My new year’s resolution: to savour magic of playing as much five-a-side as possible
I look back at my list of failed New Year’s Eve resolutions with detached amusement. A few were vain attempts to improve myself (realistically, was I going to learn the harmonica or grow my own beetroot?), some reflected my concerns at the time (“I probably should touch it less, just in case it does drop off”) and as I aged others felt simple but somehow unachievable (eg 2018’s “have a shower before the school run”). My new year’s resolution for this year, however, will be achieved. Quite simply, it’s to play as much five-a-side as possible.
Like most football fans, I’ve been playing the game for as long as I can remember. I grew up with loads of kids my own age on an estate of starter homes, which – coupled with a local primary school headteacher who thought that homework damaged children – created the perfect conditions to play football every day. I commentated on the matches we played in the park, I commentated on the kickabouts played in the hall of my friend’s house: “And the ball’s taken a wicked deflection off the Yellow Pages! LOOK AT HIS FACE, JUST LOOK AT HIS FACE!” Growing up in west Wales, where to PE teachers rugby union was king and football wasn’t played in lessons, I took part in unofficial matches between schools organised by the pupils. Football’s enforced absence during the pandemic has restored my enthusiasm to these teenage levels. In fact, to levels of eagerness not seen since Ian Rush played for Juventus.
Although I never played 11-a-side Sunday League football, I did play in a competitive five-a-side league for most of my 20s. This saw levels of hostility I hadn’t expected before signing up. A bloke squared up to me during one game and said that he’d knock me out in the car park, even though I was turning out for a regional gas pipe company and he was representing the call centre of a big insurance firm – all that pent-up aggression and we weren’t even playing in one of the big utility company derbies that are so common at Tuesday night five-a-side. “It’s EDF versus British Gas here at Cardiff Powerleague, AND IT’S LIVE.” As much as I loved playing, and my mind often returns to goals I scored in those games more than 15 years ago, that very angry bloke (who signed off with the brilliantly 1960s insult of “you longhaired freak”) is a good example of what I’m trying to avoid in the games I now play in as a man in my 40s.
The right ethos is essential. I already play in one game where the attitude is perfect, but having played so little in 2020 a match a week just doesn’t feel like enough any more. If I’m asked to make up the numbers for somebody else, finding out if shinpads are usually worn is a good indicator of what the game will be like. Friends I’ve played with since primary school will confirm that I’ve never thrown myself into tackles like Bryan Robson during a World Cup group game, but at 41 I don’t want to have my tib and fib broken by some meathead from Kent who works in recruitment and no longer loves his wife. As a self-confessed luxury player (trans: genetically unable to get stuck in, a lot of what I try doesn’t come off, the talent I do have is largely unappreciated in England) I would ideally like to play with nine other people who are a laugh and slightly less good than I am, so I can score lots of goals and kid myself as I drive home that I could have played at a higher level.
This is the magic of playing football. I’ve interviewed professional footballers who haven’t kicked a ball since they retired, and yet when I kick the ball I could be 11 again. All the people I play with are the same. The only difference is that I now wear the boots my mum wouldn’t buy me in 1991 because they were too expensive, and I’ve come to accept that, age-wise, I’ve progressed from being “a senior pro” to “elder statesman of the dressing room” to “can his creaking limbs cope with one more campaign” to “club legend devastated to have contract terminated” before settling finally into the “young manager has new ideas” phase of my life.
Thankfully, I’m usually playing against people closer in age to Eddie Howe than Erling Haaland. Five-a-side is the most accessible format of the world’s most popular sport, and as football is so ubiquitous, most players have a certain degree of competence. I love riding my bike, but when I’m cycling to Tesco to buy an onion and some AAA batteries I don’t kid myself that what I’m doing is the same as Geraint Thomas gritting his teeth during the Alpe d’Huez stage of the Tour de France. But even though I know it’s not true, a goal being lashed in with your weaker foot, an intelligent lay-off to a teammate, dribbling past an off-balance full-back will make me think: ‘Yes. I am Ferenc Puskas and I somehow slipped through the net.’ And then I will trip over my own feet or the ball will bounce off my shin and I will concede that actually: ‘I think the net was probably right to let me drift off into the Irish Sea.’
I have watched too many American football documentaries where the coach will tell his young players that if they fail to make the high school play-offs, this will be the final game they ever take part in. There is no real comparable NFL equivalent to five-a-side. Thankfully though, the kind of football I like can be played into old age. If you ask me, I will play. Just don’t expect me to track back.