One by one we stepped of the bus after a comfortable nap on the red beds situated at the end of the bus. I was last to get off, I had a feeling of perpetual tiredness in my legs, I felt shaky and nervous. At first I couldn’t think about what I was going to do on the pitch, all I thought about was after the match. As we walked down the tunnel, I saw framed pictures of legends such as Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and Eric Cantona. The sense of ‘I could be one of them’ filled my empty head full of impossible thoughts. The tunnel was painted red and white, our home colours, the colours of victory.
It was very long; all you could see in the darkness was the grass at the end of the tunnel like little green spikes they stuck out of the ground with light catching glimpse of their strong straight body. The smell of the hazy grass from down the tunnel went up my nose and soon reached my brain to intensify my nerves even more. It was quite a walk down to the home changing rooms. On the way I was greeted by many enthusiastic fans but instead of helping me, this made me even shakier and plunge further into my lethargy. I couldn’t understand this as I had just had a two-hour nap.
I silently entered the freezing cold changing rooms, which were supposedly painted white to give each player a calm feeling, checked my watch and looked around. I felt numb, the feeling of expectation had got to me, the blood in my body began to freeze and I couldn’t hear anything. After a few moments the gaffer put his arms around me and I came out of my mood. All the players were lively, each one getting changed, concentrating on their own thoughts and weird pre-match rituals and superstitions. All focused on the one thing that really mattered; winning.
When everyone was ready, the gaffer started talking. He said that we be should our best and all other things a managers says to make their players comfortable. To be honest with you I wasn’t listening somehow the things he said just went into one ear and out of the other like an elephant talking to a cat. All I listened to was the roars and scream of the passionate fans waiting who started on their usual tones. I think the gaffer new I wasn’t concentrating. He suddenly walked towards me and patted me on the back with his warm, big-palmed hands. As he did this I felt a big burden on my back.
I felt as If I was carrying a big box full of millions of hopes and desires. As we walked out of the changing rooms we were joined by the away team, who all looked irregular. I was the captain for today so I was at the front of the team. The captain for the away team looked serious; he was tall with broad shoulders, had scruffy black hair, had a cold white face like a newly chilled corpse and stank of rubber. Funny I heard he had two left feet. Now adrenaline had kicked in and excitement had begun. We started slowly walking out to the stadium and soon we got faster and faster until we were jogging.
The crowd was ecstatic. The stadium was jam-packed and all I could see was a sea of flashing bulbs from the photographers. The crowd started chanting my name and soon a feeling of nausea from the grass hit me hard. I walked slowly to the centre circle, with the ball at my feet. I looked at the other team, they all looked serious and some looked at me with spite. All of their players were bigger than us; almost Herculean in stature, most of them had short black hair and muscled legs like an army of action-man dolls. I took my feet off the ball and put my worn out boots into the soft, sturdy green grass.
Everyone was in their positions and the whistle was blown, we were off… The whistle went and it was half time, we were 2-0 down and everybody was disappointed. In the changing rooms, it was very quiet. Not really because of anyone but because of our performance, we were being stuffed. No-one was talking. The gaffer didn’t lay into us. He didn’t have to. We all knew we were playing rubbish. It was now going to be like a cat and mouse chase. The expression on each players face said it all really. I was just thinking of what I was going to do. Could I pull it off? Could I do the unimaginary?
Could I….. I couldn’t understand why we were playing so badly but I had an epiphany, it must be because of their lazy useless captain not giving enough support…. me! I was going to pull it off I told myself. I was going to do the unimaginary. I was going to… I gave a huge shout of encouragement to all the players like a commander rallying his weary troops. I slowly turned my head to face the other team. They all looked happy, as if this was a stroll in the park, as if they thought it was all wrapped up, as if they thought they had me all worked out, but had they?
The whistle blew once more and we were off… It was the 80th minute and we scored. It was better late than never. The ball rattled the net, and bounced on the floor a few times like a bouncy ball waiting to be caught. The crowd went mad. The player, who scored, picked up the ball after a little melee with the goalie who tried to stop him. He jogged back to the centre circle with the ball, with one hand in the air, appreciating the support the fans were giving him. The whistle was blown once more and we were off again… The final whistle went it was 2-2. We scored in the last dying seconds of the match.
All content with ourselves we trudged off to the gaffer and sat down on the pitch. I still couldn’t get my head around the smell of the grass, warm and comforting like high summers. The gaffer sent all the coaches to massage the life back to our limbs. I could see that even the fans were tired, hoarse and emotional from their unswerving enthusiasm, as most of their voices had now gone from all the shouting, but I guessed it had helped as we were still in this match. Now the tables had turned, as I looked at the other team, they were all tired and didn’t have a grin on their face any more.
The whistle was blown louder than before this time and again we kicked-off… Extra-time ended and scores were still 2-2 and everyone looked dead beat. We kept looking at the referee as we just wanted this to end. We were under pressure and running scared. Many times I thought it might be over but I still kept my head held high as I thought I had done a pretty good job, being the captain of a previously sinking ship, though with my skill, we had avoided the metaphorical iceberg. As we were walking back to the referee, the players had their heads down, as if they were out of this.
I guess this was mostly because of what was to follow, penalties! The gaffer had a little notebook and pencil in his hand as he was going round asking each player if they wanted to take a penalty, it reminded me of what had happened last time I was here. Most of them just stood still and were too shocked and scared to say anything. Although he never came around to me, I was on the list. I guess I had to take one, or be blamed if we lost. They missed one and scored the rest, we had scored all our penalties up to now.
Their fans had now got restless and started booing their own team; it showed how fickle 56,000 fans can be in times of need. Their manager looked disappointed, for all the training they had put in, wasn’t going to help. One more player was left to take a penalty… me, if it went in, we won, and if it didn’t then more penalties would follow. I slowly started making my way to the ball. Half way, I stalled, I stood still but it seemed time had stood still. This time there was no-one near to put their arms around me to help me to come out of this mood again.
My whole body froze and cold chills were sent to my brain. I looked forward and all I could see was the goalie looking nervous, billboards gaudily advertising a shirt brand and the thousands of faceless fans. Fans were screaming and shouting my name, I felt proud to be leading my team. My boots were frozen into the soft ground. No blood was felt at my toes and my knees were giving way as if my fit and tones body had been replaced by an arthritic and wizened shell. I couldn’t stand any longer. There was no life left in my body. I was nervous; I was scared as I was remembering the last penalty shoot-outs.
I had walked steadily to the ball and had concentrated on where I was going to kick it. The goalkeeper had gone the right way and my shot was stopped to the delight of the away supporters. They had won the cup. This was the same match, the same cup, the same away team, but would it be the same outcome. I returned to the present. My stomach was still frozen searching for any water left in my parched body, any lifeline left to give, any blood left to melt. My neck wouldn’t twitch and my Adams apple felt frozen, I couldn’t speak as my mouth was so dry that I felt my lips were being savaged off.
My head was stiff; my face was pure cold white and my brain full of ghastly thoughts (I still couldn’t get over what had happened the last time I was here). The fans started making their voices heard even more by intensifying the stadium with their passion, something not many people can give, something only a true fan possesses. Nerve receptors in my body didn’t know which way to flow and no warm blood could be felt anywhere around my body except my ears. Even they wouldn’t twitch, only the sound of screaming entered my ears, the sound I had heard many times throughout my lifetime.
As a child I was abused by my violent father, who beat me every time I lost a match. That’s why football is my life. It has always meant everything! I would scream in my bedroom but my mother was too scared to do anything about it, she too couldn’t stand in my father’s way. It took me until I was sixteen to stand up to him and kick him out of the house. I was bullied in school for not having a father, for not having many friends, for not having any football talent. I used to be called ‘footballer wannabe’; this infuriated me so much that all I concentrated on throughout my school years was football.
And now what can those measly kids say to me, captain of a famous team, playing in a cup-final. Again my mind returned to the present. My body still stalled me, I didn’t know what to do, either to let my knees give way, or stand there waiting for a lifeline to be found from the empty abyss…… Suddenly I heard the gaffer shout ‘come on ma lad, you can do it’. I woke of this terrible moment and blood started to flow again around my body. I coolly walked up to the ball, stepped back a few paces and ran as fast as I could towards the ball, hit it as hard as possible and stare. The ball rotated in mid-air and travelled towards the goal…..
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