A good footballer requires many attributes: skill, pace, strength, courage, vision,
confidence, to name but six. There's one that often gets neglected, though:
Being able to see.
I'm short-sighted. Actually, scratch that, I'm very short-sighted. Take away my
glasses and the outside world magically disappears, replaced by this vaguely coloured,
indistinctly shaped fog. Fantastic if you fancy walking into lamp-posts for a living; less
fantastic if you're trying to play football.
(Incidentally, I've long suspected that trying to play football without being able to
see is surprisingly common - what other explanation could there possibly be for Jamie
Pollock's "beat two attackers and head the ball over the keeper" own goal last week?
"Sorry, boss-geezer, I done thought I was on the halfway line, innit.")
It was thus that I stumbled onto a north London football pitch last May, willing - if not ready -
to join the newly-formed Watford Internet Football Club for a match against Arsenal's
Cybury Gooners. Since childhood, I'd assumed that I couldn't play football to save my
life, in much the same way that most people assume they're not going to win the National
Lottery. I'd stopped trying years before, aware that fulfilling those daydreams about
winning goals for the Horns in FA Cup Finals was as likely as finding out that the moon is
made of pink blancmange.
But this was to be the re-awakening of an undiscovered football genius. After all,
how difficult could it be? I'd spend years sitting in the stands, surveying the tactics,
understanding the theories, writing about the games. I knew what to do. I'd be a
player of steel and style, vision and verve, I'd deserve to wear that yellow shirt.
Yeah, right. Such delusions lasted all of thirty seconds, the time it took for
Arsenal's left winger to suss out that the opposition right back was capable of doing nothing
more than flailing around hopelessly like a sparrow in a hurricane.
As debuts go, it was Danny Hill at Palace, only more so. Having been voluntarily
substituted in fear of injury either from irate team-mates or a sprained ego, I returned later
to scurry busily around the midfield without ever touching the ball - something that has
since become my trademark. Occasionally, the ball would fly towards me out of the afore-mentioned
fog, I'd spend several seconds attempted to focus my bewildered eyes on something other than the end of my nose and someone would nick it
off me (bastards).
We lost 5-1, somewhat unfortunately. A couple of weeks later we lost to a grumpy QPR
team by the same score, in a gale that made second half clearances come whizzing back without being
touched by the opposition. Both times, my presence on the pitch was as incongruous as
Craig Ramage in a monastery.
So there you are. The full, unabridged football career of a blind-as-a-pumpkin web site editor who
tried and failed.
Except that the tale doesn't end there. Twelve months later, a crowd of dozens saw
the Watford IFC team take on the Watford Veterans and that same web site editor was
playing against some of his heroes. Blimey.
How did that happen? Contact lenses, mainly. As previously noted, sight greatly
simplifies the game. Would Johnno be able to sweep those majestic passes out to Kennedy
on the wing if he couldn't actually see Kennedy on the wing? I suspect not.
Of course, even with strange bits of plastic shoved in my eyes, I've never swept a
majestic pass in my life - seeing is one thing, doing is another. But I have at least
managed to carve out a niche for myself - willing utility bloke, all jobs considered, no morning
kickoff too early - and the fact that I'm still not regarded as a total liability is the
source of some pride.
Playing against Luther Blissett, Kenny Jackett, Malcolm Allen, Jimmy Gilligan, Martin Patching and
Ian Richardson - two Watford legends, one more former international, three others with their
names etched into the club's history forever - is one hell of an end to my first year of
unprofessional football. God, I couldn't have imagined anything like that when I shambled
uselessly around that pitch at Arsenal. Not the winning goal in the FA Cup Final, admittedly, but the
fulfilment of a dream nonetheless.
I was a linesman in the first half. A bit of free advice - don't ever be a linesman,
it's a bloody nightmare. Of the decisions I made, at least two were utterly appalling -
I put my flag up, realised I shouldn't have and stuck by the first decision. Next time I
see a linesman making a howler, I'll visualise a giant thought bubble over his head - "BUGGER".
It is, as the cliche says, a difficult job. In the usual mailing list games, offside happens
more by accident than by design. The Veterans, in contrast, had something that could reasonably be
described as "an offside trap". One second, all was fine; the next, they'd stepped up and all was not
fine. No warning at all. I hereby propose, to make being a linesman less of a bloody
nightmare, that the "It's A Knockout" joker system is introduced for offside. One per half. It's a
brilliant idea, admit it.
Anyway, I was relieved of my dubious duties just after half-time. For just over thirty
minutes, I was on that pitch. If you were there, you're forgiven for not noticing - I was the one chasing
breathlessly around the midfield, still not ever touching the ball (I am, in manager-speak,
"an unselfish player").
As Adrian later commented, it was somewhere approaching hell on earth at the time, this
constant struggle to maintain respectability while the Veterans' strolled mercilessly
around - the fond memories would be formed upon reflection. Their passing and movement are just devastating, obviously - so many options, so much time
on the ball, so few unforced errors. In the midfield, Kenny Jackett and others re-invented
'piggy in the middle' on a football pitch; up front, so many chances were created that
misses were affordable.
We achieved respectability of sorts - 6-1 is only our record defeat by one goal - courtesy
of Karim's silky skills, the defence's commitment and some fine goalkeeping by Dr. Dave. Me? Well,
I don't think I totally disgraced myself and, in my own little way, I'm proud of that. I was stitched up
like a kipper for their fifth, mind....
So that's the story - from blind fumbling to Kenny Jackett in less than twelve
months. Yet another extraordinary experience that's come out of my involvement with Watford fans
on the Internet.
Do people really still believe that life in cyberspace is anti-social?