Words by London-based screenwriter Konrad Kay.
Jasper Kain knew it as fact. He didn’t know how he knew. Did he look it up? Was he told? It doesn’t matter. He knew it in his bones: Michael Owen had once scored ninety-nine goals in a season for his local boy’s team. Jasper sat on ninety-eight going into the final game of the season. He had scored thirteen goals in a single game a few weeks before, so what was two more now? Jasper scored once to take him to ninety-nine. He harried and pressed for another. It wouldn’t come. One goal short. All he needed was one more to really be remembered. Ninety-nine was a lot, sure - but it wasn’t enough. Jasper cried in the front seat of his dad’s car.
Soon Jasper’s currency was no longer goals. Jasper was a full back, making hasty peace with the reality that the higher the standard of the game the more likely you are to find yourself tucked into its corners. Someone hung a ball up at the back post and a force seemed to move the air around him before it cleaned him out. Jasper couldn’t even orient himself and a teenage Fabrice Muamba was already wheeling away, arms aloft. Jasper knew his body was growing too quickly. He was in pain from a back injury. He was given the nickname “Running Man.” He thought if he kept moving his body wouldn’t betray him.
“Tactical things are so important, but emotion makes the difference.” This is written on the walls of Liverpool’s training ground, by instruction of Jurgen Klopp. Jasper emails me after our meeting to say: “I think it embodies my approach to life.” As we talk in an empty Vegan cafe over coffees made with milk which isn’t milk, Jasper sits forward in his seat. His answers run into one another, sparking other examples, other affirmations. There’s a zeal to him which I recognise in people who’ve found their calling and been validated by it, an enthusiasm who’s aftertaste is relief. But it’s a shit-cold Friday in January so I fancy asking him how football broke his heart.
“Why didn’t you make it professionally?” He doesn’t pause. He gives the answer of someone who’s considered it at length and said it many times. Someone who hopes a clipped rationalisation of it will dull the pain of relaying it: “One, I grew too quickly. Two, I injured my back playing rugby.”
I don’t doubt the truth, but where’s the emotion? I’m drawn to a statement I’ve heard him make on a YouTube video. He’s addressing a group - kids, employees, benefactors - the wider family of a charity he co-founded and registered officially in 2014, Football Beyond Borders: “We say at FBB that sometimes the truth is not ready to come out. But eventually it will. Expression is always better than suppression.” So, I push him on the evening Gillingham let him go. The evening they said: “you’re not good enough.” (for an adolescent whose whole identity is football, read: “you are not enough). ” Jasper pauses, his eyes change. Then he expresses himself.
Jasper remembers the small darkness of the players lounge. He remembers a faulty light bulb. He remembers names and surnames - Darren Hare and Fred Dillon, who told him that two age groups were merging and they preferred Ryan in the year below. Ryan who played Jasper’s position. Jasper remembers hotly pleading his case. The heat of denial. He was better. He would be better. He remembers his dad’s intransigence. How could they have built him up to lay him so low? How did they have the gall to tell them this news here: a room that looked like a talentless production-designer’s idea of a place where dreams go to die. He remembers thinking of Ryan stepping into his future and usurping it. He remembers the front seat of his dad’s car.
So “Running Man” ran.
Alone on a trail somewhere between Lhasa and Kathmandu, featureless but studded here and there with epiphanies, Jasper thought: “That football thing. I did that. It was part of my life, but now I’m ok.”
When Jasper went to study at SOAS he didn’t take his boots.
“You have twenty-four hours to leave, or we’ll arrest you.”
A group of footballers from England have just played against the youth team of Diyarbekirspor in Turkey. The hosts released doves before they played. The captain thought it odd, maybe just a quirk of the region, but a plainclothes officer has called it a political act. It’s propaganda for the Democratic Socialist Party, and by extension the PKK, a Kurdish far-left military group. The captain didn’t know a creditable draw on an uneven pitch with few spectators could legitimise a recognised terrorist organisation. The team have had their visas rejected from Iran, their next destination. The captain faces his lads in their dormitory and they’re a little spooked, very weary. Home’s not on the agenda for the captain. He’s carried four and half-thousand legitimate pounds back in his socks from a club-night to get them here. He’s falling again for the same girl, but somehow she’s different. He’s not on a production line anymore. There’s no gatekeeper. No destination in sight. It’s no longer about him. The captain lobbies hard against a chorus of “fuck you/this/me” before Jasper Kain’s team follows him into Aleppo.
So, Jasper’s boots are on again. His choice of degree raises eyebrows as he leads his university team into Syria: “When I told them I was studying politics I was met with blank stares.” The word was taboo. Aleppo was still standing and framed portraits of Assad trailed them. They played a team of Iraqi refugees. They couldn’t match them pass for pass, nor story for story, so they all came together to plant a tree. They got twatted five-two by a team of Syrian internationals who played exactly as you’d imagine: low-centre of gravity, everything on the half turn, never a moment to breathe: “like fleas under your armpits. The pitches were really good,” he adds, not meaning to sound elegiac. The sport had previously pinballed him between Kent and London. Now he’d led a team that had played in Jordan during The Arab Spring. “I was reminded constantly of our immense privilege to travel freely, and Britain’s still unbalanced influence over the world.” He’d kicked a ball in Palestine and Ghana, Serbia and Bosnia, in favelas in Brazil. He had seen matches interrupted in refugee camps by IDF raids. But increasingly it was hard to not see himself at the centre of the story again: “Fleeting visits were only really effective in terms of our own self-discovery.”
After his graduation, around the time of the London Riots, Jasper began running a casual drop-in session at a youth centre in Camberwell. “We had basic rules: no weapons, no bikes on the pitch, no swearing, nobody can turn up more than ten minutes late.” Kids started to show from estates in Kennington, Camberwell, Stockwell, Brixton. Once due to Jasper’s commitments at a production company, he missed a week. “Where were you last time?” one of the older boys asked, before eyeing him warily for the rest of the evening. Dionte, a sixteen year old, was hospitalised with an ankle knock. Jasper didn’t have Dionte’s mother’s number. “I was out of my depth, it was like herding cats. There was no framework.”
Jasper’s friend was a history teacher at the Archbishop Lanfranc Academy, a school in Croydon that had recently been placed under special measures by Oftsed. The exclusion rates were too high. Jasper began to run sessions with the students. One boy, Matthew, told Jasper how his family were taking bets on how long it would be until his next exclusion. Jasper remembered his own mother’s MO when it came to incentivising her son: “Homework equals football.” Jasper added another incentive for good behaviour: a trip to Scotland. Mr Bateman drove the mad-house minibus. They stopped at the Lake District. Some of the boys marvelled at the fact that the same chicken they ate with their chips could also lay an egg. On the way home Jordan, an astute, cautious boy who had been in care, asked: “Are you coming back?” Jasper garbled his way through his excuses: maybe, don’t have much money, don’t see my girlfriend. “You’re just like every other adult I’ve ever met. You come into our lives and then you leave. You’re a snake. You’re a traitor.” Jasper’s voice catches: “It was the most accountability I’ve ever felt in my life.”
“Football is a form of escape.” Jasper clarifies this immediately: “It’s not running away.” The rest flows uninterrupted and unhedged: “The escapism is a transformative act. There’s almost a higher self when you play. An out of body experience. You get it when you’re standing on a terrace too. It’s a deep form of connection. Its built the the strongest bonds in my life through a shared purpose and a shared identity.”
In your gut, you know exactly what Jasper means. Still the sentences feel built in air. You respond viscerally to the qualities he mentions but spoken aloud they feel like they have a half-life. Undeterred, Jasper set about harnessing their power.
We think of potential as something innate, but there’s an external part of its definition in the Cambridge Dictionary: “possible when the necessary conditions exist.” The existence of these necessary conditions is what animates Jasper now.
It’s October 2018 and the family of Football Beyond Borders are at their annual “Football for All” Showcase. It’s said the basic rule of youth work is an arm around the shoulder and a kick up the arse. There doesn’t seem to be much, if any, of the latter here. They’re watching Harry, one of the charity's coaches, reading a letter to his younger self. Harry was a chubby, unconfident kid from an estate in Camberwell but as he blinks into the light addressing his twelve year old self, he’s handsome, bearded and self- possessed: “ You will keep coming back to these sessions because the adults are engaging, different to the ones you have in school. The adults here believe in you. They want to help you. You can look up to them. You can trust them.”
Exclusions in state schools are ticking up. Jasper rattles passionately through his diagnosis. A lot of the kids he’s worked with are viewed as inherently problematic. As a shield against this preconception “they build an internal working model where they have to rely on themselves.” They’re funnelled into a prescriptive system where increasingly under-resourced and under-pressure schools are assessed on a kid’s ability to retrieve information in exams. “It’s the opposite of lighting a fire. It shouldn’t be about about managing risks, or the risk they pose, it’s about managing their capabilities.” Football Beyond Borders now operates a program of ‘project based learning’ in forty-four schools a week. Twenty staff work with over five hundred young people from Kent to Bolton, Essex to Manchester. Fifty percent of the work is classroom based, and they stay in the same schools every week for a minimum of two years. “PBL” refocuses education on the student, not the curriculum. The kids have to be creative, they have to pitch. They’re empowered to make something. “We give them a level of accountability beyond a worksheet.” Year on year the scheme is fuelling a marked drop off in incidents of bad behaviour, an improvement in teacher-assessed attitudes to learning and an average school attendance percentage in the mid nineties.
“Look at the sauce!” Marley, a fourteen year old, is bent double as he laughs in the lobby of Nike Town on Oxford Street. He’s styled a mannequin in a Portugal kit to look like a Roadman, shorts slung low, shoulder bag strapped to his chest. Films made by the kids as part of their “City of Nations” project are being beamed from the shop window on Blade Runner scale screens. Clicking through FBB’s Instastory from the day is a mounting scale of energy, kids with the keys to the kingdom. In the melee, a boy stands on the pavement, assessing his own giant face as it stares back at him: ““I’m officially a celebrity now.” Later Cerny, another fourteen year old from Brixton, will sort of become one. A picture of him in his native kit of France will feature on Nike’s official feed. In an attempt to adrenalize their loneliness, a person writes something hateful in the comments below Cerny’s portrait. Cerny replies in a measured way, neither aggressive nor retaliatory: “I’m a mature young person who isn’t going to let ignorance define me.”
Jasper says: “If you don’t start working with kids young, their self-perception can become very engrained.” Another of the coaches, Antar, remembers his two friends getting into a fight over an Oyster card. He had to stop wearing yellow as he was wearing yellow that day and yellow was not a safe colour. Yellow now reminded him of blood. He says to the audience, and to himself: “You will want to focus your energies on the next generation who are just like you.” Jasper says the kids tend to have a very narrow view of definitions of masculinity, so they’re currently doing a project to broaden them. He sends me a Vimeo link of Pedro, a thirteen year old with aw-shucks cheeks reading a letter to his older self. His delivery style is so stop-start cute that it’s downright manipulative: “Pedro, I hope you be that man who respects women and not go for their looks but personality. Personality is what matters. Pedro. I want you to be a wise man, that has rules and can control emotions and negative comments.”
On the 12th September 2013, Daniel Adeyeye was swimming with his friends in Year 4. He told them in the changing rooms that he couldn’t wait to go home and see his new baby sister. At home he was told his mum had died from internal bleeding. Daniel couldn’t enjoy school, got in fights. He tried to overcompensate by being the class joker but his behaviour was viewed as disruptive. He was pulled out of school by his Auntie on the cusp of exclusion. Then he was excluded. He moved to a new school. He was excluded. He was out of school for six months: “Boy oh boy, was I desperate for learning,” Daniel beams: “I even wrote a letter of apology to my school asking them to take me back.” FBB came into his life, and he shed the comedy act. He’s still funny, but he’s not compensating. It would be trite and inappropriate to say FBB filled the mother-shaped hole in his life unless Daniel himself said it. Daniel himself said it. “They’ve showed me I can do anything I want.”
Jasper leaves me. He’s late to meet a head teacher, a community group leader, a footballer, a football agent, someone who’s in policy. Maybe not all at once, but possibly. He rounds everything off by saying: “we need to turn me into we.” You hear this and you maybe think it’s synthetic - an identikit political stump speech conclusion, Anti-Real, Anti-Interesting.
What if it wasn’t a promise? What if he was already doing it?
2015 and Divock Origi has scored in the 95th minute to salvage a draw for Liverpool at home to West Brom. On the whistle, Liverpool’s newly appointed manager Jurgen Klopp sprints onto the pitch. He corrals his team over to the Kop - go and face them. The what-would-Shankly-think brigade will ridicule him. Red-top editorials will fume. Why is this cartoon man with his hugs and smiles celebrating like Liverpool have already achieved something? Why is everything such a fucking joy to him?
He took his players to their supporters.
In the noise, Klopp was doing something very quietly: he was turning me into we.
There’s a line from Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country. A retired lawman is asked by his friend if he doesn’t want more from life. The friend judges the lawman’s days as unremarkable and underpaid. The lawman replies: “All I want is to enter my house justified.”
Jasper is about to cede the floor to a special guest at the “Football for All” Showcase: Ryan from Gillingham. Ryan from fourteen years ago. Ryan who stole his future. Ryan Bertrand with his Southampton armband and his nineteen England Caps. Ryan Bertrand with his FA Cup and European Cup winners medals.
Jasper doesn’t envy him. He will call his dad later and tell him that and really mean it. Jasper’s voice is a swell of nerves, pride, disbelief. He hands the mic over.
Tactical things are so important, but emotion makes the difference.
As he watches on, Jasper looks like a man in his own house, justified.
You can find out more about Football Beyond Borders and donate here