It is neither big nor clever but I like to pass my time wondering how many animals have been named after football teams, which players have scored goals with unlikely parts of their body and why “Dundee United” is slang for “idiot” in Nigeria.
I blame Danny Baker. In a largely mis-spent youth I tuned in religiously to his cult phone-in radio shows and devoured such educational videos as Own Goals and Gaffs, Own Goals and Gaffs 2, Best Short Corners and The Glorious Return Of Own Goals And Gaffs.
A few days ago I came across the following question in a national newspaper column devoted to the obsessive musings of saddos like myself: “Which football players have also turned their hands to art?”
This reminded me of a conversation I had with the Leeds-born actor Jonny Magnanti at last week’s triumphant Leeds Lit Fest.
Jonny had just delivered a powerful rendition of Tony Harrison’s poem V, using soundscape echoes of the 1980s to underscore the Bard of Beeston’s magnum opus. At the end of his remarkable performance he left the Carriageworks stage to the strains of the classic Leeds United ditty Marching on Together.
Apart from our awed reverence for all things Harrison – and the Mighty Whites – we bonded over a shared love for one of the few rugby league players to turn his hands to art. Possibly the only one. Although I wouldn’t be surprised if Leeds Rhinos’ renaissance man Jamie Jones-Buchanan – actor, theatre trustee and all-round culture vulture – turned out to be a dab hand with a paint brush.
It is coming up to the two-year anniversary of David Storey’s death. Born in Wakefield, this burly son of a Yorkshire miner studied fine art at the Slade school in London during the week – and at the weekend played rugby league for Leeds RL, as they were then known. This created an ongoing conflict in Storey’s life which he attempted to resolve through groundbreaking novels like This Sporting Life and pioneering plays such as The Changing Room. Both works viewed the oval-ball game as a metaphor for identity, community and belonging.
Jonny told me that when he appeared in The Changing Room, Storey gave him, and all the other actors in the ensemble, a beautifully-drawn portrait of his own character in the play.
The art world has often displayed an unsavoury snobbery towards working-class football and rugby players who spread their wings in this way. I remember a Monty Python sketch about goalkeepers feeling moved to write poetry about the Yangtse river. It was supposed to be hilarious. “Beautiful river,” oozes Leicester’s Peter Shilton. “Full of fish.” Ha ha.
When French striker Eric Cantona signed for Leeds United back in the early 1990s, manager Howard Wilkinson was mocked by some broadsheet scribes for suggesting why they might get on. ‘He reads poetry,” explained Wilko. “He reads philosophy, he paints, he likes fishing.” Howard was, and remains, a down-to-earth Yorkshireman – but he is also a former schoolteacher who has written a Kes-type novel.
I once went to see an exhibition which featured an Andy Warhol painting of Pelé, the world’s greatest ever player. “He gave continuity to my life and my message outside of the football pitch,” said the Brazilian legend.
There are plenty more examples of the fusion of these supposed cultural opposites. Those of us who have a passion for both sport and art used to be seen as an eccentric minority. Perhaps we still are.
But these pursuits are not mutually exclusive. How do the snobs who sneer at poetry-loving goalkeepers explain the sculptings of Real Sociedad stopper Eduardo Chillida, the abstract art of ex-Chelsea number one Petar Barota and the fact that philosopher, writer and existentialist guru Albert Camus played between the sticks for Racing Universitaire d’Alger?
“What I know most surely about morality and the duty of man,” wrote Camus, “I owe to football.” Or, in Storey’s case, to rugby league.