‘Hey, Sutherland,’ yells an unfriendly voice. ‘If you got any last wishes, make ’em now.’
This book wouldn’t exist if a kind family whose son was in the elite youth academy of a Premier League club in London hadn’t smuggled me into the academy training centre one Saturday morning.
Only family members of the young aspiring football stars are allowed in, so I became their Uncle Morris for the day. And what I saw in that magnificent training centre with its multiple manicured soccer pitches, some of them indoors, and its state-of-the-art gyms and pools and accommodation, made me think again about the story I was planning to write.
I started out wanting to write about the dreams and ambitions of young people, the sacrifices they are often asked to make to achieve them, and what happens when those sacrifices include turning your back on friendship and loyalty and fair play.
I’d assumed the youth academy of one of the world’s most glamorous football clubs would be a holy grail for a young Aussie soccer genius with a desire to play with the world’s best. The top of the hill. Because for every young player who gets a spot in a place like that, there are millions of football-crazy kids around the world who don’t get close.
So I was shocked to see on that Saturday morning, as I watched several dozen of the world’s best young footballers playing hard in training matches, that almost none of them had a smile on their face. The atmosphere was serious and grim. I realised why. There was just so much at stake.
Although these lads were the best, only a tiny few would become the best of the best by making it into the first team of this famous club. Each of them knew there weren’t enough places for them all. Having come so far, most of them would miss out at the end. And each of them knew that if they were picked themselves, the friends that some of them had been training with since they were six years old probably wouldn’t. No wonder so much of the joy and excitement and fun was missing.
That day my story took on a darker edge than I’d originally planned. But I didn’t want Extra Time to be a dark book because it’s also about the joy and excitement and fun of playing a sport you love.
Luckily Matt the young Aussie soccer whiz has a couple of family members to watch his back and remind him of what really matters. His younger sister Bridie, who travels to London with him as his manager, at least in her own mind, and brings us this story in her words. And their Uncle Cliff, a top uncle even by international standards, who knows all about joy and excitement and fun partly because he bases his personal style on Keith Richards from The Rolling Stones.