The horror and the beauty of Sunday league

The horror and the beauty of Sunday league

Sunday morning football’s already dubious reputation took a two-footed battering this week when a referee hung up his whistle for good after allegedly being assaulted by a player for the second time in his career.

Ross Hawkes claims he was attacked last weekend after he sent off a player for dissent during a cup game between Brereton Town and Cannock Chase Football League side Talbot FC.

The 36-year-old, who earns £30 a game, was apparently punched and kicked in the incident, which is being investigated by Staffordshire Police.

"What does it take to realise Sunday morning football has a huge problem,” he asked. "It's a powder keg waiting to explode.”

Incidents like these certainly give Sunday League a bad name – and it's a reputation I'm only too aware of. I've been playing for the best part of 20 years now, so I'm accustomed to the look in people's eyes when I tell them about my dirty habit. I may as well say I spend one morning every week stealing hub caps and throwing them at pensioners.

But Sunday League isn't all displaced aggression and 999 calls. Indeed, criminal incidents aside, I'd argue it's a great British institution.

I was 16 and still in high school when I made the giant leap from the relative innocence of junior football to the feral intensity of the men’s game. It soon became clear to me that Sunday League was the battleground of the talentless. It was terrifying and exciting and disorganised and in its own way very beautiful. It's the addictive, beer-stained antidote to the sterility and shaven legs of the modern game. No lush green carpets here, thank-you-very-much. We play our football on meadows.

There is something reassuringly rubbish about Sunday League – bare bones football, stripped down to its grubby Y-fronts and mismatched socks. In an era of pampered pros and goal-line technology and unobstructed views of the pitch and half-time access to the locally-sourced burgers and craft beer, pub football is a welcome reminder that, despite everything, the game still appeals to our most basic, tribal desires and that no, actually, heated seats and big screen replays don’t count for anything.

There is, of course, no defence to the physical abuse suffered by referees (or players, for that matter). And it does seem that Sunday football attracts more than its fair share of violent Neanderthals. But for the most part, it's a glorious mix of threadbare medical kits, unwashed shirts, rusty goalposts, asbestos-clad changing rooms and, well, fun. 

Let me give you a few examples.

Last Sunday, the start of the second half of our match (a 5-0 home defeat) was postponed for a full five minutes while the referee enjoyed every last drag of his cigarette. Nobody raised an eyebrow.

Then there was the time the game was held up while we pushed a burnt-out car off the pitch. The following week, we arrived to find a pram chained to the crossbar.

During the foot and mouth outbreak, an away match was moved to a nearby farmer's field after Environmental Health ruled that the pitch was too close to livestock.

Disorganisation is as much a part of the Sunday game as a late tackle - but the chaos and confusion only adds to the charm. Last season, our manager forgot our bag of balls so we warmed up with an empty Lucozade bottle. When the clocks go forward, it's a given that at least five players will turn up for the match an hour late.

We've turned up with the wrong kit, unwashed kit, wet kit, no kit at all (we wore bibs provided by a local primary school). A team-mate who forgot his shin pads (which are always, always referred to as 'shinnies') found a vacuum cleaner and used the bag as make-shift lower leg protection. Ingenious.

Then there's the parlance - the bizarre terminology that sets Sunday League apart from the rest of civilisation. Where else would you find groups of men screaming 'BOX THEM IN' and 'PUT HIM UNDER' and actually understanding each other?

Sunday football isn't perfect but that's why we love it. It's a social activity more than a sporting occasion, a chance to run off a vision-affecting hangover while spending time with friends that you'd otherwise only be wasting, and an opportunity to meet people you'd otherwise have never encountered (including a convicted armed robber, but that’s another story).

With professional football drowning in its own self-importance and the Premier League squeezing the serotonin from our brains so relentlessly that we might soon have nothing left to give, the beautiful game's unrefined, warts-and-all sibling is a welcome reminder of why we fell in love with the sport in the first place.

(As featured on the Telegraph 13th April 2018)

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