I was wondering why soccer is such a popular game to play and I think it comes down to one thing. To play soccer you just need a ball and it can be any ball of any size and, as long as you have someone to play with, you can play a game of soccer. Apparently, it was invented using an animal bladder, inflated and tied off, from at least the Middle Ages, and probably long before that.
One of the earliest sites for soccer was Bourton-on-the-Water where it was played in the river Windrush between two bridges. It is a madness of getting the ball through the bridge at either end with few other rules. I mention this as Bourton was a place I went to when I was visiting my aunt and uncle with my grandma and grandad. We used to go every Easter on the coach and when there in the early 1960s we went for a day trip to Bourton-on-the-Water. The memory of the visit and the history of the game has stuck with me ever since.
Every young toddler, at least in Leeds, was given a ball and taught how to kick it. I think that in the heart of every father is the hope that they will have produced a talent that will one day play for Leeds United. The reason for this is that every Leeds lad harbours a wish to achieve this goal, and of course, few if any ever attain this. For those of us who were around in the 1960s Leeds was in its heyday. The stars were Billy Bremner, Jack Charlton, Norman Hunter, Peter Lorimer and coach Don Revie and every kid wanted to play like them. As a student teacher in London, East Bedfont Primary School, one Scottish lady teacher’s claim to fame was that she had taught Billy Bremner when he was a lad.
It didn’t matter where you were: on the sand, in the road, on a field, your back garden or on a piece of waste ground, you could always set up a game. My father was Scottish, but he still had the same hopes for his three sons. One Christmas, I remember Santa bringing a very small pair of boots for me and a bigger pair for my older brother Andrew. We also had a football each. The boots and balls were heavy leather and made by hand in India. They had round, hard leather toe caps, leather soles and they had studs made of many round leather pieces nailed together and nailed into the sole. The balls were hand-stitched thick leather with a bladder of rubber and the hole was laced closed and mine was a size smaller than my brother’s. It didn’t matter that it was wet and freezing cold on Christmas morning, we had to get the boots on and go out into the back garden and kick the ball around a bit. The boots were unforgiving, and within a short space of time I had blisters and found that my technique in kicking a stationary ball was lacking somewhat. I would place the ball and then have to take several paces backwards before running up, kicking the ball, experiencing a shuddering shock as it was so heavy and it would slew off at an angle. Not my finest moment, but it was a start!
Andrew was first cab off the rank in having the chance of actually playing soccer and that was as part of Ladywood Church Scouts. Ladywood was a magnificent old church, very large and grand, set in wonderful grounds. Unfortunately the old church has since been demolished, a smaller new one built and the ground used for housing, but at the time it was a thriving Methodist church. We were christened at the church and Andrew joined the cubs when he could. My father was roped in to train the soccer team and he took to it very seriously. Training was arranged to take place on the Soldiers’ Field near Oakwood, on a Saturday morning and I tagged along to watch. Dad even bought a whistle and I was impressed with the shiny silver whistle called an ACME Thunderer. They had a kit to wear and they looked very smart, which was almost as important as how they played. There was a competition and they had to play home and away games. Andrew was keen, but no real star and the same could be said about the rest of the team. I don’t know if they ever won, but they all seemed to like it. It was at an away game at Crossgates that Dad left our dog Sabot (my brother says Sabeau) behind. The dog was a toy poodle and my mother was beside herself and as I have recounted before, blamed my Dad and made his life hell. The dog was not found, despite Dad driving around the whole area, but miraculously just arrived back home hours later.
After his Cubs’ experience, Andrew never really got into soccer, but we would go and play on the Soldiers’ Field with friends. As I have said, you don’t need much for soccer, and jackets or jumpers would do for goals. Sometimes we’d start off with just me and my brother, but by osmosis somehow stray boys would turn up ask to join in the game. The truth is that soccer is much better when there is a group of you. If you had a small number then attack and defence was the best. The way we played the goalie was fixed, but who ever possessed the ball, their team was attacking. Later, at Roundhay School, we would have two teams and the attacking team kept attacking until they put the ball out of play.
I remember once, when we must have been about ten going up to Red Hill and playing on the soccer pitch adjacent to Wetherby Road. There was a large group of us and it teemed down with rain, the ground became a quagmire and we were soaked. It was fantastic, as we just threw ourselves around, got thick in mud. It was one of those times when others just joined in and we created a full game. I know the bus driver wasn’t too happy when we piled back onto his bus, wet and thick in mud, but he still let us on. I seem to remember we had to stamp the mud off on the pavement before he let us on.
At Harehills, soccer was the game of choice during winter, spring and autumn. The playground sloped down from Roundhay Road and somehow there could be two or three soccer games going on whilst there was skipping, hopscotch and assorted chasing games in progress, all interlacing each other. We tended to play with tennis balls, but it was a wild affair and there were surprisingly few crashes between the children as they dashed around, intent on their individual games.
It must have been year one of Roundhay that Dad really got into Leeds United and started to go to watch the games and took me and Andrew with him. I must say, it was always a bit of an event. It was hard to get parked anywhere near and then you had to walk through intimidating crowds of soccer fans who were getting quite notorious at the time for aggro. After saying this, they tended to be oblivious to families and their focus was on the other team’s fans who were similarly focused on them. There were lots of police and the mounted officers were quite frightening as the horses were massive and not always fully controlled.
At this time, there was no caging-in of fans and there was a low wall that separated you from the elevated pitch of the finest grass I have ever seen. There were only terraces, at least where we were, and the games were exciting, fast and skilful, but Norman Hunter could ‘bite your legs!’ We started going quite regularly and the final time I remember going was, I believe, against Glasgow Rangers in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup quarter final. They had drawn 0-0 in the first game and Leeds won 2-0 at Elland Road. The Rangers supporters were quite intimidating and I think there was some trouble, but they took no notice of us. The only incident, and this must have worried my Dad, was that coins were thrown from the back of the crowds and I was hit by a flying old penny. Leeds went on to win the cup final against Ferencvaros, a team from Budapest.
I don’t remember ever going to the soccer again until I was about twenty-two and I went to Manchester and to Old Trafford. I think Manchester were against West Ham and it ended a draw. We had had a few pints before the match and can’t say I was fully focused on the game.
At Roundhay, soccer was the break and lunchtime sport, apart from wall-ball. Games were set up over the whole grounds and hot and sweaty teenagers went in hard and in some cases skilfully against the opponents. There were no holds barred and frequent fights would start as testosterone and angst met face to face. I do remember hitting a boy, who was a friend normally. He started arguing with me, Steve I believe, and I just let go one punch to the temple and he fell to the ground, rolling and holding his eye. Not my finest moment, but not, unfortunately, my only time of being involved in a fight, but certainly the shortest altercation I was ever involved in. Fights and soccer seem to go hand in hand and playground fights always resulted in a stampede of boys, but rather than running away, they ran towards the fight to get the best position to witness the altercation. Eventually, a teacher would arrive and drag the miscreants, often bloodied, away to judgement from a higher source.
There was a period where we played indoor soccer at the Judean Club and we played for Lidgett Methodist youth club. We were actually quite good and I was in goals. I got the job as no one else wanted it and I was stupid enough to throw myself around and wasn’t worried about getting hurt. We won the Leeds district and had to play Spalding. We lost there, as we had to play outdoors and we expected to play indoors. The pitch was muddy grass and we only had training shoes which meant we could hardly move without slipping. A bit of a shame but, it was within the rules.
On hot weekends, as teenagers, we would often gather at Roundhay Park and play impromptu games on the arena, or the Soldiers’ Field. Wonderful times we had and some of the lads were great players. The girls just had to wait and they would sit and chat and take very little notice of what was going on. Nowadays they would probably join in and enjoy the games, but times were different. When I was first married we would play friendly games at Meanwood Park Hospital grounds as Pete worked there at the time. That was a more organised game for invited players, but even then tempers could flare. When I first started teaching, I was invited to play against the boys’ team. I had to buy some boots and kit, but I embarrassed myself in my first outing by cutting down this really good player. I tripped him as he ran by and everyone thought I had done it maliciously, but it was just through lack of skill. I believe that was my last soccer outing.
In 1981 I took up a sport that required even less equipment, and that is running. I did my first half-marathon in 1982 and even though I am not very good, I have run almost every day ever since and hope to continue on for the rest of my life. My friend, Peter, has played soccer all his life and was still playing until it became impossible in the UK with the pandemic. I take my hat off to his endurance and fitness.
I almost forgot to mention my brush with Leeds United fame. I won a cake making competition, held at Lidgett Methodist Youth Club. Actually my girl friend at the time thought my scones were better than her cake that had sunk in the middle. She insisted we swapped. Someone turned the cake upside down to hide the sunken top and it won first prize, and so I received my prize from the guest of honour who was Peter Lorimer, I believe. My girlfriend was not amused and I had to surrender the prize to her in the end.