Matches shall be played over three unequal periods: two playtimes and a lunchtime. Each of these periods shall begin shortly after the ringing of a bell, and although a bell is also rung towards the end of these periods, play may continue for up to ten minutes afterwards, depending on the nihilism or “bottle” of the participants with regard to corporal punishment met out to latecomers back to the classroom. In practice there is a sliding scale of nihilism, from those who hasten to stand in line as soon as the bell rings, known as “poofs”, through to those who will hang on until the time they estimate it takes the teachers to down the last of their gins and journey from the staffroom, known as “chancers”, and finally to those who will hang on until a teacher actually has to physically retrieve them, known as “bampots”. This sliding scale is intended to radically alter the logistics of a match in progress, often having dramatic effects on the scoreline as the number of remaining participants drops. It is important, therefore, in picking the sides, to achieve a fair balance of poofs, chancers and bampots in order that the scoreline achieved over a sustained period of play – a lunchtime, for instance – is not totally nullified by a five-minute post-bell onslaught of five bampots against one. The scoreline to be carried over from the previous period of the match is in the trust of the last bampots to leave the field of play, and may be the matter of some debate. This must be resolved in one of the approved manners (see Adjudication).
The object is to force the ball between two large, unkempt piles of jackets, in lieu of goalposts. These piles may grow or shrink throughout the match, depending on the number of participants and the prevailing weather. As the number of players increases, so shall the piles. Each jacket added to the pile by a new addition to a side should be placed on the inside, nearest the goalkeeper, thus reducing the target area. It is also important that the sleeve of one of the jackets should jut out across the goalmouth, as it will often be claimed that the ball went “over the post” and it can henceforth be asserted that the outstretched sleeve denotes the innermost part of the pile and thus the inside of the post. The on-going reduction of the size of the goal is the responsibility of any respectable defence and should be undertaken conscientiously with resourcefulness and imagination. In the absence of a crossbar, the upper limit of the target area is observed as being slightly above head height, although when the height at which a ball passed between the jackets is in dispute, judgement shall lie with an arbitrary adjudicator from one of the sides. He is known as the “best fighter”; his decision is final and may be enforced with physical violence if anyone wants to stretch a point. There are no pitch markings. Instead, physical objects denote the boundaries, ranging from the most common – walls and buildings – to roads or burns. Corners and throw-ins are redundant where bylines or touchlines are denoted by a two-storey building or a six-foot granite wall. Instead, a scrum should be instigated to decide possession. This should begin with the ball trapped between the brickwork and two opposing players, and should escalate to include as many team members as can get there before the now egg-shaped ball finally emerges, drunkenly and often with a dismembered foot and shin attached. At this point, goalkeepers should look out for the player who takes possession of the escaped ball and begins bearing down on goal, as most of those involved in the scrum will be unaware that the ball is no longer amidst their feet. The goalkeeper should also try not to be distracted by the inevitable fighting that has by this point broken out. In games on large open spaces, the length of the pitch is obviously denoted by the jacket piles, but the width is a variable. In the absence of roads, water hazards or “a big dug”, the width is determined by how far out the attacking winger has to meander before the pursuing defender gets fed up and lets him head back towards where the rest of the players are waiting, often as far as quarter of a mile away. It is often observed that the playing area is “no’ a full-size pitch”. This can be invoked verbally to justify placing a wall of players eighteen inches from the ball at direct free kicks It is the formal response to “yards”, which the kick-taker will incant meaninglessly as he places the ball.
There is a variety of types of ball approved for Primary School Football. I shall describe three notable examples.
1. The plastic balloon. An extremely lightweight model, used primarily in the early part of the season and seldom after that due to having burst. Identifiable by blue pentagonal panelling and the names of that year’s Premier League sides printed all over it. Advantages: low sting factor, low burst-nose probability, cheap, discourages a long-ball game. Disadvantages: over-susceptible to influence of the wind, difficult to control, almost magnetically drawn to flat school roofs whence never to return.
2. The rough-finish Mitre. Half football, half Portuguese Man o’ War. On the verge of a ban in the European Court of Human Rights, this model is not for sale to children. Used exclusively by teachers during gym classes as a kind of aversion therapy. Made from highly durable fibre-glass, stuffed with neutron star and coated with dead jellyfish. Advantages: looks quite grown up, makes for high-scoring matches (keepers won’t even attempt to catch it). Disadvantages: scars or maims anything it touches.
3. The “Tubey”. Genuine leather ball, identifiable by brown all-over colouring. Was once black and white, before ravages of games on concrete, but owners can never remember when. Adored by everybody, especially keepers. Advantages: feels good, easily controlled, makes a satisfying “whump” noise when you kick it. Disadvantages: turns into medicine ball when wet, smells like a dead dog.
There is no offside, for two reasons: one, “it’s no’ a full-size pitch”, and two, none of the players actually know what offside is. The lack of an offside rule gives rise to a unique sub-division of strikers. These players hang around the opposing goalmouth while play carries on at the other end, awaiting a long pass forward out of defence which they can help past the keeper before running the entire length of the pitch with their arms in the air to greet utterly imaginary adulation. These are known variously as “poachers”, “gloryhunters” and “fly wee bastards”. These players display a remarkable degree of self-security, seemingly happy in their own appraisals of their achievements, and caring little for their team-mates’ failure to appreciate the contribution they have made. They know that it can be for nothing other than their enviable goal tallies that they are so bitterly despised.
The absence of a referee means that disputes must be resolved between the opposing teams rather than decided by an arbiter. There are two accepted ways of doing this. 1. Compromise. An arrangement is devised that is found acceptable by both sides. Sway is usually given to an action that is in accordance with the spirit of competition, ensuring that the game does not turn into “a pure skoosh”. For example, in the event of a dispute as to whether the ball in fact crossed the line, or whether the ball has gone inside or “over” the post, the attacking side may offer the ultimatum: “Penalty or goal.” It is not recorded whether any side has ever opted for the latter. It is on occasions that such arrangements or ultimatums do not prove acceptable to both sides that the second adjudicatory method comes into play. 2. Fighting. Those up on their ancient Hellenic politics will understand that the concept we know as “justice” rests in these circumstances with the hand of the strong. What the winner says, goes, and what the winner says is just, for who shall dispute him? It is by such noble philosophical principles that the supreme adjudicator, or Best Fighter, is effectively elected.
To ensure a fair and balanced contest, teams are selected democratically in a turns-about picking process, with either side beginning as a one-man selection committee and growing from there. The initial selectors are usually the recognised two Best Players of the assembled group. Their first selections will be the two recognised Best Fighters, to ensure a fair balance in the adjudication process, and to ensure that they don’t have their own performances impaired throughout the match by profusely bleeding noses. They will then proceed to pick team-mates in a roughly meritocratic order, selecting on grounds of skill and tactical awareness, but not forgetting that while there is a sliding scale of players’ ability, there is also a sliding scale of players’ brutality and propensities towards motiveless violence. A selecting captain might baffle a talented striker by picking the less nimble Big Jazza ahead of him, and may explain, perhaps in the words of Linden B Johnson upon his retention of J Edgar Hoover as the head of the FBI, that he’d “rather have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in”. Special consideration is also given during the selection process to the owner of the ball. It is tacitly acknowledged to be “his gemme”, and he must be shown a degree of politeness for fear that he takes the huff at being picked late and withdraws his favours. Another aspect of team selection that may confuse those only familiar with the game at senior level will be the choice of goalkeepers, who will inevitably be the last players to be picked. Unlike in the senior game, where the goalkeeper is often the tallest member of his team, in the playground, the goalkeeper is usually the smallest. Senior aficionados must appreciate that playground selectors have a different agenda and are looking for altogether different properties in a goalkeeper. These can be listed briefly as: compliance, poor fighting ability, meekness, fear and anything else that makes it easier for their team-mates to banish the wee bugger between the sticks while they go off in search of personal glory up the other end.
Playground football tactics are best explained in terms of team formation. Whereas senior sides tend to choose – according to circumstance – from among a number of standard options (eg 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 5-3-2), the playground side is usually more rigid in sticking to the all-purpose 1-1-17 formation. This formation is a sturdy basis for the unique style of play, ball-flow and territorial give-and-take that makes the playground game such a renowned and strategically engrossing spectacle. Just as the 5-3-2 formation is sometimes referred to in practice as “Catenaccio”, the 1-1-17 formation gives rise to a style of play that is best described as “Nomadic”. All but perhaps four of the participants (see also OFFSIDE) migrate en masse from one area of the pitch to another, following the ball, and it is tactically vital that every last one of them remains within a ten-yard radius of it at all times.
Much stoppage time in the senior game is down to injured players requiring treatment on the field of play. The playground game flows free-er having adopted the refereeing philosophy of “no Post-Mortem, no free-kick”, and play will continue around and even on top of a participant who has fallen in the course of his endeavours. However, the playground game is nonetheless subject to other interruptions, and some examples are listed below:
– Ball on school roof or over school wall. The retrieval time itself is negligible in these cases. The stoppage is most prolonged by the argument to decide which player must risk life, limb or four of the belt to scale the drainpipe or negotiate the barbed wire in order to return the ball to play. Disputes usually arise between the player who actually struck the ball and any others he claims it may have struck before disappearing into forbidden territory. In the case of the Best Fighter having been adjudged responsible for such an incident, a volunteer is often required to go in his stead or the game may be abandoned, as the Best Fighter is entitled to observe that A: “Ye canny make me”; or B: “It’s no’ ma baw anyway”.
– Stray dog on pitch. An interruption of unpredictable duration. The dog does not have to make off with the ball, it merely has to run around barking loudly, snarling and occasionally drooling or foaming at the mouth. This will ensure a dramatic reduction in the number of playing staff as 27 of them simultaneously volunteer to go indoors and inform the teacher of the threat. The length of the interruption can sometimes be gauged by the breed of dog. A deranged Irish Setter could take ten minutes to tire itself of running in circles, for instance, while a Jack Russell may take up to fifteen minutes to corner and force out through the gates. An Alsatian means instant abandonment.
– Bigger boys steal ball. A highly irritating interruption, the length of which is determined by the players’ experience in dealing with this sort of thing. The intruders will seldom actually steal the ball, but will improvise their own kickabout amongst themselves, occasionally inviting the younger players to attempt to tackle them. Standing around looking bored and unimpressed usually results in a quick restart. Shows of frustration and engaging in attempts to win back the ball can prolong the stoppage indefinitely. Informing the intruders that one of the players’ older brother is “Mad Chic Murphy” or some other noted local pugilist can also ensure minimum delay.
– Menopausal old bag confiscates ball. More of a threat in the street or local green kickabout than within the school walls. Sad, blue-rinsed, ill-tempered, Tory-voting, cat-owner transfers her anger about the array of failures that has been her life to nine-year-olds who have committed the heinous crime of letting their ball cross her privet Line of Death. Interruption (loss of ball) is predicted to last “until you learn how to play with it properly”, but instruction on how to achieve this without actually having the bloody thing is not usually forwarded. Tact is required in these circumstances, even when the return of the ball seems highly unlikely, as further irritation of woman may result in the more serious stoppage: Menopausal old bag calls police.
Goal-scorers are entitled to a maximum run of thirty yards with their hands in the air, making crowd noises and saluting imaginary packed terraces. Congratulation by team-mates is in the measure appropriate to the importance of the goal in view of the current scoreline (for instance, making it 34-12 does not entitle the player to drop to his knees and make the sign of the cross), and the extent of the scorer’s contribution. A fabulous solo dismantling of the defence or 25-yard* rocket shot will elicit applause and back-pats from the entire team and the more magnanimous of the opponents. However, a tap-in in the midst of a chaotic scramble will be heralded with the epithet “poachin’ wee bastard” from the opposing defence amidst mild acknowledgment from team-mates. Applying an unnecessary final touch when a ball is already rolling into the goal will elicit a burst nose from the original striker. Kneeling down to head the ball over the line when defence and keeper are already beaten will elicit a thoroughly deserved kicking. As a footnote, however, it should be stressed that any goal scored by the Best Fighter will be met with universal acclaim, even if it falls into any of the latter three categories.
*Actually eight yards, but calculated as relative distance because “it’s no’ a full-size pitch”.
At senior level, each side often has one appointed penalty-taker, who will defer to a team-mate in special circumstances, such as his requiring one more for a hat-trick. The playground side has two appointed penalty-takers: the Best Player and the Best Fighter. The arrangement is simple: the Best Player takes the penalties when his side is a retrievable margin behind, and the Best Fighter at all other times. If the side is comfortably in front, the ball-owner may be invited to take a penalty. Goalkeepers are often the subject of temporary substitutions at penalties, forced to give up their position to the Best Player or Best Fighter, who recognise the kudos attached to the heroic act of saving one of these kicks, and are buggered if Wee Titch is going to steal any of it.
This is known also as the Summer Holidays, which the players usually spend dabbling briefly in other sports: tennis for a fortnight while Wimbledon is on the telly; pitch-and-putt for four days during the Open; and cricket for about an hour and a half until they discover that it really is as boring to play as it is to watch.”