There were no Christmas decorations at Gerald's cheese shop. According to him, there never were: 'Smidwick play in red and green,' he explained, 'and
sometimes their silver socks sparkle like they are made of tinsel, so there's no way I'm having my
punters thinking I'm fahkin Smidwick.' As if anyone could think that! In the shop window, they had
one of those automaton cheesemakers, eternally cutting at what was supposed to be a block of
cheese. Instead of the cheese, Gerald had made a papier mache model of the Smidwick manager's
It was to be a special day. Even the dog-faced Ratchet and 'Cotton Eye' had turned up, and neither of them had been seen at a Newton Hills event for quite a while. Not since the game which got us banned from the Southern Leagues. Everyone felt the Camembert-stink of anticipation in the air; we were like four knuckle-headed kids waiting to smash through our Christmas presents on the search for a new toy. And that toy; boy would it be a mean one.
The four of us gathered in the ripe-smelling back room, pressed together (as though we were on the terraces) around a little tranny radio. Why we were gathered round the radio was unexplained; Gerald had a perfectly good TV in the corner, and it was tuned to Death Star Sports News to boot. But he said he preferred the traditional way of doing things. So radio it was.
We were waiting for the draw for the first round of the X-Footer tournament, an all-new, all-singing, all-dancing
Christmas extravaganza for non-league teams, in which the winner would skip up ten divisions and
become a Premier League franchise (mainly based on audience voting). It was a new way of administering
football, and of deciding who won and who lost, and I for one thought it was a great idea. Cutting out the
middle-man (football) so to speak.
If you've shivered on a shambledown terrace on a wet Wednesday night in Wetwang, you'll know what I'm talking about. If you've done a five hundred mile round trip, only to find out the match you've come to see has been postponed, you'll know what I'm talking about. And if you've ever sat sober and tried to watch the ninety minutes of sheer hell that is non league togger, you'll be on my wavelength. This was New Football. Football as popularity contest; the matches would only last 10 minutes (including a four minute
ad break). Goals were deemed not as important as the celebration 'routines' which followed them. Should the game be drawn, a team singing competition on ice would decide the result. And best of all, all the matches were to be held under the tarpaulin cover of the Millennium Dome. Even Gerald was excited; he loved that Dome like it was a blanched Babybel wedged into the London riverside turf.
Somehow (Gerald threatening the show's producer) Newton Hills had been selected for the show (a selection
process which involved much ball-cupping and naked posing, according to the players and management staff) and,
according to our new star-spotter, Dave 'Baldy' Grainger, Smidwick Albion were in the draw too. We wanted
Smidwick. We wanted them like a mouse wants cheese. And we'd spring all kinds of traps in order to play them
in front of the billion-strong audience which was expected for the competition.
Finally, 'Holy Christmas Tennis' by the cheese-string necked Cliff Richard finished crackling out of the small radio speakers (sounding to me as if it was coming from the bowels of hell, that voice of his) and the announcer came on: 'Thirty two teams; three hundred and fifty two dreams. A billion hopefuls. Welcome to the draw for the X-Footer tournament, sponsored by Nobby's Nuts, Death Star TV, the British government and ASBO, the all-new social networking site. Without further ado, we'll go over to those big-money balls and find out who's playing who in the first round of the competition, with our host, Baaarrrrbaaarrraaaaaaa Wind-sooooooooooorrrrrrrrrre.'
'Awwight evveyone,' said our Babs. I looked over at Gerald and saw the tears in his eyes and the veins popping
out of his forehead like Stilton; he loved that gangster's moll more than he loved Newton Hills, I reckoned. The
fact Windsor knew next to nothing about football meant little. After all, they had Charlize Theron making the
Wurrald Cup draw.
'First out of the ball-bag is Smidwick Albion,' continued Windsor, palatially. Four sets of eyes locked on each
other in the back room of that cheese shop. Four sets of hands clenched into twisted fists, mangling Dairlylea
like it was soap, or soup. We prayed. And God, Cliff, Windsor herself, answered us with the best Christmas present in the Wurrald.
'And next out of the hat is Newton... what does that say? Philllllll get me my glarrrses... Ah, that's better... I don't know what happened in the next ten minutes. All I know is that they could have sold the video around some select Soho shops; there was so much bare-faced man-love in that back room; so much drowning in each other's flesh and in the vats of processed cheese, that some would have paid top dollar to see it. Then, afterwards, we looked each other up and down and Gerald punched each one of us on the arm. Hard. It was his way of telling us this was the best goddamn Christmas he'd ever had. Outside in the backyard, even Gerald's fighting cocks crowed with delight.
The Millennium Dome was buzzing like my wife's vibrator on a Tuesday night date-night (when I have to sit downstairs and make my own tea). The seating area was packed; everyone held hastily assembled bed-sheet banners aloft and looked half-drunk, half-full of religious awe as Simon Cowell and his cereal box head filled the stage, rattling on about the 'glory of competition' and the 'democracy of audience voting in an otherwise dictatorial, money-orientated sport.'
Gerald nudged me in the ribs, rather too hard, and whispered: 'There's no fahkin pigs anywhere, Gwaawnt.'
I nodded, trying hard to tune-out my cheese-faced companion. Trying to concentrate on Cowell's
smooth-tongued, hitched-up trousered words. 'And now,' he said, giving us this elaborate bow (when he did
so, his trousers rode up almost over his head). 'Now we have, coming on, what you, the audience have, in
fact, since the dawn of the universe and creation itself, been dreaming and wishing about. All your
Christmases have come at once, my friends. Bring on the teams!'
The first match was between Coverack of Cornwall and Little Haven of Wales. As the teams entered the pitch, the crowd went Really Wild Show; a cacophony of teenage screams, middle-aged desperation, and old age senility. Some even went so far as throwing Cornish pasties and leeks onto the stage / pitch. The two teams looked decidedly worried, decked out as they were in their new Death Star TV get-ups (all tight leather tees which showed off the abs – and in some cases beer bellies – and early 80's style togger shorts that showed off the crotch, or in some cases, balled-up socks). Before they started the game, each team sung a barber-shop x11 version of their club anthem. Embarrassingly enough, Coverack's appeared to be the theme tune to Last of the Summer Wine.
'Nothing looks as though it's gonna go-off in 'ere, Gwaawnt,' bellowed Gerald. 'Come on. Let's go get some food from one of the fahking kiosks.'
As we shouldered our way through the baying mob, my antennae started twitching, twitching
like I was a Don DeLillo detective. Because if the big man was planning something like what
went off in the latest round of the self-styled Hoolie Cup (or the Carling Cup as it was supposed
to be called), the round after West Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaam battered Millwall on
and off the pitch, then we were in trouble. In that game, between Barnsley and Man United, it
was reported that during half-time, about 5000 United fans light-brigade-charged the food kiosk
after free beers and eats. The staff had to lock themselves in the store cupboard for over an
hour. (Which struck me as a bit odd seeing as though half-time only lasted ten minutes, fifteen
at the most, which meant all the United fans would have been back in the ground waaaaaaaaay
before they let themselves out.) But still. If United fans could make kiosk staff quiver in a store
cupboard for over an hour, what could Gerald achieve, here in the bowels of the Dome? The
bowels of hell?
When we reached the kiosk, Gerald leaned over the counter, all ambassadorial like, as though he were sharing gossip over a cheese-string washing-line. 'Gimme your cheeseboard,' he demanded, after a moment's pause. But cheeseboard was clearly not on the plastic menu (I checked). The closest he'd get was a cheeseburger, and eventually Gerald plumped for that. The trembling teenage kiosk attendant, more zit than boy, jumped to it.
Finally, Gerald got his burger. He bit into it as though he'd not eaten since SimonCowellknowswhen. He chewed with his gob open like it was a Temple of Doom. Fatcow juices ran down his chin. And then, all of a sudden, he stopped chewing. He stopped chewing, thinking, singing, everything. And then he shot his death-stare-at-a-nomark-fan-from-Smidwick glare at the zit behind the counter. 'Call that fahking cheese?' he erupted.
The zit didn't know what to say. Didn't have a chance to say it either, because in seconds Gerald was launching himself over the counter, scattering processed cheese slices, tomato sauce bottles, cans of pop everywhere.
'Grab the till,' shouted Ratchet, from over my shoulder. I didn't know where he'd come from. Maybe the dog-faced shit-tip could smell trouble from miles away, like a hooligan shark.
But Gerald didn't listen. He was too busy tying the kiosk attendant up with his own Christmas décor.
Tinsel round the eyes. A bauble in the gob.
Then we heard authoritative footsteps approaching. Ratchet and I turned, sure it was going to be the
fuzz, the filth, the pigs, here to arrest us. But when we saw who it was we were struck numb, dumb,
full of come.
'Hello, hello, hello. What's going on here then?' said the man, pulling his trousers up high on his chest while rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet. 'What do you think you’re doing?' Gerald looked up from his Blue Peter project - making a Christmas tree out of a teenager. His face flashed through anger to shock to awe: 'Err, Simon... Si... Nothing mate. I just... I just don't like the cheese...' Simon Cowell approached the counter and started to smile. The anger drained from his weetabix face. 'You know mate, we need strong-minded characters like you... You could be one of our judges...'
And that's how Gerald ended up on the judging panel for the X-Footer tourno. And that's how the whole Newton Hills FC history changed forever.