The Hoofer: Forget fame - welcome to nettle rash

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The Independent Online

There's a particular pleasure that comes from playing park football, one that is missing from the lives of people who have resigned themselves to a future of five-a-side on brushed plastic.

There's a particular pleasure that comes from playing park football, one that is missing from the lives of people who have resigned themselves to a future of five-a-side on brushed plastic.

It's like buying vinyl instead of CDs, like baking your own bread instead of buying sliced; 11 against 11 on a grass pitch is as fundamental to the enthusiastic amateur as the mud on his shorts and the ground beneath his feet. As a self-incarcerated prisoner, the indoor footballer knows his environment. It is cavernous, harshly-lit and anonymous. Not to mention squeaky.

In contrast, the outdoor player seeks fresh air, scenery and – if he is lucky – a few spectators. The chronically deluded may even hope to spot a scout. (The rest of us are realistic enough to know that the only scouts in the vicinity are those taking a short cut through the park on their way to a Remembrance Day parade.)

That's not to say that the venues for pre-season friendlies with Oxygen FC were all places of beauty. We've played on astroturf in Battersea, a bumpy strip by the railway in Chiswick and a Yeovilian sloping pitch at Tunbridge Wells. These are public venues that may be used for only an hour or so each week for football. The rest of the time they appear to be hired by teams of dog-trainers and builders, given the presence around the pitch of items usually found in land-fill sites or specially marked bins.

Furthermore, the hazards aren't always on the pitch. At Chiswick, our left-back crashed through the undergrowth to try to reach the ball before it was run over by the 12.04 to Richmond. "Don't touch the live rail, Del!" was the only suggestion we could think to yell at him as he chopped at the trackside fauna, at which point another problem emerged; Del was confronted by a four-foot-high barbed-wire fence.

In this situation there appear to be three schools of thought. "Over" involves stepping on the wobbly top wire of the fence. Best do this in wellies rather than studded boots. "Under" is a three-man operation and entails forcing the barbed strands of wire apart efficiently so that a 6ft, 13st footballer can squeeze through. "Around" demands that the stranded individual follow the fence until he can find a gap. Unfortunately, as in this case the fence ran alongside a railway track, it might have been Twickenham before Del found one.

Like the battler that he is, Del bravely chose to come over the top, scratching his legs there and back to add to the nasty spot of nettle rash he'd already suffered, but remembering that the most important rule is to keep hold of the ball – give it back, and play might start with your side down a man.

After he had returned to the fray, we strolled to a 6-2 victory. Still, all things considered, maybe indoor five-a-side isn't such a bad idea after all.

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