It's thirteen years since I signed up for my first season playing for Trinity Boys, following the resignation of St Andrews from the Mirfield and District Church Football League. After a year of character-building defeats and more than occasional humiliations, the start of the season came as a surprise to me - we drew 3-3 with Hopton URC, and swiftly established ourselves as one of the best sides in the league. By the midway point of the campaign, the whole team was studying the week-by-week league table before the start of games, working out if we could go top that day. The whole thing was a novel experience.
Aside from my debut, one game stands out above all others from the first half of that memorable season. My first return to John Cotton's playing fields to play Christ The King had been in my mind for some time. The previous year, my debut season in the Church League, had seen a St Andrews side with yours truly up front crash to a 26-0 defeat. Losing was difficult; the manner of the defeat and the conduct of our opponents made it even tougher. It's difficult to lose with dignity when your opponents are going out of the way to humiliate you. I still remember one goal they scored where their player rounded the keeper, rolled the ball onto the line, and then got down on hands and knees to head it the final three inches. I'd been both anticipating and dreading the game against Kings since the draw for the first round of the Sonder Heating Cup had sent my Trinity team there in December 2000.
Even now I feel nervous before a game. It doesn't matter if it's a kickabout with mates or a cup final; I still experience the butterflies in the stomach. Back then, it was worse. Immediately before kick-off I'd feel sick with anticipation. And I remember the nerves striking me worse than ever walking out onto the pitch wearing Trinity's all-blue strip and seeing the hated Kings in formation in their black and white stripes. Somehow they always seemed bigger and stronger than they were. Of course, there's always been a sure-fire way to get rid of early nerves: get a tackle in.
I managed to concede the first free-kick of the game after barely three seconds.
It set the tone for our early performance. Kings were good. They were our title rivals. They could brush teams away almost on a whim, when they turned it on. But we were dogged, committed, determined to disrupt their flow and rhythm by getting amongst them and breaking up the play. And, as we started to see more and more of the ball, we started to turn on the style.
I remember playing my part in the first goal. Playing on the left-hand side of a front three meant I was involved in an interchange of passes with our marauding midfielder, who surged into the box and pulled it back for our big centre-forward to fire home. And it wasn't too long before we'd added twice to the scoreline, ripping Kings apart at will in what was becoming a masterful performance. Kings pulled one back, but that was their sole attack after the first few minutes of a game we were dominating.
Playing just behind me, on the left of a midfield four, was Kyle Douglas. As wing-wizards went, he was probably the best in the league. His footwork had left Kings defenders baffled on more than one occasion, and so it was when he picked up the ball on the halfway like just before half-time. He left one on his backside and set off towards the dead ball line. In close attendance was the Kings defender, who proceeded to spend the entire run kicking out at Dougie's ankles. When Dougie got the final cross in and overbalanced, the defender all-too-willingly decided to stamp down hard on Dougie's crotch. A second later, the defender found himself being dumped on the deck by our giant midfielder, David Boothroyd. What followed was the only proper mass bust-up I was ever part of in the Church League.
The mass confrontation ended with a yellow card for Boothy's reaction, and a straight red for the Kings defender. In disgust at the decision to send their player off, eight Kings players walked off, leaving the goalkeeper, a defender, and a lone striker to keep on playing. Those of us in blue looked amongst ourselves in confusion as to what was going on. The half-time whistle went. Gordon and Steven, our joint managers, ran on to take us off and get us away from what was becoming an ugly situation while the referee went to remonstrate with the Kings bench, who were giving him vile abuse.
Somehow the ref managed to persuade the Kings players back out for the second half. Once the whistle had gone for kick-off, we proceeded slaughter them. From 3-1 at half-time, the scoreline increased every few minutes. Kings heads dropped. There was no fight, no pride, no passion in their performance. It was one of those rare days when I could get the ball and race past my man, knowing I would only attract a half-hearted kick at my ankles rather than a proper tackle. The Kings defenders descended into arguing amongst themselves. The midfield didn't do its job. The forwards didn't chase and harry. By contrast, we were ruthless. Mistakes got punished. Forwards brushed defenders off the ball with ease. We were quicker to every loose ball and worked in units to win it back. The performance was utterly professional and probably the best I've ever played a part in.
At full-time Christ The King were out of the Sonder Heating Cup after suffering a 10-1 hammering on their home ground to their biggest rivals. Kings slouched off to their bench without shaking hands. We didn't particularly care; we'd delivered a footballing lesson, and we knew Kings couldn't handle us at our best. From a personal perspective, I'd paid back a debt of humiliation without stooping to their level.
Probably the best part of the day was yet to come, however. Sat in the car with my dad, a group of the players who had stormed off after the red card went to talk to my dad, who was league president. They tried to make out that they had suffered racial abuse, assuming my father hadn't been present for the whole game. They were told in no uncertain terms that they were embarrassing themselves. Knowing just how low they would stoop and how badly they took defeat was ever so satisfying.
Even more satisfying was that we went on to win the Cup, beating Hopton 4-3 in a classic final. Kings tailed off in the league, leaving that as a two-horse race between us and Hopton. After a long, exciting run-in, we walked away from the season as double winners. I still have the trophy and medal I got for playing my part in that team. Some riposte to a team that had humiliated me less than 2 years previously.