Musings from the grass roots of amateur football
Giving up playing football is one of those things that just sort of happens to you.
It’s a bit like giving up having even the vaguest idea who is No1 in the charts, or if the charts even still exist, or what “meow” is, or regularly spending evenings drinking huge amounts of strong imported lager in the company of a small group of men, or bothering to occasionally wash your clothes rather than simply rotating them cunningly (I am aware some of these may be personal rather than universal, but you get the idea).
The point is: it’s too easy to give up. By the time you reach your thirties you have the easy-come-easy-go mobility of a post-Bosman Premier League player.
You don’t need the game anymore, the game needs you. You know the ropes. Perhaps you even have an estate car with sat nav and a working stereo. Football will come to your door, often in the shape of slightly desperate Friday night phone calls.
And when it does it can wait in the hall, along with everything else that wants a piece of you like DIY warehouses, ironing, ever going to an art gallery or simply sitting staring emptily at Saturday Kitchen from the sofa.
There are also convincing reasons for giving up. Often these are physical.
Playing 11-a-side football is a matter of progressive physical agony as an adult, both impact and exertion based. It once took me about six months to work out that experiencing extreme shooting pains in your knee before during and after playing football was perhaps a sign that something properly wrong.
Stopping playing for a hit felt slightly naughty. Was this really allowed? Was it really this easy?
Second, there is the question of commitment. The number one killer of Sunday League and five a side careers is having something more important to do, usually involving garden centres, or nice walks in the country, or awkward and depressing in-laws-to-be lunches (which can be happily abandoned later in life once an official truce of un-duckable commitment is entered).
She may well complete you. She may be ‘The One’. But she is also unlikely to encourage regular weekend sodding-off combined with a mouldering, surly, exhausted, sofa-crashing return.
Finally, you may simply have lost your zing and your mojo. You may have fallen out of love with the game. This is often the result of close study of those who do the opposite and keep on keeping on right to the end.
Taciturn, grey-haired quantity surveyors called Bob, always the first to arrive and last to leave, powerfully doe-eyed with silent neediness.
The pre-divorce male, with his constant wife-grumbles and his dramatically unannounced appearance on your doorstep carrying a holdall and a duvet one Saturday afternoon.
And of course the man who has nothing else, often the skipper, usually a 30-somehting parental lodger, perhaps this is even you (yes, you).
These must all be fought off. Giving up is only ever a final resort. We must not give up, for good reasons.
Firstly there is the keeping of the flame. Official figures suggest amateur football is thriving, and people a playing more than ever before. This is a lie.
Pitches are going. Teams are falling away. People are, amazingly, doing other things instead. Twenty years from now amateur football will be a strange, crushed, officially pigeon-holed thing played under a motorway underpass in a lycra boiler suit and a crash helmet. We must stop this, or at least put it off as long as possible.
And finally, in the end, football is what you’ve got. Nothing else comes connects you umbilically to that first perfect childhood ball-hoofing crush, the experience of running out into all that green chasing a plastic ball, all possibilities perfectly open.
This feeling never quite dies. Even when, against all odds, you look less like a footballer and more like a particularly red-faced and jowly newsreader shoehorned into a small nylon shirt, fly-hacking at passing football, chased by teenagers constantly on the verge of some form of sudden collapse.
Inside your head nothing changes. You’re simply playing football, just like you always have. So don’t give up. You mustn’t give up.
But then, you weren’t ever going to anyway, were you?
Previously on The Sharp End:Respecting football's hierarchy of talent Football: fighting minus the fists (mostly)Why tactics say a lot about humanityWhat your kit says about you (and others)Why shouting and swearing is park football's birdsongWhy winning means nothing and everythingThe manager –
parent, pastor, secretary, dictator
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Spot on Barney, I'm constantly telling slightly injured players in my league who are ready to give up to keep playing until they can't do it anymore. There's no going back, so if you can still play, play!
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