Why Richard Lee's Graduation should be one of 2012's must-read football books
After departing Watford eighteen months ago, Brentford goalkeeper Richard Lee has written a fascinating account of his first season at Griffin Park that may – and indeed should – become one of 2012’s must-read football books. Here’s why.
There has arguably never been a more intense focus within the media on the mental strain suffered by professional sportsmen. The debate continues over the levels of support available within sports, particularly football, for those who seek help with depression and mental health issues. Various publications and programmes have furthered the current agenda in recent weeks, not least the acclaim for Ronald Reng’s ‘A Life Too Short’, his award-winning biography of Robert Enke, and the high-profile nature of Andrew Flintoff’s BBC documentary ‘The Hidden Side of Sport’.
As such, the release of the Brentford goalkeeper Richard Lee’s book ‘Graduation’, an account of the ups and downs involved in his first season at Griffin Park, seems timely. Let’s be clear – this is not a book about depression. Far from it. But Graduation, although a football book, is concerned primarily with the power of the human mind. Lee shows a degree of thoughtfulness and self-awareness that few would traditionally associate with a professional footballer. That’s not to say that footballers don’t all have the same self-doubt that Graduation explores in great detail, just that very few have ever put their experience into words.
And we should be grateful that Lee has. This is a book which can be read on many levels – it is an adequate account of Brentford’s season by one of their own players, although this does not do it justice; it is also a reminder that football is far more complicated than some supporters realise; lastly, it is an insight into life as a goalkeeper, a role often portrayed in the book as that of an outsider. This perspective of the game, with accounts of individual matches kept brief and the key details very different to those of a straightforward autobiography, makes it an accessible read which could be enjoyed by those without any affection for football.
While Lee, like all footballers, is keen to emphasise that he feels lucky to play the game for a living, he is not afraid to admit that he has not always been fully in love with it. This is what makes Graduation special. For some, it is not just a case of going out to play; for some, it can be a struggle. One description of the relationship between players and supporters is particularly revealing. “I know that all external pressure and expectation is irrelevant”, says Lee. “But then the thought of all those fans who pay their hard earned money to come watch us play creeps into my head. I’ve felt guilty before. I don’t want to let them down. I like to be liked. Most of us do.”
Whether the “us” in this instance refers to people or specifically to footballers is not clear. As with much of the book though, it shows how important empathy between players and supporters can be. It’s a two-way thing. The importance of Lee’s early battle to establish himself at Brentford following his move from his long-term home of Watford is at odds with the seeming irrelevance, in the grand scheme, of a goalkeeper being dropped due to a poor performance.
As you will have guessed by now, this is no ordinary autobiographical account as far as football books go. There are one or two very brief references to “banter”, but don’t expect endless tales of practical jokes. Instead the humour is occasionally dark – the little boy, for example, who doesn’t want Lee’s autograph after he makes a mistake in a pre-season friendly. The language can be playful too. The relief of a ball striking a goalpost rather than rolling into the net is a particular highlight: “Never have I loved a cylindrical metal object so passionately.”
There are few villains. The former Brentford manager Andy Scott does not fare well, coming across as a flawed motivator and tactician. Nor does Piers Morgan (“To this day I can’t figure out what he contributes”) after Lee reads a criticism he makes of a fellow goalkeeper – there is common ground with plenty of football supporters there. Pundits also come in for flak, with each point explained and improvement suggested.
Graduation talks of the need for a “why” – to achieve a goal, you must have a reason why. There are numerous reasons why this is a must-read book for football supporters with a hunger to learn more about the game.
Graduation by Richard Lee is out now (Bennion Kearny) – Amazon