It’s 18 years since the future manager of England and the future manager of Bromley wrote about a friendship forged on the platform of Mitcham station, in the dressing room of the Crystal Palace youth team and around the Bon Bonne nightclub. Gareth Southgate and Andy Woodman’s story is not a new one: young men from different backgrounds come together for a short time in a common cause. But football friendships can be short-lived: it’s a transient but all-consuming profession. The point of Woody and Nord is that Southgate and Woodman continued their deep relationship, as Southgate played in the top flight and for England while Woodman had less obvious success.
Coming afresh to Woody and Nord in the run up to the Euro 2020 final feels a little strange. There’s been so much content content content about what we should learn from Southgate’s leadership, and what it means for a country that’s felt a little lost recently. Every uttering has been parsed deeply, on Twitter and in the comment sections. Everyone wants to claim Southgate for their own.The Guardian like his inclusivity. The Telegraph like that he likes the Queen. Well, OK. But I think that the meaning of it all is far simpler. First, football, like most sports, is great for a reason. Unlike lockdown, or Brexit or the climate emergency, many of the facts are undisputed. England either notched up two goals against Denmark earlier this week or they didn’t. We can discuss the merits or the hows and whys but that bit’s fun. The what itself is not contested. Second, we could all do with some news that is not about death, incompetence or corruption but about excellence and endeavour. Third, lockdown has accentuated what makes this team so likeable. Cheap attacks by politicians whose own business model relies on division have bounced off the players – partly because we’ve seen clear evidence of these young men’s community commitments and also because we haven’t seen the WAG circus that so diverted previous tournaments.
Home against Portsmouth in August 1993, Gareth Southgate scored one of my favourite ever Palace goals. It’s nearly thirty years (of hurt) ago but the memory is still fresh. Like any good football memoir, Woody and Nord will take a fan back in time. Partly because of their shared experiences at Palace there is plenty of material and behind-the-scenes colour. (I slightly re-appraise Alan Smith who became a bit of a bogeyman after his second spell as manager in 2000-2001.) Southgate is often painted as a bit of a goody-two-shoes but there’s enough in here to make him human (and speaking of shoes, a tequila-based anecdote involving Palace chairman Ron Noades’s shoes is pretty relatable). Woodman, by contrast, is at pains to present himself as the rough diamond, overcharging Stan Collymore for a deeply uncool Vauxhall Belmont, scamming free parking at Wembley as the £8 charge is a rip-off. But his journey through Exeter and Northampton and other places to Brentford and beyond while peppered with uncertainty, doubt and fate has much more in common with Southgate’s more lauded career than might at first appear. Both Nord and Woody were in the top 1-2,000 footballers in England, a country in which a million people regularly play. They both tasted relative success and have gone on to train the next generation (before taking up his role at Bromley this summer, Woodman was goalkeeping coach at Palace and subsequently Arsenal). But the real joy about Woody and Nord is that there is no big message, no agenda. We learn that both men work hard to be the best that they can. Perhaps Southgate says more about disliking sloppy thinking, laziness or inauthenticity. And maybe that’s because at the time he wrote the book he might have had more regrets about a career that was exceptional but might have been stellar. But the book, about ‘a football friendship’ is grounded, honest and utterly without guile. Like this England team, it’s a joy to engage with. If we lose today, then re-reading Woody and Nord will have been one of my highlights of Euro 2020.