Playing football in a park on a weekend afternoon is one of life's less cerebral pleasures. Appealing almost exclusively to males of a certain age as it does, it is a shame that more people are not aware of the simple delights of playing soccer with complete strangers, a dodgy ball, jumpers for goalposts and a playing area with more craters than No-Man's Land.
Come rain or shine, it is almost inevitable that one can find small groups of people plodding around a park with a football looking for a game. Herein lies the beauty of park football, especially of the 'formless knock around' variety; there are no restrictions and there are almost always other people to draft into one's own game, should greater numbers be needed.
Regent's Park in London is one of the prime locations to find these gaggles of young men puffing and panting along a muddy strip of grass, dreaming of 30-yard banana-balls and scorching Cruyff1 turns, sweating into their faded replica tops. If the weather is good during the summer, the park becomes packed with these wannabe Beckhams or Zidanes from morning until dusk, when the park closes.
Try It - You Might Like It
Should a keen Researcher want to indulge in some ad hoc calcio (Italian for 'footy' or football) on a Saturday afternoon, here are some invaluable tips on how to find oneself a game:
Bring a ball - You will immediately have bargaining power enough to march up to other footballers who have neglected to bring one and offer them a game.
Take football boots with you - The ground might be muddy. Trainers are fine for summer, but one's enjoyment of a game can be seriously spoilt by spending more time floundering in muddy pools of water than tearing down the wing with balletic grace.
Bring a few like-minded mates - This way, if you don't manage to secure a knock-around with any other similar groups, one can always just play a bit of 'keepy-uppy' with one's pals until someone takes notice of you or more people arrive.
Don't bother the serious types - These are the people who are probably involved in a park's league clash and don't want any 'randoms'2 getting in their way. These serious types can be identified by the fact that they are all wearing a matching strip.
Don't bother playing on the proper marked-out pitches - These pitches are in reality little better than the open and available stretches of grass surrounding them, and the Park Wardens take a dim view of groups using these pitches if there's a match scheduled or the pitch is being given time to 'recover'. Plus, with a booking fee needed to play on these pitches, they are unlikely to let you do so for free.
Find an open, level and largely dry expanse of park - When you've found one, you can claim it as your own playing area before anyone else does. Size and shape are relatively immaterial, as a 'jumpers-for-goalposts' knockabout is probably best played without worrying about touchline boundaries, if only because it saves on arguments. The best areas tend to be near the Cumberland gate.
Things to Look Out for
Here are a few of the fascinating sights and sounds that enliven one's playing experience in the teeming cauldron of life that is Regent's Park. And also a couple of worthwhile things to know for after one's game has finished:
The South American 'World Cup Qualifying Matches' that seem to take place every weekend, with roughly forty people in eye-burningly bright strips playing football in deadly earnest, wearing gloves even in the height of summer and generally outclassing the pasty and fat natives who fancy a bit of a kickabout.
The extremely expensive refreshment kiosks, which are best avoided, unless one is desperate for an ice lolly in the summer. The toilets have a drinking fountain, so if one is in need of slaking one's thirst, there is a free option.
The nearly-tame squirrels which provide many hours of entertainment for the canine visitors to the park, who in their turn provide much annoyance to the footballers due to the general unpleasantness of playing on a pitch that doubles as a fecal depository. Finding one's kitbag covered in dog urine is not much fun either.
The ankle-breaking potholes which lie in wait around the grassy areas. Beware.
The office parties playing softball on summer afternoons, who are extremely loath to relinquish any space whatsoever for the usage of other park visitors. It also gives the 'office hardman' an excuse to get aggressive with any trespassing footballers.
The supermarkets and pubs near Great Portland St tube station, which provide an invaluable post-match service. Isotonic sports drinks? What's wrong with beer and a packet of crisps? Of these venues, Harts provides a limited and expensive choice, and the Firkin pub behind the station has a much nicer atmosphere than the Green Man, which isn't actually saying much.
The wandering players who turn out to be internationals slumming it, and who stroll up quietly like Clint Eastwood riding into town, joining in a game with all the other participants being unaware of their talents. Fifteen one-way goals in half an hour later, the credentials of this 'Player With No Name' have become painfully clear.
Travelling to Regent's Park
Here is a brief list of the most convenient means of arriving at Regent's Park for your glorious exhibition of soccer skills:
Walking is the most cost effective means of travelling, and it provides a nice pre-match warm-up. Beware of tiring yourself too much before actually reaching the park, though.
Cycling is another good way to travel, but be advised that there is ostensibly no cycling allowed in the park, not that anybody tends to adhere to this particular rule. Bike theft is unfortunately all too common as well.
Travelling by tube is pretty straightforward, as both Great Portland St and Regent's Park tube stations are in close proximity to the park, and are served by the Circle, Metropolitan, Hammersmith and City and Bakerloo lines. Mainline rail services to Euston are also a possibility, as this station is only 15 minutes walk away.
Driving is ill advised, as Euston and Marylebone Roads are horrifically busy at the best of times. Parking is also difficult and extremely expensive. It is quite likely that the only available parking spaces will be some distance from the park, so a long walk could still be a necessity.