I was 10 years old the first time I played organised football on a Sunday morning. Long before the advent of smaller pitches and goalmouths for children I played on full sized pitches barely able to see the cross bar let alone touch it and I was lucky to clear the penalty area with my kicks. I loved it. The team I played for, St.Vallier, were dreadful and we regularly suffered heavy defeats. I didn’t care. I just wanted to play and feel a part of something. Sickly child that I was that was huge.
I continued to play until I was 15 and then drifted away as I discovered all the things that distract teenage boys and to be honest I had started to fall out of love with actually playing. I got so worked up before a game I was often physically sick and I needed to make a change.
I played a little over the next couple of years but it wasn’t until Uni that I really started to take it seriously again. Then one Valentines Day in 1994 I broke my leg in two places and really that was that for another couple of years.
After I graduated I struggled a bit. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do and didn’t show much aptitude for working in an office and missed the camaraderie that uni provided. I am not sure I was depressed but I certainly wasn’t in a good place.
Football found me again. I started playing for my family team. I guess it was a pretty unusual situation — a team named after an uncles business and including my brother, three cousins and a number of other players I had known my entire life. Again it gave me something to be a part of. My confidence started to return and the changing room was an education in of itself.
The word ‘banter’ has developed all sorts of negative connotations over the last few years — much of it related to sexism and misogyny. The thing is I don’t really know how to describe the changing room activity as anything else — it was banter in its purest form. No one was off limits and at times you could be brutally be brought down to earth — it was no place with the faint of heart and I soon needed to toughen up and learn to fight my corner. There was only so long I could let my ‘little’ brother stick up for me!
I still found playing incredibly stressful — honestly speaking in front of large audiences is easier for my than playing football in front of one man and his dog — and at this point my abilities could at best be considered…limited. Still I kept turning up, I paid my subs, took my knocks (physically and verbally)
Over the years I moved from being the quiet one in the corner to a dressing room leader (though I had to move clubs to achieve that) and eventually to a sideline warrior — so injury prone that the only contribution I could make was running the line.
I played, managed, refereed — anything to stay involved. Even today, fives years after I finally ‘retired’, I am looking forward to start of the season and watching friends who still have the energy and ability to continue — and lets be honest I look forward to the pub after where the banter starts again.