Avoiding the Scrum

By Stuart Roy Clarke  |  12 Feb 2015

The Diagnosis:

I am at the posh school. They discourage football from the age of eleven.

Chip, who I grew up with, is at the ‘normal’ school. They play football. Every day.

The Scrum:

Climbing on the rugby scrum and pretending to thump several chumps, before getting sent off, gives me an idea; this is a way to get to the football! A way to get out of school on Saturdays and see my beloved Watford FC.

More of this sort of behaviour, I tell myself, and I can say goodbye to the gentleman’s game and hello to the beautiful one. The ref, Ned Sherratt – “Sir” – who also teaches the drama group (he likes a bit of drama, a bit of play-acting), is dressed in his baggy shorts, lips pursed, and looks almost pleased as he sees me ascending the scrum. Here I go.

And off I’m sent. A heap of boys are sprawled on the ground and there I go, walking away from them, Ned’s arm pointing to the sideline. I reckon that another couple of sendings-off within the week should be enough to get me entirely, irrevocably banned from the rugby field.

At this point, a quick note to my captors: You should have picked up on my intentions – my Watford fixture list was, after all, pasted on the cover of my geography homework book.

I start composing a correspondence in my head: Dear Chip, I say to myself, Meet you at the train station to join the band of commoners bound to follow Watford’s golden boys.

The Long Run:

After Christmas, however, I am slung into the cross-country team, which puts paid to my carefully crafted fixture list plotter.

Despite acts of self sabotage – taking the wrong routes, smoking (or at least pretending to smoke) in the bushes, mid-race, and deliberately getting caught – I still get called up, thus missing most of Watford’s January. However, come ‘The Long Run’ – the marquee event in the school running calendar, held around Valentine’s Day – there is a new chance to really blow it.

And so here we are one drab, dank day. About to race. Lined up with the starting gun in the hollow of the field – Kitcheners Field – where, back in World War One, thousands of troops and their thousands of replacements had been gathered to hear why they should go on an away day to the Somme and Flanders’ fields across the water.

I imagine their bags left here, intertwined with ours. This was the greenest field they would ever see. I imagine them at their ends in trenches and in bits on battlefields recalling leaders’ words uttered here about courage and serving your country.

A teacher is suddenly in my face about ‘my’ race to come.

The classical music feeding through the tannoy comes to an end, and the field is away. I lag slightly, looking back at the finger-wagging teacher, searching for signs of dismay at my falling behind. Off to the flanks are parents, mostly well-meaning, interspersed with boys too ill or too clever to be running. That crowd recedes; the group of runners are all alone now, stretched out along the track. It’s down to each of us. This is truly not a team game.

As we climb the first hill out of the valley, the heavy breathing becomes a chorus. Everyone is struggling, except…except…a couple of boys pulling clear, glimpsed through the heave-ho of limbs. I respond, start to move up the field. I can’t help myself. For this is the uphill stage and I can so naturally do uphill, being light of frame.

Yet how come I am fleet of foot and overtaking half the field when I set out to fail? What forces are at work?

Somewhere near here a waif-like boy named Graham Greene had brought a gun with him from the school’s army stores, ostensibly to blow his brains out with live ammunition. The barrel spun, the trigger pulled. Somehow he survived to write all those books and be championed by this, the very school that had driven him to it!

As we approach the big field section (the bit that defines the difference between The Long Run and The Short Run) there is teacher ‘J.A.D.’:  tall, bony, a praying mantis. He looks at me with suspicion, for I was languishing at the back when our eyes last met and, now that I am doing rather well, he is obliged to urge me on through gritted teeth. J.A.D., who had accused me of all sorts in the lead up to this big race.

On the far side of the field I could see a figure or two way out in the lead. White singlets. Houghton & McLaren, has to be. Dedicated to this torture. Never been to a football match in their lives.

Old Dicker, the German teacher, appears out of the bracken: “COME ON CL-AR-KE!” He knew I had potential. The boy he’d spoken to in his study innumerable times about German homework and the haul of rugby sendings-off, at last coming good.

I put my foot down, change gear and overtake a couple of boys, just to please Old Dicker. To put him well behind me.

As I circumnavigate the big field, I pass the house where none other than Charles De Gaulle had resided during the war, unbeknown to most – and, presumably, the Germans. The craters on the Common were not made by bombs meant for him, but rather by those dropped to lighten the load of failed or failing German missions. Pilots trying to pull the wings higher, clear the trees, clear England, not get downed, not crash. Sons trying to get home.

De Gaulle was the defender of the free French part of the world with a death sentence hanging over his head; Adolf Hitler did not admire his résistance. In the school library I had seen pictures of him and his wife taking tea or wine in mugs on the patio at the front of this very house. Generally, he was rude to the English, not thankful for safe harbour. Churchill admired this – De Gaulle’s résistance, résistance, résistance.

We’d been on this Long Run a while now. The things you think of when running a race!

I was almost at the big-short-dip-with-severe-incline section, after which the town – civilisation – would be in sight. I always imagined my dad would be there at this point, just before the bit where a sprint finish is possible. Our house stood almost on the course; our little warm house, a world away from this savagery.

Dad was always at work midweek, at the time of The Long Run. He had run it himself 35 years before. Still, I could imagine his voice and put on a spurt…

So I came in fifth. Parents nodded their approval, since I was just about the smallest in the field.

With teachers hovering, all I was thinking was how I would now get out of this – escape from the cross-country and get to the football. To Watford.

I would have to speak to Chip.

Stuart Roy Clarke has spent the last 25 years photographing football in its many guises. He began his ongoing project, The Homes of Football, in 1989, and post-Hillsborough has created a portrait of the sport unlike any other. He does so to this day, mostly in the UK.
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