Everyone loves an underdog. Whether it’s Rocky Balboa’s meteoric rise from everyman to world champion or a hopelessly outgunned football team made up of hungover and unfit students, people can’t resist the lure of an unlikely success story. This was evident when an impressive crowd of two flocked to Cochrane Park on Sunday to watch division three side Hardly Athletic’s friendly against Boca Seniors, the first game in the former’s history.
Formed just a month ago, the brainchild of History undergraduates Raff Marioni and George Yates, Athletic may well be the least prepared team in all of the intramural sport. With just one gruelling pre-season training session under the belt, lacking a kit, player-managed by yours truly and boasting a squad thin in numbers only, all the signs were there for a thrashing against first division Boca, an eight-year mainstay of the intra-mural scene.
A true baptism of fire, which was certainly not relished by the side. The pre-match dread was only increased when, during pre-drinks with some of the opposition two days before the game (I demand only the maximum professionalism from my players), it was brought to light that Boca would be bringing a squad of twenty-two, an XI for each half, to the game. Hearts throughout the room sank and the lads turned to budget lager to numb the apprehension.
Gameday, unfortunately, came around. Boca started positively and attacked with real purpose. Five-foot-eight goalkeeper Danny Aspinall, put his body (and hair) on the line to keep the scores level as Athletic weathered the storm, and to the shock of many, not least myself, started to play some decent football. This came to a head as, midway through the first half, against the run of play, left-back Joe (an emergency loan from Northumbria University) finished a superb team move with a sumptuous strike into the bottom corner and Athletic went 1-0 up. Nobody could believe it as half time came and the score had not changed – Boca were rattled.
Or so we thought. The second half started and Boca’s fresh eleven scored an equalising goal relatively easily. Fortunately, heads didn’t drop, and what happened next was simply incredible. The third division outfit scored twice in quick succession to go 3-1 ahead, including a wonderful strike from distance from Liam Mulligan. The signing of Mulligan, a former first division player, has been a true coup for the team. Reminiscent of, but hopefully more successful than Notts County’s capture of Sol Campbell in 2009, the transfer shows real ambition from the club. His partnership in midfield with the dynamic Ben Lowes should prove to be a very successful creative output for the side.
They say that a two-goal lead is the most dangerous in football. Fatigue set in as the game wore on. Not even the assistance of rolling subs could provide enough relief for a team fuelled by microwave curries and lacking match experience. With ten minutes to go, Boca began to dominate and scored a scrappy second goal which reignited the contest. Two more Boca goals followed quickly, both benefiting from an apathetic referee and the lack of a linesman.
The game finished 4-3 and the hearts of Hardly Athletic players and ultras were broken. Aspinall, the aforementioned vertically challenged goalkeeper, was not at fault for any of the goals and was awarded man of the match by Boca’s squad. Not bad for a man whose day had started with a Sainsbury’s bacon sandwich and a cigarette.
Often forgotten about the first Rocky film is that, despite fighting brilliantly, Balboa loses to the experienced champion Apollo Creed. A valiant performance, but a defeat nonetheless. It may be in the underdog’s nature to come up short, but if the sequels are anything to go by (and if I can drag this analogy out any further) Hardly Athletic are in for an interesting season.
As Stallone so eloquently says, ‘It ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward’.