A career spanning such heights as the Orlando Lions, Borehamwood F.C., and a trial at Brentford under Steve Perryman – it’s as much as career as it is the absurdly difficult question a pub quiz machine chucks at you to deny you a £20 win. It’s also goalkeeper Justin Bryant’s meandering journey through the ‘footballing wilderness’, and his description of it is one of the best football autobiographies I’ve ever read.
Bryant is now a novelist, and he can write. It’s such a pleasant change to read a footballing autobiography that was actually written by the player themselves, and especially when it’s someone whose prose has a natural rhythm and flow and a gift for description that quickly elevates this sports book above most others.
But where the book is most interesting is when Bryant describes the struggle to become and stay professional. Like many, he fell in love with football as a child, “flinging [himself] after shots, even in the hot dirt of the Dust Bowl”, saved up to buy gloves, and started to dream of a career in the nascent American football scene. But, as he committed to the dream of a professional career, the focus left him ill-prepared if it didn’t come off: “I flourished in goal; everything else in my life suffered.”
Bryant eventually lost a sports scholarship and was offered the chance to train with the Orlando Lions, who also had Bryant’s childhood hero Winston DuBose on their books. DuBose, who had also been the goalkeeper for the Tampa Bay Rowdies, was “generous in spirit but stingy with praise”. He told Bryant he needed to be professional to be a professional: “I’m not serious, [DuBose] said. I’m not a goalkeeper; I’m just playing at being a goalkeeper…Winston explained that real goalkeeping, serious goalkeeping, is not about spectacular saves. It’s about positioning, footwork, communication, and distribution.”
Bryant writes very well about the art of goalkeeping and describes moments in the game with verve and precision, and as a goalkeeper myself I particularly enjoyed this aspect of the book, but its real depth is in Bryant’s mental travails as he tries to progress his career. He suffers from panic attacks, often only plays at his best when there’s no pressure, and seems to skirt the fringes of problem drinking more than once. Goalkeeping is both a refuge and a curse:
“But I have overpowering urges to be alone…Sociability is one of the greatest stressors of playing a team sport, especially as a job, where I have to train and play and travel with twenty other people at close quarters, and it goes a long way to explaining why I’m a goalkeeper. We tend to be left alone.”
Alone, but never out of the spotlight, and that, along with the peripatetic efforts to secure contracts, play regularly, and fulfil a dream to be the first professional American to play in the English top-flight, took their toll on Bryant, physically and mentally. There are massive highs, the euphoria of Bryant’s overseas debut for the Lions on tour against St. Mirren, and lows, the isolation of his time with Borehamwood, the financial struggles in Florida, the gnawing stomach pains that come with games.
His time with Borehamwood was a double-edged sword, an opportunity but also a time aboard, in the grim English climate, alone and playing a very different game: “There was open concrete terracing, no more than five feet high, behind each goal…Weeds sprouted from cracks in the concrete…The pitch itself was mostly mud. It was all romantically grim, until the game began, when it turned horrific.” Rather than the careful, possession-based game Bryant was used to in the States, the pace of the English non-league game was “hypersonic” and crunchingly violent and Bryant was relieved to return to the U.S.
Bryant writes movingly of his illness, the somatic symptoms of a mental health issue that ruled his life, causing him to shed weight, feel at once nauseous and exhausted, but he fights against it, using football to combat the anxiety: “Training became my refuge. The competitive spirit, along with the physical joy of goalkeeping, flooded me with endorphins.” But it’s not enough, either to stave off the anxiety or to drive Bryant hard enough to secure his long-dreamed-of professional contract; eventually, back at Borehamwood again, he started to pen a diary and begin the move towards the love that would replace football (in part, at least), writing.
Eventually, after being messed around financially by the Expos and falling out of love with the game, Bryant hangs up his gloves as a player, and moves into coaching and writing. And I, for one, am delighted he did – this book is as honest and moving account of being a professional sportsman as I have read. It reminds me, in that regard, of Tony Cascarino’s Full Time, which is similarly unflinching in its treatment of the difficulties of being a pro footballer. There are also echoes of Ettore Gandini’s story in Paddy Agnew’s Serie A travelogue mash-up Forza Italia, a young man desperate to be a pro who sees the grim reality of a life in football. As Bryant writes, “The world in general, and professional football in particular, has worked out a very efficient system of dishing out reality checks.” Despite this, though, and despite the psychological difficulties and financial pressures and just general bloody toughness of being a pro footballer, Bryant has written an engaging, open autobiography that deserves to read – it’s up there with the very best football books.
Justin lives in North Carolina with his dog Bryce, and is a writer and goalkeeper coach at UNC Wilmington. He’s written about football for sites such as The Set Pieces and In Bed With Maradona, and has had fiction published in literary journals such as Vlak Magazine and The Ampersand Review. Season Of Ash, his first novel, was published in 2004, and he is hard at work on a second. Justin turned 50 in August, and still plays in goal regularly.