Tales from Non-League Football: Cold Nights and Cup Games

Soccer has a lousy sense of timing, especially if you’re not Jorge Campos


By Ryan MacArthur

[M]y college coach once asked the team to raise our hands if we wanted to play professionally. I was the only one who didn’t. Didn’t seem realistic. Two years later I came pretty close.

In October 2011 I was invited to join the Norfolk Sharx pre-season camp. They were a new franchise in the Major Indoor Soccer League. The call was completely unexpected. I’d just accepted an HR position with a theme park in Virginia and was working my way up the youth coaching ladder. The timing was miserable, but I couldn’t say no. Being a pro is something I’d always dreamt about. I found ways to make it work.

For three weeks I got up at 6AM and sat through forty-five minutes of mind-numbing tunnel traffic to get down to the indoor arena in Chesapeake. The experience wasn’t anything I thought it would be. Our goalkeeper coach came from futsal, and didn’t seem to understand indoor soccer. Everyone could play, and training sessions were competitive, but something felt off. It was the little things, like not having matching training gear, and getting zero feedback — positive or negative — from the coaches. At times it was more like playing with an organized adult team, than with disciplined professionals. None of it mattered. I was cut a week before the season opener. A year later the team folded.

In soccer, opportunities will come at the worst possible moments, and they rarely materialize into what you expect. Playing for Corsham Town has not been any different.

My graduate program meets every other weekend in a country house called Corsham Court. It was built in 1582 and looks like Wayne Manor. I like my professors, but it’s taking time to get used to writing screenplays instead of prose. Three weeks after the first training session, my phone rings at half past ten. It’s Trev. There are only eight students in my program. They all stare while I slip out the door.

“You alright, mate,” he asks. The first lesson about conversing with Brits is that when they ask you if you’re alright, it’s a rhetorical question. “Any chance you’re available today?”

“I’m in class, Trev.”

I’ve already told him this.

The week before, I played in a match for the Corsham Town reserve team. It was my first game since June. We drew 2–2. I was rusty, but made some saves and played decently out of the back. My brand new soft ground boots came in handy on the muddy surface, but riddled my feet with blisters. They asked if I could play with the reserves the following week, but I had to decline due to my graduate course.

My cell service is shit, and I can only make out the gist. Trev wants me to suit up for the first team. It’s the first round of the Les Phillips, away against Roman Glass St George, a team based near Bristol. It’s a season long tournament that takes place between teams in the Toolstation Western League. The winning club receives £1,100. Kickoff is at three.

“My girlfriend has the car, and all my gear is in Bath,” I say.

“No worries, mate. We’ll take care of it.”

I’m lost. First they want me with the rezzies. That game gets canceled, freeing up all the reserve players. Regardless, he wants me to ditch class, get a ride to Bristol, and play in a game on a moment’s notice using borrowed gear and on an empty stomach. My team needs me. I tell him I’m in.

Every game I’ve been a part of in England has had two things that are different from home: locker rooms and match tea. Every team in the Toolstation Western League, nine levels below the Premiership, is required to have full locker room facilities. I’ve coached and played against D1 programs where we changed on the bus, or had team talks behind a dumpster.

Every team in the Toolstation Western League, nine levels below the Premiership, is required to have full locker room facilities. I’ve coached and played against D1 programs where we changed on the bus, or had team talks behind a dumpster.

After the match, the home team serves a hot meal, another league mandate. The food isn’t exactly Michelin starred quality, but nobody cares after playing ninety minutes in the rain. Most clubs have a building on site that resembles a VFW banquet hall, complete with fully stocked bar. You’re lucky to get a couple boxes of pizza after a NPSL or PDL game. Non-league football has a vibe similar to an AA baseball game. Matches are social events, but for the players as well.

My professor allows me to leave early, and Richard Taylor, the team’s secretary picks me up. We cruise down narrow backroads that are wide enough for only one car. After the sixty-minute drive, we arrive at a modern looking facility. Most of the guys, including Tomo, one of the club’s goalkeepers, are already warming up.

Inside the locker room, to my surprise, another Corsham keeper, Mark Billingsly, is suiting up. Mark is a thirty-year old British soldier. His eyes are dark and never seem to blink. As a goalkeeper, his technique is old school, but he’s a solid player.

“Warm up with the outfield players today,” Trev says, tossing me a pair of red socks and shorts.

My head feels heavy. The coaches have only seen me play three times, none on the field. I have a decent first touch and can run, but I’m no Jorge Campos. Regardless, the game has always felt like a job. I don’t protest. The goal is to play, and if they want me on the field, so be it.

Jamie Moss, the team’s physio and former player, lends me his boots. He blew out his knee the season before, but loves being around the group. Mossy has a thick, black beard and wears a backwards cap. The only time Mossy isn’t cracking the bench up by talking shit to everyone on the field (Corsham players included) is when he’s checking his phone for football results he’s placed bets on.

Gambling is a favorite pastime at Corsham. Every league is in play. Guys will put money down for a non-league game on Tuesday, and then wager a triple parlay on EPL teams over the weekend.

“Accidentally drop a coin, and half the guys on the team will bet fifty quid whether it comes up heads or tails,” Trev tells me.

I get out onto the artificial turf and immediately start to hear guys complain about the surface. They call it “3G,” and scoff when I tell them it’s everywhere in America. We get through the warm up and the first team moves inside for the team talk. I’m left on the pitch with Tomo and Lewis McCarron. I realize why Trev was so adamant about getting me to come. The three of us are the only subs.

At seventeen, Lewis is the youngest player on Corsham. He’s 6’0, but looks like he’s still growing into his body. He’s scheduled to play in a kind of all-star game featuring the best young players in the area the following day. Lewis is the only one who doesn’t belong to a professional academy. He’s less than thrilled about being selected for today’s game, but doesn’t whine.

During the first half my emotions range from boredom to frustration. Neither team looks threatening. Both struggle to keep the ball on the turf. The game turns into classic English football. I’m dying to play.

Mark does well in goal, dealing with crosses and distributing the ball effectively. Midway through the half, a Roman Glass player collects the ball from about twenty-five yards out and takes a pot shot. It’s right at Mark, but hits the turf just as he drops down for the save. The bounce is funny, and pushes the ball forward instead of up. It scrapes through Mark’s legs and ends up in the back of the net.

The thought that comes to mind is terrible and unfair. Almost every second choice keeper that’s watched a peer get scored on from the bench has felt the same way. I could’ve had that. I have no right to feel that way. The last time a goal went through my legs during regulation was in the 2010 Indoor Premier League conference semi-final. We lost by one goal.

A few minutes later Roman Glass nabs a second. Both teams look knackered. The cold makes it hard to move, and fog starts to rise from the ground. I stretch and ping balls around with Tomo and Lewis during halftime. It feels like I’m kicking a brick.

We come out strong in the second half, putting their back line under pressure. Dan Larder hits the bar and Keiron Gleed comes close soon after. After sixty minutes, twenty-four-year-old Levi Cox runs down a mistake by the Roman Glass backline and nets his fourth goal in three games.

Levi grew up in nearby Swindon and is in his first year at Corsham. He studies to become an electrician during the week, but has spent most of life scoring goals, and likes to talk about it. He tallied a staggering 103 goals over three years while playing for Swindon New College. This season, he’s on 22 goals through the first 21 games.

After the goal I follow Tomo and Lewis to the far corner to jog and stretch. I have no idea if Trev plans to use me, but I try to visualize being on the pitch and making plays. Lewis gets the call to go in. He makes an immediate impact.

Roman Glass’s defenders aren’t very athletic. On the left flank, Lewis terrorizes them. He’s crafty and isn’t afraid to take players on. In the dying minutes of regulation he dices four defenders and assists Kieron’s game tying goal.

No one seems too excited to continue once the second half ends. Mossy mutters something about a family dinner.

No one seems too excited to continue once the second half ends. Mossy mutters something about a family dinner. Everyone tries to keep warm. Trev offers encouragement and water.

Extra time starts and I keep warming up. I look at each of our players, trying to gauge how tired they are. If I go in, my best chance to help would be up front or on the flanks. I have decent pace and know how to slip a ball in behind. Tactically, I’d hurt us if he put me on the back line or in midfield. The first extra period ends and Trev calls me over.

“I know you’re a keeper, but can you play anywhere else on the outfield?”

My chest tightens. I take a second to respond.

“Forward or out wide. I’ll smoke those guys, no problem.”

Trev nods and tells me to stay loose.

Frost is starting to form along the outsides of the pitch. I try to focus on the game, but frustration clouds my thoughts. There are few things worse than knowing you can help a team, but being powerless to do so. I know I wouldn’t be a huge spark to the group, but my legs are fresh and I’m confident.

I face away from play, gripping the chain-link fence that surrounds the field while I stretch. There’s a commotion and yelling. I turn and see the ball in the back of the net. The guys are hugging Keiron. With three minutes left he’s put us ahead.

With the game in hand I walk back over to our dugout. Everyone on the bench is on edge. I’m ready to go home. Kieron takes the ball down to Roman Glass’s corner to kill the clock. The ball goes out and he gets into a shoving match with a defender. With Keiron already on a yellow, Trev spins around and tells me to take him off.

“Just give them problems up there, Yank,” Mossy says. He nods when I look back. For the first time he looks serious.

During the 117th minute, I take the field for the first time wearing a Corsham uniform.

The Roman Glass keeper pings the ball over the halfway line. Sam Ockwell wins the header, sending the ball towards me. My back is to their goal. The plan is to bring the ball down off my chest and knock it to the corner for Levi. I check left and see him drifting wide. In the next moment my forehead slams into the artificial surface.

I’m dazed, but look up in time to see Mark collect a loose ball inside his box. The center back who floored me stands near. Mark waits for the ref to warn him and sends the ball my way. While moving to the ball, an idea pops into my head.

A former teammate and colleague of mine is well known for doing whatever it takes to kill the clock. During our last NPSL game, he came on for the last five minutes, picked up a foul, and smashed the ball into the parking lot. He got a yellow, but we won the game. I know I won’t win the ball, so I figure if I disrupt the other center back, I’ll make him miss the header, or foul him and slow our game down.

I shove my forearm into the guy’s chest. He’s smaller than me, and goes down easy. The ref blows his whistle, and scolds me for not looking for the ball. Almost instantly, the ball ends up back at our end and out for a corner. Lardner tells me to sit on the edge of the six-yard box, closest to the ball. The corner kick comes, and curls well over me and lands perfectly on the forehead of a Roman Glass player. On the last play of the second extra period they score and tie the game, 2–2. We go into penalties.

A few of the guys bitch at each other for the goal. Most of them just want water. Roman Glass’s coach laughs and points at me.

“That one just came on, caused the foul, and we get a goal. What an asshole.”

I don’t know if he meant for me to hear him. He isn’t wrong, but I don’t care. Two things go through my head. I want this day to be over and I don’t want to take a penalty. There’s no way I’m going to contribute to conceding a late, tying goal and miss a pen during my first game.

The shootout is the most anti-climactic ending I’ve ever experienced. Both teams just want the game to end. The first Roman skies his shot well over the bar. Mark makes a great save on the third take, and Levi smashes his home. We win 4–1. The team slowly jogs down towards Mark to celebrate. Only a few of the Roman Glass players shake hands before they leave the field.

I ride back with Tomo and Lewis after scarfing down pasta noodles with meat sauce and chugging a cider. They don’t seem surprised when I tell them about how I ended up at the game in the first place. The boys laugh and remind me of the conversation we had during warm-ups when I told them how I’d only been in one legit penalty shootout as a player. The irony was not lost.

Howler

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