Rainy Days and Sundays
Hough end is an oasis of green straddling Chorlton and Didsbury and home to many of the City of Manchester Sunday League Teams from the 1990s.
Before ground sharing was derided by fans when briefly touted around the country, Hough end was Manchester’s very own San Siro as you could play home and away yet still on the same pitch, with home advantage defined only by which team put the nets up.
There were upwards of 20 football fields laid out in grid formation parallel to Southern Cemetery, with a couple set aside for Galic football at Mauldeth Road end.
Before becoming the ‘Hough End Leisure Centre’ it is today, the changing facilities were a concrete myriad of cul-de-sacs, leading to wings of cell like rooms for the masses of amateur players gathering on any given weekend.
It could be a bright, clear September morning yet the further away you found yourself from the communal changing rooms, the more the weather could turn as if passing the Cape of Good Hope, coming away with colds, chest infections and sore throats after 90 minutes played in the mini sub climate.
If it was lightly raining as you came down Princess Road, it was guaranteed there’d be an arctic storm out on fields 16 – 20.
That February was unforgiving.
The pitch allocation was posted as normal on the sheet pinned up outside the changing room and Times Square FC were assigned to pitch 17.
Approaching the designated field, rain began to angle into our eyes, as the wind changed direction at will, meaning there would be no let up in either half of play.
Four spectators turned up, including Andy C whose passing interest in football was really a distraction to his main predilection of smoking weed.
There’d been other pass times over the years to which Andy had turned his hand with golf and fishing both embraced with the common denominator being that they both facilitated his pot smoking - as did his latest foray; being a follower of Times Square FC.
The day required desperate measures and a white Fiat Panda used to transport some of the team would have to be used as an impromptu, mobile executive suit and took on the perilous drive across to pitchside.
The biggest problem for any Sunday League manager was getting everyone to turn up and with our league kicking off at two on a Sunday afternoon, no shows were common.
It was also the 1990s and nights out tended to stretch into Sunday for many, or even Monday for a couple.
We were two players short of the bare eleven, which meant we could’ve been playing St Winifreds school choir and still struggled to get a draw.
Originally we only had eight, but had spent the morning successfully hunting down our centre forward.
Scott V had agreed to be picked up at half twelve, as was the usual drill for home games (and most away), where his mum gave a flawless performance trying to obstruct the quest to locate our star striker.
Like a time served villain, she went no comment all the way with a glint of knowing in her eyes.
A Columbo style curve ball managed to catch her off guard as we were about to leave just when she thought the job was done and he’d remain whereabouts unknown,
“Has he got his footy stuff Mrs V?”
With a half arsed look over her shoulder she shrugged,
“I think so? I’m not sure.”
That was enough.
We all knew too well where he would be, so went round to his girlfriends, knocking on like four angry parents, marching from the highest of moral high ground.
Scott appeared from a half open bedroom window with a blonde head seductively appearing over his shoulder.
Buttoning up his short sleeved shirt, a look of panic flashed in his eyes, as his day’s plans began to crumble,
“I thought it was called off?”
In that second, the four of us reached a silent consensus as his girlfriend became the most desirable female on the planet and would’ve all donated minor body parts to trade places with him.
In the age-old conflict of ‘Mates v Bird’ - ‘Bird’ historically always wins, but not today - if we had to play, so did he.
“No it’s not fuckin called off..You're playing!”
“But I haven’t got my boots”,
Scott pleaded with the desperation of a condemned man, but there was no going back.
“Well yer mam says you have, so stop fucking about”.
The curtains closed, as the two love birds debated the implications of him choosing to vacate a parent-less house in exchange to play football with his mates.
Scott shuffled down the garden path like a WW1 Tommy returning to Flanders, leaving the dressing-gown-clad blonde, avoiding all eye contact as she closed the door in silence behind him.
The passengers made sure he was well tucked up in the retreat of the damned, the middle of the back seat, well flanked in case of a last minute change of heart.
The disgust at someone prepared to let their mates down hung heavy in the car manifesting itself by way of deafening silence, only broken by Scott eventually offering mitigation,
“I just turned down an afternoon of pleasure for today”.
Our Player/Manager/driver almost swallowed his Embassy no 1 at the thought of him even considering it.
Everyone in the car knew what was coming.
“Are you fuckin serious?”
A bollocking through a rearview mirror has an added element of drama, with the recipient transported back to childhood car journeys, as was Scott, sat staring in silence at the floor as ranting eyes flashed at him in spurts from the mirror.
“I can’t believe you even thought about it! You got a match today and you want to spend the afternoon shaggin some bird? What’s wrong with you?”
Being two men down, the pre match team talk was dominated by what options were available to avoid the inevitable drubbing facing us.
A solution came by way of the cloud of smoke creeping from the barely open window of the steamed up Fiat Panda.
Andy was wrapped in wooly hat and bubble coat, finishing off his bifter as the passenger door was opened from the outside.
“You’re playing mate”.
Initially thinking this was a joke, he responded by nervously laughing back at the arc of wet faces in the style of Sesame Street’s Dracula, before realising no one else was.
He was in no state to put up any resistance, and was at that ‘highly suggestable’ level of being stoned whereby literally anything sounds like it could be a bit of a buzz.
Our keeper came up with a genius plan to wear his trainers so as to free up a pair of boots, and spare kit supplied from the bits set aside from the two no-shows.
No socks though.
Andy would have to embark on his first eleven-a-side football game in his 22 years on earth, wearing size 11 boots accompanied by the navy blue trainer socks he’d turned up in.
“Play up front, where you can’t do any damage”,
was his pre match technical instruction, with Scott making way and elected to play in the hole - the only one he’d end up coming close to for the rest of that week.
As the match got underway, the referee caused much confusion on either side as he turned up sporting a combo of socks, boots, then another pair of socks over the top of the boots.
When quizzed on his freakish choice of footwear, replied as if the only thing wrong was the fact no one else had caught on, explaining “Its cos of the weather”.
As wind blew the rain up into our eyes the match kicked off and our new centre forward patrolled the opposition half resembling a cat manoeuvring along a panel fence.
Every step was thought out as if it would require explanation at some point in future and executed with a running style where both arms remained in a parallel position, slightly advanced to his body.
The match was an exercise in survival.
Simple 10 yard passes would stick half way to their intended recipient, leaving both teams to fight it out for the loose ball.
A slide tackle could be damaging for all involved, as every drop of strength was required to free yourself from the unforgiving mud surface.
A giant puddle took up an area between the centre circle and penalty area in one half, which after a scene resembling It’s a Knockout early on, a verbal agreement was made;
if the ball entered, one player would retrieve it unchallenged, then play on.
Andy undertook some learning points too, especially the one about not being able to enter the penalty area before an opposition goal kick is taken, but made up for it by taking a textbook throw-in.
As both teams laboured into the second half, a ball was swept towards the opposition left full back as the wind assisted pass went over his head.
Our winger pursued, also wind assisted, and found himself round the back of the defence in perfect crossing position.
There’d be no way it would reach the danger area so dribbled from the corner flag, then whacked in a low hard cross, directed towards the six yard line.
The ball was losing impetus with every inch, but still threw the defence into a frenzy with both keeper and centre back reacting like a pair of farmyard chickens, hearing a dog bark.
They collided, ending up face down at the six yard box corner, magically avoiding any contact with the quickly decelerating ball.
Over the past 70 mins or so, Andy's positional sense had been honed to a fine degree as he was there waiting like a jungle cat to capitalise on this catalogue of errors.
His nine team mates held their breath willing him to bury it and become the hero, anticipating the net to bulge any second.
With eyes already looking skywards, he connected, lifting his shot delicately over the crossbar of the vast empty goal in front of him.
All in the same movement, he turned back towards the edge of the centre circle, still as if pushing an invisible wheel barrow.
The phrase ‘It was easier to score’ has become a cliche to partner great misses in football but this really was.
The team were desolate for Andy, wishing he’d got the reward for stepping up, but at least he’d got the hang of what to do at a goal kick now.
The final whistle came, ending what seemed like a short half, with the referee showing a clean pair of sock heels, immediately legging it straight back to the dressing rooms through the rain.
The only possible explanation being that he’d forgotten to stop his watch during half time, subsequently ending the game ten mins short.
No one said a word of complaint.
Goalless draws are a rarity in amateur football, but there’d been victories that didn’t feel as satisfying as this.
Leaving the changing rooms en route home, the myth rang true as the rain stopped and the wind eased as the cars queued to exit back onto Princess Road.
Passing the bus stop, a strange figure caught the eye.
Dressed in a blue mac, a familiar looking man stood holding a plastic carrier bag, looking like he’d no shoes on, with feet disturbingly swollen under his black socks.
The ref had arrived too early for his bus.