Recently, when it was still just about legal if no longer socially acceptable to lark about on the pavement, I drove past four or five teenage boys playing football outside the hospital on Lauriston Place, Edinburgh. It was late at night and I was on the way to pick up my daughter from the railway station – she’d decided to leave London while she still could.
The lads were passing the ball over quite long distances. There was no other traffic around, and I thought what I always think when I see people having a kickaround: pass me the ball (this is a reflex, unrealistic impulse). I also thought: ‘Why the hell should they not be doing this?’ The next day, schools were to be shut down for an indefinite period. Soon they were likely to be cooped up for God knows how long. In those heady days, there was still something defiant and even admirable about their actions. Now they would look very different.
What is it, though, about the thrill of playing football not in a park or on a proper pitch, but in some random tarmacked space? A yard, square or cul-de-sac, perhaps, among parked cars, lampposts, pedestrians. It’s irresponsible, reckless, inconsiderate, selfish – and utterly enjoyable (I don’t condone it in the current situation, of course).
You want somewhere with as little traffic as possible. Or people. For a few years my favourite teenage haunt was behind a row of shops on my local high street in London. It was perfect for three or four of us. Using a wall as a goal gives greater satisfaction than jumpers on the grass – you get the thud of a shot bouncing back and you don’t need to go scurrying after it as you do in parks.
This was where I tried to copy Clive Walker’s 1978 FA Cup goal for Chelsea against Liverpool. It was a goal I only saw once or twice on television clips around those years, yet it lodged itself deep in my mind. Yes, Ray Clemence was beaten at the near post but the great Brian Moore understated the deceptive swerve of Walker’s shot, hit with the outside of his left foot. This was a technique I wanted to learn, albeit with my right.
Then there was the yard in front of our house, with garage doors at one end and pavement and busy road at the other. My parents were pretty laissez faire about my brother and me using the doors as a goal – by this age, 14 or so, we were savvy enough not to go running out after the ball if it went in the road. We would practise chips and lobs for hours, with one of us coming off his ‘line’ to help.
On quiet Sundays it was inevitable that we would extend the zone to include the road for longer distance shooting practice. One Sunday the ball did stray and a police car screeched to an ostentatious halt. We stayed well back. ‘What would have happened if you’d run out after the ball?’ the officer said from the passenger seat. ‘No, it’s OK, we weren’t going to run after it’, we replied. ‘But what would have happened if you had?’ ‘We weren’t going to.’ ‘But what if you had?’ This was going nowhere.
Next time we are lucky enough to see young people playing football in not so sensible places, let us remember: they are only having fun. There will be a lot of that to catch up on.