Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Algirdo retires from football

Algirdo Retires from Football

(Well, actually this happened more than 1,000 days ago but I did literally write it just afterwards. Now the football season has restarted and having just turned 50, as I'm feeling very old and miserable I thought I'd post it here again now... just for a bit of a laugh.)

Just 45 minutes ago on this very evening, Monday, 16th October 2006, Algirdo announced (although no-one was listening) his retirement from playing football. It was an ignominious exit from the game if ever there was one, although perhaps it was not quite in the same league as Zinidine Zidane’s. His team were literally one kick away from mid-table mediocrity but instead, now face a play-off next week for the wooden spoon. Not that Algirdo will be playing in that match. He’s just retired from the game, remember.

Being born of parents that were East European refugees, grateful to still be alive whilst Stalin trampled all over their home lands and terrorised their families, Algirdo was not really brought up to like football. His father had been to see one match in Barnsley, where he worked as a coal miner, against Newcastle United, but that was it. So, while England were shaking the football universe by winning the World Cup in 1966, inspiring a nation of boys to wannabe Bobby Charlton, Algirdo was playing at being Scott Tracey rescuing his cat, Tiggles, from disasters he’d inflicted on the poor, scraggy moggie himself.

However, despite this inauspicious beginning, Algirdo’s footballing career, if you could call it that, would span some forty years. He consistently played at the very lowest levels of the game for all of that time. It's quite remarkable how bad he was. In 1968, for example, at the age of 9, he made his debut at school team level. Being new to the school, Mr Cooper, the head of PE at Kingsway Primary, and Algirdo’s form teacher, picked him to play left back in a school match against Jeffries, probably only because Algirdo was keen at maths and loved Mr Cooper’s readings of “Stig of the Dump”. Not quite familiar with the rules, or perhaps it was just nerves at playing in such an important match, Algirdo repeatedly ran inside the penalty box to receive a goal kick from the goalkeeper until, on the third occasion, Mr Cooper (who was also refereeing) was so furious with him that he thought it best to leave the ball alone and let to go, instead, to a Jeffries striker who promptly scored. Later, in a truly bizarre incident, the referee substituted him and he spent the rest of the game watching from behind the goal. The egg on his face is still there, 38 years later. That match remains his one and only appearance at school team level.

At his next school, Ashfield Comprehensive, an institution of some 2,000 working class pupils, the chances of being picked for the school team were pretty slim, even if you had any talent which, of course, Algirdo did not yet possess - at that time. Even his class mates from Kingsway, Andrew Shaw and Anthony Cobb, who were both comparatively brilliant, struggled to get into the team, so what chance did Algirdo have? None whatsoever. He did play for his school house, Trent, a couple of times, but his performances were as forgettable as the score lines. Needless to say, he never scored a goal. His experiences of playing football at the comp were never good. Mr Jay, the masochistic, and Welsh, PE teacher used to select only the very coldest days, when the ground, and the footballs, felt like iron, to play the game - days when blue/black bruises, left on the thigh after blocking a shot, would last for days. This cold approach ensured that whatever enthusiasm for sport he might have had was killed, frozen stone dead, in its tracks. But away from school, and in the summers – with Mexico 1970 still fresh in his mind - his passion for football increased and, with his pals, Cobby, Hobbsie and later Hilly and Kelly, they’d spend countless hours on the Acre playing game after game developing skills that, in another life, might have bore a rich and remarkable fruit. Alas, not for Algirdo. Not yet. Fate was to decree that his bad start would get much, much worse, before it could ever get better.

His ‘career’ advancement was further blighted by an unfortunate combination of being pathetically skinny and unathletic, and having a blood testosterone level that was about that of a foetus. Year after year, then month after month, and week after week, as more and more of his school mates boldly stepped into PE changing room showers revealing their masculinity with ever more pride and gusto, Algirdo was left as a member of an ever shrinking band of sad little boys, whose pubes had not yet sprouted, whose willies which had not yet started to expand and whose voices seemed to grow more shrill with every manly grunt they heard. The psycho, Mr Jay, determined that every boy should go in the shower after PE, and this humiliating torture was endured for years, despite occasional notes from mum saying that he couldn’t do PE because he had scarlet fever, and other such unlikely excuses. When Laittey, and then Hitchy joined the ranks of men, it was just too much to bare. Luckily, Algirdo had reached the 5th year at secondary school by that stage and finally, he had an escape clause – he could choose to play table tennis instead, an opportunity he grabbed with both skinny hands.

Who knows what kind of a footballer Algirdo might have developed into, if only his puberty had kicked in at a normal age, or even earlier, instead of the absurdly cruel 17, when his voice finally did deepen and he started to look like a 14 year old, instead of just 12. Probably one that was not quite as awful as he was. So, finally, as a sixth former, Algirdo began to make his first, hesitant, steps into the world of playing football with ‘big lads’. At first, it was just a friendly five-a-side session in Sutton, one evening a week, organised by Raz, but by the time Algirdo went to Nottingham University , he began playing, for the first time since his forgettable displays for Trent , on full-sized pitches in competitive matches. Inspired by being a fanatical follower of Cloughie’s Forest , Algirdo just had to blossom into some kind of footballer, and that he did – ‘some’ kind. For Sherwood Hall (second team) he was actually a regular. Every Wednesday afternoon, he’d get the bus, or a lift in Chesterfield ’s mini, down to the Trentside playing fields to join up with his fellow team mates playing football at a quite respectable level, even scoring a goal once (as a centre half going up for a corner). Certainly, the Sherwood Hall first team included some really talented players. Graham Batey had trials with Southampton and a couple of other players, including "Borstal Boy", were also watched by scouts on occasion. So, you can imagine how exciting it was when Sherwood Hall Second team made it into the semi-final of the Nottingham University Cup with the honour of playing on one of the ‘posh’ pitches just opposite the main university buildings. Sherwood Hall first team had stormed their way into the other semi-final and as the seconds had the easier draw, Lenton Hall third team, it all looked set for the tantalising prospect of an all-Sherwood final. That cold but sunny winter’s afternoon was the nearest Algirdo would get to anything resembling glory in his long playing career. But Lenton wanted it more on the day and earned their right to get thrashed by Sherwood firsts, instead of his team. As University days wound down, he’d spend many evenings kicking a ball around with the likes of Boro and Jakey, as well as the Sherwood stars, like Batesy and others whose name I fail to recall. One of Algirdo’s fondest memories was, after making quite an impressive sliding tackle once, Graham Batey (remember, the guy who has trials with Southampton), who was playing alongside him at the back at the time (it was only a knock about, remember) turned to him and said (words to the effect) “Algi, that was a great tackle.”

During his university days, he often made the very short journey back home to Kirkby (usually to get his mum to wash his clothes) and joined up with 'the lads' in The Waggon & Horses on a Saturday night. When 'the lads' weren't playing rubgy or cricket they sometimes played football and, as Algirdo loved the game so much, he agreed to join a team called 'Ashfield Old Boys' who played in the local leagues on Sunday mornings. At last, Algirdo had the opportunity to test his growing skills with players who had played for Ashfield's school team - top guys like Jeff Newcombe, Tim Caunt, Roddy Ross, Steven Clarke and, later, Paul Stevenson. The rules of the team were very strict and all the players adhered to them without question. Under no circumstances was there to ever be any training. It was strictly a very informal set up. No 'keen bastards' would be tolerated. Whoever was in the Waggon on the Saturday night and sober enough to make note of the whereabouts of the match the next morning and also not be so badly hung over the next morning to actually turn up, would play - no questions asked. Amazingly, this formula usually worked even though, on one memorable occasion after a particularly heavy night's drinking, an away game that was a little further away and a little earlier than usual, was played with only eight Ashfield Old Boys present - against the usual eleven. Algirdo, of course, was one of the gritty never-say-enough players that turned up, although with hindsight it would have been better if they'd just forfeited the match. They lost, I'm sure, by a score that was in double figures. The rest is a blur except for one unforgettable image when, defending a corner, Algirdo and two team mates took a couple of seconds out the proceeding to simultaneously vomit behind the goal, as the attacking team got ready to launch in another cross.

It was about at this time of his life that football was having the most profound effect on him. For a boy that never experienced a wet dream in his life (unlike 'Barnsley', lucky bugger), he began to experience the most fantastic and vivid football fantasies, but only whilst in the midst of the deepest, usually alcohol induced, slumber. Usually, he'd be the midfield dynamo, spraying millimetre-precision passes to every corner of the pitch to chants from the always massive crowd of "Kul - i - ukas". If only.

Algirdo found his true level in real football when he left university. Never before or since was he to experience such adulation as in those brief two years as a maths teacher at North Border Comprehensive school, in Bircotes – as the name suggests, right on the border with Yorkshire (which made for a very scary time during the miner’s strike.) Why adulation?, you might ask. Surely an exaggeration. Well Algirdo, being ever keen on football, decided to organise a five-a-side tournament that perhaps a third of the school took part in. It was a great success and every Monday, as he walked into the school, he’d get swamped with kids asking for a copy of the latest programme he’d printed off (including ludicrously complex statistics from last week’s games) from the school’s bander machine. Furthermore, as quite a big bloke now that the testosterone had been flowing for all of five years, he found that he had a knack for keeping goal for the staff side and won a reputation as being practically unbeatable, especially when playing against 13 and 14 year olds.

Some players blossom only later in life, perhaps when they start playing for their works team, but Algirdo was not one of them. He was to leave teaching as soon as they sent him on a training courses to teach him how to use computers. The idea was that he might use his new found skills to teach the kids but it only gave him the excuse he was looking for to get out of teaching and join the money-grabbing, selfish, rat race of the Thatcher years. (Yes, even I blame Mrs T for that part.) At British Airways, as a PL/1 programmer who joined on BACT 34 (the 34th British Airways Computer Training regular intake of scores of graduates who were so na├»ve about computers, they could be brainwashed to learn the ‘BA Way’), he was to receive ample opportunities to play in the regular BA five-a-side leagues and he did so with relish. Unfortunately it never went any further than just relish. His performances were as mediocre, as was his team, as was the competition. The only memorable aspect of that era was the way every ninetey seconds or so, play would have to go into a surreal kind of suspended animation as yet another ridiculously huge lump of steel, infeasible floated across towards the nearby runway, just a few metres above their heads, with jet engines screeching so loudly, it wasn't funny. At his next company, Metier Management Systems, he played a couple of games for a bunch of lads at the airforce base near the Polish War Memorial next to the A40. These sketchiness of the details of those games are on a par with the level of playing standard achieved. His next company, Ashton Tate, never had a football team and never organised a football tournament, as far as he knew (or maybe they did, but just never told him), and so, as he was about to go self-employed, another avenue into football playing glory was about to close.

When one door closes, another door opens – or so the adage has it. Not for Algirdo's football 'career'. For the next few years the only opportunity he had to test his football skills was on the back lawn dribbling rings around his three year old son, until he gave up crying (his son, that is, not Algirdo.) No wonder when, a few years later he rebelled against his tyrannical dad by refusing to go, week after tedious week, to watch Wycombe Wanderers by telling his mum “I hate football”.

As the years of bringing up sweet, cute, cuddly, lovely, innocent, darling children gradually, and imperceptibly, metamorphosed into a life of seemingly endless parental servitude, and all thought of actually playing football had long gone, Algirdo was suddenly re-launched into a group of new-age lads that regularly played five-a-side. Of course, he’d love to join in. He always loved to play football. So, at the age of 40, he relaunched his ‘career’ with Steve, Gerry, Rory and a few other lads, who’s name he can’t quite recall today. They played on an astroturf pitch near Penn. It was a glorious feeling to play again, at least it always was at the beginning of every game, but, by now, with the years ticking by, he was prone to minor injuries. Every game he played, it seemed, he’d pull a muscle and have to limp off and watch the rest of the game from the sidelines. Then, after a two week lay-off, he’d try again, when the same thing would happen. It is well known that some of the greatest footballers’ careers are cut short with cruel injuries, but few people realise just how the same is also true of some of the crappiest footballers ever to try to play the game. Algirdo was very much in the later category, no doubt about that.

His final game with the Wycombe ‘boys’ was, ironically, in an indoor five-a-side pitch in Ealing, West London . This time, he’d had a long lay off and was determined not to pull a muscle. To make sure, he decided to ask the lads if he could start the game in goal, remembering his ‘glory’ years at North Border Comprehensive playing against 13 year olds. They agreed and so it was, in front of the sticks, that he faced his first competitive match in years. Seconds into the game, the ball broke loose to a huge guy on the opposition team. He sprinted forward from the right side, bearing down on the goal. Algirdo, brave as he is (or should that just be ‘stupid’?), came to narrow the angle and went down to clutch the ball at his feet, as he had done many times against the boys (and sometimes girls) in Bircotes. This time, however, the striker was not intimidated and came through with all his weight, outrageously into the ‘D’, it seemed, fully against Algirdo’s neck. The save was made but Algirdo lay, head spinning, on the ground thinking “I’m a bloody quadriplegic!” Fortunately, the injury felt worse than it was and he was able to get up and go back onto the subs bench, whilst another guy stepped into the goalie’s shoes. Not to be put off, later Algirdo was to finally reappear to make a final contribution in the middle of the pitch. For the first few seconds he felt masterful, striding around the midfield area purposefully and actually made a couple of nice touches for several (maybe even four) minutes before disaster struck again.

Algirdo received the ball, in space, in the middle of the pitch as his team started to launch a counter-attack. He looked up. He saw Gerry’s mate from Ealing (who’s name I can’t quite remember now) on the right, in some space, looking for the ball. There was a defender right in front of him. In a flash, the obvious move came to him. Like Pele's, his brain clicked into gear. He’d lay off a nice, soft pass to Gerry’s mate and then, just as the ball was about to be received and the defender would have committed himself to close him down, he’d call for the ball to be returned quickly into the vast gap in front of the ‘D’ that he’d just opened up. The first part of the plan was executed to perfection. The ball was weighted just right. Gerry’s mate had nothing to do but to control it with one touch and then lay it off, in front of the approaching defender into space, where Algirdo would surely pounce. This he did, beautifully. Algirdo’s brain now saw glory… a right stride, then a left stride and then, whoosh!, a right-foot controlled power stroke, with the head well over the ball with a slight swing of the foot across the path of the stroke from outside to in so as to impart a bit of a bend on the ball and BANG! It would curl past the goalie into the bottom right corner of the net… 1-0! The brain conceived the plan well enough and sent the messages down the neurons to the muscles at the speed of … well, neurons but… unfortunately the muscles refused to comply. It was as if a myofibril trade union meeting had immediately formed, and sent a complaint back to CNS management: “Fuck off! – we’re not doing that!” and, instead of glory, Algirdo collapsed onto the hard floor in a crumpled, pathetic heap, falling over his own, over-enthusiastic (or should that be ‘under-enthusiastic’?) legs. From that day onwards he would often complain to himself (or to his wife when he was looking for a bit of sympathy) about his dodgy hip that began that fateful day.

Algirdo's international career almost, finally, took off early in the 21st century when he had the chance to play for his father's country, Lithuania. Sorry, that should read "in" his father's country, Lithuania. The newly independent Lithuania had orginaised an 'Olympiad' for Lithuanian exiles from all over the world and the question on everyone's lips (well, on the lips of Vince O'Brien, the guy trying to organise it, during a desperate phone call, at least) was would Algirdo like to play for the English team? Of course he would, he loves football. So, on a mole-hole infested volleyball pitch at the Lithuanian country house, Sodyba, in Hampshire, a match was organised for these would-be Didz-Brits (British Lithuanian) football heroes to play out a game to get their tactics right for the tournament to come. Algirdo played as well as he has ever played that day (don't ask) and the game will always stick out as the one match in his long career where the fan(s) actually began chanting his name from the terraces. His ever-supportive, darling wife, Lesley, was watching and try as she might, nobody else joined in with the chants of "Algi! Algi!" In the end, Algirdo couldn't join the squad of elite athletes that went to Lithuania to play in the Olympiad and so he was unable to help his team mates as they went down 17-0 to a team of veteran Lithuanian ex-army footballers.

After this Algirdo decided that, at the age of 43, it was time to hang up his boots. So, thinking about the best way to guarantee that would happen, he emigrated to Australia , where they don’t even play football. Wrong again. Upon arriving in Perth , Algirdo soon discovered the amazingly busy grass roots level of the game for young kids, including girls and Algirdo had three of those. Soon, he found himself, three times a week, going to Lynwood Soccer Club to watch his youngest daughters either train or play. Being so keen on football, he’d invariably help (in almost imperceptibly slight ways) the big scouser Pete, or the big Chelsea fan (whose name I can’t quite recall) with the training sessions. It was here that, finally, he learned something shocking about football that was a revelation to him: Before games, players should do stretching exercises to reduce the risk of pulling muscles. If only someone had told him years earlier, it might have made all the difference. On one occasion, when neither Pete and the Chelsea fan could turn up, Algirdo’s heart pounded with excitement at the scary prospect of actually having to manage a training session on his own, for this group of nine year old girls. Luckily, one of the mums, who was a bit of a netball coach, saved the day and took over. Phew! What a relief. Algirdo did referee a couple of games when the official ref didn’t turn up and the Chelsea fan wasn’t actually around at the moment they were looking for a volunteer to step in. But his most memorable refereeing moment came as linesman for his daughter Zemyna's league debut away at Sutherland. Drawing 3-3 the ball came though to the nippy little blondey-girl and Algirdo made the fateful decision to keep his flag down as she sped through to clinch the winner just minutes before the end of time. The joy of that moment remains the greatest he's ever experienced whilst participating in a live match. Algirdo was always willing to help, as long as people’s expectations were not high.

Eventually both his daughters retired from the game and so, it seemed, should he. Then, one fateful day at UWA he was arguing with Jens, a German-Australian football fan about England v Germany games. Stupidly he got the idea into his thick skull that they’d lost to Germany in the Euro 96 semi-final on the golden goal rule. Jens, with typical German efficiency, knew it was on penalties and Algirdo agreed to bet him: If it was on penalties, he’d have to come to a training session with Jens’ team (who’s very odd name I can’t remember.) It was on penalties, of course, so Algirdo had to go to a training session. He not only survived the ordeal but played well enough, in his mind, to decide that maybe his playing days were not over just yet. One of the other guys was even older that he was and this evidence seemed to confirm his feeling that he should try to play some more.

So, Easter 2004 came and so did the Margaret River Football Festival – an opportunity for local WA soccer teams to indulge in a pre-season friendly competition and down lots of beer. Algirdo could never resist that sort of combination and, after downing lots of beer the night before, he found himself lined up in Jens' team with a name I can’t remember against another team whose name I can’t remember. (They played in blue, I remember that). In one real sense, this match signified the very peak of Algirdo ’s career. Never before, since, or, lets’ face it… ever, has he played on such a good pitch surrounded by a rail to stop spectators getting on the pitch and four, not one, floodlights. It was exhilarating. The match kicked off. Algirdo found himself at the centre of defence, marking a short but very well built number nine in the Alan Shearer mould. Trying to look cool, dropping off the No. 9 slighly, realising he probably would do him for pace, Algirdo kept a close eye on the play, whilst keeping ‘Shearer’ in his field of vision at the same time. He managed to do this for all of three minutes before a through ball was played from midfield straight over him into the space in front of goal. Algirdo glanced to his right, expecting to see ‘Shearer’ close by, but, he’d already gone. He’d turned backwards, sideways and then forwards (I'm guessing here because I didn't actually see him do this) a moment after the ball was passed, expecting (naively) Algirdo to try to play some kind of off-side trap, and then sprinted into the space he knew would open up. In one touch he killed the ball and in the second touch he stroked the ball into the corner, past the goalie (who, it would later transpire, was actually quite brilliant, if similarly middle aged.) The fellow defenders of the oddly named team offered Algirdo sound advice like “try to stick with the striker” and “drop deeper” but the damage to his confidence was already done. Somehow, they managed to survive the rest of the game only conceding another two goals and Algirdo’s second half performance was actually almost not too bad. He did, at least, make a couple of hoof-like clearances. Algirdo dropped himself from the remaining games and, it seemed, that would, at long last, signal the end of his 'career'.

Wrong again. In 2006, at the age of 47 and inspired by the World Cup in Germany . Algirdo persuaded himself, one last time, to squeeze into his much too small football boots and put on his nine-year-old daughter’s shin pads. This time there’s no forgetting the name of the team he played for (he played for them tonight, after all)… a team called ‘Arse’. In the UWA postgrad evening five-a-side league, the Anatomy Research Students Experience lads needed gulible volunteers to come along and add depth to the squad, and Algirdo, never intimidated by the prospect of looking ridiculous, agreed to turn up and play alongside lads, some of which were only marginally older than his son. After a very scary moment when an e-mail went round suggesting that the players should meet up for training once a week, Algirdo managed to persuade the squad that it was probably best if he didn't participate in that part (or indeed any part) of the pre-match build up. In the first game, Algirdo thought he played reasonably well before pulling an adductor muscle so badly it made the inside of his thigh go black n blue like a free kick smacking the thigh would have done in Mr Jay’s era. So, after his traditional two-week lay off, he returned to the Arse line up and played one of the greatest games of his long career. The incident that will stick in the mind of everyone who saw it and was interested (ok, so that's just Algirdo, then) was a delicate short pass to Swedish international, Mats, from the middle of the pitch, taking out two defenders at the same time. Mats controlled it beautifully (how could he not, it was so well placed) and then beat one of the defenders who had recovered ground before stroking it majestically into the net to win the match 2-1. That “assist” would end up being the second best statistic (second only to his goal for Sherwood Hall seconds) in his long and remarkably eventless playing career. The next game, having had a couple of beers before the game, was a disaster and Algirdo didn’t succeed in making a single accurate pass all match. It was, quite simply, the worst performance Algirdo had ever given, been part of or seen. After a self-imposed dropping from the squad for a couple of weeks (one, which they lost 15-0), Algirdo came to the match tonight knowing that Arse were in the play offs. The league of 12 teams had finished and teams now played each other in groups of four in a knock-out basis. Arse had finished an amazing 10th and so were favourites against the team who had finished one place below them. This was especially so as they had a full strength squad with everyone fit for a change, as well as exciting new blood in the shape of ‘Mike’ a young Mancunian who obviously knew his stuff. But someone had not read the script to the other team because they tore into Arse from the beginning. Arse tried to keep it tight but were too slack at the back. Before long they’d stuck it up Arse big time and they were down one nil, having the floor wiped by them. Arse had their backs up against the wall for sure. Screams of “Come on, you Arse!” from the fan (Algirdo) didn’t seem to help much and a glorious end to the season seemed to slipping away from Arse as quickly as … well, you can imagine. Algirdo avoided coming on as a sub until all the other players had had a go, but eventually, his services were called upon once more. He did disappoint - a lot. Forty-five seconds, three kicks of the ball, two fallings over and a some pointless running later, after coming on, he went for a tackle, slipped on the greasy surface and, once again, pulled a muscle – a right calf muscle this time – and hobbled off again just before half time. In the second half, he watched his team go 2-0 down before the brilliant Mike almost led a solo recovery, making one and scoring one to make it 2-2 just before the end. If the score had stayed that way, Arse would have won through to the grand final play off for 9th place (based on their higher league placing), ensuring near mid-table mediocrity but alas, even this small achievement was not to be. With literally the last kick of the game, the other team employed their odd tactic of blasting corners in low and hard into the box for the tenth time. On this ocassion, one of their strikers managed to get a touch on the ball and in it went, past the hapless Mats, who’d made at least a dozen point blank saves before hand. And so, next week, the final week of the season, Arse face some other unknown team for the wooden spoon but will do so without Algirdo - because, you may remember, he's now retired.

Alas, as Algirdo hobbled away into the dark, thoughts of “my body is trying to tell me something - pack in playing, you old tosser!!!” kept bursting into his mind and he decided that it was finally time to end this ridiculous debacle and pack it all in.

So ends the football playing ‘career’ of someone who was always keen, but always, equally, appallingly bad. Never again will he soil the beauty of a game of football. Never again will his clumsy frame be seen trying to hoof the ball away from danger. His loss, we should remember, is football’s gain. As time passes us by, though. let's remember that in 2006, two of the many, many players that retired from the game were notable for opposite reasons: One was at the very top of his game, at the highest possible level – Zinadine Zidane, in the World Cup final, after a brilliant playing career glittered with talent and brilliance and… one was at the very bottom, determinedly so, never to have played to any level worthy of the title 'level' – Algirdo, after years of consistent shite, he finally gave it all up. Relief all round. Now, he only has his dreams.

1 comment:

Jake said...

I can't believe you left out the bit when we played at night on the posh University gravel pitch when you played in goal and I chipped you perfectly. We were a bit worse for wear if I remember right.

But you should have retired then Youth! ;-)

I wonder what happened to old banana face?