Gary Goals and Unreal Madrid

Gary Goals and Unreal Madrid

Head down to your local astro-turf arena and you’re likely to see as many unique characters as you do spectacular, albeit sometimes fluky, goals. We’re talking about the Friday night heroes, not the professional futsal legends or the paid stars. These are the nine-to-five office workers-turned volley-producing everymen who light up the pitches as much as the low hum of the bright floodlights. The amateur five-a-side guys whose dream it has always been to play any incarnation of the beautiful game for money, but have only ever managed to do it once a week with their mates and acquaintances, united for the love of the sport. Because, let’s be real, life has a habit of getting in the way.

The majority are, at best, fair-weather gym members – men and women who enjoy the game as a past-time, and not a fat-reducing necessary evil. Whether it’s the guy who is better at organising the whole event than he is at playing, the full-kit w***er who’s spent his hard-earned cash on the latest pair of flashy boots or printed jersey from the online merchandise store or the player who spends every spare minute telling anyone who’ll listen that he ‘could’ve gone pro’ – they usually take the whole thing a bit too seriously with their shouting, over-zealous tackles, stern pointing and captain-like instructions.

The place is always full of different personalities, age brackets and ethnic backgrounds milling around, excited at the prospect of a run out. Most of us carpool to the pre-arranged venue with a mate, often using the untidy boot or cramped backseat as a makeshift changing room, fuelling up on isotonic sports drinks beforehand to give us some semblance of scientific help in the build-up, the very dedicated even engaging in a pre-game warm-up or a couple of laps of the pitch to get limbered up.

But they’re not impressing anyone.

After all, for every participant who undergoes that energetic warm-up, there’s the one who’s finishing off an ill-advised meat pasty or bag of vinegary chips en route – you’ll usually find him side-lined after five minutes, doubled-up in a painful stitch mumbling something about ‘never again’, only to see him signalling to come back on later, with something of a bold underlined point to prove.

Fag-smoking legends stroll up to venues with Marlboro Reds dangling from their mouths, dressed in trackie bottoms and cheap trainers, arriving just in time, having spent an hour or two in the nearby boozer. If you’ve ever had to face up against them, you’ve probably dismissed them every time as casual players, probably nothing too special. If they’ve been your team-mate, you’ll curse your luck at getting stuck with their languid personalities and disinterested stance. Only problem is, they nearly always turn out to be the trickiest player on the pitch, conjuring rabonas, scorpion kicks and all sorts of ludicrous gimmicks along the way. There’s an air of nonchalance about these guys. It’s always best to judge a participant on their on-field skill, not on their attire.

The five-a-side aficionado plays in all sorts of weather conditions, too. The fitness level of your average team is normally about as healthy as the Wi-Fi signal in rural Ireland. Some play with more reckless abandon than Donald Trump tweets at 5am. The knee scars of slide-tackling on the sometimes carpet-like surface of green astro stay with them for months. It’s not a glamorous sport. It’s rarely a serious sport. But it is an entertaining one. The people who play it on a regular basis might seem like a masochistic sort in many ways, but there is the argument that almost every draining physical undertaking when you’re not fit enough in the first place is a painfully, self-inflicted pursuit. However, there is certainly something particularly unique about the idea of 10 players choosing to face off after a long, hard day of work, study or volunteering behind them. That’s because it’s not often done to get fit, improve one’s physique to an aesthetically-pleasing shape or even for some sort of vain attempt at machismo. Mostly, it’s taken up for the sheer fun of it: for the childlike experience of getting to live out your dreams of dribbling past a handful of players before chipping the flapping goalkeeper, of belting a 20-yard screamer into the miniature goals or even of making a well-timed interception to save your side a phenomenal win. It helps you forget your troubles, too.

On the other hand, and to get sciencey for a minute, there have been some key positive physical benefits of playing small-scale football outlined. A few years ago, Professor Peter Krustrup from the University of Copenhagen researched into how it lowers cholesterol, reduces body fat and improves aerobic fitness among other pluses. Those are great supports to indicate that five-a-side football is a terrific medium to get fit – what’s more, it has even been suggested that it trumps 11-a-side football from a fitness perspective.

To really benefit from all those positive add-ons, though, it’s surely necessary to change one’s diet in combination – and, well, if everyone was a slimline winger then there’d be no room for the the likes of your pot-bellied strikers who, despite their sizeable frame, manage to dominate the attacking areas in more cases than not. Because, let’s face it, these are the guys who help make five-a-side football what it really is. They add character, individuality and something different. But there is one character who has stolen the spotlight better than anyone else in recent years – and he was an original.

Like an upgraded Ali Dia, this enigmatic figure boasted of having once played with Wayne Rooney’s cousin. At one stage in his career, he told anyone who’d listen, that he’d enjoyed trials with the mighty Doncaster United, which of course would mean he had trials on his own. Most likely in his back garden. Because, well…they’re not a real club. A man of standards, he didn’t do rolling substitutes.

He would offer his services to teams in need (presumably for a fee, or at least in exchange for an energy drink and a lift to the venue and back) like a mercenary eager to shine on the floodlit astro-lain venues that dot the English suburban landscape.

He was a puzzle stuffed inside a riddle, encased in a code. But despite the mystery and complexity of his background, he had one simple purpose – to rattle the back of the net by doing ‘all types of the goals’: free kicks, bicycle kicks, penalties, you name it.

His name, of course, was Gary Goals, and back in 2014 he captured our imaginations when he sprang to fame advertising his unique skill which saw him gain coverage in the most widely read sports pages. Taped to lampposts, supermarket noticeboards and hung up in local clubs’ changing rooms, his unashamedly self-aggrandizing persona quickly saw him become something of a cult figure on the five-a-side circuit, not just in Ireland and Britain, but around the world.

Then, like a hoofed ball belted with so much venom that it rises into the cold night sky above the cage wall before bounding into a nearby river to join the castaway Wilsons of this world, he was gone. He’s not been seen or heard of since. A few unofficial twitter profiles have cropped up looking to keep the spirit of ‘GG’ alive but the man himself has disappeared from the limelight.

Whether it was a crippling injury, voluntary retirement or a desire to finally shirk the hectic lifestyle of being a showman striker, Mr. Goals’ shelf-life seems to have run its course. Except it sort of hasn’t.

The truth is, we’ve all played with someone like him and his legacy continues to live on across the carpeted green surfaces which play host to leagues, knockout tournaments and casual hangover-eliminating five-a-side matches. He was never real, of course, as he was magicked up by Karl Toomey, but his type has always been around, and they’ll continue to exist for as long as this incarnation of the beautiful game does.

And it really is important that it does continue to get supported and offered the opportunities to grow because it deserves all of it and more. Perhaps these strands of the game are doubly special considering the frustration that continues to grow incrementally with every unfortunate story that dominates the back-pages on a seemingly weekly basis.

Whether that’s a rift between player and manager, every news story about corrupt officials or, indeed, due to every whisper of illegal betting. For some people, the big-money FIFA-driven, game is in a very unhealthy state right now so it’s little surprise the common phrase being spouted by fans runs closely along the lines of ‘the game’s gone’.

In many ways it’s hard to argue against those strong words. So many people are passionately against modern football because it has forced through a deluge of changes and money-fuelled decisions that it sometimes feels as if there is nowhere for the fans to turn in search of the innocent characteristics which might have once made them fall in love with such a simple yet extraordinary undertaking.

But for despair to overtake completely would mean that five-a-side football has been forgotten, and while it will never take the place of the televised games or the studio-based match analyses, it does provide a fitting alternative – a tonic for the frustration clearly evident nowadays.

The real beauty of it, though, is how it is arguably the last truly untainted echelon of the beautiful game. It’s the one remaining sphere where the true amateurs reign supreme, the version where beer-bellied giants belong as much as the crew-cut spindly winger who’s deceptively strong-armed, where you can pay-per-play, where you don’t need to train, where you can join up with a team (bearing increasingly inventive team names like A Team of Gary Breens, Unreal Madrid, Hufflepuff’s Finest or Ecumenical Mata) every now and then, even if you’re just a casual football fan.

It’s the remaining bastion of rawness, freshness and beautiful ugliness that gives two fingers to diet, training, exercise and pragmatism, opting instead to embrace the craziness and sheer randomness that comes with booting a ball around a pitch for an hour.

Long live five-a-side football.

Words by Trevor Murray
Illustration by Martin Gordopelota