Continuing the 'nostalgedy' tale from Crutches for Ducks begun in Good, Sports! - Part 1
My memories of football at both Junior and Secondary schools are not particularly fond, as you may have gathered. A bunch of us who “weren’t much good” would be sent off to some distant pitch on the outskirts of either Anglesey Road Rec. (“The Wreck”) or the Anglesey School playing fields. Once gathered there, the two most able footballers would decree themselves to be the team captains and would choose their team, one player at a time, from the dishevelled and miserable ranks before them. I used to regard it as a major triumph if, by some quirk of fate, I was not the last one to be picked, which didn’t happen very often. Having picked their teams, the captains would then assign positions. They (and their best mates) would obviously be in charge of the attack and mid-field (I’m trying to make it sound as if I know what I’m talking about here), whilst the rest would be given some vague defensive role (“stay back there and keep away from the ball”) and the mandatory “fat kid” would inevitably be consigned to goal-keeping duties.
I’m sure there is scope for some interesting research to be done into the psychology of children at that time, and their penchant for always consigning the dangerously obese to a role between the goalposts. It always happened. In fact, the pudgy one would usually start to trudge forlornly toward goal without being told to. No-one, to my knowledge, ever questioned the logic of this. I can only think that the idea was that sheer bulk would reduce the amount of available space between the goalposts and that this would counter the inevitable lack of athleticism. If this was the theory, the evidence of our continuing defeats ought to have inspired a re-think. I had a great deal of sympathy for our overweight goalkeeper and would frequently hang around the goalmouth, chatting with him while the rest of the team yelled and kicked seven bells out of each other at the opposite end of the pitch.
Defending wasn’t really a problem for me as I was rarely allowed anywhere near the ball. If the opposition attacked they would be met with our entire team running frantically back to the goalmouth in a desperate attempt to keep me and the “fat kid” out of the action. From my point of view, a game of football was rather like it must have been for villagers caught up in those 19th Century wars that Sean Bean did so well – surrounded by brief periods of noise and mayhem all around and then long periods of quiet and tedium. The only down-side was if, by some catastrophe (like the whole team falling down dead), I gained control of the ball. This was an accident waiting to happen. I would immediately be besieged by shouts from all sides, telling me to get rid of it (which suited me just fine). The problem was that I couldn’t kick straight to save my life and had no idea where to kick it anyway. Such was my ineptitude that I was quite capable of tackling myself. If I didn’t actually fall over the ball, or have it whipped away by some smart-alec from the opposing team, then I had no choice but to kick it – usually anywhere in the general direction of ‘away’. Wherever it went, it was always accompanied by a sort of prolonged groan from my team and howls of delight from the opposition.
All of which brings me to my moment of glory, my triumph on the ‘field of dreams’. I think it was in Junior school. We had finally developed beyond the ‘flying wedge’ system of football (one person actually kicking the ball and the rest of the team running immediately behind him) and now occupied assigned positions. For reasons that are lost in the mists of time, I was playing on the left wing in a forward position (perhaps someone with actual talent had been fatally injured or something and I was the only one left?) We were mounting an attack, of sorts, on the opposition’s goal. Our Centre-Forward was surrounded by opposition players and was desperate to get rid of the ball. Unfortunately, the only player, unmarked and within reasonable proximity, was me. Like a fool, I had been shouting for the ball, not because I wanted it or had any idea what to do with it, but because that was what everyone else did and I wanted to fit in. Bereft of any real alternatives, he passed the ball forward to me. Miraculously, I managed to trap it, without falling over or tying my legs in knots. Not knowing what else to do, I began to dribble it toward their goal. It was like a moment from “Chariots of Fire” (only with footballs, if you see what I mean). The opposition seemed to be frozen in time and space. As I ran toward the goal, no-one moved a muscle. My heart pounded and all around me seemed suddenly quiet and still. With only the goalkeeper to beat, I struck the ball as hard as I could and watched, in amazement, as it found the back of the goal. I had done it! For the first and only time in my life, I had scored a goal!
My triumph was short-lived. As the more astute amongst you may have guessed, there was a very good reason for the opposition and goalkeeper appearing to be frozen in time and space. Deafened by my pounding heart, I had not heard the referee blow for offside when our Centre-Forward had passed the ball to me. It wouldn’t have meant anything to me anyway as I had no concept of the offside rule and still haven’t (something else that we were never taught but were expected to know). One or two of the more sympathetic souls muttered something about “bad luck” but most of the rest of the team just thought it was unbelievably hilarious.
So, clearly Thomas Hood and I have similar feelings about this time of the year, but for very different reasons: