Summer 1998, and The Big Lebowski is busy giving a generation of slackers a crash-course in how to survive the "strikes and gutters" of team sport – and of life, insofar as team sport is both metaphor and preparation for the rigours of living. So my toe was over a little – who gives a shit? It's just a game, man. In France, meanwhile, Zinédine Zidane, Lilian Thuram, Youri Djorkaeff et al are giving the bigot Le Pen a real skewering, showing that the beautiful game can bring people together like nothing else – nothing, perhaps, except loud music and drugs.
Somewhere in Nottingham that same summer, Samovar soundsystem – formed earlier that decade and usually found playing pounding nosebleed techno at squat parties or in dark, insalubrious clubs – decided they'd combine football, drugs and music by entering a team into the South Notts Sunday Football League. It was never going to be staid. Think Irvine Welsh scribbling a story about parks fitba and you're halfway there.
The team was duly called FC Inter Avinit – a none too subtle pun on Inter Milan and the ethos espoused by Liberator DJs' mix CD, It's not Intelligent…It's not from Detroit…But it's F****n 'Avin It! It was certainly a name fit for a techno soundsystem Sunday football team. A name fit for an unfit techno soundsystem football team, in fact. I don't know how much time you've spent knocking about with techno soundsystems, but 10AM on a Sunday morning isn't really the time to catch them in their peak physical condition. On the plus side, there is at least a good chance they'll all be wide awake.
I got involved about a third of the way into the season. I wasn't a ringer or anything, I just happened to be available one Sunday when someone I was with got a phone call: "Yeah, fuck it. I'll play. Why not." And that was it: I just drifted into playing for the rest of the club's existence (which totalled 1 x season). Inter Avinit had 14 registered players, yet somehow managed to get through over 50 during the season, frequently picking up wasted guys from sketchy after-parties and assigning them one of the original 14 squad names in case of a yellow card. A booking was a £5 fine, as opposed to the £25 fine and docked points that fielding an ineligible player incurred.
The league was keen to keep whatever decorum Sunday parks football possesses intact, so one of the old sausages who ran it once asked us, ever so politely: "I don't have a huge problem with the spectators drinking cans of lager, but if the players are going to do it, could they be a bit more subtle?" Sunday morning football is clearly for running off last night's booze, not tipping more back into the system, so half-time Stellas shared with our hardy band of crusty ultras was not exactly run-of-the-mill. "And can you try and keep the dogs off the pitch?" "Yeah, sorry Trev. Will do."
Our strip was black and orange stripes – yes, football hipster, call us the gialloneri if you must – and quite itchy. It kept you warm in the warmth and cold in the cold, all static electricity and jogger's nipple, exactly as nature intended it. It was certainly a strip into whose unforgiving man-made fibres were hewn the acrid stench of defeat. Literally, for this was not a team that raced through boxes of Daz. There was a game played on a boggy pitch somewhere, uphill and into a howling wind, where we failed to get out of our half for the entirety of the first 45 minutes. There's a well-known saying in top-flight football: you're always going to struggle when your goalkicks aren't getting out of the penalty box. And so it proved. Never mind, though, because someone broke out the whizz at half-time to cheer us up! Splendid. Isaidthat'sfuckingsplendidnowcomeonwecanturnthisaround!!!
We didn't turn it around, although we may have stopped their centre-backs from sitting on the halfway line. Moral victory. As for the result, it was up in the teens, perhaps 17-0. To tell you the truth, I don't remember a lot of it: venues, opponents, scorelines, random teammates – much has fallen into the same fuzzy abyss as the nights that preceded them.
There were three or four games that hit double figures, though. Against, obviously. We were the San Marino, the Andorra, the poor old Liechtenstein of Nottingham's Sunday parks. Not that these minnows would drink cans of Wife-Beater or dab jazz sherbert during the interval, or go into games having had 18 hours sleep, collectively. There were various explanations for our lack of tactical cohesion. Dress it up as an expression of anarchism if you like, but essentially we played the Brownian motion formation, occasionally reverting, as the lung capacity faded, to a 10-0-0 that wasn't as watertight as it might have been. If we'd wanted to park the bus, you'd have thought we'd not have been short of options, given that many of our fanbase lived on them. Our only concession to tactical sophistication was that we liked to play between the lines.
The batterings – on and off the pitch – continued through the winter. There may have been no points, but there was the odd, improbable goal – have you ever seen a shinned lob from inside the six-yard box? – to tie the conversation together. In one game we even went 2-0 up inside the opening ten minutes, only then for the scorer of the brace to come up on the industrial-sized line of ketamine he'd surreptitiously hoofed just prior to kick-off, necessitating him having to be subbed off as he was just stumbling around in the opposition's half, hallucinating and offside. It was all starting to get like a Channel 4 commissioning editor's wet dream.
The defeats weren't dispiriting – this was football for shits and giggles, after all – but the hedonistic impulse did need feeding, so Samovar threw a couple of Inter Avinit club nights during this period, the second of which provided a sublime moment of team-bonding (management gurus, take note).
In a nutshell, our enthusiastic yet ultimately crap right-winger, Aussie Marc, had befriended a low-grade conman while working in a bar in town. "Phil" said he was due to inherit £1 million and wanted to open a superclub (this was the year both Fabric and the short-lived Home in Leicester Square opened). He roped Marc in to project manage, and Marc roped in three others from the team, some blagging, some kosher. After a fortnight either side of Christmas refusing to look this gift horse in the mouth – during which Frank Sidebottom look-a-like Phil lost his narco-virginity at a South London squat party – the truth dawned and our amigo "Phil" would undergo a savage public humiliation 45 minutes into a "progress meeting" convened and expertly orchestrated by Marc.
Now, if ever a situation calls for being blunt as fuck, then Aussie is generally the way you want to go. After everyone gave their update – and after Phil had been allowed to gush imperiously on about suit fittings, mobile phones, company cars, site inspections, exorbitant salaries, global brands and the like – Marc came straight in with a two-footed reducer: "Yeah, that's all fucking great mate, but we know it's absolute bullshit." Unlike his service in open play, Forrest-Gumping up the wings, this set-piece delivery was bang on the money. "That cheque you wrote out: Eight fucking grand? Bounced into my account and back out again like a fucking kangaroo."
Thanks to a strategically sellotaped dictaphone, that worked its way into the live set of the two guys who ran both Samovar and the team, Nibble and Allan. They were performing as No Ball Games – named after their sole stage prop, a sign half-inched from a local park – at Nottingham's notorious Marcus Garvey Centre, a gangster-run village hall on the second floor of a council building in one of the city's roughest neighbourhoods. (That said, provided you avoided starting a drugs turf war, you could get bongoed to your heart's content. And we did.) The pair bounded onstage and took the roof off with set-opener "Bullshit", banging techno with a familiar sample: "Like a fucking kangaroo… Like a fucking kangaroo… That's all fucking great mate, but we know it's absolute bullshit." Catharsis.
By the time the blackbirds were singing in the springtime, we'd failed to register a single point. Chipper still, but pointless. It's the taking part that counts, but we hadn't been taking part as often as the league fixtures indicated we ought to have been, and so by April, due to the unusual amount of eleventh-hour cancellations – one fixture was abandoned after four players were arrested driving back from a warehouse party, spending the night in Elephant and Castle cells – we still had a number of matches remaining. The fixture backlog meant we would be playing Wednesday evenings and Sunday to catch up. And as you can probably imagine, the difference between weekend and midweek performance-wise, given the lack of performance-detractors in the bloodstream, was as Big Sam is to Barcelona.
For this late-season upsurge in form, Inter Avinit's 70,000-stander stadium, the Forest Fields Recreation Ground – original home of Nottingham Forest – looked a picture. Our small but hardy smattering of streaker dogs, Stella-quaffing crusties, anarcho-hippies, travellers, New-Agers and others trying to sidestep capitalist drudgery had started to swell. Even folk indifferent to football were coming down, bringing their various potions with them. Someone even snorted synthetic mescaline at one game; understandable, really, given the lack of other refreshments on sale.
The assortment of bemused officer workers and serial pub-haunters who turned up to play us in our penultimate home game – the same night Roy Keane reached into his heart of darkness to inspire United to a 2-3 win over Juventus in the Champions League semi final – were unable to stop us picking up our first point of the season. A 0-0 draw!
Surfing the wave of confidence created by our one-match unbeaten run, we went into the last match of the season, against West Bridgford Albion, with an indomitable spring in our step. And guess what happened? We won. We fucking won!
Even if I were able, there's probably little point giving you a detailed chalkboard analysis of the game. All I really remember is Allan wheeling away in an aeroplane celebration, his ten teammates, about 40 crusties and one or two dogs chasing him across the Rec', and eventually to the bottom of a joyous, writhing, stinky pile-on. What a way to finish the season, the sole season in the life of FC Inter Avinit. We had helped bring a sense of pride to our community – slapped a big happy smiley-face on it, you might say. Top one, nice one, sorted.