I could hear Lee Fielder working a pellet of Airwaves around his jaw. He sat in the back seat of my car as we headed east on the M27 towards Whiteley, to play against Hare & Hounds, a pub on a council estate in Harefield, in the eastern fringe of Southampton. Despite having driven past it many times, I have never stopped there for a drink.
Hare & Hounds' red and white shirts matched the colours of the large flag of St George that is flown from a thin metal mast outside their premises. The colours were arranged like Arsenal's, red bodied with white arms. Ben Rowe, a Burridge striker and Tottenham Hotspur supporter, looked at the opposition as they warmed up for the game, jogging from one side of the pitch to the other. He said, “I hate everything about that kit.” He spoke softly, but the word 'that' was spat from his lips.
Fellow Burridge striker, Lee Fielder, who seldom ignores the opportunity to dismiss Rowe, usually about his Christian beliefs, said that under Arsene Wenger's leadership the shirt has become a symbol for an attractive style of football. Rowe cut him short. “What? Pass the ball around outside the box without ever scoring a goal?” He shook his head, as Paul Dyke divvied out bibs before our pre-match warm up routine.
The playing surface at Whiteley wasn't suitable for Hare & Hounds to emulate Arsenal's passing game. The conditions were very similar to last Saturday, with the centre of the pitch similar in texture, if not taste, to a bowl of treacle pudding, as I discovered when closing down an opponent, who in swinging his boot to clear the ball up field, dislodged a fresh clump of the pitch from the sole of his boot that found its way into my mouth.
During the first-half I bungled two good goalscoring opportunities. The first of which when the opposing goalkeeper committed himself to blocking Lee Fielder, which resulted in the ball rolling towards me outside the penalty area. Although my shot was on target, it was hit weakly. A Hare & Hounds defender, who in preparing for the worst case scenario by getting back onto the goal line, had no difficulty booting the ball to safety.
My second chance came after some slick interplay ending when Marc Judd, whose run had taken a defender away from me, back heeled the ball into my path. On receiving the ball, imaginary commentary from David Coleman buzzed in my ears as I became acutely aware of the stunning goal that I was no doubt about to score. A collective sigh of anti-climax could be heard shortly after I hit the ball harmlessly over the crossbar. Lee Fielder was having a better afternoon. He scored his first after breaking free from the Hare & Hounds defence and stroking home. Within ten minutes he had his second, volleying in Schwodler's cross from close range.
Hare & Hounds began the second-half with purpose, scoring pretty much straight away. One or two of us appealed for a free-kick against goalkeeper, Ryan Jones, but the referee was having none of it, shaking his head. Their bearded centre-back left his defensive duties behind to play a more attacking role, meeting a bouncing ball forty-yards from goal with a dipping volley you couldn't help but admire. I entirely expected to see the ball stopped by our royal blue goal netting. It flashed narrowly over the crossbar.
Sam Hewitt had already had it in the ear from his older brother for not getting rid of the ball quickly enough. Now it was his turn to let off some steam. “Sandy, Jase,” he shouted, to me and my midfield partner, Jason Wilson. “You're just standing there." Sam didn't think that we were pulling our weight. His voice was not quite as high as Paul Andrews when he loses his rag, but slightly higher than usual, all the seem. I turned around and looked at him stood twenty or so yards away. The fact I did not bite back had as much to do with me being preoccupied with getting my breath back, as much as any new found zen-ness.
Hare & Hounds' gung-ho strategy left them exposed to our counter attacks, led by Sam Schwodler, who kept himself busy by sniffing after a goal his performance deserved. His left wing cross was hit on the volley by Mark Reeves, who stood marginally inside the penalty area. When the ball crossed the line it was met with relief tinged with a touch of surprise that such a delicate finish was supplied by Reeves, a player normally associated with the rough house aspects of the game. It was a goal that effectively sealed our win.
Victory was marked by an unfortunate but timely block by Sam Hewitt, whose testicles took the full brunt of a cleanly hit goal bound shot. The referee stopped play as Hewitt lay on touchline to the right of Ryan Jones' goal, with one arm covering his eyes, the other reaching down inside his black shorts. Our manager, Paul Dyke, ran onto pitch, lifted Hewitt's legs by the ankles and slowly drew them in toward his body in a repeated motion in an effort to relieve him off the sting. There were twenty seconds left.
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