West London Vets Football through the eyes of a twenty-one year-old: goalkeeping fumbles, wind-whipped crosses and pints of Deep Heat.
I didn’t really know what to expect when travelling down to Chiswick Boathouse on a blustery Saturday earlier this month for The Grassroots Post. At the tender age of twenty-one, I was going to watch my first ever game of London Vets football as Jamrock FC’s Steppa side took on Latimer Road. As I stepped into this unknown world of middle-aged Sunday league, I was sceptical. In my mind I was picturing the same bitter forty year-olds who used to pick fights at our Tuesday five-a-side: angry, violent and, collectively, not very good. It was either that or the rather fragile gentlemen I see playing Walking football at the park every Sunday. As it happened, I need not have worried: what I saw was heart-warmingly familiar.
When I arrive at the pitch, Jamrock Steppa are already warming up. All aged thirty-five or older, the Jamrock players have a decidedly more considered pre-game routine than I’m used to. Ankle supports are pulled out of bags, knees are strapped up to within an inch of their lives and pints of Deep Heat are applied to those “problem areas”. This ceremony of self-care was an introduction to London Vets Football and a running theme of the afternoon: staying injury-free. “The main difference between this and football when you’re younger is definitely the lack of aggression,” says Louis, forty. “Everyone’s a bit older now and no one wants to get injured, so no one is out to hurt each other. Guess we’ve mellowed in our old age!”
Jamrock are kitted out in a mish-mash of Barcelona shirts. Each jersey seemingly from a different era, they are covering all the bases: channeling Messi, Stoichkov, Rivaldo and Eto’o to create one West London-based Catalan super team. When asked about the shirts and their curious labelling policy – every shirt has “Con” printed large on the reverse – club founder Conway Blake just shrugs: “I wanted to make sure no one ran off with them, so I put my own name on the back.”
Conway founded Jamrock in 2017, building the initial squad from a group of old school mates in Ealing. After winning the Double in their first year, Jamrock looked to expand their operations and these days, four Jamrock vets football teams take to the pitch every weekend. Conway picks the teams from the 240-strong club membership, a product of his extensive scouting around the West London area. “Me and Con actually used to be neighbours,” says Louis. “He saw my boots outside the front door one day and asked if I wanted to play. He picks people up from everywhere.” Local five-a-sides, other Sunday teams, even those that haven’t played in years get the call up. Wherever football is played in West London, Conway is there with a smile and a sign-up form.
Jamrock start the game well, presumably spurred on by a rousing pre-match team talk from Conway that focused on the footwear of the Latimer Road left winger. “He’s got Air Force 1s on, boys. We are not losing to a lad who’s playing in Air Force.” The home side look dangerous going forward and, after half an hour, tricky winger Dan is felled inside the box. He steps up, cooly places it past the keeper and is mobbed by his teammates. The team spirit of the Jamrock players is evident. “It’s all about the banter. You need a good set of lads and that’s what we’ve got here,” says ten-year Vets veteran Julian. “The social stuff is the most important part of it all and even though the virus has made it harder to do, we make it work.”
This is a sentiment echoed by Louis, sneaking a cig on the sides while Conway focuses on the match. “Everyone lives this side of the river so it’s a real family – guaranteed I could ask any of this lot if they fancied going for a beer and every night of the week I’d get five or six yeses.”Jamrock come into the second half 2-1 up, a wind-assisted cross and a goalkeeping fumble combining to let the away side back into the game. They need to be calmer on the ball, Conway insists, play the simple game. Use Dan on the wing and try and get Pepsi more involved. Dan and Pepsi were Steppa’s new front two and, having watched them for forty-five minutes, it was easy to see why they were the focus of the tactical advice. Both are fit and aged closer to the thirty-five mark than some of their opponents, and they look a step ahead on every possession. “Get them the ball and we’ll score goals,” Conway asserted. “We could get five here.”
They got six. Two more for Dan and two for Pepsi. Despite a couple more goalkeeping fumbles from the Jamrock number 1 (“It’s too windy out here, man”), the home team run out deserved winners. They jog off, happy and exhausted.
As I stood there listening in to the post-match team talk, I smiled to myself. It was good to know that all the idiosyncrasies of my Sunday league experience still exist fifteen years into the future. That the kits still don’t match. That the same cliches apply. That it is still just twenty-two people waking up early at the weekend to play the game that they love. I walked back to the station with thoughts of the future. I’m only twenty-one and the world is going to change enormously in the fifteen years or so before I make my Vets debut. Technology will advance, politicians will rise and fall, England might even have a World Cup. Not everything will be different, though. At least I know that those blustery Saturday mornings will still be the same. London Vets Football – I can’t wait.