07 OCTOBER 2019



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A whistle blew. I sprinted forward, squinting against the slanting sun as the players fanned out across the pitch. My gut fizzed in expectation. We were one point away from winning the league. I could almost feel the cold, glinting silverware under my fingers. The next ninety

minutes would wash away years of disappointment. No second place this time. This time, we would lift the trophy.

Everyone here on this bright autumn afternoon was as certain as I was. This was our game. On the sidelines a cluster of TV cameras was trained on the pitch, here to capture our title victory. In the stands a large away crowd waved and cheered. Even our opponents seemed resigned to our win. Way down in fifth place, Manchester City had nothing to play for. They had even rested some of their key players. This was going to be a routine win.

I had visualised it all. I would score, I would win, and I would lift the trophy.

The whistle blew once more. A free kick to City inside our half. All eyes followed the ball as it arced in towards our goal. Our keeper Marie Hourihan stormed out of the scrum and leapt, arms outstretched, as a midfielder barrelled in from the left. The players collided with a sickening crack and plummeted to the ground. Marie stayed down, clutching her head in her white gloves. Paramedics jogged on to the pitch and bundled her into an ambulance as the news ran like a shiver through the team: it was a broken collarbone.

I fought a rising wave of nausea. Marie was more than our last line of defence; she was the foundation of our morale. Eleven minutes in, this game, our game, had taken a nightmarish turn. The backline looked on, glum and shell-shocked, as a substitute keeper warmed up and stepped on to the pitch. Losing our keeper had hit us hard. All our bravado was evaporating into the pale afternoon air.

Sensing we were shaken, our opponents sent a timid, probing shot long and low across the pitch. The ball bounced slowly at the edge of the box and somehow in over our sub keeper. I stared in horror from the other end of the pitch as we struggled to register the goal. Our defence was still reeling when they attacked again. A sky-blue shirt raced down the wing and cut back to a striker who, in one flowing movement, controlled the ball on her chest and volleyed it up into the top corner. A second gut punch within minutes of the first.

I gazed around my teammates. There was no fire or fight in their eyes, only numb shock. Up front, it would fall on me to stop the freefall into despair. We wrested back control in the second half and, pushing hard, got one back. Now it was close again; we only needed a draw. The title was just one goal away. It was down to me to claw this back.

The minutes slid away. I gave it everything I had, but their defenders closed in, a determined, grim back line. In the last minute, we took a corner. My throat tightened and my vision swam as I stood on the goal line, waiting for our final chance. The ball looped in, there was a desperate scramble, and their keeper emerged triumphant, clutching it in her gloves. The whistle blew and I collapsed on to the field, sobbing, as my world crumbled around my ears. I was inconsolable.

Slumped on the pitch that day in 2014, I still had a lot to learn. That defeat shook me to my core. It shattered my love of football and even made me question my faith in God. I felt humiliated. I felt like a failure. To climb all season to the top of the table and fall short at the last minute, on the last day, by just one goal. It was too much to bear.

People tried to comfort me. There was always next year, they said. I’m sure they meant well, but the thought of going back out there, climbing back up the table, and getting close enough to win, close enough to fail, made my stomach squirm. What if we lost again? I wasn’t sure I could take that crushing disappointment a second time.

But I didn’t quit. I got over it, and in doing so, I learned one of the hardest lessons of my life. The following year, when at last, not one, but two trophies came, I understood: it was the defeat that had driven us not only to win, but to exceed even our own expectations. That humiliating loss gave us an edge over the other teams, it was the extra fuel that propelled us over the finish line to claim both the title and the FA Cup. Our failure was the foundation of our success.

Since then, I’ve learnt to embrace failure, when it comes. It didn’t happen overnight, I still get disappointed, that’s only human. But I’m never inconsolable like I was that day, because I know that if I fail, a lesson will surely follow. I began to see that failure, disappointment and challenges shouldn’t be feared. They are opportunities, necessary steps along the winding road to success. They are life’s best teachers.

And there was a lot to learn. As a kid, I was taught to behave a certain way by my parents, coaches, teachers, and preachers. They gave me a set of a guiding principles and morals to live by. But out in the real world, things were different. Life was much messier than I had been taught to expect. I found myself in situations no one had taught me how to deal with. Situations that no one could have prepared me for in advance. These were lessons I had to learn on my own. Lessons they didn’t teach.

They don’t teach you what to do when you lose your job thousands of miles from home. Or how to deal with a loss so devastating it makes you question your faith. They don’t teach how to perform under pressure, or deal with criticism, or fight for change, or stand up to a mighty organisation when it tries to crush you. They don’t teach what to do when you are lost and alone in a team, or when the newspapers print half-truths about you. They don’t teach how and when to tell your truth.

And they don’t teach women how to break through the glass ceiling, or what women of colour experience as a more impenetrable concrete ceiling. As a black woman, I’ve spent my whole life learning how to break free of the limitations others impose upon me. I’ve learned that it is OK to be first, to be a pioneer. They said I can’t, I said I’ll do it anyway. I played football at the highest level, qualified as a lawyer, and analysed the game I love on TV. I’ve had great mentors, coaches and professors help me along the way. Still, none of them could prepare me to face many of my highest and lowest moments. No one taught me how, life did.

Like everyone else out there, I’ve had to figure these lessons out on my own, by going through it. I’ve failed at times, I’ve got things wrong, had to go back and try again. And through each failure, I’ve grown, learned, and come out better equipped for the next challenge life has thrown at me. And all the successes, all the trophies, all the victories, were made all the sweeter by the obstacles I had to overcome along the way.

Life has been a series of these lessons learned from experience, each one of them hard-won and precious. I want to share them, these lessons they don’t teach. I hope they are useful; I hope they resonate with what you might be facing in your own life. This is my story. It starts with a failure, because failure is the best teacher, the best lesson, and they don’t teach this.


The above is an extract from They Don’t Teach This by Eniola Aluko, with Josie Le Blond, published by Yellow Jersey Press, an imprint of Vintage, 2019. Yellow Jersey Press is part of Penguin Random House. Find out more about the book here

Sign up to become a Fawcett member this week & for one week only, new members will receive a copy of They Don't Teach This, by Eniola Aluko