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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

The Secret Footballer: how to look at failure

I don't really 'do' sport: I leave that to my wife. But I do skim through the sports pages of the online Guardian, if only to be able to contribute to the conversation about last night's team performances before or after morning prayer.

But there is one column I always read: 'The Secret Footballer'. Here is an absorbing view of top football from the inside. Whoever he is (and wouldn't we love to know?), this anonymous writer is astute, well-informed, intellectually able and (what you wouldn't necessarily expect) emotionally intelligent. He also knows how to write. (We could speculate unkindly that he has an amanuensis, but somehow I doubt that: it feels too authentic and personal to me.)

This man is courageous. He is not afraid to write about homophobia and gay footballers, about incompetent managers, about how sport can be compromised by big money, and about the ethical aspects of the huge salaries top footballers earn. It's the Guardian's gloss on Footballers' Wives.  It is honest, refreshing and sometimes funny. And always eye-opening.

In Saturday's Guardian (12 May 2012), the Secret Footballer writes about relegation. I suggest you read this compelling piece. If relegation feels bad to supporters, how much worse does it feel to players; how much misery and shame they experience, how much failure they feel. It's not just that they have let their supporters down. It's not just the salary and job implications (yes, he is willing to face that too). Worst of all is that they have failed to live up to their team's pride and their own personal aspiration to be the best they can.

There is a lot to think about in this. Success and failure are big themes for all of us, not just for people a the 'top of their game' as we say. It's easy to obsess about both our successes and failures: we can get into a state of mind where they are all that seems to matter.

But Christian faith takes another view. One way of looking at the career of Jesus is to see his life as ending in failure.  Crucifixion is a metaphor we sometimes use when things go wrong: we've been crucified, we say, utterly slaughtered. Yet the disaster and shame of crucifixion proved, and still proves, to be transformative, for Jesus and for us. Through failure, life is changed.  And because of it, we look back on the cross and see it instead as a triumph, however surprising that seems.

I once took part in a whole week's seminar on success and failure. It started with a Bible study that went on for several hours (and involved role-playing).  The story was the episode (Mark 9.14-29) where Jesus is on the mountain being transfigured while at the foot, the disciples are trying to cast out a demon in a young boy.  When Jesus comes down, the lad's father upbraids him for their lack of success.  So Jesus deals with it himself.  'Why could we not cast it out ourselves?' they ask bitterly.  Why have we been relegated?  Why have I failed?  Staying inside that story helped me see failure in new ways, and try to be less hard on myself, more accepting and more forgiving.  Perhaps faith can teach us to fail 'well', with dignity and trust, rather than fail 'badly' in bitterness, self-loathing and despair.

It's important that Christians see the dark side of life through the lens of the cross, whether it's failure, fear or shame, hopelessness or despair. 'Relegation' feels terrible, whenever and however it happens, in football or in ordinary life. When we fail, when we are shamed, we want like the Secret Footballer to run away and hide.

Yet the resurrection gives us another angle on it. Now that all time is Easter time, failure is never the end of the story. Life goes on, with the risen Christ walking alongside us.  In the very weaknesses we hate ourselves for, God's power has a chance to make something new out of us.  That's very good news.

PS I've wondered about offering the Guardian a column called 'The Secret Priest'.  But then you would know who it is....


  1. This is very interesting in terms of ministry isn't it? "Relegation" is the time for rethinking who we are. The crucifixion doesn't just seem to have something to say about failure, but also about the drop in attendance that follows relegation.

  2. On Maundy Thursday I was involved in a charity bagpack at the local supermarket along with other people from church. I had 29 refusals. It was a remarkable experience of rejection on a significant day. In context both comical and uncomfortable. I shall now go and read the relegation piece and think on how things fall away.