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.


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