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Blind fumbling
The rags to riches story of an unprofessional footballer
By Ian Grant
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?