|I have recently had the pleasure of joining the Bristol Downs Football League. Despite the name, this is not a league for sufferers of the chromosomal condition. Instead, this entirely independent league is a 4-tier system for amateur players in Bristol. The league is unusual in that all games – home and away – are played atop the blustery and exposed Durdham Down’s in Clifton. There is something quite charming about the league, the spirit of the game and indeed the Downs themselves.
The first thing that struck me was the use of communal Victorian changing rooms, located in the centre of the 400-acre parkland. The changing rooms are a complex of box-sized team ‘rooms’, shower areas and toilet blocks. The scent of urine, mud and sweat fills the corridors. Bristolian banter echoes around the brick maze, with the clattering of studs on the concrete floor providing a backing track. A long walk through the corridors leads me to a room, no more than 3m x 3m, filled with 22 men getting ready for the game. Apparently, someone thought it was a good idea to place both the first team and reserves in one room.
Once you’re out on the pitch (following an orienteering exercise in locating which one of the 25 pitches you are scheduled to play on) you can’t help but worry about the playing surface. The pitches are so uneven they remind me of the Wavy Top building (see below) from my days at Loughborough University. In fact, there are some pitches on which parts of the touchline disappear temporarily from view. It wasn’t long into my first game before I succumbed to the pitches, as I let a slow pass bobble over my foot and out of play, leaving me looking like a short, white Emile Heskey.
It had been six years since I’d player 11-a-side football on a regular basis. After a while, you get used to the relentless basketball-like nature of Power League 3G kick-abouts. Coupled with watching the bowling green pitches in the Premier League week-in week-out, I’d almost forgotten what ‘real’ pitches looked like. However, after a couple of games you learn not to trust the bounce of the ball (think of a rugby ball being dropped down a flight of stairs), and get used to the ball flying around the pitch like a giant game of pinball.
Without doubt the most pleasant surprise has been the way in which the game is played. I had expected to leave the Downs in an Ambulance most weeks, after going 90 minutes with a team of Joey Bartons and Lee Cattermoles constantly looking to remove one of my vital organs every time I touched the ball. Instead, I found a league which is generally played in a fair manner with respect given to both the opponents and the referees. Perhaps this is because my team are languishing at the bottom of the 2nd of 4 divisions, and rarely do we threaten a team enough to warrant an aggressive response. Nevertheless, my experiences thus far have been largely positive, and even the usual in-game abuse ends with a joke and a handshake.
So far we’ve been relatively fortunate with the weather too, having enjoyed sunshine in 3 of the past 4 games. The one bad day in that period was, however, the kind of weather that would make Sir Ranulph Fiennes say “you know what lads, let’s cancel this trip and play FIFA instead”.
All-in-all, it’s been good so far. It’s not one for the purists, but it is good old fashioned ‘English’ football in every way. Gentlemanly conduct from beer-bellied blokes/hungover students, occasionally trying to play ‘pass-and-move’ football but generally trying to avoid getting the ball stuck in the quagmire by lumping it over the top of the centre backs in the hope of someone getting a toe-end on it. No matter what pitch you play on, in what weather conditions, and against who you’re competing, you can’t beat getting back to competitive football*.
*Expect a less optimistic blog entry when I’ve had my nose caved in by the aforementioned Lee Cattermole-wannabe, been racially-abused by the local Luis Suarez, or had my right tibia and fibula sent in opposite directions when I attempt to run at a defender.