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.

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