Dolphin Raiders 3 PFFC 5
Arrive at Open University, Milton Keynes, at 10.30am for course team meeting. Learn that afternoon meeting scheduled for 2pm has been put back to 3.30 because of seminar on globalisation and GM Food; quick mental arithmetic concludes that if I get away by 4.30 should make it in time for big match.
Give my apologies at 4.30 and call cab. ‘You look like someone in a hurry’, cab driver remarks. Things get complicated at Milton Keynes station. The 16.48 is just leaving as I fail to get past ticket barrier which here is manned more rigorously than Checkpoint Charlie, while the 1656 is now expected at 1725. Swear loudly and publicly. Get call from Raj who wants to know if the skipper is still picking him up in Camden Town. Don’t tell him I’m still in MK.
Surprisingly, train is punctual and (yet) another taxi gets me to Westminster just in time to dump stuff, buy bottle of bubbly (plus the last seven plastic glasses) and get to Victoria for rendez-vous with Philosophy Football express. Neil, Brian and Cornish Al are already there but no sign of young Mather. ‘I’m in Smiths’, he says as I call him. He emerges shortly afterwards, ticketless. Another call from Raj informs me that he’s stuck in the traffic at Blackfriars Bridge and may be late. Brief moment of panic subsides when I realise that he’s in a car driven by the skipper who always arrives in good time. Practical jokes on the Gaffer: sign of upbeat mood?
Pleased to find most players already at Crystal Palace, out on the pitch and warming up. Big crowd building up, our best of the season. Sarah and Renee are already here, the latter with Swiss rattle. They are to be joined by two of Rob’s students and Benedetta, with camera. Great news is that Goober and Simon, original ‘philosophes de football’, are on their way. Good crowd, professional photographer and probably our strongest squad of the season on a Thursday night. Shame that Chairman couldn’t make it. Rigorous warm up routines crucial for psychological advantage. However, opposition is nowhere to be seen. Equally worryingly, floodlights not on; match in Caylus comes to mind and jokes follow about Rob’s invisible saves. Despite being told twice that this is the correct pitch, get re-directed at last minute to something called the ‘bar pitch’, as if to make the opposition and Cornish Al feel at home. Our opponents are already kicking the ball about. Re-direct Filippo, who is one of the few substitutes in history to take his place on the bench after failing a late fitness test. Cheered up by news that they only have ten. Neil informs me just before kick off that he has a groin strain and might be better to start on the bench. Refuse request, though don’t tell him I’d have started him if he’d been on one leg. Pre-match team talk: at them from the start, be confident and focused.
We start very well: good moves down both flanks and, after a great run by Raj, Neil puts us in front. Shortly after, he adds a second following good work by Stefan. They have some good players in midfield, but we look up for it and a great solo run by Neil is finished by Stefan: 3-0. This is a dream start. Neil comes off immediately to rest his groin, to be replaced by Marco Due. Meanwhile, despite being wig-less, Cornish Al has been recognised by his marker, a fellow barrister.
However, following recent trends we undergo familiar mid-match crisis. Phase one: almost our entire defence strays into opponents’ half, leaving Joe to deal with four Dolphin attackers. Cries of off-side to no avail. Were we 3-0 nil up after half an hour or three nil down with ten minutes to go? 3-1. Phase Two; our failure to clear leads to thunderbolt from Dolphin midfielder. 3-2. Find myself shouting manically ‘get back, get back’. Phase three: skipper gets bad knock and is hobbling. This is our worst spell and I’m relieved to hear half-time whistle.
Half-time team talk. Very apparent that everybody is quiet and nervous, as if to confirm the enormity of the occasion. Advice: settle down, keep calm and start playing again. Next goal crucial. Rob the Cat is upbeat and shouts encouragement. The reliable and domineering Brian comes on to help injured skipper in defence and Ian moves to revive successful midfield partnership with Raj. Joe, at his best in recent weeks, is working well with Cornish Al who is showing impeccable defensive responsibility, together with usual flair. We regain composure, Marco Due and Jason combining well down the left and Stefan still full of running. Raj is playing his best match of the season and gets the crucial goal. We’ve regained the initiative and, soon after, Marco Due gets a deserved goal and Benedetta expertly catches him on camera making himself contender for goal celebration of the season. At 5-2, Renee reveals hidden bottle of champagne and I confess my similar offering. Neil is back on and Marco Classico is back to give some finesse to the midfield, relieving the skipper who battled bravely through the most crucial part of the game, reminiscent of Steve Foster and Terry Butcher in earlier classics. Dolphin concede a needless penalty when Neil is tripped near the goal-line; the injured Filippo poised to come on for finale. However, good save from Dolphin keeper leads to their second revival and they get a third goal and put us under pressure. Rob excels at this point as he has done in similar situations during the season and the ever-present Mather is solid in the tackle, while still managing to avoid a ticket. We hang on, despite nervous moments at the end, made more edgy by not knowing how many minutes the ref is playing.
‘Is this the British way of celebrating?’ asks Marco Classico as a rather subdued acknowledgement greets the ref’s whistle. However things get more exciting as first bottle of bubbly is sprayed in traditional fashion while second (Gaffer’s) is poured into glasses. Lots of photos and attempts at singing reach their peak in the showers. Various telephone calls to South of France (Chairman), Belgium (Jez), Rome (Matteo/David) and Leeds (Richard) have differing degrees of success. Despite nearly leaving the Italians behind in the dressing room, still in their robes, we make it to the ‘Occasional Half‘ in time for last orders and Kareoke night, though Cornish Al’s Sinatra is put on hold for next year’s Christmas Party. Some stay for curry as if to keep British traditions alive, and talk shifts to Barcelona in September for the beginning of our Champions League campaign.