Thursday, 24 February 2011

Charlie Oatway: Tackling Life

A friend of mine who used to play alongside side him once told me he had "never met anyone quite like Charlie Oatway".

The tough-tackling former Brighton midfield general has been a popular figure with fans at each of his five professional clubs - with supporters won over by his determination and commitment.

But it his colourful off the pitch persona which is the main subject of recent book Charlie Oatway: Tackling Life (available now for £1.99).

Born Anthony Philip David Terry Frank Donald Stanley Gerry Gordon Stephen James Oatway after the 1973 Queens Park Rangers team, Charlie - so called because a relative said he "looked like a proper Charlie," - almost missed out on a career as a professional football after being sent to prison weeks after signing for Cardiff City.

In his book, Oatway explains how he got into trouble defending a friend (and at the time QPR player) from racial abuse in a Shepherds Bush bar. A fight ensued and Oatway found himself up before the beak expected a wrap on the knuckles. He chirpily tells his manager he will be back in Wales in time for the next day's training - only to be sent down after his friend swerved court and robbed him of his main witness.

For Oatway, who readily admits his family has a less than squeaky-clean past, a spell inside could have been seen almost as a rights of passage. But what shines through in Tackling Life is not only the instant, stomach-turning realisation that his career had been put on the line, but also the naivety of initially assuming it wouldn't be.

Apparently spared the more hard-hitting aspects of prison life, Oatway's account of life inside is enough to show that although his brush with the law was enough to provide him with his wake-up moment, jail is not quite the deterrent to others.

And that includes members of his own family. Oatway is as honest on the page as he was on the pitch, refusing to shy away from his relatives' criminal tendencies. This includes a lamenting reference to one of Oatway's cousins, currently serving time at her majesty's pleasure over gang-related violence. You get a real sense of Oatway's desire to help lead others away from criminal life, but also the tangible frustration and regret that he has, in this instance, failed to do so.

A chapter on his work with the Brighton and Hove Albion community scheme is uplifting - showing not only the void in which ex-footballers find themselves after retirement, but also the way Oatway himself is determined to use his own experiences and football to help improve the lives of others. Even the hardest of football hard-men it seems, can have a heart of gold.

For anyone who knows a lot about Oatway - which I would presume would be most people attracted to this book - there is a frustrating lack of detail. One question which remains unanswered is whether or not, as rumour has it, Cheeky Charlie was involved in the teen gang which smashed up the Blue Peter garden. Which is a shame, not least because it would have elevated the uncompromising coach to yet further heights of legend. It might have been nice to also find out whether he did ever have a training ground tear-up with little Leon Knight.

Coming in at around the 150-page mark, Tackling Life is short and does not go into much detail outside the 'Charlie was born, Charlie had a tough upbringing, Charlie went to prison, Charlie fulfilled his football dream' main theme. More anecdotes from his time at each club would have been welcome, not least the 101 stories my friend maintains show the Real Charlie - a player who after all is as popular with fellow players as he is fans and celebrated for his positive impact on morale.

But, as someone who has struggled with reading and writing - and who talks about those struggles with frankness and honesty - it is perhaps fitting that his story is told, albeit briefly, in the Quick Reads range, designed as they are to encourage people who would not normally do so to pick up a book.

Short? Definitely. Frustrating? At times. But Tackling Life is a well thought-out snapshot of the less glamorous side of professional football and Oatway is a shining example of what can be achieved - both on the pitch and off it - with hard work and dedication.

No comments:

Post a Comment