ALL OVER the world, kids play football wherever they can – or at least, that’s the romantic vision passed down the generations. Today, children playing the game on pock-marked playing fields are almost non-existent. The modern equivalent should probably be, “all over the world, kids are playing football games on their computers”. Whereas we would pretend that we were Jimmy Greaves, Bobby Charlton or Geoff Hurst, today, youngsters can have Lionel Messi, Erling Haaland or Jadon Sancho in their line-ups through leading PC games. There seems to be far more organised football than in my youth, but the old ad-hoc game on the rec, with jumpers for goalposts, seems to have disappeared.
During the pandemic, I have regularly walked across my local playing fields, past a set of redundant goal posts. They have been moved aside during the crisis, bolted to a perimeter fence. This really is football in lockdown.
Goal posts were a rare commodity in my youth, in fact, if you saw a set, one at each end of a muddy field, there was a buzz of excitement. On matchdays, nets would appear for a few hours, quickly taken down afterwards by the park keeper. But in the 30 minutes or so between the last game and their retrieval, we would rush into the goal and play a quick two-a-side game amid the stud-torn penalty area.
Given we had very few clothes (I am expecting a sympathetic violin to break into song now), we were told not to use our jumpers for goals, as they would invariably get muddied or even torn. We would use garage doors, barns and chalk-scrawled walls as makeshift goals. Today, I can understand why the elderly folk who had garage doors beneath their apartments would get annoyed at the constant thumping of the ball against the sheet metal garages.
We decided to make our own goals out of scrap wood, rusty nails and screws from our garden, coupled with plastic netting that would normally be used to deter over-zealous blackbirds from pecking at plants. This really was an onion bag! It was all very Heath Robinson, but for a short while, it worked. We would carry them to the rec like we were transporting recently-caught supper from the African plains and place them in a dog-mess free area of the park (not an easy task). They were very much five-a-side in terms of size, but then we were 11 years old. I recall my parents searching around the garden for those offcuts of wood some days later, which were apparently earmarked for use.
The goals attracted a good deal of attention, we had no trouble playing five or six-a-side as everyone wanted to have a game with those goals. We had a nice little regular space at the back end of the park and although the nets were a little fragile, they were fit for purpose. But on one balmy summer’s afternoon, one of the local yobs, a chap called “Butch” (long before Ray Wilkins was given the nickname at Chelsea) jumped on one of the goals in his best Dr Martens. That was the end of that.
We didn’t give up, though, we managed to find two old bed frames in a ditch close to our garden, which backed on some derelict allotments and a pig sty. This became our improvised football ground, although the holders of the allotments still in use found us a bit of a menace. A neighbour, Mrs “Floss” Sparks, would often knife our ball if it strayed into her garden.
This small plot of scrubby land was a saviour to us in the school holidays and I christened it the Allotment United FC stadium with the alternative name of Strawberry Field, not in homage to the Beatles, but because it was previously a patch of Strawberries. It was a classic ground, Ford and British Steel factories in the background, railway line, Victorian chimney pots – in many ways, it was your classic image of British football, the backdrop we most often associate with the game in this country!
Even today, if I come across a set of goalposts, and it is surprising where you find them – on tyrolean hillsides, in the middle of the most deprived inner-city estates, in the heart of rural areas or even car parks, I still get a buzz of excitement and the longing to score from a corner or with a 30-yard screamer. When my children were small, I bought a set of goals for the garden in the vain hope of getting them to learn football. Neither took up the challenge, so I spent several years trying to perfect my penalty technique.
But the little patch of distraction on the allotments was our theatre of dreams when we were small, and would you believe, it is still there, tucked behind security fencing. I’m not often in my home town, I moved away 40 years ago, but the last time I visited, I walked onto the “pitch” and stood where we used to kick off. I reminded myself of Keith Burkinshaw’s parting comment when he left Tottenham in the 1980s. Aware that this historic venue had gone the way of Peel Park, the Baseball Ground, Upton Park and Roker Park, I mumbled, “They used to play football here,” and headed to the Royal Oak pub to lift my spirits. It is locations like our little football pitch that really embodied the spirit of the game we all grew up with. There must be hundreds of similar sites across the country. Perhaps a blue plaque is in order!!
This article first appeared in Football Weekends magazine, reproduced by permission.