Illustrated by Elliott Dobbs
I’ve broken three little fingers, fractured two wrists, and probably — if I was to unarchive all of my hand therapy correspondence with Lewisham Hospital since 2011– accrued an additional five breaks across the totality of my handspan. The extra little finger — alright — was not mine. It belonged to Atletico Sadkid’s apoplectic goalie who not only always wore buyonegetonefree frames on pitch — a red flag if you’re browsing five-a-side goalkeepers for a rebuild — but permanently reduced Sondico junior gloves without the appropriate adult finger protection. We were six-nil up, and so, as our goalkeeper, I was allowed a final few minutes up top, where I crafted an off-lace half-volley to his right hand side — which he amateurishly attempted to finger-punt away; but the carriage of the ball smashed into the hidden mosaic of bone he presented and he wheeled away shaking one hand as if he had left it on a cooking hob. He refused treatment, insisting on drinking off the breakage, and now will carry one crooked, calcified little pinkie, on which he will never again be able to fit a child’s glove, wherever he goes.
My comrades had teased me about an all-team celebration the day their goalkeeper scored — but the Sadkid injury crisis robbed them of their moment. I had always planned to react in embarrassment — a half-raised hand and a half-ducked head — Alan Shearer owning up to a fart. Due to some unexplained code it meant I would be financing everyone’s first round of Lambeth Hells, which I decided I wouldn’t challenge — it was the last game of the season and we’d crawled in sixth. We’d started off in the title race until work commitments depleted our subs bench. I’d try to get the first lift over to the pub. Wait — shouldn’t we take the Sadkid to the hospital?
‘Are you Thomas?’
Two footballs rebounded in crashing rings against the green mesh fencing, as a fresh pair of teams flooded onto the pitches to steal a couple of minutes warm up before the referee had mentally rebooted.
‘Yeah — I — don’t think we’ve met?’
I lied, of course. I was certain his name was Ade and was captain, or at least the bloke who organised Mudlarks — the relentlessly dominant team in our division, on our weekday, at the South East London academy school pitches we played on.
‘Do you fancy another game?’
‘Ah nice, no, sorry, I’d love to but we’re off to the pub — end of season. Supposed to be getting them in…’
‘Mate — please. We need you. You’re the best keeper in the league.’
I was pretty sure I wasn’t; and Ade looked desperate. About half of the teams just rotated their goalkeeper, a joyless obligation to see out approximately twice a match in order to get back out on pitch. I was in a small collective of designated volunteers who actually specialised in the position, aged anywhere between thirty and sixty, and, as I am attempting to demonstrate; highly sought after.
‘Come on man; forty minutes. I’ll pay for your beers.’
Ade already had his arm around me and we were re-directing towards the changing rooms. My lads were squeezing into Eric’s brother’s Mazda convertible — Thommo! We’re going! — So, who to let down?
‘You know it makes sense.’
Ade had decided for me. I convinced myself I was up for another game — but the truth was I’d been absurdly loyal to my own team — avoiding every offer of ‘one more game’ previously if only out of careful modesty about my own ability, but no one seemed to care as much as Ade.
Ade’s team were not playing immediately, but in the round of matches after the ones that followed mine. Their boys were inside getting changed, and in deep discussion about their top-of-the-table clash against the French boys from the big Decathlon in Surrey Quays. I felt guilty as I went in for my hour-long loan spell, but the shame was probably just my own. Our lads were a shifting roster of dwindling thirtysomething alumni from the local art college plus their extended friends or colleagues, and the permanent transition meant it was difficult to maintain any kind of team identity from which you could betray.
Mudlarks however were passingly revered but also, largely, despised. They had finished first in all but one of the last seven seasons and won the last five titles in a row. Mudlarks frequently sat outside what was considered the acceptable amateur behaviours and level of competitiveness on which the league’s eco system of broadly comparable teams was based. They had won the last league by twelve points scoring 57 goals and conceding only three — somewhat falsifying Ade’s claims that I was the league’s top stopper. They also indulged in intimidating warm up routines; encircling the pitch whilst the previous game was still playing, pointless gamesmanship and roughhouse tactics: meat-cleaving tackles, haranguing referees, and always, always moaning which occasionally came to blows with the opposition. They seemed to have an eternal core of three university-aged athletes who could gazelle past the more crow’s-footed journeymen, and worst of all, were rumoured to include paid ringers which was in violation of DiamondLeague’s rules of entry.
I was a ringer; but if you ignored Ade’s off-books offer for a rash of beers, was non-contracted, and could be explained away by the league’s one-non-registered-player rule.
‘Our keeper’s gone for good,’ said Ade. ‘He’s out of the Whatsapp.’
‘What happened to him?’
‘Don’t worry about it,’ their centre-back added, ominously. He extended a hand as I sat down.
I shook it. That was his name, or Eyes, what his teammates would call to him on the pitch — which was confusing for the opposition, as you were never sure if they weren’t shouting about you. He was their evergreen defender and monolithic presence who I had played against several times. He was clearly the best in the league who would occasionally make mazy runs from defence, and I would pray he would lay it off before he would cannon a shot at me. It was so hard to defend against because you would have to palm it; and on our contained 3G pitches there were always forwards available for the rebound. I’d conceded more from that process but a couple of his pings had flown helplessly past me. I housed a momentary thrill of finally joining sides with the enemy.
‘You mates with Ade, then?’
‘No. No idea what he does. Other than at 7pm, every Tuesday night, he’s here.’
‘Boys, get in. Thommo’s our goalkeeper tonight.’
I’d only been called Thommo twice in my life and both of these times you have now been witness to. Two restrained head-raises, an agreeable eyebrow — I was grateful for that. A couple of the lads were smoking and I could smell a bit of weed; something for years now immediately made me anxious. I recognised a tinny grime tune called Old Kent Road playing off a phone; the rapper’s aggressive self-examination seemed an appropriate call-to-arms for the Mudlarks.
Ade launched into a tactical TED-talk and it was revelatory as opposed to how we always assumed we should set up against them. It all finally made sense how they were so hard to beat, at least tactically. The heavyset utility man dropped in between midfield and defence to break up counter-attacking diagonal passing. A false nine swapping with midfield that pulled our defenders out of shape leaving space in behind. And how they let other teams have the ball when they had no identifiable goalscorers according to DiamondLeague statistics; burning themselves out impotently in the relentless stop-start sprinting bursts of competitive five-a-side.
It emerged that in fact, no one knew where Ade came from. He was about six-foot with a short-sided afro. He was probably in his thirties and if not, looked it — a peppering of grey stubble shot through his features. His own teammates’ rumours about him were generally more informed versions of our own stories, but some I’d never heard before. Supposing who you spoke to; he’d been once a high-flyer, maybe working in the city. But he’d since been homeless, and, or, in jail — something serious. Where was he going home to?
‘I met him in a hostel,’ said one of the lads I previously assumed were student athletes — they would turn up in college-branded tracksuits — I now could fully read — Blackwall Tunnel University Athletics.
‘It’s just an online brand,’ the midfielder carried on. ‘Ade got it all for free.’
I was thrown a freshly-laundered yellow goalkeeper’s top; and told to change. The outfield players’ uniforms were always sky blue and black stripes, black shorts and socks — but for this season they had boxfresh Nike 2021 Dri-FITs. A graphic designer from The South East London College of Arts and Communication had created their team crest; a magpie-lark with a double-barrelled breast, backgrounding the Thames and the Isle of Dogs. One further; they had commemorative text wreathed over the top of the badge of the words The Decenary 2010–2020 — celebrating their tenth anniversary as a team.
We’d also noticed as opposing players that Mudlarks seemingly had a social media officer somewhere involved, although I could probably guess now who that was. Instagram memes seemed to be the current priority although viewless 4K match highlights were being uploaded to YouTube, and there had been various unsuccessful paid media campaigns to get #TheDecenary trending on Twitter. The obsessiveness was unusual but not entirely unsurprising; what someone like Ade could learn at the cages was that if you got any group of twentysomething men together about anything they could inadvertently radicalise themselves.
I gave them a follow whilst Ade unpacked his three-man skinny catenaccio to the players. In their bio he was promoting the Mudlarks podcast: one-to-ones with players, exclusive content aimed at non-existent fans and unlockable extras for patrons, but, for such a slick social media operation, they didn’t have any followers at all apart from Ade himself. I clicked through to his own account, and it’s him in a suit, a hyperlink to a LinkedIn profile and a CV that drops off after 2015; his real, or Christian name, oddly, was ‘Alastair’.
‘New GK. Done deal.’
I look up and Ade is shooting me on his phone. ‘Perfect. I’ll tweet it as a GIF if you keep a clean sheet.’ I turn back to Isaiah.
He looks past me, smiling forlornly and shaking his head.
‘He’s for real.’
‘Ade, this is bullshit; why is James East starting and not me?’ The Scouse superterranean sweeper challenged the captain.
‘I made nine more recovery runs last game and everyone knows I’m the most fouled player in the team this season.’
‘Easts — what about your own possession stats?’ Ade offered, as I noticed him angling the camera phone towards to argument.
‘You might have been most fouled but statistically I made more successful dribbles this season.’
‘That’s because you’re a selfish Cockney…’ he went for Easts as if to hit him — but oddly none of the other lads seemed to want to intervene.
‘Okay, we’ll stop it there Bill.’ Ade then turned to Easts and lowered his camera. ‘That’s great, thanks.’
They both seemed to reset. Moments later the Liverpudlian and Easts were already dicking around together, laughing at something on Easts’s phone. It may have been me — but the Liverpudlian seemingly had completely lost his accent.
‘What is actually for real?’ I asked Isaiah.
Whenever we played against Mudlarks we knew they had a dedicated team identity but were quite unaware of how dense their club culture was. They had their nicknames ironed-onto their shirts — Ade, Easts, Eyes, their own fan chants and songs — modelled on Sloop John B and Guantanamera like supporters of professional teams, but with lyrics crafted around each other. They would be the last to leave the pub until each player had heard their own rendition. Ade, as far as I could tell, was teetotal.
‘Here they are…’
Ade announced with mock resignation as Omar and Fakhir arrived, presumably as they were unexpectedly late. They were refugees who the rest of the league was convinced appeared on a pay-per-play basis and whose presence, if proved, would mean Mudlarks’ instant disqualification from the league.
‘Trains from Dover are fucked, geezer,’ said Omar— his expletive uncomfortably sitting aside what you would assume was an entry level skillset of English; but then you realised — a lot of his tuition probably took place here at the cages.
‘You both know what you’re doing anyway,’ said Ade. ‘Omar drifts deep— Fakhs you look for Easts to play you in.’ He then turned to me.
‘Me and Isaiah are at the back — any time you have the ball one of us will drop back to the side and you simply roll it out — that’s all you need to do. Other than that, get in front of it when they hit it at you,’ he patted me on the shoulder. I was struggling to think of any time where he would have remembered me playing.
‘Team photo,’ Ade herded us all together, and with his back to us stretched his arms out to frame a group selfie. He immediately quote-Tweeted it with #FinalCurtain.
‘Send that one to me please,’ reminded Fakhir, his English a little less resourcefully confident as Omar’s. ‘Something to remember the Mudlarks team.’
‘If you do put it on social, that’s the hashtag Fakhs.’
‘You’re leaving?’ I cut in, to Fakhir.
‘Hasthtag Final Curtain,’ intervened Ade. ‘Mudlarks’ last game.’
He pointed at Omar and Fakhir. ‘These lads are being rehoused at different ends of the country. Isaiah’s knee’s fucked. Easts’s missus is pregnant again…’ I looked at Easts — playing against him I always assumed he was forever thirty-one but sharing a changing room with him I realised their elegant millennial playmaker was nearer a founder member of the Crazy Gang.
I felt unexpectedly cut at the news, especially as twenty-five minutes ago this was a team I loathed, and, admittedly, was slightly afraid of.
‘3 points and it’s done, lads.’
Ade referred to the DiamondLeague’s Tuesday 7pm five-a-side league title, which was an eleven-inch mail order trophy which one year erroneously was delivered inscribed ‘Your Engraving Here’.
‘That’s… it then?’ I interrupted. ‘There’s you, Billy and me — couldn’t we rebuild?’ I hadn’t even played a game for them yet; had I already been re-educated as a Mudlark?
‘Shall we get a quick one in, Eyes?’ Ade positioned his phone in portrait with his thumb as to shoot a Story. Isaiah set himself towards Ade, his hands and fingers arching into a triangle shape pensively. Easts, unannounced, began filming Ade, filming Isaiah.
‘Eyes, you know how highly you’re thought of at this football club…’
‘Here we go…’
‘And I know this probably is not the news you were hoping for,’
‘I can run on my knee, I’ve run on it for the last ten years.’
I didn’t really understand what was going on. I was pretty sure everyone knew this was Mudlarks’ last game.
‘It’s nothing to do with your ability. It’s the fitness, you must see that?’
Isaiah just shook his head dismissively.
‘We can’t offer you anything here at the moment.’
‘What — that it?’
‘This is dumb, Ade…’
‘Your whole dream down the swanny and you take it like that? The only thing you’ve ever been good at and it’s fucked off forever?’
‘You’ve seen me play for ten years!’
‘I’ve seen your knee balloon up if you stand on it for more than half an hour.’
‘It’s not going to happen for you mate.’
Isaiah exploded — punting a Lucozade bottle across the changing room hitting a wall, missing Omar’s head by a couple of centimetres. He let out a scream which started out as Fuck! but emitted as a piercing, hateful wail. He thumped the lime green breezeblock with the side of his fist; previously, of course, assumed by everybody to be an immovable object but he managed to dislodge some plaster which audibly crumbled away somewhere inside the wall.
Ade — ‘You alright?’
‘Yeah man, feels good.’
‘Yeah — that was like being there.’ Ade and Easts stopped filming.
‘It was only Charlton, anyway,’ said Easts.
All the boys broke out in laughter, including Isaiah. I wasn’t sure I got it.
Easts — What time we on now?
‘Few minutes,’ assured Ade. ‘Warm up.’
Billy — Can’t. The other game’s still on.
‘Well do your stretches then, don’t need you pulling up again.’
Omar pointed at an imaginary watch on his wrist, to Ade.
‘Oh, forgot. Lads — I’m going to shoot something in the corridor with these two. Thommo — ten burpies.’
Omar and Fahkir followed him out the door — the rest of the team looked at me expectedly. I awkwardly arched downwards into a crap crouch and then a lop-sided star jump, which I repeated ten times, being counted out gamely by the boys. They sportingly clapped me back to my seat after which we could hear some muffled shouting outside the changing room. Ade was really having a go at them about something.
‘What have they done?’ I asked Isaiah. One of the lads heard the question and started filming us.
‘Sorry, behind-the-scenes bits,’ he said, getting a nice wide.
‘Apparently there were three of them originally,’ said Isaiah. ‘Their mate got shot by Egyptian coastguard getting into Europe.’
‘Then paid three grand each to get here, only to get dropped when they couldn’t fit on the boat.’
‘We all thought you’d been paying them to play.’
Isaiah smiled, surprised, even.
‘So what’s Ade doing with them?’
‘Dropping them, I s’pose.’
Outside in the corridor seemed to fall silent.
‘They’re finishing up outside,’ Ade poked his head back in, any business with Omar and Fakhir seemingly taken care of. The rest of the boys took it as their cue to leave.
‘One thing, mate.’ East stopped me leaving with them.
‘It’s just when you showed up you took one look at Ade and said he was intense.’ Easts held a mock-quizzical gaze at me long enough to expect an answer.
‘No — I didn’t.’
Easts got his phone out. He showed me a noisy clip of video; all echoed shouting and the clatter of boots on concrete. It manually focused in on a conversation between me and Isaiah. He turned it up to full volume and held it to my ear. Sure enough it’s the same conversation I had when I first arrived.
‘So you’re a liar now, and all?’ East smiled unpleasantly.
Ade had obviously come back in to check on us and noticed what was going on. He listened in silently, moving his body in the way of the certified fire door as to block the exit.
‘No, look — I just… how am I supposed to remember something like that?’
‘What is that, short term memory loss? You want to get that looked at.’
It was now I realised the whole team was watching us; or more accurately, me. They were all filming. The Mudlarks, clearly, filmed everything. This was why they were able to retrospectively log forensic player statistics from trivial five-a-side games when it was necessary to make a case for a starting position.
‘You know why this is really our last game, don’t you?’ Easts spoke rhetorically but he clearly wanted me to take a guess.
‘You’re having a baby?’
‘No, no one’s having a fucking baby. Someone’s grassed us to the league. Playing ineligible players.’
‘I thought Omar and Fahkir were all legit now — I mean, they always were…’ They both were looking back at me — somehow I was a stranger again.
‘And you turn up out of nowhere, asking all these questions — it’s all here,’ he waved his phone at me.
‘This means a lot to us...’ he gestured over to the door, ‘Some of us did time with Ade.’
Ade was now staring at me; incredibly intensely.
‘Well answer him, then?’
Isaiah was standing right in front of the wall he had previously caved in. Easts was now centimeters away from my face; it felt as if the breezeblocks had raced up behind me and I was suffocating.
‘Oh you silly bastard…’
They all fell about laughing — some still filming to make sure they captured my reaction. The Mudlarks constant production reel meant it was difficult to tell what was real life and what was ‘content’. But, to my palpitating relief, what they were capturing was not evidence but seemingly, not-particularly-amusing prank footage.
I couldn’t laugh, I was still climbing down from the anxiety. I had to get out of there and make for the exit and away from the eye contact. Ade stopped me before I could leave.
‘‘Look, I’m sorry, it was my idea… blame me,’ he said.
‘Good luck with your project,’ I tried to move past him.
‘It went too far, here, take this,’ he sourced a twenty-pound note. ‘For your beers.’
I waved him away, offended.
‘It’s just five-a-side, mate.’
‘It’s just a trust thing Easts likes to play out. He does it with all newbies. Sometimes he’s you, sometimes he’s ‘Bertrand’.’
‘We were at prison together, Gravesend. Bertrand was a dealer who he owed less than what your beers are worth. He told everyone inside Easts was a grass and his life was a living nightmare for two years. I don’t think he ever got over it.’
I realised no one was filming anymore, the other players were now out on pitch.
‘One of the other lads will go in goal. No hard feelings?’
‘Why do you do all of this?’
‘I dunno — I guess if you act it all out it doesn’t seem that big a deal.’
He stood there, in his brand new kit and boots, shrugging a set of well-worn shoulders that were still working it all out for themselves.
‘They’ll be kicking off now,’ I said. I’d been gloving up ever since I had given Ade a chance to ruminate.
I showed him out of the changing room. I was sure, for forty minutes at least, I could delve deep into somewhere for my own source of inspiration.
The South East London College of Arts & Communication: 11 Short Stories is out now: https://amzn.to/2FdAxlh