Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Watching Jay Rise & Shine

On a weekday night early on in Watford's Premier League season of 2006-'07, I stood on a street corner in North London and told Jay DeMerit his story was remarkable.

"It would have ended perfectly if you'd been picked for the World Cup," I joked. "But seriously, have you thought about writing a biography?"

Jay looked stunned for a moment but then leant back and pondered the idea that his rise to the top was indeed special. "Wait until I've achieved a bit more," he chuckled back.

With the Hornets and the 2010 World Cup now in his past, it is a good time to look back at the Jay DeMerit story, as the 'Rise & Shine' movie, which I watched on its UK premiere tonight in London, records.

Coming up the ranks via the Sunday leagues is not unheard of, but that coupled with doing it overseas and turning pro at the ripe old age of almost 25 is amazing.

Yet Jay was always modest about the Rocky analogy. "It is a good story," he once told me, "but maybe cream always rises to the top."

Or maybe it doesn't as Ray Lewington implies in the film when he reveals that "less than 1%" of the boys on Fulham's books make it to the first team.

It is wonderful that a documentary about Jay has been distributed in cinemas, thanks to a Herculean effort from the filmmakers, although the end product remains one for the aficionados to be honest, lacking an experienced hand in its execution and editing.

Although the movie feels about half an hour too long, some of the major events in Jay's career pass in a flash.

While the World Cup segment suffers from FIFA's prohibitive fees for match highlights, the US games in South Africa are dealt with in seconds and we learn little of Jay's feelings throughout the grand finale of his journey. We see Landon Donovan score against Algeria but no DeMerit rolling over the celebrating melee.

Watford's single season in the top flight is also dealt with too briefly and the relegation at the end of it isn't mentioned. Nor alas do we hear of Jay's farewell game for Watford or his decision to leave England at last.

The journey from youthful dreams to reality is what counts in Rise & Shine, whilst the subject matter as a grown man remains lacking in detail, which is a shame because DeMerit was not your standard player over here.

He joined the game more grown-up than most, but had signed a contract more akin to MLS, which he soon realised had made him "the worst-paid defender in the Championship!" When he finally negotiated a new deal, his salary leapt about tenfold.

Instead of just the familiar trope of the boy from nowhere turning into Superman, the film could have shown more of the down-to-earth and rather creative man inside. He eschewed the standard suburban pad and big car beloved of most footballers for instance, in favour of a Mini and a modest apartment facing a busy highway in a vibrant central London neighbourhood, from where he made the most of life in the capital.

I did not know any other Premier League stars who took the bus into town and walked to and from the supermarket, or who offered me lifts home from games.

What we do learn about is his athletic history in Wisconsin and backpacker's lifestyle in Europe before he was spotted by Watford.

Jay the player is thinly sketched as well. As a strong and athletic stopper, DeMerit was taylor-made for English football, particularly in the scrappers' league of the Championship, so much so that Bob Bradley had to remind him to take it easy when he first joined the US roster.

DeMerit was at his peak for Watford in their promotion season of 2005-'06, when he was probably the most impressive American playing in England. His intercepting and hustling attackers off the ball was first-class, but the following season the elite strikeforces of the Premier League proved too much for him and a team whose muscular playing style was proving obsolete at the highest level. Aidy Boothroyd had read Moneyball cover to cover, but his myriad ideas and innumerable innovations could not stretch far enough to keep Watford in the Premier League.

As instant demotion loomed for the Hornets, I remember Jay telling me all the psychologists and motivational speakers in the world couldn't keep a team up if they didn't have enough quality in the first place. Watford's survival struggle was engrossing stuff, but its ultimate failure did not tally with the film's relentlessly positive narrative.

If his diving header in Cardiff was the fairy-tale moment of his career, DeMerit's performances in the 2009 Confederations Cup, particularly in the legendary win over Spain, remain his greatest. For a while it seemed he would never get called up by his country, despite stand-out games for the Hornets. Is Bruce Arena even aware of this guy, I often wondered.

After watching him snuff out Inter's Adriano in a pre-season friendly, I raised the matter of the USMNT once more. Jay was calm and self-effacing again, claiming his lack of recognition did not play on his mind.

"If it happens, it happens," he mused.

Well, it certainly did.

-Sean O'Conor


Jamie said...


jon said...

That's a good and very fair review of the film, Sean. I have been hesitant in my descriptions of it to others because I didn't want to slag the filmmakers considering the considerable time and effort and passion they put into it.
The interesting this is that, like you say, it's really a film for the soccer aficionados, but for any US fan that's been paying attention, the most interesting and previously unknown parts were the bits about his childhood and the interviews with various folks in the footballing business.

andrés said...

Good write-up Sean. Be a nice companion to the documentary actually.

B Webb said...

"Rise and Shine" was my only real request for Christmas. Thoroughly enjoyed watching it, and it gave my son some good insights into professional football. Sean, thanks for the excellent, and fair, review.

Desert Rat said...

It's a shame that most of the country's attention only focuses on men's and women's football once every four years.

Jay Demerit's story is a very American one. Taking a chance in England, working his way up from the beer leagues to the Championship, a year in the EPL, and a respectable number of caps for the National Team? That's a made for Hollywood story if there ever was one.

I look forward to checking this one out, flaws and all.