Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Don't let your mind wander during one-sided games

Game 9, 2016-17

Boys under-17, it's the first round of the Cup on a close late summer's night. I can already tell by watching the away team as I warm up that this game's not going into extra time. The goalkeeper's not a goalkeeper, they only have eleven players, and there's a certain lack of intensity to their pre-match drills compared with the well synchronised home team. Okay, make that a complete lack of intensity.

Don't think of beauty sleep 
while you're reffing
The away team play with one forward, a striker with the mobility of a cruise ship in a swamp. The passes played up to him seem clouded in a heavy pessimism as they leave the defender's foot. They come straight back and the pressure is unforgiving. The home team's goalkeeper doesn't get a touch of the ball until the 30th. minute, by which time his side is already 4-0 up.

The temptation for the referee is to switch off and discount the game. To start planning in my head what I'm going to be doing tomorrow. To make a mental list of the 92 English league clubs, and to tally how many of their grounds I've been to. To name all the Tanya Donelly solo albums.

You have to remember to keep concentrating, though, because this game is still important to all the 22 players. The lads on the home team - fit, slick, and focused - are all playing for their starting spots. Against an opponent like this, they sense the chance to get on the score sheet. Every pass, run and tackle is a stage in their development and a snapshot of their youth. Maybe by tomorrow I won't remember the central midfielder's cracking shot from 30 yards out, but he might re-live it for years.

Their opponents too never give up for one second, despite being outclassed in every conceivable way. One midfielder has no football talent whatsoever, but doesn't stop running for the whole 80 minutes. When he finally makes a successful clearance late in the game, I almost cheer out loud. At one point, his side string together five successive passes, and their coach and some of the parents yell out praise and encouragement.

There are no yellow cards, and only one murmur of dissent. Honestly, the away team seems to enjoy the game as much as their victorious opponents. Final score: 14-0.

You can support this blog by buying Ian Plenderleith's latest book, The Quiet Fanhere.

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