Long-standing WSC contributor David Wangerin, who died in June 2012, left a legacy to create an annual competition only open to amateur writers. The top three entries were printed in WSC 318, and here is the winner. Mark Sanderson reflects on what it's like trying to play football, rather than watch it, on a Saturday
I ran on with instructions to keep it tight at the back. Our 8-1 lead didn't detract from my enthusiasm, as I clapped my hands and shouted "Come on, lads" while waiting for a goal-kick to be taken.
By the time the ball reached halfway the referee was blowing his whistle for full time. My main contribution was shaking hands with the opposition.
It was no surprise we won the 1992-93 Under-14 Mid Solent League – our manager had poached some of the best players around. I wasn't one of them. Starting three games all season I learned that it was no good being with a winning team if you hardly played. So, I left Botley Barracudas.
I've always preferred to play football rather than watch it on a Saturday. There have been the odd flashes of weakness. During that barren season 20 years ago, I forfeited my place on the substitutes' bench to watch Southampton play Crystal Palace at The Dell; Neil Maddison scored the winner. Try as I might to enjoy it, my mind was elsewhere, longing for the wide open spaces of a municipal recreation ground in Gosport.
The years since have been spent playing for clubs able to cater for me in their starting XI. Then along came 2012-13, bringing painful memories of teenage inadequacy. I started it on the bench for Hedge End Rangers reserves, who play at the Norman Rodaway ground, in the Puma Engineering Hampshire Premier Combination Football League. The town, which is one M27 junction east of Southampton, is mainly known for being home to one of the UK's largest Sainsbury's. I followed eight of my team-mates there from my previous club Burridge. Greed played its part – the promise of training kit with our initials printed on it was too much to resist. The consensus was that we would be playing a higher standard of football, a pretence severely tested after our six-goal second-half collapse at Fleetlands.
Sometimes people with little interest in the game ask me why I play. My explanation – where else can you run and shout and kick people for the £3 we pay in weekly subs – seldom suffices. Especially if I explain that I wasn't always picked this season. Nobody could appreciate the frustration being left on the bench can cause unless they were an unused substitute sitting through the dross we served up against Liphook reserves.
A squad of 16 drove there in convoy up the A3. Keeping a lid on your thoughts about your team's performance can be tricky when you're a substitute. Add a two-goal deficit and it was impossible for Rob. He was a winger and, although small, there was no doubting his ability. Unfortunately, much of it centred around getting on people's nerves. Within 20 minutes our three other substitutes had taken a sudden interest in warming up on the other side of the pitch. I was left with continual access to Rob's every thought, which fluctuated between our performance and the previous evening he'd spent playing Call of Duty on his Xbox.
"Why is he going inside there?" "Can he not make a ten-yard pass?" "How many times is he going to let him do that?" Each question was preceded by prodding my arm. Was there enough ammonia in the smelling salts to render Rob unconscious? We lost 5-3 and, thankfully, Rob got on. I didn't. No longer do I cast judgement on professional footballers who wear headphones in the company of their peers.
I last saw Rob at Ringwood Town's Long Lane ground. He was one of the three remaining substitutes told to warm-up during extra-time. He thought it a better use of his time to badger the manager about how he could win us the game. The assistant manager was sent on instead – the final straw for Rob. He walked towards the changing rooms, missing the decisive penalty in the shootout, as did our assistant manager, whose spot-kick hit the post. We were out of the Hampshire Cup. On the bright side, there was now more leg room on the bench.
Rob and I both wanted to play. What separated us was that I wasn't prepared to slag off my team-mates in public. I was more comfortable doing it behind their backs, in a text reminding the manager that in the previous five weeks I'd done little more than pepper our goalkeeper with half volleys in the pre-match warm-up. I started at right-back away to Winchester Castle the following Saturday. Commitment, persistence and a tendency to bleat whenever things didn't go my way had finally paid off. We scored the only goal with a minute left and two opposition players refused my handshake after the final whistle – a sign you've had a good game. There was no doubt in my mind; I'd nailed a starting place for the following week at Bournemouth Sports. But the axe could fall when you least expected it.
The manager walked towards me with the weary expression of somebody trying to keep a 20-man squad happy. "Starting you on the bench today," he said. My heart sank. "Now I've got to tell him," he said, pointing to the centre circle. "Him" was Nick – a mainstay at centre-back, a future first-teamer and proof that a good haircut and a washboard stomach did not make you immune from getting dropped. I watched them in the distance. Nick shook his head and jabbed his index finger before fetching his tracksuit from the Portakabin changing rooms. We both watched us win 7-1. Later, our hosts served us curry in their clubhouse. Nick left without finishing his.
In the New Year I started my fair share of games – sometimes I would finish them too. One of the advantages about playing full-back is that many start believing the position is beneath them and are no longer prepared to spend their time taking throw-ins – or worse, retrieving the ball. Although, at £60 each, few teams can afford a cavalier attitude to their match ball. Our manager could stomach a 2-0 home defeat to Clanfield somewhat easier than going home without one of our Mitre Deltas. With orders not to return until it had been found, we foraged waist-deep through stinging nettles; it turned up in the away team's dressing room.
Not everybody is as forthcoming in returning footballs. During a midweek fixture, one of Stoneham's management prevented a quick throw-in by tossing the ball aside while grinning. In his eyes he'd made a telling contribution to the game. When I arrived he was using a garden sprinkler to water the centre-circle but, given its bobbled condition, fabric softener may have been more suitable. "I see your first team are in the Southampton Senior Cup final at St Mary's again," I said, pointing to a poster in the tea hut window. He nodded but preferred talking about the reserves' 1-0 Combination Cup semi-final defeat. "What can you do when they score an offside goal with three minutes left?" he said. It seemed too disingenuous to say "equalise". Stoneham beat us 1-0, although I did play 90 minutes.
Our striker Bryn was substituted with 15 minutes left. "Didn't think I was having a bad game," he said to the bench. "You gave the fucking ball away for their goal," came the reply from one substitute, who then spat on the grass like James Caan in The Godfather. The difference of opinion between those who are on the pitch and those who are not remains large.