For professional footballers, the Christmas holidays are no such thing, with games taking place on Boxing Day and New Year's Day and the Saturday in between. Amateurs, meanwhile, have the blessed relief of a couple of weeks off to balm weary limbs with wine, spirits and saturated fat.
The determined hoofer, however, is closer to the professional in that he views the holidays as a chance to get in another game. A kickabout in Tanzania, eight-a-side in Sancerre, even a game of "walley" in an underground car-park in Chamonix are among the unlikely places in which I have improvised a fixture.
Last summer I added to the list as I found myself playing for a representative Fair Isle XI against the rest of the world while doing voluntary work for the National Trust for Scotland. A dozen of us were there for a fortnight's weeding, painting, bailing and shearing sheep (badly), our "wages" paid in hot soup and fresh bread by the hospitable crofting families.
Fair Isle is a dot in the North Sea between the Shetland and Orkney Islands, roughly three miles long by a mile-and-a-half wide, with a permanent population of around 90, so getting up a full side for this traditional fixture isn't always easy. My repeated requests for a game went to Ian Stout, crofter, postman and former star of the Shetland Islands Under-11s; and when I couldn't find him, they went via his parents, Jimmy and Florrie. Jimmy is the captain of the boat to Shetland, the Good Shepherd, and Florrie is the joint editor of the Fair Isle Times. I remember them fondly, though Jimmy rather less clearly, as he pours the largest drams of whisky in Scotland, enough to fill the average toothmug.
Eventually, after bothering the poor family for the best part of a fortnight, word reached me that a time and venue had been fixed: Sunday teatime by the south lighthouse. Fair Isle against the rest of the world, with the home side bolstered by temporary visitors.
The Fair Isle team contained several experienced players. Yorkshireman John Barley was deployed at left-back and did as fine a man-marking job as anyone could remember of a 77-year-old retired policeman. In the second half, fresh legs were required, and he was replaced by Edinburgh's Pete Coutts, a mere slip of a 55-year-old retired policeman.
The pitch lay in a beautiful setting just off the beach. Unfortunately, it was also dotted with sheep droppings and pebbles. As the game progressed it became more uncompromising, littered with the sort of challenges euphemistically described as "positive". Some of the collisions were quite frightening, as when two hulking deep-sea divers converged with the impact of a tanker crashing into an oil rig.
The match came to an end when Hollie from the bird observatory wandered on to the pitch to tell her staff that tea was ready. Afterwards I was elated, and not just because we had won 9-6. I could claim that I had played for Fair Isle, a place habitually confused with the Faroe Islands. And, as any player worth his half-time orange will tell you, the Faroe Islands play in the World Cup.Reuse content