England Writers 6 – 2 Scotland Writers
Paddington Rec, London, Saturday 8th October, 2016
Report by Mark Buckland
The noblest prospect which a Scotman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England. Samuel Johnson
Johnson said this not understanding the Scots or having never conceived of a roll and square, taps aff on a single day of summer or the strange masochism that comes with following our national team. But this particular prospect is pretty special. England vs Scotland. The Auld Enemy. The first international ever played, the first one the Scottish Writers ever played as a team and a chance to meet up with a very talented and generous group of writers.
They’ve not been so generous to us on the football field. Following our debut 4-2 win over them in Glasgow, our first London jaunt saw us score more injuries in the first 10 minutes than we did goals over 90. 5-0 in the Chelsea mud.
Let’s get the cliches out of the way – “there’s always call offs before a crucial international.” Several players are injured. Doug Johnstone has to take the kids. Allan Wilson is plying his trade in the oil-rich leagues of the Middle East and unable to attend. But The Santiago Canizares Award For Best Excuse (named for the eccentric Spanish keeper who once missed an international tournament due to collision of aftershave bottle and foot) goes to Craig Robertson, who had committed to judging the World Porridge Championships. Johnson’s patter about the Scots and oats comes to mind.
“Form goes out the window in these derbies.” Much resembling the actual international sides, England were just back from a tournament in Cyprus while Scotland… stayed home. Not exactly – between our rampant 18-1 win over the Scottish Comic Writers and a hard fought win over Edinburgh Teachers, we’d taken in 6-0 and 5-0 defeats to Queen’s Park Supporters and Italy Writers respectively (not respectably). England had been pipped in Cyprus by a young Hungarian Writers team after matching up with the Germans and Turks. England Writers ignoring the Hodgson era; Scotland, still very much in the Strachan “any result will do” phase.
“These games are all about the passion.” It is. Although the ground staff at Paddington Recs in Maida Vale have a passion for getting home on time. Hence the lack of pictures that accompany this report; there’s no time, barely any chance of a shower afterwards. So none of this will be recorded for posterity. No time for a team photo or any pre/post snaps. Oh, and you can’t warmup on our training pitch. So we head to the park.
Ali Taylor and a few of the England boys arrive, watching our warmup. “This is intimidating,” he gulps. Yes, it is, isn’t it? Fourteen grown men and women in ever shrinking kit unable to control a ball as it bobbles over tree roots, watched over by baffled children. It’s the Scottish Haka really.
Pre-match. Peter Mackay lays out the teamsheet. Then, as captain, I’m supposed to deliver some kind of insight, some kind of nuanced speech to raise spirits, temper expectations and compound tactical instruction.
“I founded this team with Doug and Allan with two purposes,” I say. “One – to celebrate a love of literature and football and to make friends across the world.”
Sage nodding in the group.
“Two – to fuck England as much as we can.”
Chuckles. But mostly raised aggression. Cammy Steel regularly makes fun of my near psychotic passion during football and I forget it can be viral.
Game time. The ref is late, the smell of cannabis is moulting through the air from an unseen source and most of us have tweaked something in the warmup. We’re in a real Sunday league scenario here.
Only, with kick-off, suddenly we’re not. We’re in a full-blooded international.
England are channelling the left, but getting nowhere; Thomas Clark and Ioannis Kalkounos are out there throwing themselves into every tackle. Neil Williamson and Emily Dodd are doing a similar thing on the left and making headway into territory that isn’t ours. Early, it’s clear this is going to be a game of 50/50s and we’re winning most of them. We’re passing nicely. With regularity, Peter Mackay gets the ball in the middle and charges forward, a surging run, feet twitching like an inspired poet’s pencil.
Jon Baird, director of Filth, is putting himself about upfront with the kind of reckless abandon for personal safety that Bruce Robertson would be proud of. Cameron Steel has actually made the game this time and is running the channels, causing England to take a step back.
Free kick to us, deep on the left, won by Jon Baird, who showers the pitch in a rain of Doric swearing. I step up. “Maybe he’ll shoot,” the three man wall quips. Pinged into the front post, Baird gets the flick on, but it’s into the keeper’s gloves. That fleeting disappointment that comes with an unexploited dead ball.
Peter Mackay is battling away in midfield and slides me the ball, I flick it over the top and Steel is away -this is it this is it- David Goldie, the Scottish rock of the England back four gives us a corner. We’re getting there, we’re getting there. Aye, they’re coming at us again but Greg Eden and Neil Forsyth have formed a brutalising partnership at the back. Pass, move, pass, clunk, interrupted, regain ball, pass, pass, thump it, clatter someone. Tiki-taka played as gritty-thrwacka. Jesus, that’s a terrible phrase.
England give the ball away up top, Neil Forsyth rides a tackle and emerges with his foot on the ball. He looks up and the same glint of inspiration that gave the world Dundee’s best known cheeseburger van impresario appears in his eyes. He floats a beautiful ball forward, route one-a-la-Veron, and the England back line panics. Because Cameron Steel is in on goal, moving like he’s just been told of a free bar somewhere ahead. The journalist, Jake Wallis-Simon is bolting from his goal. The ball takes a cannon bounce off the turf and is heading into the no man’s land between striker and the last line of defence.
Every striker knows this situation and hates it, because there are a multitude of choices and none of them are good. Do you bring the ball down and hope to get a fortunate touch around the keeper? What if it doesn’t drop in time? Do you volley it, knowing there’s an equal chance of hitting the back of the net as there is injuring a pensioner several miles away? Try and tap it round him and hope you make the distance? Or pull a Neymar flop upon feeling the keeper’s breath and hope for a generous referee?
Cammy does none of these things and in doing so, opts for the most impossible of all options. With Wallis-Simon’s gloves outstretched, ready to claim it high in the air, he takes rise like a Govan Canniggia, hikes his leg to base camp levels and flicks the ball with the outside of his right foot with the perfect touch. By the time it’s comfortably heading over the line, he’s in full Tardelli, the finish of your dreams, against England no less. Part of the joy of football is that it endures childhood fantasies; scoring the hypothetical cup final winner in your back garden reforms in your mind later in life. Your own malleable opinion of your talent reawakens to tell you that somehow Wednesday’s five-a-side through-ball is on a par with a World Cup winner. And we all feel it; we can win this, look at us, we’re fucking invincible.
We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.
The tragic genius was born just a few hundred feet from the ground. Presumably, he had a vision of this match, because this beautiful goal has just made England angry.
They drop Joe Dunthorne back into midfield and we’re overrun quickly. Andrew Keatley is enjoying the extra space, pulling all the strings like an amphetimine-addled violinist. Goldie and Dan Tartarsky are now venturing forward from centre back. Ball into the right, England move it inside, scramble at the touchline, running, canny breathe, big Danny Scott is out, this is happening too fast, where should I be, I need to quit smoking, penalty spot, it’ll break there! Squirms up and out, Dunthorne prods it across goal, shit, where’s my man, ah, he’s there. Andrew Keatley taps into an empty net from a yard out. 1-1.
Remember, Pep, you don’t win games just because you’ve moved your pieces to the front.
Aye, well, Pep’s no here is he? We’re just going to have to batter our way through. Captain’s armband is noosing my arm. Let the team down, mark the man, not the space. Christ. Here we go, Scotland…
We move Jon Baird back into midfield but Keatley is giving us the runaround here. FK from them, right side, we don’t clear, we clear, we half clear, only as far as the edge of the box and the thundering boot of Keatley, who smacks a shot through the space I should have been in, through a sea of legs and into the corner to make it 2-1 to England. A great finish, but we’re… No, I am making this too easy for them.
Restart. We fashion some better passing but Goldie has the ball and impersonating a ball-playing centre back like Baresi, Hummels or Forsyth, he pings the ball out to his left. Thomas Clark and Ben Brusey go shoulder to shoulder and Clark gets a foot to the ball at which point, I’m convinced he’s fouled, but the referee has waved play on and the England striker is in to slot past the man mountain of Danny Scott. A neat finish, nothing either defender nor keeper could do. 3-1, heading to half time, we’ve folded and I’m pursuing the referee screaming at a level only dogs can hear.
Then, in true Scotland fashion, we’re much better again. Confident, ready to take them on. We get corners, we come close, we begin to regain a footing in the midfield. We get a free kick about 45 yards out. Neil Forsyth moves to take but I pull rank and order him up. And England begin to form a three man wall.
The hell are they forming a wall here for? I can barely see the goal.
I look up. Eden, Forsyth, Baird crowding the keeper; Mackay and Giannis lurking outside.
“He’ll shoot this time,” someone chuckles in the wall.
And I think, fuck it, I will.
Jake Wallis-Simon is off his line. With the greatest respect to Jake, I’d never have tried this if the late, great Graham Joyce was in goal, as brilliant a keeper as he was a person.
Anybody who regularly hits a dead ball knows there is a thought process. Around the box, you need a shovel foot to get the up-and-under and you have to wrap your sidefoot around it a little to get the spin. Thirty yards, it needs to come off the MTP area, any anatomist will tell you, to get a knuckle mid-air. Forty yards… just hit it.
Free kick specialists are a lineage; one always cites one who has gone before, footnotes if you will. Andrea Pirlo cites Juninho Pernambucano in his book, published by Scotland’s own BackPage Press. In essence, the ball needs to be struck from underneath using your first three toes. You have to keep your foot as straight as possible and then relax it in one fell swoop. That way, the ball doesn’t spin in the air, but does drop rapidly towards the goal. That’s when it starts to rotate. And that, in a nutshell, is my maledetta. Wallis-Simon has moved to his left, the right is open. “A geometric gem,” Pirlo calls for.
And then at some point in taking a free-kick, my feet always say to my brain, “shut up ya pretentious prick and put your foot through it,” and while I’m contemplating Andrea’s advice and musings, my foot has decided to act.
The wall turns, Christ, I’ve hit that bloody well, that thing is moving, turns mid flight as you would hope and… boom. Back of the net. Seemed to hang for an age and a split second at the same time. I raise my arms, which reinforces the impression that I didn’t mean that.
Wee Sam Eden comes sprinting over to me, showering a range of expletives that no teenager should be capable of. I calmly walk back and then return to my enraged screaming, calling back the troops, the battle isn’t over.
It will be in a minute, but not before a final skirmish. Jon Baird and Jakob Von Baeyer get into a 50-50 and the ball becomes unimportant to the blazing argument about the contact. Myself and Andrew Keatley are the two captains over to separate the feud. Calming words, let’s all walk away, it’s halftime now. And we do walk away. And my blood is boiling. Team-talk. When we play for each other, when we play with energy, we play well. Let’s do that in the second half.
And within five minutes, that looks impossible. Peter Mackay gets the ball in midfield and surges, only to be felled like any tree meeting the wind on the Isle of Lewis. The resulting free-kick, Neil Forsyth smashes it goal-ward from the right wing but the keeper manages to hold. We’re under siege and Danny Scott is pulling off some wonder saves from all kinds of angles. In particular, one point blank range save stands out and draws applause from everyone from neutrals on the touchline to the England team. And then, they’re in, Brusey is back in at the far post with a deft finish, nothing our heroic keeper can do.
Long way back from 4-2 down now. And I suspect my time is up; a collision with England’s Ali Taylor in the first ten minutes has left me unable to move my big toe all this time and I’m starting to realise I can’t run on it. On comes our star sub from Stoke – the ringer Jules **** and we bring in the relentless worker Ruari **** for the industrious Giannis Ioannis on the right wing. Check my toe, just staved, not broken.
Jules gets his foot on the ball and we now have a centre mid who can actually support Peter Mackay. They’re still pressing; we’re still trying for the counter. Karyn Dougan is on at left back and makes several excellent tackles to break up play, Sam Eden is flying the wings and being clattered relentlessly; Emily Dodd is back on and is trying some clever one-two’s with our rejuvenated midfield.
60 mins. They break us.
A ball from Dan Muirden on the right is met by Brusey in the hole who plays the sweetest of first time balls over the top for Joe Dunthorne. It catches everyone out and Joe forces it past the best efforts of Danny Scott. 5-2. We’re sunk now.
10 mins to go and I’m surprised to find myself playing centre-back as Greg Eden has finally had to sit, after an unbelievable shift. But as we push up a ball sweeps forward to Dan Muirden deep on the right. He hits a cross and Danny Scott comes to pick it from the air. Except it turns back toward the goal, a Brazilian swerve and Danny can’t get back in time as it spins into the net. That’s cruel.
That’s my final angry outburst of the day. “Flukey,” I say to the celebrating Dan. “What, your free kick?” he smiles. Grumble, grumble. I can’t take it away from them; it takes special strikes to beat Danny Scott and every goal England have scored today has at least one element that shows their class.
And that’s it. Final whistle. 6-2. I think even England would confess that scoreline flattered them. But the score does give an indication of truth; it was a brilliant end-to-end game of football.
A man of the match? Danny Scott. Several saves he made wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Premier League. The number of wounds on his arms and legs demonstrates his commitment; he looks like a haemophiliac crucifixion. He’s almost always our best but you couldn’t fault the effort of everyone involved.
The game’s done and we walk en mass to Notting Hill, where we drink beer, eat good food and barely pass a word about the game. Too much to catch up on with good friends. The quality on the pitch may have been patchy in places from both teams; the readings are not. Jake Wallis-Simon’s gives us a tour of London in a rangy prose-poem from his debut novel before recalling the wit and wisdom of the late Graham Joyce’s “Simple Goalkeeping Made Spectacular” – a book I highly recommend. Karyn Dougan’s short story “How To Walk Quietly” swerves from dark to wryly funny in little Cruyff turns of the paragraph; Thomas Clark brings the philosophy of the terraces to beautiful and hilarious light in his book compiled during his time as Selkirk FC’s resident poet. Neil Forsyth reads from Bob Servant and the reaction of the England team suggests the big man just sold a squad full of copies the following day. Matt Greene reads from “Ostrich” which rings gallons of pathos out of the same simple joke. Ben Brusey asks us to play a drinking game with a famous player’s biography – every cliché requires a drink, but it becomes clear everyone will be dead of alcohol poisoning before the chapter is done.
Memory and football merge in a way only comparable in art. The fondness for a painting recalls the smell, the emotion, the charge that came from a first sight. Football achieves the same resonance; people with late stage Alzheimer’s have been shown to spark from near catatonia to talkative and excited when recalling a particular goal or save. Some of my fondest memories involve football; playing, watching, watching with my dad, granddad, girlfriend. And playing with the Scotland Writers’ Football Team. I can tell you where I was when I watched Danny Scott claw the ball out of certain danger, when Cammy Steel scored a peach, when Neil Forsyth and Greg Eden looked more Maldini and Costacurta than McLeish and Miller. I can tell you where I should have been for Keatley’s two goals. I cannot tell you what time we left some bar near King’s Cross; Steel et al were just cracking out the Grouse. But I like the way memory stretches art; the retelling of each story spins in a new way, till the reality is what you need it to be. So when I tell my grandkids about a goal I scored against England (and you can be bloody well sure I will be telling them), it’ll be from 75-yards, no, wait, my own corner flag, hit it at one hundred and fifty miles an hour son, the keeper lost an arm trying to keep it out. They’ll roll their eyes, but they won’t know. There’s few pictures of this game, but there are the shaky memories of it – when it comes to playing with Scotland, I know what I treasure more.