Champagne football heralds new era for PFFC
PFFC 7 OW Strollers 0
This was a memorable match, not only for the quality of the football from the home side which, on a dodgy pitch and with an unsettling wind and the pressure of expectation (needing to beat a team at the sixth attempt in order to win the title), was sublime at times: slick passing moves, confident defending, pacey, attacking football. It was also memorable because for many reasons it marked the end of one era and the beginnings of a new one. This was our last match at Regents Park before it is to be dug up in search of Second World War bombs and a better drainage system. It is also likely to be our last match in the Grafton League. After two successive championships and hundreds of miles travelling to East Ewell and District, the talk in the Edinburgh Castle was of new challenges and new horizons next year.
Familiar pre-match routines: we were on the pitch half an hour before the opposition (“Strollers by name, strollers by nature” as Joe put it in his report of the corresponding fixture two years ago). We looked good even in the warm-up. Two classy keepers training together, matching shirts, socks and shorts, pre-match photos, new balls and everyone up for it. In the event Strollers brought 14 players, the only time I can remember an away team with 3 subs. Their best period was the opening quarter of an hour when they had a fair bit of possession and the wily Julian, who in previous fixtures had thwarted us with a late free kick and intelligent hold-up play as a target man, was now trying to impose himself in the centre of midfield. It wasn’t long before Ally and Kieran had wrested the initiative, however, and we forced a series of corners. Their goalkeeper was playing the game of his life (according to Michael McManus, one of their subs and contributor to last year’s PFFC Review) and kept out early efforts before Steve gave him no chance with a sweet volley from the edge of the area. Soon afterwards, Ally released Neil with one of his trademark precision passes and the pace of the Kiwi made nonsense of the Strollers defence as well as his imminent hernia operation. At 2-0 we were playing well and creating chances, not least from Ally’s corners which were too good even for the late runs of our defenders.
“They should never get away with the ball going across their own six-yard area!”, shouted Ian from goal, itching to get involved in the action. This wasn't long coming as we were soon awarded a penalty for a push and PFFC's brilliant keeper/defender/midfelder/striker, with a 100% record from the spot, stepped up to take it. What happened next was not entirely clear from the sidelines but two things may have occurred. First, the wily Julian, following Batistuta's example with Beckham, starts a conversation about fishing to delay the penalty. Next, Ian recalls a conversation with Gaffer during a marathon journey to East Ewell a few weeks earlier, when the latter had given his views on ‘goalies taking penalties'. Gaffers, in these situations, always think of worst-case scenarios; the keeper saves it, they break away and score; at 2-1, nerves set in, they grab a late equaliser and it’s goodbye to the Grafton League title. So Ian had the good sense to stick it wide of the post.
Nevertheless the third goal was vital to make the game safe and it came at exactly the right moment, five minutes before half-time, following a typical flowing move and finished off with finesse by Richard, who had been moved up front for this game to partner Neil. Three-nil at half-time, by which time we were dominating possession, with Gibbo slotting in impressively on the left, linking up well with Ally and Kieran. It would have been more but for two excellent point-blank saves from their keeper (both off Neil).
Confidence was high at half-time, but also the usual resilience from the skipper, who as usual had not given anything away; let’s finish the job off. The second half was really exhibition football played in front of one of our biggest crowds of the season, situated at two different ends of the ground and watched over by two members of the constabulary who started patrolling the left touchline, causing rumours in the press box, from the correspondent of La Gazzetta dello Sport, that Owen was about to be arrested. But of course this is the new Owen: at the peak of his game for PFFC, this was likely to be his last league match for us, though after this performance there are already moves to prolong his departure to Hibs by a few months. The fourth goal for Neil came courtesy of a poor kick from the keeper (his one error), Puskas headed a fifth and Neil grabbed his 40th league goal of the season. An incredible record, sure to win the Grafton Golden Boot award and coming at a rate of over 3 per game. Finally, Kieran marked his midfield dominance with a well-deserved goal in front of adoring fans, after an earlier attempt was ruled out following a dubious call from a dodgy linesman.
In the meantime Rob came on for the impeccable Brian, who has been a key part of a defence which has now gone over six hours without conceding a goal. As he left the pitch he passed on a dinner invitation to the wily Julian, with whom he had become well acquainted during the match. The last substitution reflected the international calibre of the current PFFC squad. Puskas, who has mesmerised the Grafton League this season in the way his namesake did at Wembley fifty years ago, made way for Filippo, who took up his new position at centre-forward (with Neil going out wide) and who felt that with better service he may well have had a late hat-trick.
The last moments of the game were played in a carnival atmosphere, professionally captured on film once more by Benedetta, and ended with celebration and champagne. In fact buying the bubbly was one of the more difficult tasks of the day. Our Italian defender-turned-striker has recently been described in the Italian press as one of the few “Italian Anglophiles”, with his affection for the FA Cup in particular. The Gaffer has been moving in the other direction, increasingly grumpy at most things British as soon he leaves the plane. Now it was ‘licensing laws’. After visiting food and wine stores all the way up Baker Street on the way to the pitch he was met with stiff resistance; not allowed to sell anything before 10 o’clock. Ten o’clock? Explanations of the importance of the occasion were to no avail: “Sorry mate, its the law”. So a lawyer was called and Raj, on his way to the ground, made the ultimate sacrifice and spent the entire first half in a queue in Sainsburys in Camden Town so that PFFC would be treated to the best Bollinger.
In fact Raj’s reappearance after his illness was one of several poignant moments. In that eventful first league game of the campaign he played a crucial role along with Filippo, and it was fitting that they were both there at the end. In the pub afterwards thoughts went to absent friends who had been crucial to our success this year and as with last year's finale the usual international calls were made to the South of France (Hugh), Bruxelles (Jez), and Cornwall (or wherever Al was). Other thoughts went to Stefan in Zurich, following his successful operation but also with the realisation that his emotional farewell goal was in fact a championship-winning goal in the 3-2 win over Surbiton Strollers; the injured Marcodue, outstanding in recent weeks; and Goober who, but for illness, would have been leading the kop, rattle in hand. Then of course there was Joe, now enjoying parenthood, without whom we would never have got into this position. His organising skills under a lot of pressure to win every game were crucial. On top of that, his two signings – Kieran and Gibbo – have come up trumps and along with Marcodue, Ally and Puskas represent a new generation of PFFC, though with the follies of youth they have challenged the oldies to a game over the summer.
The beginning of a new era was clear after the game with two other poignant moments. Several years ago, following one of many heavy defeats, a despondent PFFC trooped back to the changing rooms only to have more depression heaped upon them with the news that as it was after 4 o’clock the showers could not be used. (What is it with PFFC and showers?). The lady responsible for this punitive measure, which included walking into a group of naked philosophers repeatedly to turn off the showers, could not be won over. The philosophers, determined not to endure another defeat (and led in protest as I recall by Stefan), wouldn't be budged either and so the police were called (probably the two officers who were patrolling yesterday's match.). “We'll come quietly officer but we won't come cleanly” one of the players remarked at the conclusion of an episode which subsequently appeared in Pete May's classic account of Sunday football, Sunday Muddy Sunday. The same lady, who we now know as Lady Phyllis, was yesterday presented with an Italian coffee-maker, actually a very specific model, as a mark of our affection which she reciprocated with wild enthusiasm. It was a testament to the cultural shifts in the team and another reminder of the importance of our Italian connections. If we ever return to Regents Park, we'll have no problem finding either a pitch or a shower.
A few minutes after the presentation I bumped into the secretary of our former league. The last conversation I had with him was to explain that we needed to join another league where we wouldn't lose 8-0 in every game and have a chance of coming higher than last. Now I was telling him the opposite: we need to find a league where we get more competition. Exciting times and challenges ahead.
PFFC (4-4-2): Ian; Steve, Paul (c), Brian (Rob), Owen; Puskas (Filippo), Ally, Kieran, Gibbo; Neil, Richard.