By Tom Sheldrick
A Saturday afternoon in the lower divisions of England…
Floodlights. A hundred in their winter jackets around the pitch, maybe two hundred. Rain slanting down left to right. A rumble as the players walk out. No.4 breaks away into a jog, knees up, sprint. Handshakes, chests puffed out. Piercing shrill of the referee’s whistle, crisp sound of the ball kicked for the first time.
Blue shirts and socks. White shorts, won’t be white for long. Right to left for the first 45. Down the line, and out for a throw. Five yards from the corner flag. 3, uses his shirt to wipe his hands. Options for him? His feet dancing together up the touchline, like a boxer’s punching flurry. Another step pinched. That’s not where it went out! 8 snapping in, biting. ‘You’re on a warning. Next one and you’re in my book.’
Possession football. 5 to 3, across to 4, back to 5, back to the keeper, hoofs up field. Lost it. 11, in space, wanted the ball, turns his back in frustration. Goal kick. Referee running backwards, looking over his shoulder, don’t fall over. 7 on the edge of the centre circle. One step, and the ball lands at his feet. Right place, again. ‘I’ll have, I’ll have.’ Easy, to feet, 11. ‘Time, time’. Eyes off the ball, under his foot. Sighs from behind me. 11, head down.
Linesman shuffling his feet back and forward on the touchline to keep warm. 2, ‘man on’, gets it out of his feet, up the line. The ball’s gone, he wasn’t watching it anyway. Studs stamped down on his ankle. 2 picks himself up, buries his hands inside his sleeves. Shirt ripped on his shoulder. Says nothing. 10 in front of his man, stands still a second, quick feet, legs pump in a burst and he’s gone. Right foot, still on his right, crosses with his right foot. Overhit. Half-time. Pint in the club house. That one’s the Chairman’s parking spot.
Second 45. Two come together, neither flinches. Click of stud on shin pad, knee into thigh. Pain, words you can’t make out. ‘Ref! Ref!’ The ball’s gone, they’re back up. 6 not quick enough. In to close him down, but the ball’s gone, and again, back past him. 5, step forward, arm up, to late, he’s gone. ‘He’s off.’ Linesman’s flag up.
He was well on. ‘Get yourself some glasses lino’ from behind me. The defender’s got a handful of 9’s shirt. Elbow in his ribs, no chance with the header. Arms out to appeal, thinks again. Pulls his socks up, trudges back across, feet barely lifted out of the mud. 2 now, beats the first man, through the next in the tackle. Impossible angle. What a goal, what a goal. Smiles, hands slapped, arms aloft in the crowd. Centre. 8 late again. Yellow card.
Medical man runs on, trousers tucked into his socks. Magic spray. 5 and 6 trot forward from the back. 11 to take it. Wall of men between ball and goal. ‘Keeper’s head against the post, gloves pointing. Shuffle forwards. Referee’s whistle. Not back ten. Jostling, shirts tugged. ‘Ooooh’… Over the bar… ‘Wheey!’ The boss’ throaty bark through the mist. ‘Rooky! Tuck in. Griff? Griff?’ Arms outstretched. They understand. Final whistle. Home win. Into the next round. See you Tuesday.
Royston Town FC 2-1 Stanway Rovers, FA Vase, 5th December 2009. The ground is called Garden Walk, and is in Royston, Hertfordshire.
Tom Sheldrick is a freelance writer and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org