TIM BALDWIN battles through both physical and mental anguish to recall better times; times when he and his brother took on each other and the world at Subbuteo, in the newest instalment of our ‘What football means to me’ series.
The early hours of a typical midweek morning and here I am once again, sat in the familiar territory of an A+E waiting room. Another night; another pointless fight. My clothes a mess, my knuckles filled with splinters of glass, and my nose broken and twisted awkwardly across my face. I may have been dragged along the ground of the pub car park at some point; my trousers are torn at both knees, and loose gravel is embedded so deep under one kneecap that I canâ€™t straighten my leg. I stare at my phone willing it to burst into life with the noise and vibration of an incoming call, but in truth it hasnâ€™t rang for months, save for the daily concerned calls from my brother. Why would anyone bother anyway? I let the people closest to me down and destroyed their faith in me, pushed away anyone who cared. I wouldnâ€™t listen; I never could.
My name is duly called and I am ushered into a cubicle and told to sit. The triage nurse makes fleeting eye contact with me; through his gaze I see equal measure of pity, disdain and scorn. He forces a thin smile but itâ€™s obvious he detests me; abundantly clear from the impatience in his voice and the narrowing of his brow. A wave of familiar shame crashes over me, followed by a gentle simmering of embarrassment. Nerves cause me to spin in the swivel chair like the Class A fool I am; riddled with pin holes and acting like an unruly child. It wasnâ€™t always like this, there were many happier times, although they are barely more now than distant memories; little more than tiny stitches of positivity in a tapestry of decline. I remember well the wet winter afternoons in a warm and loving home: the smell of home cooked meals, the familiar sound of inoffensive television, the innocence of childhood, the laughter, the woollen jumpers, the games we played, and most of allâ€¦I remember Subbuteo.
I was born in this hospital; I imagine Iâ€™m destined soon to die in it if things carry on this way much longer. Before life became so chaotic for me, before I transformed into the drain and nuisance I am today, I had only sat in this waiting room on one previous occasion; a day I remember well. The day had begun as usual, and a typically hectic Sunday afternoon had ended with the obligatory game of Subbuteo. Most of my friends had to fold their own cloth pitch up and put it back in itâ€™s box after use, but in our house we were lucky to have a playing cloth, complete with a green plastic perimeter fence, that had been permanently glued to a large, thin rectangle wooden board. Once dinner was finished, the plates cleared away and the washing up completed, we would be allowed to place the board on top of the oval shaped dinning room table and play to our hearts content. Looking back, they were the most secure days of my life.
As well as the cloth pitch attached to its wooden base, we had a range of various club and national teams, and an array of accessories. I can remember: Dugouts, floodlights, camera crews, police horses, a selection of different coloured balls (vital for those winter evenings games), and a very impractical scoreboard that came complete with paper sheets of different clubs names. The names were on long rectangular strips and had to be manually cut out before being slotted into small plastic grooves, usually for them to slip immediately out again. Quite literally, they were paper thin. My club West Bromwich Albion regularly took on other Midlands clubs in imaginary FA Cup finals, and Iâ€™m fairly sure that I once managed to guide Albion to a World Cup semi-final!
On this particular afternoon in question my younger brother had beaten me twice already: 6-5 and 2-0 were the score lines, although Argentina at home to WBA hardly seemed a fair match up. I was 2-1 down in our third game after a matter of minutes, and when he scored a third with a long range flick so hard he had a bruised fingernail for weeks afterwards, predictably I completely lost my cool. In a fit of rage I lifted my right leg and stamped my foot hard onto the rough wooden floor below.
The pain that flooded through my foot and up my leg was excruciating; the type of pain I wouldnâ€™t feel again for years until a glass was introduced to my face during a â€œconversationâ€ in a pub. My foot had planted itself flush onto the hard floor surface, but in the process a player that had accidentally been knocked off the pitch, and was standing upright on its base, had torn its full length through the cotton of my sock, and pierced its way through the flesh of my heel. I slumped to the floor writhing in pain. My brother attempted to prise the sharp plastic out of my foot using a butter knife from the kitchen drawer. Only the green semi circle base was visible; a large plastic veruca. His attempts were in vain, and the pain simply too much. I stood up on one leg and hopped around the room; tears streaming and arms flapping as if I were attempting to fly. Every so often I would loose my balance and would have to lower my leg to stop myself from toppling over, resulting in the protruding plastic base tapping on the floor as if I were wearing a glass kitten heel. â€œI need an ambulance!â€, I screamed.
I didnâ€™t get my ambulance, but I was driven to the hospital by my incredibly irritated mother, although she later joined in the laughter surrounding the ridiculousness of it all. The Subbuteo player was eventually removed, and my foot healed well, although to this very day I still feel a shooting pain through my heel on extremely cold mornings. This particular mishap asides, those Sundays afternoons are my fondest memories of childhood. If I clench my broken fists, I can almost grasp hold of the feeling of safety and comfort that surrounded me; there was always enough love to knock a rhino sideways. My brother and I grew older, and Subbuteo became little more than a footnote of those formative years. Long after we had lost all interest in playing the game the table was still being used, albeit now as a poker table set up in our parents garage. The once proud felt cloth now lay covered in cigarette burns, stinking of stale beer. Life had moved on for us both.
Before we were too much older storm clouds had gathered above our home, and selfish acts of crisis would rip the cloak of safety from our collective back. Paranoia, anger, trauma and mistrust replaced comfort, complacency and hopeful expectation. I intentionally destroyed the Subbuteo board one day shortly before our home was sold. Once an unwavering symbol of our dependable family unit, now a damp, warped, sorry mess; damaged beyond repair. It crumbled apart in my hands.
These days Subbuteo feels like a relic of days gone by; an irrelevance to almost all except for those who lived through the period at the height of its popularity. The game is a symbol of a time when football had more â€œinnocenceâ€ about it, a time before the money flooded in and disfigured it beyond recognition. Much like other forms of entertainment, and indeed the world in which we live, football has moved on. Iâ€™m sure there are plenty like myself who wish they could travel back and relive those times; grasp the opportunity to try and erase the defeats and saviour for longer the victories. The problem with Subbuteo, much like life, is that few of us really understand the rules.
Scars heal; heel scars heal. They may hurt at times, they may be ugly and unwelcome, but they also help remind us that nothing is permanent. Pain and sadness fade; much like the happiness and hope that went before them. Life, football, the games we play: They all teach us never to be complacent or rely on assumption; attempt to educate us that there are simply far too many factors at play affecting the outcomes. The problem is that few of us are ever concentrating enough to learn the lessons.
I stare down at my phone again, it doesnâ€™t vibrate or burst into life with a song, but I make a resolution to answer it the next time my brother attempts to call. Who knows what the coming days and weeks might hold? There was happiness once; perhaps there might be happiness again? All I hope is that when I die they wrap me in a shroud of green.
This piece is dedicated to brothers everywhereâ€¦â€Because he flicked the kick, and I didnâ€™t knowâ€.
This article appeared in Issue 23 of STAND magazine