Why winning means nothing and everything

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In September 2009 Harraby Athletic of the Cumbrian junior amateur leagues beat Edenvale Hawks 3-2, ending a three-year losing streak. By this point Harraby were already being talked up by some as Britain’s worst football team – perhaps even the worst football team ever.

Their inaugural fixture in 2006 ended in a 19-0 defeat. Over the next three years they conceded more than 400 goals. Prior to their victory they had picked up just a single league point (the opposition, perhaps understandably, had forgotten to turn up).

“The boys have been prepared to stick at it and been willing to learn,” their coach said after Harraby's first win - in the process striking a bit of a false note. What had Harraby really “learned” from losing 90 matches in a row? That they were very, very bad at football? How to kick off expertly?

One of the greatest things about the greatest TV sitcom, Seinfeld, was its “no hugging, no learning" rule. No lessons learned, no progress. This is also the basic experience of the amateur footballer. There is no onwards and upwards here, and no winners either.


The main reason you don’t play to win is that you aren’t very good. You really aren’t. The best player on your team isn’t very good. The best player on the team that always beats you isn’t very good.

The once-a-season stand-out ringer on the team that always beats them: he isn’t very good either. The bloke he went to school with who is still miles better than him and who once got taken to pieces by Damien Duff in a school game: he might just be starting to get somewhere.

Not only are you not very good: you’re also getting worse. This is the fate of all amateur players, an accelerated parabola of decline that sets in early and just keeps on coming.

At 18 you can stretch and leap and fall over and still get up quickly: there seems to be some point in wanting to win. At 25 you can still run but you’ve lost too may times to care too deeply. At 30 you’ve already got the fear. Eleven-a-side is now synonymous with extreme physical pain. Five-a-side is a matter of lung-busting, cheek-flushing perspiration. You don’t care if you’re winning. You just want to sit down.

Plod, plod, gasp, cough, choke

And by 35 you’ve become a gurgling passenger, well-disposed, slightly goofy, entirely divorced from a world where people win or lose, and instead simply happy to go out for a nice drive or have a bit of a walk about outside.

Of course there are always people in your team who do actually still care about winning. In amateur football to care about winning is to feel continually let down by others. Every team has its angry and disappointed keeper of the flame. He feels your failings deeply and personally.

I've played with centre backs – they're usually centre-backs – who spend every moment of every match engaged in a shouted commentary that sounds like “NO!... NOOO!!... F**KING NO!!!... TURN!!!.... MAN ON!!!... NO!!!... WHAT THE... OI!!! OI!!! NO!!!”.

This can be a strange experience on a Sunday morning in some isolated semi-rural spot where there is no other noise apart from the distant whisper of traffic, the squelch of boots and maybe some birds singing.


I played in a team that disbanded suddenly after our captain, who in real life was a dentist, chased one of our subs out of the changing rooms and down the road past a small parade of shops with a boot in his hands, for appearing not to want to win enough, and for seeming to find it funny (funny!) that you might. After which the team just sort of died, from a mixture of confusion and embarrassment.

I also played in a team that lost so often, and so comprehensively, that it was only in our final season that we suddenly realised there was nowhere left to be relegated to and we were about to wink out of existence. We started trying to win after that. It didn’t work out. We couldn't remember how. And it just didn’t seem right somehow.

Winning isn’t entirely irrelevant though. In fact, winning is still central to why we continue to play, because everyone was almost good once. At some point you did win something. I won the Crofton Park Five-a-Side with Metronote Under-11s.

We were brilliant. Seriously. We overwhelmed teams, with our perfectly-pitched combination of having some big kids in defence and some quite good fast kids in attack. I still have the black plastic trophy with a generic small-shorted footballer on the front.

It is, I don’t exaggerate, one of my only really prized possessions and I still can’t comprehend, even now, my wife’s lingering reluctance to have it prominently on display at all times in our house, maybe in the hallway when you come in.

Keep trying, keep reaching for the stars...

The real problem is: even though you don’t win, and you don’t even really want to win, you still never get over having won once. It’s a part of what hooks you in for life: the purity of the moment, the sense of clear blue sky and endless possibility.

And in many ways carrying on playing when you really should be doing other things, like exploring the cultural treasures of the National Trust or mooching around a garden centre pretending to be interested in plant pots and weed-suppressant gravel membranes, has a lot to do with an insoluble urge to preserve some connection to that feeling.

So you play for your moments. The one beautifully-timed sliding tackle in an otherwise dispiriting 7-2 defeat. The pass that skims perfectly into the path of your trundling left-winger.

Or that moment, very occasionally, when you actually do that clever turn away from two players, and it actually works, and suddenly you feel – you are briefly convinced about his –  maybe for half a second you looked exactly like Joe Cole.

Perhaps this is what Harraby’s coach was on about. They won’t be playing to win from now on. But they won’t forget it.

And they won’t stop, either; even when they haven’t actually played for two years and can see the whole thing is perhaps a bit silly even though they still think quite often about that goal or that tackle or that save when suddenly football felt just right.

They’re in it for life, one way or the other, just like the rest of us.

Elsewhere on The Sharp End:
Football: fighting minus the fists (mostly)
Why tactics say a lot about humanity
What your kit says about you (and others)
Why shouting and swearing is park football's birdsong
The manager – parent, pastor, secretary, dictator

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