The remarkably open way footballer Andros Townsend has spoken about failure is brave, says Joe Warton. It’s got him thinking about Jesus, who was himself labelled a loser, reject and failure


Source: Alamy

In a recent interview on BBC Radio 5, former England winger, Andros Townsend, did something mad. He talked about his failure. 

“What’s the big deal?” you might ask, “Isn’t failure all the rage these days?” It’s true that there are loads of books and podcasts extolling the merits of failure, and even corporate titans like Google and NASA have special ‘failure’ awards.

But here’s the kicker. Normally, when people talk publicly about their failures and rejections, it’s once they’ve emerged, victorious, on the other side. “Sure, I had knock-backs,” we might say, laughing, “I made some mistakes, but now my life/product/company/career is a roaring success!”

The benefit of hindsight

Speaking about our failure is pretty safe once our life graph is moving up and to the right. But Townsend talked about his failure and rejection while he’s still in the midst of it. The international footballer has played for Tottenham Hotspur and Crystal Palace (his stunning 30-yard volley against Manchester City was voted Premier league goal of the season 2018-19)  but, of late, Townsend has barely had a kick.

Jesus didn’t just help rejects and failures, he was friends with them

Following a serious injury that put him out of action for 18 months, he was let go by his current club, Everton, at the end of last season. A free agent, he was inches away from signing a contract with newly-promoted Premier League side, Burnley. He’d looked at houses and schools, and was pumped about this new opportunity. But, on the day he was due to sign the contract, Burnley retracted their offer.

The pain of perception

“I was literally in tears, because I felt like my dream was over,” Townsend said in the interview. But more pain and rejection followed. An agent promised him a deal with a club in Turkey that didn’t materialise. Then it looked like he’d be moving to Saudi Arabia. That didn’t happen either. Now - who knows? This could be the season where Andros Townsend goes from being a professional footballer to being a former professional footballer. He’s not yet “bounced back”. He might not.

As someone who’s recently become a freelancer, I know how rejection feels, and the feelings of shame that can accompany it. When I talk to my mates, or other parents at the school - and especially to former colleagues - I’m quick to play up the promising meetings I’ve just had and the work I have landed. I’m much less comfortable telling them about all the “we’ll bear you in mind emails” or, worse, the ghostings. Who wants to go public as a failure, a reject? Not me.

Jesus the failure

That’s why this genuine act of bravery from Townsend not only got me thinking about failure, it got me thinking about Jesus. Jesus spent much of his life labelled as a loser, a reject, a failure. Of course, he wasn’t any of those things. But that was the perception. In his conception (deemed illegitimate); in his young-adult life (a manual worker in an obscure village); in his public ministry (a friend of sinners). Ultimately, in his death (crucified – the most vile and humiliating form of death available).

Jesus didn’t just help rejects and failures, he was friends with them. He identified with them; he was one of them. It was even foretold in his pre-life marketing: “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by people, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised and we esteemed him not” (Isaiah 53:2-3).

Jesus, like Townsend, did not hide his rejection and perceived failure. His self-worth was not based on his achievements or what others said about him. Imagine living like that!

“I was literally in tears, because I felt like my dream was over,” Townsend said

Maybe we could begin to move toward a life like that. Maybe we could join Jesus, in finding our joy in doing the Father’s will, and not judging ourselves on the outcome. Maybe like him, we could go into each day with the words “this is my beloved son/daughter” (Matthew 17:5), soaked into our bones. Maybe knowing that Jesus faced failure and rejection might just - ever so slightly - help us shake off those feelings of shame.

There’s a challenge here, too, for how we relate to other people. It is very human to want to associate ourselves with people who are on the up and to distance ourselves from people who might be struggling. After all, if someone sees us with ‘a failure’, what does that say about us?

But by embracing our own failure and rejection, and by drawing alongside fellow strugglers, we might just draw that little bit closer to Jesus, and he to us.