You are constantly told your body will know when it’s time to stop playing, but then you score a wonder goal and another season looks appealing
18 January ~ Picking the right time to retire isn’t easy for any footballer. Compared with the professionals, at least I can exclude one option – there is no question of going out at the top. But on the other hand, nor is there anyone to take you gently aside and whisper the awful truth, or simply to stop putting your name on the teamsheet.
When I resumed my long-stalled playing career eight years ago, I could not imagine playing beyond 50. Even Stanley Matthews gave it away at that age, despite insisting he could have shuffled on for a couple more years. But it soon became apparent that crossing an arbitrary number barrier was not going to send a strong enough signal, and not just because Kazu Miura kept raising the bar by signing new contracts.
For a start, others around me were considerably more senior. The bloke who played in goal in my first season died recently (not on the field), which was sad but not entirely unexpected, given he was in his mid-70s. Halfway through last season I was taken aback to discover that our lithe Chilean midfielder was 67, and that was after we had the annual chance to say we had come up against a genuine World Cup veteran – Ernie Campbell, also now 67, who played for Australia against West Germany in 1974.
Nor have any of the traditional retirement cliches been much help. “Your body tells you” – it tells me a lot of things, but frankly I’ve stopped listening. “You stop enjoying it” – have we ever simply enjoyed it? You wouldn’t necessarily think so from the sight of so many angry bald fat men shouting at each other for 90 minutes. “I didn’t want to be the one letting my team-mates down” – no worries on this score, because at our level everyone lets everyone else down all the time and no one really cares, bar a bit of furious shouting.
What’s more, there are solid arguments for going on. Think of all the people who would love to play but can’t, because they are too sick, or too poor, or the wrong gender in the wrong country, or any number of other reasons. What would they think if you gave up just because of age? (Nothing, obviously, but it’s the principle that matters.) And as elite football becomes more and more alienating, grassroots blundering around at least reminds you that most people play for reasons other than money, and have some sense of their own ridiculousness.
Yet towards the end of last season I did start to think seriously about packing it in. We’d only won a single game, I’d missed a big chunk of what is already a short season with a recurring injury, and the volume of shouting was getting a bit much. Maybe there were better, cheaper, less frustrating things to do on a Saturday afternoon.
In the last game of the season we were 2-0 down at half time, and tempers were fraying. But soon after the break, from a corner floated in from the left, I rose like a youngish salmon at the near post to nod the ball into the far corner past two despairing defenders (no one else will ever write that sentence, so I’m afraid I have to). Before the end I scored again with a delicate lob over the keeper to end the season on what would have been a massive high, but for an awful lot of shouting about the fourth and fifth goals we conceded.
But those moments of sheer competence have stuck with me through the summer. I could see the moderately difficult task in front of me, knew what I had to do, how the movement should look, where the ball should go – and for once didn’t screw it up. It was almost like real football. If someone had filmed it, I wouldn’t be ashamed to watch. And I think that’s enough to justify one more season of waiting for a solid gold retirement revelation. Mike Ticher