Sometimes you don’t realise you have any authority until you lose it. Then you find you had some all along, really. Up to a point. But of course, thinking you don’t have it, you try to claim it. Then you lose it. And, in the process, realise you had actually had it, had you but known it, which of course you didn’t, or you wouldn’t have tried to claim it in the first place.
I’m not really management material, I don’t think. Although I am, officially, the manager. I’m more Sven Goran Eriksson than Alex Ferguson. I don’t throw teacups or kick equipment around. I don’t even do sarcasm very well. I don’t think they’d stand for it frankly. Not in over-35’s football. Especially if you’re under 35, like me. I turned up wanting to train with them till I was eligible to play. And they made me manager. Saw me coming.
I try to be positive. I try to motivate, say two positives for every negative. Sometimes three. Four maybe, but beyond that sounds like sarcasm.
Because we’re not really a great team. We haven’t got particularly good players. And some of them aren’t very nice. They don’t play as a team. They play in a team. They wear the same blue shirts and shorts – except Alan, who wears his number 9 Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink Chelsea shirt. But it’s like having the same kit isn’t enough proof of identity for them to pass to one another. They need more – maybe a driving licence, a copy of their birth certificate. Or they need team mates to argue the case for passing to them, and maybe then they’ll consider it. But by then it’s too late. Or, more accurately, two nil.
Which was the score at half time. And I would have loved to have talked of issuing identity cards for proof of team membership, but I show restraint. I say, ‘You’re better than this score-line’, I say, ‘I’ve seen some good tackles going in, good passes, we need more than that.’ I say, ‘Keep your heads up’, I say, ‘blah, blah, cliché, blah, blah, blah, cliché’ lads. And stick at it.’
And I don’t honestly believe they pay any attention, although the nicer ones look up and nod, as if they were.
And today, in the second half, it was as if they were. They passed the ball, sometimes to each other. They tackled, sometimes in a non-girly way. They even scored. Twice. Pulled level. Unheard of. The travelling supporters couldn’t believe it. The travelling supporters, by the way, are me and Stan. Stan the Fan. The Old Man of the Park. He adopted the team in the early days and they adopted him too, because there wasn’t much else to do – a fan’s a fan.
He doesn’t say much, Stan – but, when he does, no-one listens. I feel a kinship with him. An unspoken kinship. Because what’s the point?
With five minutes to go Stan and I get passionate. We hit the inside of the post but it bounces out and we shout, ‘Ref! Ref!” as if, when the laws of physics are flouted like that, he can over-rule what’s happened and award a goal. But he lacks the courage and imagination.
Then, two minutes to go, a lucky ricochet falls to the feet of our centre forward, Alan. He knocks a defender over with his formidable upper body strength, gets away with it, looks up, the keeper’s off his line. And Roger arrives in the box screaming for the ball – a simple ball for a simple goal – and Alan pauses, assesses the situation, and coolly, casually, with no backswing like his role model Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, and shoots, feebly, into the side-netting.
Stan and I are stunned. And bitter. We’re stunned, bitter and speechless. we can’t believe anyone, even Alan, would do that. There’s a muttering from the touchline. ‘Typical. Just typical.’ That’s Stan. There’s another voice. ‘Irresponsible. It’s downright irresponsible.’ That’s me. And Stan looks at me and says, ‘Someone’s got to say something to that man.’ And I look back and I nod, as if to say, ‘Yes, the time has come. I’m the manager. Something has to be said.’
I was going to say something in the dressing room. But it didn’t feel right. So I waited till we were gathered in the bar of the Unigate Creamery Social Club. Then I realised I should have said something in the dressing room. I sit down opposite Alan. No preamble. Blurt out, ‘You should have put it across, Alan.’
He just looks at me. Expressionless. An absence of menace that’s intimidating. And I think, ‘Colin, you’re an idiot. This is over-35’s football. It’s a laugh and a run-around. You’re over-reacting. You’re bringing it to the Crown Court when it’s a Small Claims case. You’re being ridiculous.’
I’m about to back down, cravenly, when he says, ‘Across to who?’
‘Across to who?’ I say.
‘Yeah’, he says, ‘Across to who?’
I fight the impulse to say, ‘You mean: Across to whom?’
‘Across to Roger’, I say, nodding at Roger who’s sat opposite nursing a fruit juice. We both look across to Roger.
‘Yeah?’ says Alan.
My case could collapse here as I realise my first witness is intimidated. But he admits it. ‘Yes, I was lurking in the box.’
Alan considers this a moment, to Roger’s discomfort. Then turns to me and to my discomfort says, ‘He should have called for it.’
Without a witness protection scheme I can’t expect Roger to volunteer further evidence.
I say, ‘Roger did call for it, Alan’.
‘Well he should have called louder.’
‘If he’d called any louder he’d have broken council bye laws. He’d have breached the peace!
I’m trying to lighten things up. And failing.
Roger tried to smooth things. ‘It’s all right’, he says, ‘I’d have fluffed it anyway.’ I want him to shut up. But I don’t say so. Alan shuts him up when he says, ‘It’s obviously not all right, Roger, not for Colin.’
And I feel the room go quiet, and the stakes go higher. Everyone knows something’s happening. Something is being said.
Alan turns back to me. ‘Why didn’t you say this in the dressing room?’
He’s right. I should have said this in the dressing room. But then I couldn’t, and now I have to. I can’t explain. I shrug. ‘I’m saying it now.’
He nods, as if that’s quite a good point. ‘But why are you saying it, Colin? What’s your point? What do you want?’
God this is hard. I’ve got to back off or plough on. I say, ‘It’s not just about this one time, not crossing it. I want you to play for the team. Not just for Alan.’
He says, ‘You know what I think, Colin?’
Which to me is a rhetorical question. But he pauses for so long I think I’d better answer. ‘No Alan, I don’t. What do you think?’
‘I think you’ve got a problem with Alan Parsons.’
He’s right. But that was the point.
‘And,’ he goes on, ‘I think you’ve got to decide whether you want Alan Parsons in your team.’
Heady stuff. My team. The highest status I’d ever had. And Alan Parsons has moved into the third person.
‘Easy decision,’ I say. ‘I want Alan Parsons in the team – and for it.’
Alan smiles sadly. Shakes his head. ‘You want to have your Alan Parsons and keep him.’
I say, ‘What?’
He says, ‘What you want you can’t have.’
‘Because I am Alan Parsons.’
‘I know that Alan. I’m not disputing it. But can’t Alan Parsons change, slightly? Doesn’t Alan Parsons have a choice?
Alan continues to surprise me. ‘Look,’ he says, ‘it’s not whether I play for Alan or for the team. I play as Alan. I have Alan’s ability. I have Alan’s attitude. Because he is me. I am Alan.’
He’s suddenly earnest and surprisingly gentle. ‘Colin, I can’t not be Alan.’
The men around us, including some of the Unigate players, are listening openly now. They’re gathered round us like a jury of twelve dull men and true. And they’re nodding. I’m losing the argument.
I say, ‘Alan, I agree you are Alan. But as Alan I don’t agree you have no choice. You have free will. You’re a free man.’
He looks at me. ‘Am I, Colin?’
It was good to be back in the first person. But it doesn’t last.
‘Colin, if I was the Alan you wanted, I wouldn’t be the Alan I am.’
Not only are we back in the third person, we’re in a country song by Lyle Lovett. I’m sitting in Unigate Creamery Social Club in a country song scenario with a man old enough to be my financial advisor.
It’s become clear to Alan the only reason I’m giving him a hard time is a simple lack of basic understanding. He says, ‘Colin, Colin. Colin, Colin, Colin. Football is an instinctive thing. It’s a sublimation of battle. It’s heat of the moment. It’s instincts, reflexes. And for people like me, people like Jimmy Floyd, the sight of goal is like the scent of quarry. You know we evolved from hunter-gatherers, right?’
‘Well some people are more hunter than gatherer. Yeah?’
I’m not sure.
‘Some are all hunter and no gatherer, and some are all gatherer and no hunter. Yeah?’
‘I’m not sure, Alan.’
‘It’s basic Darwinism, Colin. The sight of goal equals the smell of blood. In that moment it’s not a football match. It’s a hunt.’
‘Yes, a hunt!’
‘Hunt isn’t the first word that comes to mind, Alan.’
I deeply regret saying that. But it was a heat of the moment thing. The smell of bullshit. He ignores it, but I know he’s heard it.
‘I’m sorry, Colin. The hunter is selfish. He doesn’t explain. He doesn’t apologise. That’s how it is with me.’
‘And Jimmy Floyd,’ I said.
‘And Jimmy Floyd.’
‘So that’s why you don’t track back or mark anyone. It’s against your instincts.’
He shrugs. ‘That’s not an instinct thing. It’s more of a principle.’
I begin to feel sarcasm welling up in me. A visceral, unstoppable, evolutionary sarcasm. ‘Well, if it’s a principle you should have said! I didn’t realise I’d touched on a question of conscience. I see what you mean now. What choice do you have? Morally you have no choice. What you are really is a conscientious objector.’
‘I can respect a conscientious objector,’ I said. And straightaway wished I hadn’t because ‘respect’ is a big word and I’d raised the stakes again. And my voice was getting louder while his was getting softer, and I didn’t know how to finish the sentence without making things worse.
He didn’t let me. ‘That’s the difference between you and me, Colin. I don’t respect conscientious objectors.’
Oh dear. The goalposts have moved. We’ve as good as mentioned the war. Did he know where I stood on the war? Of course he did. I thought, ‘Don’t go down that road. Move in, seize the goalposts, sum up and get out.’
I said, ‘Alan, Alan, Alan, Alan, Alan.’ I said, ‘The difference between you and me, Alan, is about choice. It’s about attitude, it’s about choice. All I’m saying is it’s your choice – whether you play for the team, for yourself, or just with yourself. It’s your choice whether you admit you have a choice, or duck behind your daft, distorted Darwinism. It’s your choice whether you’re going to be Alan Parsons or a sub-Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink clone. You’re stuck with being Alan Parsons. The question is whether you’re going to be responsible for him or just typical of him.’
And I should have left it there. Because I felt I’d equalised. Maybe even scored the decider. I felt I was winning the battle for hearts and minds. But I said, unnecessarily, irrevocably, ‘What’s it going to be, Alan?’ And he had one more surprise up his sleeve.
He hit me. Hard. With no back swing. I was quick but he was quicker, catching my chin as I jerked back in my chair – which tilted, reached the point of balance, and slowly fell. Thud. Sending out ripples of silence through the Social Club.
Alan stood up and said, ‘That’s the difference between you and me, Colin.’ Then he picked up his fleece and walked off.
Nobody laughed. Or applauded. Which was nice. I lay on my back in the chair, eyes closed. I felt things had slipped away from me. Perhaps I should resign, there and then, like Kevin Keegan after Germany. I opened my eyes and saw Stan looking down at me. He nodded. ‘Well done, son. Someone had to say something.’
‘But he hit me, Stan.’
Stan smiled a rare smile and, with helpful clarity underwritten with compassion, as if lifting the veil on the mystery of human motivation into which I’d just been ritually initiated, he said, ‘Yes, well. He would, wouldn’t he?’