‘Sunday Sunday’ is the (only slightly) fictionalised memoir of my time in England’s most shambolic, rag-tag, and sometimes brilliant amateur football team. All names have been changed to avoid both potential prosecution, and the wrath of several ex-girlfriends…

Outcasts may grow up to be novelists and filmmakers and computer tycoons, but they will never be the athletic ruling class.

A fierce sun hangs over the marshes. I convince myself that my skin is already turning a spiteful pink, so I roll down my sleeves and make the choice to swelter rather than burn. Around us, the pitches are recovering from the near endless barrage of the worst winter in years. The layers of snow and ice that anaesthetised tackles, and saw grown men refuse gloves, have finally retreated; the miniature lakes that saturated the surface and left us feeling soaked for days have evaporated.

Now virulent green fields stretch out before me. For a moment, you could almost believe they cover all of Hackney, the streets entirely reclaimed by nature. The pre-match impulse of feeling the distinct need to vomit floods through me. Though today, the feeling is multiplied, as if my stomach itself wants to evacuate my body. I attempt to hide the dry heaves from the stragglers running late into the changing rooms, their tracksuit bottoms half off as they try to locate their team in the warren of changing rooms behind us.

For the first time I can remember, I momentarily consider feigning injury so I don’t have to play. Three hundred feet away, cars drift away from the marsh along Homerton road and I picture myself in them. Blowing out my lungs as if I’ve been sprinting, I call myself the most disgusting names I can think of as a result of this brief loss of courage. I remind myself that this isn’t the Somme, Stalingrad, or Baghdad, but an unseasonably hot, gentle morning in London. I remind myself that everything in my life beyond these fields is an unrelenting mess. Toxic relationships and career cul-de-sacs vie for prominence in a sea of general purposelessness. For ninety minutes, plus smoking time, I – we – have another chance to impose an otherwise non-existent order upon our lives. This team, with its ridiculous name, odd rituals, and menagerie of miscreants, has somehow managed to get within a blade of grass of laying its hands on a trophy. The network of scars and immovable bruises across my knees form a guide to the six long seasons that have led us here. Rationally, at thirty five years of age, I know this shouldn’t matter. And yet it’s the only thing that does.

Since ‘the run’ began in December, I haven’t cleaned my boots. Their beautiful black leather has been colonised by a layer of impermeable dirt. It is my sole concession to the vagaries of superstition. Every player does something. Even if it’s to break a routine or habit to denote, in some small way, that this Sunday is not the same as any other Sunday. Chris Wolf has rather pointlessly shaved. Spaceman looks like he’s actually slept and arrived on time. Cain Green did not have a javelin sized joint dropping from his mouth as he strode into our changing room, nor the blood shot eyes of a terminal stoner. Trachett’s OCD found new levels of profoundness, the alignment of Lucozade bottles and banana having to be just right in his car. These are the things that will edge us towards a shield first lifted in 1947.

The rest of the team finally leaves the changing room, and small waves of red and black stripes somberly move towards me. It’s more than I dare to reveal the slightest glimpse of nerves or fear. I’m certain it will set off a chain reaction of insecurity and doubt, each one of them quickly becoming infested with the neuroses that are slowly eating me alive. Yet worry has rendered them silent too. Within seconds of us meeting, wave after wave of insults, piss-takes, jokes, and tales of last night’s quest for debauchery in East London would usually fill the air. At this moment, we can barely look each other in the eye. Every hug, handshake or back slap feeling rehearsed and hollow; a futile attempt to dispel the notion that we might actually lose this game.

Even our manager, Del, is silent. Which, for a man constantly on the verge of molten anger or exasperation, is a near miracle. He stands in the middle of us, chasing words around a mouth that momentarily refuses to operate. Post a quick thumb-through of Colonel Montgomery’s greatest speeches, the words of inspiration he likely practiced in front of his bathroom mirror have cruelly deserted him, a deep sense of panic gripping him inside. Chris Wolf witnesses it too, so I lightly slap his face and lie to him that it’s all going to be fine, just at the moment Del finally begins to curse about the state of the grass, the lack of air in the balls, and the eternal mystery of who of the sixteen of us has misplaced the medical kit. The Deep Heat and sponge with divine healing properties becoming, in his head, the sacred objects through whose power we’d guarantee victory.

The tension is broken a little by Trachett.

“What the fuck is up with your Gordy? Leave your fucking hair alone. You do not stop primping it.”

With his fists clenched, a beard like a brilo pad, and the kind of eyes that bore into the souls of the opposition, he resembles a dangerous man on accidental day-release. The marshes are littered with his victims. Every team, it is said, needs a bastard. And he is ours. A smiling Psycho-Pierce Redux, with a left foot sweeter than a barrel full of honey, and the kind of balls that makes you play on despite a broken pelvis.

“The barber made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, Trach.”

Anthony Gordy is a man seemingly blighted by all the worst traits of the modern footballer. The coloured boots, the diamond stud earring, the flash threads, and the irritating desire to over-elaborate every time he touches the damn ball. Yet it’s all rendered irrelevant by his sunny, good nature, and the fact that he’s the funniest little bugger in four post codes. We look on as he juggles the ball between his shoulder and knee, whilst simultaneously doing a pitch perfect impersonation of Pacino’s conversation with DeNiro in Heat. Nobody knows whether to kick or cuddle him, so we settle for lobbing the freshly pumped balls at him instead. From behind, Trach put his arm around Gordy’s chest and rubs him for luck upon his newly coiffured head. He knows, like we all do, that Gordy could win us this game. As we begin to cross the marsh, Cilla and Brenda complain about the ‘lack of air’ and spark up cigarettes to help them breath and relax, both six foot three in shirts that seem small enough to have been stolen off boys. Mike Coven and Jimmy Barren, the soul and brains our club, try to steer Del away from seeking out and haranguing the referee before the game has even kicked off.

Our pitch is practically on the north marsh, and we pace like a funeral cortege across the largely empty fields. I can see in the near distance that a flock of gulls are the current residents of the centre circle. They scatter and take to the air as I punt the ball at my feet into their midst, and I envy their swift and easy escape from this place. Some player’s family, friends, and children wave tentatively from the sidelines. I half-heartedly return their greeting, the thought of actually speaking to them bringing waves of nausea rushing right back.

A season of tattered masking and duct tape hangs off the posts and sadly flaps in the slight breeze. The Frenchman, Peasy, dumps the nets down as if he’s been hauling a dead bull, the effort of putting them up a challenge to far. He tells me he hasn’t slept properly all week. He’s not sure if it was because he’s going to split with his girlfriend, or because of the game. Or that the game has made him want to split from his girlfriend. He looks imploringly at me for an answer. Bereft of the words he needs, I look away, and along the freshly painted white lines that seem to have no end. Around us, other teams, who have nothing to play for, shout and jostle for the ball during their warm ups. An end-of-term spirit has gripped the marshes. Yet it has left the players of Florist Arms Football Club well alone. The captain’s armband tightens around me like a tourniquet.

*

They opposition kick off. The ball trickles to their centre back who immediately launches it high into the ether. I lose sight of it until it drops suddenly like an Exocet and I am forced to greet it squarely with my forehead, my whole body vibrating from the impact. Ten minutes later we are already losing by two clear goals. It’s already slipped away. A hatred for these fields and everyone on them surges through me. In the cold desperation of that second I ask myself what I’m doing here. Why on earth I ever decided to come back to this, to put myself through this again. I imagine my father on the side-lines, unable to look my way any longer, incapable of hiding the disgust he feels at seeing me fail once more. The ball drops out of the ether.

Chapter 2: Training day

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