February 26, 2007
I wanted to be able to head a football like I did when I was eighteen.
That’s why my head was clamped rigid, lasers gunned in to my eyes, and a white-coated blond lady with an East-European accent flitted about me with a scalpel.
The acrid laser-burn of lens matter filled my nostrils and I laughed and cried inside at the thought that I was paying for this. And when my knife-flicking tormentor repeated “vunderful, vunderful, vunderful” I waited for the sentence to end in “voops.”
The blade flashed my life before my eyes. Thirty years of Saturday football, eighteen years of them searching for contact lenses, and this was going to end it all.
Released from the chamber I blinked in to the light of the Optical Express waiting room. For the first time since I was twenty I had left the protective world of the slightly blurred.
Then I fainted.
Through a wakening embarrassment, with sweet tea and concerned attention, the truth hit me like a bladder full in the face.
It was time to give up football.
So here I am now: 20/20 vision, empty bank account, slipped disc and tight hamstrings. This is the stage in your career when you decide to “give something back”; which means you can’t cut it with the youngsters anymore.
Instead of running about the pitch, I’m going to help replace it. Does our local football team need new facilities at Kinloch? Do bears squat in the woods? No, but the number 8 does.
My team, Sleat and Strath, has been raising money to build toilets and changing rooms for over ten years. The pitch is the only flat bit of ground in south Skye – and it’s not actually flat – more like a sea of mud that’s been petrified during a storm.
It’s probably as far away from the new Wembley as you can get. We have a portacabin. Wembley football plaza combines the vast soulless commercialism of the Premiership with the 4-4-2 banality of team England in a pompous steel and glass corporate monument to unjustified arrogance.
Actually, I’m being unfair. Kinloch Park also has a river.
Come the spring, the sheep carcasses are down stream, drinking water.
Thewoods secure privacy for the desperate, so long as you tread carefully, and a screen from the sharp-sighted Sabbatarian. But they also give shelter to a fiend that has never afflicted the moisturised-delicacy of the modern day Premiership metro-sexual, or disturbed the turtle-necked satisfaction of Norman Forster.
The accursed midgie.
Hell is truly Kinloch on a summer’s evening, despite our club song’s insistence on Heaven. Spectators stay in their cars, or stay away. Players never stop running. Linesmen cause havoc by constantly threshing their flags. But to be a goalie….
My gran used to tell a story that could easily have taken place at Kinloch. Two rival parishes fell out, probably during the time of the Disruption, which led to a <em>ministear </em>being kidknapped by an opposing congregation. He was stripped like Adam and left staked out by a river on a still summer’s evening. When he was discovered the next morning he was dead – killed by the agonising frustration of not being able to satisfy his itch.
This is the torture our goalie must endure.
So the first item on our brief is to chop down the trees.
Once the trees are away, we need to replace the toilet. There has to be lots of them, with a powerful flush.
Anybody who has grown up playing football in the Saturday morning leagues of the west coast of Scotland will understand my clean-porcelain desire and share my olfactory memory. Singed in to my nostrils is Carntyne playing parks, home ground to my student team, the Glasgow School of Art.
A screen printer in goals, a ceramicist at right back – two students from drawing and painting down the wings. We had talent throughout the side.
But we had no paper and nothing flushed - there wasn’t even any grass to pull. And on a Saturday morning, after a Friday night, the toilets were thoroughly used. The walls were a dirty protest of handprints. In recognition of the Year of Culture, the council gave them a coat of paint, without washing them first. A pristine magnolia, not to be sniffed at.
(It was about this time that my eyesight lost it’s youthful vitality and, until lifting the seat on this recollection, I’ve always blamed the trauma of staring blankly at a drawing board for this).
Then there will be showers. Lara, who is doing the feasibility study for Dualchas, wanted to know if we would want enclosed cubicles or open manliness, although she was perhaps focussing too much on the details. The main thing is hot water – the luxury that the youngsters are going to enjoy after the years we endured of a cold flannel and a trout pool.
The changing rooms are where the team will bond and great words will be spoken: of battles, victory and brotherhood. Actually, it’s where blokes desperately try to be funnier than each other. I remember vividly, in the skanky portacabin, our diminutive midfield dynamo turning to my brother after a hard-fought defeat. “Alasdair”, he said, “you have everything to be the complete footballer. Apart from one thing: ability.”
Out on the pitch is the arena of battle, and this is where it gets exciting. Lara has made use of the large setsquare. The pitch is to be shinty-sized, with floodlights for dazzling winter nights, and artificial grass for precision passes.
The youngsters of our community will be blessed. No cheap blaze for them. They’ll never take the skin off their hip after doing a sliding tackle. They won’t ooze grit-laden plasma that, by the time you get home, has dried your underwear in to your wound.
The worst they’ll get is a scuff.
The braes and bog land of the present day Kinloch will be dug in to a mud-clogged memory. Memories of being driven up to the infirmary with two teammates, all of us with gaping head wounds. Of complaining, when it was my turn to be stitched, that the pillow was soaked in the previous patient’s blood. And the dutiful consideration with which the doctor turned the pillow over.
I want the youngsters to have these experiences, but on a flat playing surface.
The spectators will be catered for as well, with ropes to hold them back, and access to toilets for half-time relief and analytical match dissection (has anyone else noticed that trough urinals at football grounds are the only toilets where men will freely natter while sober?)
Admittedly, the team doesn’t get the spectators we used to – I think we even attracted a following of local ladies at one point, although this could be the excited distortion of nostalgia. But I do remember finding-out as a boy, with bitterness that I can still taste today, that school footballers in America had cheerleaders jumping about on the sidelines, while we had to be satisfied with the attention of an old man in his mackintosh.
The new generation will have a similar opportunity to impress.
We put in our funding application with the feasibility study soon. There will be woman’s shinty, games of hockey and perhaps even outdoor bowls. If there’s any money left over from the Olympics, this part of Skye will change.
I’ll then be able to sit back and watch the kids play-out their dreams the way I have done for over thirty years. The heroes will be different – today’s chubby youth don’t aspire to be a wee fat man like Joe Harper - or even dream of being Alex McLeish (nobody accepts ginger nowadays).
But they might want to be Lauchy MacIntosh, Ally MacGillivray, Tony Meechan or John Norman – the Sleat and Strath stalwarts of my generation, who have danced, ball at feet, over the ploughed furrows of Kinloch for the last twenty years.
I’ll give up heading the ball and try to retain the brain cells I’ve got left. And try to enjoy the full use of my American-military vision in retirement, which, after all, I endured a Bond-villain torture to achieve.
I can watch sheep on a hill, where the year before I had seen ptarmigan.
Pick out plooks on lassies, where once I sighed at the perfect camera-gauzed skin of 50s Hollywood beauties.
And, as I tell my friends (while I challenge them to distance sign-reading competitions), see carrots, in the dark, and spectral glimpses of the Other Side.
As my brother would say in the dressing room: Neil, your vision’s improved, but your patter is as poor as ever.