Tuesday, 21 March 2017


This is from an forthcoming article in a Scottish junior club's match programme


Growing up in Ayrshire in the 1960s, football wasn’t a pastime it was a way of life. It was what you did. You played during playtime at school – albeit with a tennis ball after an unfortunate collision between a laced-up pig’s bladder and a classroom window. The boys’ playground in my school divided into two – the ‘wee gemme’ and the ‘big gemme’. You started out in the former in Primary One and progressed to the latter by Primary Six. It was what you did – except for the really good players who were snapped up for the ‘big gemme’ as early as Primary Four, the Primary Seven lads acting as talent scouts on the rare occasions they deigned to watch the younger boys in action.

Our school was blessed with two trees at the bottom of the playground. Between the tree and the wall was the goal. Appropriately enough the smaller tree was the ‘wee gemme’ goalpost and the larger one the ‘big gemme’s.’ At the other end – or uphill to be more accurate, it was the traditional jumpers for goalposts. One end provided no problem in settling the thorny issue of whether a shot went over the bar or not. If the ball landed up on the main road it was either a corner or a goal kick. Except there was no such thing as a goal kick. It was a ‘by kick.’ Just as a throw-in was always a ‘shy.’

The top end was more problematic. There were arguments often ending in fisticuffs over whether the ball was ‘in’ or ‘ower.’ And the no-man’s land between the two trees was a morass of bruised knees and skinned knuckles as both games converged, with four teams hunting down two tennis balls and over thirty schoolboys barging into one another with fights inevitably following. ‘You’re claimed’ was the most frequently heard playground expression, followed by ‘big fight’ as everyone eagerly formed a ring around the two protagonists. You could say this primitive form of amateur boxing was the second most popular sport in school. That too was what you did.

It was what you did the moment you got changed at home after school. Playing in the park till you got shouted in for your tea. And it was what you did after your tea until you got called in either for bed or because it was getting dark.

This last command, the one that meant no more fitba’ until the 11.00am playtime bell the following morning, was the one that was most reluctantly obeyed. An unbelievable number of small children in my village developed hearing problems, unable to pick up the call to come home. An equal amount had a strange nightly distortion of their visual fields, not being able to distinguish their own mothers waving maniacally at them to get home or get skelped –often both.

It was what you did at weekends. And even when there weren’t enough boys around to form two proper teams (though more often than not it was twenty-a-side) it was still what you did. You played five-a-side. If there weren’t enough players for that, you played ‘three-and-in.’ If it was just you and one pal you played ‘heidies.’ If you were left on your own you played ‘keepie-uppie’ – and lied to all your pals the next day about how many you kept up, only to end up with that badge of shame – the ‘riddie’ or the ‘beamer’ – when you failed to reproduce your heroics in front of a crowd.

But it was what you did.

You had a nickname. You never picked your own, it was bestowed upon you by general approval of the gang. It could be descriptive: ‘big man,’ ‘wee man,’ ‘speedy’ or ‘slowcoach.’ Or the name of a famous player of the time: ‘Puskas,’ ‘Pelé,’ ‘Baxter’ or ‘Law.’

That last was the most coveted one. Everyone wanted to be Denis Law just as everyone wanted to be centre-forward. Striker? That was someone who downed tools at work demanding more money. Sweeper? He was the guy who got rid of the litter off the streets. Keeper? That was the man who looked after the animals at the zoo.

No, the custodian was always a ‘goalie,’ and that was the one position no one wanted. You lined up waiting for the captains (positions possessed by the two boys with the biggest frames and/or the fastest fists) to pick their players, starting off hoping to be that first pick and to dream of the forthcoming glory of scoring all the goals. Not chosen? Well, maybe you could be a winger. Still in the line? Half-back was better than nothing. No joy? Suddenly the much-derided position of full-back became an attractive option – given the only alternative left. Usually, and to my great relief, that was normally when I left the line, as right-back.

Then there were only two kids left. Their nicknames were the ones you didn’t want. Even to be called ‘rubbish’ (as to be honest I often was) was better than the appellations these poor kids were stuck with – ‘Fatty’ or ‘Specky’ – or for the truly unfortunate, ‘Fatty Four-Eyes.’ They were the goalies.

But if you were ever picked to be a goalie you never admitted the real reason for your selection. You kidded yourself on that the captain had saved the best till last. That it was ability, not obesity, that determined his choice. That it wasn’t because you were short-sighted, it was because the skipper possessed foresight. You knew – you just KNEW – you were going to pull off a series of spectacular saves, that within a few minutes nobody would be calling you ‘Fatty,’ you’d be ‘Banks’ or ‘Yashin’ or maybe even ‘The Cat.’

Then when a timid effort slowly trundled in your direction you’d leap into the air, arms outstretched, you’d land acrobatically on the ball and clutch it close to your chest. You’d stand up, look around, milking the imaginary applause. You’d peer into the distance, look around for a team-mate, scheme how you were going to set in motion the move which would start with you gently rolling out the ball to set up an attack which would end with a fantastic goal and it would all be down to you. Your team-mates would surround you and pat you on the back at the end of the game and say they couldn’t have won it without you.

Then, when you’d pictured all that, you’d throw the ball up in the air and blooter it as far up the park as you could.

THAT was what you did.

Later, as short trousers gave way to long and voices cracked and plunged from soprano to bass before suddenly soaring upwards again, then rapidly plummeting once more, as patches on your face began to feel like sandpaper after washing, as girls turned out to be – well - a bit more interesting than you had once thought, as the 1960s gave way to a new decade, a new World Cup was played and the positions and nicknames changed. ‘Midfielder’ became a respectable term and yours truly had moved up the park twenty yards or so and was now allowed to venture into the opposite half. Oh, what joy to discard ‘rubbish’ right-back and gratefully don the apparel of midfield ‘general.’

You quickly forgot the old names and celebrated the new. It was what you did.
‘Puskas’ was now ‘Muller,’ ‘Baxter’ became ‘Beckenbauer’ and ‘Law’ metamorphosed into ‘Jairzinho.’ ‘Pelé?’ Ah, he was still ‘Pelé.’ And some of these names stuck. There is today a man in his sixties, living in London, who when he visits his old stamping grounds is still addressed only as ‘Pelé.’

It is a sight to behold when he meets up with two of his old mates, ‘Jinky’ and ‘Cruyff.’ The trio, with a collective age greater than three treble twenties on a dartboard, are still awarded those honorifics by their old friends. In truth they have lifelong acquaintances who know them only by their ‘fitba’ names.’ Oh they know the surnames well enough, but the first names? No. ‘Pele’ has always been ‘Pele’ And if you think it strange that someone could stroll past Troon Cross and answer to that name when hailed in the street, well, he wasn’t the first person ever to be addressed as such in that town. That honour belongs to a man whose real name is Edson Arantes do Nascimento and he too has a nickname that originated while playing football in school, a nickname he has carried all his life, a nickname by which he is known to the entire world.

That nickname is ‘Pelé.’ With all due apologies to my old friend in London, the real ‘Pelé.’ And he has played at Troon FC’s Portland Park. But that is a tale for another time. For now all you need to know is that he gained his nickname the same way all those young boys in Scotland did half a century ago. Through playing football in school, in the park and in the streets.

Because that is what he did.

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