I hate Andy Carroll, I love Andy Carroll. He’s the problem, he’s the solution. A thug, a folk hero. A provocation to anger, an emblem of hope.
We are all used to having to negotiate fiendish binaries when it comes to footballers. But surely we should learn how to know the dancer from the dance? Football is after all a highly surface-oriented art form. Founded in the lyrical grace of human interaction with angles and spheres, it doesn’t really communicate anything. As such, why should the off-pitch personae of players matter a jot? Aren’t they just “players” in the Shakespearean, dramatic sense? Aren’t they merely, as the Italian Futurists seemed to think, aestheticized robots, human conduits of speed and furious motion, abstract symbols at the centre of a modernist-formalist exercise in technique?
In a sense, this is what the doyens of the modern game would have you believe. For those with a commercial stake in the sport, the idea of football as an abstract formal entity capable of being transported into any conceivable leisure context is an attractive one. If you are Rupert Murdoch, Roman Abramovich, Malcolm Glazer, or Mike Ashley, football is basically a deracinated PS3 game, and football players exist solely as the expensive avatars of a high-level corporate roulette.
With this paradigm in mind, we can see how the contemporary situation has developed, in which players are sophisticated machines on the pitch and pathological childish psychos off it. If football is no more than aesthetic entertainment, a chemical compound of high-octane superstar skills, celebrity glamour, and a smidgeon of watered-down tribal emotion, to be paid for and ingested at the weekend or after work via satellite TV, then it really doesn’t matter where it’s coming from or who is taking part. If Andy Carroll is god-like for the duration of the 90 minute slot we have paid for, then that is that: the service expectations have been met. Exchange value stands in for any other method of valuation, and Andy Carroll is indeed a god, a hypertrophied superman perfectly inhabiting the role of the crowd-pleasing ingénue.
But football is not yet, despite the concerted efforts of the Glazerites, a wholly consumerized, leisure industry sport. Unlike, say, British pop music, British football still has some level of connection to a grassroots reality, to the places, lived experiences, and communities that have by some wild fluke managed to retain a central, if vastly underrepresented, position even in today’s thoroughly finance-oriented game. For a large percentage of the north-east population, Andy Carroll feels like an integral part of a community identity that extends on to the pitch. He feels like one of us. A good lad. A real-life embodiment of an inchoate spirituality. A representative of something.
So if he inspires and represents the genuine hopes of a group of otherwise marginalized, exploited human beings, isn’t Andy Carroll therefore a very real hero, an on-balance good thing? Shouldn’t we just leave it at that? I think not. It is precisely because he represents something tangible and important that I cannot accept a convenient distinction between the man and the player. Because Andy Carroll is not a computer game character, because he is a real person, playing for a real club, in a real city, I can’t ultimately justify celebrating the heroic footballer Jeckyll by ignoring the existence of the thuggish, lassy-bashing Hyde. In a world in which the heroizing relationship between club and supporters went both ways, and in which salaries and hyperreal celebrity didn’t put up concrete walls between communities and their representatives, we wouldn’t have to deal with these infernal dilemmas. In a better alternate universe, Andy Carroll really would be one of us. Make no mistake, I’m unequivocally glad he’s still scoring for Newcastle. But I’m equally certain that Carroll is part of the problem rather than the solution, and that his on-pitch genius shouldn’t obscure this fact.