I’ve reached the age where I can now visualise a life beyond work. A time when I don’t have to drag my ageing arse back and forth along the M77 during congested, extended, soul-sapping rush hours. When I’m not at the beck and call of impatient clients or demanding deadlines. I can imagine all of this clearly. But I can’t conceive of the day when I’m not able to play football for an hour a week.
There will be little that’s truly unique about the contents of this piece, beyond perhaps, my personal relationship to it. So many of us share this strange passion; this participation in weekly five-a-side games – or in our case, sevens – with other players we often know little or nothing about.
Disparate groups of middle-aged men (or women, but rarely mixed) wearing the washed-out, tightly stretched jerseys of their heroes, or worse, their youth. Acting out dreams that originated in childhood. Scoring in a Cup Final, or perhaps more likely, a lucky last-minute toe-poke that wins an otherwise turgid match. There are opportunities here for all imaginations. And there’s nothing quite like it.
Our experiences will be similar, but let’s test that theory, early doors: How many of us complain about an early start, despite kick-off having been that time for years? Our joints aching and creaking like the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz before Dorothy rushes in with the oil-can. Out in all weathers, thanks to surfaces that get re-thatched more often than Kris Boyd’s scalp. With a hat, gloves … extra t-shirt layer, perhaps. All rich with the putrefied stench of sweat and Ralgex. Thankfully, the fashion for Under Armour tights was as brief as Brian Clough’s time at Leeds. Our car heaters are on full blast, offering an Alexei Mikhailichenko approach to the warm-ups.
The teams may change subtly, week to week, not dramatically. Steady Eddie is spotted in the shops at Silverburn with his wife when he’d complained of a debilitating cough. He’s dropped for a week. Bald Bobby, the bampot barber, gets the nod, after the man with the wee black book popped in for a #2 buzzcut the previous week. But he’s a bit too fond of the slide tackle, is Bobby. Eddie is quickly forgiven, and the natural order restores. Perceived abilities get matched in the prioritised order of the basic skills: moaning, running, passing, scoring. Everyone takes their turn as keeper, and tactics are often adjusted if the man between the posts is known to wear the gloves merely to keep his hands warm. A close game is applauded by everybody, but woe betide that week’s selectors if there’s any more than five goals in it. Sound familiar?
I’m part of a squad of guys who play every Saturday morning in Kilmarnock. There are teachers, accountants, builders and a doctor; always a reassuring sight if middle-aged men get purple-faced with over exertion. There are some who work overseas and miss a week in every three. There are Killie fans, Ayr fans, a few fans of the Old Firm, and – judging by the replica strips – a Newcastle fan. And a couple who profess to prefer rugby. As the decades have passed, I’ve come to know more about them all although I still manage to get the first names mixed up on occasion.
We’re all much better in our heads than we are on the pitch. Very few of our number played competitive football in their twenties. Their knees are in better shape than real footballers. Most of the guys who play regularly have passed the peak work strain of long hours in their 40’s. And for some, these were the years of over-eating and under-exercising. With a bit more time on their hands they can now exercise more, and the standard, if not the quality, of Saturday morning football has remained enjoyably combative as a consequence.
We are creatures of habit. Consistency is the thing; of date, of time, of pitch. Vary any of these and the equilibrium can be unsettled. One week, the pitch markings had been re-painted. The curved goal area we had been accustomed to for years had gone, replaced by a rectangular box. It took weeks to adjust to this minor change, such was the programmed mindset of those faced with it. It had a similar effect to Graeme Souness narrowing the Ibrox pitch in 1987 although in our case, both teams ended up equally confused and disadvantaged.
That line, curved or rectangular, is the main bone of contention in sevens or fives.
“Ye were over the line!”
“Yer arse, ah was!”
“Ye were a bloody mile inside the box!”
Contrary statements yelled as regularly as the call and response at Ayr Gaiety during Panto season. All the glorious ridiculousness of football is here; present and correct in our partisan and one-sided view of the talking points from each game. Despite this, I could count the number of penalties I’ve seen accepted by both teams on the fingers of one hand. Maybe all football should be played without referees. It may yet become the only VAR-free football environment around in the seasons to come. And yet, this is the real spirit of football; the one that still prompts determinedly myopic pub arguments about controversial goals and missed sitters’ years after the incidents happened.
Preferring to avoid even more argument, we ignore the head-height rule and play the game as it was intended. Consequently, headed goals are often the only ones outwardly celebrated, given their hen’s teeth rarity.
There are few things in life funnier than observing a middle-aged man in ill-fitting shorts fall over with no-one near him, face planted in the turf, then rising with hundreds of tiny black rubber pellets studded into his dimpled forehead. This is a man who, in the footballing sense, has essentially fouled himself. We’ve all done it, and it happens far more regularly than we’d want our families to know.
Another painfully regular occurrence that draws widespread laughter – along with grudging admiration – is blocking a certain goal in the most painful way possible. Taking a dull one to the nuts is a footballing rite of passage. It’s just as well that for most of us, the creative usefulness of the lads is more limited than was perhaps once the case. Some opt for the light touch regarding tackle protection, or the protection of their tackle. Others pad and shinny-up like Robocop being sent in to quell a prison riot. There’s a place here for all of us. All shapes and sizes.
The complex where we currently congregate is located behind a retail park on the edge of town. There are eight pitches of differing sizes. On Saturday mornings, they usually lie empty. Ours is often the only one being used. A few years ago, there was a lively buzz. A full carpark and the repetitive sound of balls rattling off the boards. Young Killie, a fantastic organisation providing enthusiastic coaching and short-sided matches to energetic kids of all ages, was based here until Kilmarnock FC’s erstwhile chairman Michael Johnson trademarked the name ‘Killie’. The youngsters suffered as much as the creators of the town’s world-famous pies. Thankfully, a different ownership – for the football club, and the Soccer World complex – has prompted a tentative recovery for both organisations. The pitches are named after the legends of the game. Ours is the ‘Zidane’. Intended as an identity to inspire, the Frenchman’s achievements are pinned to the seven-metre high fenced surround that week-on-week fails lamentably to contain our shooting exuberance.
Every regular fives/sevens game has an unsung hero; the one to whom the weekly responsibility of organisation falls. For us, that person is Gordon Kerr.
“We started playing fives in 1992 at the Galleon Centre in Kilmarnock as a group of young unfit thirty-somethings. It began as a challenge thrown down over a few Stellas with a mate’s younger brother who played regularly. We played with them for a few Sunday evenings but the time, the venue and the opposition weren’t ideal. A local impresario had recently built an outdoor AstroTurf fives complex in Townholm and we decided to give it a try. Andy Taylor brought in some teachers (you know … the guys with lots of time on their hands but organise nothing and complain about everything!) that he played with after school and we got a time for a Saturday morning.”
“We played at Townholm for a few more years but the place was falling apart,” says Gordon. “Nails protruding from the side panels, torn surfaces, lack of sand and freezing cold showers with little water pressure. Our Saturday was in danger of imploding. The nearest suitable complex was Johnny Hubbard’s place in Whitletts, Ayr, some ten miles away. The moaning started. It’s too far away, my wife needs the car, I’m scared to go to Whitletts because of all the Alsatian dugs etc. Some jumped ship and some replacements (including the author of this piece…) were roped in from interested friends, acquaintances and tenuous connections.”
A small core of the originals remain but, inevitably, age and injury take their toll. New players come in. Some stay for a while; a few fade from memory more rapidly. It’s a rich seam for a writer, and especially one soon to be releasing a novel set in the febrile world of mid-90s lower league Ayrshire football. There have been some fantastic characters over the years. Gordon Kerr remembers them all.
“One of the new men was known as Malcolm X. He was not a teacher but was the husband of a teacher who was put in touch with us by a teacher. We formed carpools to go to Whitletts and I had the mixed fortune to be in the same car as MX. He was not the chattiest of men, in fact I can’t ever recall a single word he uttered. We travelled with MX for around five years but knew absolutely nothing about him. I was certain that MX was a spy. He didn’t turn up one week. His house was empty, and he had flown the country, cover blown. Our suspicions were confirmed when shortly after MX left, our e-mail group started getting correspondence from Russian girls who were desperate to meet us.”
If a game is to take root and become established for the longer term, it needs a consistency of time and home venue. A nomadic existence is often the only excuse needed for those lacking the necessary staying power; the right stuff. “Whitletts was a holding operation,” Gordon admits. “It kept the fives going until something more suitable came along, nearer to home. Around 2006, PowerLeague opened in Kilmarnock. It probably saved our group which was in danger of falling apart. A few five-a-sides pitches and one sevens pitch with 3G AstroTurf. Great excitement as the stuff we were used to playing on must have been original first generation.”
We switched to seven-a-sides on the larger park. This was controversial with some. It wasn’t universally popular, but I much preferred it. Most of us were now in our late forties. The fives consisted of short bursts of movements, whereas the sevens involved more running. Fives always seemed more like basketball to me. The space offered by the bigger pitch made the games feel more natural.
I ask Gordon what it means to him, this parallel life as an organiser of the short game: “Ever since I was a six-year-old boy, all I ever wanted to do was play football. Killie v Leeds United in May 1967, the semi-final of the European Fairs Cup at a full Rugby Park blew my mind and ever since, football has been the love of my life. It was my footballing Woodstock. Accountancy was just a means to an end, just a way of financing my lifestyle and not something that I really wanted to do. The reality that I had no football ability was immaterial. Football got me through the week, focused on a Saturday. When the opportunity came along to play fives in the morning before going to the Killie game, I jumped at it. Sometimes I played golf in the club medal at 7am before going to the fives and then the pub and then the Killie game. I definitely had no trouble sleeping on those nights.”
“Some five years into this venture came my personal highlight, The 1997 Scottish Cup Final. Killie v Falkirk. I was too young to be at Tynecastle in 1965. I had never seen my team win anything in thirty years as a fan and, based upon those three decades, I feared that I never would. I barely slept in the week before the Final. The fives were rescheduled for 9.30am, and despite the nervous exhaustion, it was better and more memorable than normal. Most of us left afterwards on the supporter’s bus which I organised. We had a table for a celebratory dinner at the top of the one-way system giving us the perfect view of the open-topped team bus with the cup and those incredible scenes on John Finnie Street. It was the perfect day and the realisation of my boyhood (and adulthood) dream.”
But the responsibility of organising can have its frustrations on and off the pitch too, as Gordon explains:
‘Ah, the bugbears of running the game. Late call-offs. Friday call-offs. Even worse, Friday night phone calls when I am in the pub and have had a few beers and don’t have my specs with me,” he says. “Most of us get irritated by the dribblers … the guy who thinks that he is Ronaldo or Messi and would rather lose a testicle than pass the ball to anyone. For us, footballing ability is secondary to enthusiasm and the love of playing. I once asked someone if scoring at the fives as a sixty-year-old was better than sex? It’s certainly better than sex with me, he replied.”
And woman players?
“Can’t see that happening. We have enough fannies already!”
Why does it mean so much to so many of us? It’s FIFA 20 for those too slow even for the ‘beginner’ level, and with fingers too arthritic for the controllers. Or, as James Brown put it in his exemplary book, Above Head Height, five-a-sides is sporting Karaoke – a time and place to live out our dreams.
“The secret is inclusiveness,” says Gordon Kerr. “Guys of differing abilities combining because of their love of football. Winning the game is secondary to having a laugh. As soon as you start to introduce ringers, better players, the whole thing would fall apart. If you introduce real competitiveness, heavy tackles will creep in, resulting in breakages.”
There’s a palpable sense of continuity to our activities. That those of us who have been part of this compelling addiction for nearly thirty years are merely the current custodians of the bibs. None of us want to be amongst those holding the jerseys when the floodlights finally go out. It’s a comforting thought that others – sons, maybe – will keep the game going when we’re gone. Of course, it’ll be their game then, but our DNA will still be traceable.
An aspect of this functions as a necessary escape from reality. An hour-long opportunity to forget our mortality. A parallel life where we’d all play on forever, scoring remarkable goals from beyond the halfway line or making defence-splitting passes that belie our abilities. And where our team-mates could return from serious illness or heart attacks after a few weeks out, like they were merely inconvenient niggles or minor muscle pulls.
But life isn’t like that. The anonymity of the early days as a player doesn’t last. We’ve all made valuable and lasting connections that go beyond the initial brief surface acknowledgements. Those previously known only by a first name become fully fleshed individuals with backgrounds; jobs, families. Shared interests. Friends who are badly missed when they can no longer play.
This piece is dedicated to our friend and team-mate Gordon Sinclair, who passed away on Christmas Day.