A Fairy Tale On A Field

March 1, 2014 11:30 am

Sometimes reminiscence can bring out romance. Headers and Volleys is that rarest of things: a game which, in my mind, has lost neither appeal nor excitement despite the often diminishing effects of time. Playing at the age of 23 still felt as it did at 13.

Soccer Flight

All those afternoons and early evenings merge quite happily into one. The day is almost always a balmy one; those rare July afternoons when each and every person seemed to be outside, or travelling in convoy somewhere to clutch and grasp at each moment of sun they could lay their paws on. Waking up late was simply a sin.

I would jump into my car , the febrile freighter and head into the near-by town to collect my friends.  A cynic could suggest I was merely an underpaid taxi driver-a medium of transportation; but to my mind I was tasked with responsibility. To round up this unruly rabble of troops and deliver us all to a mission that promised so much.

The journey was rarely a smooth one, with tardiness and disorder frequent, but as the car gradually filled, my  now weighted wagon emerged from the oppressive urban heat on the other side of the town with a band of boisterous brothers inside it. Spirits now as high as the glowering sun above.

Pulling up to the field, doors sprang open and legs, arms and heads tumbled outwards. Each member would briefly entertain a moment of solitary focus, replacing trainers with boots, some even making the contentious decision to play in a pair of old Vans.

The ball was suddenly sprung from its cage, the car boot, where it had been kept in captivity for so long. Its freedom would always evoke in me an excited, impulsive impatience to feel it at my feet; and to have my first crack at the holy posts. The light passions found in the simplicity of playing games in our youth would emerge from the deepest, forgotten parts of our soul. Heavier burdens were pushed aside.

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What would follow would be a couple of hours of delightful detachment, immersed within those typically satisfying sounds of summer. The comforting low hum of the cruising drifters circling above; in the distance, a chugging, spluttering lawn mower hard at task; sporadic screams and shouts of playful children in the gardens of the nearby houses. Voices not to be alone for long.

Headers and Volleys is a game of understated simplicity despite rules differing dependent on location. The infamous Aylesbury-accredited format had each competitor beginning on 5 lives, aside from the person beginning in goal, who began on 6. The starting goalkeeper would be initially determined by closest to the crossbar. Once the game began, if you missed with your shot, or were caught from a volley you would take position between the sticks.

Conceding a ‘clean’ goal (one which did not bounce before going in) would lose you one life. Various other small rules made themselves clear as the game progressed. Just as in reality, losing your life would result in death. Or at least, the closest translation in football terms. The ambiguously named and mysteriously spelt, ‘Tannins’; a word that has struck fear into the hearts of greater men than this one. It involves standing in the goal with your face towards the net, buttocks and back exposed to the unforgiving elements.

Everyone would then take it in turns to do all they could with boot and ball to leave a lasting impression on you.  Stinging calves or burning thighs often left brave eyes wincing.  The agonising seconds as you braced yourself for your punishment was often maliciously extended in a poignant return to schoolboy schadenfreude.

The game began and each and everyone seemed instantly charged by an almost tangible electricity. Lethargy was a foreign thought. We buzzed and bounced around the area surrounding the goal, the ball flying this way and that. Our minds remained blissfully focused on one thing- the scoring of a legitimate goal.

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Yet perhaps more important was the attempted composition of a move of unprecedented choreography and elegance;  when middling footballers became dancers working in sync, and a unique moment of art. A pursuit of perfection that felt perennially close to our grasp.

The goalkeeper would change regularly, of course. Murky memories would mislead us towards visions of recreating a teenage grandeur. But as is often the way in the remembrance of a past glory,  plentiful flaws emerged in the bright light. There were drags, balloons, bobbles, scuffs, slices, shanks. At times, I was grateful that nobody’s eyes had had the misfortune on resting themselves on this blundering bunch.

Yet whilst attempting the impossible would inevitably lead to mistakes, amidst the admitted rustiness there were flashes of brilliance that made each 15 mishits worthwhile. Acrobatic overhead kicks, bullet headers and 20 yard screamers.

Team moves that left every member with a renewed vigour, a burst of satisfaction, as shouts and cries erupted. Without the aid of video replays, it was only fleeting evanescent moments that stuck- yet ones that would go down in local folklore. Legend that we would happily allow to warp and distort with the favour of time.

The best games would bring themselves to the boil in a fashion that would seem almost scripted were it not for its impossible unpredictability.  After an hour or so of play, the tumultuous ebb and flow would often leave two or three competitors on either the dreaded doggy, or 1. Now tension was rife, as a mixture of fear and adrenalin led the performers into the last act.  There would be no more hopeful smashes or audacious flicks. A cheeky header? Unthinkable. A mistake now would put you in trouble. And now the goalkeeper was transformed as the consequences of conceding became painfully clear.

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Several times, saves were pulled off defeating the laws of physics. We stood there on a tightrope between death and glory. If we could just find the courage to have a crack and score, elation would follow. But fluff your lines and your heart would plummet towards the grass beneath you as you trudged to the goal.  This was when the game truly came into its own: a compelling drama in its own right.

The final blow would eventually land, and the curtain would fall as punishment was mercilessly served. We were now a little tired and weary,  but as we made our way back to the car, there was often a perceivable spring in our step. Warm endorphins swam from our feet towards our hearts and minds, as bonds felt inherently strengthened.

It was unspoken, but it was a warm and reassuring buzz. An hour or so of blissful separation from the vigours of reality and a return to activity; a football fairy-tale of childhood that can be relived every summer. One summer romance that lasts.

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