Nothing beats playground football. No matter how long one’s playing career is, or how successful it becomes, nobody ever forgets how it all started: on the playground and on the streets.
Without wishing to sound like the archetypal old git, I wonder if kids these days get the same footballing enjoyment those of my generation and before did.
Primary School: The Dream Begins
I remember starting out on my footballing adventures, such as they were, in the playground at around the age of seven or eight, and those pick-up games meaning the world to me and my mates.
They were all we could talk or think about, and many a lesson which should have been spent studying long multiplication or transitive verbs were instead given over to debating points on matches played and discussing upcoming breaks and lunch times.
Beginning in primary school, memory recalls that games would last all day with a cumulative score being kept throughout. The game would start before school began and would commence whenever enough players to form a quorum of three-a-side had arrived.
Subsequent players arriving at school would then join in on either side, and so by the time the bell went for the start of the day’s lessons, there would probably be around seven or eight on each team.
The score would be kept, and the morning break would see the game recommence at that scoreline. Thus it would continue through lunchtime and into the afternoon break that my quaint primary school permitted us at the time.
It was the norm, therefore, to have final scorelines of 17-14 and the like.
There was a hierarchy within the school and one had to earn the right to play with ‘the Big Boys’ in the first place. It was almost unheard of for anyone below the level of third year juniors (Year Five) to be allowed to play, and even then only good players were accepted. Should anyone in the school from second year juniors ever receive an invite to join in, news would be transmitted across the school in a flash that they were going to ‘play with the Big Boys’.
I am not sure whether it was unique to my particular school, but looking back now it seems odd to relate that not only were the teams fixed – as in the same players appeared on the same sides each day – but that the sides were inherently unfair and everyone knew it.
Once accepted into the game at all there was still a kind of A team and B team mentality to overcome. All the best players in the school were somehow deigned to play for the A team in the playground, while all the wannabes ended up in the B team. This meant, invariably, the A team ended up winning almost every single day.
Although hardly democratic or fair, this method of team selection did at least mean that boys in my school were spared the potentially humiliating prospect of being the last man picked as usually happened whenever ‘captains’ were assigned to pick sides.
The games themselves were played the entire length and breadth of the main playground, and so any poor misguided soul who wished to use the playground for any other purpose was cruelly shunted off to the side and had to contend with the very real possibility of being clobbered by either the ball or the participants.
One term, I recall the headmaster informing us all in assembly that following complaints it would no longer be permitted to use the entire length of the playground for our matches. Matches had to be henceforth played across the width of the playground and were to be contained within an area approximately half of that before.
A Much Appreciated Martyr
This draconian (in our eyes, anyway) ruling was adhered to for precisely three days until the hopeless overcrowding on the ‘pitch’ led to one unfortunate boy being pushed to the ground and trampled on. The resulting broken arm of this martyr to the cause led to a relaxing of the rules and games continuing as ever before.
The games were played out with a tennis ball as anything larger was strictly prohibited by the school. However, although I would love nothing more than to relate that this state of affairs resulted in us all becoming highly-skilled individuals with the ball-control capabilities of Kevin Keegan and Trevor Brooking, the truth of the matter is we actually had an awful school football team and double-figure drubbings were not uncommon.
Secondary School: The Dream Continues
Moving up into secondary school, the playground games continued but tended to be more open-ended. Rules changed in as much as the sides varied from day-to-day, and the games tended to played in one sitting, so to speak. Separate matches were thus held at break time and then again at lunch, with the scores not being carried forward and the make-up of the sides changing.
The games were also less exclusive as I recall, and anyone was permitted to play with the sides more or less ‘fair’. The school being considerably larger in size of course meant that at any one time there could be a dozen or so games of football going on simultaneously.
Most of the games would be split upon age boundaries with little crossover. So, for example, very few second-year boys would play in a game involving either the first or third years.
Our first three years at secondary school saw playground football really flourish amongst us, before an element of being too cool for school took over to a degree in the fourth and fifth years.
At this stage, puberty and other interests (girls!) took centre stage for some and those in the ‘Groovy Gang’ decided it was no longer cool to run around getting hot and sweaty during break and lunchtimes – not by playing football, anyway!
The first few years at big school were fun, though. It was through games in the playground that we all became superstars and did our best to ape those we spent our Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons watching on Match of the Day and The Big Match respectively.
This was the early eighties, and although Ipswich were the People’s Club where I grew up in East Anglia, a myriad of teams were supported and thus represented on the school’s tennis courts at break and lunch times.
In the first couple of years, some of us still weren’t too long in the tooth to take on the mantle of our favourite player or team. Utterances along the lines of: ‘We’ll be Spurs and you can be Arsenal. I’m Hoddle and my mate’s Crooks’ were becoming less frequent at that age, but still could be heard from time to time.
Imitation as Flattery
What was commonplace as we got older, however, was the replication of individual acts seen on TV, or even styles of play.
For example, in the 1981 FA Cup Final, Spurs scored a jammy equaliser late in the first match. Ardiles tapped a free-kick on the edge of the box to Perryman who stopped it dead in order for Hoddle to shoot and score via a massive deflection off Tommy Hutchinson’s shoulder.
For weeks following the game, every single free-kick in the Notley High School playground – and no doubt in playgrounds all over the country – followed the same tap-trap-shoot scenario, with varying degrees of success.
Glenn Hoddle himself was pretty much in vogue as a player during this period, and almost as one we 13 and 14-year-olds went through a spell whereby we felt obligated to spend the entirety of our 15 and 45 minute matches pinging out Hollywood passes.
One such memory in particular stood out. This one related to a goal scored by Southampton’s Danny Wallace in a televised match against Liverpool.
Three decades before Gareth Bale similarly broke Liverpool hearts in Kiev, on a freezing cold Friday evening in front of the TV cameras Wallace executed the most perfect overhead kick. Needless to say, this was the cue for a dozen or more adolescent shoulder injuries and dislocations in north-west Essex in weeks to come.
By the mid-1980s, however, our schooldays had run their course, and it is perhaps just as well that the likes of Vinny Jones and the Wimbledon Crazy Gang had yet to make much of an impression. One can only shudder at the possible consequences of his tackle on Gazza’s tackle being reproduced amongst my particular peers at the time.
Time waits for no man, and before we know it the years have passed and so have we. We were forever being told by our teachers to enjoy our schooldays as they were bound to be the happiest of our lives, and although we doubted the veracity of that particular adage at the time, (and ever since if truth be told) there can be no denying the glow that the memories of playground football still bring.