Back in Issue 2 of A City United, we started covering the story of a the Sunday League, as played on the pitches of Lincoln. Looking to diversify the coverage and dilute the Imps’ content, we enlisted the help of a former Sunday League player to talk to us about his experiences working the grass roots side of the game.
Here, for the first time ever on the internet, is his story.
What you’re about to read is a frank and honest account of being a Sunday League player and manager. We’ve spoken to a former player about his experiences, firstly as a player and latterly as a manager. He asked to remain anonymous, perhaps because he’s desperate to be ‘The Secret Sunday League Player’. Here, in my words (his had too many ‘F’s in) is his account of the Sunday League he remembers.
I remember once, I was asked why we do it. Why do we get up at 9am on a Sunday morning to drive across Lincoln just to get thrashed by a well-drilled side boasting Saturday players and the odd pro getting a sneaky outing for his local boozer? I wish I had a witty answer for you, but I don’t the truth is I don’t really know why I did it. I played for ten years, I started late and perhaps that was for the best. I never played for a side that won a league, and in my day there were nine you could win! I often felt we were the only side not to win a bloody trophy. We never won a cup (always seemed to get knocked out in Scothern of all places), and I never won any individual awards.
With such a great record of winning nothing behind me, it came as a great surprise to be asked to step up as manager. Our old gaffer had enough of the bickering, the administration and in particular the not winning, and he passed the baton of failure on to me. I didn’t want to say no, it would have meant spending Sunday mornings with the wife. I’d rather have been a referee than that.
If you want to know what made us tick, why we persisted in these seemingly pointless endeavours; just head to your local football pitch at about 11am on a Sunday morning. Have a watch yourself. You see for all the not winning, both as a manger and as a player, I miss it greatly. I miss anxiously pacing around the dressing rooms (or shed at Newtoft) waiting for the car to turn up that contains our left back and centre forward. I love coming home with the smell of Deep Heat on my clothes, or the feeling you get when you change without showering and it’s tacky under your jeans. I miss grabbing a Sports Echo on a Sunday to see who had beaten who, and look at those green, grainy team photos they had trying to identify which of the opposition players had kicked you the week before. I miss it all.
Even though Sunday football is meant to be a) fun and b) a chance to play football, as a player and a manager I actively sought to make it neither. I played in defence, mainly because I was big and I couldn’t run. We didn’t spring an offside trap, we didn’t have the legs to set it up in the first place. I couldn’t catch a centre forward that had started running fifteen yards behind me from his own half, I’d raise my hand meekly and appeal to the linesman, inevitably one of their subs. What do you expect him to do, wave his flag?
I’ve seen substitutes running the line that give a decision against their own team and pay the price. Once a poor lad was forced to change outside after the match in shame at flagging his clearly-offside centre forward just before he buried a vital chance. We drew that game 2-2, it was a titanic battle between fourth and fifth in Division Seven or something. A draw meant we hung on to our place, and the poor sub got soaked in the March rain as his team mates shouted abuse at him from the warmth of the dressing room.
As a manager, I wasn’t the tactical genius I imagined I was. Woe betide any player who would think of passing the ball or showing some skill. If I saw too much of that I’d be ranting on the side lines about over playing the game. “Bang it over the top for the quick lad up front.” That was my response, if the quick lad up front had found the pitch in Bardney, or if he wasn’t too hungover from the night before. With that, I would stride off down the touchline, picturing myself in a natty suit and loafers waiting to take the praise of the press after the match. Only there was no press, there was no loafers. There was just a delusional mug stood in the rain wearing Hi-Tec trainers being called all-manner of rude words by his irate team. I knew I wasn’t good enough at playing the game, and I knew I never had been. I felt better shouting at others to do it instead.
Those players were just as happy shouting back at me though. There is little player / manager respect at this level, not when you all work in the same factory or with the same road gang. I might be the manager on a Sunday, but by Monday I’m just one of the guys again, and if I’ve been a right royal pain in the arse on a Sunday I’m always going to get it in the neck. These boys aren’t the model professionals you see on the TV, steering clear of controversy and confrontation. Quite the opposite.
A vast majority see Sunday league football player see it as a means of releasing their burgeoning supplies of pent-up aggression. Most weeks, my team of angry young men would find themselves on decreasingly bad playing surfaces across Lincoln, getting kicked all over the place for 90 minutes. On a few occasions, I would find myself looking out of the rear window as we drove us away from the ground to see if our opponents were chasing us with makeshift weapons. Inevitably you’d end up crossing paths with the centre forward you’d punched and pulled all game, usually in Ritzy’s after a few pints where all hell would threaten to break loose.
During my Sunday league tenure, I have seen violence, thuggery, abuse, intimidation, cheating, gloating and all the other character traits that are regularly associated with Wimbledon or teams Paul Cox manages. Strangely not one of the players who played with me or under me would change a damn thing.
Once we were involved in a real battle against one of Lincoln’s more salacious sides. They’d bullied us, we’d fought back and there was more blood on shirts than mud. It was a cold January day and very few of our lads had even wanted to get out of bed, let alone enter a battle royal with a team of Lincoln ‘faces’ masquerading as football players. It had, for want of a better word, been bloody brutal.
Eventually the beleaguered referee had enough, he called over one of their lads, a strapping midfielder with no skill but lots of bulk, and showed him a red card. He’d floored one of our lads in an aerial challenge, ramming an elbow into his skull. Our lad had shouted in pain, gone down then got straight back up looking for the player. He was already trudging back towards the dressing room, the poor referee the focus of much swearing and anger. Our player approached the ref and said ‘why did you have to send him off? I was after that ****** and now you’ve ruined it.’ The poor young lad couldn’t do wrong for doing right, so he sent our guy off for foul language. The two dismissed players had a bit of a punch up in the dressing room before anyone else got back, and later they laughed about it in the pub later (later in life, not later in the day. They were still fighting when one of the cup draws pitted us together two weeks later).
We regularly found ourselves up against the types of men who felt smashing someone else around a muddy park gave them some sort of status, and occasionally we came across a team of finely honed amateur players just looking for a team to ritually humiliate. Despite holding our own there was at least one double-figure mauling every year, sometimes when a Premier Division club loaned it’s players to their Division Seven reserve side, or when the local Lincoln United midfielder signed on for his local alehouse for a few weeks. Some of our games we won by virtue of the team at the top of the table only rocking up with eight players. Those were the afternoons I really liked, watching my eleven beat the table-topping eight whilst somewhere in the depth of Lincolnshire a car full of players were stood around a steaming engine by the side of the road cursing their luck. No mobile phones, no messages of why they were delayed so we got on with the game. Needless to say, any return fixture did not go well for us.
Sunday League football also acts as a catalyst for male bonding like no other hobby. It may sound twee but it was very true, nowhere else in adult life do you feel like you are back at school. I’ve had educated men play football for me, men who work in suits and have more zeroes on their monthly wage slip than I do on my yearly one, but they still join in with the other guys laughing when a burly centre forward turns up late because his missus made him do the washing up, or when his white socks have been dyed pink by a washing machine mishap. I love the absurdity of the grass-roots game, the aggression of it, the mundanity of it.
I miss the game now, it breaks my heart to see just five leagues when once there was nine. I suppose I should find it heartening to know there are still sixty or seventy teams out there willing to give up time on a Sunday morning to rub on the Deep Heat and act like proper athletes, before retiring to the pub all afternoon to argue about the ramifications of their near-pointless 8-5 victory over the pub down the road. Whilst men are still doing that up and down the country, football will keep one foot in the real world.