November 27th, 2006

International Kittens of Mystery

Three Fêtes and a Football Match Part Eleven (Old Speed and Cloaked Forwards)

It's June, 1995 again. Somehow I get drunk at a French fete and accidentally sign up to become a professional footballer. Three weeks later I'm thrown in at the deep end. A match in front of 300 people and, five minutes into the game, I'm racing down the right wing, defenders strewn in my wake and the penalty area fast approaching. What could possibly go wrong?

I whipped the ball in hard and low, evading the remaining defenders ... and everyone else. It was one of those embarrassing moments when you pray there's someone in midfield backing up the attack.

But there wasn't. Instead, a huge gap had opened up between the penalty area - now swarming with expectant players - and the centre circle. In between - nothing. Except a ball carving a solitary path towards the far touchline.

Which is what you get for trying to be too clever and bending the ball around defenders when the simple cross would have sufficed.

I made a mental note not to try that again.

A few minutes later we forced a corner on the right and I found myself being handed the ball while everyone else shot off into the penalty area.

I would like to say that it was the quality of my cross that created the goal. That I picked out the only unmarked player, placed an unerringly accurate ball into his path and there was nothing else he could do but score.

But you’d need to be my mother to believe that.

In truth, I was concentrating on not leaning back, not hooking the ball, not slicing it and not pushing it too close to the keeper. The fact that I picked out the only unmarked player was fortuitous - and because he wasn't standing next to the goalkeeper or any of the other places I was trying to avoid.

We were one-nil up. Against the run of play and I’d had a hand in it. Three or four beers and a couple of rounds of Ricard and I might claim total credit - it hadn't been his shot, he'd merely deflected my corner. A pretty solid deflection from the edge of the penalty area, but a deflection nonetheless.

Alcohol can make great players of us all.

Latoue, our opponents, pulled a goal back, then went ahead and gradually pushed the game further and further into our half of the pitch. A situation not helped by our right back employing a marking system I was unfamiliar with. It wasn't zonal and it wasn't man to man - unless Latoue were playing with cloaked forwards.

Which meant I had to come back and mark the winger and Latoue started pressing harder and I started playing deeper. But I was enjoying it, even tackling back and playing more as a defender - something I used to hate. It was so good to be playing again.

The last time I'd played, I'd felt old and slow; wallowing in the wake of players I could have given a five-yard start to in my prime. But in the red shirt of Racing Club, I felt young again. My stamina may have been suspect, my touch rusty but I'd rediscovered something I’d thought lost forever ... my speed.

All those years I'd played in my thirties thinking that it was age slowing me down when all the time it had been my growing waistline. All those years of living out of suitcases, pub lunches and midnight curries had pushed me to the top of the handicap.

But now, thirty pounds lighter, suddenly I was fast again.

And taking yards out of my marker every time we attacked. All I needed was someone to play the ball through to me.

And eventually someone did.

(next instalment: The Great Goal)