Tuesday, 4 December 2012


This is a little piece of semi-fiction which might well have been true once upon a time...

Zack Wilson's  debut novel 'Stumbles and Half Slips'  is out, from Epic Rites Press. Also available from Amazon.com.

When I was nine or ten I lived in a small Warwickshire village called Tiddington, quite close to the town of Stratford-upon-Avon, famous as being the birthplace of William Shakespeare and for very little else. The village was a rural place, a mixture of brick-built council housing, most of which had become privately owned, and old cottages. I, recently arrived with a Yorkshire accent and a high reading age, felt like an outsider, though that probably would have happened anywhere.

I was a member of the local Cub Scout 'pack'. We wore dark green caps and jumpers with amber and black neckerchieves. We went to a hut on the sports ground of the local club (still referred to 40 years after World War 2 as 'The Home Guard Club') on Thursday nights and learnt archaic skills like the tying of nautical knots and played archaic games like British Bulldog and Pirates. We also played football.

We had an eleven-a-side team that played on Sunday mornings against other cub packs. We were brilliant. We won the league every year of the three I was a cub. I was only ever really a squad player, coming on as substitute or filling in as a utility player when others were injured, until my last year when age made me a regular starter.

It wasn't the eleven-a-side I really enjoyed though. I much preferred the telescoped drama of the six-a-side tournaments that were held at regular intervals throughout the year. Tiddington would take a big, keen squad and enter 5 or 6 teams in them. I would usually turn out for our 'second' or 'third' team, consisting of older stalwarts and the better youngsters.

I remember one of these tournaments particularly. A typical eager gathering of parents and little players at somewhere spacious, green and wet in the Midlands. I was in the 'second' team as usual and we'd been handed a manageable draw with a good chance of progressing beyond the group stages.

The tournaments were always run like mini-World Cups, with there being a 'group stage' of mini-leagues of 4 teams with the winners and runners-up progressing through to a 'knock-out' stage of one-off games that would eventually result in a final. Our group games on this occasion would pit us against a team from a village called Brailes who were confident about beating-we always stuffed their eleven-a-side team with scores like 11-0 and 12-2 being quite common-as well as our own sixth team (who were, by definition, useless) and a strong team from the town, Clopton or The Willows I think. We were convinced we'd finish at least second and could look forward to the quarter finals.

First up against Brailes we were overconfident. I probably contributed to this. I was one of the older lads and was setting the tone. We were much better than them, but just couldn't break them down. We tried everything we thought would work as fathers bellowed and mothers shrieked from the sidelines of the mini pitches marked out on the adult pitches, portable goals rattling in the green spring breeze.

I remember our bright yellow shirts and royal blue shorts looking vibrant and new when compared with the Brailes strip of washed-out, light blue woven nylon. I can recall their goalkeeper, freckle-faced and snot-nosed, sniffing with effort and pride as he frustrated us with another save. I remember our frustrated cries and groans as another shot missed. I remember a cross flashing along the ground across their goalmouth, the keeper beaten, and my right foot darting too late to make contact and divert it into an empty net. I remember the parents of the Brailes kids yelling with surprised delight and encouragement as the final whistle neared and, most of all, our bafflement at how our sustained efforts had come to nothing and produced a 0-0 draw, such a poor and discouraging start.

We played our own sixth team next and destroyed them somehting like 7-0, which isn't bad when you're only playing ten minutes each way. This made us feel a bit better. I scored at least one-a two foot tap in that came off some ugly angle on the side of my foot and looped in. If I'd been six inches further out it would've missed. There were two brothers playing for them, the Bishtons. The elder was my age, about ten, and his brother was only about 7. The elder kept literally picking his brother up and shoving him out the way during the game, they didn't seem to be concentrating too much on playing, just on arguing with each other, much to the puerile bafflement of their team mates.

So the last match was the decider. We needed a victory to go through as group winners, but a draw would take as through as runners-up. We were playing this serious bunch from the town, and they looked much bigger and stronger than us as they kicked in and warmed up at the other end of the little pitch.

I was taking my turn as sub for this one. We all had to take a turn and tactical considerations weren't taken into account-everyone got a spell on the bench whatever. Not that there was a bench, you just stood in a bunch at the side with your mates and the parents. I'd played every minute so far, so it was fair enough.

I watched the team during the first half. They were stern and emotional. They could feel the seriousness of competition, the burgeoning stirring warrior instinct that you mustn't let your mates down. The faces were pained and became more so when we went a goal down. I exercised and jogged on the sideline. I wanted to be ready when the call came.

It didn't come at half-time, when we gathered in a breathless half-circle and listened to the enthusiastic amateur exhortations of the dad who was doubling as our coach. I had to wait.

Five minutes in and halfway through the second half I was sent on. I jogged on, twinges of pride and something else I didn't yet recognise tingling up my back and neck as serious parental voices encouraged me: "Go on Zack!, "Young Zack's the man for the job!, "Come on lad, keep your chin up!" and all the rest.

I stood in midfield, head jerking around as I tried to emulate the sharp movements of my engaged team-mates. I hated coming on as sub then and still do now. As a cold interloper, you're always an outsider for too long. I glanced and ran, made a few passes, lost a tentative tackle, before a rising sweat told me I was getting into it.

It was hectic, frenetic game, our desperation getting to them and putting them under an unnecessary pressure. We could feel them folding as a sliced clearance bounced off a defender on the edge of our area and away from our goal. The ball, bloated and white against the thick, grey sky, looped towards me. I turned and kept my eye on it, initially over my left shoulder and then side-on as I improved my body position and strengthened my stance as it descended.

I watched it right onto my forehead, knowing instinctively as I moved the muscles of neck and shoulders that my technique was perfect. I let the ball almost hit my forehead and then turned slightly, creating the angle and power necessary for a bullet header that sent the ball downwards and towards their goal. Anticipation syruped the air with slowness. The stitched white panels and faded grey makers' blurbs on the ball span.

It hit the underside of the bar and bounced clear and I couldn't believe it. Those on the sideline gasped. I put my hands on my head. My sublime moment was an instant of glorious failure.

As it bounced back into play, time started again. A yellow shirted figure had come striding downfield: Ben Woodhams, a curly blond schoolfriend of mine. He controlled the ball with one left-footed touch and powered forward, stepping into a smooth, straight right-footed shot that headed  for goal.

Again, the ball struck the underside of the crossbar. This time it bounced down and over the line and into the net. We were level!

The parents cheered and us players rushed towards Ben Woodhams. He was running straight towards me, his face was strange. He was wearing a big smile, a strange smile of something beyond joy, and just before he childishly embraced me I realied he was crying. I could see a tear rolling down his cheek. I'd never seen anyone cry with joy before.

We regrouped quickly. Fathers on the sideline warning us to concentrate. If only we listened to our fathers.

There was not long left. We knew if we could hang onto the draw, we were through.

The opposition launched one last attack. Some scuffles for the ball, a lunge from one of us, then the ball was theirs. I remember a series of crisp passes and powerful runs, me charging back in vain pursuit as they slotted the ball past the despairing, grey-clad arm of our keeper, Ben Natrins, and their satisfied exclamations of 'Yeees!That's it!' as they ran back in celebration.

There were only seconds left. Only enough time for us to kick off before the final whistle blew and our disappointment was confirmed.

I felt a moment of breathless futility as the parents came onto the pitch to dispense sweatshirts and words of pride. It was a feeling that would grow more familiar over the years, watching and playing football, that final whistle feeling when the struggle and the hoping has to cease. My dad patted my head and said, "That was a great header son. I thought you'd got us through with that. I was proud of you then." I tried to tell him that it was Ben Woodhams who'd scored but he said that I made the goal.

Then I had to go across with our coach to hand the result into the scorers. They were sitting at a big table in front of the club house, busily collating scores and final group standings from the whole tournament.

"What was the score then, young man?" one of them asked me.

"2-1 to them."

"To them? And who are you?"

"Tiddington 'B' team."

"Oh right. That's a shame for you, fella."

I nodded. I felt sad and heroic but wasn't sure why. I was trying to kid myself I could still feel where I'd headed the ball so well-I was wishing, trying to stay in that moment for longer than it had granted me.

"It was a good game though," our coach told the scorer.

The scorer smiled. "Yeah, but you don't get three points for 'a good game'," he pointed out.

The coach agreed with a laugh. I knew the scorer's words were correct, but I didn't know then how true they were.

I do now, and I bet Archie Gemmill does too.


 Zack Wilson's  debut novel 'Stumbles and Half Slips'  is out, from Epic Rites Press. Also available from Amazon.com.

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