With the final Cotswool Reserves game cancelled due to lack of players (golfing in Argentina probably), I was called up to the First Team squad for their penultimate fixture in the Bristol Downs League Division One season.
Sitting comfortably mid-table, the First Team had little to play for. The opponents were a side battling relegation, but who – more importantly – are sponsored by the same local bar as we are, thus making them our rivals. The quagmire pitches have now – thanks to the widely-reported ‘drought’ in England – been transformed into rock solid, knee-twisting ankle-devastators. Slide tackles leave you feeling like someone took a blowtorch to your legs, and any kind of passing game goes out the window.
I’ve previously mentioned that the Reserve Team ‘warm up’ by pelting the goalkeeper with shots for 20 minutes, and you’d probably expect that the First Team are much more regimented in their preparations. Organised stretching routines, pass-and-move practise, and detailed tactical team talks are the kind of things you’d anticipate a top division team go through as a matter of course. Alas, this is Cotswool, and warm ups are not our thing.
During the pre-match chaos it became apparent that we were several players down (one text to the manager read, “Sorry boss, wasted…can’t get out of bed, I’m a douche bag”). We started the game with 10 players, in the vague hope that an 11th man would materialise (I’m not sure where from, perhaps the kit bag or from an army-style trap door under the turf). The opponents, despite battling relegation and with little chance of retaining Division One status, managed a full team plus three substitutes.
Now, it’s hard enough to play with 11 players and no substitutes, as it means there is no one to replace you if you can feel that Friday night curry making its way back up your digestive system, but to be a man down from the outset really is facing the impossible. When I explained this to my girlfriend later that night, she looked confused and commented, “That’s not that bad, it’s only one player less. It’s not like you’re playing with 5”. Brilliant. I have forwarded her CV to ITV for a punditry role, as she’d still be better than Roy Keane.
A whole town of Rollercoaster-towing Gypsies (don’t worry, they can’t read and so can’t be offended by this) had parked up adjacent to the football pitches. Whilst the giant Ferris Wheels and flashing lights of “Funderworld” (this is honestly what is on the posters) were a little distracting, the screams of teenage girls echoing around the pitches gave me the feeling of being David Beckham, if only for a moment.
For 35 minutes we managed to hold out well. My role was Right Midfielder but with the remit to “support the [lone] striker at every opportunity”, which is easier said than done when you’ve got the stamina of an American Burger Eating Champion. This also wouldn’t be such an issue if we had a strong all-rounder in attack holding the ball up. Unfortunately, we had the Reserve Team Manager who is hardly Didier Drogba (although he does stay on his feet more).
Around 10 minutes before half time, one of our defenders stupidly pushed an opponent when going for a header, and the resulting penalty left us 1-0 down at half time – a real kick in the proverbial.
The second half continued with much of the same; our ten men ‘frantically’ (I’ll use this word as it makes us sounds gallant in defeat) pressing and closing the ball down in vain. Rather heroically, the First Team manager put himself on as a second striker for the final 20 minutes. You might wonder why he didn’t play the whole game to make up the numbers. I should probably point out that Steve is a wonderfully enthusiastic manager (hoping he reads this and gives me a permanent First Team place next season) but who I estimate must be in his late 50s/early 60s, and thus isn’t really built for Downs League competition (which is home to athletes in the pinnacle of their careers, of course).
3 goals later, the relegation-threatened chumps were revelling in what they saw as a glorious victory. I am certain that at no point did they realise they were playing against 10 men for most of the game.
And that, as they say, was that; a disappointing game which was always going to be frustrating and tiring in equal measures. However, I was pleased to have played a full game under what I consider to be reasonable playing conditions for once (no rain, not knee deep in mud, and on a pitch which was comparatively flat for the Downs League).
With just one game to go this season, it remains to be seen if I am called up for the First Team. If not, this will have been my final game of the season. I may go into hiding to avoid paying my backlog of match day fees, and put these towards some new boots for next season. It would be nice to play for 90 minutes without volcanic blisters erupting on the way home.
Fret not readers (I use the plural tentatively), there will be plenty more blogs to come.