The Monday Profile: Clarke Carlisle
“It really bugs me“, an exasperated Paul Calf once exclaimed. “They say, ‘Oh, David Beckham – he’s not very clever.’ Yeah. They don’t say, ‘Stephen Hawking — he’s a bit shit at football.’” Many a true word is spoken in jest, and Steve Coogan’s mulleted Man City fan may have been onto something.
While adored and idolised for their abilities on the pitch and for their “intelligence” in terms of passing, positioning and anticipation, footballers are routinely pilloried by the general public for their intellectual deficiencies. Most of us are probably guilty of doing so at some time or another, but the evidence is so ubiquitous and so compelling: the mindless off-field behaviour; the meaningless post-match platitudes, a patchwork of cliches strung together with chronically crippled grammar; and now the explosion of social media sites like Twitter that give us unmediated access to their thoughts. Our smug sense of superiority is hardly justified – just dip into most online messageboards or listen to talkSPORT and you’ll start to realise that it’s widely a case of pots calling kettles black.
What’s more (and something that would be less likely to bug Coogan’s cultural philistine), we’re paradoxically also quick to poke fun at footballers for harbouring any pretensions to intelligence or intellectual pursuits. Recovering alcoholic Tony Adams’ attempt to rebrand himself as a “Renaissance man” interested in poetry and philosophy was met with much scoffing. Even a player like Eric Cantona, who had the media in awe of his talents, found himself mocked as a “cod philosopher king” (arf) for that famous pronouncement about seagulls and trawlers.
Not that players themselves are necessarily any better. As Graeme Le Saux discovered, club and international team-mates like Andy Townsend and Robbie Fowler viewed his choice of newspaper – a left-leaning broadsheet, the Guardian – with a sneering suspicion that manifested itself as blatant homophobic abuse. Intelligence, it seems, is something to be ashamed of; ignorance, by contrast, a badge to be worn with pride.
Which brings me to Clarke Carlisle, a footballer exceptional both for his intellect and for not sheepishly hiding it under a bushel.
Unlike Steve Harper, Shaka Hislop, Steve Coppell, Barry Horne, Cambridge graduate Steve Palmer and a handful of others, the Burnley centre-back doesn’t have a degree (at least not yet), but he can boast ten A-grade GSCEs and a couple of A-levels and in 2002 was crowned “Britain’s Brainiest Footballer” on national television. Of course, the temptation is to echo the uncharitable sentiments of the BBC’s reporter – “Even more amazing [than the result] was that the makers of the TV programme actually managed to find 12 players to take part” – and suggest that this accolade is akin to being named Britain’s Tallest Midget. But then that would be to stoop perilously close to Andy Townsend’s level, and no one should debase themselves that much.
At the time of winning the award, Carlisle was a 22-year-old plying his trade for QPR – but he was destined to follow in fellow central defender Tony Adams’ footsteps. A descent into alcoholism reached its nadir in September the following year, when he was forced to confront his demons with a spell at Adams’ Sporting Chance clinic. Remarkably, after the best part of two months recovering on the sidelines, he returned to the Hoops’ first team to claim the Division Two Player of the Month award for November and his own renaissance took off from there.
Subsequent transfer deals took Carlisle to Leeds, then to Watford and then back to the North-West (where he started his career with Blackpool). It was in February 2010 as a Premier League player with Burnley that he finally achieved a long-standing personal ambition of appearing on Countdown, having flunked auditions nearly ten years previously. Jeff Stelling’s presence in the presenter’s chair must have come as some comfort and inspiration, and he romped to a brace of victories before succumbing to a three-point deficit on the third day – the equivalent of losing to an injury-time winner.
Presumably it was Carlisle’s unabashed intellectualism, his A-level in Politics and his aptitude for public speaking (both as an occasional Sky and Match of the Day 2 pundit and as the new Chairman of the PFA, replacing new Charlton manager Chris Powell in November 2010) that led producers to issue a call-up when Question Time came to Burnley last week. Beforehand he claimed he’d be representing the layperson’s viewpoint, and in many ways his performance was characteristic: if not exceptional, it was at least solid and far from embarrassing.
OK, so Carlisle whipped out a rather facile footballing analogy about teamwork in response to the very first question (about the departure and replacement of Alan Johnson), but he was never in danger of claiming to be “as sick as a parrot” at the local government spending cuts. His best moment, arguably, was a hefty challenge on the oleaginous Alastair Campbell (a man who usually cheers him on from the stands) over the rationale behind the invasion of Iraq – although this was subsequently eclipsed when George Galloway went in on Campbell fists flying and the pair slugged it out like Billy Bremner and Kevin Keegan. In an amusing parallel of the pre-election debates between Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, the panellists were falling over themselves to identify with the footballer and curry favour with the partisan home crowd, “I agree with Clarke” and “Clarke makes a very good point” repeated mantra-like.
In truth, though, Carlisle did get rather sidelined as the programme wore on (probably by virtue of being calmly unantagonistic), and scored a couple of own goals by first endorsing the devolution of administrative powers to GPs and then suggesting the Education Maintenance Allowance should be more stringently means-tested. Not only did this lead to Environment Minister Caroline Spelman patronising him as her lapdog – “Clarke argued very cogently…” (and this after he’d set out by describing the coalition government in broadly critical terms); it was also out of sync with the majority view of the audience as well as of the panel.
After Carlisle’s flirtation with the political class, it was back to the day job against relegation-threatened Scunthorpe on Saturday. While his side were held to a slightly disappointing 0-0 draw, he fared worse, having to retire injured at half-time. With any luck the likeable Lib Dem voter will be back before long to help new gaffer Eddie Howe in his bid to push the Clarets up into the play-off positions – but, however long his lay-off, you can be fairly sure he’ll spend more time with his head in broadsheets and books than watching The Only Way is Essex.