By Richard Cracknell
A few weeks ago, I found myself standing in the middle of a field. The morning dew had yet to disappear on the frosty Sunday morning and I was being treated to one of my younger brother’s Under-17’s football matches. It wasn’t the Emirates Stadium, or even Adam’s Park, but being pitch-side in a field near Widmer End still had its charm. Even within the first five minutes, it was clear that some things had changed since my hazy days of running around that same pitch. Before the match, someone was handing out tea and bacon rolls whilst stood under one of the floodlights. In my day, we were lucky to have a complete set of corner flags that were willing to stick into the ground. However, we did see a player miss a penalty, then slide into the ’keeper with two feet as his reward for saving it. Some things never change – cue wavy dream sequence music.
Over the years, we’ve had the Anfield Cat, the Highbury Squirrel and the Ewood Chicken, but by far the strangest animal pitch invasion I’ve seen is reserved for one of my earlier Sunday league games. As per the norm, a small group of us would arrive before kick-off to put up the goal posts and the nets ready for the match ahead. It wouldn’t be out of place to see one or two dog owners letting their pets off the leash to have a run around the pitch before a match, however on this occasion the pet was somewhat more equestrian. As expected, both boys and horse looked at each other with confusion. Luckily, it was the horse that buckled to the pressure first, moping off to one of the adjoining fields, never to be seen again. Fortunately for us, he hadn’t left a “little present” on the field of play, but the same couldn’t always be said of his canine cousin. It would be common practice as part of the pitch inspection to remove any dog’s muck before a match, but all it took was a hung-over referee not paying attention on a cold Sunday morning and things could take a turn for the worse. One such example that comes to mind was during a soggy, rain soaked match that had the ball spraying up the mud and grass behind it. On this occasion, the ball ran through something a little more “foul” than mud and the poor lad running directly behind the ball never stood a chance.
As well as a fear of football in the rain mixed with dog poo, Sunday league football also left me with a wonky face. At the end of each season, it would be custom for teams to embark on a small football tour, which generally consisted of your team travelling to a holiday camp to play several other teams in the same situation. It was during the first 5 minutes of a match on one of these football tours, that a ball flew across field in my general direction. I leapt like a salmon and headed the ball away to safety. Someone on the attacking team also leapt with the same intent to head the ball, but unfortunately his aim was a little off. Missing the ball, he instead made full contact with the front of my face, resulting in a broken nose. Understandably, I’m a little hazy on the full details, however I was reliably informed that whilst I remained calm in my semi-unconscious state, the kid who’d head butted me in the face was inconsolable in the fact that he thought he’d killed me. Whilst not dead, I was still pretty annoyed that with only 5 minutes played in our first match, the rest of my tournament was over. That, and the fact that I’d lost my boyish good looks forever.
Fortunately, not everything about Sunday league football was doom and gloom, dog poo and broken bones. Even as a defender, sometimes I’d find myself high enough up the pitch to warrant a nosebleed and on the odd occasion I’d manage to put one or two in the “onion bag”. Although admittedly, the majority of these were tap-ins as the result of a goal mouth scramble, but I’ve still the treasured memory of scoring something akin to Cantona’s goal against Sunderland in ’96. In hindsight, I wish I’d celebrated as a smoothly as the Frenchman, instead of wheeling away and screaming gibberish to the handful of spectators there to witness it. They’d have been forgiven for thinking I’d never done anything so amazing on a pitch in all my life. And I hadn’t.
Being relatively small, or “vertically challenged” if you’re being politically correct, the 11-a-side Sunday league games were a little out of my depth, with most of the action being to hoof the ball out of defence in the hope that it would reach your one good player who could run with it. Those teams with more than one good player were generally the ones who’d win the league. But then came the six-a-side tournaments; smaller pitches and no over-head-height – I was in my element. The majority of my football trophy haul came from these tournaments and it was a chance for some of the better players to show off their technical ability. Normally held during the summer months, playing football in the sun didn’t do the enjoyment any harm either. It’s the enjoyment of these tournaments that have probably lead me to continue with 6-a-side football as I’ve grown older. I did try my hand at playing for a local Sunday league pub team once the “childhood era” ended, however, I’d have to go into horror stories regarding men losing fingers due to a wedding ring or oppositions always having the mandatory overweight hard bloke who wasn’t really there to play football, to explain why I never really carried on with that aspect on the game. Still, I’ll cling to the fact that Ian Wright didn’t join Arsenal till he was 28 . . .
Have any of your own Sunday league or childhood sports stories? Share with us in the comments section below!