It was a July day in 1990 at the end of the Runcie era. I was emerging from the comforting cocoon of that early morning horizontal meditation that always precedes breakfast and the rigorous exertions of Prayer Book matins when my gradually clearing aural perceptions picked up the lilting thud of badly emphasised BBC Radio 4 “inglish”.
“….. the new Archbishop of Canterbury comes from a working class background …. experience of life in the East End of London …. married with children….. has been a parish priest…….scarcely been in the present job two years…..strong interest in Catholic and Orthodox churches…. believes the Bible is authoritative …. strong moral teaching …. calls a spade a spade …..” There must be a fine point between breath bating and chronic asphyxiation which I was rapidly passing. Surely the Prime Minister hadn’t got my father’s letter? And then the clincher….”and has been a lifelong supporter of Arsenal Football Club.”
My curriculum vitae to the letter!
Apparently Ma Thatcher had got the letter – liked the common touch and the hang ‘?em and flog ‘em Christianity portrayed therein and gave instructions to wheel in the said item PDQ. The Commissioner had left the letter on the desk and gone out to discover the only other Arsenal supporter in the C of E.
The rest is history.
In over 30 years at Highbury, I cannot ever remember bumping into Archbishop George on our way to the half time ritual of burger and Bovril or of standing shoulder to shoulder, prayer scarves held aloft, and singing a variety of praise songs and cursing psalms – which strangely do not appear in Songs of Fellowship – but we both probably looked a lot different then.
All this came washing back through my mind at a recent meeting of the Editorial Board of New Directions. One of the more spiritual members was seeking inspiration for articles on fundamentals upon which all Anglicans could agree. “To take an extreme example,” he said, gesturing in my direction, “there must be things that you and George Carey can still agree on”.
I found this rather an insensitive remark about two essentially moderate characters but it got me thinking.
Behind our superficial differences over things like how many tambourines you need for Benediction and whether Basilica or Rosa Mystica incense is better for disguising the gagging wafts of after shave from more flamboyant clergy at concelebrations, there is a deep and unifying faith, the common religion of English men. Association Football.
I decided there and then to pursue this ecumenical thought to its logical conclusion and interview an Arsenal footballer. I whizzed off a letter to John Boyers (formerly Chaplain of Watford – now national chief Godbotherer in soccer based at Manchester United) asking him to suggest an Arsenal player for interview.
His reply was brief and offensive! “No Christians at Arsenal. Try Chelsea!”?
So it was that on a perishing early March morning I found myself near Heathrow at “?The Blues” training ground. Against a backdrop of ascending jumbos and airport hotels a few spectators froze in a wind that would have seriously inconvenienced a brass monkey and made me wonder if this was what scripture had in mind about “becoming a eunuch for the kingdom of Heaven’s sake.”?
Here, a matter of feet away, an autograph hunters paradise, some of the giants of the English game, Hughes, Hoddle, Gullit and my target man, who, in a remarkable season, has put himself on the verge of an England team place by putting the ball in the net with the regularity of a basketball player, Gavin Peacock.
Beside Hoddle, Peacock looks almost tiny and fragile yet there is a paradoxical intensity and delicacy about his game which make him hard to read and surprisingly tough to shake off the ball. Having said that, like all great players, he does not dwell on the ball. I noticed that in one eight pass move he was involved four times – total time on the ball less than two seconds! And after a long morning it was he and Hoddle who stayed to do an extra twenty minutes shooting practice.
Later, in the canteen, as Peacock packed away his lunch of pasta, salad, two bananas and an apple I asked him:
Where did you begin?
“I was born twenty eight years ago at Welling in Kent. My dad played for Charlton Athletic and my mum was a secretary until she became a mum. I’ve got a sister, she’s 26 and just got married.”
When did you know what you wanted to be?
“From my earliest days. The first films of me were dribbling round bricks that Dad laid out in the back garden. Then he would pile up cans for me to shoot at. Of course, like any kid, I loved the sound of them crashing over, but it was just fun, I was never forced. I learnt from the beginning, quite naturally, to be a two-footed player.”
Did this mean that you didn’t bother at school?
“No. I did well at school and got ten “O”levels and when I joined Queens Park Rangers, I did English “A” level in a year at evening classes. Dad instilled the need for education into me.”
Who were your great influences?
“I used to watch tapes of Pele, Robson and Keegan but my great influence was my Dad. I’ve always looked up to him as a man.”
Was there any particular time that your game took off?
“Yes. When Dad stopped playing we moved to Florida for two years, I was 12, while he coached the Tampa Bay Rowdies.” (This was just after Rodney Marsh and the exciting beginnings of soccer Stateside).
I had been playing at County level at home but I suddenly found myself in a whole new arena where my skills and confidence really improved.”
How did you come to faith?
“My Mum started going to church when I was 18 and told me that she had become a Christian. I was surprised because I thought she was and I was. We believed in God and Jesus as Lord though we were not churchgoers. She said she had made a commitment and asked Jesus into her life.
I noticed straightaway that she seemed happier and more at ease. She was a heavy smoker and always failed to give it up. She prayed and God took away the desire. So I decided to go along and see. It wasn’t at all like I expected. It wasn’t boring, there were other young people there and at the fellowship group at the minister’s house people talked about Jesus as if they knew Him personally as a friend. To me God had always been “up there” somewhere but now He was in the room with us.
After two or three weeks I decided to say the prayer and make the commitment. There were no flashing lights but a growing realisation of his presence in my life. There’s a real sense of peace and the knowledge that my life is completely in his hands.”
How did you meet your wife?
“Well I decided to take another “A” Level. I really wanted to do science but you had to arrange your own practicals, which was impossible, so I took History. I didn’t like it, got glandular fever and failed the exam. So I decided to retake it the following year and Amanda was on the course. We became friends and found we could talk about everything together so I invited her to Barnhurst Methodists with me on Sunday. She couldn’t believe a footballer could be a Christian!”?
(This reminded me of Private Eye headlines when the first professional footballer “?came out” as a Christian “You cannot be a clogger and a Christian!”)
When did you know this was it?
“Not for quite a while. Amanda says now she knew the moment we met. But I did write in my diary, “could get quite close to Amanda”!
Incidentally I never did get History as the exam clashed with an England Under 19 call up – but I did get a wonderful wife.”
(Ten years on the man who signed young Peacock for Q.P.R. is England Manager Terry Venables and the media is hot on his case for the in-form Chelsea player to be selected.)
What about England?
“I’ve been in a couple of training squads and I hope I am in the Manager’s thoughts. But I just have to get on with my job here. I’m scoring goals, I’m hungry to score more and I want to win something with Chelsea.”
What happened after QPR?
“After three and a half years they offered me another three year contract but I wasn’t getting regular first team football or in the right position. So I joined my Dad at Gillingham for eighteen months to develop as attacking central midfielder.”
(This shows an unusual confidence and long term view in a young player. Peacock volunteered to drop two divisions and effectively take himself out of national reckoning in order to pursue his conviction about his positional speciality. It was an extraordinary gamble.)
“Then I went to Harry Redknapp (the old Hammer) at Bournemouth, got engaged and married six weeks into the season. Blackburn at home, stag night that evening, married on Sunday and into training from the hotel on Monday morning with the cans still on the car.”
” While we were at Bournemouth, Tony and Jill Roake invited us round.” (Tony is a keen amateur footballer and Vicar of St Andrew’s, Bournemouth.) “They’ve become two of our best friends in the world and spiritually we’ve gained so much under Tony’s guidance – he’s a real man of God.”
(Those who know Roake would warmly assent to that, so I refrain from mentioning that it is the same candidate for canonization who, while demonstrating, for the benefit of my younger son, a particularly subtle form of professional foul, nearly propelled me under a bus on the corner of Lambeth Bridge!)
“Sadly Bournemouth were relegated and I went on the transfer list. Jim Smith, who’d had me at Q.P.R., came to take me to Newcastle. Just that week my Dad had moaned about the drive from Bournemouth to Kent and said – “It could be worse – it could be Newcastle!” Actually that’s where my Dad’s folks came from and we had three really good years there and won the Championship and promotion. Ardiles and Keegan were there then.
In the last year Jake was born, our first. He had no right hand and it was a great shock and emotional time. We wanted to be near family. Kevin said he didn’t want to lose me but he wouldn’t outprice the market. Glenn Hoddle, who had asked for me at Swindon the year before, was now manager of Chelsea and I’ve now been here three years.”
(Jake is now 3 and happily playing football in the garden. The next baby is due in May as well. Amanda, says Peacock with a grin, plans an out of season birth so he can help with the night shift.)
How do the other players react to your faith?
“A little mickey taking but no more than about anything else. They respect sincerity and they notice if you do what you say you believe. At every club there have been lads who’ve come and asked me more about the faith.”
(Peacock is very involved in Christians in Sport and a group of players meet regularly at his home.)
What about bad language?
” I don’t use it off the field and I try very hard on the field but it’s a very emotional game and I don’t always succeed.”
(Actually I was amazed in watching an hours intense training how little there was. Far less than at an average boys’ Sunday League game. There was one exception when the goalie, claiming a non existent hand ball, stopped playing and conceded a goal. He was advised of his considerable limitations and lack of foresight by a burst of industrial language from the coach.)
“If the lads blaspheme, I just quietly say ‘Why bring the Lord into it?’ ”?
And racism in football?
(Five of the squad I’ve been watching are black).
“Completely unacceptable and my feeling is that it’s in retreat. You don’t hear anything like as much of it nowadays. But you really need to ask the black players themselves.”?
(I can remember when it was “common knowledge that nig nogs can’t play football”? and Clyde Best at West Ham was the lonely exception that proved the racist rule. The first time the Hammers fielded four black players, the man next to me shouted, “I’ve come to see football not ****** ing draughts.” Now there’s scarcely a Premier league squad where black players are not major contributors or the outright stars.)
What makes a great player?
“Character is the key. A will to win and some may have a slight edge. But the world class players are just that on and off the field.”
What will you do next – management?
“That’s what Amanda keeps asking me. I’ve never really wanted to manage – too high a stress level. Dad says I’ll change my mind but I keep fancying coaching.”
Where do you worship now?
“St Michael’s, Bexley, Anglican – good mix of old and new hymns, house group. Evangelical but not extravagant. Denomination’s not important to me. When we go to a disco we see everyone dancing in a different way, different expressions – but they’re all dancing to the same tune!”
Do you see any parallels between soccer and church?
“Yes. Everyone is accepted – anyone can come. It’s a natural game and it’s absolutely natural to want to know God. People bring their energy, their passion and their commitment to it. There are those who give both a bad name but there’s a tremendous sense of togetherness, excitement and common cause.”
What has God done for you?
“So many things. He’s given me a confidence and direction – a peace at the centre of my life. Football is a precarious career, and you need a complete reliance on Him and a knowledge that everything is in his hands.”
We end with a good discussion on Chelsea’s prospects. I remember the Osgood, Hutchinson, Webb and “Chopper” Harris years and skinhead gangs who made Chelsea less like a football club than a conspiracy to commit violence. Now, even as a hardened Arsenal fan I have to admit that Hoddle has put together a real continental side with some of the most exciting players in the League. They have every chance of winning something this year and, if they do, I shall be, as they say, “sick as a parrot” – but secretly pleased for Gavin Peacock.
Robbie Low is the Vicar of St Peter’s, Bushey Heath in the diocese of St Alban’s