Wednesday, 30 June 2010

"When I were a lad...."

All this recent hoo-ha about the English soccer team and their impressively inflated wages and their even more impressively inflated WAGS reminds me that although I usually try, like the footballers, to impress people with talents I don't really possess (savoir faire, cool urbanity etc), my natural style nowadays tends more and more to the Northern Grumpy Old Man school of oratory, which consists of a stubby forefinger pushed into the chest of the cornered listener, accompanied by the phrase "When I were a lad, yer were right lucky to 'ave......" In my case it was football boots.
I should begin by explaining that my uncle played professional football for Nottingham Forest long before Brian Clough was born, and in those days they apparently were a very good First Division team. When I tell my grandchildren this story they cannot understand why we’re not now all millionaires, but football in the 1930s was not a licence to print money. Like most of my male relatives my uncle worked as a coal-miner and played football as a hobby at weekends. He usually worked the night shift on a Friday and came home in the early morning exhausted and coated in coal dust. He would then bathe in a tin bath in front of the coal fire, and catch a few hours sleep before getting his football kit together, having a quick sandwich and catching the public bus to Nottingham for the Saturday afternoon game.
His remuneration for his efforts was that they paid his bus-fare and provided his football kit. When he returned home he would give his dirty boots, shirt and shorts to his little sister (who eventually became my mother), and it was her job to wash the football strip and clean his boots, for which he paid her several pence. The Beckham life-style it was not.
With that family history however I felt I should at least get into my Grammar school team. As I now know, genetic inheritance is not always that reliable. I was 6 ft. 4 in. tall and bore a distinct resemblance to a bespectacled giraffe both with regard to shape, size and agility (think Peter Crouch after 6 lagers). Small persons ran rings round me and although there were odd occasions when my head got in the way of the ball, it was never a happy experience. Footballs in the 1950s were made of heavy leather and they had stiff, hard, leather laces that tended to stick out. As a defender I dreaded those long goal kicks which were heading my way, as I knew that if I shirked it I should get a verbal lambasting from the John Terry equivalent, whereas if I steeled myself to withstand the pain and leapt forehead-first into the heavy ball I knew I would probably get a headache or concussion, and most likely would lose my glasses, which would get trodden on if my header didn’t quite work and the ball didn’t bounce far enough away from me.
Nevertheless I tried hard, as I had little else to offer on my University application form. I did make it into the First team once, when we played the local Agricultural College second team in a snowstorm (hulking, great 20 year-old farmlads) and lost 15-2.
So what could I put on my University application form in the space for Other Achievements? I eventually heard that a team called Pinxton Rovers were so short of players that anybody with a pair of football boots and a bicycle to get them to Pinxton could turn out for them any week. We played on a bone-hard recreation ground,with occasional patches of grass, usually with either 9 or 10 men. Good exercise but I can’t remember us ever winning a game.
The real, and only, benefit came many years later when I was able to casually tell my grandchildren, who now live in London and support Arsenal at the new Emirates Stadium, "When I was a lad, I played for Pinxton Rovers you know". They sometimes ask if they can see my No.7 shirt. If only!
John B.

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