The annual football famine

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Do you remember when football shut down for the summer?

It’s hard to believe there was a time when managers didn’t daily accuse each other of hypocrisy in the back pages.

When we only knew of transfers after they had happened, like a bolt from the blue, and when you didn’t show your allegiance by wearing a replica shirt but by spraying, carving or daubing your club’s initials on any convenient surface.

And if you didn’t add the “FC” at the end you just weren’t doing it right.

July was always the cruellest month when I was a kid.

The FA Cup final was a distant memory, the annual, eternally unsuccessful quest for the Shoot league ladders had not yet begun and my aunt was grappling with the exotic mundanity of the Australian football pools.

So to fill my football-starved summers, my cousin and I would play fantasy football.

My cousin Mick’s fantasy football involved Subbuteo, lovingly staged international tournaments, and the results recorded with a black fountain pen in a Silvine exercise book.

He was such a perfectionist that underneath his team-sheets he even wrote in the half-time scores and the referee’s name with the nationality thoughtfully added in brackets: “Lo Bello (Italy).”

My fantasy football was more rudimentary. You started with the ball at one end of the lawn and had five touches to get it into the goal at the other end. After the fifth touch, possession passed to the other side.

Looking back, it seems as if, by osmosis, I had absorbed this rule from that weird northern cult known as rugby league.

My fantasy was more elaborate than Mick’s. I was, of course, the free-scoring centre-forward in a fictional team called Stanton Rangers.

Fictional football team names are crap aren’t they? My team was a rip off of Stafford Rangers who, to my limited, boyish understanding, were bossing non-league back in the 1970s.

To be fair, Stanton Rangers is no better or worse than Melchester Rovers.

My results were written down too, but scrappily in an exercise book mysteriously covered in the kind of ink blots my sarcastic Maths teacher used to circle in red and write “Eek!” – or if they were really big “Triple eek!” – next to.

I never showed these results to anyone because, mysteriously, such football make-believe wasn’t as cool as the slavish recreation of World Cups many of my mates were engaged in, as they relentlessly upgraded their plastic stadia with corner flags, TV tower and fencing.

At weekends, I would be drilled by an exacting tutor, my father, in the intricacies of curving the ball from a free-kick.

I had watched Rivelino do it and, with the confidence of youth, I assumed that I could to. All it took was hours of practice.

I might have too, but after a summer of practice, with the ball stubbornly refusing to curve around any object, I rebelled and announced I wanted to go back to kicking a ball around the lawn.

Father rebuked me for wanting to play “kick and rush like all the other bloody Europeans.” I forgave Dad the lecture but have nurtured an irrational grudge against Brazilian football ever since.

The inevitable result of such sporting deprivation was that hope built throughout the summer.

By the time you had collected the league ladders and tried – and failed – to find someone who could swap you for the Scottish Division Two clubs, you were utterly, irrationally convinced that this would be the season.

And on the opening day, some Saturday at the end of August, hope collided with reality.

And reality, more often than not, won.

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