Imagine if you will being born. A comfortable float around a womb that you are quickly starting to outgrow. It has to end. Something’s got to give. Then the pushing and the seepage and the screaming and hey presto, pro-lifers everywhere pat themselves on the back, someone done a baby. As a life event, it is perhaps the most dangerous, perilous and traumatic your body will ever face. And that’s what it is like to play non-league football on a Christmas Bank Holiday, I would like to argue.
Not for the non-league player the dieticians, the monitors and the internal flight to another swish hotel of the Premier League, nor even the coach stopping off at the Little Chef of the Football League. You are responsible for yourself, floating around in your own little bubble of family, friends and a cheeky rum baba. But there’s the same constricting feeling of that ultimate date with destiny. In this case, it’s at the Robert Albon Memorial Stadium on 27th December 2011, kick-off 19:45.
Be you ready for it or not, that’s when you are going to have to emerge, be you fully-formed or riddled with complications. And like the world beyond your dear mother’s foo-foo, it’s a pretty bloody awful place to be. It’s an attractive place for a football ground during the daylight hours, perched right on the edge of the South Downs, although the ground itself is a rather stark affair. At night time, over the top of the precarious looking chalky banks which surround the pitch is nothing but sheer, pitch blackness. Not even the horses are interested, unless an errant clearance conks one of them on the nut.
Leaving the dressing room is another wrench, another trauma. A rarified atmosphere, surrounded by playing colleagues and friends, rich with all the finest farts of the season. The miasma is so thick you could walk atop it, but your appointment with the outside world cannot be broken. How has it come to this? An hour ago you had a bowl of nuts on your chest, a cigar in your mouth, you were watching Elf. You were eating a wheel of stilton off of the end of a fork. Now you’re wearing shinpads.
In fact, being born is nothing on having to play non-league football after Christmas. There’s no competitive element. You’re on your own, the loneliness of the long distance runner. If they pitted mothers against one another in maternity suites, then there might be some comparison. A trough in the centre of the room contains enough rusks for only one. It’s survival of the fittest. You have to get the three points or else your entire career will be over and you’ll have to return to the Unigate Dairy, where your supervisor has a pet fox and isn’t afraid to tell you about it.
Here are twenty-two men, most of them still with biscuit crumbs on their chin and chutney breath, blinking forlornly out into the light and then the darkness. An hour ago you were happy. Now you have to defend yourself, your team and your whole notion of civic pride – Worthing United versus Lancing. Finally we’ll decide which is best. You can stick your pier up your arse if you lose. This is the big one. Sussex County League Division One. There’s nowhere else you’d rather be.
The world whirring around your head, assaulted with new sensory input, it’s hardly any surprise that you’re likely to flail and flap, strike out as a reflex to protect yourself. As the whistle goes for the start of the game, you can still taste that bubble and squeak. It tastes good. You reckon you’ll put less coriander seed in the pickled onions next year. Someone in a different colour shirt has got the ball right in front of you, 15 seconds played. Really there’s little alternative but to scythe him down, cut him clean in half. He’d have done the same to you. It’s survival of the fittest out there. This is life, this is football. This is serious. This is the sort of tackle that makes the manager wonder if he should have started the physio at left back so he could have gotten there quicker, caught the kneecap before it bounced off down that hill and into the onions.
The referee is understanding. He’s slow to warm up too, digesting a whole goose like a python working a goat through on a sunny African bush trail road. There’s no booking, just some sage words of caution in the maelstrom of physiotherapists, teeth and farts. Similar events later in this evening’s game will perhaps lead you to conclude he’s simply forgotten to bring his yellow and red cards, or stapled them to an attractive ribbon hanging in his living room.
But yours is a tale worthy of Attenborough. You have survived the worst trauma of your human life. There’s nothing but good things from now on.
It finished 2-2, by the way.