Food of Love: The Football Years Part 1

P1010335I played football on Sunday mornings for years. During that time I cooked all kinds of high-carb dishes on Saturday evenings. I’m not sure they ever made me run faster. Nor, as it turned out, did they make me stronger. Certainly not in the shin-bone department.

There are a million recipes for pea soup. This is my favourite, whether before playing football or not.

1lb dried green split peas

1½ lbs potatoes

4 pints of low-salt vegetable stock

2 cloves of garlic

4-5 onions

2 large carrots

4 oz butter

Salt, pepper to taste

Soak the split peas overnight in half the stock. Cook in the stock until they are soft (add more liquid if it runs low).

Peel and chop carrots, potatoes and onions. Melt the butter in a (very) large saucepan and fry the vegetables and garlic until softened (5-10 minutes). Add the rest of the stock and cook the vegetables in it.

Mix the vegetables into the peas and cook for a few more minutes. Whizz the whole lot in a liquidizer to the texture you want. Personally, I don’t mind a few lumpy peas left in the mix of my soup.

And here, to go with that winter warmer of a meal, is the story of my last ever game of football.

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It was a loud crack, like a length of wood snapping. It wrenched a scream from me as I tumbled headlong. I tried to sit up but pain gripped my leg like bear’s teeth. Normally, below the knee and supporting our weight, we have one narrow but reassuringly complete and singular bone; the tibia. Just the one length of bone. I didn’t yet know it, but my left leg now had more than a dozen pieces.

I lay back and looked up at the wisps of cloud in the blue September sky. Someone started to moan. It was me.

This was the end of my football years, breathless and broken on a lumpy and late-summer-hard south London football pitch. I did not yet know for sure that football was over for me, but I quickly feared it. As I lay and waited for the ambulance, I thought back to how my modest football career began.

It was ten years earlier, on a playing field not far from the one where fate (oh, all right then, someone’s boot) shattered my leg. A friend who played for a Sunday league team persuaded me to try out for them. The two teams assembled on a patch of grass near Wandsworth Common railway station. There were no changing rooms, so nearly thirty men undressed under the trees, sneaking onto the railway platform to use the toilets.

Only one incident from that first game stuck in my mind, maybe because in its nature it was so typical of Sunday football. The pitch was close to some high trees. About halfway through the first half our goalkeeper gathered the ball after an attack broke down. His clearing kick was a poor one and the ball flew out towards the touchline.

Unfortunately the ball didn’t leave the pitch. Instead it struck the branches of an overhanging tree and dropped at the feet of an opposition player. He advanced unchallenged into the penalty area where he slipped the ball into our net with only minimal resistance from a goalkeeper perhaps struggling to resolve conflicting emotions of embarrassment at himself, and anger at the referee for failing to penalise the tree.

I eventually got into the game as a substitute midway through the second half. I ran around with enthusiasm and won a few tackles and headers. Fortunately I wasn’t called upon to tackle the tree.

Perversely, I was hooked, and for the next ten years my Sunday mornings between late August and early April revolved around the strange rituals of Sunday football.

Ten years on, after the noisy fracture of my tibia and fibula, my final game was quickly abandoned.  The pain that had announced itself as I hit the ground got a grip on my whole leg, making an agony of the slightest movement of my body. After a lengthy wait, an ambulance took me to hospital.

I don’t suppose there is ever a good time to be in the accident and emergency department at a hospital. But this certainly wasn’t it. They had had a busy Saturday night, including a car crash that relieved several teenagers of any further worry over acne or what to do for their 21st birthdays, and put some luckier teenagers in traction.  The nurses were so busy that they simply put me on a trolley and left me there for a couple of hours.

I was by now in poor shape. The slightest movement pushed waves of nauseating pain up my leg, which was swollen and tight below the knee. I had drunk nothing in several hours, despite playing most of a game of football in late summer heat.

I was eventually examined by a doctor, who told me I would be operated on that evening to insert a metal pin in my leg to help the bone knit back together. My leg was wrapped in a loose splint to relieve some of the pain caused as I moved, and I was connected to a glucose and saline drip. I was dispatched to a ward on a trolley, with a sign pinned above my head which said ‘Nil by mouth‘.

There I spent the most uncomfortable and unhappy night of my life. Sleep was impossible because as soon as I dozed a little I would move slightly. Any movement – however small – caused a starburst of pain to fizz up the limb and through the rest of my body.

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It was after one in the morning when the consultant appeared again at my bedside. He wore a blue gown from the theatre and looked about as tired and washed out as I felt. I didn’t know which of us was better placed to operate on the other.

It had been a busy evening in surgery, he said. He was reluctant to operate on me now, because the surgical team were tired.  They would wait for the morning.

The ‘nil by mouth’ sign came down and I sailed away into a shallow restless sleep on a glass of water and a shot of Pethidin (an opiate painkiller which I would recommend for any party).

In the morning things were different. A new consultant came round mid-morning, a cheery middle-aged bloke in a blue coat. He was trailed by a small entourage and they sailed from bed to bed like ducklings following mother duck. He examined my swollen and useless left leg and looked at the X-rays.

Normally an X-ray of your lower leg would contain the straight clean lines of two bones. The larger one at the front is the tibia, the smaller one is the fibula. Sometimes people will fracture their fibula and tell you they have ‘broken their leg’.

A fractured fibula? Pah! That is not a broken leg. That is an inconvenience in a minor leg bone. It is a few weeks with a plaster cast from your knee to your ankle. It’s girls signing their names on the cast and fetching you cups of tea.

A fractured fibula? Don’t make me laugh. That’s a lager shandy in the broken leg world, compared with the Special Brew of a fractured tibia. On your X-rays, you’d have to look carefully to find the thin line on the thin bone that is your fractured fibula. It’s like looking at a distant photo of a chicken’s wishbone.

My X-rays, on the other hand, looked like the inside of my lower leg had been filled with ghostly shark’s teeth. You could see where the solid bones left my knee, and you could see them reappear lower down near my ankle. But in between was a jumble of fragments, a jigsaw puzzle just out of the box.

Despite the awfulness of the accident, and the pain of the previous night, I was fairly complacent. It was only a broken bone, I thought. People have those all the time. Just an inconvenience really. But even in that dreamy naivety, I found it hard to see how a leg could put itself back together after that sort of trauma.

Not – according to the doctor who was now in charge this Monday morning – with the help of a metal plate. He didn’t want me operated on. He wanted me managed “conservatively”.

(I later discovered that this guy’s diagnosis caused a bit of controversy. A few days after deciding to spare me the operation my injury was discussed at a Wednesday morning ‘X-Ray meeting’. Another consultant pointed to my X-ray and said “He should have been nailed.” I can think of worse things to have on your tombstone.)

Conservative management turned out to mean another acutely uncomfortable week without the leg being properly bound up or plastered, to allow the swelling to go down. Then a trip down to see the plasterer. This guy was a real tonic. He looked at the X-rays of my leg and whistled.

??????????????????????“How did you get this?” he said. “Car crash?”

“Playing football.” I was waiting for him to say I should have been nailed.

“Christ! What did you do, tackle the heavy roller?”

“Somebody kicked me.”

Shaking his head, he got to work. He whistled as he straightened my leg and bound it in bandages, before applying the wet bandages on top which set into a hard covering from my groin to my ankle, holding my left leg straight.

All the pulling and pushing could have been a painful business. But I was floating on a soft raft of the extra-strong pain killers which I had begged my nurses to give me shortly before visiting the bonesetter.

It is interesting how quickly you become dependent. After a couple of days in the hospital my days and nights were completely dominated by the amount of time remaining until my next dose of pain relief. After each round of tablets it would take ten or fifteen minutes for the pain to fade. I would then become calm for maybe two hours and remain relatively human often beyond the third hour. But in the remaining time until the four hours were up I went into a steep counter-evolutionary decline. The pain would begin to flow up my leg and fill up the rest of my body, like the returning tide seeping back up a muddy creek. I could communicate only through scowls and grunts, watching the clock on the wall of the ward and listening for the sweet sound of the approaching drugs trolley.

If – God forbid – the drugs round was late and I had to go significantly beyond my four hours, the nurses would find a distinctly unevolved and ugly lifeform in my bed. If I had to speak I could usually manage one syllable, but not more. And it would usually be the same one, starting with the letter F.

But the drugs would always bring me back. Don’t believe that crap about the drugs not working.

One week into my post-football life, lying on my hospital bed as the drugs airbrushed my pain again, I was confident I could get through this mishap. Before too long, I would be back to normal.

I still had a lot to learn, and a long way to go. A long way.

(To be continued.)

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