Title: The Beautiful Game

Author: G.J. Melling

In: Sport 32: Summer 2004

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, December 2004

Part of: Sport

Keywords: Prose Literature

Conditions of use



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Sport 32: Summer 2004

G.J. Melling — from The Beautiful Game

page 54

G.J. Melling

from The Beautiful Game

Big Match Highlights

The boy accepts marriage, age 32. They've co-persisted for years, he and she, quite snappily. His crew call him dude.

Whassup, dude? Through the side of the mouth, full faced. They're into strategy, the running of biology's clock. They're alarmed.

I coach the Juniors in the very year the boy receives a thin tin cup for Most Improved Player. Justice over etiquette—who blows a whistle for the soundly deaf? My ears hush brightly red.

He is said to resemble a forties film star. It's the eyebrows, the way they almost join above the nose. And that easy demeanour.

But the boy is more than that. He's real, my ear aches. His voice—thousands of miles away—is technology at its most terrible and clear.

Aw, y'know… he says.

He supposes I do, I suppose.

I still kick a ball around, even though unable to quite see it. Aerial stuff is difficult. I used to enjoy heading the ball against the crossbar, that deep kiss of connection.

The boy evokes his grandma's downcast brow, that wounded but unfallen angel. Beware the girl with cleavage, she told me—when the time arrived to tell—and come-to-bed eyes.

The old man raised his eyebrows to their customary twitch. Support who you like, he said. Liverpool or Everton.

page 55

The longer the tooth, the shorter the bite. A necessary vegetarian, I fast the familial feast in the restaurant carpark, smoke my greens. My polished shoes are luminous in the dark. I've upped my market, dressed in black.

My father performs an act of violence on his wife in the early 1950s. Again. He is not a well man at the time. He's happier now, in that jar we cared not what to do with. He's won his cup.

I sway on his shoulders above a cascade of flat hats—fresh nostrils for the fragrance of meat pie, a six of chips, urine on the steps. Forty thousand people with one voice. Its roar that greets a score.

Laughter tickles the cool night air, a comedy of speeches. On my way back inside to the Gents, I contemplate the humour in a piss against a wall.

It's Wedding's Eve, if that's a seasonal suggestion. The crew play soccer on a paddock in Hastings. I cross the ball with the inside of my foot. The boy's ensuing header is expected arrogance, a right of passage through the goalie's groping fingers.

I've been transferred, at my own request. I unmarry as he marries, sub myself off, as you do in Masters' Grade. Shouldn't we all when the energy's sapped? The boy has first-rate training boots, all the way from London.

Her smile runs freely by the dress she bought in Paris. Adjectives are tucked into the hem like shillings under the pillow of a sleeping child. She looks just like she looks, Comme ça.

The crew is over-coached. They telegraph each pass, each movement off the ball. I seek the element of surprise. Show me who you think I am!

The boy thinks for himself. He's discussing wedding suits with the Mafia. They gun me down, just as I knew they would.

They depart their dressing rooms like All Blacks to the tunnel, preen their uniformity, assess their tactics, huddle with straight backs. I bend into a corner, peel an orange. A crowd will soon be opening its throat.

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The aisle is an arc of vineyard, an inswinging corner to the six-yard box. Choreography, a midfield prance, each feint of hip a losing of the conscious, a slyness in the loving of itself. The boy well suits his shirt.

I deliver the epithalamium like a postman with a registered letter. A penalty kick to the back of the net. But that's football.


The sting of linament narrows the eyes. Where's the loyalty in football? the old timers ask. The love of the game—where's that?

I'm an old timer myself now, retired from the Golden Oldies, mindblown by the final whistle. I've limped through several clubs, loyal to them all until the love got the cramp.

You see? It's a work of science fiction, penned by Bobby Moore. I might be a television commentator for ESPN, an erudite gossip on Hard Talk.

The pulling-on of the shirt is a sensual act—under the arms, over the head, down along the torso. Assertively numbered, particular colour, sleeves adorned with a stripe or two…

To the clubman it's his skin—to the journeyman, a condom.

I sum up total football like an accountant balances books. If you slip a pass into a gap, I won't run for it. Mistaking myself for Stanley Matthews, I'll stand rooted to the spot, pointing at my boots. To the feet, I'll yell. To the feet! Genius is always lazy once it gets the idea.

She lies flat on her back at the foot of the world, forearm folded over widow's peak. My life's over, she says. She's in her thirties. She's threatened by the hills in a Don Binney painting, concrete tanks on the skyline. Water on the brain, she sniffs.

She attacks on the break from a blanket defence. Her skill is the set-play—Her Majesty's Christmas Day message, beamed around the world, page 57 shows fabulous composure; as does the Wembley Cup Final, where the winners lift their trophy—presented by a member of the Royal Family—high above their heads.

But this… A quaint old worker's cottage, deemed worthy of preservation by colonial zealots! This is non-league stuff, kick-and-rush, the timbered terraces of Accrington Stanley. Just look at the state of the bedroom!

Weeds climb through the skirtings like hooligans on the march. Uphill, into the wind.

A goalpost is a coat topped with a cap. Low stone walls to houses—topped with privet—define touchlines. Spectators arrive in occasional cars, forced to stop, their drivers to lean on their horns.

Teams are territorially based, Avenue against Road, Crescent versus Close. We referee our own fights, quick to spot the difference in the cultured from the crude. To indulge the opposition—if only to balance the numbers—concedes a free kick in the balls.

At the age of six, my brother switches allegiance from Liverpool to Everton, the shock tactics of innocence. His suffering feeds my guilt, a defence-splitting pass from Steven Gerrard.

Game after game we are postponed, week after week. Frozen surfaces, failed floodlights, the ball that won't roll on a waterlogged pitch. I'm out of favour, in my own company. My smile has lost its winning streak.

When the silence stretches longer than its stride, I roll my substitution for the pleasures of a smoke. Both lungs ache in the effort of asking. You OK?

She is offended by the chill that bites my lip. There's nothing wrong with me, she says.

Another scoreless draw.

What did I say? And was I well spoken?

The drive back from the airport is the passport to my longest flight. It was good to see the folks, she says, but… The oral history is lost, like an old valve radio invaded by static, the commentary obliterated just page 58 as the centre forward shapes to shoot. For the taker of the penalty, mercy.

I may have said I'm leaving. But anyway, I left. The great one-club man, finally transferred.


Should the fans turn ugly, I may find myself at fault—shirt out over shorts, lousy haircut, two left feet. A scissor kick that cuts and runs away.

I pull my fingers from my ears—booing is the wooing of despair. It spurs me on.

This season is the longest yet, corrugated mud in midfield. A leg folds into a rut, and snaps. A cut on the kneecap takes months to repair, a teasing white ghost of its slice. I'm on the slide, the receiving end of a two-footed tackle. Head down, I grimace and limp.

My touch seems lost, but when she taps me on the shoulder, I've been picked to play for England. It takes a while to recognise the colour of my shirt, its famous emblem.

I'm confused, I believe. Not me, she accepts.

I wear my heart on my knees, catch my breath with both arms at full stretch. Deliberate handball.

I'm under new management, just as I take my place in the directors' box. Before each game, my kit is pressed and folded, carefully aligned under a clothes peg on the wall. Half-time oranges are freshly-peeled and juicy, the showers hot and steamy.

This is some club. Its training ground appropriates my fitness—there are trophies to be won. I've seen the way she leans against the changing-room wall.

The hardest challenge is the fifty-fifty ball, a confrontation with the softness in the head. Whereto the bounce? And under whose control?

page 59

I lunge for possession. She holds her own.

Silly darling, she tuts.

She complains of a plump bottom, this slim little woman in white trousers. Bollocks, I say, as I give it a slap. To flatter the referee invites morbid interest. I'm already on a yellow card.

Whenever she blows the whistle, I feel like I've taken a dive, a professional foul. A fake, or a flake? My feet sweep from under me, surely—there's that ghost of a push in the back. But must I fall flat on my face?

She reflects in her stainless steel sinkbench, dolefully slicing a pepper. Mud dries my cheeks.

The body-swerve is a form of attack, of the necessity to be forward. It's in the loins, like rock'n'roll. The sweep of a foot in one direction, a flick of the hips in another. At speed, it's a movement of startling beauty, the shiver in a curtain's lace.

We make our bed and fly in it. Down both wings, straight up the middle.

Lacking the coordination to kick my own arse, I run into trouble, the blood to my head. The coach concedes frustration. Just do your fucking job, I'm told, and let me be the genius!

I read my poems to her over the telephone, each word a nutmeg, an innocence spreading its legs.

I drift in and out of the game, a muse to her amusement. I'm a winger, left or right—a marginalised talent glued to a touchline, a dreamer with time on his feet.

An occasional vignette in someone else's story, I relate. That's me! I'm losing my place in the pages.

She calls for action, passes me the ball. Teamwork, she declares, and runs off into space.

Her generosity gifts the avarice in my soul, a free header at the far post. Every game to yield a hat-trick, every goal the season's best. The page 60 duty of a striker is to score. Against Porirua City, I poke over the line a ball already on its way into the net, raise an arm in triumph.

Whatever we make of it must be made sure.

Kick off

I hold no recollection of my birth—it slipped through a hole in the side netting. As always, I blame the officials. Can't they get anything right?

I will either be a girl, or the disappointment I reveal myself to be. As compensation for the loss of the last three letters in Geraldine, I gain three visible genital parts. A raw deal, according to my father, who has a natural eye for one.

You were an ugly little monkey, he says, through teeth clenched on the stem of a pipe. Covered in red hair.

Red hair, red shirt. What else can I be but a Liverpool supporter? He should be pleased. In those days, girls don't follow football.

When the sirens sound, mother shoves us into the cupboard under the stairs, then squeezes herself in the pantry. The two enclaves adjoin, and she talks to us non-stop through the thin dividing wall. A diversion—she remembers—from the whistling of bombs, the thuds of impact.

Regardless of the roar of disapproval, she waves play on, keeps the game flowing. Quite the best referee I've played under.

Like the pencils we must sharpen, we are whittled into shape, narrowed to a point of least resistance. Through the giddy depths of a magnifying glass, we focus the sun's rays onto the backs of our small white hands, inflicting tiny burns to the skin. We are—of course—unflinching.

The school hall is a ritual assembly of black shorts, white vests and thin-soled pumps. The PT master waves a finger at the monkey bars stretched out along a wall.

page 61

Aspiring gymnasts, he announces, line up over there! The rest play football.

We close a circle in the centre of the room, idly vault the horses, pull the ropes suspended from the ceiling. The master is a grinning ape—he knows that life swings from the crossbar of the goalposts.

Arsenal 2 Liverpool 0, the 1950 FA Cup Final. After switching off his radio, a father puffs furiously on a pipe, crosses and uncrosses his feet on a pouffe. Little wet footballs roll down the side of a small boy's nose, whose ambition in life is to read out the scores on the wireless.

In its Stop Press, the Football Echo runs pictures of the bruises to the shins of Billy Liddell, the legendary Liverpool and Scotland winger whose parting down the centre of his greased-down, short black hair is as straight and white as a halfway line rolled neatly through the grass. As if unmanly, Billy poses coyly, one foot raised on a stool, socks rolled to the ankles.

They kicked the danger out of the game.

The old man punts the horses over Beecher's Brook, his highest jump for glory. On Grand National day, he always backs the favourite.

Success, he soberly maintains—hunched forward in the sureness of his armchair—is a jockeying for position.

Though by nature defensive, as a goalie I'm defeated. Comprehension whistles past me on all sides, at frightening speed. I swap my jersey with a more aggressive boy, and gravitate upfield towards the ball.

I'm a trialist for a team that owns its grandstand. Amidst a thin and colourless crowd, my father chats to a man with a yellow armband. As he speaks, he points in my direction, rocks on his heels, stamps his feet, folds his arms. He's warming up for a big game.

I'm an inside-forward, played at fullback. We lose, 1-0, and I'm the scorer. My attempted clearance is a hurdle we can't climb. Hands in pockets and pipe extinguished, my father descends the steps to the exit.

I tie together the laces of my fully-studded boots, hang them from a rail inside a wardrobe. My heart is a waterlogged football, heavy, page 62 leathery, complete with its own knotted string. Only sixteen, as the song so sweetly goes. Too young to know.

I'm passing one of those life's trials my mother talks about. We can't keep our dreams, she insists. Sooner or later, we let go.

I'm an academic success. I join a lesser club, and sample smoking.

Final Whistle

The room is struck by the dimness of its lighting, the deference in the opening of its door. What else to recall of such a place, except a longing for amnesia? A shrunken head on a plumped-up pillow, she is the mother of all dénouement.

Am I to remove the rings? the sexton needs to know.

A captain's armband decorates my sleeve. Heads or tails?

I assume my father wants them, and that she would wish him to.

In the aftermath of the Munich aircrash that sends off half his teammates, Duncan Edwards lingers for days in a hospital bed kept vigil by the nation. But you can't argue with the referee, however mysterious the misdemeanour. He simply has to go.

How odd it feels to pray—in school assembly—for the life of a lad from Manchester United, the enemy down the East Lancashire Road. During classes, we wear black armbands supplied by a silent prefect, a Tranmere Rovers supporter.

When Duncan finally goes, we wonder how he'll feel, never to know if his team will win the Cup that year, or the league.

It's hard to imagine not knowing that.

The striker is assisted by the wind, forcing me back towards the edge of the box. The goalie's staring eyeballs frisk my neck. Suicide or euthanasia? Or the trust in good custodianship?

The frame of the goal is the border to hell.

page 63

When the Vespa scoots them off into the night, it confiscates my sleep. The house is an unprotected goalmouth, its keeper dismissed from the field.

I patrol my bedroom's edges, run its lines—the stiles of the door, the sill of the window, the wall between inside and out. I count the ticking of the clock at the foot of the stairs. I'm in injury time. Are they already crushed beneath a bus, down at the Pierhead? My eardrums beat a signal to the streets, sounding out the engine note that arrogates my peace.

Interred in its pillow, my head rests on the cast-iron bars of the Boys' Pen, high up on the Kop. Under the glare of floodlights, a linesman waves an orange flag as the bright red shirts press forward. Briefly thwarted, they come again, propelled by the power of collective will. I spread my arms out wide across my blankets—I'm well within their reach.

The gurgle of the homecoming Vespa is choked by the clamour of a singing crowd. I keep a clean sheet.

Sometime last century, an apparently equalising goal (a crucial FA Cup tie) is controversially disallowed when the final whistle blows just as the ball crosses the goal line.

The following day, Sports Extra displays black and pink photographs of a ball suspended in air, inches from its target—a graphic obituary to a public mourning. It seems like dying before the time is due.

When the old man goes in off the post, fewer people attend the funeral than turn up at Newtown Park for a President's game.

His diligence runs out the time, tough as his tired old boots. But his days yield few statistics, and the fans demand a write-up in the Sunday morning papers.

Spectators sport the dream. Reality is there, out on the park.