Valley Chicken Football

I always liked football, I was just never any good at it. It was, however, a useful hobby when I moved to Tarnowskie Gory in October 2005. On Sunday mornings I would meet my boss Rafal and I would play with him and his friends at the school pitch near Parkowa. Normally twelve-to-fifteen guys showed up and we played for about an hour. After the match we would go to the small pub in the woods and drink cheap beer for an hour or two. I think that was why I liked going to play football.

The other guys we played football with were an interesting bunch. They were guys in their thirties and forties, I think most of them were builders and they spoke Silesian. When I started to play with them they would call me ‘Angol’ because ‘Matt’ was too difficult for them. ‘Angol’ was a magical word – it could mean ‘Give me the ball, I’m free’ or ‘Pass it to him’ or ‘Run over there’, it had many different uses. After a few weeks of having ‘Angol’ shouted at me, Rafal told the guys that they shouldn’t call me ‘Angol’ because I wasn’t English, I was Welsh (Interesting fact: I still am Welsh). They shrugged their shoulders and said that it didn’t matter because Wales and England were the same thing anyway. Rafal then said ‘How would you like it if somebody called you a gorol? That is what you are doing to Matt’. They stopped calling me ‘Angol’ immediately. For a while they called me the word for ‘Welshman’ that sounded like ‘Valley Chicken’. Then they decided to call me Matt.

For every good performance I had I must have had about three bad ones, but it didn’t matter. I just liked going for the beer afterwards. I liked being around real Polish guys, people who didn’t just want to speak with me to improve their language skills. We couldn’t have conversations but we could drink together and I felt like one of the gang. Although there was some language exchange - I learnt the Polish words for ‘penalty’, ‘goalkeeper’, ‘centre’, ‘corner’, ‘yours’, ‘ours’ and I also learnt the word ‘halbe’. They learnt ‘Shoot!’. ‘Shoot, Matt, shoot!’ That was probably the most English some of them will speak in their lives. I liked seeing these guys around town too and waving to them and saying hello. One time I was with Roger, my American friend who taught at Pink Apple, and it was very late and we were walking down some dark alley in town. A man came out of the shadows and Roger and I thought he was going to beat us up and steal our money. Instead he said ‘Hey Matt!’ and carried on walking. It was a guy from the football.

The winter of early 2006 was a horrible one. The snow was heavy and it stayed for months. It was my first winter in Poland and such conditions were new to me. We still played football in the snow but less people came and the games weren’t so good. As weeks turned into months I became used to the snow and couldn’t remember what Tarnowskie Gory looked like without it.

One Sunday in this winter I was at my flat getting ready for the football. Rafal usually gave me a lift to the match but this week he couldn’t because he had problems with his car. It didn’t matter. It was only about a 20 minute walk to the pitch from Ohio and I could use the walk to stretch my muscles before the game. I looked outside the window and, of course, the snow was still there but it was very sunny and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. If you only looked at the sky you would have thought it was summer. I have always hated wearing gloves and hats so I decided that I wouldn’t wear them today – the snow was there but it looked like it was a nice, warm day. It looked like...

I went downstairs and stepped outside of the block. The first thing I thought was ‘Jesus, it doesn’t feel as warm as it looks’. I thought about going upstairs for my hat and gloves but decided against it because I was already a little bit late and I thought that when I was playing I’d be warm anyway and wouldn’t need them. I walked to the pitch...

By the time I got to the place where ‘Ohio Pizza’ is now I wanted to cry. I wanted to cry because it was so cold it felt like somebody had thrown acid in my face. I couldn’t cry because I don’t think my body could produce tears at this temperature. It was freezing. It was below freezing. The 20 minute walk felt like 8 hours. I honestly remember walking to the football and telling myself ‘This is a good thing, this is the coldest you have ever been in your life. This is something new.’

I got to the pitch. Normally there were about fifteen guys there getting ready to play. Now there was just four and I was the fifth. I’ve never been a smoker but I was stealing cigarettes from Rafal just to keep warm. I wanted to light my hair on fire just to be warm.

We waited for some others but nobody else came. The five of us decided we were stupid for coming to play football when it was so cold. Then we decided we would be even stupider if we came to play football when it was so cold and then didn’t play football and just went home. The plan was we would play 2-on-2 with one guy in goal. The first pair that got to 10 goals were the winners and then we would get the Hell out of there. Rafal and I were one of the pairings against two other guys. It took ages for any of us to score the first goal. We were desperate for anybody to score, just anybody! The cold was painful and we just wanted to get out of there. Finally my team scored and everybody breathed a sigh of relief. Now at least nine more goals.

It ended up being a pretty good match, better than it should have been. I remember scoring a rather excellent overhead kick. It was easy to try acrobatic shots like that when you knew you’d only fall on the soft snow. Once a few goals were scored the others went in very quickly and Rafal and I won 10-8. Hooray. Now we could go home...wait a second? Go home? Are you high? We had to go to the pub in the woods for some beer first!

We sat in The Pub In The Woods talking about how stupid we were for playing at that temperature, but we were kind of proud too. We drank boiled beer to try and stay alive. Somebody gave me the spare ski gloves they had in their car to walk home to stop my fingers falling off. I got home and put on about four jumpers and went to bed.

The next day I was teaching in Golden Gate and I was talking with some students about how cold it had been yesterday. I said that I had played football and it was the coldest I had ever been in my life. One girl looked up from her book and said in a robotic voice, ‘You played football? That is not possible!’ I told her that it was true, I had indeed played football the day before. ‘But it was -28 degrees,’ the girl replied and my jaw hit the floor.

I carried on playing every Sunday but then I got a girlfriend and my attendance went down until I just stopped going altogether. Instead on Sunday mornings I went to church! A woman stole me from the men. Now when I visit Poland I try to drink with the guys at The Pub In The Woods after they play. It is nice to catch up with them even though we don’t really have much of a conversation!

Sometimes, even now, I’ll be walking through Tarnowskie Gory and will hear a ‘Hey Matt!’ coming from across the street and it’ll be one of the guys from football waving at me. That feels good. In Britain people call football The Beautiful Game and I’d have to agree. It certainly helped a lonely Valley Chicken feel at home.