The techniques and tactics of the game that was better than studying Humanities
If kicking a ball at a wall had been a GCSE I'd have scored an A* grade. But it wasn't, and instead I got a big fat U in GCSE Humanities – the U stands for unceremoniously Ungraded. Not because I was a nitwit with no interest in geography, history and social science, the array of subjects bodged together as a single discipline at my crappy comprehensive. But because of the dynamic sport of wall ball. You also may know it as spot, slam, reboundies, wallet, shapes, wally and no doubt a host of other regional terms to describe what is basically taking it in turns to hoof a ball of any size, from ping-pong balls to basketballs capable of gaining a cannonball velocity when hammered close range at solid brickwork, against a wall.
For possibly complex social reasons, the bad lads at my school were the best football players. And bad lads smoked fags and didn't go to class. Especially Humanities, whose jaded teacher soon realised it was a much more peaceful double lesson if he left the thugs outside. Rather than standing around passing that Benson & Hedges about in the cold, we kicked a ball at a wall. Not aimlessly, or without skill. No. Wally is a game with skill and panache, especially with someone else's fag in your mouth and the threat of being punched if you bumsucked the filter.
The rules are thus: player one kicks the ball at the assigned reboundable surface, usually a wall. The next player must then also kick the ball against the wall – if they miss they are out, and must stand in the cold and keep look out for teachers. Player three continues, as does player four etc. An ideal number for wall ball was probably around five to seven players, yet it could be played with a dozen or more, although this would require a tweak in the game which I'll explain later. For now you are kicking a ball against a wall and can only be out by missing the wall altogether or if the ball strikes you out of turn. Although taking a deflection from another player's shot might seem improbable, it's likely that you're distracted by a plethora of other things beyond the actual game, including: getting a toke on that fag, ducking behind the wall from a teacher patrol and checking out that girl you fancy in the year above, the one you've never actually spoken to but are convinced likes you, too.
Those wayward strikes would have a habit of finding shins and idle feet. Not to mention the risky but very deliberate targeting of waiting players by the those in-turn, who instead of aiming at the wall could chance a shot at their opposition and take out a rival. This death or glory tactic might even take out two or three players by deflecting off one player and hitting another. However, if you missed an assassination attempt and instead the ball flew off towards the tennis courts, you were out. There was an even greater danger to making contact with your rivals. Booting a ball at the hardest lad in the school, obliterating his smoking Rothmans, coolly poised between his thumb and finger while he chats up the girl who that summer would walk into the maths GCSE exam ten minutes late and eight months pregnant, was suicide. According to the rules he was out of the game. According to the school social code you were about to be laid out on a butcher's slab.
So, taking out the oppo was high-risk. Play it safe, pay attention and hit the wall. Simple tactics. Kicking a moving ball was the key skill. You could, and some did, wait for the ball to stop moving and then tee it up for a return. This was also risky, as a rolling ball could end up at an acute angle to the wall, in the depression of a drain grate, behind a bin or fucking miles down the grass slope near the tennis court from where a kick back was a miracle – or cunning, as kicks by those outside of the game counted as obstacles, meaning that cajoling (or minor bullying) a kid in the year below to leather the ball back up the hill could at least get you that bit closer to the target.
And the luck of the draw would certainly get you through the earlier rounds. Being the next to go after the lad who kicked a ball as hard as Stuart Pearce (and actually looked like Stuart Pearce) was a death sentence. You might luck a ball back on the volley – headers were allowed, too – but most likely you were watching his rebound vanish over the horizon or at best slicing your rash shot against the Sixth Form lounge window or onto the roof, which meant a derring-do leg up and climb to retrieve it. This risked the ultimate penalty of detention, possibly suspension, if caught walking across those fragile tiles laden with asbestos.
Despite the variables, the ultimate victors tended to be the best players, and not just the lads who whacked it like Psycho. There were nuances to the game that could be exploited by the John Barnes wannabes, such as delicately chipping it onto the top of the wall, which was about 1.5 metres high, and landing the ball behind the target brickwork. The only shot out of this conundrum was a chip to land the ball again on the top of the wall. Still now I recall a couple of bizarre scoops that stopped dead on the top of the wall, meaning the ball was live and could be fired in any direction by the next player.
I'm hoping that by describing the intricacies of our chosen smoke-break game I might explain my lack of academic application, in Humanities at least. And this wasn't even the best version of our beloved wall ball.
Skiving lessons was a crime only committed by the hardcore bad lad, so the game numbers never got out of hand. However, at break times the wall ball arena could be packed with a dozen kids or more all wanting action. It would be tedious waiting for a turn with such a large group, so we created double wally, where pairs of players had one kick each to return the ball to the brickwork. This adaptation developed its own strategies and skills, with the aim of the first players' touch to get the second player as close to the wall as possible, giving the option of firing the ball away at a sharp angle or attempting that magical chip onto the top of, and ultimately behind, the wall.
These 'two-touch' goes also meant more 'assassination shots', as it was often worth belting the ball at the large group. Even if your bullet ball flew off target your partner had a second chance at making the wall or yet another missive at one of the waiting players – of which the braver would bait the kicker into aiming at them, hoping to draw a wayward shot in the opposite direction of the wall and guaranteeing a harangue of insults from the rest of the gang.
Despite the skills our break-time sport would develop, you might argue we should've been playing proper football instead, rather than aiming at a wall. Well, we did, and I've previously written in The Blizzard about how our thug school team played one game which turned into a brawl and then permanent abandonment.
Wall ball required no teachers and it was refereed by debate, colourful argument and eventually who was the hardest. And what sport allows you to pass a fag around while you're on the pitch? Okay, I should've gone to that Humanities class a bit more and that Humanities teacher could've been more responsible for his students. Yet what remains vivid from my school days isn't sitting in a sodium-lit classroom with a pissed off teacher, but wall ball with the lads, some of whom ended up homeless, drug-addicted and/or in prison. Was it the fault of wall ball? Hardly. These were happy times before a hard life for certain friends and rather than berate history for what could've been if our education had been better or we'd been better students, I'd rather think back to the laughs we had while taking it in turns to kick a football at some bricks and the particular thrill of bending a shot from the bottom of that impossible slope near the tennis courts, curving it back on the wind and hitting the wall.