IT IS a familiar scene – a ragtag collection of men and boys, dashing around in ill-fitting kits on a weeknight.
The dubious pleasures of friction-burned knees and an eyeful of sand attract players from exuberant secondary schoolers to paunchy 40-year-olds to football leagues everywhere, and Monday nights at Great Cornard Upper School are no different.
Yet at the same time, they are.
Once the cursory warm-ups are complete, the teams gather in the centre of the half-pitch and bow their heads.
Welcome to Fellowship Football.
“It started in 2005 as we wanted more fellowship outside the churches, as we didn’t feel we really got to know each other,” says Paul Tamsett, the team overseer for Churches Together in Sudbury and District, who is sidelined with broken ribs following a nasty fall from a roof three weeks ago.
“What we soon found was people were hanging around and wanting to play.”
Interest grew and soon teams affiliated to different churches were forming.
Currently there are 120 players, mainly aged between 16 and 40, in eight teams; New Church from Great Cornard, combined team Monks Hadleigh, Bury St Edmunds side Icthus, and Churches Together, Sudbury Baptist, Eden’s Project, Vineyard and my teammates for the night, Town Pastors, from Sudbury,
They are joined by Christchurch Moreton Hall and Chelmsford Presbyterian for a Champions League-esque cup during the season, which runs from late September to late June.
Although all teams are affiliated to the church, non-Christians are welcome and make up a significant portion of the players.
With the two eight-a-side teams gathered in the centre, Town Pastors’ overseer and committee member Frank Marsden explains the prayers and asks non-believers to respect the Christian principles.
Roger Thackeray, of our opponents Sudbury Baptists, leads in asking God for a clean game, free of injuries and played in the right way.
“As long as people stick to the Christian spirit, that’s fine,” says David Goodswin, a compact defender from Drake Road in Sudbury.
Paul explains that the prayers are much the same most weeks and are guided by a weekly focus on the league’s website, except in exceptional circumstances.
“Last season, the dad of a couple of the lads unfortunately died. We directed our prayers in support of them and got together to raise some money for the family,” he says.
The match kicks off, with my side made up of a number of loaned players as Town Pastors, formerly known as St Andrew’s from Great Cornard, have struggled for numbers recently.
The rules are much the same as “normal” football, with no restrictions on height of passes or going into penalty areas. However, referees are also deemed unnecessary.
If a player believes he has been fouled, he stops and holds up his hand - “The games referee themselves, everyone is sensible,” says David.
“We try to encourage players to sort it out themselves, if it ever boils over then the team overseers step in,” adds Frank.
This theory is tested during the match, as argumentative forward Jamie Murphy, 17, is toppled clumsily just outside the Sudbury Baptist penalty area.
The usual cries of indignation and accusation fly through the air.
Frank walks on calmly and the free-kick is awarded, squared to me and promptly shanked wide.
Jamie later gets into some handbags-at-dawn posturing with an opponent, which is expertly diffused by the more experienced members of both teams.
“We’re all human beings and sometimes there’s friction,” says Frank, who lives in Great Waldingfield.
Town Pastors have struggled with their revolving door line-up this season, and find themselves firmly rooted to the foot of the league, with our opponents placed in mid-table.
Incisive breakaway attacks put us on the back foot, and despite some valiant saves and last minute blocks Sudbury Basptist open up a deserved 2-0 lead.
A mislaid pass sees me testing out another of Fellowship Football’s differences to more familiar leagues.
Former team-mates have often been treated to four-letter tantrums as I admonish myself for woeful inaccuracy or poorly-tied laces, and I momentarily forget where I am and blurt out an expletive. No big deal at most matches, but Fellowship Football rules state that a free-kick should be awarded and Frank, as my overseer, should have a quiet word about my conduct.
Benefit of the doubt and profuse apologies to anyone in earshot mean I avoid such sanctions, and I trot back feeling sheepish.
“We rate the spirit of each game played,” says Paul. “I send a text to all the overseers and ask how they viewed their game. They come back with their ratings and there’s a star system on the website which keeps track.”
Jamie’s younger brother Nicky, 15, of Corporal Lillie Close, Sudbury, explains the different attitude compared to the 11-a-side football he plays with Sudbury’s Woodland Colts.
“People care more about the 11-a-side, it’s good to come and have a laugh here, it’s more fun as there’s nothing at stake,” he says.
Despite Jamie pulling one back and a wonderful save from Sudbury Baptist goalkeeper Jamie Powell, who tips a well-directed header from yours truly over the bar, we are soundly beaten.
Sudbury Baptists’ adherence to the footballing commandments of using the width, retaining possession and being decisive earns them the win in a game rated as 3.5 out of four stars.
The overall atmosphere is similar to a good kickabout with your friends - a decent standard and taxing workout with enough competitive edge to keep things interesting.
“I think God is quite happy about competitive sport like this, he is more concerned about the attitude and intentions of the players,” explains Paul.
I may have been one of the non-believers on the pitch, but I am a convert to Fellowship Football.
Anyone interested in getting involved should visit www.fellowshipfootball.co.uk or call Frank Marsden on 07729 838443.