Leap of Faith: the Tribulations of a Triallist
I feel a fraud. My best mate got me a trial with a Thai Premier League team using his name over there. For reasons I’m still not sure about, I jumped on a plane to the other side of the world grasping at a fresh start. Sitting in a taxi slowly inching towards the corporate headquarters with a pitch behind it, my mind flails for an escape. Let us be late and miss it. Failure is easier to hold than possible success.
I’m a striker playing in the lower reaches of English football. I played nineteen times for a club finishing seventh in the Conference National League. Scoring only twice was bad enough, but a loan spell with the team finishing twentieth was, I thought, my lowest ebb. Then, after thirteen unlucky games and only one goal, the mighty AFC Telford United decided not to offer me a contract. A thirty five year old would see his career arc curving to its inevitable conclusion; but I’m twenty two and this is all I know.
For a striker moving clubs ( I’ve already played for seven) goals are the only stat. A keeper shipping a shedload of them can blame his defence, but strikers live and die by the sword of scoring. Midfielders providing poor ammunition make you cannibalize your own career. Taking on players with your team mates free, pointlessly optimistic shots that bobble apologetically towards the corner flag and haggling for the chance to take rare spot kicks only alienate and frustrate. Stroppy strikers invite teammates to cut him loose, left to chase overhit balls like an asthmatic greyhound after a stick, or delay a pass just long enough to leave him isolated and offside, bitterly complaining to officials to underscore his isolation.
Stranded in the snarl of Bangkok traffic in the lane that bars the U turn we need for the pitch offers simple salvation. My heart begins to slow; I have my get out clause. Relaxed and reckless I blurt out that I’m a trialling footballer with the relief of not having to prove it anymore, but he understands “football, ” lurching his car into action past the brown shirted policeman evaluating an open car window. We skid to the required angle, bounding towards the ground. The metallic taste of disappointment burns the edges of my tongue as the policeman slowly looks up from his prey, decides a taxi is too little financial sustenance, and clicks back into his ruthless routine. Now I see three huge letters dominate the skyline from a kilometre away, robbing me of the chance to theatrically divert the driver to the wrong location, ending in false frustration at his careless error.
Turning left, we enter a road seemingly owned by the club. Their logo continues to dominate the view driving along this privatized side road. Suddenly I feel the scale of my task sliding me further down this shiny plastic backseat. This is not the shambling satellite town of an English non league set up. There is serious money here. To the right of the main gate stands a graveyard of dead blue phone boxes, all neatly lined up and left to rot. Their hoods protect the memory of long removed phones, now only shading and sheltering occasional,scuttling wildlife. A bright young manager’s decade old plan that came to naught, leaving only tombstones to a flawed idea.
Pulling up to a guardhouse, the slovenly sentries only guard their paused dreams. No traffic comes or goes and the offices in the compound ahead look deserted. It seems like I’m entering the company that time forgot and maybe,hopefully, I’m the man that they forgot. If my name isn’t on a list it ends here. A momentary spasm of hope grips me and, just as quickly, dissipates. There is no list. A pair of football boots and a nervous smile are my passport. Behind the semi conscious guards I see the pitch. It’s in surprisingly good condition, preventing me from controlling my rising excitement. Despite myself, I dream of a chance to show what I can do. All I need is an opportunity.
I walk to the side of the pitch on rubber legs. The pitch is flanked on one side by a terrace of rough construction where tens of people, mostly young Africans, seem to have been there all day dressed in various degrees of football gear. The side I walk to is a large building that now acts as changing rooms, but was once a warren of offices; its reception now battered down to its bare frame fronts cavernous stairs. I don’t speak Thai and this could still be a painful miscommunication. I meet an English guy who explains to the club officials who I am (or, more accurately, who my friend is.) Eventually a kit is passed to me. There seems to be a “one size fits all foreigners” set hidden away; the faded, shapeless shirt and shorts could be worn by a gym honed body or an Olympian couch potato to similar effect. The kit is a badge of disdain, a Not Welcome mat rolled out for the foreigner trying to elbow his way into view. I have to shake myself out of this feeling of building despair.
The barely neutral looks of current players musing on whether I’ll be filling their boots next season is fueled by the 3 + 1 rule for every starting 11, which invites paranoia. The Thais know they are safe in your presence but very few speak English, so they nervously avoid coming into your conversational orbit. The plus one foreign Asian players can also relax, but foreign non Asians are torn between the human need to greet another traveller and the resentment brewing inside at the threat you may pose. Many foreign players don’t even have a work visa so, like any tourist, they can be booted out with no notice or recompense like a Khao San Road backpacker.
The coach is there under brooding sufferance. Greeting me seems to involve some unspecified low level pain as his hooded eyes and oddly drooping moustache look both comical and sinister in this withering humidity. Without even the pretence of caring what I have to say, he summarily walks away to no clear purpose. When the game kicks off I know he won’t be looking. Like the conditions for an eclipse, I must produce blinding skill and involve my unknown team mates at the precise moment the coach bothers to look. I can’t dwell on the odds against me; I’m too far in to let realism take hold. Good coaches want accurate players who do the right things all the time, the exact opposite of what they need to see if a new player is to dislodge a loyal, trusted lieutenant. So here I end up in a match where strangers are thrown together in a team game and invited to shine as an individual. Three quarters of an hour to shape a career, to be spotted or create unnoticed magic as the coach puffs away on his cheap cigarette at the back of the time stained cheap plastic marquee, chewing words into a telephone.
No one talks to me in the over extended warm up. The game of “monkey,” much loved by Thai players, replaces structured stretches. This game essentially involves forward rolls punctuated by circles of players standing around and laughing uncontrollably. The “match” kicks off an hour late. Putting off the inevitable for just a few minutes more seems a common comfort for new and old alike. No understudy coaches flash meaningful watch checks or chivvy players but, like indulgent kindergarten teachers who don’t want to truss toddlers up in timetables, they let time slide as long as the chaos is controllable.
Playing against a limited but regular team I have to take control, but I’ve been told bellowing for possession alienates you in this country where a raised voice or an invasion of personal space causes confusion and upset. The paradox is beginning to bite. I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t. A striker needs service, but strangers on trial want to keep the ball like a transient spotlight. Not only to try and catch the eye of the terminally bored coach, but also to stop you doing anything that pushes you further up the food chain. So you must earn their confidence when they pass to you by giving it straight back. Like training an animal, they have to trust you before they let go. But there is no time to make connections. The other striker in my team has already signed, so he’s playing by numbers, knowing he only has to avoid injury. There is no currency for him in making me look good.
Some of the players show genuine class, but others are no hopers; overweight and light on skill they pass an afternoon to fill a conversation gap. Many of them will be friends of Important People high up in the club hierarchy I hear; a favour returned without risk. But I have to rely on them, cajole them into action and hope they don’t resent me gatecrashing their afternoon stroll.
The only player in a weaker position than me sits out his contract on the sideline before heading home to uncertainty. As a foreigner on a tourist visa he had no rights or recompense and will have to find a club back in tough Eastern European leagues at the worst time of the season. No one wants to lock eyes with him; he is the reminder of failure around the corner. In some ways he is the most relaxed. His axe has already hit home. He doesn’t have to anticipate the fearful tap on the shoulder or the coach’s request to stay behind after the game. After thirty games in the Thai Premier League last year he made the mistake of counting that as confidence in him; but his fall was swift, weighed down by inevitable twitter that he must carry extra baggage: the unholy trinity of booze, hidden injuries and bad attitude.
And then it hits me. The combination of adrenalin and fear catapult me to excessive and nervous action. I hadn’t factored in the slaying heat and humidity. Within five minutes my lungs burn and my mind already writes cheques my body can’t cash. The building strain of controlling my breathing to look serenely in control builds the pressure on my shocked body as my blood cries out for oxygen. I feel light headed and panicky, knowing all along that I could be playing my best game and it simply wouldn’t matter. My only chance is to play out of position: noticing that our right midfielder is more at home with a burger than a ball, I steal his spot hoping this will give me a bigger stage to show my skills. If I go down, I have to go down fighting. I owe that to myself when I head home to shatter friends’ assumptions that I can walk into a Thai team by simply turning up. But I am only rearranging the deck chairs on The Titanic.
An actor gets an audition, a patient gets an examination; even an aging whore gets an occasional leer from drunks. But I get the worst of both worlds. Neither welcomed nor needed, watched nor listened to, I am the patient of a distracted psychiatrist pouring out my heart to a disinterested neighbour. I want this to end. The first team players lazily begin their stretching on the pitch side, signalling the beginning of my end. Empty eyed and automatic, they know I posed no threat and can relax before the next potential interloper. Their slow, mechanical laughter mingles relief and spite.
Another wasted trip. I spilt my guts for nothing. I trudge off unnoticed and out of choices.
Hope is a disease.