Malachy Clerkin: Missing five-a-side brings about some harsh truths

It is a shock when you realise how much of your life you spend looking ahead

It was upon completion of the third Cruyff turn around my five-year-old the other day that I realised how much I was missing five-a-side football. Part of me was elated at the execution – look, you take your victories where you can. But part of me also thought (in a Jim Beglin voice), she’ll be disappointed with that. You can’t be getting done three times in a row with the same trick.

Yes, so there you have it. The lockdown has turned me into a monster, humiliating a five-year-old girl with a dragback pirouette. The fact that she’s not at all disappointed and in fact laughs her way through it is scant consolation, really. Oh, I’m glad she’s having fun. But mostly, I’m troubled by the petty evil inside me that is quite enjoying being able to drop a shoulder and go past her like a latter-day Andrei Kanchelskis.

This is what it has come to. In a world with no five-a-side, you learn cold and dirty truths about yourself. You thought you were a good dude. Not the best, not a saint, none of that guff. But a reasonable, decent chap. Then you realised that the sole reason you’re not nutmegging your daughter she isn’t tall enough yet for there to be space to fit the ball through her legs. That’s gonna be hard to come back from.

In five-a-side, I know my place. If I tried a Cruyff turn in our game, it would definitely result in me slamming face-first into the fence. There is more chance of me making a home-brew coronavirus vaccine out of gin, penne and Panadol than there is of me attempting a dragback pirouette against my peers on a Wednesday lunchtime. I am not that player.


Clever feint

None of us are, truth be told. Not any more, at any rate. You can see that it was once there, in the odd flash of feet every now and then. A waggled ankle, a clever feint or half-turn and you can tell that some bit of ability existed way back when. It’s like finding an old fossil in a bog – impressive at first sight yet ultimately of interest to a vanishing few.

But in general, it’s fair to say we favour the rudimentary over the inspirational. If we were what we repeatedly do, then we are mostly tacklers, blockers and getters-in-the-way. Nobody peering over the fence would mistake us for the sort of players who need an abundance of space in which to perform.

You can track the average age of any five-a-side game by what you hear from the shouters. If they’re pleading for lads to get back and help, it’s a young man’s game. By contrast, we seem to spend most of our time wondering is anybody going to stay up and give us an out ball. We do not feel like young men.

As the days pass and the numbers grow and news drips darkly down, people crave the banality of their old lives. For our game, the email drops on a Monday afternoon to see who’s up for playing. You make a mental calculation of how your week is looking and whether you’ll be able to spare an hour on Wednesday. You reply to say you’re in and then you find a way to find that hour. Yes indeed - behold what passed for excitement six weeks ago.

And now, nothing. The strangest feeling to get used to during lockdown has been that sense of nothingness stretching out ahead of us. The weekend is the same as the weekdays. Last Monday was a bank holiday - did anyone even notice?

Looking ahead

There’s nothing to plan for, nothing to look forward to. I don’t mean that in a dystopian, poor-me, there’s-nothing-to-live-for sense. We know this will end and we’ll be grand and life could be a lot, lot worse for the vast majority of people. No, it’s more that there’s a simple, day-to-day loss of things to put in your calendar. It feels weird to suddenly realise how much of your life you usually spend looking ahead.

You don’t do that now. You’re not going to that quiz night or bingo or drama group rehearsal. You’re not calling to drop a birthday present for your friend’s little one some night after work. You’re not heading up home to the see the mother. You’re not setting the alarm to get up for the NBA finals. You’re not surveying your week and wondering what you’re going to move around so that you can get out to play an hour of five-a-side.

As it goes, our game has started to struggle for numbers once or twice since the turn of the year. Whereas in the past we might have soldiered on with the occasional four v four game, the plug has been pulled a few times recently if there aren’t 10 or more committed to playing. This is just realism on our part, an admission that we need a base number of bodies to share the running burden.

Thing is, now we have endless hours to bamboozle five-year-olds with such effortless wizardry, it seems hard to fathom that clearing the decks for a Wednesday lunchtime will ever again be a problem. The next game is months away, presumably. We can take it that there won’t be a shortage of numbers.