Well, we both knew this day would come, though I guess we hoped it wouldn't be as soon as this. Any relationship as strong, passionate, intense and lasting as ours is difficult to put aside, but as you know this decision has been taken out of my hands. We've spent literally thousands of hours together over twenty-five years or so - from at the time seemingly epic lunchtime matches in the playground, to a summer kickabout at the meadows, to bad-tempered indoor five-a-side sessions, to glorious league deciders on windy April mornings and cup finals on pleasant May evenings. In all your various forms, from first to last, I have loved you.
More than anything, I'll remember those countless happy Saturday afternoons. Rushing to the ground, with that pleasant twinge of nervousness in my stomach. Relishing the opportunity to renew old rivalries, start some new ones, and strive with my team mates to overcome all sorts of ridiculous obstacles: horrible weather, appallingly indisciplined opponents, a dreadful pitch, an ageing and sensory-impaired match official (or three). Into the changing room with the rickety benches. Valuables into a communal bag lest they be stolen, and out onto the pitch for a cursory warm-up. Glances to the car park for late arrivals. Eventually they pull in, and miraculously we have time for a brief team talk. The first half is a blur, over almost as soon as it begins. Oranges at half time, another team talk, and back onto the playing surface. Forty-five more minutes of exertion. The whistle blows. Back to the changing rooms. More discussion, which continues in the bar afterwards. No small amount of piss-taking. Couple of drinks. Packet of crisps, maybe a mars bar, occasionally a roll. Time to go. See you next week.
Yet within the routine, there was so much uniqueness. So much beautiful detail. No two matches were ever the same. You never lost that capacity to surprise me. I was constantly captivated by your frenetic unpredictability and your sheer energy. When I was with you nothing else mattered. Nothing else even entered my mind when we were together. It was just you and me. And twenty-one others. It was an addiction of sorts, I suppose, only one without the nasty side-effects.
From the early days as a tricky (if not quite flying) winger, darting past hapless full-backs to supply the front men, occasionally cutting inside to unleash a shot of my own. To the years patrolling the midfield. Tackles, passes, headers, up and down the pitch for ninety minutes. Finally the central defensive period. Battles with enormous or pacy strikers. Frequent facial injuries. Goal line clearances. Raking long passes. Baying instructions to team mates.
And then there were the goals - oh the goals! That Division Three match playing for the reserves when I went past five players before lifting the ball over the advancing keeper. The free-kick from the halfway line. The curling volley into the top corner. The towering headers. The thirty-five yard strike that soared with radio-controlled accuracy into the very top corner of the goal. The left-footed half-volley from similar distance that smashed against the bar, down onto the back of the goalie's hopelessly late-dive, and into the net. Hell, even that bundled effort with my stomach from a yard. Such a feeling of triumph, of elation, of release, and of the purest, sweetest joy.
I also look back on the more unsavoury moments with fondness, and even amusement. When I called that bloke a cock because he charged me in the back and the referee threatened to send me off unless I apologised. The cut nose I sustained from a punch in the face in a 7-3 victory in which I scored two penalties. That time I cut my eye whilst challenging for a header, only to meet with a flurry of punches from the guy I had collided with. The massive right hook to the chin I took whilst running innocently along in one game. Being slapped after kicking someone accidentally in the indoor five-a-side league. Being told in the early stages of an away match in the county cup "You're a long way from home, mate".
Then the downright ridiculous. Drawing 1-1 in a cup game with only seven players with one of my chaotic Sunday teams, then losing the replay a week later, again with seven players, 14-1. Losing my first ever organised match as a ten-year-old, 20-0. Playing in winds so strong that the ball would blow back towards you and over your head after you'd tried to clear it. Getting changed in car parks, barns, fields. Being too shy to use communal showers. Getting cramp whilst driving a thirty-mile return journey after a match.
I cling to my memories of every incident like precious newspaper clippings and photographs of old friends and beloved family members. Right now there is a virtually limitless supply of recollections, anecdotes and mental pictures, but it saddens me that as time goes on I may not be able to preserve them all. It devastates me that there will be no more opportunities for us to create new ones together.
So many places. So many people. Soaring highs, crushing lows. Anguish, regret, happiness, disappointment, determination, disbelief, injustice, camaraderie, laughs, anger, torment, pain, release, joy, always joy. Thousands of shots, thousands of tackles, thousands of headers, thousands of passes, hundreds of goals. Fleeting moments of absolute perfection. About a dozen bookings - all but two or three for sarcastic comments to referees. No sendings off. Not even close. Why would I want to miss one second of one match?
You are perhaps the one true love of my life. Sure, you took a great deal, but you gave me everything. I am more grateful than I could possibly express. Thank you so much. Just between you and me, I'm not sure I'm going to be able to manage without you.
The mitre ultimax-shaped hole in my life may never be filled.