Don't judge your opponents before the match, warns Jeffrey Prest as he remembers the embarrassing defeat suffered by his university team
“It’s a theology college,” said our captain, and the mood among Cripps Hall Thirds visibly lightened. We had lost often that season, yet narrowly enough to believe that just one thumping victory would be the enema for our potential.
St. John’s Theological College sounded just the ticket. In a league dominated by Nottingham University’s hall-of-residence teams, St John’s were the off-campus unknowns whose identity our captain had just clarified to such warm approbation.The general consensus as we slapped on the liniment was that the lions of Cripps had finally found their Christians.
Okay, so they weren’t the frail assortment of pasty faces we might have hoped for, as we eyed them during the warm-up, but there seemed a naivety about them and their earnest chatter that did little to arrest our soaring spirits.
Three goals down after 20 minutes, however, and our spirits were superglued to our ankles. From kick-off, St. Johns had swept at us in an orgy of industrious zeal.That’s the snag with outspoken believers. Subconsciously, they toughen up in other areas of their lives to counter any suspicion they’re going soft. A firm of Christian lawyers I know are viewed by their peers as the most hard-nosed sons of bitches you’ll ever meet at the negotiating table. Because they have to be.
St John’s burned with the same spirit. Five-one up at half-time, their intensity caught us cold and their niceness blew our minds. It’s one thing to be hammered by fellow-hustlers in the rat-race but for a team of otherworldly individuals to descend to these mean streets and still kick ass was unpalatable.
In 90 minutes, the strongest expletive we got from them was “crumbs”. They helped us up after tackles, retrieved the ball for our throw-ins and viewed their goals as children view Christmas. It was like being beaten up by Enid Blyton. Before kick-off, we had discussed the question of swearing. The hard-liners said they would, the liberals that they’d try not to. Seven-two down midway through the second half, despair denied most of us the option. Provoked beyond help was our captain, taking an enforced breather from the second team. If leading the stiffs was indignity enough, leading them to annihilation at the hands of budding clergy was more than he could take.
As St John’s congregated gleefully to dissect goal number eight (“With my head, Gerald. My head, I ask you!”) he swore loud and long. In a normal game, it would have blended seamlessly with its environment. Today, though, it hovered gruesomely on the air like a hawk above fieldmice.
Suddenly falling silent, St John’s trotted solemnly back to midfield. They owned us now. We weren’t just crap, we were foul-mouthed, Godforsaken crap. Had we peered hard enough at their end of the pitch, we would have doubtless seen chariots of fire amassing silently behind the back four.
Only The Coup might have saved us. St John’s had provided the referee, a shaggy-haired Australian imbued with the notion that there was no decision so appalling it couldn’t be smoothed over with a hearty chuckle and some attempt at blokeish repartee with the aggrieved party.
Our centre forward was the first to snap. “If you’re not happy, why don’t you referee the game yourself,” chortled Shaggy, proffering the whistle with the triumphal air of someone who fancies he’s just played his ace. What he’d actually done was light the touchpaper of one very peeved, very Jewish No 9, who was prepared to take only so much from people whose theology was at such variance from his own. “Yeah, go on then,” snarled our man, and picked up the whistle. For five heady seconds, only the birds could be heard, as 22 men contemplated the precipice at which they stood.
Player-refs are the stuff of school-yards. Had we persisted with one in an organised game for grown-ups, even for just a few insane minutes, it would have been a revolution so bizarre as to render all other details of this sorry afternoon irrelevant. Alas, our captain blinked. “Come on, Jon, forget it,” he suggested, and not even the sight of one very crestfallen Australian could compensate as we surrendered the whistle and our last stab at salvation.
Evensong must have lifted the roof at St John’s that night. Fifteen years on, in some dank parish or African Mission, twelve men of the cloth, in the raptures of meditation, probably still hear the words “eleven-three”.
For Cripps Hall Thirds, the season was over. When you’ve been taken apart by the righteous, you are putty in the hands of the sinner. Two weeks later, it needed a late equaliser to save our blushes in a friendly against Cripps Rugby Club, whose derision afterwards was merciful only in its sparing use of the word “crumbs”.
From WSC 132 February 1998. What was happening this month