Sunday, 23 October 2016

The greatest time and place - autumn, on the football pitch

Game 23, 2016-17

I'm cycling to the game and already there's a fight going on, but only between summer and winter. A chill breeze cuts across a silent Sunday afternoon, while a brittle sun struggles to find cracks in the clouds. The result: the comfort of festering autumn and the dying of the leaves. It's back to long-sleeved shirts for the next five months at least.

Oh Christ, the fucking ref's banging on
about autumn again.
I'm also thinking about all the things that could go wrong today. You try not to expect anything bad ahead of your games, but I last refereed today's home team 18 months ago. On that day I red-carded three of their players in the last 12 minutes of a fractious and filthy adult men's match that ended with them losing 1-0 to an injury time penalty. After the game I had to lock myself in my changing room while a drunk representative of the club banged on the door.

When I saw today's match-up in my inbox last month, I thought about asking for another game. Then I thought, What for? What are you scared of? Nothing really, is the answer. Today, I check the team
line-ups, and two of the players I'd red-carded are not in the squad - one had been dismissed for violent conduct, the other for twice screaming in my face about decisions he'd somewhat disagreed with. The third player, whose sin had been a mere brace of reckless fouls, is on the bench.

When I arrive at the pitch I recognise many of the faces, though the drunken club rep seems to be absent - maybe because there's no bar open this afternoon. Everyone's friendly, courteous and welcoming, which is not always a given. My guess is that while the game has possibly gone down in club folklore, they have forgotten who the hell I am. Maybe they kicked out their psycho players. Or they've long since come to terms with that particular defeat and have decided to forgive me.

The first half is as placid as Sunday itself. No cards, and the home side deservedly leads 1-0. At half-time the groundsman comments on what a sporting game it's been. "I've had quiet first halves many times before," I reply. "The main lesson I've learnt from that is not to automatically expect a quiet second half." Sure enough, after the re-start things get tasty - many more bad fouls, players niggling each other, and a sequence of loud and ludicrous penalty appeals.

There's a confrontation between the away team's number 9 and one of the home team's central defenders. I give the defender a yellow card for pushing the striker in an off-the-ball incident. After being 2-0 down, the away team comes back and eventually equalises in the 92nd minute. At the final whistle there's a lot of barging and boisterous debate. I guide them all off the field, after which anything that happens is beyond my realm of giving a fuck.

Laughably, we referees are supposed to encourage teams to shake hands in a line at the end of the game in the same way they are also obliged to do before kick-off. I've never enforced this. There's always someone who's pissed off at the final whistle, no matter what the result. Most days, it'd be like asking Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to end one of their piss-and-vinegar hate-ins by jumping in to the hot tub together for a joint and a glass of Pinot Noir.

Today, thankfully, no one at all is narked at the ref. The home coach mentions the "obnoxious" away team number nine. "Yeah, but you need to be a bit obnoxious if you're a striker," I say. As far as I saw he was just very competitive, and put himself about a bit. The coach agrees, and bemoans three injuries to his own team. He knows they should have put the game away at 2-0. As a neutral, I'm cool with the egalitarian outcome.

Two weekends ago I'd just come out of hospital after blood tests detected a lung embolism, and I'd spent 36 strange hours attached to a heart monitor. Last weekend I was in another hospital, listening to one of the people I love most in the world telling me that he didn't want to live any more. No matter what happened on the field today, nothing was going to beat the joy of being back in the fresh air, running up and down a pitch and blowing a plastic whistle. Football, autumn - I love you.

Final score: 2-2 (five yellow cards)

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

No comments:

Post a Comment