"Old Thompson gets dizzy if he goes into the opposing half," joked the manager. "But at the back he's as sound as they come."
All, who had played in the side, agreed - people had come and gone, but Charlie remained - for twenty-four years, he had played on the marshes every Sunday. At forty-two this was his last game for the Magpie and Whistle's public house football side. He decided it was time to hang up his boots, and he may have done so a few games earlier, but the side had been on a good cup run - making the final. The old hunger got the better of him, and he thought it would be a fitting way to leave the game.
His wife, June, came to see him make his final bow, knowing it would be an emotional farewell when they went down the Magpie and Whistle for the after match celebration. Win or lose they decided to make a Sunday afternoon of it.
"I've not been to see him play for years," said June, to the young woman standing next to her, as the game progressed towards the final whistle.
"Who's you're old man then," asked the young woman inquisitively.
"The older man playing left back over there. Left back in the changing room more like," she joked.
"Oh," replied the young woman. "That's Charlie - my Billy's always going on about him. Reckons he's real pucker player, and hopes to play as long as he can. He'll have another eighteen years to go if he can do what your old man's done."
June was touched by the young woman's words - she looked out to Charlie. His craggy face was set in grim concentration, looking brutish with his close cropped grey hair. The lines and wrinkles suddenly become obscure as she visualised the boyish spirit in him, and how he enjoyed the challenge of the game. There he was, outpacing and competing - with men, some, young enough to be his sons.
Her lungs filled with the cool spring air as she took in a big gulp, willing him to win the ball. Up for the header - a young forward trying his luck - no chance. Her heart swelled as Charlie landed upon the turf victorious - the ball neatly dispatched to a midfield player. Charlie briefly looked to June, feeling pleased with himself. He was having a good game, and his confidence surged when he saw his wife's rapture - he felt it in her smile, which further invigorated him.
"Not much gets past him you know. You should see him more often," added the young woman.
"Yes, I should have done. He can still move about as well as the young ones, can't he?"
A burning pride flowered in her chest, making her entire body feel as though it would inflate right down to the veins in her arms. She closed her mouth tightly wanting to contain the feeling - fearing it might escape through her teeth. As she watched her husband, an interest began to stir, and she found herself willing him on.
"Looks like going into extra time. Nil - nil during cup games always do. Might have been all over if it wasn't for your Charlie stopping that flanker. He's been a life saver." The young woman's words glowed with praise.
"Oh, he's won it again," yelped June, who had become fully reconciled with the rest of the spectators.
"He'll take it to the half way line and lay it off." The young woman had seen him do it many times before, and sure enough he did, but then an irregularity occurred.
Charlie didn't stop; he kept running after passing to a forward, who was immediately challenged by an opposing defender. The ball was returned over the heads of the conflicting players to land back at Charlie's feet. What made him venture so far into the opposition's territory was beyond him. He was a stalwart defender - more so in the maturity of his years.
A hesitant touch put the ball passed the last challenging defender and Charlie was in the unfamiliar realms of the opposing side's penalty area - the goalkeeper bearing down on him. It was as though time stood still, and from a distant tunnel above the excited delight of the spectators, he heard June scream. "Go on Charlie, you can do it."
He knew he could, and June, who had not been to see him play in years, was watching. His jaw muscles clenched as a fierce and eager desire blossomed in his chest. He tentatively side footed the ball forward a little as the keeper slid, spread-eagled at his feet. With grim determination, he lunged ahead and managed to toe punt the ball untidily beneath the man and jump over the surging mass of arms and legs, clipping his foot against the adversary's limb in the process. He stumbled on as the ball bounced ahead of him - toppling, fighting against gravity as he caught up with the slackening velocity of the leather orb. His foot made contact, in a last ditched effort, smashing the ball into the back of the gaping net with less then a minute of the game to go.
The euphonious clamour of the spectators ignited a furious exultation within as he turned to June on the touchline. Her face was pure bliss and all for him. He gritted his teeth as a tide of emotion swept up his gullet from the pit of his stomach. For a moment he tried to contain it, clenching his fists in victory while gratifying tears oozed from his eyes. His will power buckled to the passion that exploded from his throat as he roared ferociously like victorious warrior - the assailed goalkeeper lying distraught at his feet. He was then buried beneath a tide of congratulating team mates.
Charlie would go out in style; all he wanted was for the whistle to blow, and to hug June who had willed him on. He could feel the radiance of her rapture, burning his back - even before he put the ball in the back of the net, maybe before he crossed the half - way line. They would have a fine time at the after match celebration and when looking out at the May twilight he would watch the sunset, knowing there were many summer days to come and the memory of his last game, finishing on a splendid and glorious little twilight.