Sunday, 11 December 2011

A season at St Andrews (part one)

Kirklees Council called off all matches (football, rugby and otherwise) on its pitches this weekend. Rainfall over the last few days has been heavy, and pitches have become waterlogged. No player wants to play on a waterlogged pitch, especially when it's freezing, likely to rain some more, and they're likely to be in a side on the receiving end of a drubbing, so the decision makes perfect sense. I certainly wouldn't have fancied it yesterday.

But just thinking about it reminded me about my days playing in the Church League, competing against interesting opposition on appalling pitches. I spent four years playing in the Church League on Saturday mornings, turning out for St Andrews in my first year before spending three years playing for Trinity. Many of the mornings I played were cold and miserable, but I loved almost every minute I spent out there.

My dad played in the same league when he was a kid. Back then, the league was in its halcyon days. There were a dozen teams or more, with dozens of boys between the ages of 9 and 16 turning out every week. He later went on to manage a team in the league and was president by the time I started playing for St Andrews, the same team he'd played and managed. In 1999, the age was restricted from 10-14 (or year 6 to year 10 in school terms), and the league had fewer sides, though local Catholic church St Aidans were involved for the first time.

It would be fair to say St Andrews weren't very good. In fact, we were awful, and we'd been a side struggling at the bottom of the league for a decade or more. Even as a five-year-old being taken along to watch I was used to seeing eleven grey-clad players trudging off after a heavy defeat, and things had become even worse by the time of my debut. At the other end of the table, Christ The King were sweeping all before them. Trinity and Hopton were good sides, while Ravensthorpe Mosques were no pushover for the top teams. St Aidens were the unknown quantity, whilst St Saviours were the next-weakest side in the division.

I played for St Andrews for the first time in September 1999 in a pre-season friendly at St Aidans, who played at Crossley Fields. By this time the awful numberless grey/silver concoction straight from the 1980s had gone, and we wore white shirts with green trim with black shorts (provided someone had black shorts). It was a novel feeling, pulling on the no.14 shirt for my church. I felt ten feet tall. This was the moment I'd waited for since I was old enough to tag along with my dad. I was sure that I'd score. I had to, after waiting for so long.

Sadly, St Aidans weren't in a mood for indulging me in my dreams. They won 6-0. I played in midfield and barely got a touch against two bullish 12-year-olds. The lad playing alongside me - Luke, wearing 7 - was like me, a waif who couldn't play against two bigger lads like that.

Not to worry. It was only a friendly. My optimism was undimmed despite the evidence of the past ten years. I was sure St Andrews would go on to have a good season. Sadly, our side was too young. Although the aggregate age of players on the field couldn't be over 130 under league rules (meaning younger lads and older players could get a game at the same time), all the other sides were bigger and older. We were a collection of 10- and 11-year-olds who had never played 11-a-side before.

I don't remember my competitive debut for St Andrews, but it was probably a heavy defeat at home (Knowl Park). I do, however, remember playing away at St Saviours on the second day of the season. It was my first start, and it was the only time my mum came to watch rather than my dad. In later seasons they came together a couple of times (more on that later), but on this occasion it was my mum on the touchline with Anthony (the manager) and a team mate's mum (another from church). I played up front for the first time, getting my hands on the no.10 shirt for the first time.

Saviours played down in Ravensthorpe, along the road towards the old council dump. There was a grassy verge where the home manager, parents and other supporters had taken up residence, with Anthony and our contingent banished to the other side. To one end, a pylon loomed over the pitch while the road ran parallel with the other dead-ball line. All in all, a pretty typical venue for a game like that.

Saviours themselves were a side we didn't enjoy facing that season. They were a side who still wore the same shirts they had in the 80s, a red shirt with white and blue trim, one shoulder covered by a patch of white. It was hardly elegant (think of Bolton's shirt this season in the colours I mentioned and you'd not be a million miles from the mark). And apparently they bought into the 1980s lower league idea of hitting the ball as hard as they could, even if an opposition player was in the way. And their management was even worse. It wasn't a cajoling, encouraging management - it was aggressive, critical. The language they used - whilst not out of place in adult football - was appalling. And it was this language which caused my mother to confront one man in particular in what was the first notable incident of my football career.

It didn't help the result. We still got beaten 7-1. But that was nothing compared to my third game, and first against Christ The King.

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