(first published in The Cabinet of Heed, Issue12, September 2018)
There was a much-screened comedy sketch on British TV of a casting director for a ‘Tarzan’ film interviewing a hopping, one-legged applicant (played by Dudley Moore) for the lead part. The director says something like: ‘Your left leg would be great for the part. I’ve got nothing against your left leg. The trouble is, neither have you…’
That rather sums up my football skill-set: my right leg was effectively missing – I was hopelessly left-footed. I played for the Youth Club team on Saturday mornings. I sort-of-enjoyed it but, like a lot of stuff you do when you’re a child, I mainly turned up each week out of habit. Still, I might’ve stuck at it longer, if it hadn’t been for a Derbyshire Junior Cup-Tie we played. That game finished me.
We were drawn at home to a team from one of the mining villages. I’ll call ‘em ‘Bradgate Main’, just in case their Centre Half became a Queens Counsel when he left school. Our captain, Tony Mellors (centre-forward), was strutting about and holding forth, when he stopped in mid-sentence. We all turned to see what he was staring at: it was the Bradgate Main team – they’d arrived in a supporters’ bus! A double-decker. With scarves hanging out the windows! Unbelievable. Piggy Sowter (our left back) choked on his banana sandwich.
Their supporters, numbering at least a couple of dozen, started up a chant when Bradgate Main took to the field. A chant – unheard of! As they took up their positions for the kick-off, Bill Browning (inside left) muttered to me: ‘Bloody ‘ell. Look at the size of ‘em. They gotta be a couple of years older than us.’ Several of them looked to be fully grown. The centre half, in particular, must’ve been six foot, and hefty with it. He had one of those unintended, adolescent, whispy moustaches.
Five minutes in, Mellors and their centre half raced each other for a loose ball. There was a collision and Mellors stayed on the ground holding his ankle. The centre half trotted away from the resultant free kick with a secret smile. No substitutes back in 1961. Roy, the youth leader, examined Mellors’ ankle and switched him to the left wing – the traditional position for crippled passengers. Ordinarily, the switch would have been a source of quiet satisfaction to me. But not on this occasion. As I took Mellors’ place in the centre of the pitch, to await the free kick, the centre half towered over me. I felt his dog’s breath on my face as he whispered: ‘Burial or cremation, shit-face?’ Fortunately, the ball came nowhere near us. For the next five minutes, I wasn’t taking up positions so much as keeping out of the way.
Needless to say, the game was being played very largely in our half of the field. But although out-classed, we did have one secret weapon: our goalie, Pete Boulton, was a tremendous kicker of a dead ball. In those days, few thirteen year-olds, would have been able to lift that heavy leather ball past the halfway line. But Pete could do it with ease.
Eventually, we were awarded a goal kick. Pete raised both arms: his signal that he was going to slam it straight down the middle. Bradgate Main were unprepared. The goal kick soared over the halfway line. There were just me and Dog’s Breath underneath the ball, about twenty yards in. Dog’s Breath was a head taller than me: there was no chance of me being able to out-jump him. But I remembered a trick I’d seen Bill Curry, Derby’s centre forward, play on the colossus, Ron Yeats, Liverpool’s Scottish International Centre Half. As the ball plummeted down towards us, I sensed when Dog’s Breath was about to jump and backed into him. I caught him off-balance and he stumbled backward. I caught the ball on my foot (my left foot, of course) and flicked it first time over mine and Dog’s Breath’s left shoulder. I pivoted round him like he was a stone post, collected the loose ball and raced towards the goal, Dog’s Breath floundering in the middle distance.
The Bradgate goalie, startled out of his reverie, ran out to meet me. I shaped up to shoot and the goalie spread himself to make the save. But, instead of shooting, I took the ball round the goalie, spread-eagled on the ground, and simply side-footed it into the net (with my left foot). It was a sublime moment.
You know that phrase: the crowd went wild? Well, the Bradgate supporters gave that phrase a new twist: they were acting like a Wild West lynching-mob. As I trotted modestly back to the centre circle for the re-start, Dog’s Breath snarled: ‘I’m gonna rip your throat out.’
As a child, I was always sensitive to the moods of others. Suspecting that I might have become rather unpopular with the opposition, I thought it best to move out towards the left wing for a spell. Day-dreaming of succeeding Bill Curry in the Derby County attack, I was awakened from my reverie by a shout from Bill Browning: a loose ball was bouncing towards me and Bill was racing up-field looking for my pass. As I controlled the ball, I caught a glimpse of a Bradgate player bearing down on me. So I turned my back on him, shielding the ball while I measured the pass up to Bill.
Dog’s Breath slammed into my back like a runaway train. I was projected into the crowd of Bradgate supporters on the touchline. The force of the impact knocked all the breath out of me. I lay there, face-down on the muddy ground, unmoving, traumatised, arms out-stretched like a dead starfish. Then, in the meleé of crowding legs, someone stood hard on my hand.
It was a life-changing moment: by the time I’d struggled back upright, I’d decided to get a Saturday job.