Part 1 of The Football Years (6 March) featured pea soup. This edition gets serious, with soya bean curry. The recipe is at the end. After I have explained its significance.
When I stopped playing football, the gap it left in my life felt bigger than I could have expected. I miss it a surprising amount, even all these years after the broken leg brought it to an early end.
Playing the game was about more than ninety minutes exercise on a Sunday morning. It gave me a regular ritual in my life.
In my football years a typical Sunday morning started with a friend turning up at around 9.15 in his van. I would need to be ready to go. This was not as straightforward as it might sound.
It wasn’t just a matter of getting up, getting dressed and having breakfast. There was the frequent discovery that the mud-covered football boots you had thrown into a cupboard after the previous week’s game had mysteriously failed to clean and polish themselves. Not only was the mud still there. If you had left the boots in a plastic bag you also got the bonus of interesting new fungal life forms colonising the damp leather.
Then there was the toilet issue.
I learned early how important it was to prepare properly in the toilet department. One Saturday evening we had friends round for dinner. I cooked a large pot of soya bean curry, with a mountain of wholegrain rice and a side dish of very garlicky mushrooms. The soya bean curry is quite mild and sweet so I also cooked a hot curry sauce.
Take a moment to look at the ingredients of this meal. Soya beans. Sultanas. Curry powder. Onions and garlic. Even the flour is wholemeal. You know where I’m going with this.
The football game the next morning took place unusually close to home, no more than a ten minute walk away. This turned out to be a bad thing.
Being able to leave late to get to the venue meant that all the usual urgency drained out of my preparations. I lay in bed longer than usual, savouring the afterglow of soya bean curry and beer. I left late and strolled up the road. I didn’t worry about the possible state of the changing rooms (and their facilities) because I was already in my kit.
Being so laid back also had an effect on my metabolism and I failed to fit in my normal pre-departure bowel motion.
I realised that this was a serious miscalculation when I reached the pitch. The facilities were basic at the best of times, consisting of a couple of wooden huts for changing rooms and a small toilet block.
This Sunday morning was not the best of times. The toilet block was boarded up. For most of the players this was no great hardship. As we trotted out to the pitch for the warm-up a mist of acrid vapour drifted from the line of men pissing against the planks of the changing hut wall. But most of the players had quite possibly spent half an hour on the throne before leaving home. I had not.
And I was willing to bet that the majority of the other Sunday league players – for the most part a pretty white-bread, burger-eating fraternity – had not recently stuffed themselves with heroic quantities of soya beans, sultanas and brown rice.
Having left it late to get to the pitch, I didn’t have time to go home for the post-digestive relief that my body was telling me it urgently needed. Instead I had to clamp my buttocks together and line up for the kick-off.
I spent the first half in a state that the pundits might euphemistically describe as a little off the pace of the game. I can’t claim I played my normal game. That is hard when you are trying to run with your legs crossed, stopping every few minutes to crouch down and battle to control your bowels.
Within minutes of the kick-off my lower intestine began to send me insistent signals that it was carrying a cargo of what felt like several kilos of soya beans. This was, my colon told me, a cargo which needed urgent unloading.
I clenched my teeth, my anal sphincter and any other part of my body which could be clenched. But I was, to coin a phrase, going through the motions. By half time I was suffering stomach cramps so painful I was beginning seriously to wonder whether I might just rupture my colon if I didn’t let something out of it. What would happen to all that mostly digested bean and rice if I didn’t let it go where it wanted to go? Would it break through somewhere else?
At half time I stood alone, whimpering quietly, and scanned the Common, looking for a place to drop my shorts and relieve myself of my desperate burden. I seriously contemplated just crouching beside one of the thin trees near the pitch, with no care about passing cars or people walking their dogs. Some residual shred of civilised reserve stopped me.
I pleaded with the manager to substitute me. I made up some story about feeling unwell. He – blind fool that he must have been – said I was doing OK and asked me to carry on.
The second half didn’t seem quite as agonising as the first half. Maybe the soya bean flotilla had found a small harbour in some part of my digestive system which wasn’t normally needed. Or maybe I just tried less hard to play football and simply jogged around trying to keep out of the way, counting down the minutes until I could waddle home and fill up the toilet bowl in the glorious steamy sanctuary of my own bathroom.
I learned from this experience, and was never caught so badly short again. I became a devout believer in the importance of having a good (ahem) movement before setting out to the game.
Often we would scour remote suburbs of south London on a quest to find a decent place for a pre-match dump. A regular stop was a fine Victorian public toilet in Mitcham. We would often need to pass it on the way to various match venues. We generally agreed that passing it without using it was only asking for trouble. Always best to get an insurance dump out of the way because, as the Tooting Bec Incident showed, you really never knew what you might find when you reached the football field.
Of course, not all the football rituals involved toilets. There was also the pleasure of the preparation for the game. There was something so enticing about the sight of an empty football pitch before the game began. The grass so green, the lines marking the playing area so white and unbroken. The clean white wood of the goalposts and the bright nylon of the nets created a sense of possibility.
During the build up to the kick-off, until the referee blew the whistle to start, everything was possible in the game I was about to play. It didn’t matter how good the opposition were. It didn’t matter how weak my team was, nor did it matter how poorly I had played the previous week. Every game started with the scores level, with ninety minutes ahead and anything could happen.
At the pitch it was always exciting to get the kit on, lace up my boots and go out for the warm up. As you stretched your hamstrings and did a few sprints along the touchline all things were possible. This was your game. This week you really could turn it on.
Sadly, once the whistle went you were back in reality and things rarely went as you planned. But even that was part of the appeal, because there were post-match rituals to be followed as well. Here’s a typical after-game scene.
Interior of crowded changing room. Men sit on the benches in various states of dress. Some are almost fully dressed. Steam wafts in from the adjoining shower room. Dirty football shirts lie scattered on the floor.
Steve: When’s the return game? We must beat them. We should have had them today really.
Chris: I can’t believe we let the lead slip like that.
Mike: They were lucky. (Others agree)
Ken the goalkeeper: (miserably) I should have done better with that cross late on though. Dunno how I managed to drop it.
Steve: No, mate. You did fine. None of us would have done any better. You held plenty of other chances.
Brian: Anyway, that big guy they had up front was blocking you.
Conversation flags a little. People continue getting changed. Ken finishes getting dressed and sits on the bench for a few moments, apparently making his mind up about something. Then he stands up.
Ken: Well I’ve got to shoot off quick today.
Brian: Not coming to the pub?
Ken: Nah. Can’t make it today. See ya.
Farewells all round as Ken makes his way out of the dressing room. The door closes behind him. Nobody speaks for a moment or two. Then…
Steve: Ken was shit today.
Chris: Embarrassing really. I mean, dropping a cross under pressure is one thing, but he practically let their first goal through his legs. Their guy couldn’t believe he’d scored.
Mike: He could hardly believe it had reached the goal, let alone gone in. He headed it from about half a mile out.
Brian: And what was Ken doing for that second goal? He was completely out of position.
Chris: We must be able to find have a better goalie. It’s demoralising. No matter how many we score the opposition can pull them back. As soon as they get a shot on target it’s as good as in.
Steve: There were people out there walking their dogs who would have been better than Ken. Even the dog would have blocked the occasional shot.
The dressing room door opens suddenly. Ken comes back into the room. The noise level drops sharply as the people who had been slagging him off fall silent. Ken stands in the doorway for a moment.
Ken: Forgot my jacket. (He points at the coathook above the bench where he had got changed.) Nobody speaks for an agonising few seconds. Ken looks around the dressing room. He knows that people have been talking about him. And they know he knows.
Brian: I was hoping you changed your mind about coming to the pub.
Ken: Can’t make it.
Ken crosses the room and picks up his jacket. He mutters a quick farewell and leaves again. No one speaks for a few moments.
Steve: Do you think he knows?
Chris: Knows what?
Steve: Knows how shit he played today.
One or two others have now finished changing. They sit on the wooden bench apparently not sure of their next move. It seems as if no one wants to be the next to leave the dressing room. They know that if they do, Ken’s failings will be forgotten and the conversation will turn to their own shortcomings.
Sequence repeats, adlibbing insults, as each player departs.
And it could have been worse. Ken never had my soya bean curry.
Soya Bean Curry
1 lb of soya beans
3-4 tablespoons of olive oil
3-4 cloves of garlic
4-6 tablespoons of curry powder (depending on how spicy you like it)
Some wholemeal flour, say 4-5 tablespoons
2 pints of water (perhaps with a bit of stock added if you like)
8 oz sultanas
Salt, pepper, lemon juice and a pinch of sugar to season
This dish is based on a recipe from Rose Elliot’s “The Bean Book”. If you don’t know this book, buy it at once. Your table (and your bottom) will never be the same again.
You need to decide you want this several days before you eat it. Soya beans take forever to cook. So soak them overnight and then boil in a large saucepan before simmering with the lid on for 3-4 hours (a pressure cooker for a dish like this will make you happy). You can always freeze the cooked beans for when you need them.
Peel and chop the onions, crush the garlic, peel, core and chop the apples. Fry the lot in the oil for 10 minutes or so. Then stir in the curry powder and flour and cook for a few minutes more. Pour in the water and stir while it thickens. Add the cooked soya beans and the sultanas and simmer with a lid on for about 20 minutes. Season with salt, pepper and some lemon juice and sugar if you fancy it.