September 20th, 2020
FootballSocial status at primary school was dictated primarily by your skill on the playground at break times and lunch when the ball was brought out, teams picked, and the outside world forgotten as nobody passed and everyone crowded round and kicked each other in the shins a lot. The two captains were the same every time, and they formed their teams over the years, with the same second-in-command, the weaker players sometimes swapping to make up the numbers. Loyalty to one captain or the other went hand-in-hand with Premier League support, the class split roughly down the middle between Liverpool and Manchester United. Owen Benson lead the Scouse division, and was widely recognised as the best footballer in the school, captaining his side with a mature sharing ethos, rarely going for goal unless the boys needed a boost. His number two was a mousy boy with simple features and a knack for maths that made his sporting ability something of a surprise. On the Manchester side was Adam Campbell, whose best-friend had betrayed him for the Liverpool side. Billy's dad had come home one day to find him sitting dewy eyed at the computer, watching highlight reels of Keane and Scholes, unconsciously mouthing the name of the newly signed nineteen year old Wayne Rooney. A swift lesson in Anfield's hard-earned respect and Gerrard's position as the greatest midfielder to ever grace the green grass of Merseyside set the impressionable ten-year-old straight. The next day he sat on his own at break time with his head held in his hands, contemplating the complexities of his position. At lunch he was approached by Adam who sat next to him. What's wrong, he said. I can't be your friend anymore, replied a tearful, Billy. Because… Your dad… Yeah. That's okay, we can still be friends. Really? Hope gleaming in his liver bird eyes. Yes. You'll have to ask Owen if you can be on his team today. They hugged it out, knowing that's what men did, and a passing teacher glowed with pride. Tom was in the middle, with one other who decided to support Arsenal based on no factual or familial allegiance but an appreciation for burgundy kit that the Gunners wore for one season only, commemorating a picture of the 1913 Woolwich side whose simple round neck sweaters were distinctly purple. Colour and unmatchable success that is, though at the time they hadn't heard the term 'glory supporter' and were simply in awe of Henry and Vieira, and the way the two Frenchman stared down the barrel of Abramovich's New Chelsea and walked through with time to spare (though the victory would be short-lived). Sitting where they did between the midlands teams, Tom and his trusty sidekick worked as the unbiased arbitrators when the two rival factions went to war, which was most, if not all lunchtimes, most break times and quite often at the park after school as well. Switching sides every other day Tom would keep the peace, making sure teams were picked with kindness and parity. If ability was always number one, when the teams started being set, presence was number two. Sheer size and ferocity for the ball. Bigger boys were picked over smaller because they were better, at least until the Messis began to shine through from the Ronaldos and the lighter, more deft footwork of the diminutive figures proved too much for the clumsy strength that had meant sporting victory in the lower years. Owen's number two personified this ability, having always had the trust of his captain but never being truly understood by the others until one afternoon he went goal to goal with a glue-like touch, sending bodies flying without making contact, slipping the ball through the posts to the wild surprise and applause of his team, and a satisfied thump on the back from the captain. In Year 6 things changed. By permission of the assistant headteacher, and on the proviso that if anyone got hurt then it would be taken away, the use of hard balls was given. The upgrade was from the soft, foam that swung erratically in the wind, and only went so far no matter how much power you put into it before it drooped and bumped lazily around on the floor. A common trick with the soft balls was to simply stand on it if you were being tackled, which often lead to a mass foot scraping of boys trying to drag the ball out from under the central shoe, pulling chunks out of the foam until it started to resemble a half-eaten apple, and bounced unpredictably, one half being smooth and spherical, the other being a broken mass of miniature mountains. With the hard, leather balls came real skill. Passing was suddenly possible, as well as more intricate tricks and shots. The danger of injured hands meant the goalies started to bring gloves, moving from a monkey-rush system of whoever was nearest to a few set keepers who would rotate if someone got bored when their team was winning. Generally though, games were end to end, everyone getting stuck in, booting the ball in all directions, taking shots from corners, arguing over handball or ball-to-hand, falling out and fighting, being kept in at break, and generally coming home with more scrapes and bruises than when you left. One day a girl asked to play. An inclining of roles being broken was in the air but nobody could really put their finger on why not, except that it had never really happened before, so she did, and was by no means the worst player out there. Football ruled the school, and when the boys got older that never went away. Sporting prowess was always a guide to how much of a man you were, and only when they started jobs and carved out a niche of their own could those boys truly feel like men.
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