Football, growing up in Leicester and falling out of love with the game
Although cricket and rugby would be my lasting, adult affairs, my first love was a size 5 kicked around a Leicester park. For every house on my estate there were two or three kids, and for every house at least one or two City shirts, and at one point even a City goalkeeper, Carl Muggleton. A name that didn’t live nearby but was rumoured — a rumour which had as much credence as the bullshit legend that a local hardman had met Reggie Kray at Leicester station and kicked him up the arse back on the train to London — to have played for Syston St Peters, was the crisp thief, TV pundit, and one-time England and Leicester City striker, Gary Lineker.
His goofy smile beamed from his Panini sticker card and that floppy fringe looked like his mum had plonked a bowl on his head to cut his hair. But he was Leicester. Ours. And though a god among men he was grounded by a family who sold fruit and veg on the market while he scored goals at Filbert Street. He also starred in an England team we could watch and cheer, a side that achieved pride and relative success while managed by a general we actually respected in Sir Bobby Robson.
Although the Foxes shirt was ubiquitous, both the blue home kit and the handsome green and gold away strip, my dad was from Nottingham and had moved back after his divorce from my mum — whom I lived with in Leicester, along with my fanatical (and tyrannical) City-supporting stepfather who would brag about once laying out a copper at Filbert Street because he was spoiling his view — and I had a Forest top which he’d given me as a birthday present. The red shirt never left my bedroom. Firstly, for the obvious reason it would’ve been ripped off and used to hang me from the nearest lamppost. And secondly, it was a special edition celebrating the first million pound player Trevor Francis and garishly badged with a huge, laminated photo of him on the left breast.
But just because I didn’t wear my club colours didn’t mean my passion for the game was lessened. Before school, at break-time, lunch-time, and after school, I played football. The tennis courts, where I never once saw a racquet swung in anger, were the perfect-sized pitch for the advent of the mini-football. As big as a Florida grapefruit and panelled with leather hexagons just as full-size ball was, our generation should have developed into an era of players with deft feet and a light touch.
Alas, despite the spherical evolutions, we grew up in an age of brutal football. The beautiful game? I’m not sure when the phrase was introduced, but surely not in the 80s, the rampage of the Crazy Gang, Fash the Bash and Vinnie Jones, Brian Clough cuffing fans — then kissing them — and the off field tragedies at Heysel and Hillsborough.
Before all-seater stadiums were compulsory, attending a Leicester-Notts derby was an initiation into manhood. On dark wet nights in the Filbert Street pens, dodging the torrents of rain gushing off the corrugated roofing, I joined in with the chants and insults and became part of something bigger than myself. Part of a tribal beat accompanied by the music of lobbed coins tinkling through the wire fence that separated red and blue fans — I can still recall picking up a fifty-pence piece that thunked off a bloke’s head.
Huddling in the middle of the crowd was key to survival and not only as shelter from money shrapnel. Any straggler who wandered within grabbing distance of the Forest pen could be yanked against the mesh and punched and kicked until City supporters could pull their brethren back into the fold.
To be crushed in a mass of half-pissed men was frightening. And a buzz. If City scored and the swaying crowd jumped and leapt, a whole section of fans would go tumbling down the terrace like Domino Rally. From the joy of Lineker banging one away in the top corner to a 20-stone dumpling pinning you to concrete. But fans looked out for young ‘uns, and as quick as you hit the deck you’d be hauled up into the brotherhood.
Strutting into school the day after a Forest derby I’d feel 10 feet tall. If I’d seen someone get a kicking, or been lucky enough to have run in a charge at opposing fans, I’d be courted all day for the story. A kid from the year above arrested and ejected from the ground became an anti-folk hero, gleefully spreading a tale that compounded an already psychopathic personality.
This was the decade of the yob. Picket lines, punks, the Falklands War and football. The 1980s pulsed with the sound of break-dancing and bone-breaking. The fact that Leicester had a nationwide hooligan sect called the Baby Squad became a source of local pride. ITV News ran an item on how to recognise a member, complete with an artist’s sketch of a generic white man with gelled hair in a satin bomber jacket — more George the bear than nutty skinhead — brandishing a Stanley knife.
Hooliganism, on and off the pitch, defined my football. On the day I write this, the Manchester United manager David Moyes is calling for retrospective video evidence to be used against diving. Maybe he too harks back to the eighties. A plus from this epoch was that the dive was scorned. Dribbling through a gauntlet of hacking legs was infinitely more manly than a dying swan on the edge of the box and, in my opinion, infinitely more enjoyable to watch and play.
Although not according to my PE teacher. After the National Union of Teachers finally allowed its members again to organise after-curricular activities, such as football, a ‘friendly’ was arranged against a local comprehensive to gauge whether my reprobate year could be trusted to represent the school.
We were 4-0 up when we blew our chance of reintegration. I saved a penalty before their forward kicked the rebound out of my hands and stabbed it over the line. Before I’d even stood up the remonstrations had turned into right hooks and head butts, and we’d self-destructed from an unassailable lead of four goals into a shameful abandonment.
But the same teacher who decided he had better things to do with his time than cart a mini-bus of feral youth around Leicestershire also understood the restorative qualities of thuggish boys playing football at break-time. Lads too fucked to mess about in double-maths were easier to handle than lads who’d spent an hour skinning up around the back of the sports hall. Better they were inside that sports hall kicking lumps out of each other.
In a draughty gym every Friday dinnertime, a game known as five-a-side football, yet more a hybrid between Rollerball, Tron, and that bit in Flash Gordon in which he batters the weird red blokes with a metal watermelon, was some of the most thrilling sport I’ve ever played.
The classrooms emptied and kids crammed into the spaces behind the goals — two benches stacked upon each other so a score reverberated with furniture crashing onto the tiled floor. The noise of the toppled benches, echoing with the roars and jeers at fouls and fuck-ups was deafening. Think of the Thunderdome in Mad Max III or the clatter of spiked chariot wheels and the baying Romans cheering on Ben Hur.
The in-form team were usually the oldest side, as height, size and the doling out of dead legs to younger opposition before matches tended to override any superior footballing skills. By the last year my side was riding high in the table. Named ‘Demolition’ after the WWF tag team — hardly the worst moniker considering that one side called itself ‘Mandela United,’ and not in honour of Nelson’s crusade against apartheid but because Winnie and her squad were accused of murder — the team consisted of the boys ranked hardest. And, as luck would have it, the fastest sprinter in the school, Kevin Locke. Before half-time we were down to two men, with the Vinnie Jones wannabes red-carded. Still, with Kev up front and me keeping, we were hanging on. I was peppered with shots, and the hordes behind us, many of whom were the suffering kids on the fist-end of the bullies who’d just been sent off, bellowed in hysterics with each screaming shot aimed at toppling the wooden posts. But with Kev’s pace and my goalmouth acrobatics, along with my accurate throws picking him out like a quarterback finding a wide receiver, we squeezed an infamous win.
I still have the medal from that year’s championship victory. My only football trophy along with various rugby and cricket trinkets. And apart from a season in midfield for a pub team in a Sunday league after I was forced to retire from rugby with a neck injury, the only competitive football I played was that five-a-side inferno.
So why the oval before the round ball?
Why hurl a leather missile at a wooden bat?
In my footballing heyday cricket and rugby were distant sports. I loved Lineker and Barnes, Robson and Waddle. I loved dealing Panini stickers and playing Football Manager for hours on a ZX Spectrum. I loved Match of the Day and spending school break-times trying to recreate the goals of the weekend.
Yet something happened to the game between the gritty eighties and the meretricious glamour of the modern Premier League. Diving and money. Teams where players are shipped in from across the globe and owned by restaurateurs and oil thieves. Et cetera, et cetera. Blah, blah, blah. The old fan’s lament that the olden days were the golden days, when Stanley Matthews played in hobnailed boots and you could have 10 pints of bitter and a bag of chips and still pay your bus fare home.
Nothing stays the same, but some sports change for the worse. Or perhaps they evolve on a tangent opposite to our own shifting characters, values and attitudes.
Cricket, despite IPL wealth, match fixing and bird-brained administration, still has pretensions of grace and sportsmanship. Rugby, I used to contend, was about truth. No player bullshitted about his abilities in the changing room after a game. It was a measure of who you were, how you’d stand up and fight when the opposition were stamping your head into the mud.
It’s truly a shame that I don’t follow football with the fervour I used to. The goal glimpsed in a crowded pub, a scan of the headlines to see which team is where and how close the Foxes are to a Premier League return.
Yet despite my cynicism, and regardless of the dollars and roubles pumped into that grossly inflated size 5, football is forever special. A game bigger and better than a global megasport.
As a travelling journalist I’ve played matches in refugee camps and shanty towns. On the day the Abu Ghraib torture photos hit front pages around the world I faced up against a team of Palestinians, a side of scarred and serious men set on restoring cultural pride by thrashing a team of foreigners. In a Guatemalan slum I played on a pitch made of glass-chipped mud and lethal cans, and here I was dazzled by men dribbling like Messi. On a dust bowl pitch in a Kenyan orphanage, watching a skinny kid streak down the wing and skip over slide tackles before beating the keeper with the most delicate of barefoot lobs, the game is still beautiful.