Saturday, June 4, 2016

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Jumpers For Goalposts

Beano Niblock with his contribution to TPQ soccer theme. Beano Niblock is a Belfast playwright and former loyalist prisoner.

Indoor football is a common enough practice in this day and age. Should it be the Leisure Centre or School gyms out to hire we have all used them and have been grateful particularly during this wee country’s spells of inclement weather.

The only organised indoor football I can remember taking part in from my youth was in George’s Street hall with the 56th BB and that was crab football!! I think the leaders gave it to us more as a form of torture than anything. I can’t remember anyone being any good at it but I do recall many the one making a complete arsehole out of himself, crawling about like a capsized turtle. 

So, as a young man most of our football experience tended to be of an outdoor variety and more often than not was confined to the streets. Impromptu games could kick off at a moment’s notice once the numbers at the corner got to four or over. The pitches varied. You could have two small entries facing each other across the street for two-a-sides. Or if you had a full scale match the pitch could run the length of the street. Shamrock Street was usually our “Wembley”. The hallions who lived further down the road had their own version of the hallowed turf The Green Gates. Matches and injuries from this arena took on mythical proportions. Flayed skin was one of the more common injuries, when someone shoulder-charged you against a pebble dashed wall. It was common practice to carry a tube of Germoline in your pocket for such occasions.

Our stadium in Shamrock Street had the distinction of being “L” shaped. One net was in Shamrock Street and the other round the bend in Lawnmount Street. Once the horde of players chasing a loose ball disappeared round the corner the goalie in the other net could conceivably light a feg and take a break for a while. You see, there wasn’t really any markings. So, in theory you could dribble your way all the way up to the London Bar in one direction or hunt down an opponent as far as Charlie Hurst’s garage in the other without getting a throw in or a bye ball. 

It was also within the rules to go up and down the adjoining side streets or, in a bid to hoodwink the other team, cut through one of the many entries in the area. What a sight it was to see twenty one outfield players round the corner again after twenty minutes and bear down on the wee goalie. Did I mention that this pitch also had the distinction of being at sea level in one street but a brave bit higher in the other? If you went on a mazy dribble up the way, it’s possible you would have been too tired to take a shot by the time you reached the other nets. 

God love him — the Goalie he probably thought everyone had gone home for their tea while he was enjoying a quiet smoke. He may even have run a couple of messages for his Ma in between times. If the ball got stuck under a parked car again there were no rules. It wouldn’t have been unusual to witness half dozen boys lying on the ground with their legs under a motor trying to retrieve a stuck ball. 

With there being no referees the rules were slightly,shall we say, made up as we went along. Free kicks were usually only given for serious assaults or GBH. To be awarded a penalty where both teams agreed you are talking a lost limb or decapitation. What was most irritating was when the road was being used by traffic. The rule was that the game stopped until the car or van went by but like all the other rules this wasn’t really enforced. 

The duration of the games usually depended on when they actually kicked off. Tea time for everyone was normally around five so people started drifting off or you would have heard the gulder from a couple of streets away: “J-ooooo-eeeeee!!—You’re Tea’s Out!!” Some boys came straight out again after tea, maybe with half a sausage hanging out of their mouth, but others might have stayed in to watch The Banana Splitz or Ask Aspel. For this reason most games went unfinished. Weeks later someone might have remarked, “Don’t forget that game from the other week now, still has to be finished, and we were winning 43 to 37”.

But the real games always took place in our shared space, we could call Old Trafford-Anfield-White Hart Lane or, on special occasions, the Maracana. The Ormeau Park was huge and even at the end we used you could mark a pitch out on many different locations. If someone else was playing in a preferred spot, easy, just move to the next available space. In those days there was around 12-15 proper soccer pitches for the leagues. They had goalposts but no netting. The surface was cinder and worn away through years of constant use. We rarely played on those pitches but did occasionally use one net for shooting in. This involved a keeper, three centre halves, two centre forwards and two wingers  and was great entertainment but also very competitive.

The big games normally took place in an evening after tea-or better still on a Sunday. The evening games could only run until dark. The park closed its gates of course but we could play on in the darkness and climb the fence to get out. However Sunday games were the best by far. They would have been semi-organised. To kick off we would have had about 7 or 8 a side. And we always started in the morning. During the course of the day, which in theory could last to bedtime, there could be dozens of players involved. You could have possibly had thirty a side at any given time. Players came and went over the course of the day: if one person left for his dinner, someone from the other side dropped out until the teams became even again. If someone showed up for a game and the teams were even, he had to wait either on someone else arriving or someone to drop out. When there was 2 new players they were picked on a “ Heads or Harps basis”—to try and prevent all the good players ending up on the same team.

The age difference in these games was amazing. When I first played I must have been around 12 or 13 but there were men in their forties or fifties as well. Baldy Terry always looked about 60 odd even then. He was a maestro. If he nutmegged someone or played a good pass he accompanied it with the name of a famous Italian player — “Mazzola”!! — or “ Riv-E-Era””!! His party piece was to drop his knee on the ball or sit on it, long before Geordie Best did it. I don’t know if “T” played proper football but he was a star in these games.

You wouldn’t have seen football boots being worn in these games. Guddies were the usual choice but for some of the older players they would have turned up with a pair of suede slip-ons and a big elastic band to hold them on. Funny enough they were all the good passers of the ball. The nets were usually a pile of coats or jumpers but on some pitches you may have had a tree for one or sometimes both of the posts. There were always arguments about shots that people claimed as goals when the ball was obviously travelling high enough to mortally wound a passing pigeon. The boundaries were more controlled than the street games but still well outside those of a normal pitch.

When the game had dozens of people playing it was always difficult to distinguish teammates from opponents. One way of sorting this out was to make one of the teams play in bare skins while the others kept their shirts or jumpers on. The result of this was to see one team that resembled relatives of Casper the Ghost running about. Not many people wore shorts so you could have had some bloke with a pair of suit trousers, a button down shirt and a pair of Hush Puppies strutting his stuff. On the other hand somebody would arrive with a pair of work boots on and this particular mode of footwear would then be known as Crush Puppies.

Scores in these games normally wouldn’t have been toted up. Somebody would secretly be counting of course and told you three months later that it was 55 all when it finished. But these games although competitive tended to be more a showcase for the silky ball skills, the expertise of the dribbler, the set piece expert —again usually Big T who would have thought nothing of making sure the opposition put a five man wall up before he bent a beautiful curler round it and in off the pile of anoraks-and then shouting— “Reeeeeeevvvv-ah!!”

Balls were a major problem, particularly in the street. If a wayward shot sailed through a house window it was either lost or burst. More often than not a game was abandoned when the ball went over a yard wall. Some neighbours gave them back but Jizzy Jordan was notorious for hanging onto them. That all changed one day when we were trying to have a full scale match with a table tennis ball and Jizzy’s son arrived to take her out for a run in the car. The plume of exhaust smoke had no sooner turned into Mount Street when the author hopped her yard wall and released two tea chests full of balls into captivity. Five skin Wembley’s were the ball of choice for the street games and we bought them — everybody stumped up for 6 and 9 in Simons shop. Mouldmasters lasted longer-were heavier, but stung like Billy-o when you got welted up the leg and only the hardest of men could head them. If you were daft enough to attempt a header you ended up with SPALDING engraved, back to front of course, across your napper for a week.

You rarely see full scale matches in the side streets these days — facilities exist that means kids can play in much safer environments. But you know what? I doubt if they enjoy the football anymore that we did 50 years ago ................. If I close my eyes and listen closely enough, faintly in the background I can still hear Big T provide a running commentary as he glides past a couple of unfortunate souls ..............” It’s Gento, who slips it inside to Rivelino ... oh my—a wonderful through ball to Pell-Eh!!”...............

  • The title, Jumpers For Goalposts is not to be confused with the book and play of the same name.


Peter said...

Excellent memories. Street football was such a big part of childhood back then with all the kids in the neighbourhood turning out on a Saturday. The crap kids got picked last and were inevitable stuck in nets. Even the smaller mid week games were great. If we only had 5 players we would play "tackley-shooty in" with one keeper and two teams of two. If we only had six players we played "rush footy" were there were two teams of three but anyone could play as keeper when required. Beano says that now kids have proper facilities to play in but I doubt there is the same level of participation or community spirit unfortunately.

AM said...

evocative piece that captures a childhood era which was pretty much cross cultural. Some of the anecdotes Beano builds on are powerful - kids running out with half a sausage in their mouths, the ball hoarder - happened all over the city

sean bres said...

Thoroughly enjoyable and, although I'm likely twenty years younger at least, I have similar memories. Those were the days, I don't think life is like this any more, the world has morphed into a different place with the onset of both technology and also a greater fear of what might happen your kids what with all the revelations about the monsters in our midst. I took the kids in the park here down to the green on Wednesday evening and carried down a net my son got for Santa years ago. They had a brilliant evening and are torturing me since as to when we're going again. There is nothing more inspiring than the laugh of a child. Their unspoiled imagination means they experience life in a way that for us now resides in nostalgia. Thanks for the memories!

larry hughes said...

I remember the wee 'matches' on the local green. They were always megga fun and nomatter what the score usually ended with 'goal the winner'. There's a purpose built all weather 5 aside pitch here which was a joint project of the local council and the EU (another brown envelope jobby no doubt) down in the local park and obviously designed by some twat in an office who never kicked a ball. There's a wooden waist high fence around it and the nets at the goals only cover the back of the goal, there is no side netting. Whilst it looks good and is used a fair bit, for me the huge space adjacent, a massive grass area is where I would see myself playing even today were I actually able to run. BTW playing football on a Sunday back in the day Beano. tut tut the Rev Ian will be spinning in his grave!

Steve Ricardos said...

Up&out in the morning, home for lunch, out again til dinner, out again til it got dark.

Nothing but kicking a ball about all day. No playstations heard of never mind 'drugs'.

Cannot remember once being bored.

Greatest days ever.