You’re not going to believe this, but it’s true (enough). Me and the lads were out on the park tonight cheering and jeering each other as usual on a Monday night when what do you know but a postman rides up to us on his pre Second World War rickety rackety bike, rummages around in his sack and extracts what looks like a flea-bitten telegram. He looks around us all and our collection of muddy knees, torn shirts and scuffed boots and eventually his quizzical gaze focuses on me.
“It’s for you?” He’s adopted that annoying upturn of vocal intonation so beloved of soap stars from the Antipodes and I nod and reach out for his missive. I rapidly tear it open, wanting to get on with our park kick about but on reading its contents, slump to the ground in disbelief.
“You OK.” states the postie, and I nod, partially dazed, semi confused and totally irritated by his inability to know the difference between asking question and making observations. More significantly, it transpires that our national football team has, on its build up to this year’s World Cup, had to remove several of its lower ranked footballers from its squad due to some mysterious case of food poisoning they have mysteriously picked up from some mysterious source.
The management have been forced right at the last-minute to survey the stats of some our nation’s more modest talent from the league tables that yours truly fills in diligently every week in my capacity as team secretary and have concluded that the best player in our league – as defined by goals, assists, back passes and good intentions – is yours truly. I have consequently been called up to join the national squad to play for our beloved country in what is, let’s face it, the pinnacle of all sporting achievement. Ever.
There’s little time to hang around. My flight tickets are waiting for me at the airport; my bags have been packed by the team’s coach who has had to spend yet more time in the poisoned atmosphere that is the modern jet liner fuselage to collect me and my old socks and my diet from now on will be severely restricted to no less than 15,000 calories a day. It’s going to be difficult to be jettisoned into the stellar attention of international football stardom but I’m as ready for it as I always have been.
I have waited all my life for this moment: it won’t hurt my team to wait that little bit longer for me to arrive and collect what is rightfully mine: the lifting of the Jules Verne trophy on Saturday 15 July in Moscow.
When I was ten I scored my first goal ever in a school football match. I was standing somewhere on the pitch facing in the right kind of direction peering into the mist which hovered over the mud and slowly, out of the king fisher blue of the sky looped this large leather ball towards me. I could see the panel stitching as if I was looking at it through a microscope – not the usual telescope I needed when it came to trying to navigate my way around the football pitch of life.
I stepped slowly towards it, stuck out my foot slowly and saw the ball ricochet off it slowly and sail back even more slowly from whence it came and through the space defined by the silhouetted goal posts and into the flaming autumnal sunset. I had scored a goal I found out later by a ‘half volley’.
All hell broke loose. I screamed, turned and ran down the opposite end of the pitch, my arms flailing in every direction. My team mates chased after me, screaming. The opposition looked on aghast at the unlikely spectacle of the boy who normally spent most of his football life engraving his name in the muddy pitch with his outsize boots celebrating scoring a goal. The whistle from the referee’s lips dropped into the mud. Even the sound of Amazonian drums could be heard in the distance, battling through the inertia of suburbia.
This was unbelievable, incredible, completely implausible as far as they were all concerned and the opposition’s captain, Johnson, showed then how to react the next time I got close to kicking the ball: ‘Get him, he’s dangerous!’ he yelled and to a boy they swooped down, ruthlessly depriving me of my next moment of glory by decking me, stealing the ball and running down the other end of the pitch in a frenzied horde to hammer the point home that they were the far superior side by scoring ten easy goals in the final five minutes of the game. We lost 15-1 that afternoon, and I knew how those guys felt last night when they were trounced by their opposition.
But that moment taught me all I needed to know about my future footballing destiny. I would be a permanent surprise to the opposition; they would constantly underestimate me; I would strike at the least likely moment in a manner which would leave everyone rooted to the ground, mouths fixed open in scarecrow gasps. I would be the guerilla in their midst.
73 – nil! Those were the days: moments of glory on the school playing field on a foggy Wednesday afternoon when the final whistle went and your school mates would gather around you, beaming their small faces at you from every conceivable direction as they congratulated you fulsomely on the 23 hat tricks you have just completed in your team’s undeniable slaughter of the opposition.
The juniors from Mrs. Myrtle’s class were never going to stand up to the superior fire power of Mr. Thompsons 4th years and your part in their downfall was heralded as the natural climax of a long and muddy school football season.
In those days, England had won the World Cup for the first (and only?) time and the nation rejoiced rejoiced rejoiced. We became our football heroes overnight and in the course of that fateful autumn season when I moved primary schools seven times, I was able to become Roger Hunt, Nobby Stiles, Bobby Moore, Martin Peters, George Cohen, George Best and Jimmy Greaves in six short months -playing footie with mates in a school classroom, at the park, in the garage, in a potato field, down an anonymous dirt track, in the kitchen and even once on a proper football field.
We all became our own heroes overnight and never looked back, plotting our own way to football fame and fortune ever since. We have of course all gone our different ways: Roger disappeared into medical supplies, George Best into pub management and Jeff Hurst into the funerals business: but me, I stayed lean and mean, waiting for the next major football opportunity. World Cups have come and gone but I feel it in my bones: Russia 2018 may just be the one where I make my mark and relive the joy of 23 hat tricks against the juniors.
Neymar, Messi, Oxlade Chamberlain: you have all been warned. This year is my year.
I’ve been running the touch line for nearly 25 years now, sometimes romantically casting myself as the Witchita Linesman in the Glenn Campbell tradition: always searching, never finding, always hankering after a golden past when football was simpler, purer and more respectful.
Refereeing the beautiful game has to me always been an honest and honorable reputation: shedding doubt, creating certainty, judging fairly and squarely, undeterred by the bigger commercial pressures on the game and the braggadocio of the noisier neighbours whose hourly take home pay far surpasses what my father could only dream of when he was a strapping 25 year old running the lines in the old days of Franco and the Generals. In his day, the referee was simply an integral part of the game: no ref, no game it was simple as that. You could have the players, the kit, the changing rooms, the crowds, the songs and the banter: but without the man in middle, replete with black shirt, shorts and shiny whistle, there was no game. It was started by him, it was ended by him. End of.
But these days it is nowhere near as simple and my father would been dismayed to see the extent that the games arbitrators have been ridiculed by those who should know better. Neither the players (no-one expects anything from them in terms of a balanced assessment of what has or hasn’t occurred in the last 30 seconds on the pitch) nor the managers (who patrol the pitches with the monkeys of their owners on their back constantly picking the fleas and the shit out of their mohair suits) and certainly not the agents (whose pension and future families inheritance depends parasitically on their entourage’s abilities to score, fake scoring or just faking it full stop).
Tonight though was different and I like to think that had he been still alive, he would have nodded approvingly, fully appreciating the pressure I was under.
I was running the line at the second leg of the Supercup tie between Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid. The Atletico player Tiago was booked by my colleague, Señor Borbalan and subsequently shown the yellow card. This prompts the Atletico manager, Señor Simeone to castigate everyone in sight, pulling his hair out, shouting, screaming, gesticulating, exhorting the crowds to get behind him and his team. Señor Borbalan promptly shows him the red card and sends him to the stands.
He of course is appalled and remonstrates with anyone who cares to listen. Nothing new there. His temper rises to the occasion and in orchestrating the crowd to turn into a baying, illiterate mob behind him, he faces up to me, eyes agog, invective pouring out of his collective mouths like I had just shagged his mothers, and I then turn away from him and he hits me on the back of the head with a couple of slaps. Not fully fledged swipes or punches, just a couple of slaps. Quick fire, one after the other.
I’ve looked back at that moment on the media replay many many times. Sitting in this cell waiting for the ultimate judgement from the authorities makes me wonder what on earth came over me at that point.
I see the surprise look in my eyes, I see his sneering face. I see his glossy moustache glistening in the stadium lights; but I don’t see the hatred that arises through my guts, my heart, my liver; I don’t see the punch I throw straight at his face and the surprised look bloodily spreading down his face; I don’t hear the temporary stunned silence of the crowd as they realise that this Man in Black has had enough and in one mad moment, retaliates with enough venom to sink a whole battalion of intergalacticos. I slap him back: not once, not twice but countless times, a generation of pent up resentment and silence finding a voice. I, my father and my colleagues have waited long enough. This was the moment when the dam broke.
After that, all is blackness. I see myself on the TV monitor kicking him several times in the stomach at the side of the pitch, but I don’t remember doing it. I see on the screen some officials dragging me off him and pinning me to the ground, but I don’t remember seeing them there. I see myself on the CCTV footage being bundled out of the stadium in the back of a police car; but I don’t remember hearing the wailing sirens or screeching tyres.
The first thing I become conscious of is the newspaper headline the next day: Man Bites Ref: Ref Bites Back. It’s an allusion to the journalistic truism that whilst dog bites man is not news, man bites dog is; and the suggestion that we men in black are nothing more than dogs in the public eye is not surprising although it is tiresome in its predictability.
The next thing I hear is Glenn Campbell’s sweet soulful voice wafting through my prison cell window and I’m reminded of my father and his constant running the lines through thick and thin, through rain and snow and through Franco and all his generals, none of whom had the audacity to slap him around the back of the head when he sent off a manager for misconduct.
And I need you more than want you,
And I want you for all time,
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line.
A rough and ready premise for a football rags to riches jumpers for goal posts toad turned prince naturalistic mythic saga about four ordinary lads who set out to do the extraordinary – taking a lower division football team to the heights of the premiere league, the league cup, the FA cup, European championships and world domination in Mexico city – and then management of the England football team in just one extraordinary, ordinary season.
Tom, Rick, Dave and Sally are four ordinary football punters – going down to their local team every Saturday, sitting through intolerable football matches played against intolerable opposition on intolerable Saturday afternoons in the wet rain snow sunshine fog and hailstorm, week in week out. Their team – Onthe’ead United has been suffering in recent years with a lack of money, gates, management, players and the final straw is the imminent take over of the ground by the devious property developers Snout Grubb and Lovely who are making no bones about their collective desires to buy up the ground and turn it into a multipurpose sports, shopping, leisure, youth justice community and DiY centre with optional allotments.
Our four heroes reckon in a drunken binge that they would be far more capable of running a football club than any of the erstwhile owners are obviously capable of. In a rash new years resolution they decide to take on the forces of the football association and law and order and make a rash attempt to take over the club. They offer anonymously through a third party New York financial executive who is in the process of bringing down the whole of western capitalism, a paltry sum to buy up the club, its players, grounds, assets, liabailities and club mascot – a mingy terrier called Jimmy Hill who has just been slung out of the kennel clubs’ regional annual dog show rounds, the finalists of whom will be making it to Crufts at the next international show. Jimmy Hill, a miserable little specimen is aggrieved at his rejection and plans, at the next available opportunity to take his revenge.
Much to our gangs surprise and chagrin their offer s snapped up by the clubs owners. Before the first week of the new year is up, the four have moved in and carved up the responsibilities between them. Tom fancies himself as a coach, only having ever been rejected by the school football teams when he was in primary school all those 40 years ago. He has a bone to pick with Stanley Unctuous, the teams centre forward who rejected him all those years ago but who has since fallen on hard times himself, turning into a semi part time alcoholic who plays football as a means to salvaging his credibility with his family who look askance at him from the side of the pitch every Saturday afternoon.
Fifty Years of Hurt! Your Saturday afternoons and English football will never be the same again.