Chris Hargreaves would be the first person to tell you that his career did not go according to plan. Despite holding on to the slimmest of hopes throughout the better part of his thirties, he never reached the Premier League. In a career spanning more than two decades, he played for nearly a dozen English clubs. He even dabbled in non-league football on more than one occasion. Yet to suggest that his time in the game was somehow a failure would drastically simplify his career as professional footballer.
In Where's Your Caravan?, Hargreaves takes his audience on a season-by-season account of his maturation from a naïve teenager in Grimsby Town's youth set-up to a seasoned veteran and father of three at Torquay United.
Throughout his story is an undercurrent of what could have been. If he had taken his fitness seriously as a youngster and curbed the nights out with the lads, he might have been his hometown's first million pound sale. If he had not left First Division side West Bromwich Albion to join Hereford United after the 1995-96 season, he might have made it to the Promised Land - a mistake that he ultimately dubs "the worst decision that I have made in my career." If his agent had not been so extortionate when Reading approached Plymouth Argyle during the 1999-00 season, he would have joined a club with "big aspirations" at a time that was "unmistakably right."
But regret is not a theme that dominates the text. Ultimately, Where's Your Caravan is a story of progression. Not necessarily up the Football League, but a progression of Hargreaves' career in which he always put himself in a position to do what he loves he most - play football. When he left West Brom, it was because he wanted to be a 90 minute-per-game player. After missing out on promotion a handful of times with several different clubs, he finally led Torquay United out of the Conference and back into the Football League, scoring the winning goal at Wembley. It was a fitting end to a career for a man who knew this moment meant "a hell of a lot to a few", if not the entire nation.
As he tells his story, other themes come to the forefront. None more so than the sheer physical toll that he put on his body. To be fair, some of this was self-inflicted. As a twenty-something professional footballer, Hargreaves inevitably drank. As he got older and late nights out were replaced with early nights in with his family, his body finally caught up with him. Back aches, broken noses, twisted ankles, and pulled groins became all too familiar; one too many beers were replaced with "ibuprofen smoothies" and regular trips to the physio, the trainer, or the chiropractor. His 20-year career offers an interesting dichotomy between the heavy drinking culture that once surrounded the game and the fitness culture that has supplanted it.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Where's Your Caravan is its authenticity. Hargreaves writes as if retelling his story to friends and family sitting on his living-room couch, cracking jokes and giving shout-outs to the people who contributed to his fondest memories. This casual, light-hearted, stream-of-consciousness style can be difficult to follow at times, but it also makes Hargreaves a highly identifiable person. When considering an offer from another club or resigning with a current one, he had real issues to consider regarding his wife's job, his kids' schools, the commute, and, importantly, his wages. He was never a £100,000-per-week player, but few are.
If there is one question that looms largest over the book, it is how a professional footballer reconciles the end of his career. Interestingly, every chapter is prefaced by Hargreaves' mindset as he prepares to sit down and write, so that as he tells his audience about his football career he simultaneously discusses his post-football plans and the demands (and rewards) of being a father. Whether it is coaching Exeter City's Under-16s, doing yard work, or offering punditry for Setanta, it is evident that he does not have all the answers. It is also evident that his passion for the game is far too strong to simply abandon it.