Sunday, muddy Sunday

They're unfit, they chainsmoke, they're not even much good at football. But as the new season begins, devotees of the Sunday morning league game can't wait to get out in the rain

The atmosphere in the dressing room is an eye-watering, almost combustible mixture of liniment and tobacco smoke. Several polystyrene tiles are missing from the ceiling and the walls are a depressing shade of blue. But nobody gives a damn about that. The young men of Finham Park Rangers are focused on the game ahead. Any minute now, they will run out to take on the stalwarts of the Barley Mow pub, Rugby.

Yes, Rugby, birthplace of the oval ball game. Nearby is the field where William Webb Ellis allegedly picked up a sphere of sodden leather and ran with it. Anyone who tries that today will be severely reprimanded. The rules here are strictly association football and the accents bawling encouragement owe more to the West Midland vernacular than public school elocution.

Once the game is underway, everybody is shouting. Not just the management teams - "Play it into the channels; Squeeze 'em, squeeze 'em," - but the substitutes and the players themselves. It will be like this tomorrow at Highbury and Highfield Road, Hillsborough and Goodison Park after the whistle blows to kick off the first games of the new Premier League season. But beyond the immediate confines of the pitch, the relentless volley of expletives will be drowned by the roar of the crowd.

There is no crowd lining the field behind Avon Valley Comprehensive. A few dog-walkers and pram-pushers pass with idle interest, and a solitary bespectacled spectator joins in the shouting from beneath a flat cap. It is a bright but blustery Sunday morning and the echo of distant church bells wafts in on the wind.

As professional players rest on Caribbean beaches and in Mediterranean villas, many of Britain's amateur footballers spent their summer Sundays flinging themselves into sweaty kick-abouts in the park. Some will have turned in their boots during that brief hiatus known as the cricket season. Many more will have felt something vital has been missing from their lives. Relief will come this weekend when competitive football starts again.

They have a passion for the game which owes nothing to financial inducements. Indeed, they pay to play. Each member of Finham Park Rangers contributes pounds 2 a match to defray the costs of travelling to fixtures in the Coventry and District Sunday League (Senior Division One). What's more, they seem happy to do so. For the match against the Barley Mow in Rugby, they are raring to go, despite appearances to the contrary. "This is the big one," says goalkeeper Paul Parham, a trainee accountant. "We're not going to drag ourselves over there just to lose." There are nods of agreement from heads which, in many cases, have had all too brief acquaintances with pillows since the lads arrived home from clubs or curry houses in the early hours. "We never stay in on Saturday nights," says midfielder Ian Turley. "We play shit if we don't go out."

Around him, lips are sucking on cartons of Ribena or clamped around bottles of Lucozade in attempts at rehydration and boosting flagging energy levels. More than 11 players are gathered in the car park of the Burnt Post, a mock-Tudor roadhouse on the A45 through Coventry, but a major talent is missing. Ryan Ward is a student in Birmingham who comes home to play for Finham Park on Sundays. Everybody knows he's back in town, but nobody can raise him. "He's like our Gazza," says manager Bob Page. "A very, very talented player but sometimes his lifestyle is not conducive to football."

Page, 56, is the director of an employment agency. He's a tolerant man who, nonetheless, is losing patience after 10 minutes or so of prodding his mobile in vain attempts to rouse Ward. Team members have tried hammering on the door and hurling pebbles at his bedroom window, to no more effect. They can hear his radio alarm at full volume, but Ward sleeps on.

Exasperated, Page is telling the rest of the team that we're going without him when a pale, dishevelled figure shambles into the car park. "Come on, Wardy," booms assistant manager John Jelley, in the disapproving voice he once employed as a headteacher. "Look at you, for goodness sake." Not only is young Ryan half-asleep; he's also left his kit behind. "The scary thing is that he's training to be a teacher," somebody mutters as we climb aboard. Wedged into the mini-bus, I find myself next to Mark Kerby, assistant manager at Safeways and central midfield player. His wrist is bandaged. "He took on a punch-your-weight machine in Tenerife and lost," somebody shouts. Is that right, Mark?

He admits it is. He also admits he was out on the town last night, with Ryan Ward. Despite these twin handicaps, he seems determined to give his all for the team. He turns round and shouts: "Right, lads are we up for it?" The response is resounding. For all the jibes and jeers at one another's expense, these young men give the impression that they'd run through fire for one another. Most of them grew up together. One of the exceptions is Jack Evatt, a Jaguar engineer, who was playing for Finham Park Rangers before some of his team mates were born.

"The Sunday leagues have become smaller," he tells me. "When I started, most of the lads were apprentices who finished work on a Friday evening and had the whole weekend off. These days there are more students and they sometimes have part-time jobs on a Sunday." But not Ryan Ward. He has picked up his kit and hitched a lift over to Rugby. His arrival in the spartan dressing room is greeted with applause, and it's soon easy to understand why. Apart from his playing ability, he has a spark (when he's awake) that gees everybody up again at the point when nerves have brought on a more sombre mood.

But Page hasn't quite forgiven him. When he announces the team, Ward is among the substitutes. He takes it in good part and so do the other subs. But you can see the disappointment etched in their faces. For Paul Parham there's a double blow. Not only is he denied the chance to show off his goalkeeping skills, but he's told he's running the line. "You're joking," he blurts at the manager. He's not.

Nor is the referee joking when he informs Finham Park that their blue shirts will clash with those of the home team. John Jelley has to ring his wife and persuade her to dash over from their nearby home with a fresh kit in what turns out to be a rather sickly shade of yellow.

While we're waiting for the shirts to arrive, the tension mounts. Some reach for their cigarettes. Others methodically rub liniment into their thigh muscles. Some take a long, hard look at their boots, comparing the length of studs and the density of mud which hasn't been cleaned off since their last outing. Others are discussing what happened last night, who "pulled" and who didn't. Ryan Ward has borrowed Page's mobile to make further arrangements for his social life.

Just before kick-off, the players gather in a huddle and John Jelley gives them a curious team talk. Last night, he tells them, he saw a film about Neil Young and his band, Crazy Horse. "Who the fuck's Neil Young?" somebody asks. John ignored the question but goes on to recount a quote from one of the band. "They were better musicians than us," he said, "but when we played together, we felt nobody could beat us. Now go out and apply that to football."

"Right, lads, let's do it for Neil Young," shouts one of the team. For a while, they do. By half-time, Finham are clinging on to a two-goal lead. During the first 45 minutes, Ryan Ward has given voluble advice between cadging cigarettes from Page and kicking a ball to and fro with another sub.

Systems analyst Richard Turrall rose at 6.30 this morning to drive to Coventry from his girlfriend's house in Preston, nearly 150 miles away. If he's disappointed about missing the starting line-up, he hides it well. "I've had a few injuries lately," he admits. Injuries or no, the second half is not very old before he and Ward are pitched into the fray. Mark Kerby is one of those pulled off and he can't disguise his bitter disappointment. He stalks away to sit on a medical box, lights a cigarette and smokes moodily. It's also a measure of how much the game matters to someone who spends his week being nice to customers in Safeways. This is no friendly kick-about. No quarter is given. Tackles fly in, heads clash, harsh words are exchanged.

Backed by a strong wind, the Barley Mow team put the Finham goal under siege for much of a second half in which they score three times. When the winner goes in almost in the last minute, Kerby looks as shattered as anyone. By now he has shrugged off his mood and is looking after his team-mate and work-mate Matt Cowley, lying on the touchline, writhing in agony with a knee injury. As the team trudge off, Page knows he has to lift them. "Unlucky, lads. Well battled," he shouts, throwing a consoling arm around as many as he can. Back in the dressing room, veteran Jack Evatt is first in the shower while the water is at least tepid. The rest emerge shivering and complaining it's stone cold.

But the depression is already beginning to lift. The next stage of the Sunday football tradition is something to look forward to. Evatt is old enough to remember when the pubs shut at two on the Sabbath. "If there was extra time, we'd just about make it for last orders," he says. The Barley Mow is packed. Fitness-conscious Premiership coaches would shudder at the food laid on by the home side - sausages, chips, sliced white bread and marge. No salad, no pasta. "You have to be quick," someone says. "The Pig and Whistle in Nuneaton put on chilli and chips and they ate it before we got near it."

The journey home is boisterous. As soon as we reach the Burnt Post in Coventry, there's a rush for the bar. Bob Page stays back a while, having a quiet word with Mark Kerby about why he was substituted. By now it's 4pm and Page has been almost totally focused on football since he woke early this morning.

You couldn't tell him it's just a game.

A version of this article appears in Candis magazine

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