Thursday, 28 April 2011

This is football: Hackney Marshes

The slight fuzziness of this image may or may not be caused by
all the Deep Heat in the atmosphere. (Photo: Paul Flannery)

A damp squib of a Sunday. That fine rain – the kind that slowly saturates – is coming down like it can't quite be bothered. The famous Hackney Marshes football fields can be heard well before they are seen. A shrill blast of a referee's whistle; the distant noise of men versus boys blends into constant hubbub. 

Over the River Lee and suddenly there is football everywhere. Everywhere. Clusters of players chase balls in packs. The noises become more distinct from each other. A call for a pass, supportive applause and a variety of moans, grumbles and yelps of pain. "Come on! What's happened to our shape?" shouts a captain with a rip in his sock. 

Every garish team strip imaginable graces the dozens of pitches here, from a speedy bunch of lads in neon green to a lardy, angry mob kitted out in black and mauve. "Set me!" bellows a striker who's just given his marker the slip. He is not set. There are gestures.

Such wholesome recreation relieves the gloom of the surrounding area. Grim, grey towerblocks pepper the horizon. Huge pylons and cables criss-cross the perimeter of the marsh. Jumbo jets pass silently overhead, occasionally concealed by the swirling charcoal-coloured clouds. An imposing gas works in the middle distance looms over the trees, adding yet another eyesore. A murder of crows lurk in a radical, lop-sided 2-1-6 formation on an empty pitch. Their opponents (presumably seagulls) do not appear to have turned up and one solitary magpie won't do. For a start there's the clash of kits. The Olympics may be coming to town but still, this ain't exactly Disneyland.

It is, however, just like the Premier League in a lot of ways. We still see the flashy white boots, the outrageous hairstyles and the pre-rehearsed goal celebrations, but it's much more real. What these games lack in pristine playing surfaces and roaring crowds they more than make up for in determination, entertainment value and good old-fashioned muddy chaos. 

Mud, a strong breeze, scenic pylons: what more do you want?
(Photo: BBC World Service)
The tradition of 40-year-old men with beer guts working off their hangovers here is starting to die out. Most present are reasonably fit and take their football pretty seriously. The minority of portly pint-guzzlers stand out markedly as their shirts stretch over flabby bellies. This seems to apply to goalkeepers in particular. Some of the cuddly custodians on show can barely squeeze into their Spall jerseys.

Back to the action and the neon greens break swiftly into attack. Their red-and-white-striped opponents chase back gamely but to no avail as the onrushing striker finishes with aplomb. [Always wanted to use that word in a piece.] His jubilant team-mates yelp with delight and punch the air. The scorer is mobbed and soon there's big bundle of them atop him. E9's WAG equivalents grimace at the prospect of washing out all that mud as their high heels sink into the quagmire. The stripes conduct a brief but sweary post-mortem and roll up their sleeves ready for the kick-off. Revenge is swift. They go straight down the other end and score. This time we are treated to a brief jig around the corner flag as number 11 wiggles his hips in the direction of, well, nobody, before he too disappears under a swarm of stripes.

On the adjoining pitch, a slim winger with a flamboyant French accent stands – hands on hips – demanding a pass. A team-mate duly obliges but where is the Gallic flair we have come to expect from the French? Where is the va va voom? His legs get tangled in a mess and he runs the ball out of play. His colleagues exchange glances in a manner that suggests this happens often.

No, I don't know what's happening here either, though the
game, enjoyably, is between FC Bertoli and Kings Hell Cats.
(Photo: 'phatboysim', Flickr)
Walking a little further down, a very combative game is taking place. Challenges are flying in, tempers are fraying and nobody has any time on the ball. A man in red who seems to be made entirely out of mud attempts a sideways pass to a foppish blond team-mate. The pass is woefully underhit and the team-mate gets clattered by an opponent. Mud-man’s shoulders slump as his peers offer some choice words. “That was a hospital pass,” says one. “He’s just killed himself going for that ball,” yells another. Thankfully, the blond is not dead and gingerly extracts himself from the sodden turf. 

Some games are finishing. Whistles sound, teams shake hands and winners dash off to the adulation of an imagined crowd. Losers adopt a familiar trudge as they gather up their kit and head for the pub. One unlucky soul has to go and retrieve the goal nets which have been stuck up with masking tape. Many a strip of coloured tape decorates most of the posts, a memento of games gone by. Half-time orange segments lie strewn about the pitchside, every drop of sustenance sucked out. An empty packet of Marlboro Lights lies inches behind a goalmouth. Clearly one particular stopper had an easy time of it today.

From the changing rooms wafts the scent of Deep Heat and the clank of studs on concrete. They’ll all be back next week too. The particularly keen might even have cleaned their boots.

Pre-match meal or half-time energy boost? (Photo: Ben Dylan)
While I'm loathe to give major sports apparel manufacturers any more advertising than they need, this mid-1990s advert features famous Premier League players turning out for pub teams on Hackney Marshes, which gives you a glimpse, albeit heavily stylised, into what it's like down 'Ackney Marshes. It also features one of the greatest intro moments you'll see... "Shuut oop!"


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