Life, Death, Football & Friendship
On playing football with your mates. Every week for twenty years. (Photography: Geoff Crawford)
We play football, every week, fourteen of us. And then we go to the pub. It’s a different fourteen every week. The fastest fourteen to reply on Sunday evening, when an email announces the game is on. As it has been every week. For almost twenty years.
We started playing before some of us were born, when some of us were in our early forties. Some people have moved away. Some retired hurt. Knees, ankles, pride. No-one’s died yet. But they will. We all will. That’s why we play.
It’s not that I like to play. It’s that I love to. That I dream about it by night, meditate on it by day. Sometimes my thoughts are close to prayers. Not to be on the winning side. Just to be in the fourteen. To be able to play. One more time.
For me, the weekly ritual is neither exercise nor competition and those I play with routinely remark that they don’t see me doing much exercise or posing much competition. But then, what with the state of their eyesight, some of them don’t see much at all. And they rarely see me as I see myself, an Özil or Berbatov, whose languid style is compensated for by another slide-rule pass. Whose moderate jog is mitigated by a deep sporting wisdom, uniquely gifted by the passing years.
Naiively, some of my fellow players misread this as lack of application or commitment. Even laziness. Some of them are more competitive. They love to play too but more than that, they love to win. Which is why a Thursday evening is the only evening when the oldest of friends will invite you without hesitation to ‘track fucking back, you lazy fucker’ and you implicitly understand that no personal injury is intended in this carefully crafted request.
‘Close him down!’ ‘Inside!’ ‘Back door!’
We have our own language, even if it’s not always clear, at any given moment, as we dart and dribble through this lumbering, sweaty din, who is actually shouting at who.
‘Can somebody get back here to defend for fucks sake?’
And always, afterwards, bald pates and beetroot faces glistening with sweat, we shake hands and become our grown up selves again.
‘Alright then?’ (Sheepish look.) ‘No damage done. Coming to the pub?’
Men are different on a football pitch. The mild-mannered academic is the midfield enforcer, channelling his inner Roy Keane. The visionary designer claims he ‘didn’t see it’. The gentle, hospice nurse, wiping the lips of the dying by day, reveals a killer instinct in the penalty box. The company director carries an air of affront that his secretary is not bringing him the ball on a plate.
Underneath it all is our rage, the rage that Dylan Thomas saw, our rage against the dying of the light. We know how a perfectly weighted pass can postpone the falling dark, a sweetly timed volley can hold back the night. Even an unlikely save or last gasp tackle. We know it’s only delay. We know what’s coming, how the light fades every week, every year. No wonder, sometimes, our rage boils over.
When we have our fights we do not break flesh. Ours are cartoon brawls. A mistimed tackle misinterpreted as GBH, briefly translated into handbags at three paces. A curled lip, some choice language, a squaring up and minor threat involving body parts.
‘Alright fellers, calm down.’
Someone usually intervenes but it happens to us all, competitive or not. Despite my prized inner pacifist, I once came close to decking a friend after his Norman Hunter bites-yer-legs turn landed me flat on my back.
But boiling tempers do not explain why, some weeks, after the game, when everyone else is in the pub, you find yourself leafing through dog-eared magazines in a hospital waiting-room. That’s about something deeper, more obscure, about why you step out onto this wooden field of dreams in the first place. It’s about how your mind refuses to recognise what is happening to your body. About how you still feel inside that you’re 21, even though, outside, you can barely remember being 41. And all this explains why your arm is now strapped to your chest and a friend, still, like you, in shorts and trainers, is explaining that even though you broke your elbow as you landed, it was a spectacular attempt at a scorpion kick and everyone was really grateful that you tried.
And you notice that this friend is here with you, when he could be in the pub. That he left the match to drive you here, and that this is one of the ways you measure friendship. Like you measure it when someone else turns up at midnight, after the pub has closed, while you’re still waiting for your arm to be put in plaster. Still waiting to make the embarrassed call home.
‘It’s nothing, I’ll get a cab…’
Some of us have been playing so long our kids have ended up playing with us. We’re the ones pretending we’re not biased when we pass to them, the ones trying to look serene when they whinge at our ponderous decision making. We match their speed with our guile, their indignation with our gratitude. We never played football in a team with our own dads because our dads were never as young as us. They belonged to another generation. This is among the gifts of the routine and regularity of a twenty year game, the unforseen endowment of longevity. A thousand hours of football and still most of us are not that good. Except at being friends, at which we’re better than we ever were.
Slowly, we concede that we’re getting older, that how we moved at 14 is not how we move today. No matter how great our faith, how much we believe.
You can’t ignore this as you wake up next morning, the audible creaks of your body a reminder to buy more strapping: for your knees, your elbows, your ankles. Eventually this swaddling will hold together your whole shuddering frame but in return it will offer you a few precious minutes of added time, before the final whistle.
Even so, this week the left instep, right big toe. A month back a knee, refusing, next day, to bend. Before that an ankle, swollen to a waist measurement. But still, every week, inside, aged nine or ten again, ghosting the wing like Giggs or Best, nutmegging time itself. The years, dazzled, rooted to the spot. The darkness held at bay a little longer.
Soon we will be benched for good, surrendering at last to this clumsy mortality, fluent only in our own decrepitude. Every transcendent pass and sublime strike now confined to the super-slo-mo of fading memory. No more screaming, swerving, sacred volleys, which, just once, or twice, managed to say that thing that we were always trying to say. That thing our words could never quite articulate. No more part of this hopeless, hopeful crew, this furious, faithful chorus of life.
‘Track back, for fucks sake!’
‘No offence. Coming to the pub?’