I collected the Burridge team kit from the laundrette after work. The girl behind the counter made small talk about when I'd be bringing it back. All I knew was that I'd spent the past thirteen years playing football for Burridge with my friends; and slinging the kit into the boot of my car, I was convinced I'd never pull that blue and black striped jersey over my head ever again.
Rumours of a split to Hedge-End Reserves began circulating ever since a wet March afternoon in Hiltingbury when Pete Lyons said he was stepping down after fours years as manager. Hedge-End isn't just a motorway junction closer to home for many of Burridge's squad, with their reserve side due to be in a lower division, Hedge-End means a shot at a miniature plastic footballer perched on a marble base with the word champions engraved in it.
Hedge-End's kinder on your wallet too. Player subscription fees at Burridge are £5 per match, which covers the cost of maintaining the pitch and the referee's fee. Hedge End charge an unprecedented rate of only £2. What's more, a pint of lager from their social club costs the same price. If you impressed in training you even stood a chance of getting called up by the first team. Not something to be sniffed at.
A Facebook message went out to all eighteen of the Burridge squad to find out their plans for next season. The only player to fully commit to Burridge was Paul Andrews, a six foot plus striker with a dislike of heading and a dodgy back. Nobody wanted the responsibility of splitting up a bunch of friends, who as the years have passed relied on football as one of the few times they socialised together. Not even for £2 a pint.
Paul Dyke had text me from his sight seeing holiday in New York. Having seen all there was to see, he wanted a meeting with the players on his return. He was prepared to sacrifice his playing days as a vocal cog of the back four at the age of 31 to become the new Burridge manager. We arranged to meet at 7pm on Thursday at the Shamblehurst Barn in Hedge-End, to find out if the club had a future.
I got to the pub early and sat down with a coke, trying hard not to listen to a couple sat in the corner having a heart to heart. The man looked more interested in his plate of onion rings than staying together. Paul Dyke arrived at 7:05pm. Contrary to being a ginger haired, teetotal, accountant, Dyke is confident, loud and talkative, and had no problems in filling the ten minutes before anyone else turned up with the sound of his voice. By 7:20pm Marc Judd, Paul Andrew and Ben Rowe joined sat around a table while Dyke read out an alphabetical list of last season's squad. He got as far as the name of Burridge captain Kristian Hewitt and went quiet.
Hewitt has scored goal of the season for the last two years running and can play well in any position, including goalkeeper, but football has been knocked down in his list of priorities by the birth of his son, and the organisation of Burridge top goalscorer, Bryn Schwodler's stag weekend in Bristol. Hewitt's biro scribble on a Burridge signing on form would be enough for several other players to follow suit. Without, the club was dead in the water. Dyke rang Hewitt, he was coming.
Hewitt pushed open double doors covered in promotional flyers telling him that it was Big Grill Thursday. The walk indoors from the car-park isn't much shorter than the distance from his back garden to Hedge-End's home dressing rooms. There were no seats left when he arrived so he stood at one end of the table as Dyke led the cross examination. “Will you stay at Burridge?” Asked Dyke. Five pairs of eyes looked up towards Hewitt as he sipped beer and nodded: “I'm too old to be trying to impress anyone,” he said. If good men like Hewitt are willing to turn their back on a £2 pint you know that you have a club worth staying at. I celebrated by stopping off on the way home at McDonald's with two cheese burgers.