Posh football players & church in deprived communities

The Sunday Times (paywall) carried a really interesting piece on the Leeds United football player Patrick Bamford. The articles was titled, ‘A posh boy too soft for the top flight? Critics were wrong about Patrick Bamford.’ It is an absolutely fascinating read.

The article opens up this way:

In November 2015, I interviewed a 22-year-old Chelsea loan player: Patrick Bamford. I found him incredibly likeable but the encounter did not assuage doubts being voiced about him within the game.

The word was that Patrick — public schoolboy, straight-A student, property director’s son — was too soft for top-end football. Alan Pardew, his manager at Crystal Palace, his latest loan club, had ordered him to “show a bit more fight”. Even the psychologist Chelsea assigned to work with their loanees was saying that he had to find his “dark side”. Learn from Diego Costa, this nice lad was told.

Palace did not work out well. His stint was cut short. Ensuing loans at Norwich City and Burnley were no more successful. There was a story, from his time at Turf Moor, about him being late when the team were meeting up and his reason was that the concierge at his hotel had been slow to bring round his car.

All of this furthered the cosseted gossip and I thought back to a moment in our interview when, talking about grit, Bamford insisted he possessed plenty of it. He gave an example: when he was a kid, he did not want to learn the violin but his dad made him. “And now I am grade seven,” he said with a beaming smile.

The main thrust of the article is a kind of ‘bait and switch’. It begins as above with a ‘look at the posh boy’ bit. But the article goes on to insist that, not only has Bamford proven the doubters wrong, but that he has some qualities that are key if one is to be a top football player.

Those who sneered at his education and apparently soft upbringing, must now recognise that his intelligence is a key facet of his ability to absorb tactical information and execute instructions from his current manager – Marco Bielsa – renowned as an utter obsessive when it comes to stats, data and tactics. Those laughing at his A-level in French are now having to acknowledge that his understanding with Rafinha – a player signed from the French club Rennes – has at least had some part to play. Those who wrote him off as too soft and from the wrong background seem to forget that a constant barrage of being told you aren’t good enough, or not the right fit, can prove to be character building for some.

Interestingly, the article goes on to state:

He probably did need to strive with more focus and play more aggressively too, but he has learnt to and perhaps shown such elements are not as innate as the old football establishment thought. They can be embraced as part of a growing-up process. In October, Bamford gave an interesting interview to Jamie Redknapp in which he said: “It’s the foreign managers who I get on best with.”

Before Bielsa, there was Aitor Karanka, the thoughtful Spaniard who helped Bamford to kick-start his career at Middlesbrough. Foreign coaches, Bamford explained, “either don’t know or it doesn’t even cross their minds to think my background matters. They don’t care. Certain managers dismissed me straight away because they think about my background. The way I look at it is no footballer can become a footballer if he hasn’t worked hard. But the fact someone thinks I’m entitled, that would annoy me. Now I take it with a pinch of salt.”

It is interesting that English managers had a tendency to view Bamford as too soft because of his background whereas foreign managers, who had little knowledge or interest in that question, couldn’t fathom that it would be anything to worry about.

Why am I sharing this? I think we can have this same sort of attitude within the church. For many years, there has been the inverse problem for people from working class backgrounds. Majority middle class culture churches tend to look at the working classes and – rather than considering them ‘too soft’ – decide they are ‘too hard’. These people won’t fit in here. They really aren’t for the church. If they are, they need to change and become more like us. Once they do, only then will we even think about considering them for church office.

But those of us ministering in deprived communities can easily mirror the kind of thing Patrick Bamford faced. People may show an interest in coming to join the work in our church and – rightly or wrongly – we can give the impression that they’re just ‘too soft’ to come. They wouldn’t last 5 minutes. They couldn’t cope with the culture. Basically, if you have long vowels and slightly rosy cheeks, you almost certainly aren’t cut out to come here.

Neither situation is right nor godly. Just as Patrick Bamford showed – despite the slightly mocking undertone to the interview that opened the article – some of the traits that were associated with his background were clearly beneficial. Even, if you can believe it, his violin lessons as a child helped him improve as a football player!

In the church, we (rightly) reckon that contextualisation is important. There will be times that if you do what is normal in a middle class area you might come off as a bit weird in a working class one (and vice versa). But we too quickly dismiss the idea that middle class people coming to areas like ours will have experiences and tendencies that might well prove really helpful. Yes, being a local person from the local estate might well mean you connect with people in ways that an outsider doesn’t (though, frankly, that doesn’t always follow because people know who you are!) But, being somebody entirely different, from somewhere else, with an entirely different background might just help you connect in other ways. What might appear like ‘silver-spoon syndrome’ might just prove to be exceptionally helpful as things you have learnt during your education, experiences you have had, put you in a position to help other people in ways that those from less privileged backgrounds can’t.

This is, ultimately, the beauty of the church of Jesus Christ. It is not for one type of person or another. The hand cannot say to the eye, ‘I have no need of you’. We are all part of the body and we all serve different functions, each seeking to honour Christ using whatever skills and abilities and we have. As God is sovereign, he places us each – with our specific backgrounds and skills – in the churches in which he places us for his glory. If we are in our particular church – whatever background we might be from – the Lord has placed us there, with the specific background he has given us, to work for his glory.

Contextualisation and representation both matter. But let’s not believe, in his sovereignty, the Lord can’t bring people who are totally different to us so that those we aren’t reaching, or don’t connect with so well (or, in different ways to those with whom we do), might display the manifold wisdom of God.