Sunday, 29 October 2017

"Someone's playing, Lord, kum-ba-yah"

Game 25, 2017-18

I last saw today's home club in March when I red-carded three of their players in a particularly ugly game. I concluded the disciplinary report with a lengthy musing on why teams like this bother to play sport at all, some of which read:

Message not received last time around.
"The way [the away team] played football today is an absolute mystery to me. Why bother playing if you're going to moan at your own players, your opponents and the referee all game long? What's the point of playing sport when, instead of reaping any joy from the game, you only seem to suffer pain? The disgraceful behaviour of the away team ensured that today there was not even the slightest trace of fair play, sportsmanship, enjoyment or respect on display."

I never heard anything back from the local FA (you never do - unless it's something bad), so when I received today's fixture I was interested to see if anything had changed in the club's playing culture. At the same time, I'd be lying if I said I was looking forward to the game. In fact, I mope around all morning wishing that I could go back to bed. The weather's rough, wet and windy. I'm suffering from
knee and back pains. That's stopped me from running and keeping fit these past weeks, and I generally feel run down and ill-prepared.

I know that the club in question has undergone at least one change since March, namely a sharp loss in form. Before today's game they are bottom of the league without a point, having conceded an impressive 105 goals in 12 matches. I check the team-sheet, and two of the three players I ordered off are nowhere to be found. Perhaps there was a clear-out after a mass fight at the end-of-season barbeque.

The weather doesn't get any better. I warm up against a bullish wind and a slanting rain. The pitch is an old cinder surface, hard and unyielding, except in the spots where there are huge puddles. The touchlines have been marked with the care and accuracy of a drunkard pissing up a brick wall. I suppose I could declare it unfit and bugger off back home. The only thing I'm grateful for is that I'm reffing this game, rather than having to play in it.

A scene from today's game.
And then, the first half is so peaceful that I fear both myself and the 22 players might all sit down in the centre circle, join hands and start singing Kum-ba-yah. Even when I award a penalty to the visitors, there's not a squeak of complaint. By half-time it's 0-4, making it 109 goals against for the season. Maybe the home team's become so used to losing that they're operating on a plain of enlightened spiritual calm. Maybe I've stumbled across the real essence of Sporting Purity - bottom of the league and four goals down in the rain at home to Rosy Heights Reserves.

At the end of the first half, one of the away team's players shakes my hand. "Are you leaving?" I ask him. "No," he replies, "I just thought you had a good half." I point out that there's a second half still to play, and that might yet open up a whole world of pain for all of us. He just laughs. Right, as if that could ever happen.

There's a different kind of pain, though. The home side decides that the best way to limit the 'goals against' damage is to start playing an extreme offside trap. It's pretty much all they do in the whole of the second half, although it seems to be the one football skill they're quite good at. The guests don't know how to cope with it, and inevitably their bench starts yelling at my decisions. With 20 minutes to go, though, an away team forward finally works out how to time his run and scores. Zen be damned, I'm now to blame for the home side being 0-5 down.

Home venue.
Amid general protests, the home side's number 3 comes up to me and asks unpleasantly, "So why are you reffing against us?" Ah, here we go. You had to spoil it, didn't you? He takes the only yellow card of the afternoon. But I'd have settled for that if you'd offered it to me at lunch-time.

That's the only animosity, though. I get hot coffee and a nice slice of cake right after the final whistle. An old fella shakes my hand. In the meantime, the lights in my changing room have bust and it's getting dark. A team official offers me his cell-phone so that I can use the torch. They couldn't be more apologetic. They could barely have been more sporting. After my morning of pre-match misery, I'm very happy that I refereed a game of football today. And that it involved these two particular no-name teams in a nowhere league.

Final score: 0-5 (1 x yellow)

Ian Plenderleith's next book, 'The Quiet Fan', will be published by Unbound in 2018. Click here to pre-order an e-book or paperback copy.

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