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The Big Screen Debut
Last week I followed in the footsteps of Vinnie Jones by officially making the transition from football pitch to big screen. The Bromley Boys tells the story of one boy’s obsession with his local non-league side as they battle to stay in the Isthmian League. Based on the book by Dave Roberts, the film features an all star cast. There’s Martine McCutcheon, Alan Davies, Adam Deacon, Brenock O’Connor. And me.
It all started in the October of 2016. I was sitting at my desk, typing away at my computer, when the phone rang.
‘What are you doing tomorrow?’ came the voice on the other end of the line. It was William Sarne, a director of my old futsal team.
‘Well, I’ll be at work’, I replied, ‘but I’m about in the evening.’
‘Do you want to be in a film?’
I imagine other castings are slightly tougher.
The directors needed someone who could kick a football in a straight line. They were due to film a match scene and it’d be my job to dribble round a few defenders and score a couple of goals. It seemed simple enough.
‘Why are they sorting this so late?’ I asked.
‘Séan Garnier was supposed to be doing the role but he’s injured’ came the response. So I’d be a direct replacement for the two-time world freestyle champion. Séan Garnier, with six million global followers, replaced by Seth Burkett, with one thousand global followers – most of whom he went to school with – and no acting qualifications.
Later that evening the phone went again. It was William.
‘Listen, they still want you in the film, but the role you’re supposed to be playing is West Ham’s Bermudan international striker Clyde Best. You don’t know anyone more suitable do you?’
Within an hour, one of my former teammates – Sean Sinclair – was confirmed. The role that was originally going to be played by Séan Garnier was now being split between three of us. Séan would still be appearing in the film – he was flying in from France the next morning – but he couldn’t do any of the football scenes. My former teammate would be doing the dribbling and scoring. And I’d be doing, well, I wasn’t sure what I’d be doing.
The next morning William picked me up at 6.30am. This gave us plenty of time to make the 8am casting call at Crockenhill FC in Kent.
If that wake-up call wasn’t enough of a warning, I soon found out that the life of an actor isn’t so glamorous.
After a lot of waiting around, I was called in to get my costume. For one day only, I was to be a West Ham reserve team player. I was given a claret and blue kit with blacked out Sondico boots. First, however, I was to get changed into a moth-eaten suit to film an entrance scene.
All suited up, I was sent to hair and make-up. The two ladies took one look at me and decided that they didn’t really need to do too much to make me look like I was from the 60s. I’ve never claimed to be at the cutting edge of fashion, but I had hoped my look might pass for something more modern. They didn’t even touch my hair.
By now it was approaching 10am. The stars were in their caravans and us extras were huddled together in the changing rooms, wondering when something was going to happen.
Eventually, those of us who were West Ham players were shepherded onto a bus. The task was simple. When the bus stopped we had to stand up, walk off and wait next to the bus door while the people with speaking parts said their bits.
If I wasn’t good at getting off a bus before, six takes and sixty minutes ensured that I’d pretty much nailed it by the time we moved on to the next scene: the run out.
I was assigned to lead my West Ham team out of the tunnel while keeping a ball in the air. In contrast, our overweight opponents would amble out to emphasise an obvious difference in footballing ability.
Once again, there were a load of takes, a load of different angles and a lot of waiting around for the cameras to reset.
At 2pm we broke for lunch. The stars took their shepherd’s pie back into their caravans while us extras huddled for space around the radiator in the cramped changing room. Despite our surroundings there was excitement in the air, for we all knew what was happening next: the goals.
With my former teammate now the star of the show, it was my task to provide him the pass. Inspired my Dimitri Payet’s slaloming goal the previous week, my team would roll the ball back to me from the kick-off. I’d take a touch and then hit a diag to my former teammate who’d then take on the whole team and score. He nailed it first time. And second time. And third time.
I watched on like a proud father, my own confidence growing with every pass. Then they asked me to score an overhead kick. After five underwhelming efforts they soon realised their mistake and instead focused on tap-ins and volleys. Happy that I’d had plenty of screen time, I took a backseat and let some of the others – who were actual actors and had actually auditioned – have a go.
19 months later, having settled into my cinema seat at the world premiere of the Bromley Boys, I wished I hadn’t taken a backseat in the goal scenes.
Up to that point, all of the signs had been good. After the day’s filming, I was taken into the director’s caravan and given £100 for my troubles. Did that make me a semi-professional actor? I was sure it did and spent the evening working out how to get it into my Twitter bio.
A month before the premiere, I was thrilled to spot myself in the trailer. Ok, I was only in the background for half a second, but I figured that meant I’d definitely be in the film.
On the day of the premiere, Mum and Dad travelled down from Peterborough. They’d never been to a premiere before and weren’t about to pass up the chance to see their boy in a film.
They got there early, and when I arrived an hour before the start time with my girlfriend I was surprised. I hadn’t expected it to be such a big event. There were people everywhere. The bar was buzzing. The stars were mingling with the crowd. And when Mum spotted Martine McCutcheon I thought she was going to faint with excitement.
We walked through to the cinema room and found 1,000 seats awaiting us. All had been sold.
The film started and within 10 minutes I’d made an appearance. Pride filled me as I watched myself walk off the bus in my period outfit and stand majestically next to the door. The camera showed me in the background for at least five seconds as Branock O’Connor asked the West Ham manager whether ‘anyone good’ was going to be playing in the game. Cheeky sod.
Then, the run out scene. Now I really was in the background. All of those takes had been discarded. As the camera focused on Bromley’s rag-tag team, us West Ham players could just about be made out running on to the pitch. You couldn’t even tell that I was doing kick-ups. But not to worry, for now was my real star moment. The pass. I was sure it’d win me an Oscar.
I watched on, and on, and on. Awaiting the pass that never came. Instead the camera showed Sean Sinclair majestically control a lofted pass before turning and dribbling past the entire Bromley team. His goal was shown, then another of his goals, then a different actor’s goal. And then the scene was over, and with that my involvement in the film. £100 of payment for 10 hours of standing around and five seconds of peripheral screen time. To be honest, I was buzzing.
My girlfriend soon brought me back to Earth. ‘When are you in the film?’ she asked.
I reckon she was just too invested in the storyline to spot me. I don’t blame her. The film was good. Having spent a number of years playing non-league football, the characterisation was absolutely spot on. Dave Roberts’ book is brilliant, and the film truly does it justice thanks to some great acting, especially by Jamie Foreman.
As the end credits rolled, the crowd stood up to applaud. So many people had played a small part in bringing the film to life. I was proud to have been one of those people. And now it was out there, ready to be judged by the public. I guess the next step is just to wait for that Oscar…
Great Football Adventures
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved reading about adventures in football. There’s something incredibly exotic about using your passion to travel to remote places and learn about new cultures. After writing The Boy in Brazil I’ve been fortunate enough to connect with a number of other football nomads. I follow them on Twitter, they follow back and occasionally we like each other’s tweets.
Really occasionally, we even speak to each other.
One evening I received a direct message from Paul Watson. I was thrilled, to be honest. Paul authored one of my favourite books, Up Pohnpei, which detailed his aim to find the world’s worst national football team, become naturalised and then win an international cap for them. Paul’s international ambitions seemed simple enough, and his proposal to me seemed simple enough.
He was investigating the possibility of putting on a book event in London. The speakers would all talk of their interesting experiences of football abroad. Did I fancy it?
At this stage I still had 800 copies of The Boy in Brazil under the bed in my parents’ spare room. I figured that I’d sell at least one book at Paul’s event so I told him that yes, I did fancy it.
We left it at that and then both forgot about it. A few months later one of his tweets popped up on my timeline and it sparked something in my memory. Hold on. What about that book event? I sent Paul a message. He was still up for it, he assured me, but he’d been busy and would need a bit more time.
Time was something that I had plenty of.
I offered to help him out a bit and Paul seemed happy for me to send out a few emails. He suggested The Social for the venue. They were keen and gave us a couple of dates to choose from. Paul selected a date he was available, we said yes, and suddenly it all became very real.
We decided that we needed a headline speaker to attract a crowd. Stephen Constantine, India’s national team manager, had recently released an excellent book on experiences of managing national teams like South Sudan and Rwanda. He was up for it but couldn’t guarantee he’d be in the UK at the time.
We’d need an alternative. Paul knew James Montague. There couldn’t have been anyone more perfect. James had become known as ‘the Indiana Jones of soccer writing’ for his travels around the world. Paul sent him a message and James was happy to get involved. We offered to pay his expenses because nobody should be out of pocket and, after all, James only lived in Essex.
It turned out that James now lives in Serbia. He would be flying in for the event. Now the pressure was really on.
For someone of James’s stature to fly in, we knew we needed to draw a big crowd. The tickets went on sale and the reaction on social media was promising. We were getting retweets and likes and lots of comments. And we were selling hardly any tickets.
With one week to go we hadn’t sold enough to cover the venue hire.
Then, a stroke of luck. Stephen was due to be in the UK to renew his passport and was available for the event. We added his name to the poster and a few more tickets were sold.
My boss at work introduced me to Eli Mengem, the host of Copa 90’s Derby Days. Eli was up for coming along and could even potentially be convinced to talk. A few more tickets were sold.
A couple of days before the event we’d just about sold enough to break even. We decided to give it one final push, asking friends to post about the night, sharing it with people in the media.
24 hours before the big night we received an email from The Social. There were to be no more ticket sales. The event had sold out.
James opened the night. He was knowledgable and informative. I had ten minutes. Stephen gave great insight for 45 minutes. Paul spoke for five minutes when he had enough material for five hours. Eli came up and spoke briefly about his work. The talks are all stored here: https://soundcloud.com/seth-burkett.
The feedback was good. Our lack of organisation on the night was cited as a positive. The speakers were great. And, most importantly, when was the next one?
We only really expected to do one event. However, after that feedback we decided to try for something more regular.
Our second Great Football Adventures event takes place on April 25th. We’ve got David Preece talking about his time as a pro in Denmark and Iceland and Adam Crafton discussing his debut book ‘From Guernica to Guardiola’. There’ll be a distinct CONIFA theme throughout the night. The CONIFA World Cup takes place in London next month. Paul is a director of the organisation and will talk about his role and how he arrived there from Pohnpei via Mongolia’s first anti-corruption club. Kieran Pender will be on hand to analyse the last CONIFA World Cup and Football Campagne will be putting on a photo exhibition.
If you fancy it, tickets are available here: https://thesocial.com/events/great-football-adventures-2
The Realities of Writing
It always makes me laugh when students ask to see my Ferrari. At almost every school I’ve been in to, I get that same question. “What car do you drive?” They’ve done the maths. Played football. Published author. He must be minted. Imagine their horror, then, when they clap eyes on my 2001 Ford Fiesta, bought off a mate for £145. “Don’t worry” I tell the pupils. “It’s great in the winter. The heater is broken so it’s always on full blast. Bit of a problem in summer, mind”.
Still, they don’t seem too put off. They must still see value in my books. Well, that’s if the number of times I’ve been asked to sign a book ‘To eBay user’ is anything to go by. Little do they realise that the ones without my signature are probably worth more…
It wasn’t always this way. I finished my first manuscript at the age of 18. Bright eyed and relentlessly positive, I sent it off to tens of publishers. It was good. Not great, but good enough to provoke interest. Or so I thought. Every single publisher rejected it.
Several rewrites later, I managed to get the book into a position where a few publishers did finally show interest. One in particular caught my eye. Ian Ridley was an award winning journalist who had had several very successful books published. More recently he’d started his own publishing company, with his first project being Mark Halsey’s autobiography. I knew that the opportunity to learn from Ian would be invaluable.
I’m proud to say that Ian has gone on to become a true mentor to me. His support has been amazing and he helped make my first book, The Boy in Brazil, a success.
As far as I’m concerned it was a success, anyway. Those more critical could point to a number of factors. For starters, it took us nearly two years to pay back the cost of actually printing the book.
My deal with Ian was that he would take the risk – and it was a risk, because I was a 22 year old kid and nobody had a clue who I was – on publishing my book. He’d edit it, pay for all the production costs, enter it for awards, take care of the marketing and pretty much be on hand 24/7 for advice. All I had to do was write the thing. Once the book royalties had paid back the costs associated with all of this then I’d begin to get paid, with profits split 50/50.
I never expected to make my millions, but I was hoping we might have recouped those costs a little quicker. Having been released just before the 2014 World Cup, Ian managed to get the book into most of the major newspapers, and we also made appearances on the BBC and TalkSport.
With all of the media coverage, I envisaged the book everywhere: plastered all over WH Smiths, on the front table in Waterstones, in the hands of commuters up and down the country. Yet when I strolled into my local Waterstones they’d never heard of it. “But I’m local”, I protested. “Can’t you support it?”
“Sorry”, came the reply. “You’re just not a big enough name.”
Well that was one way to bring me down to Earth with a bump. Fortunately there was still Amazon. Glorious, capitalist, tax-avoiding Amazon, where my book even troubled the top 1,000 bestsellers at one point. With the focus on online sales, we managed to shift 150 copies in the first month. Not bad, but still a long way short of paying off the costs of printing. Especially when we’d exhausted pretty much all media interest.
By month three, sales had fallen dramatically. The World Cup was over. There was a new season to look forward to, and a whole new series of books released. A profit had never looked further off.
Yet all was not lost. Though online sales were underwhelming, I was managing to sell a steady stream of books through friends, contacts and social media. It worked out much better to sell them myself than through other places. If we sold a book through Amazon for £10, Amazon would take £5 and Ian would take £5. If I sold a book myself, all £10 went to Ian. One personal sale was the equivalent of two online sales. If we ever entered a profit it meant I’d be getting £5 to keep from each personal sale.
Determined to at least break even, I tried everything I could think of to shift books. With Ian’s support I put on several book launches, spoke in schools, held signings, even set up a table at the side of a groundhoppers’ football event. If I sold just one book it was worth it.
We started to gather momentum. Reviews came in. Independent bookshops began to stock the book. Foyles ordered some in. Amazon made the eBook version an ‘Editor’s Pick’. And then, the ultimate recognition: the book was shortlisted for Football Book of the Year at the British Sport Book Awards. As far as I was concerned, we’d made it.
It took another year of hard work to break even. Four years on, we’ve even made a bit of a profit. Yet we’re still far from done. There are 700 copies of The Boy in Brazil in the spare room of my parents’ house. There are 150 copies under the bed in my flat. Until they’re all sold, I need to keep on putting in the legwork and thinking of new ways to get the book out there.
People often tell me they’re thinking of writing a book. My advice to them is always the same. Do it. It’s one of the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. Just make sure you’re willing to put in the work after the actual writing. And don’t expect to make your millions.
Check out the finished product: http://amzn.to/2yCSZ2l