We are now accepting entries for the 2020 WSC writers' competition. By way of inspiration, here is Steve Keene's winning entry from 2019, about his rediscovery of playing the game
11 March ~ I’m standing on the touchline, though it’s more of a contorted crouch, as I try to shield myself from the wind whipping thousands of tiny, icy ball-bearings straight into my face. I am sodden and cannot imagine how I could possibly ever be wetter or colder. I’m holding a linesman’s flag but can’t raise it as whenever I try the flag falls off. I can’t really follow what’s going on anyway as the path of the hail is from the far side of the pitch to my side. I’m not even a linesman. I’m just filling in, as one of the substitutes tends to do. One of the other subs has already gone home. Another is sheltering elsewhere, back in the dressing room I think. I’m not entirely sure I’m even going to get on the pitch today. It is May.
I didn’t picture the last day of the season being like this. A year ago, I didn’t think I’d play football again. I was hurtling through my late 30s with 40 on the horizon. There were other, more important things to do on a Saturday afternoon. And with a well-cultivated dad bod I wasn’t exactly in the right shape to lace up my boots anyway.
While I had watched more than my fair share of football over the years, I’d not really played much before. I’d played at school, then dabbled in five- and seven-a-side football in my 20s. But proper, competitive 11-a-side seemed an opportunity long gone. Busy, unfit and frankly not very good at football, my prospects looked dim. But there was still a nagging feeling that I’d missed out. I should have had a go.
I then saw a post from my local non-League team, Phoenix Sports, announcing they were re-forming their veterans’ side, and were looking for new players. As much as I fulfilled the age requirements for veterans’ football I wasn’t sure I strictly met the remit of a “veteran”. With my lack of real competitive experience there was a risk that I’d be the equivalent of one of those blokes who dabbled in the TA for a couple of years and then pretends he has had a proper army career. I was basically a bit of a fraud. But I still wanted to play.
Pre-season was rough. I was pretty sure the warm-up had lasted an hour, but when I checked the time it had only been ten minutes. Physically I was a mess. I noticed a few around me in a similar state, but at least they had some technique to fall back on. I didn’t even have that.
Then unfortunately my wife fell ill and so I decided to take a break from it all, before it had even really started. It was a really tough time, but football gave me an escape, even when I couldn’t play it. When I was feeling down it gave me something to look forward to. When I just wanted to stuff myself with beer and cake it gave me the motivation to lose some weight and get fitter instead. And all of that helped me feel a bit more level-headed and able to cope with the kind of stuff life throws at you from time to time.
By the autumn my wife was on the mend and with her full encouragement I was able to pick up from where I left off. And to my amazement, despite my absolute lack of fitness, experience or skill, the team were happy for me to come along and play. I’m sure there was some middle-aged delayed-adolescent wish fulfilment here, but going into a dressing room, putting on a proper kit and then taking part in a proper match with a proper referee, where the result even ends up on the FA website, was exhilarating. Coming on as a sub for ten minutes felt like a genuine achievement. Even though I was rubbish.
And I kept playing, and kept learning. I’ve played with and against players who have played at a decent level, and those who could have if a few more things had gone their way. I’ve learned a hard-fought one-nil win is much more satisfying than routing your opposition, that some players really do light up a fag at half time and that some people are mad enough to give up their Saturdays not playing, but refereeing a load of angry middle-aged men. I haven’t quite discovered what a foul throw actually is though. That mystery remains.
I have had first-hand experience of just how hard it is to play at wing-back, but how a bit more fitness and a lot more positional awareness goes a long way. I’ve played up front too, and gone from missing the ball and accidentally kicking the goalkeeper in the head to actually scoring a goal (from a yard out, but they all count, right?). I’ve got in better shape, mainly because I don’t really enjoy being yelled at by our captain for not putting the effort in – that even if I can’t play very well that shouldn’t stop me running down every ball. He had a point.
I’m still no world-beater, but now I’ve got a bit of a better idea about why. And the nicknames I’ve been given probably help with that analysis too – Steve the Toe in honour of how I strike the ball (or not) and The Hoff in honour of my rather laboured, exaggerated running style. I didn’t mind that I was nearly always on the bench, generally helping out running the line, or running off to collect loose footballs, or handing out the waters. As much as I’m clearly that weird bloke who turned up in pre-season and really couldn’t play, I’m now part of a team.
And that’s why I was there, that afternoon in May, shielding myself from hail, shivering, grappling with a broken linesman’s flag. Life is hard, and around the time you become eligible for veterans’ football it seems to get harder. Football gives you a break. It gives you something else to think about from Monday to Friday. And on a Saturday it takes you away completely, so for a couple of hours all that matters is beating the team in front of you. I’m still no veteran but with one season under my belt I’m a tiny bit closer to becoming one. Steve Keene
Illustration by Adam Doughty
Click here to find out how to enter the 2020 WSC writers' competition – there is a £250 cash prize for the winner, whose article will be published in WSC this summer