2016 has seen me return (again) to play amateur football. Granted, I have had more comebacks than Rocky Balboa but this time, it’s different.
Like many Europeans, from the day I could walk football was of paramount importance. From standing on the terraces at Watford FC’s Vicarage Road, to school games on ice-cold Saturday mornings to my mum ferrying me to Sunday League kids football across Hertfordshire and Middlesex.
Despite being football bred and fed, there have been a few hiatuses in my 27-year “career”. All for different reasons.
The first came at 17 years old. Professionally Manchester United had dominated football largely over this period with only Arsenal snapping at their heels. My mates, brothers, cousin and I had regularly tried to recreate the playing styles of Eric Cantona, Tony Adams, Alan Shearer, Gianfranco Zola, and Peter Schmeichel in our backyards.
These were the days of real footballers. All shapes and sizes but with balls the size of church bells and the hearts of lions. As many would later suggest, they trained and enjoyed a pint or 12 the night before a game. Going on to play like demons possessed and winning man of the match performances.
Perhaps I was just bored, but more likely, after 12 straight years of playing at a fairly decent level, my final season coincided with an acceleration of all things vice.
Despite being an introverted lad, the discovery of alco-pops, girls, going out “up town” and a fascination with trying to look like Shane from Westlife, brought about the start of a 5 year break from the game.
Although the football would return in a far less serious format with a local pub team, the socialising increased. Friday, Saturday and Sunday were punctuated with midday sessions watching Sky Sports’ Soccer Saturday, playing on a Sunday morning and then finishing up with “Super Sunday”.
This return would coincide with Manchester United wrestling back some supremacy from Chelsea and Arsenal. But our own park football would be distinctly less classy; drunken opposition supporters knocking back beers at 9am on a Sunday and threatening to glass you if you fouled one of their players again.
Along came my second break from football. And with it came an uncharacteristically spontaneous trip to Australia and a subsequent return to live permanently. Thankfully I got back into the game by pure chance. My housemate was a football coach in Sydney and introduced me to a whole different ball game.
Back in the motherland, football is cold, generally. Icy mornings of balls being smashed against the inside of your thigh, old/overweight/hungover (delete as appropriate) blokes chopping at your knees Bruce Lee-style, the lingering, nostalgic smell of heat rub and wet mud stained on your conscious, oranges for half-time snacks and kits that had turned brown from years of sliding through ponds on fields that on for some reason, games were NEVER called off.
My first game in Australia was character building; a pre-season 35-degree “trial game” on what felt like concrete but was in fact a dust bowl of a cricket oval. Energy boosters of “Snakes” (lollies/sweets, not the animal kind), slippery cricket squares in the middle of the field, strange looking duel-football/rugby goal posts, far more spectators and generally players coming off the pitch looking pristine.
From an early stage I could tell I would struggle to really “love” playing the game here. Referees were harsher and did not know the laws of the game, football associations were rolling in cash and held court-like disciplinary appearances attended by people with no love or knowledge of the game, but instead a thirst for politics, money, bias and an easy-life, making and changing standard Football Association rules up as they went along. Such was my dismay that I stopped following the professional game and had no idea of scores on Monday mornings as mates discussed them at length.
I was sick of waking up on a Saturday and dreading going to football. After a one-year break, partly due to injury and believing my 20-something body had given up, I returned. Soon after, I took more time out. I had little intention of returning. I had got married, was figuring out what made me happy, building my own mental strength and enjoying a full weekend of my own time and starting to plant the seeds of Mr. Perfect.
As the network took off and I saw what brought men together, along with my old housemate, we started a whole new football club. With my good mate as Coach and I as El Presidente, we found a flexible, small football association and set about organising trials and kick-arounds.
Scraping together sponsorship from friends of friends and chucking in a heap of our own money we brought together 20 lads from 19 to 39 years old, from English to Scottish to Peruvian to Italian to Australian. A truly supportive group of lads that range in personalities and always play with a smile on their face.
We kicked off our virgin season in a smashing new kit, looking the part but not expecting any miracles. Yet 4 games in we have won 2, lost 2 and every single moment has been enjoyable. I noticed my anxiety had all but disappeared. I have not yet had to resort to old habits and the sort of tackles Roy Keane would be proud of, and make a point to play hard, but try to be the most respectful player on the field.
And as I sit here on a Tuesday evening, still beaming from a 4-2 away victory on the weekend, Leicester City of the English Premier League have created what I believe is the greatest football feat to date.
A previously unfashionable side of “cheap” footballers and workhorse style has managed to propel themselves to take the world’s most coveted title and a place next year against Europe’s best clubs. Take a look at the team reaction here as they watched Chelsea versus Tottenham at striker Jamie Vardy’s house, a game that decided their fate.
People will study and analyse the causes of success for decades. But a lack of expectation, a truly happy team of individuals with zero egos, some that had been previously discarded by “bigger” clubs, and an unwavering desire to battle for 90 minutes has shown what can be achieved when you love your football.