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Chapter 8: Football

A lifetime’s interest in football, what they call soccer in the US, was already well on the way when we lived in Birmingham. We boys often played on concrete or tarmac during breaks at Haslucks Green, maybe with a stray tennis ball that someone had found or sometimes with a plastic Woolworth’s ball one of us had been given that was closer to the normal size. Real leather balls were pretty much out of our reach. No gym clothes or sports clothes for these scrimmages, just what we wore to school. We set up small goals with the posts marked by our satchels, or in the rain by rocks or sticks, at each end of the makeshift field, and picked teams. We already knew that picking teams was the best way to keep the teams balanced, although we did want to play on the same team as our better friends. Did I think that Keith Russell was the best player, or did I just want to play on his team? Once play was underway, we had innumerable excited squabbles about the more important tackles or shots. Was it a foul? Did it really cross the goal line between the “posts?” The margin between victory and defeat was sometimes in the outcome of these persistent squabbles. It is very difficult to judge accurately whether a small ball a few foot in the air crossed the goal line above a satchel or next to it.

Fred Smith, my maternal grandfather, on his motorcycle. His wife rode in the sidecar. According to Aunty Vi, he was a successful house painter much appreciated by his clientele. He died eight years before I was born.

Outside school, I found a group of bigger boys that played together with a full-size leather ball on a field not far from our house. Relative luxury! Again, no-one wore uniforms, not even cleats, and street shoes were the norm. The number of pairs of shoes that I wore out was the despair of my parents until they were at ease financially, which did not happen until Marlow in 1966 or 1967. It is hard for me to say now how old these boys were, but they felt a lot bigger than me then. Also, they wore winklepickers, leather shoes with very pointed toes popular among the “teddy boys” of the time. Teddy boys were the notorious ancestors of rockers, groups of young people out and about on their own and with their own style. They must have been at least fourteen or fifteen, maybe sixteen or seventeen. They let me play with them even though I was only eight or nine. I loved those games, and felt so flattered that they let me play. I played in defense, mostly, and was known for being fearless even in front of the big boys. Oddly enough, despite their size, I felt safer playing with them than at school. The tarmac was hard to fall on, and I was constantly scraping my knees at school. On the grass field with these big boys, I was hurt much less frequently.

But one day there was an accident. One of the nicer big boys on the team against us kicked the ball so hard that his winklepicker flew off and hit me full in the face. It shocked the hell out of me, and really hurt.  I had figured out that the ball couldn’t hurt that much, wherever it came from, because I could duck it enough for it not to really cream me. But that damned shoe came right of the blue, behind the ball, which I was focusing on, and
blindsided me. That accident definitely made me more timid when I played with those boys afterwards. I would still tackle as easily and pretty much fearlessly, but gone was standing face first in front of a hard kick from the boy facing me: I never knew what the ball might hide!

Football remained a part of daily life, an important part. The things I learned playing the game over the years are manifold. One of them is that particular incidents in a game of football, however dramatic at the time, make almost no difference in later games, and obviously no difference in a life. We each find things that we are good at, and if it is a game, we keep playing it. That’s why I played football on a regular basis until graduating law school. By picking what we are good at, we already inspire ourselves with a certain confidence. So ability meshes with confidence to give a bottom line, a root, on which you build over the years as you learn more and confront more. It’s a good root, if as a child you pick it yourself. That is the danger of those well-meaning parents who push their young children in directions that suit the parents more than the children. The baseline of their young charges’ development is skewed, distorted by their parents, and they never get properly started. If you pick your game or your hobby or your direction yourself, your baseline is stronger and you have a better chance of building yourself well.

Alice Smith, née Duggan, in the sidecar of her husband’s motorcycle. She died of cancer when her youngest daughter, my mum, was only ten years old, and thus had an attenuated presence in our family. I have no photos at all of me playing soccer as a child, which explains why the photos in this chapter are of professional players or mum’s family. Birmingham was where she was born and raised.

Not that I ever became a really good football player. I never became the all-round athlete that dad was either. After starting at Solihull School, football was never an officially-sponsored school sport for me again. Rugby was the school’s winter sport at both Solihull and Borlase’s, my last school before University, because each aspired to mimic the upper class. Neither school could be upper class or even become it: that was simply beyond their reach, and most of those in charge of the schools knew it. But in the England of my youth the middle class strove to act like the aristocracy, which played rugby, and schools which sought to appeal to middle class parents focused on rugby and ignored football as an official sport. The working class played football. The aristocracy also played polo, but that was beyond the pocket book of all but the real aristocracy. Another vestige of the British class system thus annoyed me. Only secondary schools had organized sports at the time, and I had been looking forward to proper training in football and real equipment. Of course, we continued to play football unofficially at school, during almost every recreation break for six years, but the damage was done. I never had proper equipment until adulthood, and to this day have never had any training.

I didn’t have much of a commitment as a fan in those days either. Aston Villa was one of the four local first division clubs: the others were Birmingham City, Wolverhampton Wanderers and West Bromwich Albion. Great names from the late 19th century! Villa was the club that I nominally supported, principally because Keith Russell did, but it did not matter that much, not the way it mattered to Keith. I rarely if ever went to Villa Park, although mum’s dad had worked there before he died, and although the loyalty of
the club’s fans led Punch (the sadly defunct English humor magazine) later in the 1960s to suggest jokingly that the club form a new town and abandon football completely! I wasn’t from Birmingham, as were almost all of Villa’s fans, and certainly all of those at Hasluck’s Green. I was, as other children called me sometimes, “CL”, for cockney Londoner. They were wrong, of course. If I was from anywhere, it was Cardiff and Bristol, but they heard an accent that was not local, and I was branded. Hard to say why that hurt at the time, but it did and I have never uncritically adopted Birmingham as home, even though it was mum’s real home and even though I lived there from the age of eight through thirteen. I was nominally a Villa fan at Borlase’s, after leaving Birmingham, because after leaving Birmingham I was from there. One’s origins become confused when you move around a lot as a child. Sad to say, I can’t name one player on the Villa teams of that period, and never saw the team play. I can name a good half of the Manchester United players from the same period, starting with Bobby Charlton, Alan Law and George Best, Sir Matt Busby’s so-called holy trinity, and saw them play a couple of times with dad. I had no connection
whatever with Manchester, and at the time being a football fan was geographically based. ManUtd’s amazing history overcame that geographic barrier, in particular the Munich air crash in 1958 which took the lives of most of the young men that Matt Busby had already moulded into a great team, and the new team he built after it. I didn’t admit it for years, but was a closet ManUtd fan even then.

George Best, short, skinny, tough and a genius with that ball. The best of Sir Matt Busby’s “holy trinity” at Manchester United.

These were not great times for Sue, as far as I can tell. Her fits continued, or so I’m told, and she was accident prone. I wanted to develop my football goalkeeping skills, and had a brainwave on how Sue could help me do so despite the relative weakness of her shots. I had her swing back and forth on our back garden swing, and on the way forwards I would roll the ball to her so that as she hit the bottom of her arc she kicked it, her motion on the swing almost effortlessly transformed into a good hard kick that had me diving all over the place. This worked for weeks or months, until one day after heavy rains the swing uprooted itself all of a sudden and threw Sue on to the soggy ground where her head hit a brick. Blood everywhere. Mum rushed her to the hospital for stitches. When I fell from a tree in the same back garden because a rope broke, I crashed down on the ground flat on my back and bounced: no harm done. The difference between us throughout our young years is captured by the difference in the results of those two falls.

Football took me on one involuntary excursion into the darker side of boyhood, the seamy side of life. I used to play pick-up football games with other local boys after school or on weekends in the local park, further from home than the field where I had found the bigger boys. One day when I’d gone looking for a game but couldn’t find anyone (that happened: nothing was ever arranged), a Cypriot boy whose parents owned a cheap local restaurant, a
cross between a diner and a deli, on the local high street called the Stratford Road started chasing me through the park. He wanted to beat me up. I didn’t understand why. I just knew that he, an immigrant in a blue collar area, wanted to hurt me. He had punched me before. This time, he lunged after me and I ran. That primal desire to hurt the other still confuses me greatly, although some of the people closest to me have told me that I seem at times to want to hurt them. I recognize an occasional desire for vengeance, or a desire to lash out in the face of humiliation, and there is obviously a lot of common ground between those feelings and the meanness of these childhood incidents. In Birmingham, this boy’s ethnic identity must have given him plenty to seek vengeance for, and humiliation must have been a daily event. So, when there was no-one around, this dark-skinned boy picked on smaller white boys. I knew him already and ran like the wind. He was older and bigger than I, and was catching up. I slipped through a hedge, and with an adrenaline-inspired flash of insight ran ducking down behind the hedge to slip out about thirty yards down on the other side of the hedge, back the way I had come. He could not see me cutting back along the hedge, and only caught sight of me again as I started running the other way just as he was squeezing through the bristles of the hedge for the first time. When he looked up and saw me running back the way we had come, toward the Stratford Road and people, the wind went out of him and he let me run madly off with no further pursuit.

Dennis Law, after scoring. He did that a lot, 46 times in one season! Only preparing this memoir did I discover courtesy of the ManUtd web site that Law and Charlton were each 5′ 9″ and Best 5′ 8″ tall. They seemed a lot taller than that wherever they played.

I was proud of my cut-back strategy for escaping, which may well have discouraged this predator, but remained confused. I had probably already started seeking revenge myself, but did not know it. Seeing what looked like unprovoked meanness in this boy who was almost a stranger remained and clouded my young psyche. He scared me after that incident, but not enough to stop me looking for pick-up games in the park. Innocence crumbles on such minor occurrences, but not the desire to play.

Bobby Charlton: in the air on the left; survivor of the Munich air crash (he was thrown 40 yards from the plane); the third member of the incredible threesome who played together for ManUtd from 1964 through 1973.

Cutting back was a football strategy too, and often worked as well as a means of getting by an opposing player. That is not what was important in what I learned from football. What football taught that has stayed with me throughout my topsy-turvy life is less simple to define. I instinctively understood team play, each individual’s dependence on others to get things done or done better, the value of working together. More self-centered and aggressive children need sports for that lesson: not me. Rather than be a striker, I tended to make goals for other boys, set them up with a delicate through ball, or give them a one-two to waltz through the defense. That’s who I am in professional life too, helping others meet their goals, sometimes in ways that they could not themselves. We’re not all George Best or Jimmy Greaves, to cite a couple of the football heroes of my childhood, or Thierry Henry or Wayne Rooney, to cite a couple of my younger sons’ football heroes. But I tend to defer to others too much. Football helped teach me that deferring was not always the answer. Learning when to dribble through or take a shot myself, rather than passing the ball, learning when to demand the ball myself rather than letting the more aggressive boy try to do it all himself, were simple lessons of great value that I still use today. And the rush when I scored, or even made a great shot or a great pass!

That was the ultimate football lesson: to establish a balance between myself and others that enabled me to have my moments of glory just as they did, and to begin to understand what went into that balance. Self-sacrifice has an important role to play: that much I knew instinctively. So does being self-centered. The art is in the balance between them, as is the
satisfaction. I started learning that balance on the playing field.

© Ian J. Stock

Next chapter: Chapter 9 Train spotting

Previous chapter: Chapter 7 Dad’s Career

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