Off Centre Circle

by Back Page Football

“Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard for all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting. ”
- George Orwell, Collected Essays

Our opponent’s playing pitch has only been lined half an hour before kick-off by one of the club’s loyal stalwarts. The sidelines may not be straight but it matters little, as each appointed ‘linesman’ or assistant referee (usually the manager of the opposing team) will put his arm up for a throw-in once the ball comes within two metres of the meandering line anyway. Cue volleys of verbal abuse and wild gesticulating arrowing across from one side of the pitch to the other in demand of a throw-in. Worse still, an invitation to settle differences of opinion outside the gate afterwards are made clear after only a few minutes of action.

“Era if ye are going to be that way about calling the throw-ins like, we might as well go home ye shower of bastards.”

“Go way back up the mountains you culchie shower of shaggers. Ye are only here for the free sandwiches anyway.”

A handful of lime is dropped roughly twelve yards from each goal to mark the penalty spot prior to kick-off. Each of these allotted spots disappear within five minutes as both sets of defenders hack anything that resembles a football out of the penalty area which can also include the opposing striker’s left leg and the circle of grass that surrounded it. The six yard box is crooked and varies in width to the one at the opposite end of the ground.

We are barely halfway through the season and whatever remaining grass present on the playing surface has become worn and patchy. The mixture of lime and water dumped erratically on the sidelines has vanished by the half-time break courtesy of a series of heavy showers. There must be a hundred cow pats dotted around the playing surface. The first step onto the pitch results in a loud squelching noise and when I look down my worn Puma boots have a new brown streak from heel to toe.

Within a quarter of an hour the majority of the playing surface becomes a muddy quagmire. The nets are held together with multicoloured twine, string and even bits of tape in places. The corner flags are hammered into the ground at each of the four right angles of the playing field but many still manage to topple over long before the final whistle. Local rabbits have continued their guerrilla tactics of burrowing through the bottom of the nets and its all hands on deck to make sure the netting is properly fastened. Just as well there is a large rusted iron bar and a selection of building blocks and stones only a few feet behind the goal-line to keep the nets from blowing away. The goalkeepers are sure to be delighted with that.

The facilities may be paltry; the pitch in dreadful condition, the weather atrocious, but it is the pure and simple love of the game of soccer that drives players and club officers to have everything in readiness to the best of their ability. It’s for the sake of their local club, players and few supporters that Sunday’s match preparations are carried out as diligently as possible so games like today’s can go ahead without a hitch.

My knees are turning blue with the cold as I stand impatiently at the side of the road with my arms crossed along with the younger members of the squad. Players huddle together, shivering with only a t-shirt, 1970’s-styled shorts, socks, shin-pads and football boots caked in shite. The team is called out by the manager and jerseys are recklessly thrown around. This is the only part of our regular match day routine I that I dread. Trying to break into a senior (junior) soccer team is difficult enough when the squad contains so many talented individuals. As a graduate of the Under-18 youths squad the biggest obstacle in breaking into the first eleven is lack of physique. Playing West Cork junior soccer requires a certain amount of skill but the ability to stand up for yourself when the crazy two-footed lunges start flying in is much more important. The majority of opposing teams are regularly made up of six foot giants and sturdy GAA players with tree-trunks for legs. Youth team graduates learn quickly that the first couple of years playing soccer at this level are as much about avoiding injury as it is about trying to play attractive football.

I am handed the number thirteen one (as usual) and borrow someone’s hoodie to help keep the biting wind at bay whilst idling on the sideline. The manager gathers the team in close together to issue his final instructions before we cross the white line and commence 90 minutes of battle. What our coach lacks in tactical knowledge he more than makes up for in the diligent preparation of his squad. Everything we do in training has a purpose and this Clonakilty AFC side must be the fittest soccer team to play in the West Cork league for years.

Manager: “Lads. For f*ck sake we just can’t lose to this shower alright? Looks just keep things simple. Find the forwards as early as you can and for f*ck’s sake NO MOUTHING TO THE REFEREE.” (The manager himself forgets this instruction and is promptly warned about his conduct with barely 2 minutes on the clock).

Team: “COME ON TO F*CK!”

Manager: “Remember as well lads alright that if you are going to get sent off make sure he is carried off! Straight from the word go now. COME ON! DO YE WANT TO WIN THIS F*CKIN’ THING OR WHA?”

Team: “COME ON TO F*CK!”

Manager: “Lads we need to make sure EVERYONE is serious about this now from the word go, alright?”

Player who had too much to drink the night before:BURP!” Cue laughter all round.

Manager: “Ah for f*ck sake just get out there and lay into them will ye.”

There is little or no warm-up to speak of apart from a selection of random shots at our goalkeeper, most of which fly wildly past the upright. The players jog around trying to keep warm offering the odd “come on lads, straight from the off now” as encouragement. At least our team are present and accounted for with five minutes to show-time. Most of the opposition are still arriving with kick-off looming. Some of the older participants saunter out on to the playing pitch looking the worse for wear from the previous night’s excessive partying.

Our opponent’s captain stops to chat to a young lady at the edge of the field in full view of the impatient official who is growing more frustrated by the minute. The referee’s mood is further irritated by the fact the home side have failed to produce a match ball. To cap off a horrific start to the day for the man in black, our opponents are also sporting a vast array of multi-coloured shorts and odd socks. Another West Cork League rule unashamedly disobeyed. The ref lets out an audible sigh and throws his eyes to heaven. It looks like being another long ninety minutes.

Extract taken from Ger McCarthy’s book entitled ‘Off Centre Circle’ a journey growing up, obsessing over, supporting and playing local junior (amateur) soccer.

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