the last defeat

I accelerated tentatively over speed-bumps and climbed up through a hilly grey council estate, laden with snarly-looking youths, then pulled into a car park.  The main changing room building was painted in possibly approved luminous graffiti.  In front of it was a well-kept children’s play area and in front of that was a single football pitch.  Lining the perimeter were white fences, giving the impression of a standard of football I wasn’t familiar playing.  Behind each goal was a dancing inflatable balloon advertisement for something.  Was this the right place?  A team-mate pulled into the car park behind me.  It was the right place.  I was early and there were traffic issues for most arriving from a different direction.

My one troubled-looking team-mate and I took a bench in the otherwise empty children’s play area, enjoying the late afternoon sun before the ordeal of our final football match of the season began.  It quickly transpired that he had things other than football on his mind.  We’d shared beers and laddish chats on a couple of team nights out, but didn’t know each other too well.  Nonetheless he shared that he was going to see his girlfriend of six months to break up with her after the match.  He’d never dumped anyone before.  He wasn’t feeling any spark.  Had I ever dumped anyone before?  I listened, shared thoughts and a little history, he looked wistful and worried.

The lovelorn combative midfielder and I loped apologetically past the opposition changing room to our own.  They were all kitted up and ready with a good hour to spare: young, keen and fit – a proper football team.  You could almost tell they’d won the league already just by looking at them.

Our changing room slowly filled up with players, most shaking their heads in exasperation at the traffic and failed set of traffic lights which were causing chaos a short distance away.

A peculiarly alien sense of occasion was tasted as we finally trotted out onto the sun-hardened pitch, ducking under the white fences.  On the steep bank between the children’s play area and one touchline were several scores of locals sitting in anticipation of the match and a long warm evening.  Some had beers, some had joints, a few professional photographers with tripods behind a goal: this was an occasion.  Nobody had told us, the league’s bottom club, whipping boys and laughing stock.  Only then we learned that they were to be presented with the league trophy after the game: champagne, presentation, photographs.

We were the fodder.  It could get embarrassing.  Nerves were veiled with weak jokes about changing the team around at half-time if we were thrashing them.  Our piecemeal set of players were unfamiliar as ever.  I had a quiet word with the Manager, requesting a full back berth rather than the centre back one I’d occupied for most of the season.  I’d enjoyed the last twenty minutes of my previous game at left back and felt infinitely more comfortable there than centre back.  It also gave the relished opportunity to attack.  He listened and I joined the brief team warm-up.  He called us together and announced the starting line-up with me at right-back.

The match started brightly for us.  Not only did we not concede early, we held our own and went in front with a long distance strike from a diminutive attacker.  Discernible crowd OOoos added to the sense of spectacle.  We held our lead for a further ten minutes, played passing, flowing football and continued to pose a threat.  They were stunned.  I felt good attacking down the right and whipping a couple of dangerous balls across the face of goal and linking up with attacks as well as fulfilling defensive duties up against a young left-winger.

Then they got together and we conceded two inside the following ten minutes.  Everyone feared the opening of flood-gates; it was how our season had gone.  They were ahead now, let us not get crushed in front of all these people, we privately pleaded.  They had the better of the play and the opportunities, were unlucky not to score again before the break, but we hung on and occasionally hit on the break.

The second half saw me switch wings to play alongside the bank of home crowd: old men who just wanted to watch a football match, adolescents, parents and children.  Taking throw-ins, my panting for oxygen was stifled by the sickly sweet waft of cannabis smoke.

We were still penned in by their attacking force and fitness and attacked less as a result, but still refused to yield.  I still felt reasonably fit, sharp and able, was confident more space would appear in the last third of the match when people tired.  This was the stage of the game when I grew more confident in my stamina and ability to get up and down the flank.

Around the hour mark I bowled the ball a few paces ahead of me to take a free-kick and realised my name was being called from the far touch-line; relayed via team-mates.

What?  I hadn’t for a moment entertained being substituted.  I was playing ok and enjoying the game, feeling good.  One of our centre-backs looked confused at me and shrugged as I jogged past him.  “Thought you were having a good game mate, dunno what he’s doing.”

Shit.  Disappointment slunk into me as I trotted across the pitch to kind applause and Well Dones from both sets of players.  There was still plenty of the game left.  It was like Gary Lineker against Sweden in 1992 when Graham Taylor pulled him off in his last game for England despite him looking and afterwards saying he felt good.  It was JUST like that.  Well, sort of.  It hadn’t been a fun season but I hadn’t quite decided if this match would be my last.  I didn’t throw a tantrum but the natural reaction is to take your top off, not necessarily to hurl it in the manager’s face or on the floor, but just take it off: a kind of natural disassociation, a sign of disappointment and disagreement.  Bastard.

It didn’t alter the pattern of the game.  Still the champions attacked with greater purpose and in stronger waves, but still they couldn’t find the killer third goal.  Our attacks became less frequent, new baffling substitutions were made.  I would have offered more potency down the right, had I been maintained.  Instead I leant back against a fence, my sweat cooling, adding to a penetrative chill.

2-1 it stayed until the full-time whistle, the opposition’s palpable relief some sort of acknowledgement for the efforts of the basement boys.  We watched and sportingly clapped as the sun set and they were presented with their cup in front of local newspaper photographers, jubilantly bouncing around, spraying (probably very cheap) champagne in the air.

Dogs (and cats)

Dogs have soothed the souls of lonely, bitter men for time immemorial.  Cats have done similar for women, but can their application be easily demarcated and reasoned by gender?

To me, cats fundamentally appear more feminine: flighty, aloof and unpredictable, pretty and confident and choosy; yet not loyal.  They will go anywhere for food or affection.  You could reasonably argue that the latter points apply equally to dogs, although my hunch is they would be more obviously inclined to identify their owner, and stay close.

Dogs’ affection is less calculated than cats, possibly because they are more dumb, trusting and forgiving creatures.  If you have children who mistreat cats and swing them around by their tails, they will leave.  It’s how ours adopted us when I was small; that and my coaxing.  The then villainous toddler is now standing for election as a Liberal Democrat councillor.  Not sure if there’s any connection.

Dogs are stupider than cats, more male and gullible – as anyone who has ever feigned the throw of a stick, whether they have something in their hands or not, will testify.  Cats are less likely to be duped.  The eagerness and willingness to be excited, to look really pleased to see you and wag their tails and grin, yes grin, and not want anything except your attention: that can’t help but be warming.  The unadulterated pleasure, the transparent zest for life, for walks or for food: that cannot help but be partially infectious.

The cat equivalent?  A sprightly approach, a nuzzle, a where’s my food?

For the avoidance of doubt, the dogs I refer to here are proper sized dogs.  Most certainly not yappy little accessory hounds with weird faces, but not massive Dobermans or Rottweilers either.  Mid-size family pets.

Pet allegiances often depend on preferences formed at a young age, according to your strongest bond with a pet.  Mine was to a dog 6 weeks my senior who I’ll never forget.  Since then I’ve hankered for one of my own.  That craving has grown with the years I’ve spent living alone, and more recently working alone from the same place.  Just having a soft furry canine presence on the floor that calmingly mooches about the place, something to look after and walk and nurture, and give reason and structure and routine, a living breathing body to look pleased to see you when you come home; that would be brilliant.

Well, much better than nothing, better than a row of meals for one and that last lonely can of Guinness.

As a mildly pathetic bloke who searches, mostly fruitlessly, for recognition wherever he can get it, having a dog would surely be an easy win for the ego.  LOOK!  SOMEONE LOVES ME!  They require considerably less effort than women.

But owning them can be attractive to females, albeit probably just batshit crazy ones.  You see it in films so it must be true.  It mightn’t offer the level of human validation that wheeling a cute toddler down a high street in a pushchair does, (in that brief spell a few days ago, not a single attractive woman walked past and I wanted a refund of some kind) – yet it does suggest a base-level of responsibility and care.

Sadly, tenancy agreements for those perpetual renters of property, as I am, never allow such luxuries.  Not beyond fish, if you can even call them pets.  Or maybe, at a push, silly halfway pets like rodents or rabbits.  I want a proper dog.

playing games

Outside looks grey, wet, blustery and cold today.  I could stay in my flat, have a cosy Saturday with crap television, a DVD film, Xbox and a supply of hot drinks.  Instead I’m going to go and play football again, for reasons I can’t properly explain, but will try.

I haven’t enjoyed much success in over a decade playing eleven-a-side football on Saturday afternoons, never at a high standard or for regularly winning teams.  My young nephew could be fooled into thinking otherwise by a clutch of cheap trophies which adorn my parents’ spare room, which is both mine and his when we visit: a couple of Players’ Players (one as 18 year old goalkeeper conceding over 100 goals in a season), a league winner (17 year old bit-part player), a cup final runner-up, a ‘most improved’ (aged 28).  It doesn’t look a terrible haul.

Yet for the amount of hours spent on cold Saturday afternoons, for all the effort, pain, disappointment, mud, sweat and yes, in the earliest years – tears, has it been worth it?  The needle falls heavily on the side of No, but still I keep going, in search of an unlikely glory.

That one-in-a-hundred chance of connecting beautifully with a ball and striking it into the top corner of the net from distance.  They CAN happen.  And those extremely rare moments make everything indubitably worth it, even if only for a split second.  As soon as those moments are captured, experienced, loved, they are indelibly printed into the memory bank for what you hope will be forever.

Selfish perhaps, for it is a team game.  But essentially, everyone plays the game selfishly.  The first thing you reflect on is your performance.  It’s not the result that matters when you don’t get win bonuses and pay for the ‘pleasure’ of playing.

This 2010/11 season with my sixth team has been particularly bad.  I started out in the first team after somehow convincing through summer training sessions that I was up to it.  After a handful of average games – some of which we won, some of which we lost – I was correctly demoted to the second team and haven’t moved.   And I haven’t experienced anything other than usually heavy defeats since then.

On Thursday evening we lost a hard fought, bruising encounter only by a margin of 3-1.  Our team was reworked and I played at central defence with a much superior player: a politically demoted first-team player.  He was so superior he wanted to do everything for the team everywhere on the pitch, regularly vacating his position and coming back.  His confidence and efficiency unsettled me, like a drunk bluebottle pinging from wall to ceiling to wall to window when you’re doggedly trying to get to sleep.  I’m more comfortable playing alongside players who are roughly my equal in ability, who I can communicate with.

I still feel stifled by being automatically lumped to centre-back simply because I’m slightly taller than average therefore marginally more capable of winning headers.  I think I offer an attacking dimension through a base-fitness, mobility and willingness to run in the closing stages of games, which is overlooked.  In my mid-twenties I had moderately successful spells at wing-back and right midfield, but as thirty crept closer, pushing me to centre-back appeared the obvious move.

Now I mourn for earlier times in my playing days, when I took it upon myself to generate a midfield momentum in trying to haul games back.  As fleeting as it was, I massively enjoyed the sense of control, power and command; it flattered every ounce of my otherwise pretty modest being.  I still fondly remember hearing an opposition player scream “we’ve got to do something about him!” and definitely meaning me.  That was probably the only time it happened.  Now I get warned by surly team-mates for getting too far forward.

Everybody wants to get forward and attack though.  A sense of progress and the lure of a notched point is inherently more glamorous and glorious than tracking back, defending, blocking, just holding court.  The human male’s inclination to greed and ego means there’s always less desire to not concede than there is desire to score.  It’s probably why we have wars.

*

This new defensive partner and I had never really connected off the pitch.  He evoked the unspoken messages I occasionally receive from proud Welshmen: that they resent my English confidence somehow, my gall at coming into a team completely cold and slowly integrating into the group.  Expressions flicker with suggestions of ‘just oo the fuck dyoo think you ahhre then, prick?’

Or perhaps I’m oversensitive.  Not all of them by any stretch, just a few, and by different degrees.

My personal match last Thursday was disappointing – and in truth I’d have still been disappointed had we scraped a draw or even won.  In part down to my dominant defensive partner, I was peripheral and shaky in possession of the ball.  I lost the trust of my team-mates and myself early on and never recovered.

Being a confidence player means that if your first few touches in a match are good and come early on, you’re settled.  If they’re not and don’t, then you’re not.  Add the defensive partner to this and I was never comfortable.

Not until right at the end.  A swift interception, a succession of won aerial duels, a burst into midfield to help out a midfielder looking for an outlet.  I collected the ball, took it a few paces into the opposition half and slid it into a channel for an underrated young Scotsman, who indirectly produced a chance which ultimately led to our goal.

After the game I was silent and sullen and sulked.  I reached the changing room corridor clutching a corner flag to see I was beaten back only by my defensive partner.  We hovered outside the room, waiting for whoever had the key, unspeaking.

He’s been promoted back to the first team for today’s match.  I haven’t made myself available for next Tuesday because of the Spurs-Real Madrid match and have a small hunch that, if I leave today’s game as miserable as I left Thursday’s, today might be my last for a while.

But who knows?  Since beginning this post, outside has begun to look a little less bleak.  It might be the afternoon for that thirty-yard screamer.