The game of their lives | ET REALITY


As the players stood by the chain-link fence at the side of the field, taking deep breaths of air and water and performing an immediate post-mortem on the game they had just completed, they focused their attention on three outstanding points of contention. Instinctively, they separated into working groups dedicated to addressing each of them.

The first examined whether a sentence that had not been imposed at all should have been imposed, as an aggrieved plaintiff sought. The second investigated whether a particularly egregious offense was premeditated (yes) and/or justified (also yes). The third explored the thorny question of how many deflections preceded the last of the match’s 12 goals (estimates ranged from two to “around a million”) and whether allowing the goal could therefore reasonably be considered the goalkeeper’s fault.

Before the matter could be resolved, the report was stopped. Each player had to dig into their wallets or pockets for five pounds (a little more than six dollars) to pay his share for the use of the field. As they walked stiffly toward the parking lot, the bickering gave way to discussing plans for the rest of the night and next week.

This is all part of the ritual of practice, the scratch game, the kick. It’s a conversation that happens thousands of times a week, all over the world, after thousands of games like this. The only difference here is the qualifications of those involved.

The 20 players who have just paid about $120 to play for an hour on an ordinary synthetic field in south Manchester are used to quite different environments. Between them, they have made over 1,000 appearances (and scored over 100 goals) in the English Premier League. They have played professionally in a dozen countries. Among them are players who have won trophies, tasted the Champions League and represented their nations.

They wear their fame relatively lightly. There are no replica jerseys bearing their names. Only a couple of them go so far as to wear shorts emblazoned with the club crest. However, watch them play for a few minutes and it will become clear that this game is no ordinary thing.

The quality on display, as one player put it, is “terrifying.” As it should be: the victim of the contested penalty is Ravel Morrison, former Manchester United and West Ham player. The judge of the debate on the foul is Joleon Lescott, champion of the Premier League and the FA Cup with Manchester City.

There is universal agreement that the game’s most talented regular participant (and most unapologetically competitive spirit) is Stephen Ireland, who played for a decade with Manchester City and Aston Villa. The two players who stretch their calves and disconnect from the disputes are Papiss Cisse and Oumar Niasse, former Newcastle United and Everton players.

They’re part of a rotating cast of professionals (most of them retired recently enough that they haven’t yet gotten rusty) who come here every week to participate in what might be the best pick-up soccer game in the world.

It wasn’t designed to be anything like that. The weekly game began a couple of years ago, as coronavirus lockdowns began to ease, when a group of friends (most of whom had played semi-professionally, on the lower rungs of England’s football pyramid) created a amateur team, the Farmers, to play. together on Sundays.

This part of Manchester, however, is a relatively small world. The city’s leafy southern suburbs and golden towns of northern Cheshire are home to dozens of current and former professional players. It wasn’t long before a couple of them, friends of friends, accepted invitations to join.

From there, everything snowballed quickly, said Kial Callacher, one of the team’s founders. Soon, the Farmers were winning some games by “30 goals or so,” he said. “After a while, it wasn’t really fun.” The team’s opponents probably broadly shared the same opinion. Everyone involved decided it would be best if the ex-pros just played with each other.

Thus were born their one-hour games, held on Tuesday or Wednesday nights. The guest list became more stellar. Some weeks they might have Antonio Valencia, John O’Shea, Danny Simpson and Danny Drinkwater, all Premier League champions, or Nedum Onuoha, former Manchester City player and now an ESPN analyst. Dale Stephens, Premier League player as recently as last yearIt is a pillar.

There are many more who spent years in the English Football League. Few, if any, of the 66 members of the team’s WhatsApp group do not have at least semi-professional experience. The games are, to put it mildly, competitive.

“I’ll go to bed early the day before,” said Joe Thompson, a regular participant who spent 13 years as a professional, mainly for Rochdale. “I’ll stretch in the afternoon, eat well, hydrate – all the things I did as a professional. You don’t want to hurt yourself or take liberties with the standard. You feel like you are constantly being tested. You have to have courage or the group will let you know.”

There’s no shortage of candidates eager to see if they can handle it; There are so many people waiting to join that there is now a one-in, one-out policy in the WhatsApp group. Priority is given to potential new entrants who have made the most appearances in the Champions League and Premier League.

For some, the appeal is, at least in part, practical. “It keeps people working,” Thompson said. “If you are out of contract and looking for a club, you can stay fit as much as you want in the gym, but nothing replaces match sharpness.” Simpson has said that she helped him stay “in football shape” while he waited for a new club. Many in the group expect Morrison, who most recently played for DC United in MLS, to be picked up as a free agent soon.

However, for a large majority, the game satisfies a spiritual need. Thompson is not a typical case. Twice during his career, a form of Hodgkin’s lymphoma was discovered. He returned to play on both occasions, but retired on medical advice in 2019, at age 30. As a result, he said, he found it relatively easy to “make peace” with quitting the game.

Many find the transition much more difficult. Alex Bruce, a defender who represented 14 clubs in a career that spanned nearly two decades, compared retirement to “falling off a cliff.” “There’s no buildup and one day you’re at home wondering what to do with yourself,” he said. In addition to missing the sport itself, players said they tended to feel helpless outside the confines of the locker room. “You’re institutionalized,” Bruce said. “The environment is missed.”

The WhatsApp group – a continuous stream of affectionate banter, light-hearted criticism and spontaneous football pundits, according to members – offers a digital imitation of the daily rhythm of life inside a club. And the games themselves provide an outlet for the competitive drive. “It’s better than going to the gym and running on a treadmill alone,” Bruce said.

It is that, more than anything, that brings them all to a nondescript field deep in south Manchester, whatever the weather.

Being a football player is, of course, glorious and glamorous fun. But, Thompson said, “over the course of about 20 years, it wears on you.” The pressure is intense. Politics is toxic. There is little agency: a player’s fate can depend on an unfortunate injury, an unhelpful coach, a single bad decision.

In the end there is no feeling whatsoever. “Most people don’t retire from the game,” Thompson said. “It retires them.” Football continues, relentless.

However, once a week, these players can participate in the game on their terms. There is no crowd. There is no money, other than the fee to use the field. There is no more pressure than what they impose on themselves. They all carry the scars of a life dedicated to the practice of a professional sport. Those days are gone, but they don’t want to say goodbye. What they want to do, instead, is play.

“You’re on a court, outdoors, with a ball,” Thompson said as he watched his colleagues and friends get into their cars. “That’s how it was when we started playing. “I think for most of them it’s one hour a week where they can feel free.”

That is, you know, something precious. This summer, the group played a pair of exhibition games against local teams, operating under the name Inter Retirement. Since then, a production company approached them with the idea of ​​launching a YouTube channel, of turning their private game into public content.

Of course, they can see the merit of the suggestion, but there is one drawback, above all others, that makes them hesitate. The act of observation would change the nature of the event. I would turn football, once again, into work. They come to this field, once a week, because there are no cameras. There is no attention or pressure.

Here, finally, they can play.

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