IAN STOTT: Here we go, here we go, here we go…
Ian ‘Stottie’ Stott is the Colin Bell of walking football (he’s here, he’s there, he’s every… you get the picture) and, as you’re about to read, he’s also a something of a ‘Bill Shakespeare’ (a footballing Bard, if you please?). Here he tells a tale – in part tongue-in-cheek – of travel, determination (?) and ultimately woe – in the name of walking football. And so it begins thus…
Early-ish on a Springtime sunny morning and I alight the bus at my local leisure centre. Off to play in a soccer tournament, in a communal vehicle. Not done this since I was a kid. Walking footie, eh? And only couple of months ago I’d really only heard rumours…
We collect from other centres, taking in the aesthetics of Buckinghamshire lanes. I listen to recollections of the management lady of her one time responsibility for corralling and cajoling the young galacticos at a Premiership club’s PR events.
I wonder if my teenage self would have been stuck into the xboxinstapod-y stuff on a journey like this.
We head up the M40 towards a place that has received brown signed historic market town status.
We are the Crinklies and the Crumblies. (I did suggest that we could re-name our two teams the Strolling Players and Les Flaneurs. But, it seemed, the connotations were felt to be a bit louche-Baudelaire and all that. You know..)
We are accompanied by sundry partners and racquet-bearers, the latter participants in other aspects of this day of senior sporting eventing. This transport and generous sustenance and hydration are being provided by a very well known national leisure centre operator. And a participation medal. And a t-shirt of Phoenician hue. All for two quid.
Our organiser, captain and striker Lurk receives a call about a last minute unavailability. So the Crinklies, already short, are down to just the one spare man for substitutions or rotation. The Crumblies have a superabundance, but Lurk will play it characteristically straight: the notion of inter squad registrational legerdemain is not mentioned.
The Wessex centre looms under the enveloping dark sky. Wow. The scale of the place, extending every which way amid immaculate lawns and pitches. Welcome to Kublai Khan’s Leisure Dome.
The penumbral conditions outside are contiguous with the soft lighting of the reception area, which is more hotel than gymnasium. We are ushered by bright-eyed youthful staff into a coffee bar which sits alongside a staggeringly glazed Olympic swimming pool. We are guided past and through family groups to an enormous bright place. Near the long tables of refreshments are the changing areas, where we exchange pleasantries with members of other teams. This bonhomie seems to be the norm. Unlike back in my day, when taciturnity and cold stares were de rigeur..
This sport is gender-inclusive, but as yet the competitive end tends to be male-dominated. There will be only one lady participant today.
We go to another space. This, a kind of super hangar, is more sombrely lit. At the very distant far end elite-level tennis is being practised.
We camp on a kind of mezzanine corridor above the parallel playing areas. There will be a league situation, followed by a four-team knockout.
We warm up collectively. And we are off, we Crinklies. But not adjusting ourselves terribly well yet. We ship a couple of goals through basic errors, and scrape a draw with the last kick of the game. Hmm.
Our second outing finds us in better shape. Lurk, though nursing a knock, begins to accumulate what will be by day’s end quite a hatful of goals. But then Warder, our sophisticated enforcer and accomplished marker, aggravates a knee problem. Oh crumbs. Oh crinkles. Down to our minimum number. We win the game, but he will take no further part.
No subs now, but somehow we cohere. Half a dozen or so games and we largely prevail. The fulcral Manc is a vocal hard drive. Disco the custodian is reliably sharp.
Lace, a relative newcomer like me, smiles knowingly as I am pulled up for breaking into a run. He draws things pretty tight on the left. Between games he and his wife have found my predilection for liquorice and mint tea amusing.
The league part is over now. The Crumblies’ spirited efforts haven’t quite been enough. Most of our two squads are by the end wall, some in chairs, some on the floor. A symposium of craic. You could maybe do a sitcom about all this. A Mike Leigh. We smile as various titles are suggested.
But then comes an unexpected note. A devil’s interval. An eccentric counterpoint that can surely be assimilated into the riffs of the day. A Crinkly victory has been recorded as a defeat: we have not qualified for the semis. But surely…That man with a pencil in the middle is only one of…?
Lurk goes off to investigate.
It can’t be changed. And there’s no appeal available. Not here. Not now. Because in this world class facility in the age of Information Theory and Synaptic Helix Paradigm, with graduates in Event Ontology and Sports Data Epistemology, there is, for us, only an incontrovertible clipboard. It is borne by a youngish man who will listen neither to us nor to representatives of the defeated. We sort of thought the ref would note things. Or that there would be, somewhere, laptops and scoreboards. Whiteboard. Blackboard…
The rational and the noncognitive. We are like children speaking out of turn. Getting a clipboard round the ear.
The note has jarred and builds to a cacophony. Lurk and Manc hold it together admirably as the pantomime recording angel deigns to add life-coaching to his remit. We are offered a play-off with the local team now deemed level with us. Some of them think we protest too much.
This is surreal. We have gone from Coleridge to Kafka’s Castle.
We elect to play on. We win, and then win again. But Lace and Manc sustain knocks. Chances go begging in the final and even Disco can do nothing about a couple of fine strikes.
The post adrenaline phase kicks in after two hours or so of playing. I find myself with the bechained mayor and another of similar provenance. We discuss the psychosomatic implications of occasions like this. They compliment the huge bag on my shoulder that my wife quilted; my football, even. And then I am in an ethereal participant observation study of ceremonials.
There is a squall of monsoonal rain over the M40 that I am watching through half closed eyes. At the end of this day it is felt that we can kick on in these games, which are not of two halves.
Whatever. I know I’ll be kicking on.