‘The buzz is still well and truly alive’ - my local football experience in a Covid world
- Credit: Archant
When a new season arrives, as a football fanatic, there is automatic excitement for what might lay ahead with expectations for your team at an all-time high.
As a player, that excitement does not change, and that was the case when I returned to the football pitch for the first time in some years.
There is always a buzz reporting on non-league or local football matches, but the anticipation was definitely of a different kind as I donned my boots for Doddington United on Saturday, September 12.
I arrived at the club’s home ground, the village’s Recreation Ground on Benwick Road, ready and waiting in my kit as many other first-team players also arrived earlier than usual, perhaps also excited as myself for what followed.
But amid the positivity, there was also a feeling of tentativeness due to the ongoing threat of coronavirus.
Since guidelines have been put in place by both the government and the FA, such as no access to changing rooms and using your own drink bottle, despite organised team sports including outdoor grassroots football being exempt from the ‘rule of six’.
However, this did not take away the aura to what a matchday brings, something perhaps like no other.
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As soon as I arrived, I knew the focus had to be on the game while ensuring I was responsible for my own safety, and that was not an easy combination to juggle.
We warmed up as a team in the blistering heat unusual for a September afternoon, first team head-coach Tansel Ibrahim leading the drills like he has done for most of pre-season training.
Even in a possession game just before the 3pm kick-off, as an attacking player, chasing the ball down and maintaining enough energy for the real thing sometimes proved difficult, hoping there was still plenty of water in my bottle to go back on.
But, to my surprise, I was chosen to start for Doddington United in my debut for the club in Division 3C of the Cambridgeshire County League, their first game since folding in 2018.
On paper, it did not seem like a straightforward contest as the opposition - Little Downham & Pymoor Swifts Reserves – had won promotion from Division 4C on points-per-game last season.
Adapting to the pace of the game was key, and during the opening stages, this proved a stern test of my fitness which is vital not just in my natural attacking position, but all over the pitch.
I managed to get involved in the play at times, whether that’s through long-range passes or the odd shot at goal, during a first-half that, to me, was both a battle to impress and prove my fitness at the same time.
After around 25 minutes, I was given a much-needed rest and Doddington managed to come from behind to lead 2-1.
A positive start, but a performance the team wanted to build on, and when I got my chance to come off the substitutes’ bench in the second-half, I aimed to make an impact straight away.
Minutes after returning to the action, at 3-1 up, the moment had arrived.
Having supported my teammates during a counter-attack, I received the ball around 10-15 yards from goal at the back-post, but somehow managed to blaze over.
From that point, I had an inkling that this was not going to be the day I thought it would be, even though the dream of scoring on my return to senior football was lingering in my mind.
One of my roles was to track back and support my teammates, and for most of the time I was on, I aimed to do just that, but this was not as easy as it sounds.
The visitors piled on the pressure, and with minutes to go, they were awarded a free-kick when, at that point, I was instructed to help form the wall.
I guess for many attacking players, defending is not their strongest attribute, and it proved as after their second strike, a free-kick found its way through and ensured we earned only an opening day point.
Frustration loomed large, as was evident in the head coach’s post-match team talk, and on the number of chances created after the break, the game should have been a comfortable win for Doddington United.
As a team, we knew what went wrong, but personally, I knew my performance should have been better and that frustrated me the most.
But, that’s not to say improvements cannot be made and the first game, even if it was a concourse for frustration, told me that the buzz is well and truly still alive.