Sorry Jim, time's up

Park Life
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HOW DO we know when we're too old to bounce on a bouncy castle, have an eyebrow pierced, or rap along with Buster Rimes? Do friends or family tell us? Do we instinctively recognise the passage of time and bow out gracefully, or refuse point blank to accept the inevitable?

Age is one of the crueller tricks that life plays on us, and nowhere can it be crueller than in sport.

I have found that the desire - no, more than that, the desperate need - to play football has become more urgent with age. During the years of my potential physical peak, I wasted my youth on the trivial pursuit of pleasure and measured my fitness by the number of hours put in on the dancefloor. I made my comeback, and indeed my debut in adult football, at the advanced age of 28, and now, a dozen years later, I exercise two or three times a week to stay fit enough to play in a veterans' league. What might be called the manana attitude of my wilderness years - forever vaguely promising myself that I'd get fit and find myself a team next season - has been replaced by the stark recognition that I might not be playing for very much longer.

With a couple of notable exceptions, my teammates are in the same boat. You couldn't call us has-beens because we were never there in the first place - men now into our forties who have been struggling to make the team since primary school.

We know, all of us, that there is no league we can step down to when the pace begins to tell: this is rock bottom and we are all staring it in the face. When we can no longer keep up with the grandly titled Wandsworth Senior Premiership League, we can no longer play football at all.

So it was with some trepidation that we went about the business of shedding our ageing and extremely fragile goalkeeper. Now Jim, as I'll call him, was in all respects the senior figure in the club: he had been player- manager for longer than anyone could remember, set up our league, and more than the rest of us seemed to live and breathe for the team. Opinion was divided over his exact age; some put him in his late 50s, others insisted he was over 60.

He was also, by now, utterly useless in goal. To put it bluntly, Jim was too old to jump, dive, catch or even kick the ball. Our matches would be evenly balanced for 15 or 20 minutes, but then our opponents would cotton on to our fatal weakness, and start hoofing lobs in the general direction of our goal as soon as they crossed the half-way line. This tactic always destroyed the game as a contest by always being successful.

By half-time, two or three of these orbital shots would have floated over Jim's head and into the net. Full-time would find us all exhausted from the completely futile effort of trying to play the entire match in our opponents' half of the pitch, and still losing heavily.

At the post-game drink, which Jim wisely declined to join, he inevitably became the focus of our post-mortem discussions. It was nobody's idea of fun, we agreed, to get up and run around on a Sunday morning when you knew you were going to be thrashed by four or five goals.

A growing body of players declared that they were not prepared to carry on playing with Jim in goal. "I hope I'll know when I'm past it", someone would announce every week, taking care to avoid eye contact in case he was taken up on the offer. In short, Jim had to go. But who would volunteer to tell him?

Midweek meetings, to which Jim was not invited, were organised in the pub, ostensibly to discuss tactics. The only tactic under discussion was "How to get rid of Jim". We began to feel like a gang of Nigerian Army officers plotting our next coup, or Tory cabinet ministers lining up with knives behind Margaret Thatcher's back; the longer we conspired, the more the whole business assumed mythical proportions as we prepared to assassinate the patriarch. Feelings of guilt blossomed under the indulgent care of our wives who, to a woman, took Jim's side. "But you can't do that to Jim," they would chorus, "playing means so much to him."

Eventually, we came up with a plan: we would institute a democratic "rolling membership", each player taking his turn to pick the week's team - and each player choosing a goalkeeper who was not Jim. It worked: after losing for week after week, we were undefeated in our next five matches. Jim, we heard on the grapevine, now thought we were a "bunch of bastards", but what did we expect?

As for me, I'll know when it's time to hang up my boots; when I can no longer face the after-match drink, I can be sure that they're talking about me.