When I was a lad.
Date: Monday 26th March 2012
When I was a lad:
Football was played with leather footballs, yes leather. Leather balls were a vast improvement on the inflated pig’s bladders that were originally used back in Queen Bess’s times, but still quite medieval in feel in comparison to today’s modern synthetic balls. It certainly hurt to head them, especially when wet. For most of my childhood they were leather coloured, i.e. brown. Until white balls were introduced it was difficult to spot them especially on the mud-coloured pitches of the time: brown balls on brown surfaces.
Pitches were just big lawns. Even at the very top level (which in those days was the First Division) there were no serried ranks of grounds men and no underground heating and by the time winter was in full swing most football pitches had been grubbed down to small swathes of motley green surrounded by large areas of mud. When it rained the ball stuck, when it snowed the pitch was snowbound, when it was cold the pitch was frozen (and even in those carefree days when ‘elf’n’safety was as yet undreamt of, games were still cancelled when the permafrost turned pitches into cast iron sheets), and when spring arrived the six yard box was a shallow desert like depression hidden within a haze of dust.
All of which made it amazing that goalkeepers cast themselves down onto the ground (oblivious as to whether the surface was bog-like or ironclad) and caught the ball. Yes caught it. No fingertip parrying, and no punching it into the path of oncoming opposition forwards. Not least because if they’d done so they’d have had dislocated fingers or broken wrists (because of the weight of the leather ball).
Goalkeepers were always number 1. Every player had a number and those numbers were 1 through to 11. No player ever entered the field of play wearing No 54 or No 17. Each number represented something specific and designated whether you were a defender or an attacker. The Numbers 2 through to 5 were encouraged to block and tackle. Numbers 6 through to 11 were urged to score. At school I always fancied myself as number 7 or number 10 (didn’t everybody); I was usually not picked.
Tackling was considered important, it was an art form as key as scoring goals. Diving was unnecessary because when tackled you were felled. A lot of end of season team photographs featured folk in casts.
And even more amazingly, when I was a lad, football games were played without substitutes. If a player got injured that was that, he either played on in pain or he left the field of play and his team continued with fewer players than the other side had.
Hand ball meant precisely one thing; a hand or arm had come into contact with a ball, a free kick or penalty was given every time that occurred and it didn’t matter if it was accidental or deliberate hand ball. Usually it was quite deliberate even when the ball was kicked from a few yards away because hand ball was considered a better option than stopping a leather ball with the mush, especially if the leather ball was wet and heavier than usual.
The hand ball decisions were taken by refs. They did it on their own without any reference to the linesmen, who did precisely what was implied by their title, they ran the line (and they were all men – no pony tailed girls out there at all). There weren’t any assistant referees and fourth officials were yet to be invented.
But with no fourth official, I can hear the youngsters cry, who held up the board showing three extra minutes to play before half time. Ho ho ho, young chums, back in the day a football match lasted for ninety minutes no more no less. An extra obligatory four minutes were first added when we went onto the atomic caesium clock standard and during any games Manchester United were taking part in and not winning.
Referees were also without their favourite prop – cards, which admittedly made it quite awkward to distinguish exactly how seriously the ref was castigating the on-field offender, but to all other intents and purposes did not add a jot to the interpretation of the rules of the game.
Mind you, when I were a lad there was no seating in most stadia, in fact there were not many stadia, just bloody big sheds with stands in them, which made actually seeing anything at all on the pitch pretty difficult.
Yes, when I was a lad…