The muddy, laced ball, resembling Barnes Wallis’ bouncing bomb, rolled into the net, careering over worm-casts and divots. A gaggle of schoolboys, wearing their Gola or Co-op boots, tried to kick the ball back in play from behind the goal. The goalkeeper, white spindly legs, Peter Bonetti –style hair and an ill-fitting, gaping-at-the-neck green jersey, muttered under his breath and bent down to pick the ball up. He glanced up and saw the boys scrambling around behind the goal: “Alright lads?”. We were in awe. This was Ockendon United’s star goalkeeper, Joe Bloggs.
It was Joe Bloggs, wasn’t it? We thought so, because when, a few months earlier, we asked him to sign our Frido ball, he penned “Joe Bloggs” on the orange dimpled plastic with a blue Bic. It was only some years later that we realised he was taking the piss. But at that moment, he was Joe Bloggs. “Hard luck, Joe,” I called, commiserating with him over letting the goal in, scored by the number 7 of Stork Margarine FC. He muttered again, probably an expletive and scythed the ball upfield.
Ockendon United’s home ground was the dog-shit laden recreation ground. On a Saturday afternoon during the football season, there would be two games on most weeks. Ockendon United played in all white. The first time I came across them, I asked Joe what team he was playing for. Sarcastically, he said: “Leeds United”. I looked closely at their badge to confirm that it wasn’t Leeds and I was damn sure that Joe was not Gareth Sprake. He didn’t speak with a Welsh accent, for a start. And it wasn’t David Harvey, either. For a moment, I thought the number 10 looked a little like Johnny Giles, but I couldn’t see Don Revie on the sidelines in his sheepskin. The badge confirmed it. An oak tree, which suggested that the nearby Royal Oak pub was their home “base”. It wasn’t Leeds.
It was about 1968 when I first realised Ockendon even had a team. I imagined that if the club was successful, perhaps a stadium could be built on the rec. When you consider that teams like East Thurrock United and Purfleet (later Thurrock) started in much the same way, it’s not such a scatter-brain idea. Lots of non-league clubs began life as village concerns.
I got to know a couple of the players from the Ockendon team. Not personally, of course, but they were recognisable around the area. One small, busy player with very black hair called Steven Gillingham always stood out (I wonder what happened to him, he must be mid-to-late 60s now). And then there was Trevor Gray, who played in goal for them when Joe Bloggs was injured.
We watched intensely and even tried to listen in on the half-time team-talk. As they trooped to the sideline, we watched the players smoke a half-time ciggy, suck on an orange, swear a lot and scratch their arses. “Bugger off, lads,” would often be the way we were greeted. “We’re busy”. Seeing our heroes for what they really were was an eye-opener. “I bet Peter Osgood doesn’t have a half-time smoke,” I said. “Or swear.” My pal responded: “I’ve heard that George Best has a woman at half-time. At least that’s what my brother reckons.”
The second half would be accompanied by a transistor radio as we listened to Radio 2’s football coverage. Occasionally, one of the players might call over, “How are Spurs getting on?”. They weren’t interested in how rivals like Avel Lindberg or Grays Social were faring, but they needed to know if Jimmy Greaves had scored at White Hart Lane. Of course, the games ended earlier than the Football League as it would be dark by 4.30pm. “Do you think they will build floodlights at the rec?” I would ask Joe. “Not until we draw Manchester United in the FA Cup,” he would reply.
When the final whistle went, there was a window of opportunity of about 20 minutes to half an hour before the nets were retrieved by the park keeper. At both ends, a gang of youngsters (who would appear like scavangers out of the bush looking to pick a freshly-mauled corpse) would commandeer the goalmouth. Nets were the ultimate luxury item for any group of players – no endless march to find the ball as it sped through the posts and into the ditch! “Quick, 10 minutes each way,” was the rallying call.
As we were small and undeveloped, a game on a full-size pitch would be low on thrills. By the time we reached the penalty area, we were worn out but a “shot” from 25 yards was guaranteed to find the back of the net as the goalkeeper (usually the smallest of us) would scamper across the goal-area and almost always be unable to stop the daisy-cutter.
Our fun would be curtailed as the park-keeper brought his wheel-barrow over. “Oi, get off the pitch,” he yelled, ignoring the fact that 22 hulking blokes had just played on it and now a mere half a dozen pint-sized primary school kids were just attempting to recreate the 1966 World Cup.
We recognised the park-keeper. It was none other than Joe Bloggs. What a clubman!