I AM not good at sports. The sport at which I am least not good is cross-country running, where I nestle comfortably in the middle of the pack. But even that is because I am so useless at running quickly that I don’t expend enough effort to burn out early on.
However the sport at which I am most not good is football. Football combines all the things that I am not good at in one sport, namely running quickly, aiming at things, and confrontation.
I found out early in life that football was not going to be my path to fame and fortune, mostly by being in a small primary school with only 13 boys in my year.
Despite the school team being eligible to name two substitutes, I never pulled on a brightly coloured jersey. My school decided my absence was actually more likely to bring about a victory than my presence. On one level it is actually quite a compliment for my game-changing ability.
It will come as little surprise that I was always picked last for games of playground football. I was not prized even for the satirical value of picking me voluntarily.
My playground captains would then invariably commit the gross tactical error of placing the worst person in their team, i.e. me, in the most sensitive position on the pitch, i.e. in goal, instead of putting me somewhere where I could do less damage, i.e. absolutely anywhere else.
I would watch, helpless, as if from outside myself, as the ball would come flying past my flailing hands. And my team mates would glare at me, as if I had called their mums a bad name and spat in their sherbet fountains, as I picked up the ball and rolled it out.
I remember quite clearly the only goal I ever scored in secondary school. It was during Games, which was PE with extra sarcasm and outdoorsness. The ball landed at my feet. For the first – and, to date, only – time in my life I was in the right place at the right time. I saw a team mate in what even I could see was a scoring position.
And so I passed to him. I hit the ball cleanly, a perfectly executed, weighted pass. But it completely missed him and ended up in the back of the net. A total accident. My one goal was not intentional. “Bonecrusher Bainbridge,” my sarcastic teacher called me. I expect he’s dead now.
As a result of all this, actual football, played by grown men in boots on a Saturday afternoon for money, left me cold as a child. It was only when I became of an age not to be called upon to play the game that I was able to tolerate it.
So when I was called upon to play in a five-a-side team for the weekly paper at which I was working. I agreed. Besides, I’d been given a job on a daily, so I was leaving anyway. We had a little kick-about on the pitch, a smooth surface covered in what seemed to be brick dust. It was decided that I would go in goal, obviously.
And so I found myself between the sticks, watching the editor of the paper who had just hired me, barrelling towards me, a ball at his feet. All I needed to do was dive and grab the ball. I had a choice: slay the dragon of my childhood, that little voice which says, “You aren’t good enough,” or humiliate my new boss.
I went for the ball. He jumped over me and scored easily. And I took a chunk out of my knee on the brick dusty floor.
And then, with a taste for the satirical sadly lacking in the team captains of my childhood, a few years ago my editor at our sister paper, the Liverpool Echo, made me acting assistant sports editor. He might as well have made me acting assistant quantum physics editor.
I spent a few months doing my job much as a contestant on The Apprentice might have done when tasked by Lord Sugar to “do the bladdy sport pages,” but left the job with enough Conversational Football to get by when talking to normal men.
I still have that football scar. I just lump it in with all the mental ones.