John Kelly was an overweight, out of condition, thirty-five year old the day it happened.
As he made his way home from work one Saturday he stopped to watch a football team limbering up before an amateur league match.
Lighting a cigarette, he inhaled deeply and coughed loudly, a long chest-racking bark which almost doubled him in two.
Several players looked around at him, some laughing and pointing in his direction.
Wasters, thought John, if I was ten years younger I'd show them.
Then he thought, but I'm not. They're the next generation; the players of to-morrow and I'll watch them play before I judge them.
He laughed aloud when he saw one of those who had been mocking him stub his toe in the ground as he attempted a long range shot during the warm up.
To his surprise, the young man was assisted from the field to the dressing room.
He was crying out in pain. Must have twisted something badly, he thought.
The other team then trotted out unto the pitch.
John looked at them and could hardly believe what he saw.
Among the young men was an old pal of his, Martin Quigley.
Like his team-mates, he wore the same yellow jersey and blue shorts but he stood out like a sore thumb.
Martin spotted John and he came across to the sideline.
“What about ye, John?” he said. “You're just in time to watch the maestro perform!”
“Really! Where... where is he! What number is he wearing?” asked John, looking around.
“Aw... very funny!” retorted Martin. “It's me. I'm the star turn here!”
“Turn in your eyes, ye mean! What age are you, anyway, Martin?” enquired John. “Forty? About time ye packed it in!”
Martin didn't appreciate the comments. He squatted on his haunches and stared out towards the pitch.
“Give us a drag of that fag, will ye, I'm gasping!” he said. “There'll probably be no match if this crowd don't get their act together. They're short of one player! Your man in there has torn his ligaments or something, I think! Unlucky.”
“You mean, they won't play, unless the two teams are even?” declared John, handing him the remains of his cigarette. “What are they, anyway, a bunch of softies!”
Just then the captain of the team dressed in light blue approached.
“Would you like to play for us, by any chance? My name's Jimmy by the way... Jimmy Harkin!”
“You don't mean... me! You actually mean, me!” replied John. “Have a bit of sense, will ye, son! Sure I'm not fit! It's been a long time since...”
“Aye, too true. Have a titter of wit, will ye!” butted in Martin.
“Sure, this man's a total wreck. Just take a look at the shape of him, for God's sake! He'd need a stretcher to get him on to the pitch!”
John was enraged on hearing this.
“Have you any size 9 boots, Jimmy?” he asked. “I'll do it, surely to God. Aye, count me in!”
In no time at all, John was kitted out.
As he walked from the dressing rooms he was having second thoughts about the wisdom of playing football at his age. God, my pride will be the death of me. I should have gone straight home after work. The wife will kill me for this, he thought.
He tugged at his jersey to try and get it down over his belly but only felt more uncomfortable. The shorts were a little tight too, but the boots he had borrowed were a decent fit.
“Hurry yourself up there, grand-dad!” shouted Martin. “It's getting dark!”
“I'll show you! I'll remember that, ya mouth ye!” roared John, as he sprinted into the middle of the pitch for the kick-off.
To his surprise, John discovered that he was enjoying the game.
He was getting involved in moves and most important of all, he wasn't disgracing himself. It was 0-0 at half-time.
Martin Quigley looked exhausted. He had missed a sitter mid-way through the half and could barely speak.
“How do ye do it, John?” he enquired. “And you that drinks like a fish and smokes like a train.”
“Some of us have a gift,” replied John, lighting up another cigarette. “If you've got it, flaunt it!”
The second half began at a terrifying pace. John was asked to play the role of striker and he was flattered.
The first long chase after a through-ball almost killed him however.
He had to go over to the sidelines to try to get his breath back and he felt like throwing up. When he spotted Martin staring at him he pretended to limp and rubbed his ankle before returning to the fray.
After this he decided to take things easy. No more dashing about like a mad man, for me. I'll let them young fellas do that, he thought.
His easy going style worked well and mid-way through the half he found himself drifting into the right spot to score two goals from rebounds, following corner kicks. He lapped up the celebrations that followed each strike. It didn't take long for Martin's team to draw level at 2-2, however.
There was five minutes remaining when James Harkin put John clean through on goal with a tantalising ball which seemed to run and run.
He chased after it like a young pup. A hat-trick, a hat-trick, I'm going to score, he thought, as the ball sped and bobbled over the hard turf in front of him. The goalkeeper rushed out of his area towards him and as he swung his boot at the ball John felt a queasy sensation come over him and he blacked out.
“That's a terrible cough you have there, Mr Kelly!” declared a young doctor as John Kelly began to realise where he was and what had happened to him.
There were tubes everywhere and he was connected to some sort of machine which beeped continuously.
“Am I going to live, doctor? Come on. No beating about the bush, now! Tell me straight!” he said.
“Listen. Calm down, you'll live, another wee while, at least!” said the doctor. “You've been overdoing things to be quite frank! Smoking doesn't help either, by the way!”
John nodded his head. “Did... did I suffer a heart attack then, doc? Will I live?”
“You didn't have an attack, no. You're suffering from stress and a touch of bronchitis. Too many fags and not enough exercise. We'll keep you under observation over-night. Just to be sure. Okay?”
He began to study the chart at the bottom of the bed.
“Aren't we a wee bit too old to be playing schoolboy games, Mr Kelly. You shouldn't have been playing at that pace!”” he remarked, before walking away.
Martin Quigley walked through the open ward door and straight over to his bed. The ward sister said he could stay for ten minutes.
“Who won?” asked John. “Come on, spill!”
“Your team,” came the reply.
John couldn't contain himself any longer.
“What was the final score? Did I finish me hat-trick? Come on, Martin. Tell me, for God's sake! Put me out of my misery.”
“You mean, ye don't remember,” said Martin.
John raised his eyebrows to the heavens. “Naw!” he answered.
“Well. You'll be pleased to hear this, then!” began Martin. “Ye did score your hat-trick. And then you collapsed. Flaked it. Like a dying swan!”
“Yippee!” shouted John. “Didn't I tell you I was no grand-dad!”
The nurse arrived and told everyone to calm down.
Martin looked embarrassed.
“Let me finish, ya gulpin' ye!” he said. “Ye scored a hat-trick alright. But after ye collapsed ye fell on top of our goalie. Straight into him you flew. Ye flattened the poor fella!”
“Ah, God! I did not, did I?” said John. “Is he okay. Did you find out if he got injured?”
“Why don't ye ask him yourself!” said Martin. “That's him, over there, in that bed opposite! See! - Aye, that's right. He's the poor sod with the bandage round his nut and his two legs and arm in plaster!”
“I retire! I retire! - I promise!” shouted John.
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