Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Walk like a panther

It was cold, wet, muddy, dark, windy and thoroughly miserable, which makes sense because I was on an astroturf pitch in the North of England at 6.30 on a November evening. Brrrrrrr!

I'd been asked up to Chesterfield by some family friends to coach their daughter's under-11 football team for a weekend and here we were about to start our training session. Helen was introducing me to some of her team mates until she was abruptly interrupted by Kelly, a tiny, blonde wisp of a girl.

"NO, Helen. You've got to use the code names!" She turned to me. "I'm Sponge Bob, Helen's Square Pants, that's Mole, Patrick, Plats, Eric and Titch."

"I see. Shall we start?"

Sponge Bob looked shocked.

"But we can't start until YOU have a code name!"

They put their heads together, whispering amongst themselves in what appeared to be a very serious manner indeed. Eventually Sponge Bob broke out of the circle and led her friends over to me.

"Why have you got the word "Panther" on your training top?" she demanded.

"Because that's the name of my football team in London," I replied.

"Well, your code name is now "Panther". Everyone has to call you Panther from now on!" she declared.

It was all very cute indeed.

The next morning was a different story. It was match day and the pitch was lined with dedicated parents in wellies sipping tea out of thermos flasks and huddling together for warmth.

The match kicked off and I shouted over to Helen to push up a little, which she did. A few minutes later I shouted "great header!" to Kelly. She ignored me completely.

Ten minutes into the match and Kelly had the ball at her feet near where I was standing.

"Run with it, Kelly! Go for goal!"

Sadly, the ball went out and Kelly glared at me, hands on hips.

"Panther!" she hissed. "My name is SPONGE BOB!" and she turned on her heel, running off to chase the ball.

Seconds later she had the ball again and her shot sent it inches over the cross bar. I swallowed my pride:

"UNLUCKY SPONGE BOB!" I yelled across the pitch. "NEXT TIME TRY NOT TO LEAN BACK!"

"THANKS PANTHER!" She beamed and I turned to put on an extra layer. 20 parents were looking at me, their faces riddled with kind amusement.

"Well, if you can't beat em, join em," I declared and Sponge Bob's mum winked at me.

They won seven - nil!