Continuing with our series first featured in A City United, here is another instalment of the popular ‘Secret Sunday League Manager’, a behind-the-scenes look at life on the pitches of Lincoln.
Before I took up as a manager I played for a couple of different sides across the city. I wasn’t really a ‘well-known’ face so to speak, I was probably one of those nondescript players that others on the touch line don’t recognise. You’ll know what I mean, with every team there is someone you know or have played with. As a player I’d stand with our gaffer in my tracksuit waiting to come on and he’d be scanning the opponents.
“I played with the 6 at such and such a team, he’s a hard nut. The 11 is quick too, he’s been here a few seasons. Not sure on the others except the keeper who wouldn’t catch a cold, and the only thing he punches, I’ve heard, is above his weight as his missus is a stunner’.
I was always one of the others, the plain lads with no outstanding skills, the filler if you like. Every team has them, bobbing between the bench and the first team with no significant impact. If you don’t think your team has any and you’re reading this in the changing room because you’re on the bench and it is cold, then you’re the filler. Sorry.
Being virtually anonymous had its advantages though, and playing in front of six people meant if you did happen to score a wonder goal nothing ever came of it. I bagged a few in my time, never enough to be talked about but always enough to ensure I was at least invited to the end of season awards do. I once picked up a ‘Most Improved Player’ too which I felt was a bit of a slur. That is the trophy you win if you were utter garbage at the start of the season, but by luck or ill-judgement you’d forced your way into the team. I think I won it because our captain moved down south and a winger broke his leg so we were down to the bare bones. I came in, did a job and picked up a bit of silverware. Nice.
I made my way in the world and met a nice girl who, if you remember last week, later let me keep the car in a messy divorce. Anyway, the early days were good, she was a pretty lass whom I’d spotted across the dance floor in Cinderella’s and we hit it off. After bumping into each other a couple of times we got together, and it coincided with me finding myself in the first team.
I think we were Division Three at the time which wasn’t a bad level. I’d had a Division Seven side offer me a proper first team spot, but I liked occasionally sitting in my car watching through the windscreen in the middle of December so I gave that a swerve. We weren’t a bad side and those injuries meant I would come off the bench on occasion. Much like now in the professional ranks, I’d get a run out in the cup if we drew the Dog and Duck from Sticks Ville, or Bardney.
By April I’d gotten a regular starting place and although we weren’t in the top two we were safe from the drop, if you ever truly can be given the unpredictable nature of relegation in the Sunday League. Things with her were going well and I thought she’d be impressed if she came to watch me play. I think it was the last game of the season, so I told her where and when. It was on the Skellingthorpe Road pitches and there were a few games going on, so she said she’d come down, watch her brother play and then come and find me. Afterwards I we were going down the local pub for a Sunday roast and to meet the parents.
Typically, it was a lovely warm morning and the lads we were playing had been out on the lash the night before. I think we were fifth and sixth, nothing really to play for and no desire to really push ourselves. There was the odd new face on trial for the following season which wasn’t really allowed. They weren’t signed on but they weren’t ringers in the real sense. As they were briefed on whose name to use if they got booked I concentrated on looking good. Surely, if I was at my peak here then I’d stand out amongst the hungover lads, the wet-behind-the-ears wannabes and those not wanting to get injured needlessly. If I looked good I might just get lucky that afternoon.
Most of the other lads had read the script and the game was going exactly to plan. I’d moved up front because there is nowhere else you can stand out as much as number ten. If I banged in a few goals then she’d see and I would, at the very least, get a beef brisket and roast tates at the local boozer. I could furnish her Dad with tales of my world-class performance while her Mum whispered what a catch I was to anyone who would listen. I would be, metaphorically, ‘in’ my son.
At half time we were 2-0 up courtesy of me and some young kid playing under the captain’s name. It was all a bit amusing as the referee knew our captain well and when the young kid scythed their lad down in a show of over-enthusiasm the referee asked his name. He smirked when he heard who the lad was pretending to be, but during a dead rubber game in April even he didn’t really care. The boy scored a few minutes after, he had a bit about him and was eager to impress. Just before the break he threaded a ball through to me, I nutmegged some big, hairy centre half and beat the keeper with ease. I hadn’t seen her turn up yet but I celebrated wildly anyway just in case. The defender muttered something like ‘arsehole’ under his breath but I didn’t care.
After the break I began to get nervous. I’d had a scan of the other pitches and there was only one other game on, and I couldn’t see her watching that. There were no mobile phones back then so I just had to hope she was coming or that I hadn’t seen her yet. Sometime around the hour mark it all kicked off, big style.
I picked up the ball on the eighteen-yard area and tried a one-two with our midfielder. In true Sunday League style, it was all a bit messy and the ball cannoned up off the big defender I’d megged earlier. He went to hoof it out, slipped and ended up sat on his arse as I lashed the loose ball at goal. My shot sliced off my boot and caught him square in the face, full pelt as he was sat on the floor. For a moment there was a stunned silence, then the young trial kid tapped the ball back to me. The keeper looked distracted so I slotted the ball home with all the panache of a top-flight forward, in my mind. It was probably all a bit Benny Hill, but I didn’t care. As I wheeled away I caught a glimpse of a blond-haired girl coming around the back of the goal. Believing I’d seen her I went into full-on cup-final winning goal routine, arms in the air screaming with joy. As I ran past the dazed defender he kicked out at me and I fell to the floor. Just before my face hit the grass I noticed the girl wasn’t my intended at all which probably wound me up a bit.
Next thing you know there was a mass brawl. Their lads weren’t happy with my showing off, nor the fact that their sizable chunk of a centre half had a possible broken nose, not that you’d be able to tell. He lifted me up and stuck one on me, I piled back into him and the referee just blew on his whistle as if he was at an early 90’s rave. Fists flew, people flowed on to the pitch from the touchline to separate us whilst some manic woman screamed about the other game being a ‘kids game’ and how disgusting it was. I didn’t care as I landed a proper one on the ugly sod’s nose end. If it wasn’t broken, it was now.
The melee soon died down as most the other players couldn’t really be bothered, but that defender and I didn’t. We were going at it like two wrestlers, rolling around on the floor now in one of those comical fight scenes that most brawls turn into. He was bitter about the meg and his cracked conk, I didn’t want to get beaten up in case she was there so neither of us were giving up. Only one of us should have done, he was much bigger than me and eventually he’d probably kill me. We were thankfully pulled off each other by team mates and both substituted, curiously the referee thought that was better than fines and paperwork this late in the season. We were taken to our respective changing rooms still shouting obscenities and threatening the worst. My threats were hollow though, I secretly hoped the changing room door had a lock on it and I asked our sub to stand by the door to ‘stop me getting the bugger’, in reality it was so he couldn’t get me.
I was changed and out before him and as I sheepishly emerged a little battered and bruised, she turned up. I must have been quite a sight, but it did mean one thing: sympathy. I told her the story of the evil defender, big and ugly with a vendetta against the skilful forward with two goals to his name. She gave me a big hug and reminded me about that roast dinner which I could wash down with a few pints to make me feel better. My Sunday was getting better by the minute, apart from the bruises, split lip and slight fear he might come after me at any minute, I was content. I referred to him in a way I wouldn’t dare ask the editor to print, she agreed he must be an awful person and I headed off for the car. She tugged on my sleeve and said; ‘hang on, I’ve just got to get my brother too’.
I don’t need to tell you what happened next really, do I?
The big, nasty centre half, the one I’d nutmegged, dealt a broken nose too and then punched on the broken nose came out of the changing rooms. He briefly hugged his sister, saw me and for a split second I felt my world cave in. She immediately sussed what had happened and grabbed him, whispering something in his ear and to this day, I have no idea what she said. He gave her a peck on the cheek, glowered at me as he walked past and went to the car.
She took my hand and said something along the lines of ‘I take it you’ve already met my big brother then?’ before ushering me into the same car he had just gotten into. One minute I was expecting a good feed and maybe a bit of a fumble afterwards, now my afternoon consisted of not getting my head kicked in when her back was turned.
As you know, we married some time later so the story didn’t turn out all that bad. Him and I patched up our difference after a year of awkward conversation, the occasionally flare up at a niece’s christening and a few more clashes on the football field. It was my stag night I think, we sat and had a chat and it turned out he was a decent bloke. I even played for his team for a season, although I never went near him in training. I heard when we divorced he asked her if he could come around to my house and cave my skull in, but there wasn’t any need, she’d cheated on me after all.
I still see him from time to time, we say hello but we’ve never spoken of the reason he now has a pug-nose like a ridiculously small dog. I don’t suppose there’s any real need to bring that up, is there?