Given that all the buzz in the past few weeks has been about how many millions hitherto unheralded Championship strikers are moving to middling clubs who shouldn’t have that much money to spend for, it’s fair to say that football is on something of a rager; completely oblivious to the prudence being it once had, at least at this level.
But amongst all this palaver, in the temperate climes of British Columbia, something of great relevance to this football club has happened to remind us once again of the very soul of the game we love.
Jay Demerit, for almost four years now the captain and face of the Vancouver Whitecaps (no matter how much Kenny Miller might have tried for a couple of years), yesterday announced in an emotional press conference his retirement from football, almost exactly ten years after he passed into our consciousness for the first time.
The moment that he appeared on a Tuesday night friendly against Real Zaragoza, a hazy but stocky figure shining through the sopping rain, Jay was intriguing. Little did we know that the bleached blonde American trialist and the impressive number nine he was up against, going by the name of David Villa, would cross paths some years later, on the not quite biggest stage in international football, with our guy coming out unquestionably on top.
The story of Jay’s rise is often-told, and doesn’t really need to be repeated, so engrained is it in our minds. It may be that we overdo our admiration of his journey because it’s familiar to us, but looking back at it now, the episodic nature – always on the up – makes his short career a thing of Hollywoodesque wonder.
‘Jay’ – The story of a young man and his friend, taking the trip of a lifetime around Europe armed with nothing but a pair of football boots, a small pot of cash and a dream. Ending up having a trial at lowly Northwood Town, fate takes the reins as our hero impresses in a game against second-tier Watford, and is given one chance to take hold of his own destiny…
‘Jay 2: The Promised Land’ – Almost two years have passed since the strapping DeMerit earned himself a contract with Watford. Now deeply-engrained in the club, his sights are set firmly on the Premier League. The first act ends with victory in Cardiff, kicked off by a majestic header that sends the town of Watford into raptures. Jay is in the ‘Biggest League in the World’ and kicking Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney – the humble kid from Green Bay has reached the top of club football.
‘Jay III: Vuvuzela Nights’ – A film that conveniently writes out any Watford-based events from after January 2007; Jay, having conquered domestic football, turns to his country. Given a starting role in the Confederations Cup due to injury to the wise old hand Carlos Bocanegra, Jay and the USMNT ride a wave of favourable results to the semi-finals where they beat the polished, metronomic but clearly evil Swiss bobsleigh Spanish side before losing a heart-breaking final to Brazil. But there’s more to come as, six years after turning out for Northwood Town, Jay heads to the 2010 World Cup…
‘Jay Takes America’ – The trilogy might be over, he may have pipped Santiago Muñez to the post, but Jay’s journey is far from complete. Having left Watford and international football behind, having conquered the known world by the age of 30 – without weeping – Jay turns missionary, and heads back to America (kind of) to give the gift of football to his people. As the first player to sign for the brand new MLS Vancouver Whitecaps franchise, our man has to turn his rag-tag bunch into a competitive unit, and after finishing last overall in his first year takes a young team to the playoffs, but success comes at a price… (Film funded by Bell Communications).
Jay’s fabled history shows him to be a fighter. Nights spent camping on doorsteps of European football clubs and sitting in the back of vans filled with knickers were testament to his refusal to give up on his goal. When he landed awkwardly in the first few minutes of the Whitecaps 2013 season opener at home to Toronto FC, the Achilles tendon that he snapped was just another obstacle to be overcome. Within six months he was back, and putting in a man of the match performance in his first return to action.
But like all true fighters, who have had to truly sacrifice and struggle to taste success, he knows when it’s time to move on. At the press conference announcing his immediate retirement, DeMerit said: “Last year ,when I tore my Achilles, I made it a point to myself again of not only proving myself right but proving other people wrong, and showing that I can go on to do these things.”
“But a week ago I was on the field with Graham, our physio, and watching these young guys train, watching Christian Dean (the Whitecaps’ first pick in this year’s Draft) go in sliding in for a tackle – a young, strapping little athlete that reminds me of what I used to be like. And it just dawned on me that I think these days might be over. I don’t think I have it in me anymore.”
All of the well-earned bluster about the ‘story’ of Jay DeMerit does, however, cloud appreciation of the reality of Jay DeMerit – because when we watched him take to the pitch for Watford we weren’t thinking of his past, we were just enjoying watching a defender who was tuck in top gear, and careened around the penalty area diving into challenges without a care in the world.
His vigour and energy made him a natural leader, and the determination that manifests itself throughout his story was clear for all to see on the pitch.
Unarguably his greatest moment in a Watford shirt, possibly anyone’s greatest moment in a Watford shirt in the past decade until that goal against Leicester, paints a picture of Jay in microcosm: charging unstoppably to the flight of the ball, eyes firmly on the prize with no consideration of what may be between him and it. From the moment he met Ashley Young’s corner in Cardiff, Watford were up.
The American collegiate sports system, for all its foibles of exploitation of young athletes and illegal backhanders, does give each and every sportsman that makes it to the upper echelons of the country’s sporting ladder the chance to get a degree and develop interests away from their game.
While Jay’s sporting career initially stalled post-graduation from the University of Illinois Chicago having not made it to an MLS club, it at least came after he had attained an Industrial Design Degree. In this country those who are deemed not good enough by their first clubs, usually at just 18 rarely go on to university, and instead spend the next few years striving for attention in the meat market of professional football. Once the many who don’t make it have given up, they are often in their mid-twenties, having missed out on education and experience of any trade other than football.
Jay leaves football with a degree to his name and umpteen hobbies to turn his attention to. He is a keen artist, he has a stake in a few businesses and has even guest hosted a Vancouver morning TV show in the past few years – and who could forget Soccer Rocks? Last year he even became part of South-West Canada’s most powerful couple after marrying former Olympic champion skier Ashleigh McIvor.
As Jay himself says: “this isn’t a career-ender it’s a life-starter”.
And so we wave goodbye to Jay, a 34 year-old bloke with a whole lot of life ahead of him. Football may have lost a player and a gentleman, but the story of Jay DeMerit is one that will endure with those that witnessed it forever.
And it’s fitting that he goes in such a ludicrous and profligate period of football, a man whose highest transfer fee was a few new training kits and for whom the dream outweighed any financial gains.
You can read Jay’s open letter upon his retirement here