“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”
When a former Liverpool manager, the late Bill Shankly, said these words, he might have been inspired by watching something like this. It’s Friday lunchtime and the second half of a closely fought match between rival Year 5 teams is well underway. But what started as a friendly has turned into the mother of all cup finals.
For this particular group of children, the beautiful game is always more important than life and death. In their view, the most important thing about school is playing footie in The Cage. Surrounded by a high chain-link fence to prevent the innocent from getting maimed by one of Zoe Blaster’s volleys, our sporting arena is not exactly Anfield. But it does overlook Bramall Lane – home of Sheffield United – which is a source of inspiration for many.
Today, the rivalry between two randomly picked teams is more fierce than usual. Emotions are running high, passions are at fever pitch and safeguarding is in danger of being compromised.
It will only take one more disputed handball appeal, a desperate two-footed lunge or a mistimed tackle, for the ball to be confiscated and the match to be abandoned.
What this game needs is an authority figure. Someone respected for her knowledge and love of football.
Cometh the dinner hour, cometh the woman. Who else but Mrs Shearer would dare to step into this cauldron of sporting intensity? Who but she would volunteer to referee the unrefereeable? As a mark of respect for such a courageous gesture, both sets of players agree to her one condition. Her decisions – including whether the ball went inside the jumper goalpost, under the imaginary crossbar or over the invisible goal line – will be final.
With the score at 17–all, time is running out and a draw looks inevitable. Then Daz’s high ball over the top results in several players busting a gut to get there first. In anticipation of irresistible forwards meeting immovable defenders, Mrs Shearer sprints up field with a grace that belies her robust build. She body swerves around Lee, accelerates beyond Wayne, side steps Aleesha and goes sprawling in the penalty area.
Being generously committed up front, Mrs Shearer lands heavily and in a manner that ought to bring play to an immediate halt. But the game continues without a moment’s pause. Zoe leaps over Mrs Shearer’s prostrate form and – with Ahmed and Leanne in hot pursuit – prods the ball past the onrushing Gazza to score the winner.
By the time the celebrations have died down and the recriminations have expired, Mrs Shearer is back on her feet and making her way into school. From her stumbling gait, it’s hard to tell whether she’s mildly concussed or simply in pain. Turns out her injuries include a badly grazed cheek, a swollen right eye and severe bruising to her entire forward line.
Steve Eddison is a teacher at Arbourthorne Community Primary School in Sheffield