Maybe it’s because I have a twin sister, or maybe football is just in my genes. Either way, from my earliest baby photos, it’s me in the blue jumper and Florence in the pink one. Flo is playing with a Barbie doll, and I’m holding the Action Man (astride a mountain bike with a built-in missile launcher. Just saying.) My earliest memory in the playground isn’t a foggy one, like they tend to be when your mind wants something to have happened. I remember, clear as day, the school’s best player standing in front of me, surrounded by a herd of other boys with a look of resignation on their cherubic faces. I was the only girl in the playground, and I was about to save Rhys Spence’s penalty.
Did I peak at six? Well, my football career did. Once my school started an all girls’ team, a couple of years later, it became too easy. As captain and striker (obviously), I got too big for my little boots, and it all came crashing down at the Field End Easter tournament. After sailing through two matches and fluking a few balls through unknowing spindly legs, the third round, against Field End themselves, was the last hurdle between me and the finals. It’s telling that I couldn’t name one other member of my team. This last game is where the story goes conveniently fuzzy; all I know is that I missed a header, got a stitch, and lost 3-0. I do remember sulking in the bath that evening, and my dad’s gentle, loving smirk which I only recognised later as ‘one of those’ looks. He probably knew I’d be writing about it fifteen years on.
I did an exchange in Melbourne last year, and replaced the gym with gin. Leg day became egg day – it’s a city of sensational brunches – and the only 30 I was lifting was my sunscreen. I got soft. A casual bet in February compelled me to take up running and do a half marathon in Sydney. Cynical though I, and everyone else, was, running became my new thing. Pounding pavements wasn’t the stress reliever everyone talks about – I’d never been less stressed in my life – but the mental emptiness it provided was positively mesmeric. Instead of listening to music thumping in my ears, I heard the knocking of my blood against my skull and the wheezing in my throat (I never said I was good at it). Running didn’t hook me as it has so many others; I still do it, but more so that I can continue to live the Melbourne gin-and-eggs lifestyle, and still have people believe that my twin sister is, in fact, identical.
After my stint in Australia, I took myself travelling for a couple of months, squeezing as much out of the southern hemisphere as I could afford. Sri Lanka and New Zealand, two wildly disparate countries, each provided me with weeks of surfing and hiking, albeit wearing rather different clothes. Perhaps it’s that they are not competitive sports, or maybe because they are activities I just truly enjoy, but without effort I realised, come September, that I was suddenly fit again. In a wave of blind optimism, at a party I told a friend’s girlfriend of my plan to capitalise on my new-found ‘body is a temple’ mindset.
“I’m going to join the football team, Em,” I told her earnestly, sifting through Facebook photos of her own university football team. “I used to be really good, back in the day. I was my school’s top scorer.” (Who cares which school it was, anyway?) “You should do it, Doll, honestly,” she said. “Most girls’ teams really need decent players, and you need something in your final year to keep you going.”
Back in England, the autumnal dusks set in without warning, and in the first week of October I turned up to the first training session of the year. I had expected twenty girls, only ten of them good: instead, a hundred Field End players stood in front of me, shivering. After a few exercises, we were split into teams according to ability: the third team, apparently, was where I belonged (there are four teams). Not willing to go through the pain (or shame?) of losing again, I went home that evening with my tail between my spindly legs.
Last night, I got a message from Em: “How’s that soccer career going?”