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The Playground Football Rulebook
by Christopher Brookmyre, July 2003
Matches shall be played over three unequal periods: two playtimes and a lunchtime.
Each of these periods shall begin shortly after the ringing of a bell, and although a bell is also rung towards the end of these periods, play may continue for up to ten minutes afterwards, depending on the nihilism or "bottle" of the participants with regard to corporal punishment met out to latecomers back to the classroom.
In practice there is a sliding scale of nihilism, from those who hasten to stand in line as soon as the bell rings, known as "poofs", through those who will hang on until the time they estimate it takes the teachers to down the last of their gins and journey from the staffroom, known as "chancers", and finally to those who will hang on until a teacher actually has to physically retrieve them, known as "bampots".
This sliding scale is intended to radically alter the logistics of a match in progress, often having dramatic effects on the scoreline as the number of remaining participants drops.
It is important, therefore, in picking the sides, to achieve a fair balance of poofs, chancers and bampots in order that the scoreline achieved over a sustained period of play – a lunchtime, for instance – is not totally nullified by a five-minute post-bell onslaught of five bampots against one.
The scoreline to be carried over from the previous period of the match is in the trust of the last bampots to leave the field of play, and may be the matter of some debate. This must be resolved in one of the approved manners (see Adjudication).
The object is to force the ball between two large, unkempt piles of jackets, in lieu of goalposts. These piles may grow or shrink throughout the match, depending on the number of participants and the prevailing weather. As the number of players increases, so shall the piles. Each jacket added to the pile by a new addition to a side should be placed on the inside, nearest the goalkeeper, thus reducing the target area. It is also important that the sleeve of one of the jackets should jut out across the goalmouth, as it will often be claimed that the ball went "over the post" and it can henceforth be asserted that the outstretched sleeve denotes the innermost part of the pile and thus the inside of the post. The on-going reduction of the size of the goal is the responsibility of any respectable defence and should be undertaken conscientiously with resourcefulness and imagination.
In the absence of a crossbar, the upper limit of the target area is observed as being slightly above head height, although when the height at which a ball passed between the jackets is in dispute, judgement shall lie with an arbitrary adjudicator from one of the sides. He is known as the "best fighter"; his decision is final and may be enforced with physical violence if anyone wants to stretch a point.
There are no pitch markings. Instead, physical objects denote the boundaries, ranging from the most common – walls and buildings – to roads or burns. Corners and throw-ins are redundant where bylines or touchlines are denoted by a two-storey building or a six-foot granite wall. Instead, a scrum should be instigated to decide possession. This should begin with the ball trapped between the brickwork and two opposing players, and should escalate to include as many team members as can get there before the now egg-shaped ball finally emerges, drunkenly and often with a dismembered foot and shin attached. At this point, goalkeepers should look out for the player who takes possession of the escaped ball and begins bearing down on goal, as most of those involved in the scrum will be unaware that the ball is no longer amidst their feet. The goalkeeper should also try not to be distracted by the inevitable fighting that has by this point broken out.
In games on large open spaces, the length of the pitch is obviously denoted by the jacket piles, but the width is a variable. In the absence of roads, water hazards or "a big dug", the width is determined by how far out the attacking winger has to meander before the pursuing defender gets fed up and lets him head back towards where the rest of the players are waiting, often as far as quarter of a mile away. It is often observed that the playing area is "no’ a full-size pitch". This can be invoked verbally to justify placing a wall of players eighteen inches from the ball at direct free kicks. It is the formal response to "yards", which the kick-taker will incant meaninglessly as he places the ball.
There is a variety of types of ball approved for Primary School Football. I shall describe three notable examples.
There is no offside, for two reasons: one, "it’s no’ a full-size pitch", and two, none of the players actually know what offside is. The lack of an offside rule gives rise to a unique sub-division of strikers. These players hang around the opposing goalmouth while play carries on at the other end, awaiting a long pass forward out of defence which they can help past the keeper before running the entire length of the pitch with their arms in the air to greet utterly imaginary adulation. These are known variously as "moochers", "gloryhunters" and "fly wee bastarts". These players display a remarkable degree of self-security, seemingly happy in their own appraisals of their achievements, and caring little for their team-mates’ failure to appreciate the contribution they have made. They know that it can be for nothing other than their enviable goal tallies that they are so bitterly despised.
The absence of a referee means that disputes must be resolved between the opposing teams rather than decided by an arbiter. There are two accepted ways of doing this.
To ensure a fair and balanced contest, teams are selected democratically in a turns-about picking process, with either side beginning as a one-man selection committee and growing from there. The initial selectors are usually the recognised two Best Players of the assembled group. Their first selections will be the two recognised Best Fighters, to ensure a fair balance in the adjudication process, and to ensure that they don’t have their own performances impaired throughout the match by profusely bleeding noses. They will then proceed to pick team-mates in a roughly meritocratic order, selecting on grounds of skill and tactical awareness, but not forgetting that while there is a sliding scale of players’ ability, there is also a sliding scale of players’ brutality and propensities towards motiveless violence. A selecting captain might baffle a talented striker by picking the less nimble Big Jazza ahead of him, and may explain, perhaps in the words of Linden B Johnson upon his retention of J Edgar Hoover as the head of the FBI, that he’d "rather have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in".
Special consideration is also given during the selection process to the owner of the ball. It is tacitly acknowledged to be "his gemme", and he must be shown a degree of politeness for fear that he takes the huff at being picked late and withdraws his favours.
Another aspect of team selection that may confuse those only familiar with the game at senior level will be the choice of goalkeepers, who will inevitably be the last players to be picked. Unlike in the senior game, where the goalkeeper is often the tallest member of his team, in the playground, the goalkeeper is usually the smallest. Senior aficionados must appreciate that playground selectors have a different agenda and are looking for altogether different properties in a goalkeeper. These can be listed briefly as: compliance, poor fighting ability, meekness, fear and anything else that makes it easier for their team-mates to banish the wee bugger between the sticks while they go off in search of personal glory up the other end.
Playground football tactics are best explained in terms of team formation. Whereas senior sides tend to choose – according to circumstance – from among a number of standard options (eg 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 5-3-2), the playground side is usually more rigid in sticking to the all-purpose 1-1-17 formation. This formation is a sturdy basis for the unique style of play, ball-flow and territorial give-and-take that makes the playground game such a renowned and strategically engrossing spectacle. Just as the 5-3-2 formation is sometimes referred to in practice as "Cattenaccio", the 1-1-17 formation gives rise to a style of play that is best described as "Nomadic". All but perhaps four of the participants (see also Offside) migrate en masse from one area of the pitch to another, following the ball, and it is tactically vital that every last one of them remains within a ten-yard radius of it at all times.
Much stoppage time in the senior game is down to injured players requiring treatment on the field of play. The playground game flows freer having adopted the refereeing philosophy of "no Post-Mortem, no free-kick", and play will continue around and even on top of a participant who has fallen in the course of his endeavours. However, the playground game is nonetheless subject to other interruptions, and some examples are listed below.
Goal-scorers are entitled to a maximum run of thirty yards with their hands in the air, making crowd noises and saluting imaginary packed terraces.
Congratulation by team-mates is in the measure appropriate to the importance of the goal in view of the current scoreline (for instance, making it 34-12 does not entitle the player to drop to his knees and make the sign of the cross), and the extent of the scorer’s contribution. A fabulous solo dismantling of the defence or 25-yard* rocket shot will elicit applause and back-pats from the entire team and the more magnanimous of the opponents. However, a tap-in in the midst of a chaotic scramble will be heralded with the epithet "moochin’ wee bastart" from the opposing defence amidst mild acknowledgment from team-mates. Applying an unnecessary final touch when a ball is already rolling into the goal will elicit a burst nose from the original striker. Kneeling down to head the ball over the line when defence and keeper are already beaten will elicit a thoroughly deserved kicking. As a footnote, however, it should be stressed that any goal scored by the Best Fighter will be met with universal acclaim, even if it falls into any of the latter three categories.
*Actually eight yards, but calculated as relative distance because "it’s no’ a full-size pitch".
At senior level, each side often has one appointed penalty-taker, who will defer to a team-mate in special circumstances, such as his requiring one more for a hat-trick. The playground side has two appointed penalty-takers: the Best Player and the Best Fighter. The arrangement is simple: the Best Player takes the penalties when his side is a retrievable margin behind, and the Best Fighter at all other times. If the side is comfortably in front, the ball-owner may be invited to take a penalty.
Goalkeepers are often the subject of temporary substitutions at penalties, forced to give up their position to the Best Player or Best Fighter, who recognise the kudos attached to the heroic act of saving one of these kicks, and are buggered if Wee Titch is going to steal any of it.
This is known also as the Summer Holidays, which the players usually spend dabbling briefly in other sports: tennis for a fortnight while Wimbledon is on the telly; pitch-and-putt for four days during the Open; and cricket for about an hour and a half until they discover that it really is as boring to play as it is to watch.
Disclaimer: Use at your own risk! Don't take this page seriously, it's not a "how to" guide, or advice, or a manual.