Harry and I finished breakfast and headed for the table-tennis table at the far end of the canteen. I have been most discouraged this weekend: "Bij de pakken neerzitten," as we say in The Netherlands. Harry always has good advice: he knows the pressure over under-achievement.
"Twenty-spot a set?" He always wants to play for money.
"Ten", I said, conscious of Gertrude's disapproval of gambling and my increasingly desperate attempts to explain away the shortfall in my wages.
When I first moved to Utrecht from Katwijk, I was astonished to find that players moved in with and had children with their partners before they were married. How ungodly, I thought at the time. My father would always counsel me during those moments of doubt. Now look at me: throwing money away on table-tennis games that I stood no chance of winning.
"I'd get better odds of me scoring a hat-trick tomorrow," I protested. Someone standing by the toaster sniggered.
I have grown to love table tennis, although I'm not very good at it. Harry uses me as his whipping boy when he's got a big match looming against ‘Ginge’. He says it gets his confidence up and it's one of the few games he can play without injuring himself.
"I can't understand the gaffer," I said. "How am I expected to score if he only plays one striker?"
"You have to look at it positively. If you aren't playing and missing sitters, then no one can question your ability," he explained. "Your games to goals ratio doesn't suffer and you can use all kind of excuses about only being used as a substitute and being played in the wrong position to cover the cracks...
...or as many of them as possible," he said with a wink.
"I've been dodging bullets like that all season!" I said, completely losing control of the bat and almost taking Yossi and his tea right out of commission.
"The less you're exposed the better," he continued. "I've been really impressed with the way you've ducked the criticism. It's only in the last few weeks you've drawn attention to yourself by scoring two goals. If you can avoid playing any significant part in a game, then you keep yourself out of the papers. Just look like you're working hard and release the odd press statement about your level of fitness. And keep up the applauding: that was a stroke of genius."
"And don't give the ball away too much. The fans hate it"
The ball flew past me, bounced off Carra's head and rolled under the vending machine. It's the second time in as many weeks he's thrown me that look.
Crouchie's the only one who can get the ball back when it goes under the vending machine and he was talking to the gaffer. We gave up on the game and made our way out to the pitches.
"I am starting to understand how Crouchie must have felt for so long," I whispered, nodding in his direction.
"Yeah, if there's one thing worse than cocking it up completely on the pitch, it’s having to sit on the sidelines watching someone else cock it up and knowing you could do it ten times better."
I hope he wasn't referring to me there. That wasn't really what I meant. Talk about kicking a man when he's down.
"At least he has a song though,” I sighed. "Did you hear Fernando's new song at the weekend?"
"Don't worry about the songs. Some of the best players are often the ones that get ignored. Michael Owen never really had a song and he scored hundreds of goals."
If he scored "hundreds" what chance do I have, I thought. By way of making me feel better Harry told me a story about Gary Neville:
Gary Neville, apparently, has always had a thing about being under-appreciated. One weekend he played an absolute blinder. After the game he was the first one out of the ground and rushed into Manchester to pick up a copy of the Evening News. Stopping at the first vendor he found, he grabbed a newspaper and went straight to the pink sports pages. Looking down the match review Neville suddenly ripped up the paper, threw it down and marched back to his car. "What’s the problem with you?" shouted the vendor. "It doesn't matter how well I play," Neville yelled back, "They always give me a f*cking 6."
For all the Liverpool fans dislike Gary Neville, I kind of got Harry's point. He might be an object of national ridicule; awkward-looking and never really achieving anything of noticeable significance on the pitch; but to the United fans who really know, he is a legend.
Tot de volgende keer