Where have all the six-a-side players gone?

We go again. One more campaign in the Monday six-a-side league.

Fergie wouldn’t have stood for what the Astro.ie fixture computer has thrown at us.

The champions, the crack Croatian outfit with the elusive 19-year-old, up first. So there’s a gallant rearguard action for seven or eight minutes to look forward to, a masterclass in sitting in and keeping your shape, before the floodgates open into a 13-3 defeat.

Where have all the six-a-side players gone?

Then the team we have some historic needle with, so historic it probably predates 90% of the lads playing. So that’s an unnecessarily shouty 8-4 loss and one controversial sin-binning after someone gets pushed into the fence.

But there are a couple of other familiar sides in there. Lads we’ve desecrated these pitches with before. Lost 7-6 to or beaten 4-3 in a backs- against-the-wall job.

So there is the promise of another of those glory nights, where everything clicks for 10 minutes. A couple of one-twos come off. Maybe a tidy finish that you’ll be able to visualise until Wednesday.

And that is likely to be enough to forget all the grief and pain and indignity and bring us back for one more campaign.

It probably works much the same for childbirth.

Alas, it’s harder than ever to put together a squad.

One lad just had his first child and remains deep in negotiations. Another is traveling with work, another caught coaching kids. And in a bitter transfer blow, Barcelona has swooped for our tricky Spaniard, or at least a job back in Barcelona.

In a magnificent piece of last-minute business, we have at least recaptured our former county man. Good hurlers have an effortless way of knocking people over as though it’s the most natural thing in the world.

So that’s something for the Croatian youngster to look forward to. Hopefully it won’t put him off the game altogether, because this is a scene that can’t afford to lose much more young blood.

Astro is increasingly a country for old men.

There’s maybe 20 teams in this league now, across the various nights, from 80-plus in its heyday. The same old faces back for one more go. Same story in the seven-a-side option with footy.ie, also restarting this week. Maybe 30 teams compared to 60 or 70 at its peak.

Factor in that the Nite Owls League is long gone, the 11-a-side stage where so many astro legends were made, and you’re already counting missing Cork footballers in the thousands.

There is no women’s league left either. And it’s not just the semi-competitive arena; anecdotes pile up from the casual games. Just can’t get numbers. Empty pitches everywhere.

When’s the last time that annoying crowd due on after you piled in a minute early? Chances are you play on ‘til it’s lock-up time.

Is there simply too much astroturf around? Or just not enough players?

There’s a similar lament from the gaffers putting out Sunday league teams. Cannot get guys to commit. Young lads won’t let football interfere with their lives any more. Maybe young lads never did, but you could still drag them out of bed before 10.45 on a Sunday morning.

The knock-on effects are becoming obvious too.

What kind of society is it when you can go into three ‘sports’ shops, covering the acreage of a couple of football pitches, and fail to encounter one pair of astro runners in a size 12?

Thrust into the online arms of Mike Ashley. I’ve given up altogether on size 13s.

Newcastle United owner and chief executive of Sports Direct Mike Ashley
Newcastle United owner and chief executive of Sports Direct Mike Ashley

‘The League of Ireland lads always wear them a half size too small,’ Pat Chaney of The Soccer Shop on Dublin’s Georges Street would always tell you, when he was giving it the big sell. I’ll put the black toenail in the post to Pat, when it eventually falls off.

Of course The Soccer Shop is long gone too, just like Football Crazy, its counterpart in Cork. More fallen symbols of football’s decline as a way of life.

I suppose everything in life peaked around 2004, creating an existential vacuum into which rugby crept, becoming the national game that nobody plays.

But we can hardly pin all this on rugby. Around the world, studies put all team sport in decline.

What is it we have lost? Is it time? Has the digital world drained away our most precious resource? And has virtual friendship replaced workplace camaraderie?

Was it the recession and the imposition of austerity? Nothing grew back quite as strong.

Is it gym culture? Is it easier to look the part hoisting barbells in front of a mirror than pulling rubber pellets out of your jocks after scuffing a sitter wide?

Or could it be something as well-meaning as ‘the pathway’?

From the age of five, football has become about academies and models and development. About building a funnel that spits the most talented into the football industry.

So when a pathway reaches a dead end, little wonder so many wander off and never come back.

If kids can’t just play any more, what hope for their dads and mams?

There is no pathway leading to where we’ll be on Monday night.

But there’s a purity about it, at a certain age. When you know you’re not going to get any better, and can scarcely get much worse, it’s just about the next hour.

The mindfulness gurus would probably prescribe it. And there’s generally some small joy and fun to be found, even in the indignity of a 13-3 defeat.

Maybe it’ll have to be prescribed. That’s sort of what the Jumpers 4 Goalposts movement is doing. A simple idea by mental health activist Keith Kelly, which puts on casual park games, jumpers thrown down, just to gather people together.

Organised disorganised football. That’s where we’re at now.

Hopefully, for many, a first step on a pathway back to the game.

How to be a card-carrying GAA pundit

Having studied the videos and pored over the rulebook all week, reckon I’m now in a position to eradicate any lingering confusion around Gaelic football.

A tug is a tick, but a pull is a card.

Your overall allowance is two tugs, one pull, and maybe a free dunt.

Former Dublin footballer and Sunday Game pundit Ciaran Whelan
Former Dublin footballer and Sunday Game pundit Ciaran Whelan

For better value, you can trade in the pull for a punch in the stomach.

With that information to hand, now you too are ready to go on television and swear blind your countyman has been grievously wronged.

We are a long way from getting answers

We are still puzzling out these chronic addictions to banter. And to ‘controvassy’. And we are a long way from answers.

What compelled Michael Owen and Alan Shearer to wage a Twitter war of words for our entertainment this week, for instance?

At least Owen has a book to sell, as his excuse.

What is Roy Keane’s excuse? What gives him the urge to say terrible things, when a microphone presents itself?

Where have all the six-a-side players gone?

Could it simply be an ambition to be asked back again some day, to say more terrible things?

Could it be related to the ambition that saw Jon Walters strip to branded bookies underpants this week and sport a pig’s head mask?

We can never underestimate the addiction to cash.

Heroes & Villains

STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN

Phil Neville: Ricky Gervais’ best ever creation provided the perfect tee-up to the England women’s 2-1 loss in Norway: “I have a vision that nobody else has. I’ve got bravery that no other coach has probably ever had. Thank your lucky stars. I’m here. I’m here to stay.”

HELL IN A HANDCART

George Hamilton: “Switzerland, for all their possession, haven’t been creating chances either...” Twenty-nine seconds later, George didn’t even have time to get out a ‘danger here’.

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