Victoria, Crewe, Cambridge United, Scunthorpe, Pontefract, Partick Thistle, slotting in a stint in China for good measure. And lest we forget he managed to squeeze in a triumphant gig as a Burnley cult hero. Here he is still fondly remembered, at least by those who paid to watch him, for his pace, skill and his ‘up and at ‘em’ commitment. Although it was his cool Grace Jonesish... alright, Des Walker coiffure that made a greater impression upon my then pubescent daughter. It was small wonder that the tyres on his Vauxhall Cavalier were found to be bald by the time he’d reached Bury.
Roger’s message to a promising young footballer is neither new nor hard to grasp. But it is eloquently and starkly delivered and bears repetition. It is yet another timely reminder that this is a game that can grant amazing highs. But it can much more easily kick you in the teeth. And just about everywhere else, too. Hard! So you better be tough, pitch-wise and together if you are to survive. And come up smiling as Roger has done, give or take a few lingering gripes and twinges.
On the up-side, Roger recalls how as a star-struck youth team player at Forest his brave performance against some thuggish Italian centre backs was picked out by Cloughie: “Hey Chalkie your conduct was fantastic today. I knew you were in for a torrid time against those defenders but well done for not reacting.” [In case you haven’t already twigged, Roger is black.] Similarly, he recalls the elation when the Turf Moor crowd first chanted his name: “Roars of Eli! Eli! Eli! Rolled down the terraces... I felt like a gladiator.”
On the down-side there were the early rejections. “But when as a youngster you’re told you are no longer needed, no longer in the plans, facing the ignominy of being released, that’s when a footballer’s hopes are shattered. What’s it all been for? It’s been wasted time, a bad dream, surely they don’t mean it; surely it’s a mistake? Blank incredulity, a furrowed brow, staring at the bad news, room spinning round, the light from the window blinding; it’s been a mistake, just hollow emptiness, and you walk out of the room, wondering what’s just ahead, where the hell do I go from here?”
Then there were the squalid digs. “The bedroom had damp in all four corners and under the window sill and wallpaper was peeling off all over the place... [At breakfast] there was a stained teapot and two chipped tea cups. The milk was usually on its last legs or off. There would be two of the cheapest and thinnest supermarket teacakes...” It was an all day incontinental breakfast.
Then there were the frustrated chances of glory, like the Fourth Division play-off defeat at Torquay, which ultimately snatched away his Wembley dream. “We blew it... The journey home... ten hours of feeling bloody depressed... No laughing or joking... No stops... You look for road signs... how many miles to here or there... That journey by luxury coach from Leeds to Charlton when I was exuberant and full of hope and sat with so many international players... seemed a hundred years ago.”
And, being black, there was the inevitable racism. “The lads asked why I was late. ‘I’m Random Black, there was a police random black man check’ I said and they roared with laughter. But it’s no joke when you’re stopped again.”
But this is no gloom fest; no glass half empty or ‘what bloody glass?’ What comes across strongly and positively is the strength of Roger Eli’s survival instincts, not only the pitch where he learnt how to outwit the roughest, toughest defenders around but in coping with rejection, injury and abuse without losing faith in himself or those close to him, without becoming irredeemably soured and losing his love of life. As proof of that Roger Eli has established a happy and successful life beyond football. Football may have left him scarred – he still suffers periodically with a gammy knee – but has not damaged him.
Just as history is not about great men, football is not just about preening, posturing, petulant, pampered premiership players [please feel free to add a few Ps of your own]. There are other winners around, too. Take Roger Eli, for instance.
“Thanks for the Memories”: by Roger Eli with Dave Thomas
Published by Vertical at £14.99