The long road to Southbank and back to football
By Ryan MacArthur
[A]sk any Englishman and they’ll tell you it’s a long commute from Bathampton to Corsham, at least 25 minutes along the A4. I don’t mind. The Liverpool vs. Swansea League Cup match comes through the radio in Welsh. It reminds me of the gibberish Adam Sandler used to speak on Saturday Night Live. I try to follow the broadcast and the drive goes fast.
I’ve been to Corsham a couple of times, but every village in the southwest looks the same. It’s nearly pitch black, and unkempt tree branches obscure the road signs near the roundabouts. The cars parked along both sides of the narrow road make my butt squeeze hard enough to crack a walnut when I pass by. After 20 minutes, it’s still 0–0, but I manage to find Lacock Road. Four sets of floodlights glow above the hedgerows that line the street. The Southbank playing ground is just ahead.
The uncertain feeling of playing with a group of strangers is familiar; the field surrounded by white leaning posts and billboards for companies like Greene King and Toolstation is utterly foreign. In August, I left behind my jobs as the assistant coach for the William and Mary women’s soccer team and director of coaching for a youth club in Virginia. My longtime partner, Ceilidh, took a job in Bath, and I came with her, enrolling in a masters program in scriptwriting at Bath Spa University. For a new, exciting adventure, I had way too much down time.
After a life spent playing and coaching soccer, I should have known there was no way I could move to England without strapping on my gloves. I’d entertained the idea of stepping away for a while, just being a fan. No chance.
After a life spent playing and coaching soccer, I should have known there was no way I could move to England without strapping on my gloves. I’d entertained the idea of stepping away for a while, just being a fan. No chance. I was raised on the pitch. It’s where I belong.
I arrived in the UK on October 2nd. I lasted three weeks before I started emailing local teams asking if I could join them to train. I made clear I wasn’t looking for a tryout or a contract.Trevor Rawlings, head coach of Corsham Town Football Club, was the only one who replied. So here I am at Southbank.
The coaching staff of three greets me at the locker room door. Trev is a tatted-up bowling ball with a kind smile. His assistants, Anthony Brown (Browner) and Graham Learmonth (Leo), give me the same look as every coach I’ve ever had: This midget is a goalkeeper? (For the record, I’m 5’7).
Leo is 58 with long, blonde hair. He wears wire-rimmed glasses and loosely resembles Brick Top from the movie Snatch. Browner is short and squirrely. It wouldn’t be surprising if his car is full of empty coffee cups.
Trev tells me to head inside and suit up. I’m suddenly very nervous. It’s been six years since I used a locker room before practice, and that was back in my glory days as a backup goalkeeper for a mid-level D1 program. When I open the door, the familiar smell of wet boots and crusty socks is oddly comforting, like the whiff of an ex-girlfriend’s perfume. The space is small, about the size of two dorm rooms lumped together. A rusty treatment table with maroon padding occupies the center. Three thick sheets of plastic hang from the doorway to the showers. The concrete floor has thin cracks that reach the walls.
None of the players look at me when I sit down at the end of the wooden bench attached to the wall. The dozen or so grey hairs on the side of my head make up the majority in the room. The guys talk shit to each other, just like soccer players back home, only in Somerset accents (“cider” sounds like suy-dur) and “cunt,” shows up in every other exchange.
Five minutes later, I’m on the pitch, warming up. The grass is thick and well manicured. Each white line is freshly painted and perfectly straight. A covered stand that seats 112 people stretches along the sideline. On the opposite side of the field are two dugouts made of cinderblock walls and wooden roofs.
Nobody says much to me as we knock the balls around before jumping into 12 v 2 keepaway. It’s awkward, but every team has its way of sizing up new guys. It was the same way for me during my first semester at Virginia Commonwealth University.
It was the spring of 2007 and I was terrified. Two years of shutting out dirt farmers at a junior college in West Virginia was poor preparation for coming up against guys like Peer Jaekel, then a 25-year-old German midfielder, now an assistant coach at Werdern Bremen in the Bundesliga, who once chipped me from half field during preseason of my senior year. I loved every second of it and worked my ass off to make the team.
Tonight, Corsham is working on attacking free kicks and corners. Browner is running the session, but the guys are listless. The players make fun of Browner and don’t appear to listen. They genuinely seem to like the guy, but treat him more like a substitute teacher than the Special One. Regardless, Browner never fights back and his coaching points are sound. We run through some technical work and move to the far side of the field.
I hate standing around, so I grab a bib when Browner asks for five defenders. A couple of the others jog over to the posts and I stand at the top of the six-yard box, but no one tells me what’s going on.
“Are we marking or zone?” I say to no one in particular.
“Fuck knows, mate,” comes a voice.
Suddenly, a ball comes whipping in from my left. Four attackers charge into the box. I grab a handful of someone’s shirt and launch my body to meet the flight of the ball. It clunks off the top of my head and out of the area.
I mark the same guy three more times, fighting like hell, and he’s getting pissed. I can’t tell if it’s because I’m fouling the shit out of him or because the service is lacking. I find out later his name is Sam Ockwell. Ockie, I’ll learn, is a bit of a brute, built like a running back from the waist down, and one of the most competitive guys on the team. On the fifth kick, he gets ahold of my shoulder and chucks me aside. I watch from the ground as he smashes a header into the net.
We follow this routine for 30 minutes. I made the mistake of wearing molded cleats and start to lose my footing. The bottoms of my boots are caked with mud, so I shorten my steps to keep from slipping, but I can’t accelerate fast enough. Ockie destroys me. Then we switch to free kicks and Trev tells me to hop in goal.
The guy who played keeper during the corner kicks, Sam Thomson, was solid but did little organizing. He’s fresh out of Uni and one of the biggest guys on the squad. Tomo, normally plays with the reserves but has recently seen minutes with the first team due to injuries and players moving on.
I peel off my warm-up top and bang my heels against the post to clear the mud from my cleats. I notice my hands shaking as I strap on my gloves. The nerves focus my mind, sharpen my thinking. The ball is set about 3 yards outside the 18 yard-box, closest to my right post. I bark out orders, commanding the wall to shift left. The guys seem surprised to hear from their goalkeeper but follow my instructions.
Kieron Gleed steps up to take the kick. He’s one of the few players who has spoken even less than me. He’s about my height, lean and baby-faced. I think he’ll try to bend the ball over the wall, but then he takes a few extra steps back after he initially sets.
He strikes the ball cleanly. It’s curling to my left, heading towards top cheddar. There’s time for one step before I leap. My right hand reaches up across my body. I don’t see it, but the ball glances off my middle and ring fingers. The cross bar shakes. The beautiful sound of metal rattling holds in my head.
The other players jump and holler as if I’d just dropped a bomb during a rap battle.
I get up fast and purposefully don’t look at anyone. Another ball is set and I redirect the wall. They’re more responsive now. Dan Lardner steps up this time. I stare him down. His shot is more direct, but I make another top-hand save. He wraps his hands behind his head and laughs. I’m in the zone.
“That’s all fucking day,” I say, walking back to the goalmouth.
I love talking smack. Along with a strong work ethic, this is the other notable sports trait I inherited from my father, a walk-on running back for the University of Florida football team.
I love talking smack. (Along with a strong work ethic, this is the other notable sports trait I inherited from my father, a walk-on running back for the University of Florida football team.) Dan smiles, but he always seems to be smiling. He’s probably the funniest guy on the pitch, always cracking on Browner.
There’s another keeper from the reserves at training, but they leave me in for the rest of the set pieces. I make some more saves, but also get burned on a couple of screamers. The last twenty minutes are spent on a finishing drill. Each keeper takes three shots then changes out. Dan still hasn’t scored on me, but he’s determined. On his third try, he masterfully chips me from distance.
“I told you I’d get you,” he says as he jogs back to the line.
Training ends. I feel good. I’ll need game minutes, but the joy is there. I go to thank Trev for having me and to ask when the next session will be, but he surprises me.
“I appreciate you having me,” I said, wiping mud off my face.
“What do you think?”
“It was fun. Great group of guys.”
“Good. I have some paperwork for you to fill out. We’ll need an international clearance, but it shouldn’t be a problem.”
I’m confused. At first I assume the forms are so I can train, but Trev tells me how their starting keeper has left the team (I don’t ask why) and their #2 is injured. They need another keeper and he’s interested. It’s thrilling, but I have some concerns. My student visa forbids me from making money by playing or coaching sports. Trev explains that Corsham doesn’t pay, so I’m in the clear. The other obstacle is that my graduate program meets on every other weekend, meaning I’ll have to miss some away matches. No one seems to mind, and five minutes later I’m filling out forms in the referee’s’ dressing room. For a moment I worry Ceilidh might get upset for jumping right in, but she knows how much I love the game.
“Relief, more than anything,” when I ask what her first reaction was to me telling her about Corsham. “Maybe now you won’t have enough time to play American Football.” (I’m a wide receiver, free safety, kicker, punter, and return man for the Bath Spa University team that plays on Sundays.)
There’s an official British FA badge on the top of the international clearance form. It’s explained to me that I’ll need a release from Legacy 76, my last club, and permission from the United States Soccer Federation to play in England. For a guy who only managed 2nd team all-district his senior year of high school, that sounds pretty damn cool.
The road is empty during my drive home. Living in the UK, I’m learning most cities turn into ghost towns once the sun drops below the hills. I find a different station that recaps the Liverpool match. Balotelli netted his first for the club and Lovren got the game winner.
I’m overcome with the same feeling I had In the eighth grade when I made the high school JV team. The thought of playing for my town and putting on the uniform pumped me full of pride and ambition. I have no idea what to expect, but I’m already picturing myself in between the pipes on Saturday afternoons. I smile and drive a little faster.
Ryan MacArthur is a freelance writer, born and raised in Virginia and now living in Bath, England who unofficially holds the record for fastest sending off in NPSL history