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Arms folded; stern faces that yield nothing –
Least of all, a goal. Thick-collared shirts with
Sleeves rolled back – even on the coldest of days.
Balls and boots laced tight and true, to kick
Long and deep with unrelenting force.
Uncompromising, sturdy handshakes
Before the dapper referee – pleasantries
Then battle commences under a leaden sky.
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Massed ranks; a sea of humanity – swaying,
Covered heads. Caps, trilbies, bowlers –
According to class; a grey uniformity.
The crowd roars and surges, as one entity;
Smoke rises from a thousand Woodbines,
To drift out across the muddy field, over
Back-to-back roof tops – mingling with
The choking chimney stack fumes.
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This is life, for players and spectators
On meagre wages – with little prospect of
Advancement – they strive for dignity;
From the same streets, the same districts,
Even travelling together to the matches.
One community, united by their football team
Which bears the town’s name to an oblivious
World via pools coupons, and wireless sets.
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Brutally tackled, the bludgeoned forward
Falls in anguished agony – career jeopardised;
A chance to take for that moment of glory –
Pat on the back from a waistcoated director,
Maybe a gold watch if he makes it that far.
A job, a living, an escape from the Pit or the Mill;
To toil in the Third Division (North) for year
After year after year – the journeyman’s fate.
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Watery sunshine breaks the stubborn cloud,
Casting shadows long in the late afternoon
As figures dash around, in persuit of the sacred
Leather – goalkeeper smothers a net-bound shot,
Winded, he kicks it clear up field – granite tough
Centre half makes solid contact with ball;
Winger pulls clear – a touchline race, turns
Inside and finds his man unerringly. It’s there.
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They played the game in desperate times,
Preserved on cigarette cards and in old men’s
Dusty memories. Proud but humble, noble
But honest – centre partings, baggy shorts.
Dean, Matthews, Cullis, James – special names
From an era that knew poverty, but rose above it
To conjure JB Priestley’s conflict and art
In an LS Lowry landscape every Saturday.