You’re not very good at it and you’re not getting any better. You’re regularly humiliated, sometimes physically hurt and always called things you wouldn’t say in front of your mum. But it’s one of the highlights of your week, every week. Regular writer Eoin Coyne tells his story of why playing on ‘The Astro’ transcends what happens on the pitch.
I used to hate playing on astro. Tended to pick up injuries on it, muttering with the authority of a seasoned pro / proper football man about how these surfaces are conducive to injury and have unnatural bounce. Let’s just roll some makeshift floodlights onto the muddy field we train on, that’ll see us right. Anything to avoid the fucking astro. Hated the astro.
Truth was around that time I hated a lot of things around me, as difficult as it is to look back on it now. It is hard to reach any other conclusion than I was an overweight, belligerent, shit-head. Your 20s can be a difficult time, they don’t carry that same ‘age of discovery’ euphoria that your teenage years do, nor the cynical assuredness that creeps in around the mid-30s. Instead it is when you are expected to find your place in the world, or start to, or have a rough plan, but that comes easier to some than others.
I’d always played football but as Guinness and take-aways crept in to fill their respective voids, the weight ballooned up and the mood crashed down. I had a decent job for my age and the money was there burning a hole in my pocket. You use it to try finding things that’ll make you feel better. As I got heavier, I obviously became more injury-prone and less physically able to do much running anyway. About the same time I gave up on the football altogether, I hit my weight peak of just under 18 stone.
Thankfully, things improved, first slowly, then more noticeably as I grimaced and joined a gym. Coupled with an abundance of walking (that’s walking with an ‘l’) the weight dropped off. Getting lighter is great and the health benefits are the real reward but for me something still felt missing. In my head I had pictured all my problems disappearing as my waistline shrank and my man-boobs became slightly less saggy. But the same old grey cloud remained all around me like it had been in my 20s. I’d get up, work, do some gym stuff, meet friends, socialise, but all in a distracted ‘not quite there’ manner – like an extension of sleepwalking that extends not just until you wake up startled in the sitting room but goes on for days, weeks, months. The weight was gone and I still felt a bit broken; I was better than I had been but still my mind felt like something I had limited control over.
A chance meeting with an old schoolmate at the gym led to an invite down to an astro game the following week. I had agreed to go, but having not played in a few years I wasn’t sure if I would be able to, in every sense. Aside from driving tests and school finals I can’t remember being more anxious than before that first game, wondering if skinny me would be just as terrible and unable as fat me was. In the end, losing weight did NOT improve my touch, passing, shooting or general interaction with the actual football in any way, and I had also lost my go-to move of planting myself and being difficult to budge – at 11 stone I was being brushed out of the way like a mild irritant.
However, I did find I could, gradually and over time, run a lot more than I used to. So whilst I am as ineffective as I ever was on a football pitch, I cover a lot more of it and have developed a knack (“skill” seems generous) of getting in the way of things and blocking people off and running and pointing a lot. Basically a destitute man’s Peter Grant.
Playing that one-off match to cover for someone else led to me playing in that particular game until it folded about 6 years later but by then I’d also managed to wrangle games on Mondays and Wednesdays. I was playing three times a week and loving every single second of it, which you might have a hard time telling considering the amount I moan. Trust me, even the frustrating hammerings with your pals doing “olé”s around you and sticking it through your legs and laughing about how many they’ll beat you by – even those are brilliant. At the end you’re sick but determined to get the fuckers back the following week. There are no leagues or refs and the scorelines can often be open to liberal interpretation – the only motivation is to play well and win, what more could you possibly need?
I find it difficult to put into words, to convey to someone how much I get out of playing astro. My girlfriend has informed me that when a game is called off then I am generally “like a fucking pig” moping around the place. The sense of peace I have once I’m out there is unmatched. I never got that from the gym (membership long since lapsed) or walking (very occasionally these days). The games are so competitive that you pretty much have to concentrate body and mind on just this one thing for that hour; nothing else really exists during the time on the pitch.
All thoughts, fears, stresses, worries – they all just fade away to background noise. Then there are those rare occasions where you catch the ball – or an opponent – in that perfect way and it all feels so satisfying. Stringing together a nice move involving all six members of your team to get a begrudging ‘good goal’ from the opposition – those are the cherries on the cake.
As we get older it can be easy to lose touch with people. Playing football has allowed me to keep in contact with people I may have otherwise only seen a handful of times a year, others not at all. With some playing well into their 40s I can’t say for sure that the attraction is the same for them as it is for me but there is clearly something in there that has value. That keeps us all coming back. I know I’m a lifer at this stage, I’ll do this until my legs fall off and I’ll enjoy the aches and pains because to me the payoff is worth it a million times over.
I love the astro.