KEVIN ROSS explains ‘What Football Means To Him’ for our series of the same name, and once you’ve read it, you’ll understand and empathise why it’s so hard to finally hang up those boots.

I sit alone in a mostly empty pub; the fire crackles and I stare at my pint. A football match plays out on the TV, but I am only half interested. Up until a few months ago at this time I’d have been in a packed pub or clubhouse, piling a plate full of the ubiquitous post match offering of sausage and chips while we pick apart our performance on the pitch we’ve just come off. Now there is a gaping hole in my weekend, I can’t settle on anything, I feel lost. Full of fear my weekends will just become a long series of trips to DIY shops, cans on the settee with Soccer Saturday, another emasculated man with an ever-expanding waistline. Away days provide some relief but after the best part of 18 years of men’s’ football I am struggling adjust to life without playing the game.

I don’t even know why, I don’t think I’ve ever even enjoyed it and I’ve never been any good, but like some addiction, I just couldn’t help but go back for more, time and time again. It’s not like it has been a trophy-laden lifetime of football either; prior to the last few years when we actually won a few things. Up until then the ‘highlights’ were avoiding relegations, playing against Mark Owen (of Take That), being outpaced by ex-Sunderland legend Gary Bennett (then twice my age) as he scored the winner, and having a lad sprint down a Magaluf street to shake my hand for the best piece of skill he has ever seen (with a discarded McDonalds milkshake). Hardly enough to make a career as an after-dinner speaker, regaling drinkers with my tales of glory while they tuck into pie and peas.

I guess it was just in my blood. It was inevitable really as my Dad played amateur football for years and racked up plenty of season tickets at Sunderland. As a child I’d occasionally get to go and watch him play and enter the weird world of the football changing room. Loud men, new words, bandages, liniment, stale sweaty football gear and the smell of mouldy, decaying grass. They all smell the same and it still takes me back now when I enter a changing room. Thankfully, no-one turned up wearing his wife’s underwear, including suspenders, under his tracksuit as a lad did for one of the Sunday teams I later played for.

My Granda is the same. Even at 80 odd when he’d had to give up his season ticket he passed up his only chance of the year to meet his latest Great-Grandson for the first time as he was watching Sunderland on TV in the pub.

I look at my sons and wonder if they will show the same level of obsession. They haven’t yet but all football offers them currently is a Dad that disappears for the day. Although my oldest is coming up to the age when it began for me. I was six and watched Sunderland lose the 1985 Milk Cup Final on TV with my Dad. Then shortly after watched Everton beat Rapid Vienna in the Cup Winners Cup in bed on a grainy black and white portable. I can still name most of the Everton side despite it being over 30 years ago. I was hooked.

My first Panini collection followed shortly after, although I was never going to collect a full set at a rate of two packets a week. I can still feel the tear, the smell and sense of excitement at the opening of each packet. Shoot and Match were devoured cover to cover before later progressing to 90 Minutes, World Football, fanzines such as A Love Supreme and then more recently The Football Pink, Stand and Mundial as my interest moved on from finding out that all footballers in the 80s and 90s loved a bit of soul music.

Hours of the dark winter nights were lost playing Football Manager and in tears as my Dad’s Ritman Rovers beat my Clarke P R on Match Day on the Spectrum 48k. Later it was Kick Off 2, Goal and Championship Manager before I realised that dark nights were better spent in the pub.

The World Cup in Mexico on TV and a first trip to Roker Park in 1986 as we slid towards the third tier sealed the lifelong love of football. From that point on it became all-consuming and I couldn’t get enough. I played almost every break at school, every evening till it got dark and every Saturday morning for the school team. I took a ball everywhere and if there was no one around I’d happily kick around a ball about on my own. I couldn’t get enough of rampaging around a pitch, a schoolyard, a cobbled back lane, anywhere.

I’ve never grown out of watching and reading about football. You can keep your live West End shows and TV dramas; football has more depth, nuances and artistry than any of them. 4-all Wembley draws; top level shithousing; tight technical contests; last ditch tackles; moments of brilliance that get you on your feet like Robson-Kanu for Wales; solo goals that make trips to cold, damp half empty stadiums worthwhile like Dom Vose’s goal for Wrexham against Gateshead; I love it all. It has never left me.

It might now be as much the joy of travelling somewhere different, big winter coats, drinking some train cans and having a few pints with my mates in backstreet pubs rather than learning about who all the players are, what strips the teams wear or even sometimes the game. Sunderland AFC may also be back to where it was in 1986/87 and no longer a good representative of the area but it is still a link to my family, generations of history with the fans and a huge part of who I am. It is more the cultural elements rather than the players who enthral me now, but I can see why it still has a hold over me.

However, a love of playing the game hasn’t always endured. As I got older I drifted away from 11-a-side football to the extent that when I went to University, I ignored requests to come down to play for one of the sides, as I just couldn’t be arsed, it was more fun playing 6-a-side with the lads I knew and just having kick arounds. Once I left though, I realised you can’t just go round knocking on doors to round up some lads for a game and I had to go back to organised 11-a-side to get my football fix. I had to keep playing somewhere. I am still not sure why playing held such a hold over me, as it was never fun like it was as a lad. Yet I still turned down jobs and chances to emigrate, as I wouldn’t be able to play football despite being forever ‘playing my last season.’

Even if I haven’t always enjoyed playing, at least has made it easy to get to know people as I have moved around the country. My patter is terrible but luckily you can talk all day about football with people you have just met or people you know well with searching for things to talk about. It is a kind of lubricant that makes social situations easy without the usual banal small talk as you get to know people. Sometimes it was fun joining a new team, especially when the team had all been mates for years, other times on a Saturday it was harder work when it was just a random group who played together for the love of the game.

I do miss the social aspect. Sitting for hours drinking in the Sportsman’s Arms in Ambleside after Saturday games and strolling into the Snailbeach Whitestars changing room on Sunday mornings to find out what happened the night before in town. I will be forever grateful for all of the teams for taking me under their wings and inviting me along for a few beers many more times than I was able to take up. I’ve met some genuinely sounds lads. If I’d have packed in many years ago I may have said I miss the banter, if bullies had not appropriated the word as cover for their antics and tin pot betting accounts for their LadBible version of humour.

It has been a joy to play in some beautiful locations. Although the Blue Bell’s home pitch in Sunderland was hard to enjoy, despite overlooking the sea, due to the biting winds and the burned-out cars on the pitches. It also helped to get to places I’d have never have visited. Hours in a car every Saturday meant getting to know some more obscure parts of the localish area. Hidden gems of pubs and sometimes places you were happy to get out of alive and made a mental note never to take your girlfriend there. Without it I would never have got to play at Penrith’s old Frenchfields ground and luxuriate in a team bath afterwards like we’d just completed a 1970’s cup-tie giant killing. I’ve never seen a team bath since and probably never will.

My joints may have been ruined by football but realistically I doubt I’d have done any useful exercise if I wasn’t being tortured at training or chasing a ball round a pitch for 90 minutes. Mentally it provided a distraction for 90 minutes, a release from the quotidian drudgery of life, no matter how stressful things may have been, nothing else entered my head while I was playing. The following week would be occupied by mental re-runs of parts of the game that went well or more often not so well which helped distract from real life worries. It brought another level to watching football too, seeing how players played, positioned themselves, the decisions they made, a deeper level of understanding of the game. Perhaps if I spent less time thinking about football and Sunderland AFC I’d have done better at school and work.

Occasionally I’d come off the pitch, looking like death warmed up and exhausted but exhilarated at the win but more often than not just relieved another game was over. I don’t get anxious about many things but felt nervous before every game despite playing competitive football for nearly 30 years at some level or other. I never quite worked out whether it was nerves at letting my teammates down, a fear of just looking like a tit by doing something stupid or just because football was so important to me I just didn’t want to be shit. I could feel the fear weighing my legs down like concrete, tightening my muscles and meaning I lost focus on what I needed to do on the pitch.

I used to get annoyed if the game hadn’t gone well, but as I got older I learned to enjoy little moments in the game. Like watching a Tango football drop from the heavens before killing it dead in front of me with a battered Copa Mundial, then just feeling the late August sun and looking at the ball in front of me on the lush grass as no-one moved to close me down, a perfect moment in time. Or on the flipside; clattering into someone moving at pace sending them swearing and sprawling yards away in the mud as you stroll away through the torrential rain with the ball. I can still recall dozens of moments like this clearly like they were yesterday.

One thing that has been constant is the joy of striking a football perfectly. We could stand for hours as kids just shooting at an open goal and even at 39 years of age, if left I would have stayed for hours after training shooting. I may not have ever got any better but that rare feeling when you strike it perfectly, like you have barely connected but the ball pings off your foot, not revolving on its axis just arrowing into the top corner, is a moment of rare, simple, guilt free joy. Even just thinking about it now I want to go try and strike a ball into an empty goal despite it being dark and rainy and a bit weird.

I’ve never really, up until now, thought too much about what playing football meant to me. I am not even sure I wanted to try and rationalise while I was playing in case it took away some of its magic and broke its spell. I guess subconsciously I thought it was just what people do and it was just something that was ingrained in me from a young age, something that I didn’t grow out of and had to keep doing. It was just what I did. Many of the places our ancestors worked and the associated cultures that went with them may have been taken away but the love of playing football was something I could keep going.

Perhaps it was a crutch to lean on to hide my social inadequacies or stemmed from some weird desire to bring out my competitive side but looking at it now, I am glad I kept playing. It was a reminder of the things that make football such an important tool and brings people together, the real soul of football, away from the greed, avarice and selfishness of the plastic version of football that plays out on Satellite TV. There are so many moments of beauty in the game. Just talking about football brings me to life and gets me animated, for better or worse it has helped make me who I am today. I may not have always enjoyed it, but it has enriched my life. My life has been better for it. I doubt I’ll ever tire of watching football, but I don’t think I’ll ever not miss playing.