by ALEX TAYLOR
My school football career as a wheelchair user was cruelly cut short in a manner that only Jack Wilshere may understand.
Obsessed with football thanks to Michael Owen’s World Cup 1998 goal against Argentina and the sheer aura of Manchester United’s 1999 Treble winning side, I was determined to play the beautiful game somehow, despite my inability to walk or the fact physios demanded I rode a tricycle around the playground at break to improve my muscle strength.
When I saw that school football trials were being held one lunchtime, I decided, aged nine, to take matters into my own hands. Up I pedalled past the bemused faces, including the headmaster taking the session, and began my warm-up stretches. Upper body only, of course.
After what seemed like a lifetime of anticipation, we were split into teams for the decisive 11-a-side game. But only two minutes in, disaster struck. I spotted my classroom assistant waving and shouting on the touchline, jabbing at her watch. I had forgotten my class had swimming lessons that day; the bus was waiting. Despite my protests I was ushered off the pitch – denied the chance to impress. Quite what other parents would have said had I made the team and hurtled towards their child on my big yellow trike is another matter. All I can say is, Bastian Schweinsteiger, I know how you feel.
FIFA 17, the latest instalment of EA Sport’s annual football series,brought this painful memory into sharp focus with its new mode, The Journey – using the game’s new Frostbite engine to give players the chance to guide fictional youngster Alex Hunter from the grassroots to potential international football superstardom.
In a twist of coincidence, the story begins with Hunter as a schoolboy, playing for the school team. This time, taking control, I finally got to make amends for my own school trial – scoring the winning penalty to kick-start Hunter’s career.
The new mode allows me to live out my footballing dream as never before. Since childhood, I have used football games – be it Superstar Soccer on the Nintendo 64 or Pro Evolution Soccer and FIFA during teenage years and beyond – to live out what has always been physically impossible. France’s talismanic midfielder Zinedine Zidane spoke of ‘painting pictures’ on the pitch and I have often found myself doing the same, albeit to nowhere near the same standard.
Watching others play at school was always difficult – my mind constantly imagining what my next step would be – a drop of the shoulder here, a slide rule pass there. Only football games could offer a canvas to bring these flashes of inspiration to life. For this reason, the games always meant that little bit more to me; I played the games for fun with my friends, but their virtual pitch was my real-life equivalent.
But The Journey takes my experience to a whole new level. It is the first time a football title has ever made a fully immersive game-mode from a first-person perspective. Playing as Hunter, I could define my position and finally mould myself as the diminutive forward I always dreamed I could be, if things were different.
It opened my eyes to what life truly feels like on the pitch, with a limited field of vision (unless you are Paul Scholes), grass kicking up as you search for space and defenders snap at your heels. The sense of freedom sharply contrasts my footballing escapades at secondary school, where, now using an electric wheelchair, I reluctantly played as a literal battering ram defender, frequently zooming up the pitch to try and deflect a cross into the net. For the record, my goal tally stands at two (three if you count the shot that went in after smacking me in the face).