Every Sunday morning, through the mist of breath that smells of last nights drink and Deep Heat on park pitches the length of Britain, a strange, almost tribal dance takes place. It isn’t a universal ritual for the amateur footballers of the country, but it is one that most of us have gone through at some point in our careers. A rite of passage for the budding Wayne Rooneys amongst us. It is, of course, putting up the nets, and it is deceptively difficult. If you walk past a public pitch during the week and there are no nets up on the goals, the pitches look strangely denuded, but this only lasts until about nine o’clock on Sunday mornings. All leagues, no matter how inconsequential, insist on the goals having nets on them for matches, and you can spot how well run a club is by how quickly effectively they put the nets up.
Some clubs are fearsomely well organised. They have pegs and a mallet to anchor the net down at the back. They have a chair or a ladder to attach it in the corners, and they have velcro strips to attach it to the crossbar where (inevitably) the hooks had been torn away by years of having them ripped hastily and occasionally angrily down after matches, as impatient players and officials rush to get to the pub. These clubs understand the fundamental rule that goalnets are wider across the bottom than they are at the top and they avoid the pitfall of putting them on upside down or lopsided, so there is barely enough netting to cover one side of the goal. These are the clubs that always have their players registered properly, get their fees in on time and, perhaps coincidentally, never win anything on the pitch itself. Other clubs struggle with the concept of it all. It’s not uncommon to see one player, in full kit, on the shoulders of another, wrapping roll after roll of sellotape around the crossbar to attach the netting to it in a scene that looks like an out-take from “It’s A Knockout”. In the absence of any pegs, they use rocks and kit nags to hold the net down at the back. This particular form of the net putting up ritual will always end with two or three players standing four or five yards from the goal, one hand on their hips and other on their chins, looking at what looks like a web spun by a spider on mescaline before one of them says, “Ah, fuck it. That’ll do”. These are usually the teams that win the league.
The Sunday morning ritual for the amateur football club is riddled with the potential for frustration and, on occasion, injury. The concept of sticking a flag in each corner of the pitch doesn’t necessarily sound like a difficult one, but if the pitch is too hard, the flag won’t go into the ground and, if the ground is too soft, it’ll usually just topple over. Sometimes, you push it down three inches before it strikes something that feels unexpectedly (considering that you’re in the middle of a playing field) like concrete. And then it topples over. More often than not, the flags end up more or less horizontal and you scuttle away hoping and praying that the referee won’t notice. Then there are the balls. It is a universal truth of amateur football that all clubs will possess twenty semi-inflated footballs in a giant sack, one of which might just about be capable of being inflated to match going standard – that is, if anyone has a pump. Oh, and an adaptor. The arrival of a referee asking for a match ball is usually the cue for a sheepish manager trudging across seven or eight pitches asking all of the other teams if they have a pump that could be borrowed for a moment. A lot of the time, the answer will be a universal “no”, and then everything depends on how much the referee wants to get home for his Sunday lunch. Most of the time, the match will start with the nearest available approximation to a match fit ball, but referees are a strange breed. I once played in a match that was delayed for half an hour as one hapless club secretary was sent to Argos by a particularly pernickety referee to buy a match ball and pump. He returned with two of each, just to be on the safe side – and no adaptor.
In the changing rooms, things tend to be a little more civilised. Most clubs are organised enough to have at least two sets of shirts, if not two full kits. It has, however, been known for clubs to turn up for matches without having done their research properly, leaving both teams wearing the same colours, and one of them again at the mercy of the referee. Sunday league referees have been known to confirm (presumably with that Sunday lunch in the forefront of their thoughts) that yellow & blue stripes and yellow & blue hoops aren’t a colour clash, and I certainly had to play at least a couple of matches wearing my shirt inside-out, which at least acted as a reminder to the club secretary to not make the same mistake again. Other conventions of the changing room include players having to almost wrap their heads in blue tape to cover up assorted rings and studs, the one player who will turn up three minutes before kick-off running onto the pitch whilst still pulling his shirt over his head and the lone prima donna that wears gold boots, although I suspect that, over the last couple of seasons or so, the number of players indulging in this peculiar form of sporting narcissism may have swollen somewhat.
FIFA are very fond of telling anyone that will listen that football’s universal popularity is due in no small part to its simplicity, but at anything like an organised level there is an element of myth about this statement. The nets, corner flags, kits, balls and medical kits were enough to be a tight squeeze in the back of an estate car. One team I played for were given all of their equipment (kits, corner flags, balls and nets) by a local non-league club. It was a very generous gesture, but the nets were of the “anti-hooligan” type used by many clubs in the 1980s (they had a smaller mesh, meaning that pitch invaders couldn’t climb up them) and they were monstrously, monstrously heavy. Every Sunday morning, two unfortunate players would end up almost too exhausted to play as a result of having had to cart these things three hundred yards from the car park to the pitch. Still, for all the effort, all the black fingernails from missing an errant peg with a mallet and hitting my thumb instead and even the occasional moments when I was left swinging from the cross bar after my chair unexpectedly tipped over backwards, it was worth it for those ninety minutes on the pitch.