It seems silly to refer to it as “retirement”, when you’re stopping doing something that you’ve only ever paid to do, but in football it’s the accepted term when you decide to pack it all in, so I’ll roll with it!
I had a good season in 2016-17 and was very much looking forward to the 2017-18 campaign with my Sunday team. Unfortunately, I only managed two appearances before a back injury ruled me out for the best part of 4 months and when I was finally ready to come back, I didn’t feel confident about playing in goal any more – something I’ve done since I was 10 years old.
I attempted a couple of times to make a comeback with some cameo outfield appearances, but matches kept getting called off for various reasons and eventually the team folded due to a lack of players. At that point, I decided that it was probably time to hang up my gloves and call it a day.
Then, on Friday afternoon, I got a Facebook message from a former teammate asking if I fancied playing for his Saturday team, Long Melford Reserves in their Thurlow Nunn Reserve League game at Saffron Walden Town.
The last time I played Saturday league football was as a 16-year-old for Steeple Bumpstead Reserves in what was probably Division 4 of the Kershaw League. Being a “Reserve League” game, this one doesn’t sit in the standard football pyramid, but definitely felt like a higher standard. Saffron Walden’s team, for instance, seemed to made up of hungry young players being introduced to senior football with a view to making their way into the first team – it was a very professional and well-run setup.
Truth be told, I leapt at the chance to have one final run-out and at what, by my standards, is a good standard. Other teams in this league include the reserve sides of Haverhill Rovers, Halstead Town and Witham Town, all very good sides in their own right. I wanted to finish my “career” in style, rather than on an injury, so I made my way over to Catons Lane to give it my best. Entry was £3.50 to get in (as if people were paying money to watch me play!?) and there was a decent crowd of 60 in attendance.
The game was scrappy. There were lots of fouls, one big bust-up, a number of yellow cards and one red and in the end we came away on the wrong end of a 2-0 scoreline.
The first half was a very even game and we were more than a match for our younger and more well-organised opponents. I was called into action on a couple of occasions, firstly closing down a striker who was rushing in on goal and blocking well, before saving with my knee from point blank range as the Saffron Walden striker tried to fire in on the turn from 4 yards out.
Having been out for so long, I was a bit rusty and my kicking was, as it always has been, a bit iffy, but I definitely improved as the half went on.
In the second half, the hosts were in control. I was called into action mid-way through the half when the opposition player advanced towards my goal off to the side. He fired low towards my near post, but I was able to get down quickly and turn the ball behind for a corner. Other than that, the only things I had to deal with were a few speculative long-rangers.
Despite being on the back foot for much of the half, we actually thought we’d taken the lead when our forward fired in magnificently from 40 yards, only for the goal to be ruled out for offside.
Shortly after, it was time for the linesman to get us out of trouble and spare me some personal blushes. I attempted to palm a high cross over the bar, only to knock it onto the woodwork and back out to the striker waiting on the goal line to knock it in. Much the disbelief of the Saffron Walden players, he too was ruled offside and the score remained 0-0.
The breakthrough did eventually come though and it was for the home side. A corner on the right was swung in low to the near post and the striker, who had been on me at every corner so far, broke free and had an easy tap in. Our defender on the post and the one marking him might have both got their ahead of him, as might I, but that didn’t happen and he fired in an easy finish to make 1-0.
Clearly rattled, we were further behind just minutes later. Again, Walden found space down the flanks of our penalty area and after some smart interchange, I was faced with a one-on-one situation. Unfortunately, I left too much space at my near post and he fired the ball past me to make it 2-0.
There wasn’t enough time to get back into the game and it finished 2-0. Overall, I was disappointed in the manner of the goals we conceded, but pleased at my general performance and just happy to be playing again. I made a few good saves and definitely improved as the match went on – it was a good experience and much better note to “retire” on personally.
Playing at a “proper” ground, in front of a “proper” paying crowd and for a “proper” club was something I won’t forget and I’m so glad I did it.
I’ve had some awesome times playing football and I’m definitely going to miss it. Perhaps I am a bit young to be calling it a day, but over the last 4 months during injury I’ve been able to do loads more at the weekends and am really making the most of my time off, so I’m looking forward to getting out and about more. Despite the result, today really was the perfect end to to it all and I’m happy that I was able to do it.