September 26, 2012
By Stephen Cooper
Another day on my bus, I watch them all: commuters in their monotonous existence, school kids playing truant, pensioners whiling away a day in town, and inevitably, the obligatory shoppers struggling on board with a huge haul of gear from their recent spree.
I have been driving buses for fifteen years now, I’ve done this route for the past seven so I recognize lots of regulars. You should see the hack of some of them. Look at this one: hair like a busted sofa, face like Aunt Sally, minging perfume that catches my throat every morning and makes my eyes water. Luckily I know where she gets on and have the window open well beforehand.
By the way, what the fuck is she wearing today? Looks like a pair of curtains badly sown together, should be illegal.
Some of them say hello, others can hardly snap the ticket out your hand quick enough to get past you and grab a seat. Today I feel appreciated, which makes a change from Saturdays. On Saturdays, I am the “bastard in the black”, according to the few hundred lost souls who turn up to watch amateur league football.
Becoming a part-time referee sort of happened by accident. It was a few years back and I got coerced into officiating in a match due to nobody else being able to; most of the supporters were too pissed, though in their defence it was Boxing Day.
I ended up surprising myself by enjoying it. The satisfaction of being in control, communicating with the players and making decisions give me a real buzz. In fact, come to think of it, maybe the control element is why I enjoy driving a bus load of people every day.
Tomorrow I have a local derby to take charge of.
Last time the Star played the Old Boys, there was a mass brawl and I had to abandon the game as the corner flags were broken in the ensuing mêlée (as well as numerous bones from each team). What makes it worse tomorrow is that I have an assessor coming to view my performance.
If I put in a decent shift and nobody gets knocked out, I may get promoted up a level, and away from these bar teams and the violence and threats. Yes, it’s high time I got my chance at taking my shot at the semi-pros and cup finals, then who knows where I might end up?
Anyway, I’m clocking off in around twenty minutes, traffic allowing of course, and will go for a curry and relax tonight and run through my preparations for tomorrow’s big match.
Up early today, enjoyed the curry last night, although my hole feels like its shitting battery acid this morning. Hope it settles down for the match, don’t want to be running around with ring sting, it’ll put me off my performance. I have decided today I will give both teams a stern talking to beforehand in the dressing rooms, and appeal to their sense of fairness.
I run through everything before leaving, check it’s all there, spreading my gear out on the living room floor. My checklist is thorough and I have extra pencils, a spare whistle, and of course, spare red and yellow cards. One time I sent off a player and he grabbed the card from me, then proceeded to eat it right in front of my face, his eyes closed in exaggerated enjoyment, like a connoisseur gorging on something delicious.
I thought that was uncalled for, and said so in my match report to the league secretary. Nothing happened to the player though, turns out he collects knives under his bed in his ma’s house and the secretary didn’t want to upset him.
One other time, I had to make off in the boot of someone’s car, as the losing team wanted to shoot me. They certainly take it seriously these pub teams.
In the car I rehearse to myself my pre-match speech. Most of them know me by now and it shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
After I get changed into my nice uniform, all neatly ironed with seams down the shorts and sleeves, I enter the first changing room to the Old Boys. The first thing I encounter is their number ten doing a line of coke on the sink; I clear my throat and he quickly shuffles into the dressing room. I follow, after checking the showers are working. They’re not.
Tattoos everywhere in here, it seems everyone has one, plus a lot of piercings; they must hurt a lot, those things. A hazy smoke swirls around, reducing visibility, a bit like when a miracle occurs and the showers have steamed the place up after a game.
“Right lads, where’s the manager?”
Faces look up at me from tying laces and velcro-ing shin pads, cigarettes dangling from their lips as they squint through the stinging smoke.
“Over there, ref,” one says with a nonchalant wave of his arm.
I follow his directive and there in the corner is big Davy Burns, notorious criminal and hard nut, sitting resplendent in his track suit, blinged up with rings and bracelets and smoking quite a large spliff, grinning like the proverbial Cheshire Cat.
Davy, the Old Boys manager, owns a lot of businesses. Casinos and bookmakers, to be precise.
Looks like Jimmy Saville sitting there, the fat prick.
“Not bad, Davy. Got the team sheet?”
He inhales some more, his eyes turning in whilst rummaging in his pockets for the required sheet, but instead he produces a small bag of white powder, a bundle of notes complete with clip, and a hip flask. Eventually, from the other pocket, he hands me the team sheet.
What Davy doesn’t know is I’ve been around every one of his branches, as well as all the other bookmakers in town this morning, with my redundancy money I received yesterday. The bastards gave me a measly seven grand after fifteen years driving their hunks of metal around this shitty town.
To be honest, I volunteered for it; I thought Walter, my Human Resources manager, could be trusted. Not only is he a fellow referee in his spare time, and on the board of the local Football Association, but it was he who told me — with a wink — a month or so ago that I would get a decent lump sum.
“Enough to pay off the mortgage, and a bit more for a wee holiday,” was what he’d said. It seems I was a bit naïve to say the least.
Anyway, I have managed to get my bet on with every penny of my hard earned seven grand: a correct score of two goals each, at odds of fourteen to one. Just as well this is a cup game, otherwise the local bookies wouldn’t be laying any odds at all. I travelled far and wide all morning with a few hundred here and there in each unsuspecting betting shop.
A cursory glance around this dressing room makes me feel as if I have walked onto a prison ward, they all look like criminals. Actually, they are all criminals; well most of them, those few lucky lads without records just haven’t been caught yet.
Time for my speech. I’ll make sure they get the message, no time for a shrinking violet in this company.
“OK, lads, you know the drill here, no fuckin’ about, no slabberin’ back to me, and all my decisions are final. Any brawling, I’ll abandon the match like last time, and you can all go to fuck.”
Everyone looks at each other, a mixture of incredulity and bemusement.
“I said, OK?”
Some stifled giggles. Eventually I hear a murmur of consent.
“Right then, have a good game, and may the best team win!”
Big Davey farts a ripper, and the room explodes with loud guffaws. I turn to walk out, and bump straight into Walter, my former HR manager, who is rather uncomfortably going to be my FA assessor today.
“Great speech, Terry, they certainly know who’s in charge today, eh?”
I brush by and ignore the Judas bastard, and head into the other dressing room. Most of these lads know me as I drink occasionally in the Star, and I know most of their families.
“Alright lads?” I breeze into the room confidently.
“Ah fuck, don’t tell me you’re doing ref?”
I clock the wee runt, sitting playing with his balls with his hand down his shorts, fiddling away, oblivious to his actions.
“Didn’t know I turned you on so much, Snake.”
Cue laughter, and he blushes and quickly removes his hand from his shorts, scowling. I give them the spiel and check their earrings are removed, or taped up, the same for rings, and then it’s time for my speech again.
I check behind me and Walter is there, with his wee notebook and pencil ready to take more notes on my pre-match performance. Bollocks, I’ll have to really come over all stern here to impress him, and get marks like a schoolboy trying to impress his teacher. Pathetic.
“Right lads, it’s the same as usual, no fuckin’ about, no slabberin’ back, and all my decisions are final. We all want to enjoy ourselves today, so if you want to finish the match, unlike last time, you wind the necks in and behave, otherwise, ah, otherwise…”
“You’ll spank us?”
It’s Snake again, the smartarse. I point the finger at him silently. Just wait until he gets on the pitch, he’s well fucked.
With laughter ringing in my reddening ears I stride out to the pitch to check the nets and flags. Good turnout here, must be a good four hundred, each touchline three or four deep, local press and local wine team in attendance, plus of course the town’s dignitaries, posing for a photo beside me before kick-off.
The Old Boys win the toss and change ends. The Star are to kick off.
“Right lads let’s get fuckin’ stuck in!” shouts Snake, clapping his hands and looking around aggressively on the edge of the centre circle.
I blow my whistle. “Number eight, come here.”
He swaggers over, all attitude, chewing gum.
“I’ll be watching you today.” I point my finger at his chest and continue. ‘If I hear any more foul language from you, you’re in the fuckin’ book.”
He is about to speak, but thinks better of it as I raise my eyebrows in warning.
Eventually, the match kicks off and away we go, and after the first hectic five minutes, I have booked one, and given a final warning to another as a marker early doors. Stamp your authority, that’s always key in the first ten minutes or so.
We get to five minutes till half time, and nobody has came close to throwing a punch yet, to my relief.
A corner to the Star, and poor defending results in a tap-in on the line for the Star centre forward.
Half time: one nil.
All throughout this first half, I have been keeping a peripheral eye on Walter to see his reaction when I stop play or interject verbally as I admonish and impose my rule on this lot. The supporters haven’t been too bad yet, I got a couple of groans and a couple of “come on Ref”s, but nothing harsher than that.
We arrive out for the second half, both teams unchanged. The crowd are getting restless, no doubt wanting to see another goal, or at the very least, a fight. They’re all mugs if you ask me. I get paid for doing this, they have to pay to watch this shit.
Ten minutes into the half I can see Snake’s mates looking at me and laughing to each other, they’re up to something for sure. And then it starts.
“Who’s the bastard in the black? Who’s – the – bastard – in – the – blaaacccckkk?”
I ignore them, chasing the play as the Old Boys build up a decent move. Their striker holds up the ball well, shields it and lays it off to the attacking midfielder who unleashes a fantastic low drive into the bottom right corner. Their supporters go crazy, wine bottles thrown up into the air, and bedlam on the touch line.
The game is now delicately poised, the next goal will be crucial. Sure enough, the Star come back strongly and I award a genuinely deserved indirect free kick on the edge of the box. I push back the wall, and amidst the pushing and shoving, I warn the defending Old Boys about pulling shirts.
Conveniently enough, as the free kick is struck, ironically miles over the crossbar, one of the Old Boys is observed pulling a Star shirt.
Eventually, after booking the defender and his team captain for a tirade of abuse, the penalty is dispatched to the roof of the net, and I nearly clap in relief. Thankfully I resist.
After this the Star can scent victory, but I’m fucked if I will let them score again. I run to keep up with the latest move as they break down the right wing, the spectators urging them on, the noise level rises, expectations heighten, and as the ball is played through to none other than wee Snake, out comes the goalkeeper, lunging at him above the waist with both feet, sending him into mid air and unceremoniously dumping him, winded, on his back.
“FUCK’S SAKE, REF!”
The insults dissipate into the sudden cacophony of arguments between each team, a bit of handbags, pushing and shoving, but I move swiftly in between them and restore order. Eventually I am ready.
“Well, what is, Ref?”
I’m surrounded by five or six players, all demanding to know my decision. Even if I said to each of them that they will receive several hundred pounds each and free drink later, I know they are going to start screaming at me, venting their frustration and anger, no matter what. I look at their faces, contorted in rage and pent up aggression, and I know exactly what course of action is necessary.
I take out my book, and I call Snake to me.
Howls of derision from his team, the crowd are giving me dog’s abuse, which makes me even more determined.
“What the fuck?” starts Snake, hands in the air, in an attempt to influence me, or play to the crowd. “I was clean through, it must be a penalty and that wanker has to go,” he wails, gesticulating at the opposing goalkeeper.
“‘Fraid not, lad, you’re in the book for diving, and…”
“WHAT? HOW THE FUCK CAN THAT BE A DIVE?” he interrupts, rather rudely.
He’s fallen into my nicely laid trap, the little gobshite. I am going to enjoy this.
“Ah, and now you have a second yellow for swearing, so you can take your attitude and go and get an early shower, and get the fuck off my pitch.”
Boos ring out and his team mates restrain him and lead him off the pitch as I stand defiant, with the red card held aloft like a medieval shield to protect me from the increasing abuse I am receiving from the watching hundreds.
Play restarts with a free kick to the Old Boys, and with a large clearance up the field, the ball is arriving in the Star’s penalty area, accompanied by a mass of players all clumped together like primary school kids, chasing that little piece of leather as if their lives depended on it. I have seen packs of hounds chasing a fox with less ferocity than this.
I watch as, chaotically, the ball ricochets off a player from the Star for a corner to the Old Boys, who are chasing that all important equaliser. Three minutes left, three minutes to save my bet. How can I do it in front of Walter, the assessor, without making it too bloody obvious?
The ball comes whipping over from the Old Boys winger, clearing them all, and I find myself watching in slow motion, gazing at the perfectly weighted cross, perfect for a header.
I rise like a salmon and plant the ball firmly in the back of the net, then fall backwards holding my head, trying my best not to laugh.
To their credit, the Old Boys defend me and as I pretend to recover, holding my head in feigned bemusement. Watching the assessor through my fingers I gingerly make my way up to the centre spot.
The Star kick off with an air of despondency, and I blow my whistle for full time and a replay. I walk towards Walter, the assessor, and his face is like thunder.
“I’ll be sending a report about this, Terry, a bloody DISGRACE!” he roars, veins bulging in his neck, spittle forming on his lips.
“Actually, Walter, if you knew anything about the game, you would know that a deflection off the referee counts as a goal, as we are counted as part of the field of play. Or maybe you don’t understand the rules that you are meant to be assessing?”
“You’ll never referee in this league again!” he thunders.
Actually, come to think of it, I neither need nor want to. Not after today’s result.
“Well, since you seem so sure, you can take my whistle and my book.” I offer both to him, and I add, as I turn away nonchalantly, “Stick them up your fat hole, along with your league and your assessment. I quit.”
I imagine Walter has never been spoken to like this, and with his face becoming ever redder, he just about manages to splutter, stammering with fury, “Collect your belongings and leave.”
I walk off to do exactly that; I have just a bit of collecting to do this early evening.
Stephen Cooper provides writing which is different from the rest, something dark, reflective, and sometimes amusing, to leave the reader with a unique memory to savour. Read more of his work at Reflective darkness, according to Stephen Cooper.