Belfast Telegraph

Why I'll always make a meal of festive footie match

By Mike Gilson

Depending on when you are reading this, I am either heading for disgrace, or I am currently in that state. Today is/was the Boxing Day footie match which I find myself spending a worrying amount of the rest of the year looking forward to as I get older.

For many years, I was a football coach for my sons' team. This ended a few years back, when guitars and record-breaking lie-ins replaced crack-of-dawn Sunday morning trips to face local rivals across town on ploughed fields of pitches.

Coaching an under-16 boys' team is a subject worth a thesis in itself and, as I am still in therapy, it is advisable that I avoid the subject today.

Nevertheless, on Boxing Day every year some of the coaches and boys gather on our field for some festive footie as a way of blowing away the cobwebs of stultifying Christmas Days. It helps that there is a club attached, so that we can repare to "discuss" the game in depth afterwards.

Even though I left the coaching staff (that makes it sound more professional than it is) a few years back, I am always first there on the day, mainly because it takes longer to warm up these days.

As usual, it is the coaches who mark out the pitch, put up the goals and get out the bibs, while the 'boys' - now in their early-20s - do what they always did. Lounge around talking about last night and booting the balls at the hapless dad who is on someone's shoulders putting up the net.

When I started with them, the lads couldn't have been more than six or seven years old. I towered above them and they hung on my every word. They even used to kick the ball in the general direction I asked.

Now, as I get smaller, turning into Yoda, they have become impossibly tall and casually patronising. They don't exactly pat me on the head and call me "old fella" yet, but it's only a matter of time.

So Boxing Day has become disproportionately important for me. It's a way of trying to prove I can still do it. On the day I am invariably a self-appointed captain. It's the only way I can ensure that I get my old starting position on central midfield.

Well before half-time, I will have sunk deeper and deeper into defence, as the mud sucks on old calf muscles and 20-year-olds shoulder barge me out of the way.

There are two ways I will/have disgrace(d) myself today. The first is around 10 minutes into the second half, with us old fellas an increasing irrelevance to what has become a fast-paced, high-skilled young man's game.

Humiliated by players who used to get me to help them tie their bootlaces, I will slide in from 10 yards and take one of them out, as we used to say in the days when football was a real man's game.

It won't be my first attempt. Three or four earlier times, my victim will have elegantly skipped out of harm's way, leaving me sliding into the bush that borders the pitch. But I will get someone eventually. Even then, it will be pitying looks I get from the lads, rather than a mass brawl on the pitch. A few shakes of the head at what I have been reduced to and then they'll get on with waltzing past me to bring the score into double figures.

The second way I will/have disgrace(d) myself will be after the whistle as we shake hands, the lads have patted me on the head and we have retired to the bar. Every year, I say the same thing back home. It's only a kickaround for an hour. I'll be back shortly. Every year, as the coaches and lads together, cocooned in the sanctity of our little bar, drink to great games of yesteryear, time seems to stand still. Back home, it hasn't.

If you are reading this later, I will now be sitting on my own, staring at a pile of congealed mash potato and cold gravy. They were warm three hours ago, I will be/have been told amid disapproving glances from mothers and aunts.

If you are reading this early, I am afraid that, despite knowing this will happen, I will still be chewing on that mash in a few hours' time. It's tradition, you see.


From Belfast Telegraph