It’s because of football that I know what the capital of Cameroon is. Football has also taught me to make quick mental calculations when working out the possible permutations for final group standings in World Cups. I also understand how football can be hijacked to serve the purposes of totalitarian propaganda, how it can assimilate all manner of scientific breakthroughs to enrich it as a spectacle and how it can rival any form of dance when it is executed with exquisite precision. In short, football has educated me in ways that transcend the narrow parameters of the pitch or the screen. It’s because of football that my understanding of the world is a little better.
Last Friday saw me teach my final lesson. After seven years, hundreds of essays marked and thousands of lessons, my teaching career came down to one final hour with my Year 11 class. Tears were shed. The girls bought me a football as a parting gift and signed it, making me feel as though I’d scored a hat-trick against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu. We laughed, took silly selfies and before I knew it, it was over with a new life beckoning for my family and me.
The last few days have allowed me to take stock of what exactly teaching meant to me. I’ve realised, although it may have always been obvious, that being a teacher was in many ways like being a football manager. Well, it was in my mind anyway. Perhaps I just suffer from delusions of Jose; stubbled up as I was and suited to the hilt with self-assurance and a repertoire of tics and tricks that I performed on a daily basis.
Like a football manager, a teacher needs to be aware of the personalities under his/her tutelage. Sometimes, you’re a bit like Harry Redknapp, metaphorically wrapping your arms around students, talking them up, making them feel important. Other times, you run a classroom with the iron discipline and meticulous attention to detail of an Otto Rehhagel, squeezing every last ounce of potential out of kids that achieve above and beyond the sum of their parts. It’s an instinctive profession. You never know how it can turn out, whether the tactics you’ve sat up half the night preparing on a Powerpoint presentation will come off. Sometimes they do, other times they don’t. The very best days can make you feel as imperious as Pep Guardiola but the profession can so easily reduce you to the depths of being a spittle-spewing Barry Fry caricature.
To extend the metaphor even further (I’ve done this so often in the classroom over the years that the device is used more out of a force of habit than as a literary conceit), the teacher/manager is always under the scrutiny of those who do not inhabit his/her working environment. New directives, fads, buzzwords are picked up by those dishing out the paycheques and one is forced to perform monkey acts in order to avoid being judged inadequate or facing the sack. For every appointment of a Director of Football by a clueless board seeking instant fixes and success, see also the perennial chopping and changing of how teachers are graded by those thinking up policies in glass think tanks. In that respect, is Sepp Blatter so different from Michael Gove?
Nevertheless and despite of the interference of those with their own craven agendas, football and education in their purest forms always remain the same. As with anything dreamt up by human beings, they’re about us trying to make sense of what this whole existence thing is really all about.
Since Dispatches began in 2010 I have repeatedly tried to draw parallels between something as deceptively innocuous as football and the various other factors that define my view of the world. Many might dismiss this ongoing pursuit as a frippery (and they have) but I find I cannot successfully separate football from any other aspect of my life. Nor would I want to. Inevitably, that enduring obsession/affliction bled into my teaching, both in terms of style and content.
For example, football and teaching intertwined perfectly for me when I had to deliver one of those interminable PSHE lessons to a group of disaffected Year 8 boys. The outline of the lesson was to lead a discussion on the importance of teamwork using business-inspired team-building games as the framework. I didn’t do that. I showed Maradona’s second against England in 1986 and immediately got the boys to compare it to Argentina’s twenty-six pass masterpiece twenty years later. I then asked them to tell me all the skills required by every player in each position on a football pitch. After that, I told them the story of Greece’s Euro 2004 (I don’t need much encouragement to do that). Every boy contributed, every boy came out of the lesson engaged and energised. Ofsted would call it “progress”. And the best part? Those same boys kicked a ball about at break, instinctively reducing the game back to its simplicity having just spent an hour getting all philosophical and the like. Some of it forgotten, some of it retained.
I don’t know if I did any good as a teacher. I don’t know if I influenced any lives to a dramatic degree. Those results aren’t tangible in that way for teachers. Well, not for me anyway. I was never much interested in GCSE results. I just wanted them to come way from my lessons having learnt something they didn’t know an hour before and hopefully might remember it in later life. And to have laughed. Always to have laughed.
In the same way, I’m not sure what, if anything, watching and writing about football so often has achieved other than a sense of fuelling personal vanity, challenge and pride. There are people out there writing proper, serious stuff. About wars and housing booms and Chris and Gwyneth. But I do know that in a strange way, football made me a better teacher. I always told my students to do something they really loved, that they enjoyed.
So, with that in mind, I have. We have. In less than three weeks, Nina, Bonnie, Jesse and I will be leaving these shores for a year in Greece. I might grow a moustache. Invest in a swish set of worry beads. I might not. But I am finally, after years of procrastinating, going to write that book. About football. About what it taught me and how that somehow shaped how I taught others. I’m doing something I love. And with that, everything else follows.
Follow Dispatches on Twitter: @Sofalife