A blazing weekday afternoon on Inham Nook Recreation Ground in Beeston. School isn’t quite out for the summer. The term-fatigued kids in the playgrounds on the other side of the Nottingham Express Transit tram tracks are chasing loose balls, wind-whipped crisp packets and each other with dog-days listlessness.
On the terrace of the clubhouse on the edge of the park, a handful of older lads, members of Phoenix Inham FC, sprawl, tops off, in the baking heat. One has a lazy go at launching a cross through a distant set of goals but comes up short (and wide). If they’re celebrating the recent decision by Broxtowe Borough Council to grant this community club a 10-year lease on the pavilion, they’re doing so on the inside.
Four days after the Euros final, defiant – or forgotten – Three Lions flags are drooping in the occasional window of the surrounding houses. The odd St George’s cross flutters from the windows of passing cars.
Callum Whitworth lives five minutes up the road, on a curving avenue in this sprawl of suburban Nottingham council-built housing, and has played on these pitches a couple of times. As he sits on a bench pitchside munching a Penguin, the 20-year-old looks on with interest. Anything football-related, no matter how tangential, fleeting, low-key or low-rent, gets his attention.
He mentions a nearby pub, also called Inham Nook, which is currently shut, another boozer ghosted by the pandemic. He used to drink there, “but I didn’t used to drink much because I’m a footballer. I want to stay as healthy as possible. I have the odd pint of lager. I suppose it’s very nice, isn’t it?” he says ruminatively.
Whitworth is clad head to toe in sportswear. At his feet is a hefty kit bag packed with shirts from a variety of clubs, from Chelsea to Barcelona, LA Galaxy (away) to Cardiff City (the team he supports). There are also pairs of goalkeeper gloves, some unworn, some with dinosaur-like ridges across the knuckles and one with a dragon motif emblazoned on the padding.
Whitworth has training at six o’clock this evening with his own team. Codnor Athletic FC are a Derbyshire team who play in the Alfreton QTS Sunday League Division II – StorGuard. His first training session for the club, earlier in the summer, was memorialised in a YouTube video that’s had, at time of writing, 11,995 views.
Still, surely, even for a football fanatic, that’s a lot of kit he’s got there?
The explanation for the bag of swag (and the five-figure YT views for a Sunday League training session) is that Whitworth is better known as Cal the Dragon.
He’s a British TikTok superstar, a local lad done good, someone who took their hobby – football – and turned it into a social media phenomenon that, by the time the final whistle went on the ’20/’21 season, numbered 1.1 million followers and 37 million likes. As I write, even a video that’s nothing more than a slow pan round a local ground – captioned “What a pitch this was to play on yesterday!!!” and soundtracked by Olivia Rodrigo’s good 4 u – has had 3989 likes and 35.8k views in the three hours since Cal posted it.
But it’s that ordinariness that makes Cal’s videos on TikTok tick. He’s in his tiny back garden, saving shots in a small set of training goals. He’s firing balls into the same goals from as far away as the small back garden of a terraced house in Beeston allows (hint: not far). He’s watching 60-second snatches of Euros matches on his couch, occasionally jumping up, occasionally groaning. He’s standing in his bedroom, the wall behind him stickered with club badges, answering questions from fans with a Steve Jobs-style thoughtful thumb on his chin.
“Do you think England will win the 2020 World Cup?” Answer: “Lot of people ask me this. But honestly we’ve gotta qualify first before saying that.”
“Favourite retired footballer?” Answer: “Outfield, Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard. Goalkeeper, probably Peter Shilton.”
“Do you have a girlfriend, mate?” Answer: “I’ve been single for seven months.”
Or he’s unboxing the replica shirts being sent to him with increasing frequency from clubs all over the world. Or shilling for [Popular Make of Goalkeeper Gloves], or for [Leading Supplier of Football Training Equipment], or for [Disruptive Sports Drink Brand], just three of the companies who he says now sponsor him in kind and/or cash, keen to tap into the million-mob following of this normal kid from round the corner.
As we embark on a second Penguin in the sunshine, Cal tells me that he’s just back from an event in London, the day before the England/Italy final.
“A great day, that was,” he says with that familiar matter-of-factness. “It was a TikTok football event, just outside Wembley, while the Euros were still going. Do you know many TikTokers? You’ve got me, of course… I follow all the creators. There’s ZaynQF – God, he’s brilliant. He’s taller than me by quite a margin, think he’s six-foot-five. And he’s a cracking skillster, I tell you that. Some of the stuff he comes up with is outrageous.”
ZaynQF may also be, per his TikTok bio, a “Sports Direct ambassador”, but Cal has several yards’ pace on his 809.5k followers. “And you’ve got Luke_solvecollectibles – in a storage room he’s got a lot of football cards, you know like [trading game] Match Attax?”
Luke has 396.5k followers and, at the TikTok event in the capital, he fancied taking on the big man.
“He challenged me to a one-on-one. He’s a defender, that’s his position,” explains Cal. “I’m two positions – either a goalkeeper or a centre-forward. For Codnor, the team I’m playing for at the moment, I’m a centre-forward. He did score in the end because I failed to close my legs – he nutmegged me quite cleanly. But I got him back with a cheeky rebound.”
In the five days since he posted it, that video has had 646.5k views on Cal’s TikTok page.
Cal the Dragon posted his first video on 2nd May 2019. He wore a Cardiff City jersey and a Petr Cech helmet, and filmed himself in his toy goals in his back garden “making a superb save keeping out a brilliant shot”. The soundtrack was Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest and Paper Lace’s version of We’ve Got the Whole World in Our Hands (a modest Number 24 hit in 1978).
His TikTok name came from the manager at his old team, Manchester Dragons. Cal says he played for them for eight years but then wanted to “move on and challenge myself to a big club”. As for his goalie skills, it took him a while to learn “diving around and stuff”.
What made him put that first video up?
“Good question, that is,” he says in his flat Nottinghamshire accent. “Well: I was thinking, should I post something like this on a global site like TikTok? But I actually inspired myself to do it. And when I posted it, I was nervous, crossing my fingers because not many people were liking it. But literally, 30 minutes after I’d posted it, I was ecstatic because I had a hundred views.
“A day later, I posted another one, and that one did better. It was my first video to hit a thousand. And since then, it’s just inspired me to do more.”
On his page, Cal’s next video is dated seven months later: more saves, bigger goals, training in the dark. From his first year on the site, there are in total only nine videos remaining on his page. You can chart his progress experimenting with effects – slo-mo, swipe-cuts, rain and smoke – and he says that he deletes the ones he’s “fucked up on”.
Looking back, “I was just trying to figure out how this app worked. I knew it wouldn’t work like Instagram or these other social media [platforms]. Sometimes I post videos just for a laugh – if I make a mistake, I put it on. In one video, I was in goal, and it didn’t go in and it was a bit of a bad one – it hit me in the nuts. That was a bit embarrassing. And I actually swore on the video, which was even worse.”
But then, when Covid hit, “that inspired me to do more”, and the volume and frequency of his videos exploded. “There was nothing else to do so I thought, fuck it, I’m doing this. And when I really got myself going, they started exploding a bit more. My followers really started going up in September/October last year.”
“’Cause I was working harder on the videos.”
Now his videos regularly gain somewhere north of half a million views. When I ask for his position in the Premier League of UK TikTokers, he replies, “some people call me the most famous person in Nottinghamshire”. Could he become a millionaire from it one day?
How long till then?
Cal’s dad is more a rugby man, a fan of Leicester Tigers. Nor does his older brother Declan share his passion for football. But it’s what Cal lives for, and it seems reasonable to assume that his interest has intensified over the last five years.
When he was 15, his mum died. “She had a blood clot in her shoulder. My mum was only 38. It was random, she didn’t feel anything, it hit her and she collapsed. My dad’s a part-time paramedic so he was, of course, ‘oh shit’. And she actually died in my own house. I was asleep, because at that time I was going to bed quite reasonable, but since that day, I’ve been going to bed more like three, four in the morning.
“But I am an active person, and of course I try everything to impress my mum. Because she never saw me play on a pitch. She was more a cricket fan, anyway.”
Cal was off school for two months, but when he went back he managed to pass his exams. He left Foxwood Academy in Bramcote, then in 2018 went to the specialist Portland College in Mansfield to study “sports. I’ve completed my level 2, easily. All I had to do was coach 13-year-olds, and I did it brilliantly. I didn’t coach them football because that would be too obvious – I wanted to challenge myself. So I did a bit of basketball. I’m not good at basketball, I’ll tell you that, even though I’m quite tall. The last time I measured myself I was six-foot-one.”
Now he’s looking for a job as a football coach. Unsurprisingly, Cal’s dad worries about his youngest. It’s a tough employment market out there. Then you have his son’s fame in the online world, which brings haters, despite – or, often, because of – your millions of views, likes and shares. And Mr Whitworth has been “really worried” since Covid hit.
“I suffer from autism,” Cal begins. “I’ve got mild autism, so he’s worried that anxiety’s gonna get to me, and it did. Of course it would, ’cause I was stuck inside doing fuck all. So I was flipping out. If I lose it, lose it mentally, I’ll say things that I don’t actually mean. Like: ‘You’re a cunt.’ I said that to my dad once, but he knows I’m not doing it on purpose, it’s just me reacting to something. I say sorry to him but he says: ‘Don’t apologise, it’s not your fault.’”
He says he only found out about his condition when his mum passed away.
“I was lost for words!” he says, his voice rising. “I didn’t know what autism was. And through the years it’s been getting worse [but also] calming down.” When it’s bad, it’s hard “controlling myself. My autism takes full effect of me and I can’t stop doing something. I sometimes go into a panic attack, collapse on the floor and don’t move for a minute. Because my brain’s shut down and it’s trying to reboot itself.”
Pointing onto the pitches, he says he had one such incident on these very playing fields, during a match two years ago. When Christian Eriksen collapsed during Denmark’s opening Euros match this summer, Cal was struck by the similarities. He says his teammates formed a circle around him, too.
What triggers those panics?
“My dad tells me it’s either me working too hard and my heart can’t deal with it and it makes me go absolutely thingy. The other one is if I get some kind of urge to get somebody, if someone takes the piss out of me.”
During a year of lockdown, then, TikTok was a godsend for Cal the Dragon, giving him something to focus on. In turn, going by his views and follower count, this made him a godsend for others.
He says he has stated previously on TikTok that he’s autistic, “because a lot of people were asking. And they need to know about me a little bit, because I’ve got a lot of fans, you see.”
For all the swag and, apparently, cash that Cal the Dragon now receives, it’s that sense of community and kinship that seems to mean as much to him. He loves geeking out on football facts and opinions. TikTok, generally, provides a safe space for him to do that – and to be “liked” on a mass scale for doing so. Now he wants to share that like, too.
When I ask what he wants to achieve on TikTok, he answers: “Reaching out to more people who are struggling with mental health. I really want to get involved with autism charities. I’ve messaged a couple and some have actually got back to me and said they’d be happy to work with me any time.”
For now, though, Cal the Dragon has to go. Midweek training is calling. Before he leaves, I ask him for his message for his fans.
“Just believe in yourself. If you believe in yourself, you’ll achieve so much. Don’t let the haters get to you, and don’t believe what haters say about you. ’Cause they don’t know anything about you, they’ve never met you. So just go for it.”
Passion, knowledge and enthusiasm carries you a long way, I say.
“It does, yeah,” he nods. “That’s what’s carried me to now. Definitely.”
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