Page 8, 15th August 2008

15th August 2008
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Page 8, 15th August 2008 — 'Footballers don't see Christians as macho'
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'Footballers don't see Christians as macho'

The former Chelsea player Gavin Peacock has enrolled at theological college. Patrick West says he is only one of many Christians in the game With Euro 2008 over and a new football season upon us it is the traditional period for players to move clubs and to make ever larger amounts of cash in the process. But for one well-known footballer the move is motivated not by professional aspiration, but by spiritual inspiration.

Gavin Peacock, 40, formerly of Newcastle United and Chelsea, has become a regular pundit on BBC television in recent years, known for his calm and cerebral insights into the beautiful game. But he's now giving it up. Last month he moved to Canada to begin a three-year Masters course in Divinity at the theological college Ambrose Seminary in Calgary. His aim is to become a minister, though he confesses that he is undecided as to which denomination.

Peacock is not the first footballer to have been guided by his faith, or to have discovered it. The death of Glasgow Celtic legend Tommy Burns in May served to remind us so. "Tommy Burns treasured three things in life above all others family, faith and football," said his friend and colleague, Billy Stark, delivering the eulogy at St Mary's of the Assumption Church in Calton. St Mary's, within walking distance of Burns's home and Celtic Park, is where he would go to pray as a boy. a player and a man. He even dedicated his autobiography to Our Blessed Lady. Thus it was unsurprising, although still remarkable, that his requiem Mass was concelebrated by 41 priests, two of them bishops, the principal celebrant being Bishop Joseph Devine of Motherwell. Another noted Catholic, still with us, is the former Manchester United and England World Cup winner Nobby Stiles, who in 1998 helped to lead a protest against a United game kicking off at 3 pm on Good Friday. Manchester United have always been regarded as a Catholic club since the days of Matt Busby. One of the "Busby Babes", Liam "Billy" Whelan, who many believe could have been Ireland's greatest player, was famously devout. On February 6 1958, as Manchester United's aircraft made its second attempt to take off from Munich airport, panic erupted. But Whelan remained cool. touching the arm of the United goalkeeper Harry Gregg, seated next to him, and calmly declaring: "Well, if it happens, I'm ready to go". Gregg survived, Whelan did not.

Gavin Peacock, who has only recently become one of football's most recognisable Christians, presenting Songs of Praise. is, unlike Stiles, Whelan and Burns, a convert to Christianity. And like many footballers who discover their faith, he is not a Catholic. He became a Christian at 18, although he never considered becoming a minister. Only three years ago did he get the call. He said it came "out of the blue really,! just felt a weight of conviction... !just felt: 'I'm going to do this' .He has since been a regular preacher at his local Anglican church, St Michael and All Angels in Wilmington, Keno One would expect that being a Christian footballer would present problems. "People don't see that Christianity is macho," Peacock has remarked. Mainstream Christianity can often be perceived as feminine and even sissy, and this can be the source of mockery in a testosteronefuelled world. But Peacock says that the worst abuse he got was a little teasing in the dressing room but ribbing is, after all, inherent -to the culture of the football dressing room.

Only when players are drawn towards more peripheral manifestations of Christianity do problems arise. The former Wimbledon and Rangers striker Marcus Gayle became a cause for concern for his family after 1997 when he joined the radical group, the UK Church of Christ, to which he would donate half of his earnings. His practice of continually praying and reading the Bible in the dressing room also tested the patience of teammates.

In the late 1990s Nigerian international Taribo West set up his own Christian sect, Shelter in the Storm, and would even miss training sessions to conduct services. Elsewhere, Liberia's George Weah was always an outspoken proselytiser during his playing days, who unsuccessfully tried to convert Chris Sutton to his evangelical church when they were both at Chelsea.

Finding faith can be a hindrance to one's career. For instance, Wolverhampton Wanderers's promising attacking midfielder Peter Knowles prematurely quit the game in 1969 having become a Jehovah's Witness. But it can be a spur, too. Former Glasgow Rangers and Dutch international Bert Konterman credited the Bible with helping him get through his first difficult season at Ibrox. Reflecting the changing denominational make-up of a once traditionally Catholic country, many Brazilian international players openly display their evangelical Protestant convictions. Typical is international Kaka, who after AC Milan's Champions League final victory over Liverpool last year unveiled a vest bearing the words "I belong to Jesus". Other successful Christian footballers at home include Andy Cole and Jermain Defoe. Unlike Kaka, however, they tend to keep their faith more private.

So what makes certain footballers Christians? The answer seems pretty simple: for the same reason other people are. Because they have a genuine faith and conviction, or because they were enculturated from youth to believe so, or because faith can both inspire and reassure in times of trouble. And the thing is, these footballers may need their faith more than they can possibly foresee in times to come.

A player's life when his career has finished can be a notoriously cruel one. A lucky few become managers or television pundits. Most resign themselves to prosaic and dull lives as postmen or pub landlords. And a sizeable few, possessing that lethal combination of boredom, anomie, and vast amounts of cash, succumb to alcohol, gambling or drug addiction, If, as sceptical non-believers say, religion is a crutch, then perhaps footballers need it more than most.

Patrick West is author of Beating Them At Their Own Game: How the Irish Conquered English Soccer (Liberties Press, 2006)




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