|Sunday, August 7, 2005|
| The Real England|
The evening celebration is finally winding down at the Heywood Cricket Club, where a packed house of delirious club members have been celebrating their team's victory today in the local championship, the Wood Cup. With them have been two dozen of us from Swarthmore in our black polo shirts with the Garnet soccer shield on the chest. We were in solidarity with these Heywood faithful all afternoon, too, as they cheered their team to a one-sided trouncing of the challengers from Monton & Weist. As Coach Wagner promised would happen when we left cosmopolitan London for the Manchester area, we have ventured deep into the heart of England.
Getting here took a while. On Friday, heavy congestion on the highway turned what was billed as a "three-and-a-half-hour" trip into a seven-hour marathon. The students passed the time as best they could by sleeping, listening to music, and playing cards. Our restlessness found the perfect antidote shortly after we pulled into our destination, Hopwood Hall College. Just past the gate to this boarding school -- our home for the rest of the trip -- we passed a glorious soccer pitch. We were on it moments after pulling in, playing a freewheeling game of soccer keep-away in the golden light of the early twilight. Much to the delight of your faithful correspondent, Eric invited me and John, the trainer, to join the fun. It took us no more than a half-second to accept the offer and pull on our shorts and sneakers.
Saturday found the team on the practice pitch for an intense two-hour training session, followed by our second outing of the tour to a professional match. We were on hand as Oldham Athletic opened its League One season with a 2-0 victory over Yeovil. The match was played in a smallish, vintage stadium that was all brick and atmosphere.
But all that was just the appetizer; today has been the main course. A primary aim of the trip, as I've mentioned in previous installments of this journal, is to give the Swarthmore students an immersion in English culture. This morning, as the team went out on the field for its second match of the tour, this immersion took place against a rag-tag crew of working-class footballers called Heywood Reform FC. A local joked that "reform" meant they'd been released from jail for the match. The word means something entirely different in this context, but judging from the way the team played, I wondered once or twice if maybe he wasn't kidding.
It was clear to all of us that this would be a new experience when one player nicknamed "Pigsie" lit up a cigarette in uniform before the match, and another displayed considerable paunch while going shirtless for a moment to pull on his uniform top. Unlike the first opponent of the tour, the under-19 team from Yeading, these were men, ranging in age from 18 to 28. Their home, St. James Park or "Jimmy's," was a picturesque pasture-like setting that contrasted with the hosts' gritty style.
You could tell these Heywood guys knew how to play; their problem was their lack of fitness, which doomed them against the well-conditioned Garnet guys. Mike Bonesteel '08 popped in a ball from the front of the goal midway through the first half. Andrew Macurdy '08 and Andrew Terker '06 also scored by halftime, and Swarthmore went into the break ahead 3-nil.
Terker scored again in the second half as Swarthmore closed out a 4-nil win. But the big plot line over the final 45 minutes was the style of play of the frustrated Heywood men, whose tactics and loud cursing would come as a shock to anyone accustomed to Centennial Conference soccer. There were numerous slide tackles and reckless kicks that smashed Swarthmore shins and feet and got the Garnet players grumbling about dirty play. One particularly hot-headed Heywood player taunted, "Go back to America," at one point. He ended up being thrown from the game after a particularly brutal tackle on Jason Horne '08.
Impressively, Swarthmore's players did not retaliate, whine, or back away. Late in the game, the sturdy Horne collided hard with a Heywood player in a contest for the ball. The opponent bounced off as though Jason were a brick wall and ended up lying on the grass, dazed, while Jason continued the play as if nothing had happened.
"We can be extremely proud of the way we handled ourselves today," Eric told his players as they stretched afterwards. "Our composure was outstanding."
Predicting we'd see some of these Heywood guys later in the day at the cricket final and post-match celebration, Eric warned his players not to strut or brag or do anything else to worsen the embarrassment the opponents might be feeling. It turned out he didn't need to worry about Swarthmore students making enemies. Because over the next 10 hours, they did just the opposite.
Eric was right. When we arrived at the cricket championship, we spotted among the spectators a good number of the same faces we'd seen at the soccer ground, including two boys, six-year-old Ethan and his 10-year-old brother, Aaron, who were fast becoming the Swarthmore team's mascots for the day. Their father was the same man who played goal for Heywood in the second half of the recently concluded soccer match. By now, their dad was wearing a "Swarthmore Athletics" T-shirt bestowed by Eric and glad-handing every Swarthmore person in sight.
None of us but Jason and Eric knew anything about the sport we were watching. It didn't take any cricket knowledge, thankfully, to appreciate the lovely setting and the very appealing vibe at the site, the Ashton Cricket Club. (The championship was played on neutral ground, just as we do with the Super Bowl in America.) The closely shorn grass field, circled by a few rows of relaxed spectators, was radiant under the bright blue sky. There was the occasional thwack of the bat and abrupt cheers from the crowd as fielders chased after batted balls and batsmen ran from wicket to wicket.
Our arrival in our matching black shirts did not go unnoticed by the several hundred Manchester-area inhabitants in attendance. We were all approached repeatedly by curious well-wishers, who asked about our tour and college while trying to educate us about cricket. Soon the Swarthmore student-athletes were sitting and laughing with groups of Heywood supporters, including some of the young men they'd battled on the soccer field hours earlier.
Things got merrier and merrier as the match went on at the leisurely pace unique to cricket. During a break at the halfway point, the Swarthmore guys and a bunch of locals, age six to 60-something, played a wonderfully ridiculous soccer game with a threadbare ball in a tiny patch of the cricket field. Soon after the cricket resumed, a pair of streakers bolted onto the field, bringing more rounds of laughter. It didn't take long for Heywood to finish off the match, giving their supporters reason not only to extend the beer consumption, but to quicken the pace. We joined the team supporters in their chants of "HEY-wood, HEY-wood," as local dignitaries presented the cup and recognized the standout players. Thanks to our local connection - more on him in future installments - a handful of stars from the championship team came out to pose with us and the championship cup for a quick picture.
Then we bussed here, to the Heywood Cricket Club, the home of the new Wood Cup champions, for a celebration like few I have seen. The ear-splitting chanting and singing have scarcely ceased over the three hours and are only now starting to dim in their intensity as we get ready to leave. We in the Swarthmore contingent have been shouting "HEY-wood, HEY-wood, HEY-wood" along with our hosts while trying to keep up with their more involved songs and chants. The pro-Heywood enthusiasm of the Swarthmore guys apparently is appreciated by the club members, who several times have responded with, "U-S-A, U-S-A." Brandon Washington '08, a talented dancer, brought down the house a while ago when he took over the floor with a break dance, after which he began teaching his moves to some of the club members. Soon the dance floor was full of championship cricket players, their supporters and friends, and Swarthmore College student-athletes.
The revelers we've been with tonight are as old as their 60s and 70s. On the other end of the age spectrum is Ethan, the six-year-old we first met at the soccer pitch this morning. He's still with us, amazingly, along with his brother and dad, evidently infatuated by the Yanks he's been with all day.
We're a happy lot as we walk down the driveway. Besides having some of the best fun humans could have, we've taken in massive doses of the culture that flows through English football and English cricket. We're giving Ethan and his family a lift back to their home, so they're in our tired line, too, as we make our way to the bus. The tow-headed boy is filthy and so worn out by now that he can barely walk. No worries. Frank Kyei-Manu '06 scoops him up, gently, as a parent would lift his child, and carries him the rest of the way.
|Sunday August 07, 2005 posted by Tom Krattenmaker @ 12:38 PM|
About This Site
In August 2005, the Swarthmore College men's soccer team embarked on England Tour 2005. Their mission: Play matches against English teams, spread good will, take in the sights, attend a professional match or two, learn about English culture, and, well, have fun. Follow their progress at this special web site, written by Tom Krattenmaker, director of news and information, who is traveling with the team.
Men's Soccer Website
Respond to These Posts
England Tour 2005 Itinerary