The Football Club That Played Too CLose To The Sea

by martinhesp

Doniford Beach 1 copy

Years ago I wrote a novel with the strange but I think alluring name – The Football Club That Played Too Close To The Sea. It begins a little depressingly – as you you shall see here – but soon picks up a pace. Reading a bit of it now, I recall how much I was fond of the story all those long years ago.

Have a look – and please tell me what you think. I’ll put up some more of it soon.

The Football Club That Played Too Close To The Sea

The snowflake had formed somewhere high out over the grey, windswept Atlantic approaches in a black cloud that was making its way east towards England. From its dark, amorphous mother the intricate petal of ice began its short life by fluttering and falling across the grey Bristol Channel, down over the empty expanses of the grey-blue beach, past the ancient port with its floor of blue-black mud, just missing the line of dusky soughing pines, to eventually deposit itself, already half-melted, upon a damp, soiled, leather sphere.

Suddenly it was in flight again – away over the goalkeeper, above the crossbar, up over the edge of the playing field and wind-bent trees, high over the cliffs and out into the brown foam and spume of the storm-swept sea. In this wild soup of saltwater the snow flower expired as its host, the football, spun and bounced in the spume of the combers that crashed among the rocks and reefs on the edge of the empty beach.

The one-time golden boy, the striker with the magic boots, had missed the penalty so badly that the club was now parting with a ball it could hardly afford to lose. Things were looking grim indeed for the home team. A body of men suffering so abundantly from the wide multiplicity of human weaknesses, that their passion for soccer had drained to a half-hearted wheeze on a wet Saturday afternoon. What enthusiasm there was left was only there through a sense of reluctant duty. Football had been overtaken by general flaws such as sex, drink and drugs along with associated foibles such as illicit love, unpleasant loathings and closet secrecy. Frailties both ancient and modern burgeoned through the team, and were all-embracing enough to have sapped the fuel of spirit from their game. Poverty, joblessness, boredom, sexual frustration all lurked in a town that was losing its docks and cutting down on staff at its mill in a post-industrial malaise. A working seaside town made unlovely to the eyes of modern tourism by the leftovers of another age. By mid-December, Black Anchor United Amateur Football Club had yet to celebrate the season’s first win.

Kenny Arscott, the big striker, dropped to his rough red knees and whispered to the cold wet grass: “Beam me up for, fuck-sake. Just get me out of here…”

And then, in the biting grim misery of it all, he thought of Lillian, his breezy, blonde, bad-news, mistress – swaddled in god-knows whatever it was she wore for him in that warm, seductive, room above the harbour. Underneath the soft, lurid, femininity there was something of the wildebeest at a barbecue about Lillian. In other words you expected her to be on the flames, not fanning them. She was the sort of woman hungry men, with appetites untainted by nicety, drooled for. She was, through her wiles and ways, Kenny’s ruin.

A flurry of snow, mixed with rain and sleet, whipped across the pitch and the referee was glad to blow the final whistle on a match that once again confirmed Black Anchor’s unassailable position at the bottom of the regional Saturday league. The visiting team from the south of the county raised three cheers for their defeated opponents who replied with a murmur which disappeared on the unrelenting wind.

Mark Dudderidge, the other Black Anchor forward, loped across with his long, thin, pale body looking all too fragile for such cold. Referring to the last-minute penalty disaster, he asked his striking partner: “What the fuck was that?”

Kenny wanted to growl something about the wind taking the ball, but instead he looked down at the bald clay of the penalty spot, inches from his nose, and said to those close enough to catch his words in the salty gale: “That’s it for me, Mark. I’m quitting.”

With that he got up and marched away past the corner flag over to the small rubbish-filled, dog-crap-strewn path which led down to the town, and was gone from the field of defeat in a flurry of sleet.

“Where’s he going?” shouted a rotund, trilby-hatted, Crombie-coated man from the touch-line in front of the small pavilion.

Walking towards him Ben Larviscombe shrugged: “Gone to drink himself stupid with that tart of his…”

“Ain’t he even having a shower? For fuck’s sake – what’s happening to this team,” wailed manager.

In the near silent home-side dressing room, every player knew that this grey cold December afternoon represented the nadir, the filthy gulch, in annals of something which they all held dear to their rugged, working-class hearts. Black Anchor United Amateur Football Club… For 108 years, soccer had been played out here on the cliffs above the grey-blue rock-cluttered bay where the second biggest tide-fall in the world did its best to wreak ruin upon the Westcountry coast, and never before had the men of the seaside town produced for their community such a sorry state of affairs in league and cup results. The team had been ousted from two cup competitions at the beginning of the autumn, and now it looked as if their midwinter, January attachment to the bottom of the league was unavoidably permanent. Meaning that Black Anchor First Eleven, for the first time ever, would suffer the indignity and shame of relegation to the lower divisions where normally only reserve sides toiled alongside small teams from small villages, with the depressed sense of the second-rate.

Manager Harry Pippin snuggled his several chins further into his black coat and pondered wearily. For two years he had worked hard – devoting himself to the club, sinking money into it whenever he could from profits earned by his harbour-side pub and his self-service supermarket up on the council estate – but at that moment, as the mixture of sleet, snow and rain hit his red 60-year-old face, he walked away. Like Kenny Arscott, he’d had enough.

There was, he groaned inwardly, nothing else he could do to save the situation. He’d spent out on the secondhand minibus for away games, bought new strip, had the changing rooms renovated (at least to some extent) and, most important of all, had brought in Kevin Steer as coach by luring him over from Willet with a part-time wage-packet for the training sessions and the matches.

Now Harry had troubles with the VAT-man and the taxman and his wife was ill and would, if she were ever to be her old self again, require private health care. But they were only passing concerns when he thought – as he did all the time – of his mentally disabled son ensconced, forever perhaps, in the special-needs home up in Bristol. A pang went through his overweight limbs that made the manager catch his breath. The boy had loved to watch the matches, but had become too difficult for them to cope with at home – and now not a minute ever passed without Harry Pippin thinking of Ralphie. He loved the boy so dearly and felt the burden of his son’s life with such personal, guilty pain.

He shouldn’t be in Bristol, he should be here: that was what the grocer-landlord thought five hundred times a day.

Indeed the boy was one of the reasons he’d become so involved with the club. Ralphie always liked to come up to the Memorial Ground on the cliffs and cheer at the men of the town doing their best to kick a lump of sewn leather between three white painted posts. The little lad had been more-or-less incapable of kicking a ball himself, but he loved the Black Anchor team. For him there were no other teams. He couldn’t get the hang of watching football on TV and so for Ralphie Pippin there were no soccer super-heroes. Just Kenny Arscott and Mark Dudderidge. In the golden days – in the sunlit uplands of three years ago – the home team players would come over to the touchline when they’d scored and ruffle his crazy long hair. They all loved Ralphie and some said it was his being taken away that was the turning point for the team. The moment when things started to go awry. Like a talisman, a lucky charm, being lost down a municipal drain. The type of men who played for Black Anchor shied away from anything municipal. But Ralphie hadn’t been able to. He had become institutionalised.

Harry kept bunging in the cash anyway, trying his best to run the difficult team and the club in general, because of the boy. Or, at least, the memory of him. Not that he wasn’t devoted to the game himself. He had played to quite a high level as a youth, and been to trials with a few big clubs. However, the soccer, as it was played by his side this season, had little to do with the game Harry loved. That didn’t matter though because deep down inside it was all about him needing a big, main-line, mental link with the kid who was now a man with the brains of a six-year-old.

Now this link was under threat. The time had come when there was no more money in the Pippin pot for the club. His spending had so far realised nothing but failure and now even the club bar was doing badly, since it had been invaded by the gloom of the season from hell. The great clouds blowing in off the Atlantic brought with them not only meteorological depressions, but mental ones too. Deep troughs which seemed to sink even the most ebullient of players and supporters.

“Worst season ever,” said Arnold Woollacombe unhelpfully, as Harry walked towards the players’ entrance in the centre of the small stand. The two dozen other men and the one or two women who stood, well-wrapped on the unwelcoming concrete tiers of the shelter, murmured their agreement. The handful of kids who had been there didn’t bother. They were already running out onto the pitch for a kick-about and didn’t seem particularly concerned by the fact that their town’s team was crap. That was the word they had shouted as the players came in. Crap.

“Wha’s wrong with the bastards Harry?” Asked Dean Newbert, the undertaker.

“Buggered if I know Dean…” mumbled Harry. “If it ain’t one thing it’s another. Personal problems and the like. I’ve done all I can – but I’m out of ideas.”

He walked past a thin, shivering, teenage girl clad in black and smoking as if every inhalation was her last. As it might soon well be, thought Harry who recognised her as Mark Dudderidge’s girlfriend. He knew that things were far from well with the couple and, reluctantly he put it down to the drugs he knew they took. It wasn’t pleasant to know that your most talented player was addicted to drugs, but there was nothing to be done about it.

Harry shrugged the thought from his mind and entered the changing room. Here the players sat about forlornly, or queued for the shower. The smell of balsam and muscle spray was almost overwhelming, as was the ranting of trainer Kevin Steer.

Watchet harbour from east