(Yesterday I started exploring how three separate and seemingly unimportant childhood experiences of sport went a long way to forging me, both politically and as a man. Today, the second in the series, I look at a vital game of playground football…)
When I was in Year 5 of my Streatham primary school, 9 or 10 years of age, we were challenged en masse by the cocky self-assured ONE YEAR OLDER Year 6 to an epic game of football that would episodically navigate many playtimes. Aside from the chaotic semi-selective interpretation of official Association Football, there was one rule: first to 100 goals wins.
Now, I was never an adept footballer. Too clumsy, lacking grace. Even my boundless enthusiasm couldn’t plug the gap. But this was Year 5 v Year 6. A year group rivalry. Like all good playground and park football, player numbers mattered not. If you were in the Year you were in the team.
Year 6 were The Favourites. Age, Strength, Cleverness. That was and still is the Natural Order of things. Phrases like “the Year Above” and “the Year Below” showcase a hierarchy so bluntly obvious – and ingrained – that it’s almost impossible to consciously notice! But still we indulgently imagined winning. I for one pleasurably fantasized the outraged faces of certain Undesirable Types in Year 6. The win would have been worth so much more presicely for its being unlikely, incorrect, unnatural.
And so, without pre-season training, without transfer window wheelerdealer-ing and agonised television contract negotiations, the game started almost immediately.
The “formation” would make a Opta Index machines explode. The self-defined star players of each side hovered ball-hungry up front, dreamingly certain of their starring role. Meanwhile a herd of lesser mortals camped in the background, a defensive crowd, a legitimized pitch invasion, or rather the medieval mob from the folk games of Association Football’s distant antiquarian origins.
Goals would be scored with almost basketball regularity, each team swarming into alternating counterattacks after the quickfire post-goal instant “keeper starts” restart of play. Goal. Goal. Goal. Goal. Miss. Goal. Goal. Goal. Miss. Goal. Miss. Goal. Goal. Goal. It was the failures to convert chances that were most noteworthy. Most memorable. If normal association football ritualises the heroic penetrative symbolism of The Goal, we children had built an alternative version that anti-celebrated the erectile dysfunction of The Miss. Playground embarrassment ritualised in real life real-time theatre. This had the potential to be A LOT worse than kiss chase…
Although the goals rattled in, the race to One Hundred spread out over more than a week of playtimes. Long enough in/a high enough proportion of our little short conscious lives to be well worthy of the obsession we had quickly lavished The Event with.
And so, about six school days later, we had finished playtime with the scores tantalisingly balanced at 98-98. The cockiness of Year 6 was rocked, their audacity reeling. Each side was two goals from a literally Vital victory. They desperately hoped to save themselves from profound shame. We were wild eyed in our eagerness to stick our snouts in the euphoric Champagne of this impossible victory.
As the clock ticked down teasingly to playtime it was obvious that the match would be decided there and then. Two goals. Only two goals.
It was to be decided there & then, in an anonymous South London arena of primary education, but to us a cathedral colleseum of unbearable drama…
We ran out to the concrete playing… er, field. We found Year 6 already there. Waiting for us. The episodic match started its final chapter with tangible intensity, both physical and emotional. Year 6 attacked immediately, but their play was broken up, and we counterattacked with the speed of Llewellyn, a kid who rumour had it was once run over playing football BUT HAD CARRIED ON. He skipped past The Year Above enemy and shot impressively… beyond the goalkeeper… GOAL! 99-98. One more goal! One more!
Glory on the streets of Streatham was within our grasp.
Year 6 surged forward like a wounded beast. I think I shouted at some still celebrating Yearmates “DEFEND! DEFEND!” But it was too late. Wham! They shot from (relative) distance to equalize. 99-99. You couldn’t write this script and all that bollocks. I was struck with horror at the delicateness of the situation, on a knife’s edge above ecstasy and misery. I dreamed immediate sorrowful hypernostalgia for the 99-98 comfort of only a few seconds previous.
With a mixture of luck and panic we broke forward. With zeal I galloped in front of the play. One kid was tackled hard in midfield and the ball rolled into my path. Thomas, a kid whose parents were involved in the local Labour Party, was (appropriately) on the left, SCREAMING for the ball. “PASS!! PASS!!” But I was in a better position, I was closing in on the goalkeeper. The goal was so big. So wide. So gaping. I realised we were going to win. I realised I was going to taste the pinnacle of rapture. I was going to score the 100th goal!
Glory on the streets of Streatham beckoned me.
I swung my foot at the ball with rare, beautiful certainty… a feeling of a such joyous conviction that I am still yet to re-experience such deep clarity. Every dance move I’ve ever pulled, every girl I’ve ever kissed, NEVER has it felt the way it did as I kicked the ball goalwards for number 100…
Ready to explode with roaring passion and throbbing self-worth, I looked ahead at the ball as it flew into the goal.
Erm… Except… it wasn’t there. Where the fuck was it?! My eyes darted in dread, up, left, right. Where’s the ball?!? To my left I began to hear Thomas erupt with the inaudible words of utter rage. And then I saw it. The ball. Still trickling along its path. I hadn’t just near-missed a shot. I had completely failed to connect. I had clumsily swiped my foot through thin air. The ball was collected by a grateful Year 6 before I could move. Thomas descended on me. “When I say ‘PASS!’ you FUCKING PASS!!!” His speckled scream-projected saliva shimmered wet on my hot shamed face. I turned to make amends, but within a second of running back to defend I saw Year 6 strike at our underbelly: our goal, so big, so wide, so gaping. Omar, the cricket-loving goalie, bravely saved one shot but was powerless as the rebound was scuffed into the top right corner. Year 6 had won. First to 100…
I can see it now, the way the football bounced off the brick wall inside the white paint right-angle of the goal “frame”. And the feeling. My heart dropping into my gut. The miasmatic air expelling from my lungs. The weakness overcoming my knees. The stooping of my back. The frantic wish for the ground to swallow me up and vomit me out anywhere else.
The aftermath was, frankly, vicious. Thomas didn’t stop screaming for ages. Everyone blamed me. I was the proverbial scapegoat, true. But I was also Judas The Clown who had utterly fucked up when heaven was before us (and most of all before Me.)
There was no glory for us on the streets of Streatham.
For what seemed like an eternity of cruellest purgatorial punishment (but in truth probably only lasted a few days) The Mob, my former teammates, banned me from playing football. I had to stand on the side and cheerlead with a bunch of proto-bitchy J17-aspiring girls.
What small confidence in the little footballing ability I had never ever recovered. I became a goalkeeper by choice. Well, “choice”…
But I’m not unhappy about this. This is Sport. I think. I was involved in a glorious drama. Exciting. Unpredictable. And, at the time, so very meaningful. Sure, I was the loser. I ended up as this drama’s Clown, Joker, Jester, Fool, Village Idiot, Comedy Villain, Unknowing Judas. And there are the famous Tears of a Clown, I can assure you. But… this is who I am. I’m not normal. I have been forged in the strangest but most exhilarating of furnaces. Why bother being sad? Live! (I try…)
The one sadness that I allow myself is political: the missed opportunity of the age-revolutionary upset using the cultural vehicle of Sport. Alas. Alas. Arse!