Park Life

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The Independent Culture
LAST SUNDAY, I lined up for my first match of the new football season with a new, post-World Cup fantasy. In the days leading up to the game, I had pictured myself wheeling away from a couple of flat-footed defenders on the half-way line, accelerating past another, powering at high speed into the penalty area and shooting, inevitably, into the goal.

This is a fantasy which must be shared by thousands of other would-be footballers, although most of them - it must be admitted - are younger even than the 18-year-old Michael Owen. Should I be embarrassed at having a role-model closer to my children's age than to mine? I'm not sure, but the only age- friendly alternative would be Sir Stanley Matthews, and even I am not old enough to remember him playing.

We may not have lived up to our dreams (I for one failed to score a goal), but in 90 minutes, we lived through a range of drama and emotion that would have exhausted the audience at any theatre. Spookily, the match began like that England-Argentina showdown: after 10 minutes or so, our goalkeeper, slow off his line, committed himself to a challenge and brought down an opponent chasing the ball into our box.

You may view our Sunday morning football as 11 middle-aged and mortgaged men reliving our lost youth, having one last run with a gang. But I'm not sure if that fully explains the intensity with which we play. It certainly goes beyond simply having fun - it is too draining, too vital, too important for that. (Although not important enough to practise for: our one pre- season get-together took place not at the training ground - what training ground? - but at the pub, where the main topic of discussion was whose turn it was to wash the kit.)

Two or three years ago, we did play "just for fun", enjoying the run- around and accepting defeat easily. The problem was that we were beaten every week - and that was no fun at all. Last season, we developed a loathing of defeat that seemed to work.

At half-time last Sunday, losing 2-0, we all must have wondered where that had gone. Their unfit middle-aged men were consistently beating our unfit middle-aged men to the ball; we missed our chances, they took theirs, and the frustration was building. So it was with enormous relief and satisfaction that we found our spirit in the second half. We clawed our way back into the game three times, and, in the last 10 minutes, survived wave after wave of attacks to equalise.

I could barely walk until Wednesday, but it felt good. And the dream is still alive: if we can manage to avoid defeat until Christmas, we'll be in with a chance of the league title. If not, there's always the cup...

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