by Dave Hannigan
Dave Hannigan is a columnist with the Irish Echo (New York), The Evening Echo (Cork, Ireland) and the Mail on Sunday (Dublin). An award-winning journalist and author, he has written five non-fiction books and one children's novel. A father of three boys and an adjunct-professor of history at Suffolk County Community College in Selden, he has lived in Rocky Point for the past ten years and has coached Rocky Point United U-11 boys in the LIJSL since last September. Before moving to Long Island in 2000, he spent eight years as a soccer correspondent for the Sunday Times of London, covering the Irish national team and the Premier League in England.
‘Good of you to join us again, Mr. Healy,’ said Coach Silverman.
‘I was sick,’ said Sam, suddenly panicked. ‘My mom was supposed to call…’
‘I know, I know. I’m just kidding with you.’
Sam was too nervous for kidding around. Between his illness and then rainstorms causing practices to be cancelled, he hadn’t been around the team for nearly two weeks. Two long weeks in which they’d won two games without him. Two weeks during which he worried whether the coach would even remember him.
‘I keep messing up,’ said Sam to Danny during the warm-up passing drill. ‘It’s like I’ve forgotten how to play.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ said his best friend. ‘You’ve only been gone two weeks. Not a year.’
‘It feels much longer.’
‘You are crazy sometimes,’ said Danny just as the coach beckoned them in for the pre-game talk.
‘Okay, guys,’ he said, his voice a little louder than usual. ‘Two games left. Two big, huge games. Two must-win games. This is a big one right here. We need to win it if we are going to have a chance to win this division. And this is a good team we are facing this morning. First, let me give you the line-up. Same starters as last week, that’s …’
That was all Sam heard. For some bizarre reason, he thought the fact he’d scored the winner in his last appearance might have got him a start. Even if it was weeks ago. He participated in the pre-game ritual, the louder than ever ‘1-2-3 Rocky Road’ but his mind was miles away.
‘I’d like to officially welcome you back to the bench,’ said Mario Bellone, putting out his fist for Sam to bump it as they walked towards the sideline together.
‘Yeah, we really missed you around here,’ said Johnny Trippi. ‘With you out of the picture, we got more playing time.’
Johnny was smiling when he said it but Sam knew he and Mario were unhappy to be always subs. Just like he was.
‘There’s no chance of us going in today unless somebody gets hurt,’ said Johnny.
‘Why?’ asked Sam.
‘Kingwood are too good. He will leave the starters in for the whole game if he can.’
‘No, he won’t,’ said Sam.
‘Eh, last week Sam, while you were sick…’ said Mario.
‘We both got five minutes at the end of the game.’
‘I think it was nearer four minutes,’ said Johnny.
‘All I know is I didn’t have to shower when I got home.’
‘That’s because you never shower!’
‘Hey,’ said Mario, pushing Johnny and making him fall off the bench, laughing.
‘Come on guys, this is serious stuff, pay attention to the game. One of you could be called upon at any time.’ While they were joshing, they hadn’t noticed the coach was right by them.
Sam, Mario and Johnny were embarrassed. And now more worried than before.
‘He’s never going to put us in now, is he?’ asked Sam. The others didn’t answer. They were afraid the coach would hear what they were saying.
Anyway, the game had started. And Johnny hadn’t been exaggerating. Kingwood were good. Very good. Rocky Road were struggling for the first 20 minutes. They barely managed an attack and only some good defending kept the match scoreless at the half.
‘You guys go and kick around, get your touch in,’ said Coach Silverman when the half-time whistle went, the first time he’d noticed them since the game began.
‘I’m going in goal,’ said Johnny Trippi,
‘Suits me,’ said Sam.
They could hear Coach Silverman’s voice rising as he spoke to the starters but they were too busy taking penalties to pay attention.
‘At this rate, we are going to be the best penalty-takers on the team,’ said Mario.
‘Not that we’ll ever get to actually take one,’ said Sam.
The second half was more of the same. Until Rocky Road broke away and scored after fifteen minutes. Danny Petrino with a header from a corner.
The subs celebrated. They would have celebrated more except they knew time was running out for them to get a chance to play. Finally, with eight minutes remaining, Coach Silverman told the three of them they were going in.
‘Sam,’ he said, ‘I want you up top but go back and help out if we are under pressure.’
They were under pressure. Real pressure. Kingwood were laying siege to their half of the field. The ball never came near Sam so he drifted back, deeper and deeper. That was how he found himself on the edge of his own box, forgetting to push up for offside. Allowing Kingwood’s number nine to slip right through on goal.
'Oh no,' said Sam, recognizing his mistake. 'Oh no.'
Instinctively, he sprinted to try to get between the player and the goal. The Kingwood player pushed the ball too far ahead of him and Sam knew he had a chance to save the day. A sliver of a chance. But a chance all the same. If he could just get there first, he could nick the ball away.
He waited and waited until he was close enough and then he slid in to make the tackle. Just like he’d always dreamt of doing. A match-winning tackle.
Except it wasn’t. The Kingwood number nine was faster than Sam. A lot faster than Sam had imagined in the split-second when he decided to make the tackle. The ball was gone past when Sam’s right foot clattered his opponent in the shin. He tumbled to the ground.
Phreeep!!! The referee blew his whistle and pointed to the spot.
‘It was never a…’ said Sam, starting to protest before realizing he’d be in even more trouble. Especially since it was definitely, absolutely, a penalty.
‘This the last kick of the game, son,’ said the referee to the number nine readying himself to take the shot.
Sam couldn’t look. He just kept his head down and closed his eyes. All he could hear was silence. A very long silence. Then the sound of a ball being kicked and an explosion of cheering...