Last month, in this piece, I wrote enthusiastically about playing football again with a bunch of guys who are mostly my age. After a break for Christmas and New Year the Friday night fixtures are back on, but after self-isolating for 10 days with Covid during that time I am even less match-fit than before. I have made my excuses for the first two games of the year and plan to get my shooting boots on again before the end of the month.
Over the last 15 years I have kicked a ball around plenty of times with my children, and occasionally with adults too, but these kickabouts have never been competitive in any way. The main factor that has pushed me into playing (more or less) 5-a-side is the memory of playing in Hyde Park in the 1980s. Back in November I took a 94 bus home from town and as we passed Lancaster Gate I had a string of vivid memories of the people I played with and a few of the things that happened. We played, on and off, for five years. The following paragraphs (nearly a thousand words in all) are mainly about that first summer, and one match in particular.
During my first year at university a bunch of old schoolfriends started playing football in Hyde Park on a Sunday morning, along with a few guys who were involved in the music business one way or another. Among the regulars were the drummer and bass-player of a band we had seen often while we were still at school. Their mates included the odd roadie, promoter and producer. They were in their mid-to-late 20s. When I returned to London for the summer I joined them most weekends. I was still a teenager (these were the months before my 20th birthday) and even without stretching or training during the week could run around for 90 minutes without any ill-effects. We played near Lancaster Gate and were always finished by 1.30pm so we had time for a few drinks at a nearby pub afterwards. Back then, even in central London, pubs closed at 2pm on a Sunday.
These were informal matches, jumpers (or leather jackets) for goalposts, and they would typically end with both teams in double figures. The mode score, if we had kept a record of such things, might well have been 15-13. To us. Or them. The games were always close. If one side got too far ahead, we would swap players around to make things more even. The mood was mostly good-natured. The main reason to get annoyed with a team-mate was if they refused to pass the ball to you when you were much better placed to score. And unless this continued through a whole game the annoyance was short-lived.
There was one time when the mood was soured by someone who I had never met before but most of the other players had. I am reluctant to give any clues about who he was. A few hints (nationality, hair colour, some of his more notorious behaviour) would lead many people of my age and background to work out who he was, so for now there’ll be nothing too revealing and I’ll refer to him as Yer Man. He and I were on the same team.
It was the usual scene. Everyone took a turn in goal and returned to the outfield if they had conceded twice. The scores fluctuated, neither team got more than three goals ahead. Any annoyance with team-mates was short-lived. Except for Yer Man who decided, as the game wore on, to take his frustrations out on me, the only college boy on either team. I was an okay footballer. I could trap a ball, kick with both feet, and pass accurately. I was quick enough to run round most of the opposing defenders (especially the music biz guys, who were often nursing hangovers) and score a few goals. Even so, Yer Man was bawling me out as if I couldn’t kick a ball. Towards the end, with the scores at something like 14-14, it was my turn to go in goal. We conceded twice. Yer Man bawled me out again. It was his turn to go in goal. For us outfield players all was well. I attacked down the right, in my usual way. I made a goal, scored a goal, and made the pass for the winning goal.
I returned to collect my things from our makeshift goalposts. Did Yer Man acknowledge, however reluctantly, my part in our comeback victory? Did he look on, from the viewpoint of a goalkeeper with nothing to do, and take pleasure in winning a game of football, however insignificant? He did not. He scowled and muttered, staring at me as I collected my stuff. Maybe I should have kept my mouth shut, but I uttered two words that set him off again: “We won”. He ranted and raved and cursed me all the way back to Bayswater Road. I gave some back. I’d had enough of this shit. I might have been on my summer vacation from la-di-da College Oxbridge but I was working on a building site with my dad and my brother, and I’d spent enough time in pubs with them not to feel intimidated by someone like this. As is often the case, pushing back was the best thing to do. He went off in huff, didn’t join the rest of us for a post-match beer and, for all I know, took his anger out on some unsuspecting passer-by. My mates had been observing the whole thing a short distance away, far enough not to be directly involved but close enough to step in if things got uglier.
I carried on playing most Sundays that summer but Yer Man never returned, not while I was there. A year or two later, while I was away at university again, there were some properly organized games: 11-a-side, 90 minutes on a dedicated all-weather pitch, an actual referee. During one of these fixtures, Yer Man was playing on the same side as some of my mates. He got angry again. Things turned so nasty that the opposing team and the referee locked themselves in the changing room and refused to come out again until he had left for good. As far as I know, that was the last time any of my friends kicked a ball with him.
Some years back, I encountered Yer Man again. I was with my children, who were 8 and 10 at the time. I didn’t recognize him immediately but quickly worked out who he was. The chat was pleasant enough. He asked my name. I told him, truthfully, but it didn’t seem to trigger any recognition in him. I did not reveal our shared footballing past.
I don’t expect any of our Friday night fixtures to go the way of that notorious Hyde Park game, but if Yer Man turns up anything is possible.