STUDENTS of the game of football are always on the lookout, as it were, for unusual aspects and strange characteristics of the code. In my time I have written in depth, so to speak, on the subject of full forwards and full backs with long, white legs. I have written about goalkeepers and about corner forwards so that some gullible readers regard me as somewhat of an authority on the game. This is totally wrong. I am no authority. I’ll grant you that I play the game and support the game but to say that I am an authority could give rise to a legal action.
What I am is a mere observer who notes the oddities and quirks in the code’s principals, to wit, the players, the referee, the umpires and the spectators.
This week, therefore, in the best traditional fashion, I would like to draw your attention to the greatest ignominy that can befall a player. No, it’s not when his togs fall down and it’s not being sent off the field for assault or abusive language or both. These are the natural hazards.
No sir. The great ignominy is when he is called off. He can pretend to be lame as he makes, what all players believe to be the longest journey in the world, the journey to the sideline. He can hold on to his ribs in an effort to give the impression that he is fractured. He can even hold on to another player or players for support. He can hobble or he can crawl, but the only person he is fooling is himself. Being sent off is bad, but being called off is often looked upon as a disgrace.
The first intimation a player receives that his services are no longer required comes when he is addressed confidentially from the sideline. The words used are “Lie down.”
In case the uninitiated reader gets the impression that the player is being rewarded with a rest I must inform him that he, the player, is so informed because it is considered that he is not doing his job properly and that his position in the field would be stronger if taken up by a substitute.
It does not matter that he has faithfully served his club for the best part of a generation. It does not matter that he was brilliant on his day and gifted in his heyday, that he won matches on his own and played his heart out when others had long given up.
What matters is that he is a spent force and the time has come for him to make the awful trip to the line. As I say, he can feign injury but this will not deceive the discerning. His best bet is to walk off with his head in the air and a proud look on his face.
Nobody loves to see a player called off more than a substitute. His face may be wreathed in sympathy, but his heart is dancing with delight. He is elated that his time has come, for there are many substitutes who never get the opportunity to fill the role for which they have been so long groomed. After all, this is what substitutes are for, to be called on when somebody else is called off. Being told to lie down when one’s girlfriend is at the game is a disaster and many clever players pretend not to hear when the dread ultimatum is flung at them.
When the news is conveyed to them by other players, it is still ignored and they carry on as if they were carrying the team on their back. Cute old warriors, when told lie down, remove themselves from the vicinity of the sideline and are thereafter deaf to all pleas and appeals. Officials have to run on to the field of play and remonstrate with the offenders, but it is to no avail. I have seen blows exchanged between players and officials and still the player stayed on.
Officials rarely tell truculent players to lie down and they rarely tell very large players to lie down. When they do they do so apologetically as if they were being put up to it by somebody and afterwards, privately, they tend to blame other parties.
I remember one of the last games of football I played, I brought along my four-year-old son to watch. At the time I was in my middle thirties and somewhat short of wind. I was asked if I would be good enough to lie down. I didn’t. Instead I walked off the field and joined the young fellow on the sideline.
“Why?” was his first question.
“Because,” I said, “the referee asked me to give the other team a chance. Isn’t that right” I asked an elderly man beside me.
“Oh that,” said the elderly man, “is well known to all.”