Scoring goals and tackling hard. It began with boys wearing big leather boots with leather studs nailed into the soles (not the brightly coloured ballet slippers worn by today’s players); playing on concrete playgrounds, in streets, on cinder pitches. When you fell, it hurt. So, stay on your feet! My first coach was a man who was stocky and hard as nails; like many of his generation, he’d spent some time in the Army. He played hard with us at elementary school and treated us like teenagers: “‘It ‘im ‘ard, so ‘e wont come near ya agin!” he might say as he rolled into one of us. Back then, shin guards were made of padding with bamboo strips–if you were lucky. They were bulky. They were not obligatory, but I think I wore them almost all of my playing days–my legs were valuable. I was very fast and my legs were often my most vulnerable target. We learnt skills but moreover we got very fit.
When I went to secondary school, I met coaches who had more finesse and wanted to teach how to dribble the ball well, and the importance of ball control and possession. We had a decent team, by no means the best, but many in my year made the first XI (eleven) at the ripe age of 14-15 and played for four years. Some of us represented the Westminster district and even the London Schools. Several of us had trials with professional clubs and some were apprentice professionals.
Speed was my main weapon, and it was often lethal; sometimes so quick that the officials could not believe that I was not offside. I played on the wings. I learned to put the speed to work, not just to get the ball advanced for others to score, but for me to finish myself. Oh, what a feeling as the ball went into the goal! Better, if the goal had a little grace: a chip shot; a lob over the advancing goalkeeper; a speedy attack and beating a lunging defender, before rounding the ‘keeper. I never had great power in my shots, but I could dribble and shoot with either foot; I later learned to head the ball well.
As I grew into my late teens, I played for a semi-professional club (‘minor league’ for the US audience), performing for them mostly on Saturday afternoons, after I’d played for school in the morning. At times, we had club games midweek, under lights. My positions developed, from a winger to a centre-forward.
I went on to play at university for five years, when the competition for places was really fierce. Gruelling training twice a week for university, and training for club twice a week. Playing maybe three times a week, and studying. I’m not sure, how or why I took up squash at university, and where I got the energy to train and play that too.
I loved to tackle: a forward who could defend. A nightmare for the opposition’s defences. Lose the ball? Then, win it back. “‘It ‘im ‘ard…” Never back away from a challenge. Tackle head on. See the ball and time the strike. Many a good goal came from dispossessing a defender who could not protect the ball. Gone in a flash, mate!
During most of my school days, when we got thirsty during the matches we had no chance to take water breaks except at half-time. In those days, the team had 11 players and one substitute: make a change and that was it for the day–no coming back on. Get tired? Learn to pace yourself. Get injured? Learn to play through the pain. By the time that I was at secondary school, that ‘break’ meant a trip back into the changing room for a hot cup of tea, if we were playing at home. Away, it was perhaps the same but perhaps just quartered oranges. Water on the pitch? Only if the trainer came on with the icy sponge and you didn’t want that going anywhere near your body 😦
The body lasted well enough for ‘glory days’ to not end too young–I think I was 42 when I last played seriously, coming out of retirement to train again and play in a ‘masters tournament’ involving a good crop of former professionals. By then, beer was more the stuff of half-time breaks, even during game breaks 🙂 Like many now, I took a soft option and continued playing in the US, where the pace was slower and the tackling less fierce, but the skills were good.
Watching is not the same as playing. I try not to be the man with the ball on the pitch as I watch matches. I see the good plays. I see the flaws. I see the fouls and wince. I see the simulation and smile. Got to find an edge.
The body is not willing and the mind does not encourage such foolishness as thoughts of playing again. This morning, I did some push-ups–20, then another 20–not many, but enough to remind me of what working the body can mean. I do my stretches, I do my walks. Speed is not so important. No goals to shoot at. Well, not with my feet. Can I get the ball on target? Let me look down that fairway and see where this drive goes…
‘And me, of course’ is a decent soccer player, but has no love for it. She’s a very good swimmer, though. Learning in that sport what hard work is thorough regular practice. I give her a little sympathy if she says she has some aches, but try to keep her on track. It’s easy to think you can save yourself and do a little less in practice, waiting to let it all out in competition. Never works. Never. She has yet to find her pain threshold. She has to do her 10,000 hours or 10 years. That’s a lot of laps, girl.