The Fielder: Relations strained when visitors are up for the challenge
The real adventures of an inter-county footballer
Though it's nearly seven years ago, I remember that day like it was yesterday. As I stepped off the bus, the red mist descended. What sort of a kip was this? Surely a county minor deserved better? There wasn't even a bit of a stand for the young ones. Only grassy verges ran parallel to the sidelines; death traps for jersey-pulling budgies on a dewy morning like that.
I had made the county minor panel not one, but two years ahead of my age. As you would expect, it went straight to my then-empty head. It was as if the bee's knees, the dog's bollocks and the cat's pyjamas and the cock of the walk had been thrown into a diet feeder and I'd fallen out the back. At least in my eyes anyway. And now the club expected me to play an under 16 friendly against a team from the north? How dare they.
I collected my gear from the bus and marched towards the dressing room like a spoilt child after missing The Simpsons 'cause he'd to tag calves, my nose higher than Simon Cowell's belt buckle. We crammed into the tiny changing rooms, having to stand inside our gear bags while we changed. I made sure to emit the odd sigh, getting tactically louder when any of the management team came within earshot. To me, this was like getting Shergar to pull a plough. I reluctantly got changed into my county socks, county shorts and shiny white boots; before taking the field.
The opposition were a rare breed and made bogmen look like Persian Princes. They all wore their collars up, communicated in grunts and sported bushy unibrows. I made a mental note to look for birth certs if they managed to beat us, owing to the fact that you could've filed your nails with my marker's chin stubble.
I gathered the throw-in myself, soloed half the length of the field and tested the strength of the goal net with a rasping shot that warranted a green flag before the umpire even had time to scratch his arse. The opposition were stunned and eyebrows were raised (15 in total). They began to grunt at each other in a dialect I couldn't make head nor tail of and pointing in my direction. I knew what was coming.
As I ran to claim the kick-out their wing-back ran into my path and stuck his foot out, taking my legs from under me. In the tangle of limbs I crashed to the ground, breaking my assailant's fall. As the referee's whistle echoed in our ears, my jockey dismounted using the back of my head to prop himself up, making sure to sink his fingernails into my scalp. Furious, I leapt to my feet and lashed out with an open-handed slap, narrowly missing his nose before both of us were restrained by our team-mates.
"Ah jayney mack Ciarán. That's not a proper tackle. Remember what we did in training the other night," the referee shouted at my attacker.
"What the feck?" I exclaimed angrily. "Are you their manager?"
"I am indeed. Is there a problem with that sir?" the referee replied.
I shook my head in disbelief.
"Where's the red card? This arsehole could've killed me. We've minor championship in a fortnight like." I was in a rage.
"Now, now I'm not going to send anyone off in a friendly match, don't be silly. He slipped; it's as simple as that . . . your free," he replied, throwing me the ball in the process.
I glanced at the player who'd upended me. He wore a smug grin on his face as he ran his finger across his neck in a threatening way.
"You're fecked now Mr Superstar," he whispered in a Northern accent that was just about audible.
Then the head gasket went. Not only was I playing with a bunch of mullockers in the middle of nowhere; now they were going to kick the shite out of me and the ref, it seemed, was going to do nothing about it.
"Ref are you feckin' serious? What sort of a numpty are ya?' I shouted with my arms outstretched. "You play on or I will send you off!" he pronounced sternly, before blowing his whistle, turning his back and jogging down the pitch.
I gritted my teeth and booted the ball in his direction, narrowly missing the back of his head. He spun around wearing a look of utter horror as the play continued behind him. "Ah get out of the way ref for God's sake!"
In an effort to come out alive, I avoided the ball as best I could for the remainder of the game; instead focusing all my efforts on giving the referee as much guff as was humanely possible.
"Ref you're an absolute joke, nothing but a coward!"
"Jesus ref, you are some shite-hawk."
"You're a disgrace ref, an absolute disgrace."
"Where's the free there you windy bastard?"
Not once did he flinch as I dished out my verbal offensive. By the end of the game, which we won by a point, my voice was gone. After the game the referee came into our dressing room. I duly kept my head down.
"Well done lads. It was a decent game. We were delighted to have ye. Thanks very much for coming down. You've a lovely little team there. The very best of luck for the summer . . ."
After some muted applause he turned towards me and the room fell silent.
"Gosson you're not a bad wee footballer but you need to work on that temper," he said. "Tell your mother I said hello . . ." And then he was gone out the door.
"What was he on about??'
I shrugged my shoulders at the players and management who seemed to be just as confused as I was. I turned and began to strip, checking my phone for messages from budgies as I did so.
I had one new message. It was from 'Mammy Bear': 'Best of luck in game. Give Cousin Larry my best xx'
Oh no . . .
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