Matt Nation had a close shave with a legendarily "uncompromising" Premier League defender, and lived to tell the tale

The most irrelevant piece of advice that I thought I’d ever received was from a careers officer at school. After having given us leaflets on the police force, agricultural training in Monmouthshire and driving a tank with the best bunch of mates we’d ever have, she announced: “Whatever you end up doing, you don’t need to be nervous at the interview. Just picture in your mind’s eye the person interviewing you getting into a really hot bath. It’s such a silly idea that you’ll be instantly relaxed and it’ll be a doddle.”

The number of man hours that could be spent researching what exactly possessed this lady to say this to a bunch of bored schoolchildren could eradicate unemployment in the psychology sector for at least the next decade. The number of times a member of that class has left job interviews either accompanied by a policeman or as an uncontrollable giggling heap on a stretcher would make interesting reading. In retrospect, however, a variation on her words of wisdom could, if applied at the right moment, make football pitches a considerably more entertaining places.
There is a certain Premier League defender – who, because I am only spiteful and not really spiteful, shall remain nameless – who is regarded by most of the football world as a bit of a tasty geezer in the tackle. If it could be proven he can eat with cutlery, he could dine out for the rest of his life on the reputation he has acquired during his ten years or so in the professional game. Imagine what must have gone through the mind of a rakish teenage centre forward who has not yet filled out yet, whose arms are still too short for his shirt, whose acne has not yet arrived, having to face this man in front of thousands of people. Football’s answer to a Venus Flytrap against a boy who still irons his underpants. It doesn’t bear thinking about.
Salvation is at hand for any fretting mite of this type. He just needs to picture in his mind’s eye “Boco Juniors in 1981 on a corporation pitch”. It’s such a silly idea that he’ll be instantly relaxed and it will be a doddle.
Boco Juniors was, and still is, a schoolboy team founded and named in the wake of Argentina ’78 by somebody who, for the sake of footballing generations of the future, should donate his brain to medical science when he expires. Our man had class even then. As puny then as he is portly now, he belied the fact that his forename usually belongs to serious kids with an unswerving interest in telescopes and strutted around the pitch to the admiring coos of everybody present.
At one point, a loose ball was equidistant from the starlet and a Boco defender. On account of the fact that his opponent usually moved with the speed and posture of Andy Thorn with a grand piano on his back, it was a fair bet that the starlet would nick the ball, stride purposefully forward and humiliate everyone in his path. However, thanks to one of those ankle-high motormower tracks that can be found on many corporation pitches, the starlet stumbled, allowing the lummock to get to the ball first. And, unfortunately, to welt it full into the side of the starlet’s face.
A ball in the face is normally no laughing matter. Unlike a ball in the knackers, which seemingly gives carte blanche to people to whistle ‘Colonel Bogey’ and to jeer at the older man who squeezes a sponge full of cold water down the victim’s shorts, a ball in the face brings the game to a serious standstill and nothing but sympathy is extended to the recipient. The same was true in starlet’s face. A deathly silence enveloped the playing-field. The perpetrator stood there, horrified, knock-kneed and open-mouthed, trying to come to terms with what he had done. The victim staggered around the centre-circle, clutching his face and howling like a sea lion in its death throes. A potential international could have had his career ended by a bumpy pitch and an uncoordinated dollop with the kicking technique of a farm hand maltreating his heifers. It was heart-stopping stuff.
Unfortunately, the theatricals went on just that little bit too long and, gradually, the ball in the face assumed the mantle of the ball in the knackers. Thoughts about the grim reaper and calling in the priest to administer the last rites were replaced by comments along the lines of “Well,-it-wasn’t-really-that-hard-and-it-was-only-the-side-of-the-face-and-who-hasn’t-had-the-ball-in-the-face-nowadays-and-I-was-down-the-docks-twelve-hours-a-day-at-his-age-anyway”. In fact, the mood swung so sharply that, as the victim was carried off, his arms draped over the shoulders of two smirking fathers, his legs kicking like an infant’s in a baby bouncer because they weren’t long enough to touch the ground, his half-red/ half-white face resembling a Danish fan who had overdone the face-painting, most of the spectators were covering up guffaws with coughs and wry grins with hands. It was heart-stopping stuff.
I never got the chance to play against him. At the end of that season, he signed associate schoolboy forms with a team from another city and eventually, as everyone predicted, attained the professional status that his talents merited. So I never had the chance to picture this scenario in my mind’s eye and then to relax so much that I won every fifty-fifty ball, scored a hat-trick and got my name in the paper.
Furthermore, unless I manage to do a Tony Book and am catapulted to League stardom at the age where most players are choosing the wallpaper for their retirement home in Marbella, I’m never likely to have the chance to do so in the future, either. But Messrs Giggs, Barmby, Fowler, McManaman and numerous others will have the opportunity. So lads, if you feel a bit apprehensive about fifty-fifty balls with a man who’d duff you up as soon as look at you, just think: “Boco Juniors in 1981 on a corporation pitch”. Now go out here, enjoy yourselves and do what you’re good at.

From WSC 108 February 1996. What was happening this month

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