This blog is about an English phenomena: Sunday football. There are over 11 million people in the UK currently playing Sunday football. I am going to give you a tongue-in-cheek lowdown on what you might expect if you were to join a local Sunday side and for a bit of fun (in part 2) tell you some of the characters you are likely to come across. I have named these players after real people I have played with. If you have ever played or watched then I am sure you will recognise your own teammates in them.
The Sunday morning football story generally begins on a Saturday night. The unfortunate manager will be desperately trying to contact players to find out who is available. This is a thankless task and there are always a few that he is unable to contact. All the players will be part of some kind of group chat, but many will go missing the night before a game. Invariable the manager will get about 4 definites, 5 probables and then 5 uncontactables. There are many variables to this. What is the weather like? Are the players out drinking? If so how big a session is it? Plus injuries, many Sunday footballers have bad knees, ankles, backs etc. Sometimes they won’t know if they can play right up to the point that they step out of bed on Sunday morning and take their first step. The lesson here is not to commit too early. The morning of the game is another key moment in the selection process. It is now a carefully balanced equation of comfort of bed, severity of hangover, level of aches and pains, distance to travel to game, how good the other team is and how cold or wet it is. Anyone of these factors could lead to a message being sent explaining to the manager how they are ill, having to work, injured or any other excuse they have not used too often in the recent past. It is then a mad panic for the manager to call anyone with a pulse. Starting with the better players and ending with literally anyone! You would be shocked at how far down the food chain this search can go. There are always players who sign up at the start of the year just in case their knee isn’t too bad, their job has eased off or their wife lets them out the house. “If ever you are struggling you can call on me I will be there mate.” As a rule, they are never available. Messages are sent out to all the players in the team to see if they have any friends who can play. This will be where a ringer may be called on. A ringer is a player who is not really a fully signed up member of the team. We will look at these players more in part two.
Finally, a team of sorts has been assembled and they turn up. Some are clearly still drunk. This is where the players who have cried off get found out by the team grasses. “I saw Rab at The Venue his knee seemed fine when he was throwing out shapes on the dancefloor,” or “What a liar, he told me he was going Bluewater with his missus.”
At this point the kit is the most important thing. The bigger players desperately trying to find one of the two extra large tops and shorts or the smaller players looking for the only small top and shorts. Trying to not look too ridiculous is very important. Then the socks. The first players there try and grab a pair with no holes and that have not shrunk so much that you can’t get them over your calves. The last players often look like they have got their washing mixed up with a ten-year-old child when they finally get out onto the pitch. It is a very careful calculation at this time. You want to get out early enough to be able to get your body functioning before kick-off. But you don’t want to have to put up the net. A horrible job, especially on a cold or rainy day. A good tip is to grab the corner flags. Then slowly walk around the pitch putting them in timing it perfectly so the nets are up by the time you finish. By now there will be about ten minutes until kick off. So the warm up will begin. The warm up consists of all the players hanging around the edge of the box to kick a ball as hard as possible at the poor goalkeeper, often several footballs flying in his direction at the same time. What about having a run or a jog I hear you say. That is covered by the players all having to run and get the ball having more often than not missed the goal completely. For many players this is all done while smoking a cigarette trying to smoke enough to fill his lungs for 45 minutes of football.
It is now about 2 minutes until kick off and generally either the opposition, the referee or the rest of your team will now turn up. Sunday football never starts on time. The lesser players are now frantically doing the math. The worst job in the world is being a sub in Sunday football. There is never anything warm to wear. You also are now the physio, in charge of the valuables, in charge of the drinks and if there are no supporters (family or friends) you are now the linesman…
This is the worst job and not just in football. There is no flag, so you have to use a spare shirt or a cone or any item you can find. You will get dog abuse for the whole game. Often by players who don’t even understand the offside rule themselves. Often by your OWN team! Finally, you are forced to cheat. In Sunday football you have to cheat because you can guarantee the other team’s linesman will. It is a case of better to have everyone cheat than just one team, as that would be unfair. The level of cheating is down to your own moral compass. I have seen many levels of cheating, from the sublime to the ridiculous. I am now immune. Cheating linesmen is often the catalyst for the other Sunday football certainty. The fight. I am not sure I have ever been involved in a Sunday morning football game where at the very least there will be two players who square off against each other. Players are always braver when there is a referee about. I have seen some bad fights but I have heard some shocking stories that have ended in hospital or prison. Sometimes both.
I just touched on the referees. These are a breed of their own. Powerless in their real lives they wallow in the power that whistle gives them. Think the teacher in Kes. Remember at school when you pick your teams and there was always that one kid left? This is their revenge. I actually have a friend who is a referee. I know, I know, don’t hate me. They are an odd breed, and he is no exception. Although to be fair he was a decent player, mind you he was a goalkeeper, so it doesn’t really count. It is a thankless job and more and more they are under threat of violence as lines are crossed in our modern society. It is worth remembering that without them there would be no game. Although to be fair they do try to ruin most of them.
Onto the pitch itself. Grass is a luxury. The pitches are all a variety of sizes, none of them regulatory. Most are broken ankles waiting to happen. Often they have slopes and inclines. Meaning that games can be played on just one side of the pitch or one end. Sometimes a 5-0 lead can not be enough following a half time change of ends. The slope is often the best player. I have played on pitches where it goes up hill to both ends. I have also played on pitches where goalkeeper kicks can be slingshot back to the taker by an overhanging telephone wire or tree branch. The worse ones are next to rivers or surrounded by houses and you spend most the game retrieving balls.
The game itself is the least noteworthy. Except to say it is not really football as you might know it. It is full of noise and bluster. You know they say about a swan being elegant above the water but working hard under it. Sunday football has no above the water. Everyone is an expert, everyone has an opinion. Actual knowledge is as rarely sighted as big foot, but it is ok as no one is listening anyway. In their heads they are all Messi and Ronaldo. Artists with the field as their canvas, In reality, they are more painting by numbers trying unsuccessfully to stay within the lines. At the end of the game the next game is avoiding being lumbered with taking the kit home to wash. In the bar after, you would have thought it was El Galacticos who were playing by the way the events of the game are described. Every stumble a feint every miskick a disguised pass.
Despite all these things I have made lifelong friends through Sunday football. Had some of the funniest times and have stories to last a lifetime. I pray that Covid does not ruin true grass roots football for it will be a worse place without it.
Don’t forget to look out for part 2 where I address the many different characters of Sunday football.
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