On a piercingly cold Sunday morning, I endured the conditions typical of the North-East, wrapped up in several layers and travelled to Wallsend to play their women’s team.
I was representing Newcastle University Women’s Social Football Team.
As I arrived around 30 minutes late due to travel delays (and definitely not an unplanned lie-in), I could just about spot the Newcastle substitutes huddled together in our dugout and buried under a mountain of coats, jumpers, and waterproofs. Their clothing, like mine, was more appropriate for an Arctic expedition than a Sunday league football game. I walked past the Wallsend substitutes kitted out in matching tracksuits and going through some warm-up consisting of stretches that looked far too professional, and it began to dawn on me that this may not be the couple hours of fun that I had envisaged when I responded to a Facebook post seeking players.
This would be my debut for the team and I quickly introduce myself to the bench before innocently asking the score. They laugh hysterically for a short while as I wait.
“I’m not too sure” one responds.
Another turns to her friend asking, “Is it 10 or 11 now?”
Cheers erupt from the Wallsend bench as we watch their striker dribble around 3 players before launching a rocket into the top corner. She doesn’t bother to celebrate but retrieves the ball from the goal with an air of smugness and ruthlessly threatens her teammates should they relent.
“Well it’s one more now anyways” the friend replies, before standing up and shouting for somebody to swap with her.
At least 5 girls sprint over – this is the opportunity they’ve been waiting for. They are gasping for breath and desperate for a reprieve. The dugout looks so warm and inviting from the frozen pitch.
The next 10 minutes see another few goals, I couldn’t tell you how many for certain, but I’m enjoying speaking to the girls on the bench. I contribute to the cheers any time we make a challenge, or our keeper pulls off a save, or one of our players passes the ball or any time we touch the ball really.
By half time the score seems irrelevant. I’m thoroughly enjoying speaking to my new teammates, I’m leading the chorus in shouting at the referee and I have to admit I’m quite entertained by just how good Wallsend are in comparison. With every flick and pass, turn and shot, dribble and skill they become more and more like the Barcelona of old whilst we can only stand and watch in awe. They play with an air of arrogance that can only come with knowing you are that good and some of their football is truly joyous to behold.
As all the girls shuffle in and gather round, the captain and more experienced players begin to speak. There is no manager or coach. Cans of Monster drinks are pulled out as one player promises that she is so hungover she will be sick if she has to carry on.
I’m told that I’m coming on and I begin to feel some apprehension as I have a look over at the opposing team. Their coach is doing something with a tactics board that I can’t make out. I’m sure that even if I could I wouldn’t understand it anyway. I notice just how tall they all seem and wonder whether that is a necessary qualification to join their squad. With significant hesitance and reluctance, I shed my massive coat and hat and gloves and scarf and three tracksuit tops. It’s cold.
There is no talk of forfeiting the fixture but instead an air of acceptance and flippancy has descended. Some people bother asking their positions, most don’t. It seems we play 10 at the back and the tactics are simple; defend deep.
I haven’t played anything other than 5 a side since I was about 16 and I am under no illusion about how much I will impact this game. I have no deluded predictions that I am about to cover myself in glory or that my mere presence will turn the game around, launching a comeback that will see us eventually win the match.
Nevertheless, I did expect more of myself than only being able to last 20 minutes. 20 minutes. I come off feeling close to death, panting furiously and shakily trying to raise my water bottle to my mouth. Sympathetic smiles are shown my way and I’m asked if I’ve played before. I’m hurt for a second but then I realise I’m not sure what to say because I’ve not played football like that before.
The final whistle is blown. Again we congregate, and the banter commences. Somebody asks the score and somebody else guesses 26-0.
Whilst the other team begins their post-match analysis, we laugh about the events that have just occurred. Supportive comments arise, the goalkeeper is lauded for the save she’d made when it was just dipping under the bar, compliments are handed to the centre-back for that great ball that almost reached the striker, flattery ensues for the winger who won the ball back and almost managed to dribble out of our half. People ask me my name and what I’m studying and where I’m from. It is ensured that everybody has a lift home, and nobody is injured, and everyone is ok. Snacks are shared and talk turns to training on Tuesday. Everybody is positive and happy. I arrive home to friend requests on Facebook and posts congratulating each other on their efforts and thanking everyone for their endeavour.
There is a reason that ‘social’ precedes ‘sport’ (aside from any syntactical rules). There is no pre-requisite on experience or skill or even how much of your time that you can commit. Regardless of your ability, you will be welcomed and immediately feel a part of the team. You may not necessarily win many games, but you will have fun. You will make friends and meet new people and have a laugh. If that’s not enough, you will have the opportunity to do some exercise in a no-pressure environment. The magic of social sports lies in their accessibility and inclusivity. Try something new. Why not? The only factor that seems important is that you enjoy yourself.
And enjoy yourself you do.