Who ate all the pies? It’s not hard to see

How was it for you? Football's close season, I mean. Last week this column took time away from the beautiful game and made an ill-advised decision to cover the tennis, a sport it once met at a drunken house party but couldn't tell you when or where it was, nor what was discussed. The result, inevitably, was disastrous and although Andy Murray has his own reasons for failure, some of the blame must be shared.

This week, therefore, it's a return to safer terrain. And given it is July, there's no shortage of football to talk about. There's the Women's World Cup in Germany and the Copa América in Argentina. There's even the Intertoto Cup, the European game's equivalent of failing your end-of-year exams and being expected to retake them over the summer.

But with all due respect (to borrow from the argot of the footballers I'm about to idolise) all this is nothing compared to the tournament that combines local rivalry, goals-a-plenty and the very real possibility of watching a coronary live on screen. I'm talking about Masters Football. Prosaically, this is a six-a-side tournament (eight minutes each way, unlimited substitutions and no offsides). What makes it special is not the format but the players - all ex-pros, many comically out of shape.

It's been a Sky Sports regular for a decade now, the perfect June to August filler (there are four Sky Sports channels and 24 long hours in a day). And if you think nobody wants to watch a bunch of former footballers who have let themselves go, then you are clearly not familiar with the Sky Sports oeuvre.

Consider that one of the broadcaster's most successful programmes is Soccer Saturday, which features four such men sitting in front of TV screens describing what they can, but you can't, see. Time of Our Lives is another fixture in the schedules, a one-hour chat show where three former players chew the fat with Countdown's Jeff Stelling.

So, if old players watching football and old players recounting how they lost their fortunes down the bookies is compelling television, then it's not much of a stretch to see the potential in former pros doing what they used to do for a living.

Plays gone by

All this plays into the "football as nostalgia" meme which can be found between the covers of When Saturday Comes, in the podcasts of the Football Ramble, and in those Toffs brochures offering replica Swansea City away kits 1981-84 and Man City home shirts 1954-55.

To add to the nostalgia kick, the tournament refs are chosen from the recent Premier League past. So if you thought you'd had your last chance to hurl abuse at Dermot Gallagher or Uriah Rennie, well, you're in luck.

Last weekend the Masters was in the Midlands and featured Birmingham, Aston Villa, Coventry, West Brom, Wolves and Walsall, as well as another referee, Jeff Winter, who'd clearly been at the pies.

As had Paul Williams, the former Derby and Coventry City defender. Despite his lack of match fitness, the rivers of sweat that ran down his shaven head and an unfortunate sartorial adventure with an undersized sky-blue polyester and cotton blended kit, Williams was clearly having a great time - captaining his team and enjoying some banter (always banter) with old foes. Coventry lost both of their games and were out of the tournament.

But no matter. It was good to be back.

Part of the charm (if that's the right word) of Masters Football is that it rarely features stellar names from the recent past - no Bergkamps, Zolas or Shearers here. The Liverpool team that won the Mersey Masters last month did include John Barnes, now 48, but he's the exception - you're more likely to be watching players whom supporters of the club in question will need a few seconds to recollect.

For the record, Aston Villa won and now go through to the Manchester final as regional winners. Next stop, the London Masters at Wembley Arena and the promise of Darren Caskey, Jimmy Carter (no, not that one) and Ken Monkou. Bring it on. l


Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein.