A shark can smell a single drop of blood from a mile away. I’m the same with football, except I’m even more deadly. I can hear a ball being whacked from at least two miles.
I have to lean my head out and sideways when I’m listening, or pretending to listen, to anyone who’s talking in front of me. My left ear is in need of a service or something. If I’m standing at the kettle, looking at it, I can hear the dogs out the back, because my right ear is facing the kitchen window. When I’m walking away from the kettle the dogs seem to be in a garden much farther away – in Cabra, or Marrakesh.
It’s not the same with the football. Both ears are grand. If anyone taps a ball within a two mile radius of the kettle, the jacket’s on and I’m off.
Especially in the autumn, after the football drought that other people call the summer. Falling leaves and football – I think Sinatra had a song about it. I hum it anyway, regardless of whether the song exists or not. Falling leaves and football – I’ll love you ’til the final whistle.
Anyway. Last night I heard the unmistakable sound, boot to ball. But it was different. It sounded a bit dry. The shark detects the blood in water and, to a man of my vintage, water is the natural habitat of the footballer. When I was a kid football was a water sport. The player was drenched, his boots were leaking, the ball was lodged in a puddle and, after repeated contact with the boot, it skidded into another puddle, and sank.
So anyway, I followed the sound of the kick and arrived at the new all-weather pitch behind SuperValu. There was a bunch of young lads training. It was raining – of course it was – but it didn’t matter. The pitch looked perfect and the football – the push and run – looked effortless. The young lads were focussed, fast and precise.
I felt sorry for them.
Those poor lads are going to grow up thinking that football pitches are green and that the ball will always do what they want it to. That’s no preparation for life.
Here’s my theory: Ireland became a modern, prosperous European country – kind of – because the football pitches were composed of muck and water. They taught us to batter our way through adversity, to make the most of what we had, and to cheat. But these young lads trotting around on the plastic grass, thinking they’re in Barcelona instead of Finglas East or Manorhamilton – they’re being conned.
Brexit – now there’s a pitch made of muck and water. But just imagine Jacob Rees-Mogg’s head is a ball in a puddle. (He already looks like a puddle, so the job’s half done.) The negotiations will be a game of football on an Irish pitch.
We’ll be completely at home, up to our arses in muck. We’ll be grand and we’ll win in extra time.
I got the bends once, when I ran off a pitch too quickly. It was my own fault. We were two-nil up, so I should have taken my time when our manager, Mister Hurley, called me off. But I just wanted to get in under my anorak – and I suffered the consequences. My joints were pure agony and I was shaking like Elvis on speed. And all I got for my troubles was a pat on the back and a “Good man, Charlie”.
But what a lesson: it made a man of me.
My brother, Paddy, came home from a match in Coolock once and told us that a German U-Boat had come up out of the puddle in front of the away goal.
– I swear to God, lads, he said.
Paddy was the goalkeeper, so he was in the perfect position to see what happened. He was actually nose-down in the puddle, clutching what he hoped was the ball, when he saw the submarine’s periscope rise up slowly in front of his left eye. By the time he was up and hiding behind his goalpost, the whole U-boat had risen out of the muck.
– Then the thing at the top, the hatch, like, opened and the Captain’s head poked out.
– Where are vee? he asked Paddy.
– Coolock, said Paddy.
– Mein gott! said the captain. – Ze home of Irish football!
He climbed out, followed by 10 more Germans – and a sub. They wanted a match and Paddy’s team hammered them seven-one because of the state of the pitch. The Germans shook hands, climbed back in, and the U-boat sank back into the puddle.
Paddy will tell you himself: the whole experience made him proud to be Irish.
But these poor lads here, playing tiki-taka on the perfect surface? I fear for my country.