By Steve Price
After being forced to leave FC Barcelona, Tony Matthews is struggling to find a new club. He has been out of the game for nine months and has lost his touch. The only team that will give him a chance is Trentside Rovers, a group of players who, like Matthews have been rejected by bigger sides. If they can impress the scouts, then they might just make it to the big time. If not, then their football careers will be over.
“Welcome to England, mate,” said Number Four. Tony Matthews looked up from the muddy hole that he had been pushed in. It was definitely a foul. His leg ached; a bruise would appear on it the next day. Number Four was looking down at him, sneering.
“Stop whining and get back up,” came a shout from the touchline. The Gaffer and his assistant were shaking their heads, presumably at Matthews’ ineptitude. He got back up, slightly limping, and hobbled back into position. What had happened to his touch over the last nine months? He used to be good at this game. Used to… He picked up the ball from Number Six and tried a long diagonal pass to the winger. It was over-hit and went out of play. The ball rolled all the way to the barbed wire fence that separated the pitch from the coal power plant looming beyond, one of the largest in Europe, the white steam from its dozen cooling towers mixing with the overcast sky above. Tony Matthews wasn’t in sunny Barcelona anymore.
The throw-in was long. Matthews jumped with the Number Seven to try and get on the end of it, but his lack of upper-body strength showed. He could hear the sighs and groans of the Gaffer as Number Seven took control of the ball. Number Seven passed it to Number Ten, James Hooper, who saw the ‘keeper slightly off his line and exquisitely chipped the ball over him from twenty-five yards. The ‘keeper, a short lad for the position, stretched his body beyond belief and managed to get a fingertip to it, but it wasn’t enough to stop the ball ending up in the back of the net.
James Hooper ran to the touchline where three girls were cheering him on. Dolled-up in make-up and lipstick, and standing in stiletto heels on the one patch of ground that wasn’t completely mud, their high pitched screams when Hooper scored pierced the countryside air. Hooper did some fancy celebration in front of them, they jumped up and down like they were at a pop concert, waving their pink and white banner that said ‘WE LUV U JAMIE’. Hooper smiled his perfect white smile, straightened his hair, and jogged back to the center circle, still grinning. The goalkeeper took out his anger at being humiliated by screaming at Matthews.
“Piss off back to Spain, you’re useless,” shouted the ‘keeper.
“Shut up Finlay,” shouted Number Six on Matthews’ behalf, “Even my gran would’ve saved that shot.”
Tony Matthews gave Number Six a look of thanks, but he was starting to think that Finlay was half right. In Spain his pass had never let him down. Was it the English weather? Nine months without football? Homesickness? Could he even call Spain ‘home’? He thought back to his time at La Masia when he was the next big thing - the ‘English Messi’. Days spent training with some of the best young footballers in the world. The foothills of the Pyrenees as a sun-kissed backdrop. Heaven on earth. How he loved pulling on that famous blue and red shirt.
Just then, Number Five started swearing and scratching at his shorts. His discomfort was enough to make everyone lose focus on the game.
“Hey Dave, you Muppet,” said Number Four, Vince Goodwin, trying to keep his hysterics in until he could finish his line, “Did you catch something from that slag you were with the other night?”
Number Five inspected his underwear.
“Itching powder again, what’s wrong with you Vince?” he said.
Goodwin couldn’t respond, he was too busy laughing his guts out.
A scream came from Hooper’s fan girls. A different kind of scream than before. Matthews turned around and saw that Dave Bryan had removed his itchy underwear and was now chasing Vince Goodwin around the pitch like a streaker, his balls swinging in the wind as he ran, and his arse bright red from the itching powder. Dave tripped up Number Four, jumped on top of him, and put the itchy underwear on his head. The other players jumped on top of the pair and Vince Goodwin’s muffled screams were only stopped when the gaffer blew his whistle to break the group up.
“Mate, you’re sick,” said Vince, “Do you ever change your pants?”
The match restarted with Dave Bryan commando underneath his shorts, his pants in a muddy puddle on the touchline. Tony Matthews could hardly belief what he had just witnessed. This team seemed more like a madhouse than anything else. The ball came to him again, and he controlled it with a perfect touch before a large thump on his back knocked him down, face-first, into the mud again.
“Welcome to England, indeed,” he thought.
The assistant blew for the end of the training match and the players made their way towards the small, rusting, corrugated-iron porta-cabins that were the team’s dressing room, shower room, and manager’s office all rolled into one. Most of the banter was about Dave Bryan’s underwear, which was now completely brown with mud. Tony Matthews walked slowly behind the rest of the players. His mind was on other things.
“Wait a moment,” said the Gaffer, putting his arm around Matthews’ shoulder, “I want a talk with you in private.”
Tony knew he hadn’t played well, he didn’t need an earful from the Gaffer too.
“Look, me and Hancock know you have the technical ability, he saw it himself when he found you at La Masia. You were a bit rusty today, but nine months without playing does that to anybody. My main concern is how you let yourself get bullied around out there.”
Matthews dropped his head, he wanted to say how in Spain there were no hard tackles, no elbows from behind when the ref isn’t looking…
“Put it simply, you won’t make it in English football unless you toughen up. You need to hit the gym, and you need to change your mentality. No matter how good you are on the ball, if you’re a pushover, none of the big clubs will touch you.”
It was good advice, but right now, all Tony Matthews wanted to do was go home, watch some telly, and forget about his awful performance today.
Tony opened the door to a changing room full of laughter and joking. He stripped down and went into the shower room without thinking twice. He then looked across the water-covered shower floor and saw a pile of wet clothes; his clothes.
“Don’t worry,” laughed Vince Goodwin, “I’m sure the Spanish sun will dry them off in no time.”
The rest of the changing room burst out in laughter.
“Your kit’s soaked too,” said Number Five, “Looks like you’ll be going home naked, just like on those nudist beaches.”
The bad jokes kept coming. Matthews tried his best to ignore them as he washed the mud off his skinny body, his Spanish tan was already starting to fade. The cold shower water mixed with the mud to make an ever-growing brown puddle that had already engulfed his wet clothes.
Eventually Number Six came over to him.
“I’ve got a spare T-shirt and shorts in my bag,” said Number Six, passing Tony an only partly dirty towel.
“Don’t be lame, Louis,” said Vince. Some of the other players groaned too, now that their fun was over.
“They always prank the newbies,” Louis said, “When Hoops joined, they swapped his hairspray with green spray paint, took weeks to come out.”
Some of the other players laughed at Hooper.
“Didn’t turn the ladies off though,” Hooper said.
“I heard that they were disappointed when they found out that top and tails didn’t match,” said someone else to more laughter.
“When I joined,” Louis continued, “They kept swapping my underwear for a leopard-print thong. I think they had about thirty thongs ‘cos it went on for over a month.”
Tony finished drying off, “Thanks Louis, you’re a lifesaver.”
“Think nothing of it, though I dare say some of Hooper’s fan girls will be disappointed that you are walking out of here with clothes on. Need a lift?”
“Cheers, but I’ve brought my bike,” said Tony. He then looked down the road to where he had left his bike, only to see Vince Goodwin cycling away. Cycling away on Tony’s new red bike, the bike lock lying smashed and useless on the pavement.
“Cheers for the bike, mate,” shouted Vince while sticking two fingers up at Tony.
Tony turned to Louis, “Is that offer of a lift still on?”