Monday, 12 December 2016

The creeping melancholy of the mid-winter break

Game 29, 2016-17

It's just before midday and 45 minutes before kick-off. I'm waiting outside the locked changing rooms with players from both teams, and nobody seems to know who's got the key. "We had our Christmas party last night," a bleary-looking player from the home team tells me apologetically. "It went on until 5.30." A couple of his team-mates manage a tired, knowing smile. They're almost bottom of the table, with 14 points. The visitors are top, with 46. No one's expecting any shocks today.

Almost clean sheet - players too
hungover to argue? 
The home team represents Sunday football in all its glory - hopelessly disorganized and severely affected by last night's alcohol. Late arrivals dribble in looking pale and fragile, then once out on the pitch chug around like dysfunctional steam trains clanking between randomly programmed lower gears. The ball seems to be permanently just out of their control, as though it's being manipulated remotely by a snickering deity with nothing better to do on a Sunday afternoon than taunt hangover-prone amateur sportsmen. Somehow they hold out for 20 minutes until the league leaders finally go one-nil up.

The hosts do have one good player, though - a grey-haired but slim number 10 who controls their game, distributes the ball, turns up wherever the play is, and is pretty much doing the running for all ten outfield players. Improbably, he scores the equaliser just before the half hour mark, but that's it. He can't carry his rapidly fading team for the whole afternoon and eventually they bring him down to their level.

The number 10 is a talker too, but he doesn't know the local language - he chivvies his team-mates
in English. He complains to me a few times in the same language, but I act like I don't understand a word he's saying. I wonder if he'll break out into profanity, at which point I'll have some choice rejoinders, but despite his numerous optimistic appeals for offside when the visitors are carving his side's defence into shreds, he keeps a lid on it. There's a part of me I'm not especially proud of that's a little disappointed.

With 25 minutes to go, the away team bring on a sub I know well - Danny, the youth team coach I ended up testifying against at a disciplinary hearing earlier this year. He manages to behave until the 87th. minute, then complains at great length about me not blowing for a foul against an opponent - dangerous play, he claims, as the defender had his foot way too high as he cleared the ball. Except that Danny was nowhere close to the ball at the time.

As we're walking off at the final whistle, one of Danny's coaches starts laughing and asks me if I hadn't been tempted to show the choleric striker a red card again. "You held out until three minutes to go," I say to Danny, "but you couldn't help yourself, could you? You had to have a moan about something." Danny makes the case for dangerous play once more, but his coach says, "It only seems like dangerous play to you because you're such a short-arse." Which is not only funny but, in the case of this particular non-foul, true. Even Danny manages to laugh, to give him some credit, though I'm sure we'll meet again in less convivial circumstances.

The next several weeks are off until play restarts in February. I should be happy at the thought of a break from people like Danny, but I'm not really - I'm into a confident rhythm now stretching back several weeks. Plus, without idiots like Danny this blog would have a serious shortfall of things worth writing about. I wouldn't exactly say that I welcome seeing him on the touchline or the field of play, but for better and worse he's part of the whole absurd fabric. 

Once the hangovers have subsided and the smoke has cleared from the New Year's fireworks, we'll all be more than ready (though probably not fit) to resume making inconsequential errors in obscure sporting arenas. 

Final score: 1-7 (one yellow card)

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

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