Saturday, 15 September 2007

Playing to the gallery

First published in Sons View, 15 September 2007, Dumbarton -v- Albion Rovers

Though you can grow into it (I’ve heard a number of ‘slow conversion stories’), football is often something you either get or don’t. It’s as much about instinct as learning.

My partner, like a significant majority of her fellow Americans, is basically in the ‘don’t get’ camp. She swears that, before we married, I hardly ever mentioned the Beautiful Game. This may be true, though I recall one or two broad hints!

Anyway, as soon as we settled down domestically, disguising my secret passion became a darned sight more difficult.

There were soon three people in this relationship. No, not Camilla or the patter of tiny feet. I’m talking about me, Carla and (when I’m staying up in London on business) a TV tuned to Sky Sports News – the only thing I’ve ever thanked Rupert Murdoch for in my life.

The best way I know not to get caught up in football is to cut myself off, hermit like, from its news tentacles. That worked for a few years in the early 90s, but as I got more professionally dependent on the internet it became impossible.

Walking outside the front door is also something of a football addiction hazard, too. That’s because we live only a short hop away from the local park – where I have been actively encouraged to walk and run to keep my ageing bones from atrophying.

Rather foolishly, Carla once dismissed footie with the usual “22 men just thumping a ball around” routine. The ball, undeniably, is indispensable. But the number of people involved in a game, their age and gender, are a bit more flexible. Especially in the local park.

Now being a ‘true football fan’ (as I like to put it – there are other medical designations, I’m told), I’ve never really been able to walk past six kids belting a tennis ball into a goal-shaped pile of coats without getting at least mildly absorbed.

Thankfully I’ve not quite got to the stage of being one of those sad gits who starts shouting coaching advice from the ‘touchline’, while absent-mindedly kicking stray dogs out of my line of vision.

Nor do I charge into the junior fray, demanding a place in the forward line in the vain hope that at least I might finally be able to get a hat-trick against a bunch of eleven-year-olds. I’ve been tempted, but they’d rightly call their social workers on a mobile and get me sent off.

No, I just wander along the path, listening intently to Carla (of course)… and wondering whether those lads in the muddy jumpers might be better off trying a diamond formation to wrestle control of midfield from the ones in the, um, other muddy jumpers.

If I’m really lucky, some hapless hoof-footer (of the kind I used to be at school) will fork the ball off the ‘pitch’ altogether, straight in my direction.

This is not an opportunity to be missed. The way to handle it is to stay cool, trap the ball with your instep, raise a suave eyebrow in the direction of the nearest goalkeeper, and nonchalantly punt the ball eight feet to his left. Like you intended it.

Meanwhile, the household conversation has moved towards a conclusion, and my participation is clearly vital.

“So you agree that’s what we’ll do for our holiday, then?” Carla asks, interrupting the seamless tactical machinations of my finely-honed footballing brain.

“Yes, that sounds fine”, I venture confidently. “Great idea! You’re wonderful, darling.”

Carla looks cynical and unconvinced. “You haven’t been listening to a word I said, have you? You’ve been watching those kids whacking a ball around and waiting for that chance to impress them.”

I am wounded by this wholly unfounded accusation and protest strongly. I have heard, I assure her, quite a few of the many wise words she has been lobbing up field in my direction. I’m just not sure which order they went in or what they mean.

But Carla’s usually right, and there’s more than a 50/50 chance that saying “yes” is the sensible thing to do.

This time I have apparently agreed to give up a relaxing week in the country so that we can rebuild our entire house out of organic straw using our bare hands while eating only rice, or something.

Whatever. At least I managed to see that lad with no jumper and a puce shirt head a beautiful goal into what would have been the top right-hand corner of the goal – if a pile of jackets had a top right hand corner.

So there really is an up-side to everything, I think to myself, consolingly. That’s what I like best about football.

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