On the morning of the showdown with the AllStars, Robin felt tired. He had hardly slept for thinking about the game. It was just as well he wasn’t playing, as he had no energy. He took out his football kit sadly. His green Heathside Eagles shirt that he’d worn so proudly. His white skirt and his football socks and the muddy boots that he hadn’t cleaned since the last game.
He took a ball to the back of the house and began to kick it around against the wall. He pretended parts of the wall were areas of the goal, tried to pick a target and hit it. Just him, a ball and a wall. To hell with that stupid game today. His football was his best friend. No horrid girls jeering or roughing him up or telling him he couldn’t play. He was done with womankind. He’d become one of those men who never married and kept cats and pot plants. After ten minutes he lost interest even in his practice – tossing the ball into a corner of the garden he trudged back inside, not interested in anything. His parents couldn’t talk him into coming with them.
“Well we’re going to take an interest in how the Eagles get on, Robin Diamond, even if you won’t,” said Angie despairingly. And they drove off to the game, leaving him slouched in front of a breakfast show feature about woodland birds.
It was an away game, so the AllStars were hosting. Their pitch and buildings were white and gleaming, the turf flat and immaculate with not a weed or divot in sight. For the Eagles, it was like travelling to Wembley. It was much more bitter than that, though, because these facilities could have been theirs.
Cars pulled up in the spacious car park and girls piled out in tracksuits, followed by expectant parents. A crowd of spectators was slowly building up around the pitch, some of them in deckchairs, unpacking orange juice or coffee and checking their cameras.
Maisie prowled around as her players got changed. She didn’t like coming to AllStars Park – the very stones seemed to preen themselves at her expense. Despite the excitement of the day, she was down in the dumps over the unfortunate business with Robin. I won’t be able to look those horrible parents in the eye today, she thought.
Barrow-White’s AllStars were the favourites, as they were every year. They often pretended they didn’t care about the derby, because the Eagles were too beneath them to be worthy rivals. And yet the AllStars were as desperate to beat the Eagles as the Eagles were to beat the AllStars. Maisie knew her girls must be giving their rivals a scare this year, and she had been hoping they would sneak a win. Now it was actually match day, she was more sceptical. Jasmine had shown up but she and Saffie were conspicuously not speaking to each other. With her captain and chief midfielder fighting over a boy, Maisie was worried for the team. It had been a blow to lose Robin so unexpectedly, because the Eagles needed his pace and creativity.
Best not expect too much, she thought. If they showed proper fighting spirit, at least, she’d be very proud.
The girls sat on the benches in the cold, gloomy away changing room and listened pensively as the coach gave instructions about how they should play. Maisie wanted a strong pressing game. Molly would play alongside Saffie as a striking partnership. As a more defensive player, Jasmine would start as a substitute – she protested but the coach’s word was final. The worry, as always, was the prodigious, lethal Heather McIlroy, so Maisie told her defenders to make a point of closing her down.
The team was a bit restless, as if something was in the air. Something was in the air. It was the derby.
“And Saffie? Jasmine? Stop acting like it’s a kindergarten. You’re team-mates. You have to talk to each other.”
“Yes coach,” said the two girls.
Maisie stared at them all. “I’m not quite sure what’s got into you lot today, sitting so quiet. This is the AllScum we’re playing. Show me some spirit, for goodness’ sake!”
“I’ll talk to them Maisie,” said Saffie, directing her towards the door, “and stir them up. You go chat to the ref or something.”
Maisie was glad her captain was taking some initiative. She walked down the tunnel and onto the pitch. The sun was shining and the crowd was lively. A few pockets of supporters were already chanting in expectation. Maisie took a seat and tried to unscrew her Thermos. For some reason the lid was very tight. She got a good grip and started to wrestle with it. The managers’ benches were only yards apart. Lucretia Barrow-White was sitting on hers with her arms folded, muttering to an assistant.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” boomed the megaphone, “the Plumborne AllStars!”
Maisie wished her team had a nice speaker system like that.
Out came the AllStars in their red and white jerseys and red shorts, to the cheers of their supporters. According to the club, the red stood for footballing passion, the white stripe stood for ‘a little piece of heaven’. Typical pretentious AllStars. Probably Barrow-White’s idea.
“And their opponents today, the Heathside Eagles!”
More cheers and boos.
What was this?
A gasp went up from the crowd: a mixture of laughter and horror. The Heathside Eagles girls, running bravely onto the pitch in their green shirts, were wearing skirts!
“What on earth?” blurted Barrow-White, leaping to her feet.
GIRLS WEARING SKIRTS. The crowd couldn’t believe their eyes.
“That is well humiliating,” snickered someone behind Maisie’s left ear.
“What sissies,” scoffed one of the opposing players. “What total, utter sissies.”
“Is that my daughter?” bleated a concerned parent. “Wait – that’s my daughter!”
“Comical, bloody comical,” said an elderly spectator, shaking her head. “Is this what our game has come to? Girls were real girls in my day. None of this trans-gendering bloody diversity nonsense!”
“It’s the liberals, isn’t it,” agreed her friend.
While everyone gawped and snorted, Maisie was rushing up in agitation. “What the heck are you doing? Don’t you understand this isn’t regulation kit? You can get disqualified for this!”
“We don’t care, coach,” replied Saffie as the players clustered around. “This is a protest. We had a good hard talk and we decided that if Robbie isn’t in the team we’d rather not play at all. He’s one of us now and if he doesn’t play, we don’t play.”
The Eagles murmured agreement.
“Please don’t be angry, coach,” said Macka. “We knew you’d stop us if we told.”
Maisie scratched her head and laughed. “Well, of all the rebellious, pigheaded girls… Don’t worry, I’m not angry. In fact, I’ve never been so proud of you. But you look ridiculous, I have to say.”
“Don’t rub it in, boss,” groaned Jasmine. “This is the most humiliating day of my life.”
The bemused referee and officials were approaching Maisie now. “I am looking forward to your explanation for this, Ms Fudge,” said the referee.
Maisie explained that she’d known nothing about it, and that the girls were protesting the expulsion of Robin from their team. The referee nodded, allowed herself a smile despite herself, and made it clear that they could not possibly play football dressed like boys. “It’s simply against the rules, girls, I’m sorry. Now go and get changed – you’ve made your point, and we’ve all had a good laugh, but –”
“I’m sorry, ref,” said Saffie. “But we’re not taking these skirts off until Robbie’s allowed to play today.”
“No Robbie, no shorts,” said Megan.
“Where is Robbie anyway?” demanded Saffie, standing on tiptoe as she searched the crowd. “I can’t believe he didn’t turn up to watch.”
“Let me be quite clear,” said the referee, looking very serious. “If you don’t go and put proper kit on, you will be disqualified from this game and the three points will go to the AllStars. Do you understand?”
By now there was a throng of parents and relatives and spectators and Association staffers and other people all milling about and craning to hear what on earth was going on.
“Molly! Molly!” shouted Molly’s mum, pushing through the crowd. “Take that stupid skirt off and stop making a fool of yourself.”
“Not till Robbie’s allowed back,” said Molly firmly.
“Rob-bie! Rob-bie! Rob-bie!” chanted the Eagles, while everyone swarmed around them in confusion.
“This is holding up the match,” frowned the referee. “Ms Fudge, I need some sort of answer.”
Ten minutes later Angie Diamond was racing home in her car to fetch Robin.
“It was Swifty who gave me the idea,” said Saffie. “Apparently someone teased her mum about her daughter wearing skirts. As if having a boy on your team would mean that, but I mean, whatever. We got in touch with Robbie’s mates and they sorted us out these Games skirts.” She turned to the stands and pointed at Sean, Gavin and Tyrone hopping excitedly in the front row.
“I’m amazed you talked the team into it, Saff,” Maisie said. “How on earth did you convince twelve girls to put on boys’ skirts? And wear them in public?”
“None of us wanted to do it, coach. We felt like total sissies putting them on.”
“Complete bloody idiots!” said Jasmine. “And in front of the AllScum as well.”
“It was TOTALLY embarrassing,” Saffie went on, “but we thought it was a brilliant way to make a protest.”
“Well, it certainly did the trick,” said Maisie, who couldn’t stop smiling. Greatly impressed by their daughters’ commitment to their team-mate, the parents had agreed after a frenzied discussion that they couldn’t let their daughters concede the last match of the season, and that Robin could come back to play, just this once. One more day of football for the poor lad couldn’t do much harm.
When Robin climbed out of the car and ran up to the pitch the Eagles cheered and rushed to welcome him. He was as astonished as everyone else to see these tough, loud-mouthed girls, whom he had come to know so well, wearing skirts. As Saffie put her arms around him and kissed him, tears came flooding into his eyes. He had never dreamed that girls would take him so seriously. Now he was going to play after all – in the derby! He couldn’t believe it.
“That’s enough soppiness,” blared Maisie. “You’ll all start crying next and then you really will look like a bunch of sissy boys! Run along, Robin, and get your kit on. Make sure you wear a skirt, mind,” she joked. “And as for you girls, go and put your bloody shorts on and stop making such clowns of yourselves.”
With a clacking of studs, the girls ran off in relief to change, and before long the full Eagles team was taking position on the pitch, properly attired, and the game could start at last. The AllStars won the toss.
“OK, Saffron,” said Heather McIlroy, squaring up, the sun dazzling on her short, golden hair. “Ready to get put in your place... AGAIN? It’s getting boring, beating you all the time.”
Robin thought, I’ll beat you, Heather McIlroy. You and your beautiful skin and downy limbs and shimmering green eyes. You may be a girl. You may be the superior sex. But I can still beat you. Today, I can be better. His limbs were trembling with nervousness and excitement. It was strange to be back at the AllStars’ stadium. That first visit with his mum, trying to get onto their team, felt like years ago.
The referee blew her whistle. The game was on.
Heathside took control early, and Robin soon got his chance to take on the AllStar centre backs. He controlled the ball, looked carefully at what the two girls were doing. Then he mischievously knocked the ball between the legs of the nearest girl and ran round her – it would be a contest of pace! Robin blazed down the right-hand of their penalty box. The AllStar goal-keeper was at her near post, crouching down, screaming at her defenders. He only had a half-second. He curled the ball towards the opposite end of the goal. The goalie leaped up, couldn’t make contact… it was a goal! Robin laughed in joy. A goal after just five minutes!
The Eagles were ecstatic. The look on Heather McIlroy’s face was a picture.
“Keep them going in, cutie,” said Saffie as they prepared to kick off again.
A second goal didn’t come so easily. If there had been complacency among the AllStars about a boy footballer, he’d knocked it out of them fast. Their back line closed him down, tackled hard. And maybe it was awe at the occasion, but the Eagles started to get sloppy. Grace and Megan kept losing the ball in the midfield, and Aaliyah, Faizah, Macka and Swifty were at full stretch to stop the quick, silky Heather McIlroy. Eventually the pressure was too much and the AllStar striker, in acres of space, blasted an easy equaliser past Silver.
“That was cheap,” groaned Saffie. “Come on, guys, concentrate. You can’t give them chances like that.”
Five minutes from time, Robin found himself slipping through the AllStars with space opening up in front. He felt like he was flying, like Isla McKenzie making that famous solo run against Italy…
“Pass! Pass!” Saffie was shouting. She was in a good position in front of their goal. A carefully picked cross would give her a chance of a header. But Robin’s run had dazzled his judgement. He swung his foot out to take the shot himself, only for his foot to fly right over the ball. It was a howler – the spectators burst into sarcastic cheers. But the goalie had dived to trap the shot that hadn’t come. Now she was on the floor, trying to scramble back to her feet. Megan came running up and all she had to do was thwack the ball past her. So she did. It was 2-1!
The other Eagles ran over, and gave Robin much more attention than Megan: slapping his back, ruffling his carefully-pigtailed hair, and kissing him on the cheeks. Each of them got some kind of feel of their male team-mate.
“Look at them all groping,” scowled an AllStars midfielder. “It’s like an orgy.”
“Disgusting,” said her fellow. “Bet he lets them touch his prick in the changing rooms.”
“Yeah, they’re in there rubbing him off.”
Both girls looked on, perhaps a little envious and not wanting to admit it.
At half-time, a very agitated Maisie urged them over for a group talk. “We’re ahead and as it stands, we’ll get the three points. But you can’t sit back. They have a stronger midfield and you’ll get over-run. You’ve got to get another goal and kill the game. Grace, you’re off. I’m sending Jasmine on to help hold the line.”
“We’re going to kill those AllFarts,” said Saffie, rallying her troops. “Aren’t we girls?”
“We’re gonna kill ‘em!” screamed Jasmine at the top of her lungs, and everyone laughed.
In the second half, though, the Eagles were nervous again. They weren’t used to being in a winning position against the AllStars and, despite Maisie’s instructions, couldn’t help falling back a little, instinctively wanting to defend their lead. They knew that pushing forward would leave them open to a counter-attack, something Heather excelled at. Encouraged, the AllStars put them under siege. Saffie and Robin urged the Eagles to press more, with little effect – the weight of history was throwing the team off its game. And in the opposite way, it worked upon the AllStars too, their confidence returning as they looked to assert their usual superiority. Heather McIlroy was blinding, making dangerous runs that tore up the defenders. Time and again, Robin found himself playing deep to help the back line contain her. Nonetheless, the blonde striker was too good, and before the Eagles quite knew what was happening, she scored with a wicked volley and it was 2-2.
“YES!” yelled Barrow-White.
“Oh, no,” Maisie groaned beside her.
A draw was good enough for the AllStars – it was close this year, but one point would be enough to finish above the Eagles yet again. Intelligently, they changed their play and began to ‘park the bus’: sitting deep and defending their point with all their players behind the ball. Even Heather fell back, and she started targeting Robin. The Eagles worked hard but couldn’t break through, and the game got more and more physical and bad-tempered. Jasmine pushed, shouldered and tripped her opponents in midfield and was punished with a yellow card. Robin felt despair start to crush his spirits as time ticked away. He knew he must keep running, keep thinking.
Heather kept niggling at him, tackling, pushing, harrying with soft little fouls. Robin got so annoyed that eventually he pushed her back, with one hand against her breast. To his surprise and dismay, Heather threw her hands to her face and crumpled up on the turf. “Punch, ref!” she yelled.
“She’s l-l-lying,” he stammered as the referee ran up, reaching into her back pocket. No – not a red. Surely his game couldn’t be over because of a dirty trick like that?
The AllStars ganged up around him, snarling at him: “Cheating bitch!” A lot of AllStars supporters were shouting abuse too though they must have seen what really happened.
It was a yellow card for Robin. The AllStars were outraged and pursued the ref demanding a red.
“I only saw a push,” explained the ref. “Could only see the back of McIlroy’s head. Can’t give more than a yellow.”
Heather McIlroy lay for quite a long time in mock agony on the turf, time-wasting. Robin realised she was hoping that a cumulative series of accusations would force the referee to send him off. He must be really careful. Think, Robin! What did her behaviour tell him? The AllStars were cheating because they were scared they couldn’t contain him. The knowledge filled him with energy. Girls scared of a boy!
He kept running, gulping air. Going by the fancy stadium clock there were only four minutes to go. The Eagles were panicking a little, hoofing it up the pitch instead of picking out passes. Their shape had fallen apart and they were just scrambling around. The AllStars would take possession, pass the ball neatly back and forth, waste time. Finally he collected a pass from Megan and made a run down the right wing. The AllStar left back closed him down and he could hear Heather running behind him to crowd him out. Robin dummied and nipped into the penalty box. The two AllStars closed in ruthlessly – the midfielder’s tackle missed but Heather was coming in too fast as Robin made a desperate sliding kick for the ball. The boy and girl came together and the blonde beauty’s foot drove straight into Robin’s balls. CRR-RRUNCH.
“OOO-OOOHHH!” shrieked Robin in agony, rolling about on the ground.
“Robin!” cried Mum from the sidelines.
Maisie was shouting for a red. The Eagles launched themselves towards Heather in a fury. “How dare you touch our Robbie!” yelled Saffie.
Without hesitation, the referee whipped out a red card. “Dangerous play,” she said. “Penalty!”
Heather was amazed. “You must be joking! I didn’t mean to do it! I can’t help it if he’s got goolies!”
“A boy shouldn’t even be on the pitch, ref,” yelled Barrow-White angrily from the touchline, but the referee ignored her.
Maisie puffed onto the pitch to check on Robin. “You poor lad. Do you want to come off?”
Robin was curled up in distress, clutching his balls. Heather had destroyed him. “For a minute,” he gasped. The AllStars jeered nastily as he struggled to his feet, supported by Maisie, eyes blinded with tears of pain. The irony was, he was sure Heather hadn’t bashed his balls on purpose! She knew physical contact was too risky in the penalty area.
“Come on, who’s taking it?” the referee demanded.
Saffie scooped up the ball and looked at Robin. The whole team stared at him, waiting. It was his penalty.
Maisie looked dubious. “Really? Are you up to it?”
He nodded. With difficulty, his body weak with the ache of his testicles, he limped towards the penalty spot.
“Your goolies may have rescued this match for us,” Suki whispered. “If you’d been a girl, you’d probably just have got up and carried on.”
Robin realised she had a point. But it was a painful way to win matches.
“Fat chance, sissy,” said Heather McIlroy, shoving past him as she left the pitch. “You haven’t got the ovaries to take a penalty.”
The ovaries: the source of oestrogen, and thus the metaphorical source of bravery. He tried to keep his cool and put the ball on the spot, his heart thudding, his balls burning. Everyone was staring at him, including his Mum and Dad, and he tugged at his skirt. His knees trembled a little but he must concentrate. This penalty could win the match and he wished everything didn’t depend on him, it made him angry. Why couldn’t Saffie take the penalty? It was so difficult when his poor balls hurt so badly. Oh goodness, they hurt so bad.
OK, OK, don’t be a crybaby, remember? Should he aim for the corner? Keep it high, Maisie always said. He glanced at the goalkeeper. She had a strange look on her face. She was thinking, girls are better. Girls are superior. No way a mere boy can beat me.
The ref raised her whistle to her mouth. Here goes. He took a couple of steps heading leftwards, then booted the ball rightwards with his left foot. The AllStars goalie went the wrong way. It was 3-2 to the Eagles!
His team-mates went WILD. Robin heard the acclaim from the spectators, including his mother shouting happily, only for it to be blotted out by the thump of bodies as ten girls piled on top of him.
“Guess we had two more balls in play than the AllStars did,” laughed Suki.
“Have some sensitivity, Sukes,” said Saffie, and pushed bodies away to win her sweetheart some room.
“Coach,” Robin groaned, holding his balls. “I need to come off. My boyhood hurts. I can hardly walk.”
“That’s OK, lad, I’ll substitute Lorna. Get on the bench.”
Robin waved to his delighted parents as he retreated to the bench. Lorna leaped onto the pitch and began racing around like an Olympic sprinter. But shortly afterwards the whistle blew. The Eagles had won.
The Eagles and their supporters broke into song:
We are the Super Eagles girls!
We are the Super Eagles girls!
We are the Norford girls
And Norford is ours!
Saffie put her hand on Jasmine’s shoulder: “You played well, today, mate.”
“Yeah, we kicked arse, we didn’t we?” The two girls grinned at each other.
The AllStars looked sick. Not only had they been beaten by the Eagles, they’d conceded two goals to a boy. Oh, the shame! Avoiding the furious scowls of Barrow-White, they skulked off to change and reassess their lives.
Meanwhile the Eagles stayed on the pitch to run a lap of honour, taunting the opposing fans. The girls couldn’t quite believe they’d finally broken their AllStars hoodoo. There was laughter and hugging, players and parents wandering around with happy smiles. Robin had to struggle not to be picked up and tossed into the air, afraid his short skirt would fly up. Every girl in the team must have kissed him three times, and Saffie twice as many again.
These ruffians hadn’t made it easy for him at first, but now he was proud to be one of them; finally he felt he belonged.
“Well done, Robin, you were brilliant!” gushed his happy parents.
“It goes to show,” Mum beamed, “that even when you face a superior opponent, you can beat them on your day.”
Yet even as he celebrated, Robin was worried this was his last game. He had won the battle, but probably lost the war. Surely his on-pitch heroics could not stop the remorseless Barrow-White and her reactionary cronies?
Maisie had never felt like this at the AllStars stadium, that shiny what-might-have-been that had tormented her for ten years. As everyone gradually dispersed she stepped out onto the hated pitch, trying to keep a tear from her eye. She had retrieved the ball at the end of the game and gripped it under her arm, determined to save it for a shelf in the clubhouse. If she and the team had proved anything today, it was that you could win even without the money, if you kept your integrity and your spirit.
“This changes nothing, Fudge,” said Barrow-White, creeping up alongside her. “I’m going to get that rule change, it’s a done deal.”
“I don’t doubt it, Lucretia,” said Maisie coldly. “Well done for spoiling a kid’s happiness. Must make you feel proud.” She turned and looked the AllStars coach straight in the eye. “But you know what? For all your fancy stadium and your skulduggery, we’re still better than you. And that must hurt, you mean-spirited bastard!”