“A boy? Boys can’t play football.”
The thin-lipped woman barely gave Robin a glance. She returned her gaze to the two dozen girls in shorts and jerseys who were running up and down the pitch.
“I assure you, Ms Barrow-White, my Robin is a natural,” said Angela Diamond, conscious of the slumping of her son’s shoulders beside her. “If you –”
“Hogwash,” said the coach, narrowing her eyes. “Football’s a girl’s game. Always has been. I ain’t having a boy on my team: we’d be a laughing stock.”
Angela looked for Robin but he was already trudging back towards the car.
“Robin, love!” she called. A slim, freckled boy of twelve years, he sighed and waited for his mother, sulkily stroking his long, blond hair.
“Don’t be down-hearted,” said his Mum. “Who wants to play for the Plumborne AllStars anyway? We’ll try another team – and hope for a manager who’s more progressive!”
Robin nodded, and slid onto the back seat of the car. For a moment, he had hoped, really hoped that he might have a chance. He had allowed himself to dream of the fairy-tale ending, a blinding “Yes!” to kick off his glorious football destiny. But of course, reality was so obvious, so crushing. It was a greying woman in a tracksuit, repeating boredly that boys couldn’t play football without even considering him. Watching the trees, houses and fences blur past the car windows, he recalled the shouts of the girls on the field and felt like crying with envy. He reflected, not for the first time, that life would have been much easier if he had been born a girl.
Mum’s next target was a sports centre in the suburbs that was home to the Norford Hawks, the best youth team in the city. The Hawks were the team everyone wanted to play for: they had more players recruited to the academies of Premier League and Championship teams than anyone else. As he followed his mother through the car park, Robin heard female voices coming from the pitch and his heart leaped a little. Sure enough, as the two visitors crossed the Hawks’ impressive facilities, two dozen girls came into view, dressed in the team’s white and blue stripes, threading their way rapidly through a series of cones laid out on the grass. A handful of women stood along the touchline. One wiry blonde in a Hawks tracksuit was pacing urgently up and down. She was clearly the manager, and looked so stern, so… hawkish, that Robin’s nerve began to fail him a second time.
“Aww, they won’t want me, Mum,” he muttered, tugging at his mother’s sleeve.
“Humbug,” said Mum. “Don’t ask, don’t get. Grab a ball and show off your skills. Catch her attention.”
Robin reached for one of the footballs lying at the touchline, but the coach spun round and barked: “What are you doing, lad? Put that ball down!” Stung, Robin let it drop.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” said Mum, stepping forward. “My name’s Angela Diamond and this is my son –”
“Oi! you mugs!” yelled the coach suddenly, flailing her arm towards the trainees. “Eyes on the bloody ball!”
“Er, this is my son,” Mum repeated, “and he’d like to try out for your Under-14s.”
The blonde masked her surprise and inspected Robin, hesitating while she chose her words. “He can’t play for us. We don’t need any more players.”
“You might want to replace one, when you see what Robin can do.”
“Come along, madam, he’s not going to be as good as any of the girls, is he?”
“Why ever not?” demanded Mum.
“Sorry. We’ve no vacancies. Good day to you.”
Robin whacked the ball against the side hoarding, ignoring the coach’s angry stare as he trudged back toward the car park.
They tried the Taverham Tigers and Southside Wanderers with no more success. The excuses varied – ‘we don’t need new players right now’ was the politest – but the rejection felt just as bad. “Never mind, love,” sighed Mum. “There’s still the Norford Youth Eleven.”
“I’d rather never play football at all than join that joke outfit! They don’t even have a proper name – there are like fifteen of them.”
“The Eagles, then…”
“They’re useless. They’ve never won anything.”
“Well as the local teams go, it sounds like it’s the Eagles or nothing.”
“Nothing, by the sound of it. None of them will give a boy a chance. It’s so unfair!”
Robin was fed up with people telling him that football was a girl’s game. He always watched the big matches on the telly, and his bedroom was bedecked with the yellow and green of Norford City FC. Most boys had posters of women on their walls but his were footballers, not rock stars. He had never been like other boys – never got excited over dresses, or shopping, or makeup, or swooning over girls, or baking cupcakes.
He could dimly remember a soft, pink ‘Kenny’ ball he had booted wildly about the back garden at the age of about five, and how he’d enjoyed whacking that airhead Kenny in his dumb, lipsticked face – enjoyed watching the ball fly, knowing it was him who made it happen. Then his Mum took him to see Norford City for the first time. Walking into Sparrow Road clutching his mother’s hand, the crush of women, the throng of yellow jerseys, the smell of frying onions from the nosh wagons in the streets outside. Chatting with the jolly women next to them. Standing on tiptoe to see, then the roar of thousands of voices when a goal went in! The Budgies had been struggling to stay in the top flight, but they had won 1-0 that day. Mum had said Robin must have brought them luck. Ever since, he had lived and dreamed football.
Mum had been a player herself, for small local teams. She won a ‘Young Player’ award one year. It turned out she wasn’t gifted enough for the big-time, but she knew the world of football, knew who was who and how you became good. There was nothing she didn’t know about City. Mum had always dreamed of having a daughter she could drape in a Budgies scarf and take to a game. And when she ended up having a son, she took the disappointment philosophically. She could still buy him a football; it would just be a pink football instead.
Robin eventually got proper football boots with studs, like girls wore, which he’d wear with pride as he practised keepy-uppies in the back garden, whacking ball after ball into the rectangular goal-mouth chalked on the back fence. His Uncle Lenny complained that Robin wanted to be a girl. Wrong, though he was definitely a janegirl. He simply loved football. And he got good. Oh yes, he was good. In fact he was secretly sure he was as good as any of those Plumborne AllStars. He might even hold his own among the Norford Hawks. But he would never know unless he was given a chance. And here he was, rejected without even a trial run, because he was only a boy. So unfair!
Mum drove into the car park of the Heathside Eagles and they exchanged glances. The little clubhouse looked a bit grotty – it needed a coat of paint and one of the windows was broken. Patches of weeds were growing all over the grounds.
“Last one, love,” Mum said. She checked her watch. “I hope it doesn’t take too long – I really need to get to the office this afternoon to collect my casework.”
I hope it doesn’t take too long. Even his Mum was getting discouraged.
Round the back was a small pitch where a dozen or so rough-looking Under-14s girls in dark green shirts and white shorts were standing about chatting. A rotund woman in a sports jacket was sitting on a bench nearby, trying to get the lid off her Thermos flask.
The girls’ muddy kit had seen better days. Robin by contrast was wearing an immaculately white, pleated Games skirt and a pink zipper top with a little posy of flowers embroidered on the breast. His pink and white trainers almost looked new. The girls eyed him curiously as he and Mum approached the bench. There was a wolf whistle.
“Ahem,” said Mum.
“Hullo, madam,” greeted the coach, still wrestling with the Thermos. “One moment... Lasses – gimme a lap of the pitch.”
As the girls set off, Robin tied his long hair into two loose pigtails so it didn’t blow about. Then he picked up a ball, let it drop onto his foot – not the boot-tip but the laces – and eased into some keepy-uppies. One, two, three, four, five… The pressure of the occasion was a bit off-putting, but gradually his silky skill blossomed, and with poise and balance he juggled the ball between head, shoulders, knees and feet, keeping it in the air, keeping control. He had spent hours learning this, until he was showing off in front of the girls at school, amazing them, challenging them at their own game.
The Eagles coach was watching him, puffing out her cheeks in surprise. “Gawd, he’s good, isn’t he? Nice to meet you, young man,” she called out to Robin, who nodded pleasantly without breaking concentration.
“He’s the best player in his school,” said Mum, stepping closer. “Good afternoon. I was wondering if you’d consider accepting him into your team.”
“Er, oh,” stuttered the coach, her eyes widening at this novelty. “How old’s your boy?”
“Hm, right age to play with this lot.” She kept staring at Robin, as if at a strange zoo animal. “A bit odd, though, isn’t it. A boy playing football?”
Despite the hesitation, Mum sensed a friendlier soul than the others. She held out her hand. “Angela Diamond.”
“Maisie Fudge,” nodded the coach with a smile. “Even my team captain couldn’t keep the ball going as long as that.”
“And there’s no rule against boys playing with girls,” Angela pointed out.
“Very true. You know your rulebook then, madam.”
“I should, I used to play myself. Up to Under-21s level, for the county.”
Maisie brightened. “You don’t say? You might remember old June Adekoye, then.”
“June!” laughed Angela. “The head of youth development, yes of course.”
The two women relaxed and began to chat about their time as players. Then Robin cried out “A hundred!” and drew their attention back.
“I’ll put my cards on the table,” said Maisie. “I don’t much care if a player’s a girl or a boy. Some people make a right song and dance over gender, but what matters is, can a kid play? That’s the thing. Do they love the game?”
“Exactly. It’s the only thing my Robin cares about.”
“Don’t mistake our club, now,” said Maisie. “I know we’re short of money, I know we need a lick of paint and someone to do the weeding. I know we haven’t won anything for years. But we’re signed up to the county FA, we’ve got our coaching badges, and we’re in the Norford Youth League. And more importantly, we all live and love football here.” She walked over to Robin and put a hand on his shoulder to make him stop. “Those are some sensational keepy-uppies there, lad. Now I think that anyone who wants to play football, should be allowed to play football. That’s why I’m here, at the Eagles. I could have worked at a fancier club, but at the Eagles I can give a chance to the girls who get overlooked. – And, I suppose, the boys, too!”
“What?” started Robin in amazement, forgetting his manners. “Mum!”
“If you’ve no objection, Angie, I’m happy to let your Robin have a kick-about with my girls, and if he settles in, we’ll see what we can do.”
Robin was gobsmacked.
“Oh, thank you, Maisie – Ms Fudge – er, Maisie,” cried Mum. “There’s no, er, physical objection? I mean, boys are bigger…”
“I don’t see a problem, not at this age. Actually girls start growing a year or two earlier than boys. I reckon several of my girls are bigger than your Robin. Not had your growth spurt, yet, eh lad?”
“No, he hasn’t,” said Mum, “but that’s good, the girls won’t feel threatened.”
“Threatened?” said Maisie, chuckling. “It won’t be the girls who feel threatened.”
“Well, you’re probably right.” Ms Diamond turned to her son. “Congratulations, Robbie! It’s your skills that did it. I won’t be a bother by hanging around here staring at you.” She checked her watch. “I need to pick up those documents. I won’t be more than an hour, so if I leave you in Ms Fudge’s care, you show them what you’re made of!”
Robin’s mind was in a whirl. “Don’t go, Mum, please.”
“You’ll be fine – you’re in professional hands.”
She gave Robin a hug and strolled happily off to the car.
“Listen up, girls,” said Maisie Fudge, calling her players over. “We’ve got a new one for you.”
The girls trotted up from their run, panting. All eleven of them stared at Robin, who stood there in his short skirt and pigtails, feeling his stomach churn and his face glow bright red. As Maisie had observed, he hadn’t really started his growth spurt yet, so the girls were much the same size as him, and some of them were indeed bigger. He ran his eye along the row of hostile female faces, battle-marked with sweat and mud. Girls were always intimidating, but seasoned footballers were terrifying. His knees began to tremble. What was he doing here? They’d eat him up and spit him out. He wished his mother hadn’t gone away and left him on his own.
“A new what, Ms Fudge?” demanded a dark girl of Indian heritage, with her hands on her hips.
“A new player, of course, skipper.”
There was an incredulous outburst from the girls.
“But he’s a boy!”
“Boys can’t play football!”
“A cheerleader, maybe!”
“Never heard anything so ridiculous.”
“Football’s a girl’s game.”
Maisie quietened them down. “That’s all very well, but you wait till you see his skills. Go on, lad, show ‘em what you can do.”
Robin picked up the ball again and did more keepy-uppies. He was glad, because this was when he felt comfortable. It did his confidence a world of good to hear the girls gasp in surprise at his smooth handling of the ball.
“That ain’t normal,” said one.
“Are you sure he ain’t a girl who’s put on a skirt and a wig to fool you, Maisie?” said another, to laughter.
“It’s one thing to bounce a ball on your knees,” said the Asian girl. “How about the rough and tumble of a game? Can he pick a pass? Can he cross into the box when it matters?”
“Only one way to find out, Saffron,” said Maisie. “You, Molly, Grace, Aaliyah, you play Orange bibs. Robin, why don’t you join their team. Rest of you, play White bibs. Six a side.”
“You can’t be serious, coach?” asked one girl. “You’re not inviting a boy to play football with us?”
“Bloody embarrassing,” muttered another. “This team’s a joke.”
Maisie just gestured impatiently and had another go at her Thermos flask.
The White team trudged toward the centre circle of the raggedy pitch, shaking their heads. “What if he gets confused about what balls to play with,” sniggered a big, strong white girl with an unfriendly look at Robin.
“Yeah, Jasmine,” laughed a black girl called Suki. “He could hurt himself.”
“Listen, mates,” said Jasmine, under her breath. “I don’t know what Fudge is thinking, but there’s no way I’m having some bit of skirt playing with the Eagles. We’d be the laughing stock of the bloody county.”
“Totally,” said Suki. “We should take him out. Send him running off to Daddy. You only have to look at him in his fancy gear – that cutey-pie’s never played a real game in his life.”
“Knocked it about with his silly boyfriends, I suppose,” said Jasmine. “Well, we ain’t boys, we’re GIRLS, and we’re too hard for him, as simple as that.”
Her team nodded, grinning. This was going to be fun.
“Robin, was it?” said the Asian girl as they got their orange bibs on. Robin nodded. “I’m Saffron, I’m the captain of the Eagles.”
He was grateful for the well-mannered gesture. “Nice to meet you.”
“I hope you weren’t offended by any of those comments just now, precious. You know how girls are.”
“Yeah, I know what to expect.”
“I’ve never met a boy who played football before. Most boys are interested in, you know, dolls and dresses and stuff.”
“It takes all sorts to make a world,” said Robin, repeating one of his mother’s favourite sayings. More from habit than necessity, he undid his hair-ties and remade his pigtails.
“Good luck, but er, watch out for Jaz,” said Saffron, indicating the large girl. “She’s pretty rough. She got sent off during our last match before the game even started. Punched the assistant referee.”
Robin looked at Jasmine, who was bigger than he was, and felt nervous again. “She’ll have to catch me first,” he said.
Maisie was referee. At first the girls on the Oranges team, Saffron aside, treated Robin with contempt and refused to pass the ball to him. They quickly found however that unlike normal boys, Robin could actually kick the ball straight, and they began to run and play properly. The Whites showed no chivalrous regard for his sex, and kept barging him without mercy. What nasty girls! They all assumed he was a sissy who’d run off in tears at the first shove. After Jasmine and Suki crashed into him on either side, knocking the breath out of him, Robin looked petulantly to the ref for a foul. But Maisie Fudge merely waved play on. Clearly she was unsure about how a boy could handle himself and was testing his mettle. His only option was to keep his cool and prove these females wrong. Controlling his tears and indignation, he took his time on the ball, picked out quick passes before the tackles came in, and did his best to skip over incoming feet and legs.
It worked, because the Whites started to get frustrated with his dancing, clever play. Finally, when Robin had already passed the ball, Suki went in for a really hard tackle and sent him flying to the ground.
Maisie blew her whistle and chugged after Suki to rebuke her for the foul, and for a few moments everyone’s back was turned. As Robin lay on the ground getting his breath back, Jasmine came and stood over him, and very quickly she pushed his knees apart with her foot and placed her boot over his crotch. His eyes widened in alarm just an instant before she pushed the boot down, squashing his balls.
OWW-WWWW! Robin curled up and rolled over onto his side to get away, hands clutching his crotch. It was agony.
Jasmine bent over him and sneered. “That’s what we call the Heathside Nut Crunch.”
“Ref!” yelled Saffron. “Ref!”
It was amazing how easily a girl could crush a boy if she wanted to. Everyone came running over to look at Robin clutching his balls, which made him feel even more humiliated.
“What on earth happened here?” demanded Maisie. “Good grief, I turn my back for ten seconds…”
“Nothing happened, ref,” snapped Jasmine. “It was an accident. He tried to take a fast free kick and I tackled him and caught him in the knackers by mistake.”
A few of the girls sniggered.
“Right in the nuts,” crowed someone.
“In the testiculos,” said another in a mock accent, clenching an imaginary scrotum between her legs.
“This is why boys shouldn’t play sports, miss,” said Suki. “They get hurt so easily.”
“Oh, shut up,” said Saffron. “Jaz kicked him in the goolies and we all know it.”
Maisie didn’t seem convinced by Jasmine’s story either. “Is this true?” she asked Robin.
Robin struggled to get his breath and voice back. Oh goodness, his testicles hurt so much! He was sure Maisie would give Jasmine hell if he confirmed her suspicions. But he sensed that he’d never get anywhere with these girls if he was a telltale. “Yes, Miz,” he gasped. “She didn’t mean it.”
“Poor mite,” sighed Maisie. “Why don’t you take a few minutes out, eh. And as for you,” turning to Jasmine, “I’m watching you, you ruffian. If you don’t behave, you’ll be going home early. I don’t mind you playing a physical game, but the Eagles don’t cheat.”
Saffron sighed. “Maybe Jaz is right,” she said. “Maybe a boy isn’t cut out to play football.”
Robin got groaning to his feet, half-blinded by tears, and limped to the bench. His balls felt like they were on fire and he could hardly walk. At least he could sit and recover for a while, thighs pressed protectively together, as the girls resumed their training match. He watched them racing confidently about, shouting and laughing – that mean Jasmine had such a smug look on her face! – and silently cursed his rotten luck for being born a boy. It was horrible when girls went for a boy’s balls. He had assumed the main problem would be getting into a team, but of course that was only the beginning. If you wanted to play football, obviously you had to play with girls, so somehow he had to convince these haughty females that he could compete amongst them as an equal and help their team win games. And he wasn’t sure he was up to it.
Boys were in awe of the opposite sex for good reason. Girls far outperformed boys in education, they went to university, they earned money, they became breadwinners, and they had careers. Women did the most important jobs, created the great artworks, and ruled the corridors of power. It was a woman’s world. The male was the second sex, wearing dresses and doing the housework. Men were a bit larger and stronger, but what advantage was that, when a woman could easily floor you with a knee to the groin? When you couldn’t have a career? When you depended for your home, food and clothing upon the patronage of women? No wonder girls thought they were superior. The objective world confirmed their self-importance at every turn.
Robin was not quite convinced that girls really were more intelligent than boys. He suspected they were just encouraged to work hard. He knew clever girls and thick girls. He knew he was smarter than some of them, whatever people might say. And he knew he could play football better than most of them!
Studying the team’s play, he saw his technique at least matched theirs. He could understand why Saffron was captain: she was very good and unselfish, and so were Suki and Megan. Molly was really quick, but her end product was poor. She need to practice her crosses. Jasmine – horrid Jasmine! – was a defensive midfielder, a powerful if clumsy presence on the pitch, fairly good at keeping the ball though she seemed to prefer passing sideways or back, which Robin thought a bit negative. The defenders seemed pretty shambolic. Overall, he could see why the Eagles never won anything, but they weren’t as bad as he’d feared when he’d seen the overgrown grounds and that worn-out kit.
“Come on, Robin,” he told himself. “You can do this.” Like the heroine of a movie, who staggers to her feet after taking multiple bullets, he stood up, gave his throbbing testicles a discreet rub, tugged at his skirt, and returned nervously to the session.
“He’s back on,” someone shouted.
“Well done, trooper,” said Saffron, patting him on the back. “You OK? Change over to the left wing, you won’t see quite so much of Jasmine.”
She passed the ball to him straight away. Robin ran with it, then did a quick one-two with the skipper and dribbled it around Suki. There was a defender and a goalie to beat. “Stop him!” yelled Jasmine. The defender closed him down with a decent tackle and the ball thudded out for a throw. Molly took the throw-in and Saffron trapped the ball neatly, looking around for the next move, and saw Robin had found space on the other side of the Whites’ defender. Saffron kicked a lovely high cross that descended gracefully towards Robin’s head.
He could hear Jasmine charging towards him to help protect her goal, and his scrotum tightened in fear, so he headed the ball forward to run onto it and keep his momentum. Between him and the goal there was only the goalkeeper. She was a tall girl and came out to meet him, making herself big, thrusting her arms out as if to embrace him. It was good play, but Robin jabbed the ball with the side of his foot between her legs and it rolled, almost sedately, into the back of the net.
“Goal!” shouted Saffron, grinning broadly. The other Oranges allowed themselves a begrudging cheer or two as the skipper ran over to clap him on the shoulder.
“Yeah, yeah,” snarled Jasmine, “stop feeling him up.”
“Great cross, Saffron,” Robin said, his elation helping him forget the aching of his vulnerable parts for a moment.
“Call me Saffie,” she said, still grinning.
Maisie looked startled. “Well, I never,” she said, walking up to him. “That was a class piece of play, lad. That was proper football, that was.”
If the coach had had doubts about a boy’s ability to play football, they were dispelled by the rest of the session. Robin had speed, he had accuracy, he was a good dribbler. Players like Saffie had better all-round skills and were more experienced, but he could outplay several of the girls and it was obvious he would be an asset to any team. Maisie was a fair woman, and had no intention of pushing him out because of his sex alone. So when Ms Diamond turned up again, breathless and apologetic, Maisie gave Robin a glowing report, tactfully omitting the unfortunate incident with his testicles.
“I reckon if your lad sticks around, the Eagles will be better for it,” she concluded.
“So you’ll take him?” cried Angie.
“If he still wants to join!”
“Oh, thank you so much! It will mean the world to him. Frankly I was starting to think no one would ever accept a boy.”
“I won’t lie to you, Angie, there are plenty of people who won’t like it. Not at all. Even persuading my team is going to be a job of work. But maybe we can raise the Eagles’ goal average and, well, strike a blow for equal opps at the same time, eh?”
“You are a woman after my own heart, Maisie Fudge,” said Angie.
When his Mum told him he had made the team, Robin wanted to jump in the air and shout. He had underestimated Maisie. He knew he’d played well, but had still expected prejudice to win the day. “I can’t believe it,” he said.
“Go and thank Ms Fudge,” said his Mum. “I’ll wait for you in the car.”
Robin ran to thank Maisie, who waved him off as if it were nothing. She told him the club’s Under-14s trained on Saturday afternoons and played their games on Sundays – he must be there, on time, next Saturday!
As he walked elatedly back towards the car park, Jasmine appeared at his side.
“You’re a freak of nature,” she hissed. “There’s no place for a sissy bit of skirt on a football team. Why don’t you bugger off back to your dollies and housework?”
“M-Ms Fudge said I could stay,” stammered Robin, shrinking away.
“Well you’d better watch we don’t keep kicking the wrong balls, shrimp.” And she stalked off, her powerful body rippling with resentment and hurt pride.