International Football My Arse: My Love Affair With The Filth And Fury Of Sunday League

Even the beautiful game has it's less-beautiful side. A side of dodgy referees, speed-freaks and quagmire pitches.
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Even the beautiful game has it's less-beautiful side. A side of dodgy referees, speed-freaks and quagmire pitches.

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To put it bluntly, in football as in life, you get the pitch your skills deserve. Zidane graced God’s lawn; perfectly manicured and flat as infinity’s horizon – a fitting stage for a player of truly celestial elegance. In stark contrast, after stints at Bromley FC and Fisher Athletic, nether-league journeyman Sean Devine spent his mid-career pomp trundling up and down the slope at Underhill. And so the trend continues, downward…

Down...

A little further…

Keep going…

Right to very bottom. And there you’ll find our kind: the Dregs. A putrid tar-like deposit at the wrong end of football’s barrel; lacing up our Predators still giddy from drink, loping through a haze of Deep Heat, Silk Cut, Red Bull and bum-hodge to live the dream on Municipal Park playing surfaces that bear all the idiosyncrasies and most of the Health and Safety issues of a Crimean War latrine.

Pub football, people. Sunday League. No nets, no ref, no idea why we bother. But bother we do, week in week out. A cast of millions rising at dawn to perform a Grand Guignol so morbidly engaging it even inspired visionary broadcaster and unrepentant genius Danny Baker to capture the carnage on camera and broadcast it weekly to a criminally disinterested nation.

Not a pretty sight. But for all the misery, maladroits, knee supports and outright knobheads catchweight football seems happy to excuse, I don’t think I’d change it for the world.

All life is here. The towny psychopath to the indie fop. Hideous polycotton-clad anomalies cavorting round a burst paddock performing ponderous, overthought lollipops only to tread on the ball, dislocate both legs and lose bladder control in agony’s shameful aftermath.

Christ, the things I’ve seen. And on the Sabbath, too. Hilarious and horrifying in equal measure. Not least the rogues’ gallery of absurdly-shaped penises displayed weekly without diffidence or even a regular wash. Ones that look like a third testicle; ones the pallor of a corpse; at least two with an alarming elbow-esque mid-shaft kink; and one glorious aberration that comprised nothing more than a helmet and a yard-long excess of tea-coloured foreskin. If the changing room door were left ajar it would billow hypnotically, a ham-bound windsock caught in nature’s sighing breath. You don’t get that on Sky Sports.

I really could write a book. About Sunday League, not penises. Maybe I will. Then I’d be able to recount the full story of the time a friend was booked “for having AIDS” by a ref so devoid of charm entrusting whistle-duties to Raoul Moat would’ve been a marked improvement. For now, though, with time at a premium, a mere aperçu* must suffice.

In fact, so temporally pinched are we, I can barely spare a second for Cuddy the Binman, a rival defensive kingpin who secreted a musk so noxious it could, and often did, make air vomit. Likewise Tiny Tim, the impish young winger who went up for a corner and came back without his underwear. An epic coming-of-age tale but, alas, today, a teasing glimpse of pubic hair is all you’re getting. Why? Because I want to tell you about Martin Tiplady, that’s why.

No one knew where Tiplady came from; he just turned up unannounced one Sunday dressed confidently in a pristine Diadora tracksuit and a pair of ice-white Nike Tiempos. Rather suspiciously he went AWOL during our intensive pre-match warm-up (a frantic cardio-vascular shinning competition followed by a quick pitchside wee-wee) but he looked the part, so on the bench he went, no questions asked.

About 35 disastrous minutes into the game someone whose name escapes me for legal reasons accidentally threw his plums on a stray boot and had to be put down. I’ve never seen a man in so much pain; it was like his body was rejecting his scrotum. Anyway, when we’d all stopped laughing, naivety waved Tiplady on. Big mistake.

Transcending the urgent nature of our collective predicament, he ignored all requests to get a fucking move on, instead taking a prog rock album’s-worth of time on some bizarre class of hamstring-and-groin propulsion – lunging straight-legged then goose-stepping along the touchline like Basil Fawlty – and when he finally dropped his tracky bottoms to enter the fray it became horribly apparent why he’d been so reluctant to bend a knee: calipers. Leg braces. Limb orthotics, the kind normally only seen on those charity boxes you used to ignore on your way into the sweet shop.

I can only imagine what it must’ve looked like from the opposition back four’s POV: a titanic Hibernian rapist hurtling towards you with hot orange soup haemorrhaging from his face

Nonetheless, on he came, rattling like C-3PO and tucking in at centre-back as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a modern man – give my old clothes to the Scopers, always have – but when you’re 4-0 down after half an hour the last thing you need is Douglas Bader marshaling the rear guard. We ended up ‘subbing’ him at half time and just played on with ten men, the jilted party taking sizeable expletive-spackled umbrage before Forrest Gumping it off towards his Nan’s house.

He’ll be back. They always come back.

Thankfully, this one didn’t.

There were plenty more I could mention of Tiplady’s ilk, but I won’t. Particularly as I’d like to dedicate whatever’s left of my allotted word count to one Patrick Kearney, a man who shared his name with a corpse-defiling serial killer and did nothing to suggest history wasn’t about to repeat itself.

Known to us as Paddy-Paddy on account of his deafening, repetitious demands for the return pass, Kearney was a perpetually livid ball-hogging navvy; the very paradigm of ‘itinerant Irish labourer’ and one who liked to maintain a steady level of belligerent match day psychosis by topping up the rage with a half-time gramme of speed, 4 oranges and a litre of homemade “sports drink”.

He’d start the second half impressively, like an Exocet with rabies, reaching terminal velocity around the 75th minute when his body would begin subtly realigning its isotonic algorithms by violently purging orange segments and amphetamine all over the place; a zen-like state of ballistic regurgitation he achieved with ball at foot, naturally, and without ever breaking stride. I can only imagine what it must’ve looked like from the opposition back four’s POV: a titanic Hibernian rapist hurtling towards you with hot orange soup haemorrhaging from his face – I’d be inclined to retreat up the nearest tree, though, if his huge Silverback buttocks were anything to go by, there’d be no refuge up there either.

Like Tiplady, Paddy-Paddy disappeared abruptly, this time amid rumours the sawn-off shotgun-shaped protrusion in his holdall had finally been brought into action in a scene of unconstitutional pandemonium. Gone, never to be forgotten, and missed about as much as the necrotised appendix I had removed aged 7.

Freed from Kearney’s tyrannical grasp, the newfound liberty galvanised us and within two seasons we were champions. A terrifying achievement that saw us immediately disband – success was never on the agenda and was duly treated with a mixture of suspicion, resentment and malicious nudity.

Years later, I still can’t fathom how I ended up in a team with these people; diverse to the point we even had a police sergeant and a drug dealer sharing a single common goal. The romantic in me wants to believe it was the hidden forces of the cosmos that brought us together, but in truth it probably had more to do with the posters Alan put up in the pub toilet. “Players needed for 2nd XI.” Thus, the Crown Reserves were born; founded on love, laughter and the undeniable truth that we were all just a bit too shit for the 1st team.

And there I’ll end. At the beginning. To start again and relive every moment: the getting up two hours after going to bed; the never-healing shins I offered as stud-meat to herds of stampeding retards; the 36-day ban I received for being beaten up by a referee (you did read that right); the banter, the camaraderie, the ridiculous nicknames; the back spasms, the broken nose and the libidinous Border Collie who used sex as a weapon if you dared retrieve the ball from his garden; the rituals and the in-gags; the insults and the ineptitude; the blood, the thunder, the rain, the chunder. To start again and relive every blessed moment because now it’s over I miss it like hell, our stupid little Lord’s Day crusade.

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