Park Life: Confessions of a local league martyr

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The Independent Culture
TURNING STRAIGHT to the sports pages as usual - doesn't everyone? - I scanned last weekend's results with my usual half-attention, on the look-out for something out of the ordinary. The television news had already informed us that England had beaten South Africa at rugby, an unlikely outcome that went some way towards making up for the usual Ashes debacle in the cricket against Australia.

In football, the Premiership yielded very little of interest: draws all round at the top - Villa, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal - not many goals; and there will certainly be no giant-killing in the FA Cup until January. As for the Beazer Homes and Auto Windscreen leagues...

Slowly it dawned on me that there was only one result I really cared about, and Sunday's action in the Wandsworth and District Senior Football League was not recorded in any newspaper. This, after all, was the league in which I should have been playing, had the fixture not clashed horrendously with a prior engagement - the children's annual expedition to the Christmas pantomime, organised by my mother as long ago as last summer (tickets are like gold dust, so there was no hope of juggling the dates).

As in any family where sport looms large, my wife and I have negotiated an accommodation over the years - I am permitted to play sport on the provisos that I don't leave my dirty kit lying around the house, I don't end up in the casualty ward, and it doesn't interfere with family activities (which means that squash during my lunch break is a highly favoured option). I have one friend who enjoys playing rugby and golf. No problem, says his wife, but you can't play both - there's just not enough time. So he plays rugby now, on the basis that he will be able to play golf for many years to come - and it is this, I am convinced, that explains why my friend is still playing scrum against men half his years, after 30 or more seasons of the sport.

So I resolved to take it on the chin and duly forget about my match. I did what I had to do without grumbling: informed the week's team manager that I would not be available, chauffeured the family to the theatre, yelled "Oh Yes You Are" and "He's Behind You" at the top of my voice, and enjoyed every minute, every appalling pun of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves. But as soon as I arrived home and picked up the newspapers, I started itching to know the score.

Perhaps I should not have been surprised to discover that I still cared so much; after all, my son Darcy and his comrades in the under-eights are beginning to get dangerously worked up about their Saturday morning football matches. The only difference with my somewhat maturer team is that we have learnt to hide our feelings.

No, what caught me unawares was the guilty realisation that I wasn't sure quite what result I was hoping for. Playing for a team is a very different and much more complicated matter than merely supporting one.

The supporter's favoured result is straightforward: you simply want your team to win every game five-nil (with the exception of Arsenal fans, who perversely prefer one-nil, and English cricket supporters, who pray for rain as the safest way of securing a draw). But my speculations on the possible score-line from the Battersea Bees (my team) versus the British Museum led me to a number of scenarios - none of which, I am ashamed to admit, showed me in a particularly good light.

I ran the range through my mind. Naturally, I favoured a win for the boys; but what if my replacement was the star player on the day, and was now un-droppable? Would I ever play for my team again? If it was a draw, might my presence just have tipped the balance - in which case my absence would not be forgiven in a hurry?

And if we had lost? Well, as a nominal striker with one (easy) goal to my name all season, I would be unable to claim that the team lacked my fire-power, but perhaps they valued my willingness to chase hoofed clearances and generally annoy the opposition all morning.

I rang my friend and team-mate Tim, who broke the news: a one-all draw, secured by means of an equalising goal during the last few minutes of play. "We missed your pace up front," he added, which was probably the nicest thing anyone outside my immediate family has said to me all year.

So thanks, Tim, I can sleep at night now, secure in the knowledge that my place in the team is safe.

And I've just checked the future list: unless I'm very much mistaken, I'm duty manager for the next game, which is doubly reassuring. After all, I'm bound to pick myself.