Park Life: The hard man of soft tactics

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The Independent Culture
IT WAS my turn to be player-manager of the veterans' Sunday league football team, and who better to model my performance on than Chelsea's shaven-headed Gianluca Vialli? So, on Monday morning I headed down to the barber's, gestured to my lank, grey curls, and said: "Cut it all off, please."

The sensible New Zealand hairdresser, unaware of my intended symbolism, declined to take my order literally, but she nevertheless cropped my hair shorter than it had ever been before. Short enough to be greeted by a screech when I got home, followed by, "You look like Vinnie Jones".

Anyway, I was satisfied that the cut would project a new hardness of resolve to the rest of the team when we met up for our pre-match tactics- and-training session at the pub.

It's extraordinary what effect even a modicum of responsibility can have on your behaviour, which is probably why I have spent so much of my life trying to avoid it. For the first time on record, I was early to the pub, and by the time the others arrived I was happily sipping beer and drawing up far-fetched team formations, with arrows to indicate intricate diamond passing patterns or lung-busting sprints by our heroic if ageing full- backs. My colleagues patiently advised that the moves would leave us weak in defence, a bit light in midfield, and toothless in attack: "But you're the boss." By the end of the evening, we had agreed on our usual plan: "Prevent the opposition from scoring, try to nick a goal or two for ourselves."

The day dawned bright and cold, the pitch frozen underneath and slippery on top. Our most destructive midfielder was in bed with the flu, and our only substitute was feeling jet-lagged after a business trip to the States. As usual, our opponents looked collectively about a century younger than us.

Our first plan - to prevent the opposition from scoring - collapsed in the second minute, when a defender fell flat on his face in front of goal, presenting their centre-forward with an easy chance. Thereafter our defence was reasonably secure, but we failed to play the ball into their half of the pitch.

With 15 minutes left and no further score, I made the ultimate sacrifice and took myself off to give jetlagged Dave a run. He hardly looked thrilled, and who could blame him: rarely can a one-nil scoreline have seemed so one-sided. Then a harmless push, a harsh decision, and our opponents scored a second from the penalty spot. I looked on helplessly as my team's one remaining record - not losing by more than one goal for two seasons - was torn from our grasp, under my management.

But a game is never over until the final whistle, and in its dying minutes the referee, perhaps feeling guilty, evened matters up with a penalty in our favour. Vindication, our record saved. Never has a manager handed over the reins of power with such relief. I greeted my men with a "Well played" as they trudged off, the weight of responsibility lifted from my shoulders. Now for the next match, which I'll enjoy with the careless rapture of the unhyphenated player.