If football is in your blood, it’s there forever. But what do you do when you can no longer play at even the most modest of levels? If you’re like me, you reflect on matches played and opportunities lost.
In one episode of the 1980s socio-classic TV programme, Boys from the Blackstuff, the main protagonist, Yosser Hughes, meets Liverpool captain Graeme Souness in a pub.
“I could have been a footballer,” he informs him, gravely, “but I had a paper round”.
As I push over to the other side of 50, I, like many others no doubt, take the time to look back at my own football ‘career’ in moments of quiet reflection.
As well as remembering personal highlights and milestones, I tend to ponder whether or not I played at the highest possible levels my ability permitted, or if I under-achieved in any small way.
In doing so, I also sometimes wonder what, if anything, could have been.
Primary School Beginnings
Like most lads, the first organised game I took part in was at primary school. In the autumn of 1977 I appeared on the left wing for Rayne primary school in a 5-0 away defeat at Chappel Hill primary school in Braintree, Essex.
In a nice piece of symmetry, almost 40 years to the day later, I played what will almost certainly prove to be my last match in England on a pitch not two hundred metres away.
More of that later.
In the four decades of lacing up my boots, I appeared for a motley collection of teams, some better than others, and some providing more fun than others.
Secondary School: Left Back in the changing room?
The first real challenge for me came when moving up to secondary school and thus trying to gain a berth in the school team. At primary school there was a pool of perhaps 30 or 40 boys to choose from when it came to picking a football team, while at secondary school those figures quadrupled, at least.
Our school held open trials for the first-year boys, and not being the most naturally talented, or the most outgoing of individuals, I had to come up with a plan to catch the eye of the teacher in charge.
The PE teacher concerned gathered us round in a circle and simply asked us what positions we played in. I kept quiet. I let every other boy declare whether he was a budding Paul Cooper, John Wark or Paul Mariner (this was East Anglia, remember), whilst taking mental note of which positions were being left unclaimed.
Most of my compatriots said they played up front or in midfield with one or two settling for defence. Such were their preferences that it was clear five or six boys would be battling each other for most of the positions.
However, amidst all the jostling for position, I noted that the left-back slot remained unclaimed.
That suddenly became my position!
“Yes, sir! I can play left back,” I assured the PE teacher. Thus it came to pass I secured a rather undeserved slot on the team for my first year at secondary school.
As my schooldays passed and I progressed through the years, I managed to stay in or around the school team most seasons. Starting in the second year (Year Eight in today’s currency) the esteemed PE teachers in our particular school more or less left it up to the boys themselves to choose the school team.
The master would appoint a captain and vice-captain and the three of them together would choose the side. From the third year onwards, the teacher wouldn’t get involved at all.
This, of course, meant networking was all-important, as it paid to stay on the side of the boys doing the selecting. However, it did seem to work surprisingly well in my school, and I recall that the boys involved were mature enough to make football-based decisions rather than friendship-based ones.
The Teenage Years: Into Local Football
Around the same time, most of us embarked on playing football for local sides, too. At that age, I was still young and naïve and excited about just getting to play in real football games, and not particularly fussed about where I played or even the result.
As it happened, I ended up playing for a side a year above my age group. The reasons for this anomaly are lost in the mists of time, but the upshot of it was I spent most of the season on the bench. Being a reasonably laid-back kind of boy, that didn’t really bother me too much at the time as long as I got a few minutes on the pitch each week.
As that particular season (’80-81) progressed, my team went on to win the double of league and cup, and so I won my first ever medals. I am happy to say I still have them here in my home in Indonesia.
In subsequent years spent playing junior football, gaining more pitch time became more important and like most boys there was little satisfaction to be found in constantly being on the bench.
Senior Football and Stepping Up
Moving into men’s football in my late teens was an all-new ball game. Literally. Once again, the breakthrough into the team in the first place was a challenge of monumental proportions.
Aged 18, I joined a team called Braintree United which had teams in the Mid-Essex League. This was and still is on the lowest rung of the ladder as far as the non-league pyramid goes, and BUFC’s first team played in the league’s Division One when I joined, with a reserve side in Division Five. I played for the reserves.
At that age and standard you are turning up for a game 45 minutes before kick-off and counting bodies in the changing room. You’re hoping no more than 11, or 12 at a maximum, turn up so that you’ll be in with a chance of starting.
As you get older and the legs start to go, the same count of heads is done from a different perspective. Now you’re hoping for a good show of numbers so you’re not called on for too many 90-minute stints.
Anyway, I played at that level for pretty much the next five or six years before I emigrated from England and, I have to say, enjoyed it to varying degrees. I was never in a cup-winning or promotion-clinching side of any variety, and I never came close to any personal honours such as player-of-the-year or top goal scorer, and so could be said to have had a mixed time of things, really.
I played intermittently for the first team during this time, as they flitted between the Premier Division and Division One, and I found the step-up in standard even at that level to be quite extraordinary.
At the level of Mid-Essex Division Five, such intricacies as playing the ball to feet, or tracking your opponent’s run were totally alien concepts, but playing alongside and against players in the Premier was a totally different kettle of fish.
I found myself automatically rising to the occasion every time I played for the first team and then bouncing back down several levels in my personal performance levels whenever I returned to the ressies.
Playing for the firsts was mentally demanding as much as anything, with having to concentrate much more than ever before often the key to performing adequately or being a liability.
I flitted between the sides for a season or two. Just as I was getting reasonably close to nailing a first team place down, personal circumstances saw me emigrate to Indonesia in 1993, where I remain to this day.
Leaving England and Frustration Sets In
Upon leaving England, I hardly played any real competitive football at all over the next dozen years or so, taking me up to my mid-to-late-thirties and normal retirement age.
This meant a degree of frustration as I felt really rather unfulfilled. In England I had played Sunday league football in addition to its more illustrious Saturday sibling, and had achieved similar dismal results, never winning so much as the smallest most insignificant trophy.
Why should I have felt this way? I felt that I could and should have pushed myself a little more to play at higher levels than I did. Too often I settled for playing with my mates instead of trying to push myself. How many others can say the same I wonder?
Just when I was beginning to think I would never play real organised football again, I discovered the wonderful vagaries of the International Expatriate League.
Expatriate Football: A Whole New Ball Game
Upon moving from Surabaya in Indonesia to the country’s capital, Jakarta, I signed up to play in what I thought would be a sort of retirement league for wizened old expats. It turned out that I actually ended up playing at my highest ever levels and standards. I also played alongside some truly great players.
Cast amongst the expatriate community of Jakarta, the Jakarta International Football League consists of approximately a dozen or so sides. Some of the teams are based on nationality alone: Japan, German, Italian, etc, while others are more cosmopolitan with their make-up being drawn from a myriad of nationalities.
The rules are the same as football played around the globe with the exception of rolling substitutes being allowed.
Starting football again at the age of 36 or thereabouts after over a decade on hiatus was nowhere near as difficult as I imagined it would be, even with the upgrade in standard.
I once again found myself being dragged upwards – although perhaps we should ask some of my teammates if that was indeed the case or if it was more of a matter of me dragging the rest down to my level!
A number of ex-professionals from around the globe have graced Jakarta’s pitches as members of this league, including one or two World Cup veterans. Jules Onana, for example, who was capped over 50 times by Cameroon and played in three matches at Italia ’90, was a stalwart in the JIFL for many years as he combined playing with coaching in local academies.
I played in this league for the best part of a decade before Old Father Time and ragged legs finally caught up with me. Age notwithstanding, I felt I probably played better and nearer to my true ability levels during these years than at any time in the past.
Although I undoubtedly enjoyed these matches, in a way they also added to my frustration a tad. Due to the life choices I made in my early-to-mid twenties, I was never going to be able to pursue a footballing outlet in England at any high level, but I sometimes wonder what I could have achieved if I had.
40 Years Later: The Last Hurrah
Then, finally, last December I returned to England for the holidays and somehow wrangled my way into playing in a friendly fundraising game at National League side, Braintree Town. The occasion was a match played as a fundraiser between the Braintree Town team that won the Ryman League back in 2006 and a side of Braintree Town Legends.
I had entered a blind auction competing for one of three ‘supporter places’ up for grabs on the night, and to my consternation had been successful.
I was now charged with a risk of total humiliation at the hands of players who had all played at a very good semi-professional level and were, to a man, at least 10 years younger than me. Indeed, several of them are still plying their trade in non-league football to this day.
At the age of 49 and lacing up my boots on an English pitch for the first time in decades, I feared the worst. I remembered how difficult I had found the step-up from Mid-Essex Division 5 to the Premier Division all those years ago, and I was much younger and fitter then.
Now, all these years later I was somewhat fearful I would embarrass myself and be the proverbial fish out of water.
I needn’t have worried, though. Apart from the expected lack of pace in my legs, I found I was able to hold my own. Playing in ‘my’ position of left-back, I was making my runs adequately, tracking back as required, showing for the ball when possible, and even making one or two tackles on occasion.
Although I am aware that the other guys were probably playing at little more than 60 or 70% of their capacities, I felt I did OK, and if anything I had faced greater challenges and difficulties back in the JIFL.
As I wrote at the start of this article, this match took place literally a stone’s throw from where it all began for me some 40 years earlier.
So on a wet, windy and muddy December evening the curtain came down on a rather nondescript, but mainly enjoyable footballing journey. As I warmed myself in the bar afterwards, I reflected on what it was, what it had been, and what it possibly could have been.