When Robin told his boy friends at school about his success with the Eagles, they giggled and were amazed, and immediately began teasing him about which of the girls he fancied. He swore them to secrecy because he didn’t want everyone teasing him, but he wasn’t too hopeful – boys were such gossips.
He couldn’t wait until his first training session on Saturday afternoon. He was even told off by teachers a couple of times for daydreaming. He was chastened, but like most boys he was academically poor at the best of times, and how could he focus on boring English or Home Economics when he could fantasise about blasting a winning goal? It was infuriating to have to sit in class, next to some dozy boy scribbling hearts or ponies on his notebook, when all he wanted was to get outside with a ball and practice.
Finally the weekend arrived. Mum was constantly working, and Dad couldn’t drive. However, the Diamonds lived so close to Heathside that Robin could walk to the ground. It gave him a thrill to turn off the pavement up to the clubhouse, shabby though it was, knowing this was his team and he had every right to walk in. The clubhouse was where the offices and changing rooms were, and there was a passage linking the changing rooms to the pitch behind. He wandered through slowly, devouring the player photos and certificates on the walls, until he bumped into the coach and was ushered out to join the girls.
Maisie Fudge was a wise grey-eyed woman, never seen without her Thermos flask of coffee – laced with whisky, the girls joked – who got the best out of her players through sensitive people management. She was in her late fifties, and in her own opinion was just hitting her peak as a trainer.
There were twelve girls in the day’s session, one short of the full squad. They didn’t look too pleased to see Robin back again and he added himself gingerly to the edge of the group. Only Saffron offered him a proper greeting. But she was important. She was the skipper, and her confident demeanour implied someone respected by the group.
“OK, gather round, girls,” barked the coach.
“And guy,” chirped Molly, a gawky, mouse-blond winger.
“Yes, uh, gather round, guys. We play Taverham Tigers tomorrow so we need a good, focused session. Robin, if you perform well in training I’ll consider putting you in the team.”
“Wait a minute,” scowled Jasmine. “If he plays, it means one of us doesn’t. I don’t see why a girl should make way for a stupid boy.”
There was a murmur of opinions.
“The team comes before your prejudices, young lady,” frowned Maisie. “Now to kick off, let’s divide into two teams of six. Let’s have Saffie, Molly, Grace, Lorna, Robin and Aaliyah as the Oranges. Allie, I want to try you in goal, OK? So that leaves Jasmine, Suki, Faizah, Swifty, Silver and Megan as Whites. Silver, you’re in goal as usual. Hop to it, girls – uh… guys! And remember to hate the AllStars.”
With a shout of “Hate the AllStars!” the girls clopped out in their boots.
Robin paused to ask Maisie: “Why do you say ‘hate the AllStars’, boss?”
“The AllStars are our rivals, Robin. They’re based in Plumborne and they’re our nearest neighbours.” Robin nodded – he remembered being rejected by them the week before. Plumborne was an affluent area, right next to Heathside to the south but socio-economically a world apart. “The derby’s our biggest game of the season. We hate them and they hate us.”
“That’s a side of football I never quite get,” sighed Robin. “Teams hating each other.”
“Well, you’re a boy, you’re gentle souls. Whereas girls are perfectly happy to kill each other! Now get out on the pitch. You’ll be playing against Jasmine again today and I’ve done that on purpose. If you can’t handle aggressive girls like her there’s no future for you here, lad.”
The girls had already started. Robin jogged towards them, pulling on his bib, and noticed the rolling of eyes among his fellow Oranges. He hadn’t yet won these girls over.
“Get on the right wing,” said Saffron. He obeyed, surveying the opposition. Jasmine caught his eye, and glared daggers.
It was a competitive, fast-paced session. The Eagles girls were practicing quick, one-touch passes, though mostly not very well. They crashed tackles into each other, yelled instructions, exchanged insults. Saffie was great on the ball. She was good at turning and shrugging people off, keeping possession. She played as a striker but she was an all-rounder, a natural. And she wasn’t selfish or hostile. She passed to Robin, letting him get into the game. From the start, Robin had to get up to the girls’ pace, and he had to be at his best. He won several tackles in the first ten minutes, breaking up the Whites’ penetration of his team’s half. The Whites’ attack came through Suki, who proved strong and impetuous on their left wing. Maisie kept shouting instructions to all the players, except him – she was still sizing him up.
Suddenly there was a jolt and he was sprawling on his side.
“Oi, sissy, get off the floor.” It was Jasmine, jogging past with a wicked smile.
He tugged his skirt down – it was awkward having to play football in a short skirt, as he was anxious about flashing his knickers every time he went over, but there was nothing to be done about it. “I wish you’d leave me alone,” he complained. To show some spirit, he added, with trepidation: “You fatty!”
Jasmine was big and strong, not fat. He was taking a risk by cheeking her, but she just laughed. “Aww, are we too rough for ickle Robbikins? It’s not so easy playing real footballers, is it,” she taunted, “instead of your sissy boyfriends.” She raced back to her position.
“Lay off, Jaz,” said Saffie. “He’s only a boy.”
Saffie meant well, but “only a boy”? Yeah, he’d heard it all before. He would show them. Every time he beat a player, Jasmine and Suki wolf-whistled sarcastically. Then a long ball from Aaliyah flew over the heads of the midfield and he darted in to collect, easily sidestepping Swifty, leaving no one between him and Silver the goalie. Let it fly, lad, let it fly! As he drew his foot back there was a wopping challenge from behind. Jasmine had come charging back and collided with him so heavily that for a moment he couldn’t even breathe.
“Fucking dive!” yelled Jasmine. She was right on top of him, scrambling to untangle herself. Robin’s hands leapt to his groin in case she went for his balls.
“Get off,” he gasped, trying to twist onto his side.
Jasmine got to her feet, shaking him around by his orange bib in the process. He felt her strength, and was afraid. Well, he couldn’t match her physically, but he could win the ball off her. He raced after her, catching up as she peered to judge a cross, and his foot swept the ball away from her feet.
“Dirty bitch,” she raged as the two of them tumbled to the ground.
“I was going for the ball,” said Robin.
“I’ll be going for the ball in a minute,” she stormed, shoving him away, “and I don’t mean no football. I’ll crush your goolies again, you weakling.”
The hostility was exhausting. Boys were meant to be sweet and submissive, and they certainly weren’t used to trying to compete with the dominant sex. Robin was a janegirl, but, it seemed, not janegirl enough! As soon as Maisie signalled a break, he stalked off the pitch, glowering at the coach as he went past.
“I’m packing it in,” he sulked.
“Hey, hey,” said the coach, following him into the clubhouse. She grabbed his shoulder to stop him and demanded an explanation.
“It’s so rough,” he whined. “Everyone’s so aggressive and they don’t let me play. No one wants me here.” He suddenly felt tears welling up in his eyes.
“Come on, Robin,” growled Maisie. “I tested you opposite Jasmine and you haven’t done too well so far, have you? You come here to play football, and the first thing you do is act like a typical boy: a precious little crybaby, stamping your foot as soon as the girls get their claws into you. I know you love football, lad, but the problem with football is that you can’t play it by yourself. You have to play it with fit, rough girls who will eat you for breakfast if you let them. If you can’t toughen up, then fine, walk out, but take it from someone who knows: if you do, you’ll never make it as a footballer.”
Robin flinched. He had expected comfort and a consoling hug, not a telling-off. But he knew she was right. Most of the girls wanted him to walk out. Then they could laugh with each other about what sissies boys were, and how they couldn’t play football.
“Boys aren’t meant to be tough, Ms Fudge.”
“Bah. Get back on the damn pitch and get stuck in! Show you’ve got some boobs. Push the lasses around a bit. Do you want to play football or don’t you?”
Yes, he did. If he couldn’t cope at the Eagles he’d only face the same problem at the next club, if he could even find one. The alternative was to retreat back into normal boyhood: watching the girls play in the park, toying demurely with his skirts and petticoats and giggling in admiration from the park bench. He was damned if he played, damned if he didn’t. He sighed. “Yes, coach. Fine, coach.”
Once again, Saffie included him in the game. Other girls did too. They didn’t all hate him. So he kept at it. He was painfully aware of the testicles jogging about in his knickers, an easy target for any overweaning female, so he kept away from Jasmine and Suki. To show the Eagles how good he really was, he sprinted for every loose ball, fought to win back possession whenever he lost it, and threw in some tricks wherever he could to show off. He surprised himself. The catcalls gradually died down and by the time Maisie blew her whistle the girls were impressed. He’d proved for a second time how good he was.
“You’re pretty nippy,” Megan conceded. “For a boy.”
“Great ball control,” said Grace. Someone commented under her breath, and there were sniggers.
“You played well Robin,” said Maisie. “And you’ve shown a lot of bottle. I’m going to pick you for the team tomorrow.”
Robin was delighted that his tenacity had paid off. Next day was Sunday. And Sunday was match day.
The girls enjoyed their football but they had played a lot of games. This was Robin’s first match as a Heathside Eagle, making it a very special occasion for him. His Mum and Dad were both going to be there to cheer him on and he was buzzing when he arrived for the game.
“Nice and reliable, aren’t you lad?” said Maisie. “That’s good. Look, if you do well today, I’ll probably give you a permanent place on the team. You’re doing champion.”
“Wow, thanks, coach!”
“Yeah, well, the Tigers’ll probably beat us today, on past experience! But don’t let that stop you giving everything you’ve got. Whoever wins gets three points in the youth league… and of course a lot of games are scouted by Norford City’s academy. But never mind that, let’s dig out an Eagles kit for you. Hoi, Swifty! Find some kit for Robin would you?”
Swifty was a small centre back who always seemed to be smirking at some private joke (she earned her nickname for being slow, in more than one sense). “We ain’t got any in pink,” she said, with deadpan humour, as she brought a bundle of kit from the storecupboard. “Shorts, too?” She held up a pair of white shorts, querulously. “It’s the club strip, after all.”
“No,” said Robin. “I’m a boy, so I’ll wear a skirt. My school Games skirt is white. If that’s OK, coach?”
Relieved to have overcome the problem, Maisie patted his shoulder and started to walk off.
“Er, coach,” said Robin. “Where should I change?”
“Oh, heck! We can’t have you in there with thirteen half-naked girls. You’d best change in my office.”
Maisie’s office had started life as a storeroom. There was a chair in one corner and a filing cabinet full of Eagles binders behind a desk heaped with chaotic paperwork. A whiteboard on the wall was scrawled messily with details of upcoming fixtures, player selections and other notes, legible only to Maisie herself.
Robin pulled on the dark green jersey and laced up his football boots. They were girls’ boots of course, which meant they were proper ones – not pink!
As he got changed, Robin peeked through the grimy, paint-smeared window at the Taverham Tigers as they arrived one by one, mostly in their parents’ cars. He thought he recognised a middle-aged woman standing about in front of the clubhouse. Yes, it was Barrow-White, the Plumborne AllStars coach, who’d refused to let him onto her team. He hoped he would show her today that boys could play football as well as girls could, and that he deserved the chance Maisie had given him.
Maisie gathered her troops for a team talk before they went onto the pitch. “Right chaps, the team is Saffie as striker, Molly and Robin on wings. Grace, Megan, Jasmine, you’re the midfield. Aaliyah, Faizah, Macka, Swifty, you’re our back four. Sorry, Lorna, but you looked lethargic yesterday, you’re on the bench with Becks. Silver in goal. I want to see Robin on the wing, so Suki, you’re on the bench too.”
“Aww, coach!” shrieked Suki. Replaced by a boy! It was an outrageous blow to her pride. “You are having a laugh.”
“A good player takes one for the team sometimes,” said Maisie. “You’ll get your turn. Now get out there, you lot, and remember, you’re the Super Eagles!”
“Aren’t Nigeria the ‘Super Eagles’?” asked Robin.
“Their lawyers ain’t chasing their copyright just yet, you numpty.”
“Yeah, you numpty,” snapped Suki.
The Eagles squad filed outside, lively with the buzz of a match day. A small crowd of parents gathered along the edge of the tatty pitch. There were a few girls from the club’s other age groups among the spectators too, leading the chanting:
We’re the Eagles, Super Eagles,
We’re the Eagles, Super Eagles.
The Tigers, wearing black and yellow stripes and black shorts, were limbering up. The referee pipped her whistle to get everyone in their starting positions. There was a lot of pointing when the spectators noticed Robin in the Eagles team and murmured to one another, non-plussed. He noticed his parents in the crowd and heard them chanting his name, but avoided looking over. The Tigers looked him up and down, offended or laughing depending on their disposition. Their captain, a tall black girl with a shaved head, sneered in Saffie’s face.
“Playing a boy on your team? I always said the Eagles were sissies,” she mocked. “Are you all wearing pretty knickers today, sweeties?” she taunted the team. “Having a pretty tea party afterwards in your pretty dresses?”
“Shut your fucking mouth,” stormed Jasmine. “Before I shut it for you!”
The referee called Maisie over.
“Is that a boy on your team, Ms Fudge?”
“I think the skirt gives it away, ref! No rules against playing a boy.”
“No, er, I suppose not. The issue must never have arisen before.” The ref looked over at Robin unhappily. “It’s a bit, um –”
“Unusual, yes, I know,” said Maisie impatiently. “But perfectly legit. Let’s get started, please!”
Saffron shook hands with the Tigers captain, and they tossed the coin.
Robin was playing Suki’s usual position on the left wing. Soon after kick-off he realised the Tigers were targeting him. They were assuming that as a boy he’d be a bit useless and an easy touch. Time and again their fast, physical winger came blazing down the side straight at him, daring him to take her on. He decided to respond with long crosses across the pitch to ease the pressure on his side, and when he must take the winger on, he kept pace with her and forced her off her game. But he didn’t let this battle take his mind off the wider match, and about fifteen minutes into the half he saw an opportunity to cut inside, ran down the centre, and laid the ball off to Saffie, who collected it with one touch and rocketed it into the net.
After the restart, the winger started running at Robin again. He tackled and she came down quite heavily.
“You bitch!” the Tiger hissed as she scrambled up. “What are you doing out of the kitchen?”
“Kicking your arse,” he threw back.
“If we weren’t in a game I’d smash your bollocks,” said the girl, offended.
Thank goodness there was a referee supervising. The winger’s words worried him. Girls were so proud and competitive. Jasmine would leave him alone during the match, but now it might be the Tigers’ turn to attempt a sneaky Nut Crunch to teach this upstart a lesson. He must watch out for jabbing knees and boots!
Unfortunately the Tigers then got two goals in quick succession. Silver shook her head angrily each time – she felt both were her fault. She griped about it as the teams withdrew for half time.
“It’s not your fault, Silver,” said Robin. “We’re playing too high up the pitch. The Tigers are timing their runs quite well and getting behind our defenders. Our defence needs to play deeper.”
“Yeah, if we need tactics from a boy, we’ll ask for it,” muttered Swifty, the defender. “Maisie’s the boss, not you.”
Maisie however seemed to share Robin’s opinion, because she ordered the team to stop pressing so high for the second half. Robin was frustrated at first because he could see that Mollie was being selfish over on the right. He bet he knew why, too – he had got an assist for Saffie’s goal and Mollie was cross that she hadn’t managed anything as good. Several times she held onto the ball, refusing to pass, trying to cut in and go for glory, only to waste the chance with a wildly off-target shot.
He was to rub her nose in it again because when the Eagles made their next break, he raced forwards along with her and Saffie, and not only did Saffie prefer to pass to him in front of goal, the ball bounced off his shin and ricocheted into the net. Almost unawares, he’d scored his first goal for the Eagles!
The Tigers looked devastated that a mere boy had scored a goal against them. His team-mates ran over and ruffled his hair – he wished they wouldn’t, because he spent hours keeping it neat, but he felt really happy and proud. That was one in the eye for all those sexist girls! He turned to find his parents and raised his fist as they applauded him wildly.
“I can’t really claim that one, Saffie,” he admitted to his captain as they walked back to the centre spot. “I barely even knew where the ball was!”
“Doesn’t matter,” was the answer. “A team makes its luck. You got into a position where a goal was possible. That’s what matters.”
In the last few minutes the Tigers picked up their game. Silver made several heroic saves, and looked more pleased with herself. As for Robin, he was pleased too because he was frustrating the Tigers. The winger swore at him but he just kept playing. Right before the final whistle, Robin took the ball into the corner, hoping to waste the last seconds of the game. Two Tigers ran up to dispossess him. Robin turned his back to hold them off, but they got tangled up in the struggle over the ball – one girl neatly slipped the ball out between his feet and his enemy the winger, sensing her chance, smartly brought up her knee and clouted him quite hard in the goolies.
OWW-WWWW! Not again!
The ref blew her whistle. Maisie yelled in outrage from the touchline. Robin crumpled to the ground in pain, both hands thrust between his legs. His poor testicles felt like they were roasting in a fire.
“Serve you right, bitch!” the offending girl snarled quickly, before the referee could run up. “Football’s a girl’s game.”
Pretending that it was an accident didn’t stop her getting a red card and being sent off. It made no difference, though, because after the Eagles took the free kick the game was over, for a decent 2-2 draw.
“Oh God, my balls,” groaned Robin, trying to sit up. His team mates gathered around to observe his male discomfort. “Why are you girls so violent?”
“Poor little weakling.” Suki put her hands on her hips. “You’re making a bit of a habit of this!”
“It’s not funny, Suki,” he gasped.
“Boys shouldn’t play football,” said Jasmine, pushing bodies aside. “I’ve said it all along.”
“Good grief,” said Saffie, asserting herself as captain. “I wish you two would give him a break. It’s a blatant foul on a member of our team.”
“He got fouled because the other team resented being made a laughing stock,” shouted Jasmine. “He’s going to get his balls broken every bloody game. He shouldn’t be on the pitch!”
“And if he’s making them a laughing stock,” said Maisie sternly, pushing her way into the group to offer Robin a hand up, “what does that say? Hm? I’ll tell you what. It says he’s a damn good player who’s embarrassing girls who’ve been in a team for years. You lot should be ashamed. Not one of you ran up to tell the Tigers off: not even you, Saffie.”
“Coach, I –”
“Did you give that cow an earful? No you didn’t. Boys look to girls for chivalry and protection, and Robbie here, your own team mate, didn’t get any.”
The girls hung their heads. Even Jasmine bit her lip and stayed silent. The appeal to their honour seemed to hit a nerve.
“Sorry coach,” said Saffie. “You’re right. An Eagle’s an Eagle. And Robbie played well. Come on girls, he scored a goal today, for goodness’ sake.”
“Exactly. Now, I’ll give my assessment later, but I’m very pleased with how you came back from behind. A draw’s a good result against that lot. Now go and get changed, you scamps.”
As the players went off to get changed, several parents came up to Maisie to talk about why the Eagles had a boy playing for them. She had been expecting criticism, of course, and there was no choice but to sit patiently through it. “It’s not decent, Ms Fudge!” complained Molly’s mother. “A boy, indeed, running around in that short skirt. I don’t want my daughter distracted by that. She’s supposed to focus on her football career.”
“I hope they’re not all changing together,” said another parent.
Maisie started to wonder if she’d made a mistake letting Robin join the team. She tried to explain that he was a gifted player, who got changed by himself, and wouldn’t cost anyone anything, and that the girls were taking it pretty well, all things considered.
“Well I think it’s wonderful that you’re giving a boy a chance,” said a dark man wearing a prettily-coloured sari, who turned out to be Saffron’s father. “My two boys used to knock a ball around with their sister. They had to stop, of course. But why should a boy always be domestic? Top marks!”
“Thank you, Mr Das,” said Maisie gratefully.
After fending off the parents, Maisie retreated to her office to update her wall chart and think about points and league positions. When she was alone this sometimes turned into daydreaming, and she would fantasise about her Super Eagles lifting a trophy, much like millions of other football-entranced females around the world.
Then she became aware of a presence nearby, and noticed that just beyond the doorway, lurking at its perimeter like a spectre held at bay by a charm, was the AllStars coach, Barrow-White.
“I doubt the sums will work out in your favour, however many times you do them, Fudge,” she observed, sweeping her narrow eyes over the tatty office.
“To what do we owe the pleasure, Lucretia?” Maisie couldn’t stand Barrow-White, either as boss of the Eagles’ rivals, or personally. Something about those stern, cold eyes gave her the shivers.
“My lot are playing the Tigers next week. Thought I’d spy them out. They’re no better, I see.”
Maisie grunted, and pretended to contemplate a tactical situation she’d sketched on her whiteboard two weeks ago.
“I saw what happened to your… boy,” Barrow-White went on. “What will his parents say? I’m surprised at you. Things like that are bound to happen – males have no place in football.”
Maisie was getting tired of hearing this. “The rules disagree, Lucretia.”
“Right now they do, Fudge, but maybe it’s time to fix that. It’s improper, a boy running about acting like a girl.”
Maisie sighed. “Fine. Let’s hear it. Why can’t a boy play football?” She sat down in her chair, leaned back, and waited.
“Plenty of reasons,” said Barrow-White. “For starters, boys don’t have the technique.”
“Technique? Why shouldn’t a boy learn technique, like a girl does? Boys and girls have the same limbs, the same muscles… In fact, males are bigger and stronger, so they might even be better players than us if they received the training we do!”
“Similar muscles but not similar brains. What about tactical intelligence? Boys can’t make decisions as fast, or as well – it’s scientifically proven.”
“Proven by women.”
“Proven by scientists…”
“All of whom are women…”
“Bah, who bloody cares? Science is science whoever does it. Proven again and again. And anyway, even if a boy can play football it doesn’t mean he should.” Barrow-White was gradually creeping into the room, a little gingerly, as if suspicious of touching any surfaces. “I used to teach in a school, and it’s a fact that boys are uncomfortable trying to compete directly with girls. Boys find girls very intimidating. That boy is what, twelve? Well, girls of twelve are a very confident and clever lot, Fudge, as you well know, whereas boys that age are shy and immature and academically already far behind them. They know females are superior. I don’t think it’s fair to cast a boy into an arena where he can’t compete.”
“Our Robin is managing to stand up for himself, thank you –”
“If boys played alongside girls it would confuse the whole game. No girl would want to play with a boy, because it’s demeaning, and no boy would want to challenge a girl’s pride, so even if they did have a bit of talent they’d underperform. You could never make a boy captain because the girls wouldn’t accept a male in authority. And males are too emotional and insecure to take leadership roles.”
“He loves playing. What is he meant to do?”
“He should stick to boys’ sports. They have netball, don’t they?”
“But Lucretia, if it is all right for boys to play netball, why can’t they play football?”
“At my school we had to put boys’ health and safety first. Netball is not a contact sport. Football is. And as you know, boys are… vulnerable. They don’t belong in a rough sport where they can get knocks in sensitive places, as happened today. Why is all the money in proper, women’s games like football and rugby? Because women’s sports are better quality and more entertaining. If there was supposed to be football for males then there would be leagues and teams but there aren’t any, are there? I mean all credit to the boy for nerve, but let’s be serious here. And finally it’s a simple matter of decorum. Football involves a lot of tackling and falling and rolling about. You can imagine how revealing that could be for someone in a skirt.”
Maisie had given up trying to contest this flood of arguments, which seemed well-rehearsed, and glared at the floorboards to hide her annoyance. Debates made her head spin: she was a football coach, not a sociologist. Where was Angie when you needed her?
Barrow-White seemed to think she’d won, and betrayed the ghost of a smile. “No, someone needs to stop this foolishness. I’m going to go to the County and get the rules changed, to ban boys from playing.”
“Good grief… To be honest Lucretia, I’m not sure why you even care. You really think it’s worth the bother? Or that anyone else does?”
“Oh, I know how to get the results I want. It’s politics, Fudge – just another game.”
“You’d know all about manipulating the system, of course. But a rule change, even if it goes through, won’t apply until next season.”
Barrow-White spread her bony hands. “That’s fine with me, as long as we get this anomaly sorted. And if you have that lad’s interests at heart, you’ll stop leading him on. He’ll get one season then he’ll have to quit. So why keep him? He can’t have a bloody career anyway, Fudge, you know that! You’re confusing his identity. Some day soon he’ll meet a nice girl and become a househusband, like every other young chap.”
Don’t try to couch your bigotry in reasonable-sounding phrases, thought Maisie. You’re a sexist, Lucretia Barrow-White – as simple as that!