By Nathan O’Hagan
Of all the potential networking opportunities afforded by social media, one particularly niche one that I never predicted was to be invited to join a football team of writers, to represent England in international fixtures against teams of other authors. Thanks to a few chats on various subjects with Matt Greene, author of the excellent novel â€˜Ostrichâ€™, however, thatâ€™s exactly what happened last year. England Writers FC has been in existence since 2013, with an ever-changing squad of players.
Unable to participate in a match in Rome last May, I flew to Vienna on 15th November to make my debut against Austria.
I met up at Wien Airport late on Friday evening with PJ Smith, better known to many as Roy, the name under which he writes and performs his brilliant short stories. PJ was someone Iâ€™d had the pleasure of seeing live a couple of times and shared a stage with twice at the Violette Societa events he helps to run in Liverpool. Inviting him along was to be my most telling contribution to the team. With the official England Writers FC limo unavailable, we took a taxi to Hotel Geblergasse to meet up with our new teammates.
A team constitutional on the morning of a match is a time-honoured football tradition, and the following morning, several of us headed down to Cafe Central, once frequented by Freud and Trotsky and famed for its cakes and pastries. After breakfast, we were unable to resist the plethora of cakes on display. Not the pre-match conditioning the modern athlete is accustomed to, but we justified our indulgence with the fact that the large intake of fat and sugar would give us the short-term burst of energy needed.
This was my first trip to Vienna, as well as my first outside of Britain since 2016â€™s EU referendum, and, when interacting with our waiter, as with all subsequent interactions with any locals, I had to fight the urge to pre-emptively apologise and assure him that Iâ€™d voted remain.
Our Austrian hosts had generously covered the costs of our accommodation, but their budget didnâ€™t quite stretch to the cost of a team bus, so Austrian captain Stefan was dispatched to guide us to the venue via the cityâ€™s excellent tram network. Finding myself confused by the payment system, I accidentally travelled for free, a crime for which the Viennese authorities may or may not still be looking for me. The match was to be held on a 3G pitch just outside the city centre, which also served as the training ground for Wiener Sporklub Under-19s.
In footballing terms, it was largely what youâ€™d expect from a game between two teams of middle-aged authors. There was lots of effort, and glimpses of what people had clearly been capable of in the past. Having not played a competitive 11-a-side game since Poulton Athletic Under-14’s legendary double-winning season (and by double winning, I mean we won runner-up medals in both the league and the cup), I struggled to translate my deadly futsal and six-a-side form to the international stage. Itâ€™s also possible that my guilt over defrauding the local public transport system, and fear of imminent arrest, affected my focus.
Author/actor Daniel Tatarsky and playwright Andrew Keatley anchored the team well in the middle of the park. The evening before, Keatley had been genial and friendly, going out of his way to make us two newbies feel welcome. On the pitch, he was an altogether different beast, taking on the Roy Keane role, berating an admittedly dreadful referee. Stopping just short of a Di Canio-esque ref shoving on several occasions, he eventually summed up what we were all thinking with a more measured â€œyouâ€™re the worst f***ing ref Iâ€™ve ever seen.â€ Luckily, the man with the whistle spoke not a word of English, so we were not robbed of Andrewâ€™s passing and organisation in the middle of the park. Between the sticks, Tomasz Mortimer was largely untroubled but held off any Austrian attacks like a competent King Knut.
Ben Brusey – along with brother Daniel, very much the Yaya and Kolo Toure of the team â€“ opened the scoring early on. The brothers Brusey linked up later on in the half to lay on a goal for Luke Catterson.
In between these goals, one man raised the standard of the game. Iâ€™d heard whisperings of PJâ€™s ability and was soon to find out that his skills as a storyteller were matched by his talent with a ball at his feet.
From the off, it was clear from his touch that he was used to playing at a higher level than the rest of us, and he opened his international account with a lovely curled effort from the corner of the box which pinged in off the far post, before doubling his tally with a predatory header after a goalkeeping error, to help us into an unassailable lead. The home team pulled a controversial goal back just before half time. Austriaâ€™s number 9 was clearly their best player. Six foot tall and powerfully built, he was a centre forward in the old fashioned mould, which probably made it a pretty poor decision for me, skinny and five foot eleven at full stretch, to mark him at a corner. I blocked his first header but was too slow to the second ball. Luckily, Tomasz was sharper and parried his rebound shot a good yard off his goal line. To our horror, the ref blew and signalled for a goal. Iâ€™m not sure even his assistant raised his flag, but he felt confident from his vantage point twenty yards away to give it. An injustice on a par with Thierry Henryâ€™s handball against Ireland.
Despite this gross inequity, we realised that, 4-1 up at half-time, it would take a collapse worthy of Newcastle in â€˜95/â€™96 for us to throw the game away, and soon after the restart, PJ completed his hat-trick from the penalty spot, before Catterson channelled his inner David Nugent, adding his second from barely a yard out to make it six. Already a rout, but the best was yet to come.
Late in the game, I sent in a corner from our left-wing which was headed clear. Lurking just outside the box, though, was PJ. As I moved out from the corner flag, I had a great view both of the connection of left foot against the ball, and also the incredible speed and accuracy as it flew into the top corner of the net. A truly stunning volley that would have left Buffon at his peak floundering. It was the perfect end to both the game and, with four goals, what was surely the best debut since Tony Cottee scored a hat-trick for Everton in 1988. It even made up for the disappointment of Tatarsky limping off due to the troublesome hamstring which is surely the only thing to have prevented him forging a career at the very pinnacle of the game.
Post-match analysis was limited, though the greatest insight came from the Austrian team coach. Having once been on the staff of Rapid Vienna when Everton beat them in the 1984 European Cup Winners’ Cup final, a fact of some interest to Tatarsky, Keatley, Smith and myself, the four Evertonians in the squad, he told his team that their best player on the day was the referee. Validation for the boy Keatley.
With Stefan once again escorting us, we took tram and train across the city to a bar. The beef stew garnered strong reviews from all who sampled it, but for those of us looking for something truly transcendent, it was provided with the desert. The topfenstrudel, we were assured, was something that can only be found in Austria, and has no equivalent anywhere else. The closest comparison I can make is a cheesecake strudel, but whatever the mechanics of it, it was worth the flight alone.
The next morning saw both teams reconvene in the cityâ€™s famed Shakespeare And Co bookshop for a mini literary event. Crammed into the tiny but beautiful store, PJ Smith, Daniel Tatarksy and I read a piece of short fiction each, as did three members of the Austrian squad.
Had there been a competitive element to this event, it would surely have been a high-scoring draw.
From here we made our separate ways to the airport, with tentative plans for a game against the auld enemy in Edinburgh pencilled in for late March.
Alas, as COVID-19 gradually approached pandemic status, one by one, members of the squad were forced to drop out. A threadbare squad was determined to make the trip North until lockdown took matters out of our hands.
That disappointment, along with the unrelated cancellation of a proposed four-team tournament in Sweden, would have broken the spirit of a lesser team. Once we are able, however, England Writers FC aim to show the bouncebackability that has thus far sustained it for seven years.