A real hit-and-miss game, even before kick-off

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The Independent Online
YEARS LATER, it still nags at me. I suppose what I did bordered on harassment - I must have called the poor woman five times in the space of a couple of hours.

To her, my actions appeared unreasonable. That much was plain from her closing remarks. But what she didn't appreciate was just how badly placed we, The Guardian FC, were going to be if we turned up the following morning to play our big match against the Daily Mirror without her son in goal.

Sure it was late. But was it my fault that her Simon had a job which kept him out until after 11 o'clock at night? It did occur to me that Simon was probably in the pub, but even if he'd had a few pints, all would be well if he could just be at the ground by 10.00 am.

After all, it was not uncommon for our team members to have a pint or two on the evening before a game. They always abided strictly by the golden rule: never to drink anything unless they absolutely wanted to.

Had I been the subject of a fly-on-the-wall documentary at this time the director might have had a bit of sport running my opening gambits together.

"Hello, I'm just phoning to see if Simon is back yet . . . hello, it's me again. From The Guardian. Yes. No sign of Simon, I assume? . . . Hello there, sorry, I've had a number of incoming calls since we last spoke so if you had tried to get back - oh, isn't he? Right . . . Hello. God, is it really? Sorry, I just didn't realise the time. Anyway . . ." Simon never showed. Perhaps someone had failed to pass on a message. But Dave, his leg less injured than reports had indicated, did turn up, bless him. So, crisis over. But the memory of my shameful badgering remained.

Then I thought about the things my old friend Nick used to do to try to ensure he fielded a full XI. And I began to feel better.

Make the screen go swimmy. We have gone back a couple more years, and I am standing by The Embankment on a chilly morning with a team-mate, Chris. We are waiting for Nick to arrive with Steve, our stand-in centre- forward.

The car arrives, lights flashing, half an hour late. On the back seat is a bag of overspilling laundry, a baby buggy and a little girl clutching a red and black rabbit; presumably not our centre-forward.

Nick is wearing his sheepish look. "Sorry I'm late. I've had a real saga." "Where's Steve?" "Well, I went to Sloane Square but he was gone. If he was there at all." I sit amid pungent trainers and yellowing newspapers in the front passenger seat, while Chris squeezes into the back beside the girl. "Hello," he says.

"What's your name?" "Jesca." "What?" "Jessica," says Nick.

"What's your name," asks Jessica.

"Chris." "You're not Chris." "I am," says Chris. "That's my name.'' Nick asks me if we are clear to move out into the traffic. Beyond my hunched- up knees, the windscreen has already misted over. "I can't see a thing, Nick." He moves out.

"So do you want to hear about my saga?" he asks. "Well you know I have to bump-start this car nowadays. Well, I parked it on the hill outside the house, and some stupid Australian had parked his caravanette right in front of me so I couldn't get out properly.

"I went knocking round on all the doors and windows, trying to find out where this Australian lived, but no one knew. So then I tried to move the car and it got wedged in.

"I had a go at getting it away with some branches but it was no use, so I had to try and get her" - he gestures to his daughter as he accelerates into a narrowing gap between a bus and a Commer van - "to climb through a window so I could take it off the handbrake.

"There was a tiny gap on one of the windows and I was wedging it down with a branch when it came right off its hinges. Just fell off. Anyway, I finally persuaded her to go in and open the door for me. So I took it off the hand-brake, but then my car went out into the road into another one.

"It only made a tiny little scratch, but the stupid driver went on about it as if I'd wrecked it.

"We got back into the car and I bump-started it on the hill, but then we conked out again at the bottom.

"Luckily there were some workmen there and they gave us a push. So we were off. And then bloody Steve doesn't even have the decency to wait. . ."

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