Our initial problem was actually getting eleven people onto the pitch for the game. On the Thursday before the match we only had seven players and to top it all we had no goalie. However we had been assured us that it would be fine, this other lot were involved in the bottom rung of Sunday league football and from what he had heard were pretty hopeless. It was just going to a run out, a chance to see if we could form a Sunday team, it was strangely exciting.
We were asking anyone with two legs under the age of fifty that we even vaguely knew if they would play. Whilst this was going on we were also trying to borrow a full kit from someone so that we could at least look like a team. On the Friday evening we gathered as normal in The Flyer, when I arrived in the bar Trev was chatting to Phil, the landlord when I joined them it sounded like Phil had been talked into playing although he obviously still had doubts.
“Just don’t expect too much from me, it’s twenty years since I’ve played and I can’t remember the last time I moved at anything more than a stroll.”
“Don’t worry Phil, you can play at the back, you won’t need to move beyond the half way line. From what I’ve heard their forwards are rubbish, it’ll be a nice little run out for you,” replied Trev.
“OK then, I think I’ve still got my old boots somewhere, God knows what state they are though.”
“Great that’s sorted then,” says Trev. “Welcome aboard.”
Trev and I wander over to our usual corner of the bar to join Rob, Deano and Ad’s.
“How’s it going lads?” asks Rob.
“Well, I’ve finally talked Phil into it,” Replies Trev. “He’s going to play at the back, oh and I’ve got a kit sorted as well. Someone that dad knows is going to drop it round to me tomorrow morning.”
“Good man, I think that you should be the manager, you obviously have the organisational skills that we are looking for,” says Rob. “Everyone else agree?”
We all say yes, Trev raises his glass and says with a grin.
“Well it’s a great honour boys, now where do we find a keeper? ‘Cause I ain’t playing in goal that’s for sure.”
“Oh, I might have some news there,” say’s Ad’s. “Turns out Lisa’s new boyfriend used to play in goal when he was in school, she’s going to ask him tonight. They should pop in here tonight, so you can talk him into it boss.”
“That’s if your sister can keep him that long, she’s got slippery fingers that one, can’t seem to hold onto anyone for more than five minutes.”
“Talk of the devil,” says Rob.
We turn to look at the door and in walks a very odd couple. Lisa is, as ever, dressed for a Hollywood red carpet premier, all high heels and exposed flesh, everything she is actually wearing glitters and shines with garish colour, all topped off with her newly coloured mass of platinum blonde curls, which bubble excitedly as she walks towards the bar. Towering over her is someone straight from rock school central casting. Long, ruler straight hair drops down his back to the base of his perfectly distressed leather jacket, which swings open to reveal a black Motorhead T-shirt, which obviously contains a suitably muscular torso. Of course he is wearing jeans, complete with some intriguing rips around the front of his thighs and the chunkiest pair of black leather bikers boots that I have ever seen.
We all turn back to look at Ad’s.
“Is that him? Asks Trev.
“Yeah he’s called Nigel apparently,” says Ad’s laughing. “Never spoken to him myself, she’s only been seeing him for about a week.”
“Well he’s tall.” I say. “That’ll come in handy.”
“Yeah but how long will it take him to dry his hair following the after match shower? Says Trev.
“Tell him that we can’t afford to pay his shampoo bills, we’ll be bankrupt before we’ve even started.” I say.
Lisa waves at us, goes up on her tiptoes to have a word in her chaps’ ear and heads over to join us.
“Hi sis, didn’t bother getting dressed up tonight then.”
“Now then Adrian, don’t be nasty to me or I won’t let Nige help you out.”
“OK, you’re right we need him, more than I need to make cheap jokes at your expense.”
“He’s a big lad,” says Rob. “Haven’t seen him around before.”
“No he lives in Clifton.”
“Blimey, how did you manage that? I thought the council had an exclusion zone around Clifton to keep gold diggers out,” said Rob with a grin.
“Who’s a gold digger? I earn more than him you know. I’m not just a pretty face.”
“So, what does he do then?”
“Well Rob, for your information he’s an actor.”
“Been in anything we would have heard of?”
“Not yet, but he’s got some things lined up.”
“TV, films, adverts?”
“Well I’m not sure but he tells me that he’s just waiting for the right offer to come along”
Nigel is now making his way over to us, Lisa does the introductions as he grabs a stool and sits down alongside her.
“So Nige, I hear you’re up for a game on Sunday?” Says Trev.
“Yes, Shelley tells me you guys haven’t played together before, so I guess you’ve got no idea of the standard?”
“Well a few of us used to be pretty good, no idea about the opposition though,” Rob chips in. “It’s a chance to cement your place in history, to be one of the original members of the glorious team that changed the face of local football in Bristol!”
“Well Rob may be over selling it somewhat,” says Trev. “It’s just a chance to have a kick about, we will have to wait and see what happens after that. When did you last play?”
“A couple of years ago, when I was up in London. Some of my mates had a Sunday team; I played five or six games, before heading back to Bristol. I’m looking forward to a bit of a run out.”
During the course of the evening we found out that with the help of a few more friends and relations we have actually got the eleven names that we need to raise a team and we start to get quite excited about the game. I have to admit that I had a big concern about my fitness levels, the couple of training sessions in the park had helped but I was still spending more time with my hands on my hips, trying to get my breath back, than punching the air after scoring a cracking goal.
Sunday morning came dry and sunny, proper first game of the season weather and at 9:30 we were standing outside the pub, kit bags in hand and looking forward to the game. The only problem was that Rob had not showed up.
“Phil, Can we use the phone in the pub to give him a call?” Trev asked.
“Sure, come with me,” he replied.
No sooner had they gone through the main door, then Rob’s car came screaming round the corner, all the windows were down and the staccato rhythms of Blue Monday by New Order was hammering out into the previously quiet Sunday morning street.
He pulled onto the pub forecourt, almost running over Nige’s foot as he did so.
“Good job you’re in goal Nige,” Rob shouted above the music. “Your footwork was a bit slow there mate.”
“Don’t worry about me mate, I’ll be fine,” Nige replied.
I went into the pub and shouted out that Rob had arrived; I can see Trev with the phone in his hand whilst Phil knocks back what looks like the remains of a glass of whiskey.
“Just to settle the nerves,” he says to me. “Want one?”
“No thanks, not really my style,” I say as I head out to join the others. We all pile into cars and take the short journey to Vassells Park and into the changing rooms. Trev opens up the kit bag and an appalling smell engulfs us all.
“What the hell is that stench?” Ad’s says.
Trev puts his hand into the bag and brings out what should be a blue and white shirt but it’s covered in dried mud and even some green mold.
“Didn’t you check it boss? Asks Rob.
“No, it was only dropped round last night, when I was out. He told me that it hadn’t been used since last season; He didn’t say it hadn’t been washed though. Sorry guys, this is going to be pretty grim.”
I grab a shirt but decide to stick with my own socks and shorts, as I slip it over my head the smell is disgusting. “I don’t think they will want to get too close to us,” I say as I dash out of the changing room as quickly as I can in an effort to get some fresh air.
Our opponents Downend Albion are looking pretty impressive, not only do they have a nice clean kit; they also have four or five balls, which they are warming up with, and a goalkeeper who has a cap – very professional. By way of contrast, we have one ball and a ‘keeper who doesn’t even have a pair of gloves. Trev smashes the ball over to me from about twenty yards; it bounces awkwardly on the lumpy pitch and catches me in the balls with a deadening thump. All the wind leaves my body and my eyes glaze over as I desperately try to give the impression that it didn’t hurt. I summon all my strength to knock the ball back to him, and the ball trickles about ten yards in a trajectory which would have seen it going about twenty yards to his right had I connected with it properly. The signs are not good.
Looking behind the goal I notice Phil, kneeling over as he throws up in a series of noisy convulsions. Deano has forgotten his boots, so is gingerly running across the grass in a pair of trainers, with the morning dew turning the grass is something of an ice rink, it looks like Dean is going to spend of lot time on his backside. Sure enough moments later he tries to change the direction of his run and down he goes with arms and legs flailing.
“C’mon lads, let’s enjoy this,” shouts Rob. “Keep the ball down, let’s try to pass it around a bit. Stay calm and let people know what’s going on around them.”
We kick off; I don’t touch the ball for what seems like an eternity. I’m running around, but my legs appear to go at half the speed of all the Downend players. Time and again I move towards the ball, only to see it knocked away from me just before I get there.
“Jonsey, get with it man,” Shouts Trev. “Don’t back off them.”
I try to shout back that I’m trying to “get with it” but nothing comes out of my pointlessly open mouth. I’m so far off the pace that a stray pass, suddenly drops at feet, no one is with forty yards of me.
“Stay calm,” I think to myself as I move towards the ball.
A thousand voices shout at once:
“Time”, “Jonsey, knock it down the channel”, “Use Rob”, “Bring it out”.
It all merges into one huge blur of noise as I dash towards the ball. Somehow, I manage to catch my foot in the grass and the next thing I know I’m falling face down onto the ball, which catches me in the nose with enough pressure to bring tears to my eyes for the second time that morning. I can hear the laughter from the Downend players as one of their forwards makes rapid ground towards me. I try to get up but slip again and he whisks the ball away from me and heads towards our goal. Seconds later the ball is in the net we are 1-0 down and it’s all my fault.
“Sorry lads,” I mumble. “How long to half time ref, I ask the Downend sub who has taken charge of the whistle.
“How long? Seriously?”
“About forty minutes mate. We’ve only just started!”
Somehow I make through the next forty minutes and the frequently mentioned second wind does arrive. Fortunately it provides much more impetus than the first one, which had left me decidedly becalmed. We are, by this stage, 3-0 down.
Of course we have no water, oranges or any of the traditional half time pick me up’s, though a few of the lads are enjoying a quick fag. No-one can think of anything sensible to say, so we lie on the ground in a state of shattered silence, before we know the Downend lads are trotting back onto the pitch and off we go again.
The second half continues in the same vein, us chasing the Downed players around and only briefly coming into contact with the ball. Phil is starting to look extremely agitated, and when a Downend player knocks the ball through his legs and runs around him, it’s obviously the final straw. He takes an enormous hack at the young lad, luckily missing him by a mile. He’s not finished yet though, somehow a burst of energy sees him draw level with his nemesis but instead of trying to tackle him, Phil simply jumps on his back, dragging him to the ground followed by wave after wave of fortunately poorly aimed punches.
“Nobody takes the piss out me, you little…”
“Phil, stop it, STOP!”
Shouts Rob, who is the closest player to the action. By now the Downend player has squirmed away from Phil’s grasp and running round in circles trying to get away from him. One his colleagues though has another idea on how to end the spectacle, rushing over to kick Phil’s legs from under him then gripping him round the throat he shouts in Phil’s face.
“Stop it old man, take your sorry ass off the pitch and don’t come back, or you will have me to deal with and I won’t be so reasonable next time.”
Rob, Trev and Nige coax Phil back to his feet and persuade him that maybe it would be best if he went off.
“Yeah, think I’ve pulled a muscle anyway,” says Phil as he shuffles off, the limp strangely swapping legs as he goes.
The rest game of the game is played out in a restrained manner with everyone trying to avoid anymore explosive confrontations, not that I have anything left within me to explode. I’ve never felt so drained of energy, nothing really aches it’s just as though my body feels as though it doesn’t belong to me, it won’t follow the most basic of instructions from my brain and I’m desperate for the match to end. In the last few minutes of the game Rob, who is the only member of team who can still run at this point scores a great solo goal to make the score 9-1, we shout our well done’s to him as we are all too knackered to actually run up to him and give him a well deserved slap on the back. Then the whistle blows for full time and I sink to the ground, feeling that I may very well stay there for the rest of my life.
In the changing rooms hardly a word was spoken. How had we let ourselves become so deluded, that we actually thought that we would not only give that a lot a game but that we would beat them?
“Whose idea was that? I’ve never felt so awful, every part of aches,” moaned a weary sounding Trev.
Nobody had the energy to answer him; I just sat there staring at the cold concrete floor, trying to work out how I would find the energy to take off my boots. Even my fingers were tired, as I discovered when I tried to pull the laces open. I can’t grip the end of the lace firmly enough to pull it, what has happened? You don’t even use your fingers when playing football, if they are in this state what are my legs going to like for the rest of the week?
So I just sit there, some of the other lads had started chatting but I am unable to fully register anything that is being said. As well as my body being exhausted, my brain appeared to be a spent force as well. I lift my foot again, and with all the concentration and strength that I can muster I tug at the bootlace on my right foot and just about manager to drag it free, allowing me to slowly loosen the boot. It feels as though my foot has expanded, so even though the laces have been undone, it’s still a huge effort to remove my bruised and tender foot from the boot. Eventually I manage to ease it off my heel and the boot falls to the floor with a loud snap as the metal studs come into contact with the concrete surface. I go with through the same protracted procedure with my left boot and feel as though I have made a huge achievement. Socks, shin pads and shorts come off without too much effort; I then peel off the stinking shirt, which clings, tightly to my body. I try to throw it into the bag with the rest of the kit but as with everything I’ve attempted today, I’m hopelessly off target. With a slight shudder, I manage to stand and remove my underwear, before taking the painful walk to the shower. It’s only now that I realise how many blisters I have on my feet, forcing me into involuntary skips and jumps to avoid putting pressure on the damaged areas. I feel as though I’m walking over a bed of hot coals, although all the heat is coming from my own body rather than the cold and suddenly jagged floor. The showers are, of course, freezing cold. Each jet of water attacks my body like a thousand tiny ice shards. Again I’m forced to move more quickly than my body would wish to do as I move away from the stream of water, stubbing my toe against the wall in the process. After the briefest possible time back under the shower I head back to the bench, slowly drying myself as I go.
The atmosphere in the room has perked up; plans are being made to head back to The Flyer for a Post Mortem on the mornings events. The walk to the car is a tentative and painful one, I appear to have developed a slow motion version of the Charlie Chaplin comedy walk as I tentatively wobble from one foot to the next.
Phil is sitting behind the bar as we go in.
“Sorry about that lads, I just got frustrated, I guess that I’d be kidding myself into thinking that I could just pick up from the last time I played.”
There are a few of us like that,” Trev replied. “I just didn’t think that it could be that bad.”
Rob appears alongside us.
“Come on lads, we weren’t that bad. I know we didn’t have many chances but we kept going. It’s all about fitness and awareness, that comes from playing games. The more we play the better we will be. This is just the start.”
“Really,” I say. “I’m not sure I can do that again.”
“Why not?” Rob replies. “After your little accident with the first goal, I thought you were one of our best players,” he continues.
“Yeah Jonsey, if going to take a dive make sure that someone is within kicking distance of you, that was just embarrassing,” says Nige.
“All right, I know I was a shambles, don’t think I completed a single pass.”
“Shut up, you got some great tackles in during the second half. That was just a game to get us in the swing of things, after a few more of those you’ll be fine,” says Rob.
During the next hour or so I notice than Rob is having a similar conversation with everyone. Playing up all the good parts in peoples’ games, whilst dismissing any perceived weaknesses. He even has a good word for Phil, persuading him that anyone would have snapped in similar circumstances, I have to say that I wasn’t so sure about this line of argument. I reckon that Phil would be better pulling pints than pushing wingers.
His persuasive words must have worked on everyone, three weeks later we were at it again. The game was arranged at fairly short notice against a team of Ad’s workmates, luckily the three week gap had just about given my broken mind and body time to recover from the trauma of the first game and I was actually looking forward to putting a few things right. A few of us had been meeting for a fairly gentle run and stretching session a couple of times a week, I was starting to feel a little fitter, which I figured would give me a chance of playing at a level which I was happier with. Thankfully for all of us, Phil was going to be away at a family wedding, so any clever forwards that were due to play against us, didn’t have to worry about an eighteen stone man jumping all over them.
Without Rob’s individual pep talks, I feel pretty sure that I, and many of the other lads, would never have pulled on a pair of football boots again. He’d managed to convince us that the only thing stopping us from being good players in a good team was familiarity with playing. He was sure that we had the ability, temperament and attitude to play, we just need to give ourselves the chance to get used to playing and the rest would fall into place!