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The Gamble
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Ken Orford

Sport

U




Although only thirty three years old, you know that no matter what happens in the years ahead,  the next few minutes will be the pinnacle of your life. A boyhood dream realised. Something no-one will ever be able to take away from you. Something to cherish for ever.

The cameras from Sky Sports and the BBC are all around you. You have heard that something like a billion people will be watching. They will be watching you, plus twenty one others plus three officials. You smile inwardly – Mike Riley, the referee, is probably better known than you and your colleagues. No one can remember the last time a club from the lower depths of English football had ever got to the FA Cup final. But here you are – little Macclesfield Town about to stride out below the spectacular arch, onto the hallowed Wembley turf. You look across to your left.

Oh my God! You are walking out next to Didier Drogba – un-be-lievable!

Of course, it was a complete fluke that you’ve got this far. A series of good wins mixed in with a very kind draw. And don’t mention the semi final against Championship side Wolves, with its controversial did it, didn’t it cross the line goal. But that’s all history – here you are, about to hear the roar of the crowd as you step forward.

The warm up has gone well, you feel good. Really good. Excited, but nervous. God only knows how much adrenaline is pumping round your veins. You feel so good that you wonder if the consultant had been right. You can hear the stadium announcer building up the crowd, but his words are drowned out by the memory of that secret consultation two days ago, and the cardio thoracic specialist’s warning:

“You need surgery, and you need it immediately. Your heart is in an incredibly fragile state. Any excess strain or stress and you will probably have a massive coronary that will almost certainly kill you, or at best leave you severely disabled.”

You explained the situation to the consultant, and asked realistically what the chances were. After evading the question several times, he had sighed:

“At best I would estimate you have a fifty-fifty chance of coming through the game.”

You remember nodding and telling the consultant to get ready to operate … on Monday!

You get push in the back from your team-mate urging you out onto the pitch. It brings you back to reality. No, not reality. Thursday’s consultation is reality – THIS is the dream. The dream come true.

The National Anthem – your mouth is dry. You can’t sing. You look up to see Karen in the stands. She smiles and waves. Handshakes – John Terry, Peter Cech, Fat Frank… incredible.

You hear the skipper’s lost the toss – you hope that’s the only thing you lose! But you know the reality – you know the chances. Bet 365 has you at 50 to 1 to defeat the eleven men facing you. Your entire team is worth less than Andre Shevchenko’s left leg. You chuckle as you realise that you have a better chance of coming through the game alive than you do of winning.

Kick off – your legs feel are lead pipes. But that’s just the tension, you know it will ease off. After ten minutes you forget that the man you just tackled earns more in a week than you do in a year. Oh and yes, he gets to sleep (?) with that gorgeous woman from Girls Aloud. She’s up there too, sitting in the row behind Karen, who’s enjoying being a real life WAG for a day!

Half time comes so quickly. Incredibly you’re still in it at nil - nil. Thanks to Jimmy, the ‘keeper playing out of his skin, plus some help from the woodwork and a very marginal offside decision. You still feel fine, maybe the consultant really was wrong. The coach explains the tactics for the second half – more of the same. Then he goes round each player, giving advice, pointing out things. He comes to you, pats you on the back, and tells you that you’re having a really solid game but says that if we go a goal down, or of it’s still nil – nil in the last ten minutes, then he wants you pushing forward more to help the strikers.

You walk out for the second half. The Macc fans are even more ecstatic than at the kick off because they secretly expected to be three or four goals down by now. You sense the Chelsea fans are audibly nervous. The match goes on, you hold the Chelsea barrage for the first ten minutes, then there’s a terrible challenge by John Obi Mikkel on Danno, your striker. It’s red, Mikkel is off – but so is Danno, on a stretcher. The coach sends on a midfielder, and signals for you to move up front. Lot’s more running around. The game goes on, Chelsea are still carving the better chance, but against ten men, it’s definitely easier.

You’re starting to feel really tired now – only a few minutes to go. Please God, don’t let it go to extra time, you don’t feel you could even play another minute, let alone another thirty. Your calves ache, and there’s an ache in your chest too. You’re sure it’s just the normal grumblings of your body at the end of a game. The fourth official holds up the board – only three minutes added time.

Then it happens – seemingly in slow motion. You’re just drifting around the halfway line watching another Chelsea attack. The skipper tackles Wright-Phillips and wins the ball, he looks up and sees you between John Terry and Riccardo Carvalho. You’ve played together since you were kids, and know what’s going to come. The hoof upfield is perfect and you get the jump on the two international defenders. You’re onto it and for once in your life the first touch is perfect. The Spaniard is left in your wake but you can hear JT’s breathing right behind you – even above the roar of the crowd. As you approach the box Cech is coming out – his angles are perfect. There’s a desperate lunge from John Terry but you ride the tackle with ease. Now there’s just the best goalkeeper in the world to beat. You go to lob, and Cech reacts. You may not be Ronaldo, but you have fooled him with a dummy, and a quick one two and you are round him. You see the open goal there, and you pull the trigger. But there’s something wrong. The crowd are in another country they seem so far away. The noise of Wembley is as remote as Alpha Centauri. But the blackness is real.

You never get to see the headlines the next day, and the story of how a man whose last living action was to nudge the ball over the line. A man who had gambled and won - and lost at the same time.






© Ken Orford, 2008



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