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Monday, July 1, 2013

Book Review | Small Time: A Life in the Football Wilderness by Justin Bryant

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"I spent all of my time reading books about the World Cup, the great players -- Cruyff, Best, Banks, Eusebio, Beckenbauer -- and the great teams -- Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, River Plate. I learned world geography through soccer, knew exactly where Belgrade, Lisbon, Buenos Aires, and Milan were. I mowed lawns, saved money, and ordered my first real goalkeeper gloves from the Uhlsport catalog. Uhlsport, the brand of gloves worn by all the best pros..."

--- Justin Bryant, "Small Time: A Life in the Football Wilderness", page 10, published by Bennion Kearny Ltd. in 2013 with a list price of $9.99, $7.99 for the Kindle version, and £6.99 in the UK.

I am from the same generation as the author and read this book with great interest. I also grew up in desert of world football: The USA. His story has been experienced by many of us. We became enamored with a "foreign" game, and like most love affairs, it became a blinding passion with little regard to logic. We loved this sport despite the prejudice, lack of acceptance, hostility, xenophobia and a myriad of other reasons why a red-blooded American boy would ever want to play soccer.

Unlike many of us in the "Soccer is just a kick in the grass" generation, Justin Bryant played at a high level for his times. There were few opportunities in those days; however, he made the most of them at a great sacrifice. In this wonderfully written and provocative book, we are taken down a road less-traveled. It was not smoothly paved with a multi-million dollar contract and an experience in the Premiership, Bundesliga, La Liga or Serie A such as the current generation of footballing Americans.

The Harsh Realities for Americans in the 1980s

This book chronicled the harsh realities for an elite American soccer player in the 1980s: If you were good enough to play in college, you then faced a bleak landscape with no top-flight domestic professional league. Your options were limited:

1) You could play in semi-professional leagues, mostly for not more than beer and gas money, if you were lucky.

2) You could scrounge around for pick-up games in rare locales with fellow soccer lovers.

3) You could travel to metropolitan areas with large immigrant communities, convince them that a gringo could play their game and learn enough of their language to say, "Pass me the ball. I'm not from Immigration". Along with more useful phrases to endear you with your new teammates and anger your opponents. That was how I really learned Spanish despite three years of excellent instruction in high school.

4) Very few Americans, like the author, threw themselves into the lion's den abroad. Such an experience was like taking a trip to the moon for an American soccer player of his era. London, England, along with other locales in the U.K., for a goalkeeper from the Orlando Lions, was an exotic, distant destination in the 1980s. Similar to NASA's moon voyages, Justin Bryant liked his first foray into terra incognita enough to repeat it a few times.

Let's see what the author had to say.


There is an introduction and fourteen mostly concise chapters. There is no table of contents or an index. The lack of these two items were the only negative features in this book. I believe that both tools help to orient a reader with a road map and a quick-reference guide.

Novel-like Writing Style

The author's writing style is informative, personal, descriptive and emotive. He is a gifted writer and can describe difficult themes with ease and depth. His novelist skills were evident in large doses. He builds a scene and makes the reader feel a part of it. For example, this dressing room scene with Borehamwood:

"The dressing room was uncomfortably warm. I drank my tea just like a real Non-League player, which I now was. Drabs (his manager, John Drabwell) was not pleased with how we were playing overall, but he beamed at me and said, 'Well done, the keeper. He's picking them like coconuts, isn't he?' This stopped me dead. It was almost a verbatim passage from 'Goalkeepers Are Different', a novel by Brian Glanville that I read at least a dozen times as a schoolboy. I didn't know if Drabs had quoted it intentionally or not. While I considered this, the buzzer sounded, and we were off again." (Page 42)

This description during an international challenge match with the Orlando Lions versus Dunfermline in Scotland recounted the reality of an American team playing abroad:

"Celtic had treated us with polite but amused curiosity, verging on condescension. Dunfermline, by contrast, felt lawless. A few dozen fans mingling outside the ground jeered us aggressively as we walked in... There were a few calls of 'Alright mate?' and 'Good luck, son,' but mostly along the lines of 'You're going to get fucking hammered!' " (Page 72)

Honesty and Candor

The author's honesty and candor struck me early on in this book. For example, this quote from his introduction which described a situation with the Cocoa (Florida) Expos when some players had not been paid for a month:

"I knew this was coming, was secretly thrilled, but it's also terribly awkward, because I have a secret: I have been paid. The team's other goalkeeper quit halfway through the seasons, and I leveraged my position of strength and threatened to walk away, leaving them with nobody to play in goal, unless they paid all past-due money: $650." (Page 5)

Somewhat later in the book during his trial with Brentford, a Football League club:

"I should have been showing up early, staying late, and most importantly, playing with desperation and hunger rather than comfort. Try as I might, though, I just couldn't shake that feeling of comfort, as if I'd already achieved something just by being there..." (Page 49)

Courageously Addressed Taboo Themes

One of the most salient facets of this book was the author's courageous decision to discuss taboo areas in sports and/or American culture: Alcohol use, homosexuality, mental health issues such as claustrophobia and panic attacks along with an illness that stumped Western physicians.

For example:

"In 1989, while battling for a contract with the Orlando Lions of the American Soccer League, my nervous system collapsed, taking much of my digestive function with it. I nibble and graze like a prairie mammal, unable to eat a full meal in one sitting. Still unwell, I resumed my career in the cold and damp of Scotland and England for a few years..." (Page 2)

"... I drank for the sake of it, methodically and seriously, to get drunk. Back home, on days with no training, I drank with my friends. We were all newly of legal age and could drink in bars, but we found it too expensive... Between that and my sessions at Bluebeard's (a favorite local pub of his Orlando Lions teammates), I rarely went more than two consecutive nights without getting drunk." (Page 29)

"In 1990, it was career suicide to merely be thought of as gay. There was a slippery slope of footballer logic that equated reading and intellectualism with homosexuality, so nobody at Borehamwood ever saw me with a book in my hand, but they all heard me commenting on the 'tasty' barmaid." (Page 117)

"Because of the claustrophobia that had been rearing its head of late, I was in the habit of popping a Valium before flights. Our flights had always been the day before the game. It didn't occur to me that taking a Valium at eight in the morning would be problematic." (Page 148)

Other Notable Quotes

"I had yet to learn the first lesson of every dressing room in the world: you have to prove you can play before anybody will be your friend." (Page 16)

"Let me tell you how a keeper feels when a penalty is awarded: he feels excited. You can only be a hero when facing a penalty. The shooter is expected to score, so nobody will blame you if he does." (Page 43)

"We were loud and, based on the looks we got from the students, annoying. This was a lesson I hadn't yet learned about Britain: people love football much more than they love footballers. In the U.S. it was still an 'alternative' sport, played and appreciated by alternative and generally progressive people. But in the U.K., footballers were respected for their athletic prowess, perhaps, but not for their brains, charm, or social graces." (Page 58)

"Arby's sponsored the (Richmond) Kickers, and for the weekend they extended their sponsorship to the entire Final Four, which meant our team got to eat at Arby's for free. But not at any Arby's; only one specific branch. At three o'clock, we were still driving around Richmond trying to find it." (Page 154)

A Street-Smart Soccer Education 

"But then I think: I was just a skinny kid from Florida who ended up with his boyhood hero for a teammate, who had nights in European stadiums with cheering crowds, who saw the game from inside in a way not too many people get to. I didn't do too badly." (Page 165)

I read a similar title many years ago called, "The Education of an American Soccer Player," by Shep Messing. It was a provocative book at the time by a player who made it to the top of the American soccer tree: The NY Cosmos.

Justin Bryant didn't play for the Cosmos; however, his soccer journey was just as important as more notable American athletes. This book is a worthy successor to the Messing title for those of us from a certain age group. Perhaps more importantly, this book will be a reminder for younger generations of American soccer enthusiasts how far we have come. "Small Time" will make an excellent addition to your sport's library.

About the Author: Justin Bryant

"I was born in 1966 in Melbourne, Florida, and took to goalkeeping with a passion when I was twelve. I played college soccer at Radford University, crossed the Atlantic to try my luck at Dunfermline Athletic and Borehamwood FC, and played domestically for the Orlando Lions of the ASL and Cocoa Expos of the USISL. I stopped playing competitively in 1995, at age 28, and spent much of the next decade as a goalkeeper coach in North Carolina (Elon University and the North Carolina Olympic Development program). I am currently the Director of Goalkeeping at NC State.

As a writer, I've twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and my fiction has appeared in journals such as Thin AirThe Chiron ReviewThe Rockhurst Review, and Snowbound. My first novel, Season of Ash, was published in 2004. I graduated from New York University with a Master's Degree in Creative Writing in 2008. I write a regular column for Goalkeeper Magazine and have written for football publications and blogs such as XI Quarterly, The Howler, In Bed With Maradona, and Can They Score."

Text courtesy of Justin Bryant; "About"; Goalkeepers' Union.
About the Reviewer

Steve Amoia is a freelance writer and translator from Washington, D.C. Steve focuses on career-related themes, Chinese healing/martial arts and international soccer journalism. He is the publisher of World Football Commentaries and The Soccer Translator. You can follow Steve @worldfootballcm on Twitter.

Please Note

I have received a complimentary review copy from a representative of the publisher, Bennion Kearney Limited. I was not compensated by the author, publisher or any other party who would benefit from a positive review.

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