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

Monday, 5 December 2016

Winter tames man, beast and footballer

Game 28, 2016-17

It's one degree centigrade, and the pitch is semi-frozen. Is it playable? I have no idea - I've never had to judge a frozen pitch before. Usually at this time of year teams play on turf or cinder, and the grass fields are locked and bolted until late spring. I run up and down it without falling over (always an achievement at my age), but that's nothing like turning on it with a ball at your feet.

Standard winter playing
 conditions, in 1980s England.
I think about the frozen English pitches I sometimes played on as a kid. During one foggy game the grass was stiff with frost, and all I could do was pray that I got substituted. We were losing by several goals to a team of big lads and I didn't care. All I wanted was to feel my frozen toes and fingers again. Finally my number came up and I ran for the changing room, faster than I'd run all afternoon. It was locked. Longing for warmth and the final whistle while on the touchline, it turned out, was even worse than longing for warmth while playing, when you could at least run around (there were no such thing as training tops in 1980s Lincolnshire).

So, according to my memory, you can play on a semi-frozen pitch, just not very well. But both teams are here and warming up vigorously. No one's falling over. Bugger it, if they're happy to play then let them. If people start slipping up and breaking limbs, I can always call it off.

As it turns out, the semi-frozen pitch is not really a problem. A few players fall on their arses, but they