The Wembley Shoot Out
A mistimed tackle on the edge of the non-existent penalty area casts a cloud over the closing stages of the Wembley doubles final, now entering its third hour of the late Sunday afternoon session.
Disputes were usually resolved by way of consensus - an entente cordial always sought, in an effort to uphold the game's integrity and play testament to the genial spirit of its participants.
“I got the fuckin ball”, I plead with Ivan Walsh, as he pulls my shirt tight round my neck.
He’s in my face - eyes wide and sweat-soaked cheeks dis-coloured with a white rage.
I look for the 'Keeper to intervene, but he's busy - sprinkling his goalmouth using a staccato spitting technique, through gritted front teeth.
“Come on then - You cropping little bastard!”, says Ivan.
Is this an actual, real-time offering out situation?
It feels like it is.
Keeper stops spitting.
Thank fuck - mediation from the only neutral observer here.
“He’s offered you out there - you can’t just do nothing”.
I tell them I can’t.
That I have to be in at five for my tea.
It’s debatable whether it was even a proper foul.
But there was a boundary crossed - impossible to return from.
Eleven-year-olds don’t foul thirteen-year-olds without consequences.
He’d already objected to me wearing mouldies, and refused his request for a goal start to balance things up.
“The Juniors yard - half six”, says Ivan, as he lets go of my shirt and walks off,
My stomach is on intensive spin cycle.
I didn’t agree to anything here - Was this a joke?
“He’s not joking”, says Keeper,
“He’s pretty hard too.
So’s his Dad. I’ll knock on after tea - Just to make sure you don’t shit out”.
Death was the first thing in my head.
He could kill me in a painful prolonged death.
Worse - the tag of 'shitbag' could last for years and years.
A non-appearance would definitely be worse than death.
I push the peas into my mashed potato, burying them as if caught in an arctic snow drift, then proceed to dig them out one by one in a fork-driven, rescue mission.
“If you don't stop playing with your food, you’re not going out after tea”, says Mum, collecting the empty plates from the table.
“You’ve not spoke since you came in,” says older brother.
“I’ve got to have a fight after tea”.
“Is that it?” says brother,
“Well, I haven’t had one before, not a proper one like this”.
Brother closes the door and moves the chairs to the side of the room.
I told him he didn't understand.
That the lad was thirteen, big, - and his Dad was hard too.
But brother wasn’t listening.
He stands opposite - then grabs my hair with his left fist.
In a single movement, my head is yanked down towards his rising foot, stopping millimeters from my face.
“Just do that”, he says, “And keep doing it."
“Is this martial arts?” I ask.
He tells me it’s not.
The roles are then swapped for a dummy run and brother adapts, by kneeling as I can't reach the top of his head.
“What if ..I don’t want to fight him?”
“Oh, will you stop being such a mard-arse”, he says, then leaves on realising The Wonder Years is about to start on the front room TV.
I wonder what Kevin Arnold would do - having to fight a lad he’s shit scared of, all played out to a Buffalo Springfield track whilst he learns an invaluable life lesson?
I'd have fought Mike Tyson if Winnie Cooper was waiting for me back at home.
The door is shoved open and Mum enquires as to why the chairs are out of place then answers her own interrogation in a mumbled protest.
“He’s having a fight after tea”, calls brother.
“Home at half seven latest”, says Mum and returns to the kitchen, as Joe Cocker’s fervent cries from the front room TV, remind me I could really do with a little help from my friends.
“Can’t wait for this”, says Keeper as we climb through the railings of the school car park.
Across the infant's playground, dotted with faded hopscotch grids and the painted footprints leading to the litter bin dangling from the boy's toilet wall.
“Should've kept your mouldies on”, he says,
“a secret weapon - just like James Bond!”
Was it left hand-right foot, or right hand-left foot - i can’t seem to remember which.
We climb under the wire mesh fence separating the infants and junior playgrounds like an international border, crossing into hostile territory.
There’d been scuffles at school before but never an unlicensed, bare-knuckle, no-Queensberry-rules, no-dinner-ladies-to-intervene bout like this one.
Ivan had changed his t-shirt.
Must be his fighting top.
His lucky top he never lost in, a yellow, le-coq-Sportif job with a hoop around the chest.
“Didn’t think you’d come,” he says, “you cropping little bastard”,
“He’s shitting bricks”, says Keeper.
“No I’m not”, I say.
How did Ivan stay so angry for so long?
His face was still that weird white shade and spoke with both fists firmly clenched.
There was no need to wait for a bell to ring.
No ‘seconds out’ announcement.
A firm, hard crack to the cheek told me that we'd started.
My eyes start to leak, as the aftershock fights to escape my frozen frame, releasing itself in a high-pitched ear-fuzz, and dousing the inside of my mouth in a metallic tang.
“Your lips bleeding,” says Keeper.
“Have you had enough?” says Ivan, and comes closer to inspect the inflicted damage.
“I said, have you had….”
It was left hand-right foot.
Arm in full lock position.
Three full kicks then, I lose count.
I think of James Bond - if he'd ever cried whilst battling a North Korean assassin.
I guessed he hadn’t, but I do.
Furious, glorious tears.
Ivan falls to his knees.
And only then - I let him go.
Both nostrils are bleeding far down into his mouth and he tries to quell the stream on his top.
Not such a lucky shirt tonight then, Mr le-coq-Sportif.
I see both lips quivering, as he rises from the floor, those stone-white cheeks now flushing into pink.
Once this got out - he’d be finished.
Battered by a kid two years younger than him and all with a corroborating witness present too.
What about his Dad?
He’s supposed to have punched a bus driver once.
No one ever knew why.
Ivan would've brought shame on the family.
Retribution would be coming directly my way, in a twisted cycle of revenge.
Fireworks shot into the garden, silent phone calls in the middle of the night- it could go on for years.
The disgrace would dictate that no less would do.
There was only one way out.
“I’m feeling dizzy”, I say, raising a hand to my cheek,
“Me face - its gone all numb".
“You mean you can’t carry on?” says keeper.
Ivan stops dabbing the blood from his face.
“You mean…..you’ve had enough?”
I nod in silent confirmation.
“So don’t ever crop me again, right?”
“Or the same thing will happen, right?”
I nod again, as he stretches his blood-splattered shirt back to his face, before turning away to crawl under the wire fence of the junior's playground, before disappearing out of sight.
It's a performance, even Kevin Arnold would've been proud of.
I watch Keeper.
He's shadowboxing his reflection in the window of the second-year corridor, still wearing his goalie gloves.
There's no corroborating witnesses now, and not a dinner lady for miles.
"Why you staring at me like that?" he says, and takes slow steps backward towards the wire fence.
t'd be quick - he wouldn't even see it coming.
"It's not my fault”, he says, "you quit - you lose. That's the rule."
Oh, he's getting it all right.
But not today.
The adrenaline is melting to an opiate haze and I watch the breeze unravel a nest of blonde hair from my fingers, sending it tumbling into the evening shadows.
Today - losing doesn't taste that bad.