Until my early- to mid-20s, football was my sport. During much of my Westcliff High schooldays, it was my escape valve, physically and imaginatively. Setting aside the silly money that professionals earn, the game still holds a deep beauty for me. When it disappoints, I can rough up Roy Keane in my head.
I can remember watching the 1965 Leeds-Liverpool cup final with Eric. And Scouse chants of “Ee-aye-adio, we won the cup!” I was nine when the 1966 World Cup began, but played in the back garden on the July 1966 Saturday afternoon of the England-Germany final. When the country went apeshit with joy I finally paid attention.
West Ham provided three England players. So were obviously the best club. Once I declared in their favour, Eric took me to see the Hammers play Newcastle at Upton Park. I still recall the first sight of the green pitch, surrounded by a sea of claret and blue and the loud East End partisanship. Johnny Byrne, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters scored for West Ham. 3-0. Dad used to take me once a year until 1971, when I began to travel to Upton Park alone.
The first playing memory was junior school. Winter’s afternoon. In goal. Muddy pitch, heavy ball. A big centre forward bore down on me like a German tank and slid the ball past me. In the first organised game, for Bowers Gifford cubs, I missed an open goal, but gradually began to accumulate the bank of memories that footballers pick up. Tackles, shots, headers, passes, volleys, runs. Action clips gathered in my head, much the same as the later “bank” of sexual images and memories. Among the earliest deposits were two headed goals for a Benfleet team. A powerful thing for a boy to leap and meet the ball with his forehead.
Eric began to coach Bowers Gifford cubs. One game it rained non-stop. The ball was half-cleared from the goalmouth, coming to me 25 yards out. I used the counter momentum. Like a rocket it flew, top right hand corner. And straight into that niche of my brain where moves were siloed and eulogised.
Some techniques came from playing in the garden with my brother – who was very skilful – and my dad, who was the hardest taskmaster. Praise was earned. Below par performances were taken to task. I might be happy, but be told that x, y and z needed improvement. When it rained, I would read an FA coaching manual.
Visions of playing professionally were soon dismissed by Eric. Maybe this saved me from disappointment. Undeterred, I trotted up to the local vicarage. Asked Father Ford if I could play in the church choir team. Yes, he said, but you must join the choir. Few football memories were notched up. I somehow became head choir boy, once singing ‘Royal David’s City’ solo. Dull memories. Incense and hymns. No sexual abuse. No ‘Ee-aye-adio’.
In the early days at Westcliff, I was amongst the best in my class. One games teacher described me as a “natural athlete with poise”, which Eric found hard to believe. When teams were picked for lunchtime games, I’d always be first or second choice. A retrospective regret is that somehow – between 10 and 13 – I let myself drift into the role of defender. My heart wanted to pass and shoot. Instead, as adolescent self-consciousness kicked in, I avoided most risk-taking and hid from scrutiny behind tackles and headers. It didn’t help that my eyesight had changed. I struggled to see the ball at the other end on dark winter days.
I played right back for Benfleet Grasshoppers. Dad once watched us play our biggest rivals, Thundersley Rovers. He never shrank from letting me, either team or the referee know his opinions. That afternoon he was unremitting about the fouls Rovers were dishing out. When another incident triggered his touchline wrath, the entire Rovers team turned towards him and yelled “SHUT UP. I didn’t know whether to laugh or shrink.
It was excruciatingly painful to be told how badly I’d played. On one occasion Eric said it had “made him feel ill” to watch me. On the other hand, praise was a beautiful sea in which to bask, when it finally washed in. By 14 or 15, my heart had gone from standing in my own half on cold Saturday afternoons. I wanted the real thing at Upton Park, and didn’t play again seriously until 17, when a Sunday morning team in Southend roped me in at right back. This usually meant falling out of bed with a hangover, and tearing off on my moped. It was fun, ending with a couple of lagers. School lunchtime games carried on.
I played in kickabouts in year one at Birmingham University. One summer evening I scored what my pal Jonny Marks kindly described as the best goal he ever saw. Calling for the ball 50 yards out from goal when our centre half won a tackle. Then sprinting in anticipation of the pass, twisting back to see the ball’s flight path terminating somewhere between myself and the advancing goalkeeper. Hurling myself dreamily, ecstatically, through the air to head the thing over the keeper and into the goal.
The guy who had passed the ball asked if I fancied playing for the Wanderers – in effect the University third team. It meant playing again on Saturday afternoons, usually against local teams who enjoyed kicking the shit out of university boffins. It was often made more difficult by excessive partying the night before. Once I puked up beside the pitch. I managed to play for a season, but was usurped from the team by my friend Steve Lowndes, later a housemate. That was pretty much the end of my playing days, until 2002.
At the ripe old age of 45, I was invited to join some lads who played at Oaklands Park, in Chelmsford, on Monday evenings from May through to August. After getting through the pain of using all those parked muscles once more, it felt great. Bought myself a new pair of boots. A few skills returned, often against lads who were a good 20 years younger. I persuaded my mates Jono and Martin to come along, then Neil, and we would sit and replay bits of the game in the Cricketers afterwards. I often struggled to sleep, as the bubble of happiness refused to float away. Two years later, my mind was still telling me yes, but my body, my body said that’s enough.