Even at the age of ten I took great delight in kicking Emlyn Hughes in the face. One look at his features, mutated after my dad had taken a hot knife to his eye socket, was all it took. The chirpy, footballer turned personality, however, still grinned insanely through his deformity.
The field behind my home had become Wembley to the boys from our neighbourhood and the plastic Emlyn Hughes Superstars football had been the ball of choice for the past two years now. The field, roughly the length and width of a small cottage, sloped off sharply in the right-hand corner of what was known as the Back Lane End where the corner flag was replaced by a permanently muddy puddle. At the far side of the field we had the Bush End which had a privet hedge along its length. To the left of the field was a road that separated us from Tate’s, a large wasteland surrounded by a seven-foot brick wall, and to the right was the gable end of the Pritchard’s house.
“I’m calling the police if you don’t stop belting that ball off our wall. Our lass is trying to watch Coronation Street.” Mr Pritchard was out again with one of his nightly rants. It was hard to take him seriously. He was five-foot-four, and sported a bushy, black moustache that gave him the appearance of a schoolboy dressed up for a school play. “This is our field, I could get you done for trespass.” Saliva sprayed from his lips as he bawled at us.
“It’s not your grass, my mam checked with the council. They said it belongs to them and we can play on it as much as we like,” said Elvis before taking a step behind Bumper.
Paul ‘Elvis’ Morris lived three doors up from me. He was tall and thin for his age and wore a pair of thick-rimmed spectacles that he tied on with old shoelaces when we played football. I’m not sure if his mam had checked with the council but it sounded good to me.
“Don’t talk wet, son,” said Mr Pritchard.
“You’re the one talking wet. I’m bloody drowning here.” Bumper pretended to wipe spit from his face. Pritchard climbed over the wall that connected his garden to the field and went for him. He stopped dead in his tracks when he caught sight of the imposing figure on the corner of the back lane. Uncle Tim was a giant of a man, six foot four in his tartan slippers, he was quite an intimidating sight. He wasn’t my real uncle, but he was a friend of my dad’s and always seemed to look out for us. He removed his pipe from his mouth, studying it briefly before ambling over to Mr Pritchard.
“Is there a problem?”
“Err no, no problem,” Pritchard was shaking. “I was just trying to explain that our lass can’t hear the telly because of the noise they’re making.”
“Tell her to turn the bugger up then.” The thought of Tim slippering Pritchard to death did appeal to me. I glanced at Bumper and you could tell that he was willing Tim on to chin him as well.
“Yeah, good idea, I didn’t think of that.” Pritchard climbed back over the wall, taking his moustache with him and headed back inside.
“Don’t worry lads, he won’t bother you again.”
“Cheers, Tim,” I said.
“No problem, you know where I am if you get any hassle.” Tim replaced his pipe, glanced at the specks of mud that had gathered on his slippers then wandered off around the corner.
We’d kicked off again and it wasn’t long before the ball was racing down the back lane alongside Tate’s. Gilbert chased after it as we sat with our backs against Pritchard’s wall, grateful for the rest.
“Fancy a swig?” Bumper handed me a bottle of Dandelion and Burdock that his mother had bought us. I took a swig of the bitter, sweet liquid and handed it onto Elvis.
“What’s down the bottom of the bank then?” Bumper hadn’t been in the area long, but we had taken him under our wing.
“There’s a garage at the very bottom and another road,” I said, “that’s why you have to be quick; if the ball goes on the road it’s bound to be burst by a car.”
“Do you think Gilbert was the best man to send after it then?” Bumper looked down the back lane to see how far Gilbert had got. “He’s not exactly the quickest lad I’ve ever met.”
“He was in goal,” I said. “It’s the rules. Gilbert’s okay, at least he makes the rest of us look like good footballers.”
“Seems like a good lad, doesn’t say much though. Has he been here long?”
“Yeah, he lives on the Marley Pots estate at the top of our street. He lives with his mam and his two brothers.”
“What about his dad?”
“Don’t know. I don’t think anybody knows who or where his dad is, we’ve never bothered to ask. It’s not something he talks about.” Gilbert was just getting to the top of the bank. His face was bright red, and he was out of breath. He was nearly as tall as Elvis but a lot chubbier, and he sloped forward when he walked, resembling a ski jumper speeding down the slope.
“What’s on the other side of Tate’s then?” Once Bumper started, he was full of questions.
“There’s a big car park that used to belong to the Plessey’s factory,” said Elvis. “At the far end of that is Inkerman Print.”
“It’s where they print the football programmes”
“Can we go down there sometime? I’d love to see it.”
Elvis and I exchanged nervous glances.
“No, it’s far too dangerous.”
“Give us a swig of that will you?” Gilbert asked for the bottle of pop. “I’m knackered. Can we have a rest?”
“We just have.” Bumper jumped and took a swing at the ball. “Come on, you can stay in goal if you’re still tired.”
“No chance. I’m not running down there again.”
“You can have the bush end this time.” This offered a little protection as the ball normally lodged in the hedge rather than roll down the bank.
Each goalmouth, as was the fashion in the late seventies and early eighties, was either a mud bath or baked hard by the sun. This accounted for numerous cuts and grazes and even more telling offs from our parents for coming in caked in muck.
Elvis, Gilbert and I were ever presents the 1980/81 season, playing football every day during the holidays and most nights after school. Bumper made up the quartet when he moved into the neighbourhood that Christmas. He was of similar build to Gilbert and Elvis and was a bit of a joker, but harmless with it. The lads liked him, and so did I.
Whilst the four of us were involved in nearly every match there was a group of about ten other lads who joined in the games from time to time. During the holidays, each match lasted a full day from when you got up, until we were called in for tea. Half time was when we went for lunch. Occasionally we had extra time that lasted until it got dark.
Boots and shin-pads were optional although they were generally for the rich kids, so it pretty much ruled out any of us from Southwick. It was also essential that you assumed the persona of your favourite footballer. We quite often had Johan Cruyff, Kevin Keegan and Gary Rowell all on the pitch at the same time. I always chose to be Mario Kempes, Argentine star of the 1978 world cup.
It wasn’t long after we had kicked off again when the ball shot past Gilbert and into the bush.
“It’s bust,” he said as he retrieved the ball.
“Not again.” My dad had already repaired the ball twice by heating a knife on the electric ring of the cooker and melting the plastic over the puncture. I wasn’t sure if it would hold up to another restoration.
“Why don’t we call it a draw and start again tomorrow? I got a ball for Christmas and I haven’t had a chance to use it yet.” Everyone agreed with Bumper as we left. All of us as deflated as Emlyn Hughes’ now sunken cheeks.
“What’s up?” I said as I walked onto the field.
“Dog shit, loads of it.”
Bumper was right. The field that had been spotless when we had left it the night before, was now covered in dog turds. This severely hampered our football plans.
“I’m sure that the owners wouldn’t be too happy if we shat in their gardens, would they?”
“Good point, Bumper, but it’s not helping us, is it? We need to clear them away.”
“How?” said Elvis, but Bumper already had an idea and ran to the bush end of the field and snapped off four twigs.
“Come on, let’s see who can get them the furthest up Tate’s wall.”
He handed us each a twig and, excited at the new challenge, I opted to go first. I chose the stool nearest the road, which was quite solid. I placed my stick in it and flicked it over the road towards the wall. It splattered about half way up then dropped back down.
Elvis went next. He took the lead with a shot that was just two bricks short of the top of the wall. It was unlikely to be beaten and Gilbert didn’t put up much of a challenge when his shot didn’t even clear the road and landed slap, bang in the middle of the white lines.
“Watch your heads,” shouted Bumper as he launched his turd with some force. It cleared the wall with ease and ended up some way inside Tate’s yard.
“The champion.” I raised Bumper’s arm above his head and he bowed to the imaginary crowd. The field was clear, and we kicked off, but the game didn’t last long.
“What do you think you’re playing at?”
We were all rooted to the spot as Mr Tate came around the corner, a brown stain down the front of his overalls.
Elvis and I had just got to school, St Christopher’s RC Primary. We walked past the army of mothers dropping their precious kids off at the gates and took up position in the yard. Elvis had recently got a new pack of Top Trumps and we called Bumper over for a game. We sat, cross legged on the concrete as Elvis dealt the cards. Just then there was a commotion at the gate. Fighting his way through the crowd was an unkempt, bearded man pushing a wheelbarrow.
“Now behave yourselves,” he said as he tipped his children out of the barrow. Seemingly unfazed by the experience, the brother and sister waved cheerfully and chomped into the pease pudding stotties that their father had made for lunch.
“Who’s that?” said Bumper.
“The scruffy bloke is Albert Davison,” said Elvis, “the local rag and bone man.”
“The chubby lad,” I added, “is his son Kevin Davison. To be avoided at all costs. My mam says he’s evil.”
“He looks a bit strange, but he hardly seems dangerous.”
It didn’t take long for Bumper to regret those words.
The four of us waited in the queue to go in for lunch. Bumper’s mother had made him sandwiches, Elvis and I were going to buy our lunch and Gilbert was on free lunch, Nashy dinners as they were known.
As lunchtime approached, Kevin Davison realised that he’d eaten all his sandwiches and he didn’t have any dinner money. He was still hungry, so he did what he knew best. He casually walked up to Gilbert, punched him in the face and took his dinner ticket. He then went into Bumper’s lunch box unchallenged and took his Tunnock’s teacake.
“Don’t mind, do you?” he asked, then walked off without waiting for a reply.
“That’s not fair,” said Gilbert, “it’s curry today.”
The next chapter will be released soon. If you can’t wait, Leg It is available on Kindle, Paperback and Hardback.