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One bad memory goes like this: I'm in year 4, so probably nine years old. A lunchtime game of football is reaching its crescendo. The five-minute warning bell has just been swung by a dinner-lady, so everybody knows we're reaching the closing stages. For whatever reason a penalty has been awarded, and for some other reason, it's been decided I should take it.
If most boys want to be footballers, then it's safe to assume a fair amount of them are planning on going into management after their career on the pitch is done, which is probably why Kenny, Nima, Nyle, Ashley and every other small, freckled Pulis in my year are taking it in turns to mentor me in the moments before my strike. One by one they crowd around, they swing arms around my shoulders and point towards the moss-edged brick wall in front of me, which Jasper – huge Jasper, Jasper with his head the size of a tiger loaf and hands like Christ the Redeemer in goalie gloves – paces up and down. They howl and spit advice: "Catch it with the side of your foot," "Don't look where you're kicking it," "Do a massive run up, dummy it once, then punt it straight at his face."
I'm frozen. The throng start patting me on the back, chucking in some final thoughts, and giving me some space. Then they just watch; they lean forward, arms straightened, hands pressed into their thighs, pretending to chew gum, and watch.
In the vacuum of noise I step forward and attempt to do what they told me. That is, I attempt to do about 30 things at once, hurling my leg back and through like an unscrewed drilling rig. And the ball, it just, it splutters. It splutters and scrapes forward about a metre, as if it were made of wet cardboard. Huge, gigantic Jasper doesn't even need to move. He just watches it fart an inch and stop. Then the laughter starts, and it's not just laughter, it's that badlands playground laughter. Lights-out prison laughter. That awful, exultant laugh that says You Will Never Live This Down. Nobody looks at me; they just run around each other, slapping and yelping, celebrating the sheer joy of "not being that guy". The second bell rings, and we slope back into class.
You know when you're watching Soccer Aid, and it reaches the 86th minute, and the heft of the physical exertion suddenly hits Paddy McGuinness like a ton of bricks? That's my starting point.
I am not anti-football. Plenty of people take pride in "not getting" the sport, but that's normally just a way to make themselves sound superior. "Ha, I'm shit at football, silly old me with my books and my Doctor Who DVDs and razor-sharp wit, unable to kick a ball around some grass like the other boys" type stuff. This isn't that. I would fucking love to be good at football.
I've had a think and I reckon I rank in the bottom 30 percent of adult men. I'm not completely inept. I can run with the ball, providing nobody tries to tackle me, and I could plant a solid pass in a straight line from my feet to yours. Yet, to be clear, the most amount of consecutive kick-ups I've ever managed is four. My best "trick" is clutching the ball between my feet and jumping on the spot. You know when you're watching Soccer Aid, and it reaches the 86th minute, and the heft of the physical exertion suddenly hits Paddy McGuinness like a ton of bricks? That's my starting point. I play like I'm about three hours into a pill and have just had a pretty long go on a joint in a front-room in Stoke Newington, before being handed a pair of second-hand astro-trainers in the wrong size and driven to a leisure centre. I'm not atrocious, I'm just not really there.
Countless international players have commented that "football is a universal language", normally during those awkward first interviews with the English press after their transfer to the football league. What they mean when they say this is obvious enough: I don't speak English, but that doesn't matter; the rules of football exist outside of words, and as such anyone who understands the rules can communicate beyond the confines of translation. Yet, there's a flipside to this. Just because football is a language that doesn't use words, don't assume it's a language anyone can speak. I could learn Mandarin if I put the hours in. You can't learn football. Not at this age. Trust me, I've tried. Football isn't a universal language; it's a sneaky Pig Latin that no one will tell me how to do.
This is all my own fault. As a child I turned my back on playing football for a period of about eight years, between the ages of nine and 17. I had played at a Saturday morning club before that point, where tellingly the only accolade I ever won was a "Most Improved Player" medal, but by the turn of the millennium my patience had run out and I simply gave up. I never allowed my game, however basic, to build itself into my muscle memory. It never became second-nature. I developed a basic vocabulary and a loose sense of sentence structure, before abruptly abandoning the entire project. I now speak in broken football. You can see that my feet are trying to form the words – they know what a dipping free kick looks like – but the best they can manage is a croaked approximation.
I tried being good at football again recently. Last year, when we realised enough of us had made the migration to South East London, a group of my oldest friends from Bristol joined a five-a-side league in Peckham. We are all in our twenties now, and among us I figured time had been relatively kind to me. I go for runs now and my flatmate regularly eats two 7" Chicago Town pizzas for dinner. Equivalence, right? Not so, as I discovered during our first game.
It's not that I couldn't keep up physically. I wasn't out of breath; it was more like I was I stuck inside an early-noughties music video. The rush of the traffic, the blur of lights, moving past me in ribbons while I stood motionless facing the camera. All of them were operating on another plane, sending precise plays to one another with hive-mind anticipation. They didn't just know what to do when they had the ball, they knew what to do when they didn't have it, urgently running towards invisible red X's whenever the ball wasn't at their feet. I was lost. In an attempt to save some face, it was suggested I took five minutes sitting back in goal. Within two of those minutes, I'd let in three goals. Within the next minute I'd been subbed off.
The scores didn't get any kinder. As the weeks went on, and we rotated our players, a distinct and un-ignorable pattern emerged: when I played, we lost; when I didn't, we won. What's worse, all my friends noticed. Slowly, my self-deprecating jokes about letting the team down were harder to laugh off. My formerly light-hearted comments about quitting for the good of the team were met with muted, agreeable silence. "You should still come to the pub after," was the unprompted suggestion after what transpired to be my final game.
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At first, I thought I was jealous of their ability, but I don't think "envy" is what I'm experiencing. I don't want to be better than everyone, I just want to level up. I want to be able to join in, to be present in the room. It felt like watching while somebody else laughs at a really funny video with headphones on. A world of pleasure was happening in front of and around me, but I was separate from it. There but not.
It's something that exists inside all of us – when a conversation switches to a subject we know nothing about, when we struggle for something funny to say about the news on Twitter, when Richard Blackwood is asked to zest a lemon, he desperately wants to know just the basics of lemon zesting. We don't resent everyone else for being able to do it, we just wish we could do it too.
Like most things that ruin the present, it's a historical issue, really. More than anything, I wish I'd put the time in. That I hadn't bought into the nerdist mythology that some pursuits are above sports, and had instead dealt with not being good at football by playing it twice as much. Perhaps the reason being shit at football makes me so sad now is that I know it's not going to get any better. Playing football will forever be a portion of the world I have no real currency in. Like a bewildered pensioner trapped in an Apple store prodding the screens of the Macbooks hoping for a response, it's too late. I can never hope to truly understand.
My best hope now is that ageing will eventually level things out. One day we'll all be old, and all resigned to plastic covered armchairs. By then, nobody will be able to crack their knees into action even if they wanted to play football. And then, after that, one day, all my friends will be dead. The great equaliser. Everyone's shit at football when they're dead.