It appeared that at one point a season never went by without those clowns at FIFA attempting to tamper with football in some way or another either with rule changes (the “Kick In” – oh how we at Wivenhoe felt “privileged” to be taking part in this “exciting” new experiment forced upon us by the World Governing Body, the F.A and the cartoon characters who ran the Isthmian League), the length of duration (“Time Outs”) or proposed alteration of the equipment (the widening of the goals). All this was supposedly proposed to increase the level of enjoyment for the ordinary punter like you and I when, we suspect, what FIFA were really trying to do was to make the game more “marketable” to the American public and gain a big slice of the still as yet untapped wealth that is available from that particular audience.
It is a sad fact that in its traditional form this glorious game of ours has not widely appealed to the “Yank” mentality that wants to see 96-94 thrillers every week with a liberal sprinkling of punch ups (well, it is supposed to by family entertainment after all) and non-stop 100 miles per hour action. As yet FIFA have still failed to successfully break into the USA market, so we can expect our game to continue to be messed about with in the ever increasing effort to find that elusive formula to win the good folks from the land of the stars and stripes over.
I find it quite incredible that FIFA waste all this time, money and effort pissing about when the answer to their quest has been around under their noses since god knows when….. Yes, I’m talking about Playground Football !!. Despite having to look back through an alcohol haze to write this article (which I think started around the 5th Year!) I am convinced that our very basic “bastardised off-spring” version of the “Beautiful Game” is just the sort of thing that the Yanks would go for as virtually all of the elementary rules had been eliminated. For a start the ball was basically in play for the entire 60 minutes dinner time duration as there were no such things as throw-ins or corners because the “pitch”, although only measuring about 50 yards from goal to goal, was about three quarters of a mile wide….the perimeter fencing being the usually accepted boundaries of play, although I must point out that it was not unheard of for someone to dribble out of the school gates and off down the road when trying to time waste to protect a slender lead (oh for this to have been acceptable in the F.A.Vase back in 1995/96 as I doubt whether Mangotsfield United would have been able to get their injury time equalizer from a position outside of “One Stop” !). Like Ice Hockey play could continue behind the goals, again up until the perimeter fence. Also, like Ice Hockey, it was accepted that anyone unfortunately trapped up against the aforementioned perimeter fencing with the ball was “fair game” to be kicked to death by the rampaging mob in the ensuing scramble.
“Offside” was not a word (or rule) included in playground football vocabulary, however, “Goalhanger” was. These were a despised breed who never moved more than six yards away from the opposition’s goal line. It was as if they feared that the goalmouth “D” (it was after all actually a netball area we used) marked the boundaries of some lethal flesh melting force field, and to step over the line would result in instant death (rather how this writer treats the corner of the clubhouse bar). Inevitably the “Goalhanger” finished up with at least six goals a game, usually “leeching” off goal bound efforts and tapping them in from about four inches – a great source of annoyance to the kid who had just dribbled 40 yards and beat about sixteen players before slipping the ball past the onrushing keeper.
If it’s a feast of goals you were after, then this type of football was guaranteed to serve up a banquet fit for a king as both the teams seemed to possess about a dozen strikers while at the same time being unable to defend for toffee no matter how many played at the back (a bit like the classic Harwich & Parkeston sides of old). To us tactics were those tiny mints that came in a small flip-lid container and the general method of play and team organisation consisted of everyone pursuing the orange “wembley trophy” ball brainlessly en masse like a giant human whirlwind, hacking and swiping at it and mowing down hapless hop-scotch participants or any other bystanders unfortunate enough to get in the way (it was good to see that Dorking used to keep faith with this style of play as it always seemed to work against us at their ground season after season !).
Team size fluctuated between anything from twelve a side up to a small army. Team selection was a democratic process before the beginning of each game which consisted of two nominated captains taking alternate turns to select one player at the time from the assembled ranks of budding Messi’s and Carlton Palmers, thus ensuring two teams with a subtle blend of class and crass. Late comers, and those that went home for lunch, also joined in the game on an alternate basis as and when they arrived so there was no chance of somebody turning up “mob-handed” with a ready made team of footballing mercenaries assembled purely for the moment (yes, I’m afraid that even at that early age there were one or two who displayed the same tendencies as the individual who used to tour the Essex Non-League scene winning a few pots while leaving a trail of ruined clubs in his wake). It seemed that each team possessed a useless fat oaf amongst their ranks who specialised in walking about in the midfield, wheezing, and turning such an un-natural shade of red that everybody feared that his head was about to explode at any moment and shower all and sundry in teeth and eyes !. The only way this slow moving clod ever got involved in the action was if he kicked somebody or they ran into his immovable bulk and were sent sprawling to the floor (it’s nice to see that our supporters club team continued that particular tradition by allowing one or two of us to get a game).
As mentioned before the duration of the game was about an hour, easily enough time to conjure up a 20-19 classic. One factor that would appeal to the Yanks was that there were NEVER EVER ANY DRAWN games. FIFA proudly introduced “Golden Goal” time as though it was a novel and original idea but I am sorry to say that it was all “old hat” to us as the original instigators were a bunch of school kids back in the late Sixties, and our version also had an added twist to ensure a winning goal was scored. Once the bell had sounded (Dinner Ladies rather disappointingly didn’t have a referee’s whistle) to signal the first lesson of the afternoon, the more conscientious kids abandoned their team mates in their hour of need and disappeared off into the distance with the speed of a player offered an extra £25 to go and join one of your “ambitious” rivals. With numbers dwindling rapidly, it was not uncommon to see nine against one by the time the winner went in….just to give you some idea of the general useless ability of the majority, it was sometimes the LONE player who actually scored !!. Cunning captains with the foresight to take into consideration the possibility of “Golden Goal” time made sure they had a decent sprinkling of morons and cabbages amongst their team’s ranks who would stay out there no matter what as they weren’t really too concerned about an education and spent most lessons sitting at the back of the class colouring or outside the Headmaster’s office on detention anyway.
Amazingly the game worked surprisingly well without the aid of a referee as generally the perpetrators of foul play would admit their guilt and concede the free-kick without any argument. On the odd occasion when a dispute did arise over some minor controversy it was usually settled by the protagonists squaring up to each other while both teams crowded about to point at the opposition and yell “Fight ! Fight ! Fight !” which, more often than not, resulted in the ball being confiscated and the whole episode ending in tears. Basically we accepted that a trip was a trip as in our type of football there was no such phenomenon as the Diving Cheating Bastard – mind you, I think the fact we were playing on concrete had more to do with this than any real deep rooted natural honesty or inbred moral code as any aspiring Arjen Robben trying to “earn” any penalties or free-kicks on this type of surface would have finished the match looking like a road accident victim !!.
In the end, considering we were playing on such a surface serious injuries were not all that common. Oh no, not for us any cruciate ligament damage, although there was the occasional black eye sustained from a stray slip-on shoe which had become detached from its owner’s foot and flown 20 yards across the playground like an exocet missile as a direct result of a “fresh air” shot. There was also the odd head smashed on the floor following a robust challenge (interestingly enough the only kid I can remember really “pasting his nut” on the concrete grew up to be a policeman – there must be a moral there!), but were soon scraped up by the Dinner Lady and carted off to the nurse, leaving behind the rest of us to marvel at the novelty of actually having a penalty spot…albeit an odd-shaped red splattered one !!.
Gaining a penalty was hardly an advantage as Playground rules dictated that the entire defending team (with the exception of the “Goalhanger” of course) were allowed to stand on the goal line behind the keeper, which itself could be quite a feat when you consider that sometimes as many as THIRTY defenders had to try and squeeze between the “posts”. From that point on it was pure intimidation of the penalty taker as the defensive “wall”, like Zulu warriors about to go into battle, worked themselves up into a frenzy with the deafening chant of “Zigger-Zagger, Zigger-Zagger Oi Oi Oi !!!” echoing around the school grounds. Now, forget all that stuff about encroachment and the keeper not being allowed to move before the kick is taken. In this type of football the only rules were “Line Up and Charge”. As soon as the kicker ran up, that was the signal for the defensive wall to storm out like a herd of stampeding rhinos. This was obviously a terrifying experience for the penalty taker who, if he was lucky, would manage to drill the ball goalwards and leave one rhino lying in a foetal position before being mown down and trampled under foot by the others. Needless to say not many penalties ever resulted in goals.
My own playground football career was spent as a goalkeeper because a) I was one of the few willing to take up this unfashionable position and b) I was the only one who was silly enough to dive about on the hard surface….doesn’t it say something for our society when even children are quite happy to exploit the truly stupid !. So it was that I took my place between the posts or, more accurately, the coats/bags and the netball post. There was no such things as cross bars and outfield players seemed to have a ridiculously naive trust in the honesty and judgement of the opposition’s keeper as, if he jumped and shouted “over !” that was it, the ball had missed (I must have yelled “over” more times in one hour than an aircraft radio operator does in an entire career !!). I must also point out that the size and thickness of the right hand “post” was varying and in direct proportion to the number of players involved in the match. It was not uncommon for a shot to become lodged in the clothes mountain, which was cue for a mad free-for-all scramble as school bags, jumpers, packed lunches etc were all trampled to bits in a frenzied orgy of kicking and hacking that only subsided when the ball was poked home/booted clear, or if the school bully yelled “Oi, that’s my f**king coat !” and laid into the smallest kid involved in the melee.
Throughout my playground goalkeeping career I boasted the proud record of hardly ever conceding double figures in a game and the fact that I actually achieved my fair share of “shut outs” during these hours of bloody mayhem gave me some sense of achievement. It is no mean feat to keep your concentration on the game when Sharon is doing those “Y-shaped” handstands about ten yards away to your right…..,something else that would have guaranteed to bring in the crowds if she had carried on doing this trick at football matches !!.
The final appeal of Playground football to the United States public was the fact that it was only played in good weather and games were often abandoned as even so much as a shower would result in the Dinner Lady (who always interpret the slightest raindrop as the prelude to a storm of Biblical proportions) hauling us all indoors which resulted in numerous gloomy faces being pressed up against windows gazing forlornly out waiting for the rain to pass over (who says that kids were never given the opportunity to experience the joys of cricket at Junior school?).
So, in the end, did our playground football manage to produce any good players? Well, as far as I know only one lad ever progressed to a Professional club before dropping into the Non-League game. Actually he wasn’t one of the more outstanding playground players as I can recall one or two who could dribble the ball into a 30 man ruck and emerge with it still under complete control on the other side !. So there you go FIFA, get back to the basics of the game, blow the majority of the rules out of the window, play it at one hundred miles per hour and you will attract that elusive American audience….mind you, nobody else in the world will want to watch that bloody crap.