As a young man, I played a little Association Football. No, nothing remotely impressive, and you certainly won’t find my name on a vintage version of Championship Manager, but at one particular school a couple of seasons at a semi-professional club made me the equivalent of Jose Mourinho, and so I was appointed Director of Football,* with responsibility for all the teams in the school.**
Just down the road, a few miles away, was another school. A rival establishment. A place where the standard of cricket played by its boys was significantly higher than at ours.
Now one-sided sport is rarely fun. This is a realisation which comes to boys in their teenage years, I think. My third form tutees find it incomprehensible that I can be disappointed in a crushing victory, on the basis that no one gets much out of it, whereas the sixth form get it. But cricket really doesn’t suit an imbalanced match: even the winners will often go away frustrated. There’s not enough bowling to go round, and if the victors bat second there isn’t enough batting to go round either; even a team which bats first may see a few boys enjoy themselves and ‘fill their boots,’ while the rest wait for a chance they won’t get, because the opposition can’t bowl their team-mates out.
Fortunately school sport has an easy way around this. You can ‘play down’ – B teams can play against C teams so as to even up the contest. There are disadvantages – it can make a mess of a big block fixture, for example – but it is, I think, better than the alternative.
Anyway. The summer before I joined my school, there had been a block cricket fixture against these rivals. Because of the mismatch, it was agreed that our B teams would play against their C teams, and our C teams against their D teams. Then, on match day, it turned out that this school had just disregarded that agreement. They thumped us, and their Head Master no doubt enjoyed reading all the results out in assembly.
The story then gets murkier. The word on the street was that our Head Master decided that this was such reprehensible behaviour that we would not share a cricket square with that school again, and ordered all cricket fixtures for the forthcoming year cancelled. On getting wind of this, their Head Master decided that his school would not be fulfilling the rugby fixtures which had been planned for the next term (my first at the school).
And when the withdrawal from those fixtures was communicated to us, our Head Master, enraged, decided that we would therefore treat that rival establishment like apartheid South Africa: we would not appear on a sports field with them. Ever again.
This sounded like a pretty tall story to me, but sure enough there was no rugby fixture in the calendar, and a blank weekend where one could have been.
So I asked the Director of Sport if I could arrange a football match with that school for the next term. It would make an ideal fixture: we could get there and back by minibus in little more than a games afternoon, the boys would like to play against the old enemy, and they do good teas.
The Director of Sport grinned at me. “Arrange the fixture,” he said, “but don’t tell the Head Master that I told you to.” So I did.
The game went into the fixture calendar, and shortly afterwards I was summoned to the Head Master’s office. I had my excuse ready: I just didn’t know that this row had happened. I thought I might, if asked, suggest that I’d heard rumours, but discounted them as wildly unrealistic.
Instead, he congratulated me. “You got the bugger to back down!” he said, and told me a story, entirely at odds with the one I’d heard, about how his counterpart had been contemptuous of our boys’ sporting abilities after the cricketing fiasco, and had deemed us unworthy of their attention. He had, so the Head Master told me in tones of outraged disapproval, even told prospective parents that his school no longer played fixtures against ours because we weren’t good enough to compete with them.
I still don’t know where the truth of the matter lies. Both Head Masters remain in place: I just looked up both schools’ websites, and I can find no example of a sporting fixture between the two: not even a football match, which would, were it scheduled, be taking place this term.
Call me irresponsible, but it does please me to think of two twenty-first century ‘leaders’ conducting a version of the sort of blood feud that King Edmund tried to abolish over a thousand years ago.
Oh, we drew 2-2, since you ask. Came back from 2-0 down. A pulsating game. Really glad we played.
*No, not really. I did start using the title unofficially though.
**That is, the team. On a couple of very rare occasions we put out a 2nd XI.