With football now back on the UK screens with artificial crowds and noise, sport is in the headlines. One oddity is being able to hear the players, encouraging, cajoling and directing each other. A bit like any game on any park around the country before the lock down. That brought back some memories of my days as a sporting icon, in the sense I tried to con both myself and my team mates that I knew what I was doing.
Of course, it was never about the game. It was all about the mateship, being one of the lads, feeling that camaraderie…
Oh what nonsense. I played in a lot of teams – at a very humble level – and like all the rest, we too prided ourselves on our togetherness, our all for one commitment to each other. Until there was a good reason to ignore that bond and humiliate one of our number for the merriment of the rest.
As anyone who’s played team sports will know, there are limits to such camaraderie. Moments when the carapace of unity cracks because, frankly something is too good, too delicious not to enjoy it to the full, even if it means sacrificing a team mate to an awful fate.
Picture the scene. A ramshackle tin shed that doubles as a peripatetic abattoir when not being used as a changing room. I’m playing rugby for the Law Society third XV. This is a group of ne’er-do-wells, some of whom have a connection with the law that isn’t of the ‘you’re nicked, mate’ sort.
Our ethos requires anyone who wants to play to be reasonably well-marinaded and disinclined to train. The game is all about enjoyment before, during and after and the result doesn’t matter… nah, bollocks, it matters intensely until it’s clear we are going to be stuffed when it ceases to mean a thing.
We might not take athletic preparation seriously – the ‘warm up’ normally comprises huddling around whoever is smoking a Marlboro at the time – but all aspects of the game day itself require due and careful consideration. For instance there is always a plate of half-time oranges, occasionally supplemented by a packet of the said Marlboro (as a concession to the physical activity being undertaken, these are Marlboro Lights, of course) and on especially crisp afternoons, a flash of something warming and stimulating is included.
My team mates are men I’ve known for some time. I trust them not to steal from me and to be there in a crisis, but I expect them to drop me in anything that might cause me acute embarrassment, that being one of the signs of true friendship and acceptance. You know you’ve been accepted when (a) some hail and well met fellow bellows across the sceptre’ed halls of the Royal Courts of Justice, ‘Hey, you old c**t, you playing Saturday?’, especially if said fellow is a senior Queen’s Counsel or, more likely, a judge and (b) you are bequeathed a nickname.
Nicknames, as an adult, can be tricky. Mine will remain a closely guarded secret, being part plant and part impossible contortion. At least it did not lose me a promising girlfriend as happened to Martin X. Martin was known to all players as DD. This was not some obscure reference to his man-boob size (though some would have appropriately worn that homonym) but to the fact he had had, as a child, an unfortunately placed membrane across his anus that had to be surgically severed.
Secrets that are shared under inebriation are subject to one golden rule and one platinum exception. The golden rule is that they are to be kept completely secret and the honour of the confessor is to considered sacrosanct, unless (and this is the platinum exception) it is such a thunderous good tale it would be an utter and unconscionable waste not to use it for maximum embarrassment.
Consequently the thought that Martin would be capable of producing not one but two stools led to the anatomically accurate if slightly uninspired nick-name of ‘double-dump’. Shortened to DD. Which said girlfriend heard being called when she, rashly it must be said, decided to spectate one gloomy Saturday. Their relationship didn’t survive that acronym.
And so it was that I arrived at the ground, ready to play Old Inebriates Extra A XV this particular day. As was the custom, players were desultory in their preparations. One stretched, several smoked, a couple had a snooze. Gradually the team assembled and began to get changed, liberally rubbing into what passed for muscles a variety of unguents and liniments. Our hero for the day – we will call him Scrumpy for his addiction to rough and powerful cider – turned up late and, while chattering away about, variously, his journey, his night before, his rumbling stomach, stripped off his day-wear. Standing naked and uncaring he gripped his stomach, groaned and part bent over.
This wasn’t uncommon and the three of us sitting behind him held out collective breaths. A fart of indeterminate olfactory awfulness was coming and we needed to be prepared. Sure enough a short sharp squeak emerged, releasing some of Scrumpy’s alimentary tension.
And that, usually, would have been that save this time the small and unwelcome trumpet voluntary was accompanied by a full stop in the shape of a small, perfectly spherical and oddly shiny little turd.
We three, being the only team members capable of seeing this little afterthought watched as said turd described a parabola and hit the concrete floor where, to our combined surprise it bounced, much like Barnes-Wallace’s famous bouncing bomb.
The journey of this faecal asteroid continued through one more bounce before ending inside the boot of another team mate, who ironically was in the loos, relieving himself.
While the rest of the team continued as if nothing had occurred, the three of us exchanged looks. It was clear we were all making the same calculations and embracing what can only be described as an ethical dilemma.
(a) berate the artillery arse for his awful behaviour and require him to remove the offending piece of sticky ordnance; or
(b) remove it ourselves, while not seeking to embarrass the creator for his ignorant, innocent evacuation; or
(c) watch and see what happened next?
The moral maze wasn’t that tricky, all things considered. We sat back and waited.
The owner of the boot soon returned and in one swift and well practised manoeuvre pulled on the boot, tieing a double bow to ensure it stayed in place.
I’m not sure if I’ve played a game where I was so singularly conscious of the whereabouts of one specific piece of footwear, but that day my eyes seemed drawn to those battered old Adidas super eights.
Returning to the changing room, still not having said a word to my silent co-conspirators, we lined ourselves up to watch the boot’s removal, sure there must be some sort of repercussion looming. This moment, when the existence of this cuckoopoo in the nest was finally revealed, would be exquisite and we three knew one of us would spill the beans as to our part in this awful, or maybe be awe-ful event.
Sure enough, after a small struggle with the knot, off came first one then the other boot.
Then one sock followed by the other.
The socks were tucked together and the boot wearer stood and moved across to the stool-shooter. ‘Thanks, mate.’
How extraordinary is fate? He had borrowed the socks, that had to have absorbed the orb, from our hero Scrumpy.
The old expression: what goes around, comes around’ somehow seemed apposite.
And that was that. The boots went in the holdall, the socks into Scrumpy’s bag and everyone showered and headed to the pub.
We none of us spoke of this. We never have. Somehow an omerta seemed to be the correct response. The following week both participants played. And nothing was said.
Though I, at least, noted that neither the socks, nor the Adidas super eights made a reappearance.