Matt Birks is a mechanic. Last season I broke his ribs at football training. It was an accident. We were having our customary three-touch game on the astro-crumb pitch at Wildern School. I attacked a right wing corner at the near post making a solid connection with my knee right into Birksy’s ribs. I remember the sound of him gasping for breath as he lay on the ground. Other players surrounded him in a pitch-side vigil, some turning a glance to me with cold empty eyes, as if there was intent on my part.
I don’t know how long he was off work. He didn’t reply to my texts. Must’ve changed his number. I know, I should’ve phoned, but how was the conversation going to go?
"Alright Birksy, how are you?
"How’s work? Changed any sprockets of late? "
"No. I’m signed off at the moment, what with the broken ribs."
When he came back to train a few months later I made sure I kept my distance. He’s flying to Australia to in a few weeks, to live. I’ve changed now. No bookings, no petulance, no whining at referees. There’s defending to be done. Which is still a much-misunderstood part of the game. If you travel around the council pitches of Hampshire to watch a match, it shouldn’t be too long before you see a defender whacking a ball skywards, its exact destination unknown other than very far away and with any luck a neighbouring garden.
Such action has been greeted recently with cries of, "HOOF," from some of the opposition. You know, the kind who wear their socks up over their knees and wouldn’t track back even on the promise of a free back, sack and crack and half an hour under the sun bed at the local tanning solarium. As though clearing one’s lines is some kind of degrading proletarian wage slave labour act that Karl Marx never got round to fully explaining in Das Kapital. All quite beyond the opposing bourgeois midfield, who would’ve no doubt pulled the ball out of the air with their brand new kangaroo skin cleats, before lolipopping their way to the opposing goal, if could they be arsed.
This has brought about a new breed of defender who thinks he’s a bit tasty, and able to send sixty-yard balls on the crowned head of a fifty pence piece. This isn’t just silly, it’s dangerous. Defenders - know your limits! There’s nothing quite as beautiful as giving it the big heave-ho into a nearby garden. Thinking of knocking one back to your ‘keeper? Think again. He’s only going to slice it out for a throw in, which may as well be a corner when the full-back with the long ‘un takes aim. Take enjoyment in what you do best and follow the Franny Benali code:
Send it HIGH, Send it LONG, Send it NOW.
And remember defenders, there’re always new forwards to rile and new challenges to meet. What’s that? An oncoming centre forward’s looking to receive his one-two on the volley? Not on my watch, soldier – HOOF! I’ve landed in a garden. HOOF! I’ve sent it into a nearby stream. HOOF! You beauty, it’s smashed into the windscreen of an Audi TT.
I remember my favourite hoofings, Tim Flowers with the ball in his hands and the Milton Road end of the Dell at his back. Bouncing that glistening Mitre Delta once, twice, three times, then a look to the right and a look to the left, followed by a further three bounces and HOOF! Should that ball have cleared the Archers Road end I wouldn’t have grumbled, not with Kerry Dixon and David Speedie up front.