Dear 12-year-old Rio,
Keep your head down.
And just keep walking.
The pitch is just on the other side of the path. Only 100 yards away. Not much farther to go. You just have to get through this gypsy camp. People are gonna call out to you. They’re gonna say shit when you walk by. You know what these camps are like. They’re hairy. They’re dangerous. And filled with dogs. I know, you hate dogs.
Just keep your head down and keep walking.
Gavin, your best mate, heard about this park — and more important he heard about the guys that play there.
“They’re meant to be wicked,” Gavin says.
And when you finally get to the hole in the chain link fence, pull back the barbed wire and climb through to get to the pitch at Burgess Park, it is going be worth it, mate.
But you’re not going to get to play right away. You’re going to have to prove yourself. Twenty-five, 30 guys are already there and they’re not interested in having some skinny kids on the field with them. These are big, grown men. So it’s all about who’s the most aggressive, who’s the loudest. And right now, that’s not gonna be you.
But keep going back. Every week, just go. Even if you only sit on the side. Even if you only kick the ball about with Gavin. They just need to notice you once. And one day, they finally will.
“Oi, kid,” one of the guys will call to you. “Wanna play some football?”
And you’re going to play football. And you’re going to play against real men. These are big African guys — Nigerians, Ghanaians — fast, strong guys. And they’re going kick the hell out of you. If you hold onto the ball for too long — bam! — they’ll knock you down without even thinking about it.
Don’t cry. Don’t show emotion. Don’t say anything. You want to go mad, but this isn’t like playing against one of your friends, where you can clap back, “What you doin’?” You’re dealing with big guys and all of their mates, so keep yourself in check.
You’re going to get tackled and you’re going to get pushed to the ground. You’re going to think to yourself, Man, I don’t know if I should be here…
But listen to me, Rio. When this happens, I want you to do two things.
Then, look right back at them and say, “Gimme the ball again.”
Learn and work.
Because those are the moments that are going to make you better. Not your youth league matches, where you’re the quickest and the fastest boy on the pitch. Those are all well and good, but they’re not going to do much for you. They’re just posh, cupcake shit. So after you get home from those matches, don’t even put your kit bag away. Take it, take your shit hand-me-down boots, take Gavin, and get over to Burgess Park.
(But don’t tell Mum where you’re going, because she’ll go fucking ballistic, man. You gotta sneak off.)
Test yourself. Push yourself.
Nothing will feel better than when you walk off one day and hear them say, “Hey, he’s awright him, i’n’t he? He can play.”
Them Sundays, just kicking about, will give you so much satisfaction. I’m telling ya, there’s going to be nothing better than those three hours when you’re out there. Just a skinny boy, proving yourself to these grown men.
Every week is going to be like walking into a lion’s den, man. This is their territory. They created it. They’ve got their music playing, their cars all circled around — old Escorts and shit like that, they’re no bangers or Mercedes.
But I’ll say it again, this is when you’re going to really learn how to be a footballer. You’re gonna work out different parts of the jigsaw. Because you’re not bigger than these guys and you’re not faster than them. These guys are brutes, man, pure brutes. So what are you gonna do?
Well, you’re going to figure it out.
I’ve got to pass then run.
I’ve got to bring him to me, and play or do a bit of a skill.
Just do not hold onto the ball. Or you’ll have 20 African men yelling at you.
“Pass your ball! Pass your ball!”
Fucking hell, man, they’ll go on and on about passing. They’ll even kick some of your friends out for not passing enough.
“You friend is shit,” they’ll tell you. “Why are you bringing that guy for?”
And they’re right. This isn’t the time for playing about with friends. You know that.
You know that this will make you better. It’ll create a steeliness inside of you. Not just on the pitch, but off of it, as well. You’ll know that you have to sacrifice, that you can’t just stay at home with Mum after your league game.
That you have go back out so you can become a proper footballer.
Football is your only way to get out of that place. All the negativity — the gangs, the shootings, the stabbings — all of that kind of shit. It’s a mad area, Peckham. I mean it’s home. Good mates. Good memories. It’ll make you who you are. But it’ll make you want something more. You’ll want better for yourself, for Mum, for Dad, for your little brothers and sisters.
Use football to get them out of there. When you sign your first contract and arrive at West Ham’s academy, know that’s why you’re doing it. You love football, of course. But always remember what it can do for you and your family.
And whatever you do, don’t take too long after school to get to training.
You’ve only got 20 minutes.
Twenty minutes to fuck about with your friends. Twenty minutes to chat to chicks. But after that window, get yourself to the train. And then the bus. And then the tube. And then on another train. And on another bus.
There’s going to be plenty of guys at the academy for West Ham — some better than you, but they won’t have your discipline, they won’t turn up. They’re not going to make it. So for right now, stay driven, stay determined.
Because when you finally make it up to the senior side at West Ham, it’s gonna be fun.
Probably a little too much fun.
London’s a big city, and you’ve got friends there. You’re a professional footballer now, so there’s parties, there’s opening events, there’s anything you could want at your fingertips. It’s like being a kid in a sweet shop.
At 18, boy, you’re going to lose that discipline. You’re going to get into some trouble. You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to be just what you are — or just what people expect you to be — a boy from Peckham.
And it’s going to cost you. Specifically, a spot on the national team at the 2000 Euros. A spot you should’ve easily had. You’ve done all this work, and it’s about to slip away.
I bet you’re expecting me to tell you not to get sucked in, to stay away from all that shit. Well, I’m not. Because here’s the thing, it’s going to help you in the long run. You need that embarrassment. You need your pride knocked down a bit. And when it comes time a few years later and you get a call from Chelsea showing real interest, you need to do something that’s probably going to sound crazy.
You need to get out of London.
And you need to sign with Leeds.
I know. But right now, it’s not about money or trophies. It’s not about clubs and status. It’s about getting out of London. Detaching yourself from it all. Going somewhere where you can just concentrate on being a footballer. Going somewhere that isn’t London.
It’s about truly becoming a professional. And at Leeds, mate, you will.
You’ll always be a London boy, but Leeds is going to be a special place for you. It’s a one-club city. And that’s really going to mean something. It’s a unique responsibility and it’s the only time you’ll experience that. More important, you’ll get your discipline back. In two years time, you will’ve become captain and help take the side to the semi-finals of the Champions League.
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Playing for Leeds will be the best decision you’ll ever make.
And you’ll finally get your spot on a World Cup squad. Something’s going to happen at the 2002 tournament, and honestly, it wouldn’t have happened without Leeds. You’re going to become a leader and you’re going to learn.
How will you know when you’re a leader? You’ll know when you start driving Nicky Butt mental.
“Rio! Fucking shut up, all I can hear is you shouting!”
And that’s when you’ll know.
Yes, I know what I’m doing.
For years, coaches told you that you needed to talk more, that you’re the one who drives the team. At the World Cup, it’s like something dropped and you finally understand. You’ll become confident and you’ll know what your role is out there and the roles around you. Know what a right back does to make your job easier. Know what a midfielder’s job is to make the team more efficient. Game knowledge. Maturity. And you’ll find your voice on the pitch.
“I want you left!”
“Hold the ball up!”
“Oi! Fucking take your chances!”
But you’re going to need to learn another lesson.
You’ve done a pretty good job of keeping your emotions out of your game. That’s something you learned from the guys at Burgess Park. Man, if you could only tell them the effect they had…
But, you’re gonna let that slip as well.
When you line up on the touch line with your England strip on for the quarterfinal against Brazil, you’re going to be bursting with emotion. You’ll look over and see just … pure fucking legends, man. Ronaldo. Rivaldo. Ronaldinho. You’ll look up in the stands and see your mum, your dad, your girlfriend, your friends and family.
And then the national anthem’ll start.
You know that tough, never-cried kid from Peckham?
He’s gonna start welling up and crying right there and then. And it’s gonna do you in. You’ll have no impact on the game whatsoever. Before it even started, you’ll have already took yourself out of it. Out of where you needed to be — focusing on the game.
England will lose, 2-1.
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When you walk off the pitch, you’ll tell yourself something that will change the rest of your career.
From this day, I will never, ever enjoy or get involved in the emotions of the game.
It’s a tough one, but this realization is perfectly timed. Because a club is gonna come calling after the World Cup that will be the place for this mentality.
And you’re ready for this call. Because after that summer, it’s going to be time for something else. The need to win. That’s what’s going to drive you now. The hunt for hardware.
It’s not going to be about enjoying football. It’s not about having fun anymore. No. This time, enjoy the work. Enjoy the graft. Enjoy the competition.
With Manchester United, you’re gonna win.
Why? Because you’re going to be with players who are just like you’ve learned to be. Players who won’t get caught up in the hype, in the attention, in the drama. Players who will sit in the dressing room, even after a big win and say, “Worked hard, man. Three points. All right, who we got next week? Who’ve they got at center-forward?”
That’s the mentality through and through at Old Trafford. Giggs. Scholes. Beckham. Ronaldo. Rooney.
On to the next.
You’ll have sat across from these United lads at England camps before you joined the club. And you’ll look at them and what they’ve done.
Fuck, man, he’s got medals. And I ain’t got nothing.
You’ll feel like your hunger was made for Old Trafford. Be a sponge and take it all in. On your first day, go into the changing room and look around.
He’s got three Premier League titles.
He’s got four.
He’s got five.
He’s got two.
I need to get to work. Now.
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Look at the guys you’re playing with now. Because they’ll be looking right back at you, expecting you to step up.
During one of your first training sessions with United, the ball will come to you. You’ll play to the right back, who’s about 10, 15 yards to your side. And then you’ll hear Roy Keane.
“What you doin’? This is Manchester United!” he’ll scream back at you. “Take some chances! Pass the ball forward!”
For the next couple weeks, you’ll walk around thinking, What the fuck’s he chattin’ about? He’s fucking crazy….
But that’s the edge. That’s how you win — consistently. By taking chances. Not just the strikers, but the center halves, the center backs, all need to create. So take those risks, put the ball through the lines.
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You’ll know how to work hard. It’ll be just like going up against those guys at Burgess. Except this time, you’re not the skinny boy anymore.
At United, you’re going to learn from the best. And there’s a standard there. You ain’t just going to go there and fanny your way through. If Keane and Giggsy are staying out to train for an extra 20 minutes, then you, with zero medals better be out there for longer. And get out earlier than them. That’s the work ethic at United. And it’s going to pay off.
That first Premier League title though? It’s like Mount Everest, man. It’s going to be a draining, long, hard, fought-out season. The injuries, the travelling.
But that’s why you came to Man United. And as soon as it happens, you and the lads are already looking for the next one.
When you win the League Cup, the whole stadium will go mental. You’ll get back to the dressing room and with the mood in there, you’d think you just drew a game in the Premier League. The fucking loneliest person in the room will be the trophy. Just sitting in the corner. No one taking pictures of it or nothing. You’re all just quiet and going on like it was a normal game.
Some other guys will come through the club and think it’s strange. But this is what will make you lads successful. Not the fucking parades that everyone’s throwing nowadays. Parades? Parades?
You’re not playing for fucking a parade, man.
You’re not playing for newspapers to write about how great you are.
You’re playing for trophies.
So play for the big one. Champions League. I’ll admit it, there’s going to come a point when even you think this one just ain’t going to happen. Getting knocked out at the semi-finals with Leeds and then again with Man United — Maybe, this ain’t meant to be, you’ll think.
But here’s the thing, that 2008 squad will be unstoppable. Mentally. Physically. Rooney, Tevez, Ronaldo up front. Scholes, Carrick, in the midfield. Vidić on our backline. Van der Sar as goalkeeper. You’ll know how to pick and choose your punches against the top teams. It’ll be an all-out blitz against the mid to lower clubs.
And all you have to do is give the boys a chance to score. Be the foundation for them. Be the captain you’ve worked hard to become.
You’ll know how to beat Barcelona. You’ll know how to beat Chelsea. You’ll know how to win.
And you will, mate. You’ll win the Champions League.
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After the match, you’ll be on the bottom of the stairs and Sir Bobby Charlton will come up to you. Legend.
“Not many have done this,” he’ll tell you. “You’re only the third captain to lift this trophy here. What an achievement. Make sure the lads understand that. And go back out and do it again.”
Right afterwards, when you get to the changing room, you’ll go up to the manager.
“Who we buying? Who we buying next year? We gotta get somebody. We need some players, we need to make sure we keep going now. We can win this again next year.”
“Rio, for fuck’s sake, enjoy the party, man.”
“I can enjoy it when you tell me that we’re gonna get more players, please.”
This why you came to United. It’s been all about trophies. No emotion. Just winning.
But, Rio, he’s right.
So give yourself this one moment. This one release. Let the enormity of it hit you. Just for a few seconds. The best in Europe.
And of all the matches you’ll go on to play, if there’s one thing you can do, just one thing you can change, tell the gaffer to play Rooney and Ronaldo at the FA Cup semi-final against Everton. There’s a semi-final or something coming up and he wants to make sure everyone is rested. So he’s shuffling the squad to keep people fit. I get it.
But I know, I know if they played, there would’ve been another cup at Old Trafford. So say that to the manager. The FA Cup — it’ll be the one trophy that eludes you in your career. And looking back, this would’ve been your best opportunity to get it.
So tell him. Tell him to put them in or it’ll fucking piss you off forever.
Success, mate, it’s all you’ll care about when it comes to your career.
Eventually, you’ll soak it up. You’ll have the chance to look around and think, This is daft, how did this all happen?
You’ll be happy, and you’ll be ready to finish. You’re just a kid now, it seems like it’ll never happen, but at some point, your body is just going to break down.
Listen to it.
Don’t embarrass yourself. When you walk off a pitch, not getting a single touch of a ball, know it’s time to stop clinging on. Young lads will start turning and trying to face you up. Little fucking shits, man.
Five, six years ago you would’ve not even looked at me.
You would’ve given that ball to someone else.
You actually wouldn’t even play on my side of the pitch.
Rio, man, this is the time. There are going to be other offers — offers to play in the States. You’ll think maybe you can get that feeling of winning back just one more time. Maybe if you push yourself hard enough. Maybe if you go back to United, you reckon….
Don’t reckon. Walk away.
Do you want a lasting memory to be fucking chasing a fucking 18-year-old up the pitch? No way, man. You need to leave it. Do it for yourself, do it for the young lads coming up. It’s their turn now.
But before you do, do one thing for me. After your very last match, just stay in the dressing room for a little bit longer. Because that’s what you’re going to miss the most. Sitting in there with the lads, after the satisfaction of a win and asking, “Who’s next?” That’s the moment — the feeling — you’ll want back more than anything.
Sit there and think about it all, because it’s fucking mental. We’re from Peckham, man, all this ain’t meant to happen.
But it does. You done well.
But for right right now, just keep your head down and keep walking.