Retro Sport with Roger Mann: Anguish is temporary but precious memories last for ever!

The Torbay Gentlemen 1975/76. Back (from left): Gerry Way, Dave Phillips, Roger Mann, Malcolm Bidder, Harry Smith. Front...

The Torbay Gentlemen 1975/76. Back (from left): Gerry Way, Dave Phillips, Roger Mann, Malcolm Bidder, Harry Smith. Front: Roy Clarke, John Farrell, Dave Shepherd, Ray Haydock, Maurice Travis, John Gordon - Credit: Archant

We formed the Torbay Gentlemen for old footballers who couldn’t bear the thought of shopping on a Saturday afternoon.

The club joined the South Devon League with a vision of returning to village football for some gentle exercise in the sunshine, topped up with an evening in the local pub... and now look!

Here I was, driving the club’s double decker bus through the lanes to Dittisham, in the middle of a thunderstorm!

Snowflakes had been falling, the windscreen was freezing up, and dewdrops were forming on the end of my nose.

To make it worse, we needed to get a point at Dittisham, today, to win promotion from Division Five!

We arrived in the village, and changed among the wooden beer barrels, in a store room of the Red Lion. Those of us without track suits, walked down to the ground, wrapping our arms around us.

When we reached the pitch at Downton Park, ice-cold winds were sweeping in from the River Dart.

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A crowd of over 200 had gathered, scarves around their faces and sheltering under their umbrellas. Like spectators in the Colosseum, they had come to see 11 old men thrown to promotion hungry village lions!

The rain was pouring down now, as the referee made his way to the centre circle.

His black uniform clung to his skinny body like an Edwardian bathing costume. He blew his whistle, and the two captains waded through the mud towards him.

“How can we play in this ref? There’s no pitch markings,” said our skipper, Ray Haydock.

“I’ll be the judge of that,” was his reply.

We lost the toss and played, up the hill, into the icy wind. Within minutes, we were under siege. Every time we cleared the ball, the wind would send it ballooning back to us!

Before long, all 11 of us had dropped back into our penalty area. Like the British army, in the Napoleonic Wars, we formed a square around our goal in an attempt to repel an enemy which launched attack after attack.

Harry Smith, Malcolm Bidder, and Mike Sangster were our generals, and we did our best to obey as they barked out their orders.

The wet ball slammed into the flesh of my cheeks, and I went face down in to the mud. I got up, spat out the dirt, and lifted my face to the sky for an instant face wash. I was numb all over, and after 20 minutes, we went 0-1 down.

The growling wind, and the driving rain seemed to be draining us of our energy.

For 40 year olds, used to life in centrally heated offices, this was no place to be!

The village lads were faring much better! Fresh off the crab boats, they seemed indifferent to the biting easterly wind.

Somehow, we survived until half-time, and our traditional glass of wine came as a welcome relief.

Sitting with our backs against a drystone wall, we were feeling sorry for ourselves.

“I can’t feel my feet,” said Dave Shepherd. “The last time my Achilles hurt like this was against Southend in 1956,” added Harry Smith.

Just as half time ended, a big black dog strolled up to one of the goal posts, lifted its leg, and weed.

As I walked back on to the field, Maurice Travis whispered to me: “That’s lucky isn’t it?”

“Let’s hope so!” I replied.

The rain had eased, and we were playing downhill when, suddenly, the referee awarded us a penalty. Maurice took the kick and scored off the inside of the lucky ‘doggy’ post! It was 1-1, and a draw would win us promotion.

Ray, our captain, was all action now, and shouted to me: “Rog, just stick with Cousins wherever he goes!”

Cousins was a tall, scrawny, teenager with a face that had been sculpted by a life in the open air. I weighed him up and thought: “I know too much for you, chum!”

Ten minutes from the end, Dittisham had a free kick wide on the right. The ball came over and I shaped to head it clear when, out of nowhere, someone pushed past me and got there first.

My heart sank when I saw the ball in the back of our net! A skinny teenager got up, and smiled at me.

We lost 2-1, and had missed promotion, and it was all my fault!

Back in the Red Lion, we clubbed together to buy a bottle of champagne for our hosts, but nothing could ease the personal pain of that stupid mistake.

But, hey! If any of my readers are South Devon League footballers, the urgent message, from someone who now shops on a Saturday afternoon, is... “Don’t worry! Anguish is temporary but precious memories last for ever!”