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Personal Story: Looking back on a life lived through sport

 I knew at that moment, as I picked myself up and offered the lad a hand, which he refused, that my footballing days were over.

Metal goals are carried from behind pavilions and the posts are encouraged back into their sockets. The smell of mown grass drifts across the park. A man pushes a roller in straight lines, leaving behind him a white spoor of wet chalk. Nets are hooked on to the goals and hang in readiness. It’s a new season.

I played for many football teams over the years (invariably with better players than me) in different positions. At 17, I was a number ten, chief creator, seeking the incisive pass that cuts through chaos, revealing sudden clarity. In my twenties I dropped back into central midfield, then centre-back; at thirty, shifted sideways, to full-back, begging the ball from the keeper, first move in the passing game.

I was usually the penalty-taker. How I loved to send the opposition goalkeeper the wrong way: as he dived to one side, calmly side-footing the ball to the other.

Then a wonderful season at sweeper or pivot, in front of the defence, seeing more of the ball than ever before; intercepting opposition attacks, initiating our own. Caught up in the ever-unfolding geometry of football. Art and science both at once. But the beauty has no meaning without athleticism.

At 35 I was on the bench. One wet Sunday morning I filled in at centre-back. On the wing of the opposing team was a 17-year-old whippet. Towards the end he skipped past our left full-back, and I shifted across to cover. The lad galloped down the touchline, kicking the ball ahead of him and sprinting after it. The ball slowed, across from me. I had a five-yard start on him. It was not enough.

Even as I lunged towards the ball, I knew this youth would get there first. In 20 years of playing football I’d never intentionally fouled an opponent. But this boy was twice as fast as me; he had pace I’d never had. I slid across the soft, wet turf and a fraction of a second after the boy toed the ball ahead I took him out. My momentum carried us across the grass, over the touchline.

What I’d done was cowardly and pathetic. I knew at that moment, as I picked myself up, legs marked with mud and chalk, and offered the lad a hand, which he refused, that my footballing days were over.

For the next 20 years I played tennis: doubles on a Friday afternoon at our local municipal courts with three other middle-aged men. Only one of us was any good, but we saw ourselves as virile athletes who rushed in behind our serves, thumped the ball with power, scampered across the court, lunged for volleys at the net. We went for broke, constantly tried to outwit each other; sent countless shots out but hit a few spectacular winners.

We used the last split second in the preparation of every stroke to scan for devious alternatives. Is there any greater pleasure than wrong-footing your opponent? Making to whack the ball into the far corner but at the last second tilting the racket face and feathering a drop shot just over the net.

Often, a quartet of pensioners played on another court. They wore an assortment of wrist, elbow and knee supports, giving the impression they’d been patched up for this one last hurrah. They were ghosts from the future. Between games I glanced across at them.

The server modestly offered the ball to the air and pushed it over the net. The returner patted it back to him. These two duly played it cross-court to one another, each point proceeding diagonally. The non-playing partners at the net were spectators, rooted to their spots, as if to intervene in this conversation would be a breach of etiquette.

These polite slow-motion rallies continued until one of the two men involved hit a slack shot too close to the opposing net player, who entered the rally somewhat surprised: his ensuing volley was less emphatic than it should have been, the server shuffled stiffly forward to reach the ball, on legs turning to wood. The once calmly flowing rally degenerated, and came to an end in a gasping old man’s feeble error.

Top-heavy men on thin legs, the gentlemanly veterans played tennis as a standing-still game. It appeared no longer to be a competitive sport. Far from trying to outdo opponents, they passed the ball to each other. I found it painful to watch.

In my mid-fifties my right hip hurt. The pain stopped me playing tennis. Hip-replacement surgery at 60 took away the pain. Returning to the court, I found that I could no longer hare about, nor even hit the ball hard. I ran stiffly. My shots floated weakly over the net. I’d become one of the old men, and I could not bear it.

Now I play table-tennis, once a week, at our local sport and leisure centre, where they set up a table inside one of the squash courts. I play with someone of a similar age who’s a slightly superior player. I’m no better at this sport than I was at football or tennis. But we throw ourselves around, work up a real sweat. We stand too far back from the table on the whole, because we both love making smashes as much as we love soaking up punishment until an opportunity to counter-attack presents itself.

Once or twice in a session one or other of us will get the chance to aim for one side, then tilt the bat and send the ball to the other. Our opponent’s every twitch muscle and nerve was primed to go one way, and there is no time to change direction, so that he is helplessly transfixed.

We commit foolish errors but hit odd wondrous winners, even have occasional rallies where we smack the ball at each other, to and fro, no time to think, acting on instinct. In the zone. Lost, and delusional, and happy… 

Inspired by “Ironing”, a poem by Vicki Feaver Tim Pears’s latest novel is “The Redeemed: The West Country Trilogy” (Bloomsbury)

This article appears in the 17 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Return of the Irish question