Mud, guts but no glory
PFFC 0 Sporting Falcons 4
Though not fit enough to run around for 90 minutes after suffering a pulled groin (no, not what you're thinking) at a charity football tournament the previous Sunday, I ventured to Regent's Park to support the Reds against second in the table Falcons. I have to say I got off lightly with a pulled groin: erstwhile PFFC centre-back and past player of the year Damian came away from the same tournament with a broken ankle and will miss the rest of the season. Reports suggesting he raided the charity's coffers to pay for a taxi to the hospital are entirely unfounded.
Sporting Falcons is a tough team against whom we had a rough-and-tumble encounter earlier in the season, in which individuals performed well but Philosophy suffered from disarray caused by players turning up late. This time, we at least had a strong 11 at kick-off, but there were no subs to back them up. Apparently the ‘question marks’ on the team sheet hadn’t bothered to tell anyone whether or not they could play. It’s not hard to make a phone call one way or the other. I decided to keep the Gaffer informed of the team's progress by text updates: a phone version of a blog. With Orange no doubt approving of my method of communication, the match – and my reports – began, with the Reds lining up as follows: Owen in goal, Kofi and Andrea in central defence, Vipul and Andy at full-back, Jonni on the right wing, Francesco on the left, Will and Michele in the middle, and Matt up front behind Vito.
I had just sent my first text: ‘A tight start and a muddy pitch. Most of the early exchanges in our half but no chances as yet,’ when Sporting Falcons scored after a good bit of jinking play from the striker. The Reds were playing with the slope and the wind in the first half, so they need to get a goal back quickly. After receiving a text from the Gaffer: ‘Important to keep heads up, press in their half and make it difficult in the mud,’ I instantly shouted these instructions to the team. I was starting to feel like Terry Phelan, on the touchline with an earpiece and Fergie in the stands. I think Owen shouted something about Dad's Army and 'not liking it up 'em', but I can't be sure.
My reports to the Gaffer were interrupted at this point by my Mum texting me to say that my Dad was at a golf day out. I replied to her that that was nice for him but that I'd call tonight as I was watching a football match. I wonder if Sid Lowe gets texts from his mum when he's trying to work.
Falcons had two goals disallowed – one for offside, another for a foul – before they scored again when our defence left their Jan Koller-style winger a bit open. It wasn’t a good sign that by this time I was watching the game almost in line with our box. Geoff, keeping positive, pointed out that we were missing key players but that he’s hoping for new recruits in response to the advert he’s placed in the London Review of Books, New Statesman and When Saturday Comes.
Falcons then had a strong penalty claim when the ball hit Kofi's elbow in the box. Fortunately there was no whistle. We responded with five minutes of pressure in their half. This match wasn’t over by any means. This pressure from PFFC finally resulted in a corner after some great play from Will and Michele. Jonni came up to take it, but it went to the near post and was cleared. We recovered possession but gave it away again. This was pretty indicative of play so far in the match: there wasn’t much to separate the teams but we lacked a bit of composure.
With the score 2-0 at half-time, Geoff texted me to suggest changing the formation to have three at back and play an extra striker, although he warned that could open floodgates. Andrea opted to start the second half with roughly the same shape, not having the luxury of any players to come off the subs bench and change things.
Soon after the restart Owen pulled off a fantastic save, brilliantly palming to safety a low 20-yard drive. The resulting corner was put straight out. If we could frustrate them and keep the score at 2-0 for a while then pull a goal back, suggested Geoff, things could look very different. ‘Make it difficult in the mud and get the tackles in early,’ he finished.
I took a deep breath: "Frustrate them, Reds, keep tight and get a goal back. Make it difficult for them in these conditions and get your tackles in!" Again, Owen shouts a Home Guard-themed cliché. The Red Men responded to this with great spirit: Kofi was strong in the tackle, and Andrea and Francesco were battling constantly. But Falcons now had the slope and the wind in their favour. It was a lot of pressure for Philosophy to withstand. The got several corners, and scored direct from one.
From this point I was blindly texting the Gaffer with no replies: he had obviously removed himself from his pleasant Sunday activities and entered into some brain-world which only Fergie, Shanks and Bob Paisley have ever been honoured enough to gain access to.
Then there was one of those sucker-punches that poor conditions can bring: playing the ball along the back, it got stuck in the mud and a Falcon swooped down on it for an easy goal. The Red Men had to continue soaking up a lot of pressure, but were still putting a huge amount of effort in. Jonni got a chance but put it straight at the keeper; Matt had another but sent it just wide.
Just as in our previous encounter with this team earlier in the season, they started to get rattled under pressure even when they were safely ahead. There was a bit of a foul on Francesco, but it wasn’t given. Francesco left his foot in a little and was wrestled completely to the ground as a result. The offending Falcon was sent off, quite rightly: he was mental.
The match ended in a 4-0 defeat. It was, in classic football parlance, a game of two halves, but with each half being virtually identical to the other: the same 11 played for PFFC in each half, and two goals were conceded in each half. Not an easy game at all for those in red, but I saw a lot that those on the field could be proud of, especially as they had been left without subs. A couple of extra men on the day could have made all the difference. We were outplayed, but we are definitely not, as someone in a red shirt mumbled at half time, 'a shit team'.
With football, we have the chance to create something beautiful. We may not always reach those heights on the field, but the post-match analysis, the shared tales (whether they be true or exaggerated) and team spirit can always soar to the places our present football can't quite reach.
PFFC (4-4-1-1): Owen; Andy, Kofi, Andrea, Vipul; Jonni, Will, Michele, Francesco; Matt; Vito.