For the last 6 months I’ve been spending my Saturdays following the development of 2 swans and their 7 signets. I have tracked their progress, enthralled in their majesticness and I have been impressed with their no-nonsense hissing approach to barking dogs. I have felt like a proud father watching my boys progress into fine young swans but I’m afraid it’s time to cut you loose. It’s time to let you fly the nest, football is back for me. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much swan like elegance in our first session back.
As I mentioned, it’s approximately 6 months since I last kicked a ball as a professional footballer and despite a few initial teething problems (ball bouncing of the shin problems) the standard wasn’t quite as poor as I may have first thought. I was buzzing to get back, and not in the standard disingenuous social media “buzzing to get started” way, I was genuinely incredibly excited to get back to training.
I’ve not had pre training nerves for a long long time, but there were knots in the stomach as I drove to Heriot Watt. There was an unusual eeriness to the Oriam training facility we are fortunate to use. Weird as it’s usually a thriving metropolis, with students, gym goers and numerous sports teams – some would say a lovely breeding ground for Covid19. Not this time. It was dead, apart from several of my teammates and Edinburgh City players dotted around the car park.
First step was the temperature gun and collection of the free East Fife face mask. I can’t say no to a freebie and it’s ever so snug. You see the boys, and there was a reluctance to go and greet each other. What before was handshakes and high fives, has been replaced by tentative elbow bump. A strange feeling, considering we are about to fly into tackles with each other with sweat droplets flying in every direction. We also can’t spit or clear the nostrils (in that way that the watching public hate to see), which is a deeply embedded habit that will take some serious restraint on our behalf.
Brett Long did his best to break the ice with his appalling work on social media. On the day of David Turnbull’s move to Celtic, he shared his pride by tagging Turnbull with the quote “so proud of my boy”. Without context you’d think he was his other half and not just someone he shared a dressing room with when they were both part of the Motherwell under 13s squad. He rightly got ripped about this, but he took it well.
I put on my new football boots, half fake versions of the latest Nike model. A fake football boot is like a red rag to many within the game. I was lambasted by several of my teammates as they shared a laugh at my expense. It was me who was laughing on the inside as these only cost me 70 quid, I’m not paying 2 weeks wages for the real thing – one bad tackle from the aggressive Stewart Murdoch and I’m having to purchase a new pair within weeks.
The toilets were open, and the players seemed to take weird glee in using a toilet facility that wasn’t their own. The novelty of getting to go number 1 or number 2 must have been on my teammates minds as by the time I got to the toilet the smell was far from pleasant. The pandemic has taught us to be grateful for the small things I guess. Anyway, I digress, back onto training.
My first few touches were all over the shop. Was it the fake boots? Or was it the player within the boots? A combination of both perhaps. I kicked on from there, finally getting to grips with the Mitre after a shaky start. I was impressed by the standard of the others, early days though.
We had been sent a pre preseason programme to get some of the sloggiest of runs out the way, I believe the theory was that we hit the ground running and there would be little running exercises. This is code for “disguised running” where the coach simply adds a ball into a drill and hopes it takes the players’ minds of the lack of oxygen reaching their lungs. Anyway, there appeared to be a decent level of base fitness. The runs were a series of dribbling and ball control exercises for 4 minutes without stopping (then repeat 3 times with a break in between). I was flying for the first 2-3 minutes before forgetting the use of my legs for the last minute of each set. The added concern of Chris Higgins breathing angrily and heavily behind me spurred me on, yet its not easy to perform drag backs with a sweaty Higgy trying to close the gap.
We get a few ball drills out the way and then it’s on to the main event… Small sided games. Due to us training in smaller groups, these were 3 on 3. Just picture the old Nike cage adverts; with Cantona commentating over the top, a little less conversation playing and star studded 3-man teams. Basically that, but instead of Henry, Totti and Nakata; you get Denholm, Dunsmore and Davidson. Tackles, shots, passing sequences, bad play, good play, dinks, drags, keeper howlers and good old competition. It’s what we’ve missed and was an absolute pleasure to experience again. I was the best player on the pitch. Everybody else disagreed but I don’t believe them.
Although we may have had the novelty of public toilet use, we are not permitted to use the showers. There are some, who won’t be named, who appear to rarely shower anyway but for me this isn’t good. The rubber crumb pellets I collect in my sock are frowned upon by my other half. It was a difficult task to not spread these around our flat on my return from training.
The gaffer and his assistant gathered us in and stressed the importance of following the rules which I think the boys are mature enough to follow. Mistakes have been made by those at the top level and it is important that we as part time players try to follow the guidelines as much as we can. East Fife have put everything in place but they can only lead the horse to the water. This has its difficulties at part time with boys going into do their day jobs – social distancing etc isn’t always possible in practical terms. For now, I’m just going to enjoy the moment. Driving home after that first session back was like a huge weight lifted of my shoulders, a weight I’ve been carrying since the start of lockdown. I felt great but I’ll never forget my swans.