On the conductor’s whistle the train cranks out of the King’s Cross sleeper-maze and rumbles northward on the Cambridgeshire line. Street-side brick and windows give way to graffiti and industrial discard; then sheds and harlequin backyards dissolve into muddy fields and hedgerows.
I stow my travel bag but hold the team carry-case. The falcon football logo sits above a faded grey font label inscribed with ‘Wednesday’. It was forty years since the team were last ushered from the pitch and stowed away; unforgotten but unheeded. Now each player’s age-hued navy and white stripes, matt skin and leather hairstyle bring hand-painted imperfection back from the 1970’s. Their blue, embossed, veteran bases weigh as sure as ever. I flex my fingers. Will my playing skills be so well preserved?
I alight in Huntingdon and head across the tracks. I check in to the George Hotel. After a pint and steak pie, I wander down to the Montague Working Men’s Club. Brickwork, tile roof and marble arches shelter large timber doors. The chimney stacks thrust high into the dusk.
A man emerges. He lights a cigarette. His jeans sag beneath a retro football jersey that contours his belly and stoop. He wears an ear stud, an overgrown mullet, and stubble. His deep-set dark eyes regard the case in my hands.
“You’re here for the Tournament? I’m Zammo”
Inside, the high-ceiling hall echoes with hum and excitement. The bar is bustling. Several matches are underway. Engrossed players crowd floodlit table-tops, their figures ebbing across smooth green baize, between chalk sidelines. I quickly begin competing, my team notching up victories as my revitalized fingers find their rhythm.
The final plays out on Table Four, unremarkable until the final few minutes. A free-flick! The red-based defending quartet hold a statuesque, stoic line. From the netted goalmouth, the ’keeper narrows the near-post gap, red-sleeved arms raised and angled toward the imminent attack.
I draw a bead on the blue-striped figure at the edge of the six-yard box. The panelled ball lays a hair’s breadth from the attacking player, giving me the leverage for a chip-shot, or curve, and with it the knowledge that Zammo, roving at table-height to cover all trajectories, does not know which to expect.
My arching index aches to release. I flick, and my wrist spirals in follow-through. The player peels away with a rattling retort. The ball swerves, rising just enough to clear the base of the left defender in the wall, but his shoulder numbs the sting – and spin - from its flight.
Deflected, the ball drives onto the expectant edge of the far-post player. As Zammo corrects the ’keeper’s covering dive, so the ball ricochets agonizingly across his flank, and ripples into the far left corner of the net.Back at the George Hotel, I close the window on an after-pub altercation below. I carefully return the Wednesday eleven to their stiffened card holder, put my new trophy in my coat pocket, and sit on the bed.