The rain ran down Dave’s nose slowly and then dripped, noiselessly, on to the mud he was moving about on. Sometimes the rain also went down his back, somehow having got inside the inadequate anorak he was wearing. And it also crept deviously into his shoes; starting at the toe, it felt like it was starting to absorb his whole foot. Still, at least with running up and down, that water might warm up to create a sort of ‘feet wetsuit’.
But there was no time to worry about all that. Dave had to keep up with the play, keep his eyes peeled at a right angle with the touch line, so that he could judge where the players were in relation to one another. And at the same time, he had to keep a half eye on where the ball was and what was going on. Because thanks to new – well, a decade or so old – rules decided by some people who had clearly never done this or at least not at this level, the new offside laws for football meant you had to focus on exactly where people were when the ball was played.
All very well, all very nice for Match of the Day and great when the World Cup was beamed into your sitting room on HD TV, but pretty ridiculous when you were standing in what was really just a muddy field with a few white lines plonked down on it and a couple of goalposts at each end. And who was trying to interpret the very hard and complex offside rules? Not a real linesman with a mic to link him up to a professional ref, but Dave, a dad, who sort of knew the rules, and then did his best.
Not only were his shoes wet but they had pretty much no grip on this mud. He should have worn studs but it seemed a bit over the top for an under-sixteens game on a Sunday morning. So the danger of falling straight onto his backside was ever present, adding its own particular ingredient of stress to this gloomy scenario.
Even when it was over, thought Dave, there would be the nightmare of the car journey back. This wasn’t fancy football – there weren’t even any changing rooms for the boys to get out of their muddy clothes after the game. Instead, they would pile into the cars of those few parents who were prepared to give up the time to drive the hour or so to this away fixture. So that meant four muddy and pretty big lads in his car. He had a bit of a routine on days like this – lay out a big bit of plastic over the back seat with old supermarket bags at their feet. It wasn’t fool-proof, and he wasn’t so car-proud that he cared very much, but it helped.
Despite all this, Dave enjoyed his Sundays running the line. It was in the fresh air, it got him out of the house, it was about something he loved and, most importantly, it was something he did with his son. He had got involved with Stamford Celtic because his son started playing for them. Dave was too time-stretched to get involved with coaching, but driving the boys out on a Sunday, running the line and taking them home was something he could do. And then, after the other lads had all been dropped off, he and Frank would discuss the match. If it had been a win that was fine and great fun. If they had lost it was delicate and tricky, at least until a day or two had passed. And if Frank, the centre-back of the team, had been guilty of a mistake, a missed tackle, a bad clearance that had led to the other team scoring, then it was like walking on eggshells.
Today was going alright so far. The first half had been pretty even but Stamford had scored a slightly lucky goal from a corner and had held on. Dave had had one incident when he flagged for offside and the vocal parents from the other team told him what they thought of him. But compared to what happened at some of these games when parents – even more than the lads – got so upset as though this was a top-level game, it was fairly tame.
Dave sort of sat in on the half-time team talk – although nobody sat, they just stood under a tree to get a bit of shelter – as Steve, the manager, tried to tell a bunch of soaking and muddy boys what they were doing right and wrong and strike the right balance between congratulations and encouragement on the one hand, and giving a kick up the backside so they worked a bit harder on the other.
Boys at fifteen are hard to read. But Dave knew them well enough by now to know a bit about their characters. Mehdi, the talented midfielder, did respond to a plea to actually use his talents and not drift out of the game, while Jordan, the big centre-forward, took umbrage if you had too much of a go at him for never chasing back.
It was always awkward if Frank was getting a bit of a telling-off from Steve. Of course, you were supposed to distance yourself from your role as a dad here, but the defensive shackles immediately went up if Steve launched into Frank for not calling enough, or not holding the line, or not getting tight enough to the centre-forward, even if Steve was right.
The ref called them all to order for the start of the second half and Dave was up running the line up the other end. By tradition, at this level of football, only the referee was an ‘independent’ official. There were not a whole lot of people who wanted to run the line for free for teams other than those their kids were in. So each team provided someone to be linesman and they ran it up the end that their team were defending. That meant that Dave had to decide if the opposition players were offside or not.
As the game continued it was getting stretched out as the young lads started to tire in the heavy, increasingly wet, pitch. Whenever the opposition attacked, Dave had to be alert. If the ball was in the other side’s half, then he could relax a bit but the game could switch very quickly. So, he could not lose his concentration for too long, start idly thinking about what else he had to do with the bits of Sunday that would remain when they eventually got home. Sort out the broken tap, prepare the dinner, talk to his wife about their holiday plans, help his daughter with her homework, do a little work in preparation for a meeting on Monday morning.
The game was going Stamford Celtic’s way. In one Stamford corner Frank had trotted up to lend his muscle and height to the attack and had managed to get a head on the ball. Dave always got nervous when Frank was involved in the play, willing him to do well but anxious that he would make the wrong decision, mishit the pass or time the tackle completely wrong. He wanted it to go well for Frank so badly that it hurt. It was an advantage of running the line that there was a limit to how much he could shout out to Frank to track back, to cover the fullback, to bring the ball out instead of booting it up-field. Just being a spectator was, he had found, much worse.
Like every parent there, his eyes and hopes were mainly for his own kid. He watched him all the time, and so every play not done perfectly was magnified in his mind. It was a totally unfair test to apply to anyone, let alone a fifteen-year-old playing for fun. But it was hard to avoid.
Every now and then the opposition got an attack going and Dave felt himself tensing up as he combined the need to really concentrate on his linesman’s job with his fear that Stamford would let in a goal – or worse, that it would be as a consequence of a mistake by Frank.
It was so hard as a defender. Dave had been one himself for years. A fullback, not a centre-back like Frank, but well aware that an error at the back was so often punished with a goal where mistakes elsewhere on the pitch were just mistakes. Where Dave had been fast and so could often rescue things, Frank was bigger, more powerful but a bit less quick off the mark and so found it tough to get back at an attacker once they had gone past him.
So, Dave worried as the opposition’s attacking midfielder burst through into the wide-open space beyond the centre circle. Frank backpedalled, trying to allow his fellow defenders to come in and cover. Keep doing that, Dave willed. Don’t dive in. Make it hard for him. But, after a hesitation, Frank did dive in and the midfielder skipped past him and laid the ball to the right, cueing up the centre-forward to shoot. Dave hoped he would trip up or something, but he controlled the ball well and looked up. With doom imminent, Frank suddenly came sliding in with a risky but successful tackle that took the ball out of play. The opposition pleaded for a free kick but the ref would have none of it. Frank may have judged wrong at one point but he had saved his team.
Time ticked on. The play was pretty ragged now. Dave was hopeful each time Mehdi got the ball that Stamford would wrap it up. With the marking falling apart as everyone tired, and space galore opening up, it was all made for the talented player.
Instead, Mehdi was dispossessed just inside the opposition’s half. The ball was played fast through the middle and then out to the winger on the far side breaking fast. Dave kept in line with the play as best he could but it was hard with more or less no grip on the slippery mud, let alone the soaking anorak he was wrapped up in. He knew he was just a little way behind the play. He could see that Frank’s aim was to lure the attackers into being offside as he called his men to hold the line. The winger played a neat ball into the inside left channel for the opposition centre forward to run to. At that moment Frank screamed for offside just as the forward swivelled, brought the ball onto his right foot and banged it home.
So, was it offside?
In truth, Dave wasn’t certain. It was certainly close; he knew that and so did all the lads. But he had not been able to get himself directly in line so it was very hard to tell. And anyway, the key question was where was the centre-forward when the ball was played by the winger? Exactly where was he relative to Frank, the last man? The Stamford defenders all appealed to him; Frank was pleading that it was offside. The opposition were celebrating as though it was a goal.
Dave could say it was offside and probably Stamford would win. He wasn’t sure – why not give the benefit of the doubt to the defenders? Why not let his son have a happy day? But that wasn’t right; his job was to do the best he could. And he really thought it probably – probably – was not offside. So Dave kept his flag down and walked slowly back to the halfway line, trying very hard to avoid catching the eye of one of the most precious things to him in the entire world – his son.
Was that what a dad should do in this circumstance? Who knows what a dad is supposed to do, thought Dave, as another large raindrop eased its way down his very cold nose.
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