Battles in the Mud

I spent 10 hours freezing in a field yesterday taking up my role as honorary joint-chief scorer for the prestigious “Shepshed 7s” association football tournament. My co-scorer and I have enjoyed this rare privilege for about 10 years now. Approximately 600 small boys from the Leicestershire area descend upon a large field overlooking the M1, are organised into 66 teams in 5 age-groups and do battle for sought-after medals, trophies and local pride.

One is immediately reminded of that great field battle of Leicestershire, when Lancaster (captained by Henry) beat York (captained by Richard) after extra time at Bosworth Stadium. Richard was caught offside and Henry stuck from long range. I guess they had tents for the scorers in those days too. Stripey ones with a flag on the top

Appropriately our scorers’ tent had been provided by the army, albeit it was green and flagless. The field was cold, muddy and murky as I arrived there at 8am. I had wrapped up well – but nowhere near well enough. In the warmth of my bedroom, a t-shirt, hoody, fleece, jeans and one pair of thin socks had seemed ample protection. The age-old lesson of war is that those who are better equipped win the day. And I was clearly underdressed. I had Icicles in my Veins. My gloves, my gloves, my kingdom for my gloves.

This is how the prestigious “Shepshed 7s” competition works. Within each age-group, teams are arranged into two or three mini-leagues in which each team plays each other team. The casual observer could be forgiven for thinking they had stumbled upon the World Cup or Champions League, such is the striking similarity. The league winners, and where necessary, best runners up, play off for glory in a semi-final and final.

Except – note for any FA police reading this – we don’t do that for almost half of the teams. Under 7s and under 8s cannot play competitive football. So no scores are published and no league tables issued, as this would suggest a level of competition which is entirely absent. I must emphasize that there is no competitive spirit in these boys at these ages. They are co-operative and non-competitive by nature. Each side politely passes to each other and takes strict turns in scoring. Every game is an enjoyable and honourable draw. It is only when a boy turns 8 that he sullies himself with the dirty and uncouth habit of competition. If only Richard and Henry had got together when they were 7, Lancashire and Yorkshire would be one big happy Yankashire family.

Nevertheless, if one is to indulge in the distasteful act of competition, one may as well have a fair and efficient scoring system. In the old days our system ran off endless sheets of paper, using an ingenious cross-validated system devised by my co-scorer. Three years ago, I inevitably computerised it – hard as it is to change the habit of a lifetime. As the matches play out, scores are entered into my laptop and league tables printed and posted through the day on the master scoreboard. So now the enjoyment of 600 small boys and several hundred coaches, parents and helpers is totally dependent on a 7 tab spreadsheet with conditional COUNTIFs and expanded sort selections.

All of which requires – yes – electricity. We also need active electrons for the PA system. And, most critically of all, for the big Urn in the refreshments tent. Supplying electricity into the middle of a big field provides an annual challenge

And so I arrived with my laptop, printer and emergency rations (but no gloves) tucked under my arm, only to be told there was no electricity supply to the control tent. Twenty yards away the refreshments tent was just about operational limping along off a small generator. Unfortunately this was to prove inadequate to boil the water quickly enough to meet the tea-demand of hundreds of cold people. And there was no way we could trail a cable – even if we had one – across the damp grass between the two tents – as this which was also the main thoroughfare to pitches 6 & 7. One could imagine the headlines – “Loughboro Dynamos under 10s sizzled with their beefburgers” .

I had a deep sinking feeling. But not as deep as the sinking feeling of the Ford Transit behind the control tent. On route to its chosen pitch, it had become well and truly stuck in the mud. The more it tried to escape the more it dug itself in. This was the photographers’ van. They take photos of 600 kids and sell the images back to their proud parents. Nice work if you can get it, but does rather depend on being visible to the crowds and not marooned behind the control tent.

This seemed an easier challenge to crack than the electricity one, being one apparently amenable to brute force rather than any degree of thinking. Or so we thought. We tried pushing it and rocking it, forwards and reverse. Nothing. After much huffing and puffing, they decided to accept their lot and pitched where they had fallen – pulling out their awnings and mounting their display boards. Someone might just see them.

Meanwhile teams were arriving and registering at our powerless control tent. We needed electricity. Last year we had started with two generators – one for the tea tent and one for the control tent. One failed quite early in the day. So we spent the rest of the day switching the generator from making tea to printing results, man-handling it between the two tents every 30 minutes. All of which meant luke warm tea but just about on-time results. That lasted until the poor generator – no doubt enraged by the constant running backwards and forwards – had a temper tantrum, a surge of electricity, and terminally blew out the printer and the PA system.

We sensibly dismissed this crazy option this year. A few frantic phone calls to “people who knew people who had generators” ensued. One of the army blokes explained that there was a national shortage of generators due to a combination of the Afghanistan war and the 2012 Olympics. Not only did the last government leave us with a small debt crisis, but they left a small domestic power supply crisis too. They have much to answer for.

Then the moment of brilliance. A becalmed photographers’ van and a generator short. The van must have a power supply to print photographs. And so it did. So we struck a life-saving two-way deal deal. Allow us to plug into your generator and we will dig your van out at the end of the day. Co-operation on the battle field. The small problem of the distance between the immovable van and the control tent was easily resolved. We picked up our tent and walked. Five minutes later we were buzzing.

The rest of the day – apart from the perishing cold – went broadly according to plan. Unfortunately the act of moving the tent had made it inherently unstable and draughty. Each gust of wind cut through us, scattering papers. On one occasion the whole tent jumped a meter to the left. We continued unfazed, typing in results, printing tables, dealing with queries, complaints and problems.

We have had some amusing complaints over the years. One year a mother complained about the ropes around the pitches after her son was almost “garroted” (her word) in a freak accident. St Johns soon had his head sewn back on. This year the prize complaint was that the smallest kids were playing on the largest pitches. Putting aside the fact that the pitches are all the same size, the suggestion that we adjust the intricate algorithm of pitches, games and referees part way through the competition was laughable.

And so, 149 freezing games later, 3 teams (all over 8) went home as winners, with their cups and medals. One team remarkably scored 9 times in a very small set of goals in 12 minutes. 378 other goals were scored and recorded in total. I saw one of them when I accidentally ventured out of my tent. I consumed 3 burgers (my annual intake) and 4 cups of luke warm tea. Which constituted my payment. I’d like to say my real payment is the thrill of contributing to such a wonderful community event; witnessing the enjoyment of all of those small muddy boys and large frozen parents. I really would like to say that.

We dismantled the day with the goal posts and tent poles. In the course of the day the photographers van had sunk another 6 inches. We phoned “a man who knew a man with an SUV”. As I left he was culpably failing to tow the transit out of its shallow grave and was in grave danger of digging himself in too. By now I imagine both vehicles will be buried up to their roofs. I can’t wait to buy the photos.

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