Cold. Lonely and extremely vulnerable to attack with rocks. The scandalously skimpy shorts that were the so-called fashion of the time explained the piercing chill and the habit of twenty 8 year boys have of single-mindedly pursuing one football with scant regard for the duties which accompany their assigned position was the reason for the complete isolation, but the vulnerability to the attack with rocks only became apparent with the arrival of a group of kids with an empty schedule and a plentiful supply of stones.
With my less than imposing three foot, ten and three quarter inch frame, I was loath to ignore my father’s sage and later to be proved hopelessly inaccurate advice “never leave the goal-line”, but as the frequency of accurate throws increased, some opportune patrolling of the penalty area was required. The skillfully acquired distance meant the rocks rained down with less accuracy, but the relief I felt was short-lived as the ruffians, realising my station was unlikely to be altered due to the ball’s resolute refusal to break free from the midfield melee, resorted to a weapon regularly used by baying crowds against opposition goalkeeper – the medium of off-key drone of abusive song. “Number nine is a swine. Number nine is a swine” and so on and so forth – there was no chorus or crescendo – musically it was basic. What it lacked in variety it made up for in relentless negative reinforcement. After a few minutes of wandering around my goalmouth, even the most hardened of 8 year old minds would be on the verge of crumbling and accepting that the words of these total strangers must have some element of truth to them. “Oh how they have spied deep down into the soul of this number 9 and identified the swine-like qualities within.”
The whole number 9 shirt adds a peculiar angle to events. I’m not sure how FIFA would have viewed it, but I was wearing on outfield jersey despite starting the game in goals and only moving to avoid the downpour of stones. Thankfully Sepp Blatter hadn’t swung by that day for a spot-check on the legitimacy of matches in the North Dublin Under 9 league. The number 9 stretched the diction and rhyming scheme of the hoodlums to the limit, but equally could have been a lot worse. Given the prominence of the word ‘poo’ in a schoolboy’s vocabulary, I was simply ecstatic it wasn’t the number 2 emblazoned across my back. Or even worse, number 4. In those days of innocence, I may not have known exactly what a ‘whore’ was, but I certainly wouldn’t have taken kindly to being labelled one.
It was all because the team manager was always late. Always. The passage of time urges me to exaggerate that ‘without exception’ he rocked up late to matches, but in reality he must have achieved punctuality on at least a couple of occasions. With a couple of dozen children waiting impatiently, his Toyota Corolla would fling itself around the corner of the car park and nestle in an empty space near the tin hut imaginatively labeled the dressing rooms. Before the engine was switched off, the boot seemed to be open. Without the need for further instruction or even the smallest gesture, the most dutiful members of the team would skivishly rush to remove the impossibly heavy bag of jerseys and the onion sack of footballs whilst the manager carried on with his more important business – a lot like the Queen if she had a beer-belly, an untidy beard and a penchant for child labour.
We were at the age when although you’re aware the world doesn’t revolve around you and people continue to live their lives independent of your involvement, you’re still a pretty central player in the entire universe and your needs should be close to the top of all priority lists. The manager may have been self-employed and working himself to the bone; he could have been in the middle of some personal crisis along the lines of marriage breakdown; or he could have been spreading himself too thin in trying to conduct affairs with several women, but at the time, the team came first. His lateness directly impacted on our chances of success. When he finally did turn up for midweek training sessions, we wanted to interrogate him ceaselessly about his movements. “Don’t you realise who we’re playing at the weekend? We’ve got Village FC. They’re top of the league and I have to say our headless mass chasing of the ball needs much improvement if it’s to match up to their headless mass chasing of the ball.” Looking back on it now, the poor guy was an unpaid volunteer and didn’t need that level of nagging. Nagging at home is probably what drove him to all those fictitious affairs to begin with.
After some process of elimination work involving the lock and a large set of keys, the heavy metal creaked slowly open and cast a faint light into the darkened chambers. It was accompanied by a collective sigh of relief as if we were a group of reverse hostages. Rather than waiting years for the glimpse of daylight, we were on the other side, eagerly anticipating the moment when we’d be able to sit on the cold, lumps of wood that passed for seats in the dim light you’d associate with an underground bunker. It meant that there would be a game of football and more importantly, it meant that we wouldn’t have to get changed outside and risk the insults of non-existent bullies who may be passing by. The parents of some of the children on the team identified the familiar fluster of the manager and in the unspoken world of adults that children are generally oblivious to, silently did him a favour and went about the business of hanging up the nets at either end of the pitch. In his strange mix of hectic energy and gruffness, the manager announced the team and one by one the chosen eleven made for the bag of jerseys located in the middle of the dusty floor. Being named first, I made for the bag, trying desperately to find the green livery which marked me out as different to the others. After merely seconds of vain effort, the manager would interrupt and impatiently inquire as to what I was doing. “Looking for the goalie’s jersey,” I would stutter, taken aback by his tone. “Don’t worry about it. It doesn’t matter. Grab any of them,” he replied curtly as I failed to grasp the logic of his illogical argument.
It was from these inauspicious beginnings that a love affair began. The occasional sidestepping of missiles launched by the local ne’er do wells and their accompanying confrontational choral efforts was a small price to pay for the inexplicable rush of contentment that came from making an excellent save. To this day I can’t remember exactly why I ended up in goals. A pair of raggedly old gloves and no great desire to run was enough to have me a whole pair of raggedly old gloves clear of my nearest rival for the position. The running wasn’t a major issue. I tried it before in an short-lived outfield stint. Even at that stage, the notion of running for the sake of leisure didn’t appeal. An effort of such magnitude had to be in the name of something truly worthwhile – the ice-cream van, witnessing a helicopter pass overhead, seeing a dog with only three legs – all the mind-blowing phenomena of that ilk. Before my talents were uncovered – and by talents I do in fact mean the pair of gloves – I was tried out as a striker.
The polite way of describing my exploits would be to say I was in the mould of the burly, technically neanderthal, striker typical to British football. I wasn’t the quickest. Or the most skillful, but lay a ball on a plate for me six yards out and I’d generally get it on target and on more than one occasion, even beat the goalkeeper. My speed was never likely to sufficiently worry a defence, so my game relied on brains and clever positioning. Not conventional trickery either. My ploy was to explain to my marker the finer points of the game. A prime example was the little known rule that said it was illegal for the defender to be within 10 yards of the D when it was occupied by me. This was generally good for creating a least one gilt-edged chance per game and depending on how just much the poor buffoon had been denied during the birthing process, maybe even two or three. As successful as the tactic was, it wasn’t one that screamed ‘natural born poacher’ and it wasn’t long before my efforts were concentrated closer to our team’s goalposts.
My memories of my first forays into this game within a game were of athletic saves where I defied the laws of traditional physics to hurl myself Gordon Banks versus Pele style across the full width of the chasm that is the full size goal to deny my opponents a certain goal. In reality, I was probably leaning on the goalpost until play eventually wound it’s way close enough to my goal for me to take interest. At which point a lame shot would either trickle towards the centre of the goal at a pace I could easily manage or trickle towards the either corner of the goal and suddenly become an unstoppable bullet of interstellar velocity. It should be with pride that I reveal even in these early stages my contribution to the team went beyond regularly picking the ball out of the net. Sadly that had more to do with the hastily mounted nets and long chases after balls that counted as legitimate goals. In spite of these gloomy recollections, there were some wins, so logic would suggest I had a degree of success. More indicative than actual triumph may have been the fact I was willing to persevere in the position at a time in my life when perhaps childish tantrums and giving up are most acceptable.
Testament to the growing fondness I was developing for the role came in my first notable brush with the authority of the referee. I had gathered the ball after a harmless opposition attack petered out with a tame shot towards the middle of my goal [rather than one of those dastardly tame shots to one of the corners]. I collected it, looked up and at this point should have booted the ball aimlessly towards the centre circle. This was a tactic that troubled me as waiting their stood a colossus of an opposition player – an eight year old but with the imposing size of a boy easily eight and three-quarters years of age. All day he had gobbled up my clearances with the relish schoolkids normally reserve for Wagon Wheels. I needed another option. I looked around. To the left and to the right stood my team-mates exhibiting all the movement of particularly idle Subbeteo figurines. “Why aren’t they moving?” I furiously thought to myself. “Have I done my maths homework? I’ve school tomorrow” followed immediately after, admittedly with less fury. “I wonder will I see Jenny tomorrow. I don’t like her. She’s a girl. I don’t like her lovely curly hair,” I continued internally before my picturing of those golden locks were rudely interrupted by the blast of a whistle. “Indirect free-kick,” said my black-clad nemesis. “Why?” I protested. “Steps. Holding on to the ball too long. Time-wasting,” he listed quite correctly. Unbeknownst to me I had conducted this daydream mid-game with the ball in my grasp. For roughly thirty seconds, I had stood basically motionless cradling the ball. To the onlooking crowd it must have looked like an eight year having a nervous breakdown a la Michael Douglas in Falling Down. Firstly confusion as to why I was taking so long. Then a degree of sympathy as quicker-witted parents suspect some spontaneous pant-wetting, before finally concern for me and more importantly the children in the generally vicinity of me who will be first in the firing line should I whip a handgun out of my sock. I wasn’t and I point to my fine record of never having gone on a mid-game shooting spree as evidence that it was never on the cards. For the record, the opponents were awarded one of those free-kicks so near to the goal as to be essentially useless. My outfield team-mates assembled a wall with all the solidity of something constructed by the builder John Cleese regularly used for Fawlty Towers and I flung myself in the way of the ball to make the save, but concede a corner. I got to my feet greeted by a chorus of cheers and applause. They probably scored from the corner.
Still though, the feeling of defying the odds felt good. And the cheering – that was nice too. It wasn’t long before I had my first taste of facing a penalty. Our team were taking a sound pummeling from a team who didn’t seem to have the weekend’s maths homework to the forefront of their minds. I think we were losing by four or five goals when the referee awarded a penalty. Packie Bonner had recently earned an honorary Irish sainthood with his save against Romania in Italia 90 and I was determined to emulate his achievement – although with the notable exceptions of the baying crowd, any semblance of tension and a place in a World Cup quarter-final at stake. I stood in the middle of the goal and played mind-games that amounted to wobbling from side to step as if trying to keep my balance on a ferry in moderately choppy waters. It had no obvious effect on the penalty-taker as he ran up to the ball. He seemed to strike the ball cleanly and nano-seconds later I threw myself to my left in a spectacular dive. I use the word dive, but ‘collapse’ is probably more accurate. I hit the ground and a couple of seconds later I felt the ball connect with my trailing legs which at this point could only be described as still being in the middle of the goal. The rebound rolled out to the disappointed penalty-taker who now had what amounted to a penalty, only five yards out and with no goalkeeper to outwit. I lay helplessly on the ground with that rarely experienced emotion of satisfaction and total fear. Even upright I occupied only a small proportion of the surface area of the goal, so with me on the ground the task in front of the striker was akin to having to ride a bike through under the vast expanse of a motorway flyover. At the moment when I expected the net to ripple and my heroics to be in vain, he scuffed his shot and dragged it wide. A huge cheer went up from our small brand of supporters. Each of my team-mates came up to offer congratulations on my feat any impartial observer would have acknowledged relied heavily good fortune.
We lost eight-nil, but the bug had well and truly bitten. And I got my maths homework done.