As soon as you see the pitch, you know it’s going to be a rough day. It’s been raining for a week and the playing surface is so muddy you begin to worry about trench-foot. There can’t be more than a dozen blades of grass out there.
The centre-circle, if you can even call it that, is nothing more than a brown swampy mess demarcated by a white line that only becomes visible after close and prolonged inspection.
The rest of the markings appear to have been laid down grudgingly by a myopic pensioner with a disdain for the notion of symmetry.
You observe that one sideline curves audaciously to avoid a patch of nauseating detritus thoughtfully left by the local dog-walkers, while both penalty areas are painted in a style that’s certainly more expressionist than realist.
A cloud of misery descends upon you as the tangy aroma of stale alcohol, sweat and dry vomit tells you your team-mates are nearby.
You spot them huddled beneath the leafless tree that nominally serves as the Home dressing room, but which is in fact the only “shelter” for what seems like several miles in any direction.
Approaching the group with caution, a few notes of comradely banter penetrate the air. You hark at the words “bouncer”, “ejected” and “casualty”, and you know Dipso Dave’s been at the discount Shiraz again.
“Lads,” is your sole word of greeting as you throw down your gear-bag and seek a spot hidden from the gale-force wind battering your face. The others nod gravely in response, tacitly acknowledging that they feel just as miserable as you.
For the thousandth time, you wonder why you all on coming back to do this each year.
Someone falls over trying to pull on a sock, and you take a moment to consider the people with whom you’ve chosen to spend a significant portion of each weekend for the next eight months.
There’s the keeper. He’s been saying “you have to be a bit mad to be a keeper” for about ten years now. But he’s a chartered accountant and has two kids and a mortgage.
— Grass Root Goals (@GrassRootGoals_) July 28, 2017
The unwelcome reality is that, when it comes to keeping goal, he has simply confused dull incompetence with eccentricity. Today he’s sporting a multi-coloured Blackburn goalie’s jersey from 1995 with “Flowers” printed on the back. The number has long since peeled off, but if you look close enough, you can see he’s drawn it back on with Tippex.
There’s the captain: a towering centre-half and a man supposedly blessed with “leadership qualities”. He likes to shout and is totally unaware that no-one really listens. Somehow, he’s never twigged that being vocal doesn’t compensate for an utter lack of technique, positional sense or pace.
But he starts every game. Because he’s also the manager’s son.
And as for the manager, well, the less said the better. He cleans the kits, pumps the balls and, somewhat pathetically, lays out an intricate system of cones before the start of each match in the vain hope that anyone will bother to warm up.
Everyone’s grateful that he does all this week-in week-out, with abuse and contempt as his only rewards, but no-one understands why. Until you hear him bellowing about “registas”, “fantasistas” and “catenaccio” and you remember:
it’s because he has nothing better to do.
Then there’s the violent one brooding away by himself. Two yellows and a red so far, and you’ve only had a few pre-season friendlies. Today he’s starting in central midfield, occupying a position he insists on calling the “engine room”.
Tattooed on his lower left forearm are the words “in the mixer”, and you seem to recall bumping into him one Friday night and him proceeding to yell at you for forty minutes about “firms” and “manors”.
Can he be trusted, you’re all asking yourselves, not to two-foot the referee? Again.
There’s the one who played a bit of semi-pro. He always turns up in the tracksuit he got from whatever fifth-tier club at which he once trialled, and talks constantly about his mates from his days in the Dulwich Hamlet under-19s squad.
But you tolerate him because he’s the only one who can trap a ball without taking at least three touches.
And then there’s you. A self-styled visionary passer who’s unquestionably too good for this level.
You assert boldly that “AMC” is your ideal position, but are inevitably started on the wing thanks to what you see as “tactical cowardice” on the part of your manager.
You are contemptuous of tackling or running, preferring instead to spend your time moving into space and complaining bitterly that no-one else on your side has the quality to find you. You try the impossible almost constantly, blaming the pitch when your Rabona through-balls shunt into the knees of the nearest opponent.
As the spectre of kick-off begins to loom, the manager attempts to bully the meeker players into a jog. Nobody but the captain pays him any heed, with one or two preferring to draw long and deep from their death-sticks.
Until, eventually, a guilty circle forms and a series of pained grimaces and groans can be heard as everyone halfheartedly stretches muscle-groups that only get used a few dozen times each year.
The referee trots over. He’s 5’5, 60-years-old and considers his greatest achievement to be that one time he ran the line at a top-flight game back in ’87.
“I WON’T TOLERATE ANY NONSENSE TODAY LADS I’LL DO MY JOB IF YOU DO YOURS ANYONE SAYS A WORD TO ME IT’LL BE A STRAIGHT RED CARD I DON’T EVEN BRING YELLOWS WITH ME,” he thunders, without pausing for breath.
“Oh, and make sure to keep both feet on the ground when taking throw-ins. Otherwise I’ll blow for a foul-throw every single time.”
Finally, there comes a point where it can’t be put off any longer, and the two teams line up for kick-off.
The season is about to begin; nearly a year of misery that will leave you considering your own mortality come the following April. As the rain dribbles slowly down your back and your nipples harden against the yellow nylon of your jersey, you realise you are in a living hell.
But, for some reason, you know you’ll continue to come back each week for the rest of the season. And again the season after that.
Amateur football is an affliction that’s not easily quit.