Game 20, 2016-17
Yet again it's a gorgeously warm weekend, despite the first yellow notes of autumn. My game's south of the city, across the river and then five miles through the forest. The whole world's out doing normal Sunday afternoon things. Couples cross the foot bridge holding hands, on their way to an art gallery or a museum. Others lie by the water, reading books, unpacking picnics, drinking a beer. In the woods, people are dog-walking, bird-watching, horse-riding.
|Where John Keats might suggest spending|
Sunday afternoons (with a fat joint).
The strong smell of weed hits me before I see two young men finishing off a joint and flipping the tab end away. That's something else I wouldn't mind doing on a day like this. But hang on a minute, I'm already at the ground, and these young men are walking in there too, just ahead of me. One of them stretches out his arms and runs on to the field like an aeroplane. His friend laughs and then they make their way towards the away team's changing room. Well, maybe today's game will be all relaxed and mellow fruitfulness.
Yeah, right. It only takes 13 minutes before the first histrionics. Three away forwards are behind the home team's defence. One of them receives the ball, and he's the only one of the three to run
through the back line as the ball was played. That is, he's the only one who's not offside, and he scores. The home team screams that three men were offside, how could I not see them? The club linesman is unhelpfully standing with his flag raised, shouting, "Referee, that was offside!" 0-1.
A few minutes later, a different away forward receives the ball, level with the second to last man. He also scores. The club linesman again stands with his flag raised shouting the same thing, "Referee, offside!" Again I ignore him. 0-2, though this time at least the defenders don't complain. But then the home team's winger is played free out on the left, a yard offside and I call it. His fellow forward runs up to me and screams in my face - how come I'm only calling offside against them? Dude, because life's a bitch, and here's a yellow card to prove it.
By half-time they've pulled it back to 2-2. The little linesman comes over to me, all upset. What's the point of him being there if I'm going to ignore him? I explain why neither goal was offside, and then that his role is only to flag when the ball goes out of play. It would hardly be credible if I kept ruling out goals for the away team based on the decisions of the home team's voluntary linesman, would it? He nods curtly and walks away, looking like he's about to burst into tears. He must be almost 70 years old.
As usual it gets rougher and louder in the second half. Stacks of fouls, copious whining, and then just as it seems we've made it through, there's a flare-up between two players over a stupid throw-in near the corner flag in the 88th. minute. Now, finally, it's Kindergarten Time - within seconds everybody's there, pushing, cursing, sweating, threatening, letting it all out. There's at least one insult about somebody's mother. I'm about to blow early for full-time, but then I think, "Fuck it, we've made it this far, let's see it out." I show the two instigators yellow, and everyone settles down. There's still time for one more yellow card (the eighth of the afternoon) for a nasty foul in midfield, but to my amazement it doesn't set everyone off again. Maybe the weed's finally kicked in.
For once, no one seems to blame me for the result. On my way out, players from both teams nod and say goodbye, which is about as close as you get to gratitude. I cycle back through the forest, acorns popping beneath my tires, and feeling content enough. "What an insane way to spend a beautiful Sunday afternoon," I say to my family when I get home. They just look at each other and sigh.