Like all the greatest authors, Brookmyre is generally now known as “Brookmyre” to those familiar with his novels, and that population group is rapidly expanding. Today sees the launch of his 13th book Pandaemonium in the UK and with Christopher’s permission, we present the final part of an early Brookmyre classic: Playground Football.Part 1 can be found here.
Playground Football (part 2)
by Christopher Brookmyre
To ensure a fair and balanced contest, teams are selected democratically in a turns-about picking process, with either side beginning as a one-man selection committee and growing from there. The initial selectors are usually the recognised two Best Players of the assembled group. Their first selections will be the two recognised Best Fighters, to ensure a fair balance in the adjudication process, and to ensure that they don’t have their own performances impaired throughout the match by profusely bleeding noses. They will then proceed to pick team-mates in a roughly meritocratic order, selecting on grounds of skill and tactical awareness, but not forgetting that while there is a sliding scale of players’ ability, there is also a sliding scale of players’ brutality and propensities towards motiveless violence. A selecting captain might baffle a talented striker by picking the less nimble Big Jazza ahead of him, and may explain, perhaps in the words of Linden B Johnson upon his retention of J Edgar Hoover as the head of the FBI, that he’d “rather have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in”.
Special consideration is also given during the selection process to the owner of the ball. It is tacitly acknowledged to be “his gemme”, and he must be shown a degree of politeness for fear that he takes the huff at being picked late and withdraws his favours.
Another aspect of team selection that may confuse those only familiar with the game at senior level will be the choice of goalkeepers, who will inevitably be the last players to be picked. Unlike in the senior game, where the goalkeeper is often the tallest member of his team, in the playground, the goalkeeper is usually the smallest. Senior aficionados must appreciate that playground selectors have a different agenda and are looking for altogether different properties in a goalkeeper. These can be listed briefly as: compliance, poor fighting ability, meekness, fear and anything else that makes it easier for their team-mates to banish the wee bugger between the sticks while they go off in search of personal glory up the other end.
Playground football tactics are best explained in terms of team formation. Whereas senior sides tend to choose – according to circumstance – from among a number of standard options (eg 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 5-3-2), the playground side is usually more rigid in sticking to the all-purpose 1-1-17 formation. This formation is a sturdy basis for the unique style of play, ball-flow and territorial give-and-take that makes the playground game such a renowned and strategically engrossing spectacle. Just as the 5-3-2 formation is sometimes referred to in practice as “Cattenaccio”, the 1-1-17 formation gives rise to a style of play that is best described as “Nomadic”. All but perhaps four of the participants (see also Offside) migrate en masse from one area of the pitch to another, following the ball, and it is tactically vital that every last one of them remains within a ten-yard radius of it at all times.
Much stoppage time in the senior game is down to injured players requiring treatment on the field of play. The playground game flows freer having adopted the refereeing philosophy of “no Post-Mortem, no free-kick”, and play will continue around and even on top of a participant who has fallen in the course of his endeavours. However, the playground game is nonetheless subject to other interruptions, and some examples are listed below.
Ball on school roof or over school wall. The retrieval time itself is negligible in these cases. The stoppage is most prolonged by the argument to decide which player must risk life, limb or four of the belt to scale the drainpipe or negotiate the barbed wire in order to return the ball to play. Disputes usually arise between the player who actually struck the ball and any others he claims it may have struck before disappearing into forbidden territory. In the case of the Best Fighter having been adjudged responsible for such an incident, a volunteer is often required to go in his stead or the game may be abandoned, as the Best Fighter is entitled to observe that A: “Ye canny make me”; or B: “It’s no’ ma baw anyway”.
Stray dog on pitch. An interruption of unpredictable duration. The dog does not have to make off with the ball, it merely has to run around barking loudly, snarling and occasionally drooling or foaming at the mouth. This will ensure a dramatic reduction in the number of playing staff as 27 of them simultaneously volunteer to go indoors and inform the teacher of the threat. The length of the interruption can sometimes be gauged by the breed of dog. A deranged Irish Setter could take ten minutes to tire itself of running in circles, for instance, while a Jack Russell may take up to fifteen minutes to corner and force out through the gates. An Alsatian means instant abandonment.
Bigger boy steal ball. A highly irritating interruption, the length of which is determined by the players’ experience in dealing with this sort of thing. The intruders will seldom actually steal the ball, but will improvise their own kickabout amongst themselves, occasionally inviting the younger players to attempt to tackle them. Standing around looking bored and unimpressed usually results in a quick restart. Shows of frustration and engaging in attempts to win back the ball can prolong the stoppage indefinitely. Informing the intruders that one of the players’ older brother is “Mad Chic Murphy” or some other noted local pugilist can also ensure minimum delay.
Menopausal old bag confiscates ball. More of a threat in the street or local green kickabout than within the school walls. Sad, blue-rinsed, ill-tempered, Tory-voting cat-owner transfers her anger about the array of failures that has been her life to nine-year-olds who have committed the heinous crime of letting their ball cross her privet Line of Death. Interruption (loss of ball) is predicted to last “until you learn how to play with it properly”, but instruction on how to achieve this without actually having the bloody thing is not usually forwarded. Tact is required in these circumstances, even when the return of the ball seems highly unlikely, as further irritation of woman may result in the more serious stoppage:
Menopausal old bag calls police.
Goal-scorers are entitled to a maximum run of thirty yards with their hands in the air, making crowd noises and saluting imaginary packed terraces.
Congratulation by team-mates is in the measure appropriate to the importance of the goal in view of the current scoreline (for instance, making it 34-12 does not entitle the player to drop to his knees and make the sign of the cross), and the extent of the scorer’s contribution. A fabulous solo dismantling of the defence or 25-yard* rocket shot will elicit applause and back-pats from the entire team and the more magnanimous of the opponents. However, a tap-in in the midst of a chaotic scramble will be heralded with the epithet “moochin’ wee bastart” from the opposing defence amidst mild acknowledgment from team-mates. Applying an unnecessary final touch when a ball is already rolling into the goal will elicit a burst nose from the original striker. Kneeling down to head the ball over the line when defence and keeper are already beaten will elicit a thoroughly deserved kicking. As a footnote, however, it should be stressed that any goal scored by the Best Fighter will be met with universal acclaim, even if it falls into any of the latter three categories.
*Actually eight yards, but calculated as relative distance because “it’s no’ a full-size pitch”.
At senior level, each side often has one appointed penalty-taker, who will defer to a team-mate in special circumstances, such as his requiring one more for a hat-trick. The playground side has two appointed penalty-takers: the Best Player and the Best Fighter. The arrangement is simple: the Best Player takes the penalties when his side is a retrievable margin behind, and the Best Fighter at all other times. If the side is comfortably in front, the ball-owner may be invited to take a penalty.
Goalkeepers are often the subject of temporary substitutions at penalties, forced to give up their position to the Best Player or Best Fighter, who recognise the kudos attached to the heroic act of saving one of these kicks, and are buggered if Wee Titch is going to steal any of it.
This is known also as the Summer Holidays, which the players usually spend dabbling briefly in other sports: tennis for a fortnight while Wimbledon is on the telly; pitch-and-putt for four days during the Open; and cricket for about an hour and a half until they discover that it really is as boring to play as it is to watch.
This article has been vigorously cut-and-pasted all over the web since being posted on www.blackandwhitearmy.com in July 2003. It was written in two parts for The Absolute Game during the early Nineties, and according to the author, remains arguably the truest has work he ever penned.
Pandaemonium Book Launch, August 14th
Christopher Brookmyre will be launching his new novel Pandaemonium at the Mitchell Theatre in Glasgow on Friday August 14th at 6:30. Tickets are priced £3.00, available in person from The Mitchell or by telephoning 0141 287 2999.