My next goal: to win competitive pipe-smoking

Competition is life. Not to be able to experience the joy of winning, the sting of defeat, feels like impotence
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The Independent Online

There will be open celebrations in the Ealing Post Office. In the Lord Chancellor's department, they will be rubbing their hands with glee. A few nimble-footed stand-up comics and actors who work together under the name of the Raymonds Célèbres will be looking forward to a change in their fortunes. The football season is well under way and, down at the Civil Service sports ground, there is no sign of the grizzled veteran who, for many years, has been the scourge of the left side of their defence.

Forgive the moment of fantasy, but I am currently caught up in a personal footballing nightmare. Since some time in the 1980s, I have been in the habit of spending every Wednesday afternoon between September and April scampering about a pitch in Chiswick, west London, screaming, sprinting, floundering about, punching the air, swearing and sulking in the name of the beautiful game. It is not dignified nor accomplished - some would even deny that it is really football - but, as therapy, it is unbeatable.

Last season, I became aware of a niggle in the left knee. The niggle became painful, particularly when I ran like hell or fell over - a problem since running like hell and falling over is essentially all I do. During the close season, I paid a visit to Chiswick's top sports physiotherapist, an Australian called Nathan.

No worries, said Nathan. Like many top players, I had some wear and tear on the old cartilage. A spot of keyhole surgery and I would be back on the team-sheet in no time. All I needed was decent medical insurance or between £2,000 and £3,000.

And if I had neither? Then I could play through the pain barrier but one day my knee would lock and that would be it.

So here is my problem. The idea of paying out thousands to have a bit of gristle removed from my knee does not appeal but then nor does spending the rest of my days walking around like Long John Silver as a result of playing football. On the other hand, I am clearly in my prime and 55 is no kind of age to contemplate hanging up one's boots. Like an old foxhunter who frets in his box when he hears the hounds, I find myself hanging around football pitches, imagining myself out there, on the right wing.

Competition is life. Not to be able to experience the joy of winning, the bracing, masochistic sting of defeat, feels like a form of impotence. Until some form of sporting Viagra can be found for my career-threatening injury, I have been looking for alternative sporting opportunities.

Golf, they say, to which I can only offer a two-word response: Hugh Grant. Before his sad decline into show business, Hugh used to play rather brilliantly at right-back for our team. Since then, he has wimped out of the man's game and is now to be seen "on the links" in naff cardigans, leather gloves and embarrassing peaked caps. There is no way that I am going to embarrass myself like that.

Croquet, on the other hand, offers ample scope for nastiness. The past few months have seen such feverish work on the home training ground that a couple of balls have actually been worn away by persistent mallet-work and several friendships have been threatened by my brutal, yet quietly cunning play.

The writer Geoff Dyer, described somewhere as "the bard of middle-aged slackers", fancied his chances but was "posted" while in a winning position, obliging him to start again. It would be disloyal to describe his precise reaction to this setback: suffice it to say it was nearer to the title of his meditation on DH Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, than to any form of slacking.

As for the winter months, I find myself curiously attracted to the idea of competitive pipe-smoking. An event described as "the Grand National of the pipe-smoking world" has just taken place in Norwich, and very exciting it seems to have been, too. The competitors are allowed five minutes to fill their pipes, and one minute (two matches) to light it.

The winner is simply the smoker who manages to keep his pipe alight for the longest time. This year's Norfolk Open Pipe Smoking Championship saw Len Ellis romp home, having "kept on glowing", as one local paper put it, for one hour, 15 minutes and 35 seconds. The next step is for Len to step up into international competition where - you probably knew this - use of a tamper is restricted to 10 minutes.

I am not a pipe smoker but then I had hardly kicked a football until I was in my thirties. It seems to me that an hour and a quarter is eminently puffable.

Not that this is the end of my footballing career. Nathan has prescribed a holiday in Australia for the niggly cartilage. After that, if some backstreet knee surgeon is prepared to have a go at me, cash upfront, no questions asked, I would be happy to discuss the matter.