There comes a time in every man’s life when he has to hang up his boots. Here are 7 tell-tale signs the writing’s on your changing room wall.
1) Back in the day, hell would have to freeze over to stop your teen self feeding your football addiction. Rain, sleet, snow, hail; none could dampen your enthusiasm for a kick about down the park. Now, 20 years on, ‘what’s that? A grey cloud. No, sorry fellas, can’t make work footy, something’s come up’. After a hard day in the office, you almost thank the gods for the rain. Your evening still involves football, just in the all too familiar way that’s a little easier for your weary adult legs… ‘this programme is sponsored by Amstel and Continental, UEFA Ch…’
2) Yet, some brave souls decide to tackle the equation; ME+FOOTBALL ON THE ASTRO IN JANUARY = HOW COLD? The answer is very cold.
You are older now, wiser too, at least you think. Yes, you deride Rooney and co for wearing gloves when it gets a bit cold. ‘A snood, really? What a sissy’. But step outside the warmth of your armchair and the brutal cold awaits. That Christmas pudding is still jingling around in your portly stomach (well, in mine at least) but its warmth is long gone. So off you trot onto the astro, wearing more layers than Joey dressed up in Chandler’s clothes. Yes, you’ll play but you ain’t getting cold. Jogging pants? Check, Trackie top? Check. Gloves? Check. Hat? Check. Shorts underneath? (we know they won’t be seen). Check. Your 13 year old, skins in Winter self would be ashamed of you, you wimp. I can see that scarf.
3) Kick off is ten minutes away. ‘TEN MINUTES! Shit, I need to stretch’. So off you twist, bend, contort, in the desperate hope that you don’t pull a hamstring or wake up tomorrow feeling like Kathy Bates has given your legs the once over. That would be misery. There’s something about the vulnerability of your adult frame, something you know, from those days hobbling into work after massaging deep heat into your thighs in the wee hours, prone and prostrate, that means these ten minutes are crucial. They are the chance to save yourself, your job, your relationship, to avert a man made disaster. Use them wisely.
Oh how times have changed. Only a 13 year old keen on Mr Motivator inspired mockery, ridicule and laughter would bust out these shapes next to the bikes for goalposts.
4) It’s lunch time, the match is well under away, sweat pricks your forehead then drips onto the clean, crisp white shirt your tired mum ironed last night, you see him, he’s running at you, freshly cut summer’s grass beneath his feet. He’s fast this one, athletic, pounding towards you, you think one thing, she loves him. But you love her. Here’s your chance to inflict pain, violent retribution for the pain you feel, the pain of unrequited love. In 20 years time you’ll remember this school crush, you’ll remember how this boy ruined everything for you. But, like all your classmates dotted around the pitch, you’ll also remember…
You’ve scythed him down. Poleaxed with a reducer Vinnie Jones would be proud of. He writhes in agony at your feet. A wry smile crosses your lips as you lean in for the most unapologetic of apologies.
Now, at work footy, the rules are laid out early. ‘No slide tackles? Thank God for that’. A general level of fear haunts your thirty something movements. So much so that any remotely strong challenge is followed up by the most apologetic of apologies and a handshake. Two people genuinely challenging for a header is rarer than…a thing that is really rare.
5) ‘Who wants to go in goal?’ the cry goes out. Two decades separate no from yes.
The relief you feel when, bent double on the halfway line after your first and only sprint forward, you hear these beautiful words is akin to being swept adrift on the ocean with only a lifering for company when a ship’s captain’s tannoy pierces the sea’s tranquility. Oh, the relief, it is palpable. With renewed energy you dash into nets for as long as possible. Your involvement in the match is reduced to a level you feel comfortable with; shouting ‘Man on’, drinking Evian and picking the ball out of the net. Any attempts by teammates to obtain the respite your position affords are rebuffed until you see a general sense of lethargy pervade the players. Morally empty, you seize this opportunity to grab some glory with a last minute goal.
But, before the drinking years, getting a goalie sorted involved the kind of diplomacy, tact and horse trading reserved for resolving the Middle East crisis.
6) Somehow you’ve made it through this hour. Exercise for the week done? Check. Yep you’ve reaped the benefits so much that it’s time to relax. It’s time to reflect on your performance. And where best to reflect?
And off you go to the pub to chew the fat off the match, drifting past your fellow players, the cigarette smoke swirling from their mouths making your nicotine free self feel morally superior. Two pints and a packet of crisps later you would though, from a health perspective, have been better off not playing footy tonight. Alcohol is to you now what sugar was to you then. 2 litres of Cresta lemonade and a mouthful of fruit salads and blackjacks provided you with the energy needed to cycle home after a session of World Cup doubles and headers and volleys that stretched long into the summer’s night. Oh, to be a child again…
7) Slide tackles on astro, bicycle kicks on the frozen recreation ground, diving in the school hall; you were indestructible in your youth. And you knew it. Fearless. You strutted onto that pitch like Jagger at Wembley. You owned it. You’d pick yourself up and try again.
Now, you’re just grateful if you can pick yourself up. The cruel ageing process. Your body is not what it was. You feel more vulnerable and fragile than a China cup on that pitch now, ducking and diving (not literally) your way out of anything approximating physical contact. Time teaches you this. Time and a glance at your fallen comrades. Brothers in arms who bravely fought, who put their head above the proverbial parapet only to be shot down. Shot down through a childish naivety. The childish naivety that leads them into the horrors of midfield battle.
A corner now. ‘Mark up.’ They would return scarred to my area as I tossed Evian aside to watch the net ripple. Those wounded by battle would feel these wounds, after the alcohol anaesthetic wore off, awaking to days of pain. Rapid recovery and regeneration associated now only with my boyhood self. I, you, dream of being able to play football daily. Instead, our adult selves face a footballing future of hospital trips (A&E for a bruised rib this week for me), Keyser Soze style hobbling around the office (the lack of promotions is starting to make sense) and painkiller flavoured business lunches.
Some things remain the same though, you still think you can do this: