Thursday, 1 September 2011

Being Shit At Football

I love football. I love watching the game, talking about it and even writing about it. Above all else, I love playing it. Which is somewhat ironic given that I’m definitely worse at kicking a ball around than I am at any of the other things listed.

I was a latecomer to the sport. I only really got interested in the game because my friend Sean Bonnett was an avid Manchester United fan – at the age of eleven this seemed as good as a reason as any to start supporting them. But despite acquiring the full set of United’s Pro Set Collector Cards, it was not shiny pictures of Clayton Blackmore and Mike Phelan which caused me to truly fall in love with the sport.

Having been persuaded by friends to go to my school’s football practice I struck a perfect left foot volley. It was an acrobatic scissor kick which smashed into the back of the net. I beamed with joy. The PE teacher, Mr Kirkwood, told me I was ‘a natural’. I wasn’t.

Nobody takes up football at the age of eleven and goes on to be a great player. Too many of the basic tools are missing. And this is why my primary school football career consisted of one abortive game in goal (my next- door neighbour scored a very soft hat-trick past me), an appearance in the second XI which we won 7-1 and a few turn-outs for the first team when they were particularly desperate. But I didn’t care. I was now a footballer.

Secondary school was a far less enjoyable affair. I was thoroughly committed to turning out every game but out year group was, quite frankly, fucking useless. I developed into a left –sided forward who flitted in and out of games and scored an occasional goal. We always lost. Heavily. In one extremely one-sided defeat I caught the ball on my own goal line. I’d simply given up. I wanted to get sent off but the referee merely awarded a penalty – he felt pity on me. The shame.

Far more enjoyable were the endless nights spent playing small sided games, World Cup or knockouts at school. As soon as the bell went for the end of the academic day we’d rush to the pitch and belt a ball around. I was fairly good in goal thanks largely to a flagrant disregard for my own clothes. I’d throw myself at anything, caring not one jot how much mud I ended up caked in. My mother was less enthusiastic. But even when playing outfield I ended up filthy. I modelled myself on Mark Hughes – determined to spank overhead kicks, diving headers and flying volleys into the onion bag. It was the aspect of the game I understood most.

Sadly, it’s also the reason I never turned into a very good eleven-a-side player. The majority of our games were played into one goal on a tiny pitch. I never learned to make space for myself, appreciate the game, read the play. The focus was always on charging towards goal. It’s hugely enjoyable, but it’s never gonna turn you into Xavi.

Despite this I was usually one of the better players in games at school. I was also bright and well behaved. And as such I became captain of the school team. I got to choose the line-up – a move which guaranteed me a place up front whether I deserved it or not. But bright moments were few and far between. I once celebrated a thirty yard strike by piggybacking a teammate back to the halfway line only to realise that it never went in – one of our strikers actually scored the goal when the ball broke back off the crossbar.

Our most infamous incident occurred in a cup-tie. Two or three goals down at half-time, the gigantic defender who had marked me out of the game remarked that we ‘were easy’. I responded with a classic retort: ‘like your mum’. Sadly, it transpired that his mum had died very recently. I spent the second period leaping out of scything challenges and running away from a furious beast of centre half. Realising that I was too quick/cowardly to be caught, he instead launched a potentially leg-breaking challenge at a teammate making his return from a pinned ankle. A 21 man brawl ensued (our keeper bottled it). Our fixtures were cancelled for the rest of the season.

Realising that the school football team was always destined to be dogshit, I searched for a new place to play – and found it in the Driffield & District Football League. A few of my mates played for Forester’s Athletic and soon I did too. I was never likely to be talent spotted, but I had my moments.

In the world of park football, multiple pitches are crammed together in close proximity. During one pre-season game, a bunch of my friends were playing on the pitch behind ours. Having had two perfectly legitimate goals ruled out for spurious offsides, I intercepted a slack backpass. With only the keeper to beat, I nonchalantly bent the ball into the bottom corner with the outside of my left foot. My buddies on the opposite pitch were waiting for a corner to be pinged into their box and were all facing our goal at just the right time: I bowed straight at them rather than celebrating with my own team.

That was probably the highlight of my career at Forester’s. Lowlights included getting struck directly in the testicles after charging down a clearance. And scoring a goal with my nose. I don’t remember that strike fondly: it was a deflection which cracked me in the face and plopped over the line.

And so on to university. There was never any chance of me showing sufficient dedication to play for a decent uni team. Instead I threw myself into a very amateur form of football as a way of making friends. Tragically, my first game resulted in a rocket being launched at my groin from approximately three yards. I bled from my penis. For days. I’m pleased to announce there was no long term damage.

Nowadays a play five-a-side twice a week. On Mondays I’m definitely one of the weaker performers. It’s clear that some of the guys play regularly and to a decent level. They push short passes around, seeking space and bossing each other around the pitch. I do as I’m told, work pretty hard and occasionally impress even myself with a piece of skill or a fine pass. On Fridays I play with colleagues. Some of them are knocking on for sixty and the vast majority are older than me. Even at 31. I’m the quickest, the most skilful and I score the most goals: I’ve found my perfect pitch.

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