Chapter 7


Julie Valentine



The Football Match

The football was the best birthday present I had ever had.  I practised dribbling up and down the yard and around boxes I had placed there, I bounced the ball on my head until I could control it and then head it off and hit the goal I had drawn on the house wall in chalk.  The football balanced easily on the top of either foot, with me standing on one leg and I was also practising running in short sharp bursts sometimes forwards and sometimes backwards.  This caused trouble in the alleyway, when I first bumped into old Mr Johnson, who cleaned chimneys, and knocked a bag of soot off the handlebars of his bicycle. This fell onto the floor in the alleyway making a huge black cloud which drifted off.  Unfortunately some of it landed on Mrs Eldridge’s clean washing which was hanging in her back yard, next door to ours, and she was not very pleased as she had to wash it all again.  I did offer to hang it out for her, but she just asked me to keep away as I was covered in black smuts which she said would only make the washing dirty again.

Then there was another occasion when I was running so fast I couldn’t stop and ran straight into my dad, who had come home to find something he had forgotten to take to the shop.  Dad told me to be more careful and that if I wanted to run that fast I should go to the park where people could see me, so that I didn’t cause any more accidents.

I started going to the park after that, although it was three streets away and quite a walk.  I always took my football with me and I usually managed to have a kick-about with some of the boys who were playing there on the swings and slide.

I found that I was seeing less and less of Merc at this time.  He didn’t come to the park as there were too many open spaces and nowhere for him to hide.  Also the grass was cut short by the park-keeper who had a big machine he could sit on to drive up and down the football pitch and Merc therefore found it difficult to know where to go to be safe as there were also dogs in the park.

We didn’t use the whole of the pitch as there were normally only about five or six boys, but occasionally, if there were more, we would try to use both goals, one for each team.  This was when I found out that I really wasn’t fit enough.  By the time I had run to the other goal, I was so out of breath that I had stitch in my side and my legs were like jelly.  I decided that I would have to try harder as it was clear that the other boys, some of whom were two years older than me, could run much faster and much further and this meant that they always beat me to the ball and I could not catch them to get the ball back.

All the boys had arranged to meet one Sunday afternoon for a game and my mum and dad walked to the park with me.  They sat on a bench on the halfway line so they could see what was going on.  Unfortunately the team I was playing with did not win, but my dad was impressed with how I had played.  He decided that the main problem we all had was that none of us really knew the rules of football and so, apart from the goalkeeper, we were all chasing the ball from one end of the pitch to the other and this is why we were all so tired.  The next Sunday he came to the park again and called all the boys together.  He asked whether he could help them play a better game.  Dad had played football when he was a teenager and had been quite good, he never said why he had given up, but I think it was about that time that he met my mum and spent more time with her than his football.

Anyway, they all agreed that dad should help and he told them that he would be back the following Sunday and they would start with some practice before a game.

He asked mum to sew some coloured bands so we could tell who was in which team and that made the game a lot easier.  We dribbled, threw the ball as far as we could using two hands, the goalkeepers were taught to throw themselves on the floor and to jump high to save a goal and we generally became fitter and faster and better able to control the ball.  We also learned not to chase the ball wherever it went on the pitch.

One Sunday dad called us all together and told us that he had been approached by the trainer of a boys team in NutwoodPark who had suggested a game between the two teams.  We were so excited that we could not pay attention.  The game was to be in two parts, one game in their park and one game in ours, dad explained that this was ‘Home and Away’.

That week we decided who was to play where and we practiced really hard.  We also kicked lots of balls at the goalkeeper to make sure he would stop any that might score.  Dad called the team round our house on Wednesday evening after school and showed us some tactics.  We all sat round the kitchen table and we used cups and glasses for the teams.  We only had seven players so it had been agreed that we would play 7 – Aside.  As we didn’t know how many there should be in a team this did not seem strange to us, but apparently the other team had been formed for some time and had many more players.

The excitement grew as the Sunday for the first game approached.  The first game was to be away.  I had talked to Merc about the games and he was just as excited as me but said that he would not come to NutwoodPark as he was not sure of the area or how to get home quickly underground.  I felt very sorry that he would be unable to share my first football game but understood the problem.

We all met up at our park gate and walked round to NutwoodPark.

We were surprised to see our opponents lined up to greet us.  They were all in matching kit and were wearing proper football boots.  Only one of our team had football boots, which had the laces tied together and were hanging round his neck.  Our kit was a mixture of different coloured shorts and tops, none of which matched, but we did have on the red bands that my mum had made.

The trainer of NutwoodPark was to act as referee and my dad was to be the linesman.

We lost the toss, and we lost the game by two goals.  Our goalkeeper said that the practice we had given him by kicking balls at him had paid off and he was able to save many balls that would have scored.  I played centre forward and spent a lot of time running backwards and forwards and moving from one side of the field to the other.  At half time they had arranged for us to have an orange quarter and a drink which was quite refreshing.  I missed talking to Merc and wanted him to be there to tell me to try harder but I knew that he would be thinking of me so I tried harder in the second half as I knew he would have told me.  John did score one goal for our side, but my dad said that he was offside, so the goal was disallowed.  This was disappointing, but as my dad said afterwards, it had been a well kicked goal and had beaten the goalkeeper, so John should still be proud of it.

We were all upset to have lost our first game, but dad had a talk to the team when we reached the park gate and told us how pleased he was with the way we had played, the way we had passed the ball and kept trying.  He also said that the return game would be a different matter as we knew our park better than theirs and the little foibles of the ground.  This was true as one corner of the ground dropped away and you had to run especially fast to catch the ball if it went over there.

It was two weeks to the return game and we were all looking forward to it.  We all tried to beg or borrow some shorts and tops the same colour and were thrilled when one of the stallholders in the market called in my parents’ shop the day before the game and donated a kit for the whole of the team, even the goalkeeper had a special green top with long sleeves in case he got cold standing with nothing to do.

We still didn’t have football boots, but each boy had extracted a promise from their parents that they would get a pair for their next birthday or Christmas, whichever came first.

I had told Merc all about the first away game and he had jumped up and down and had run round and round in circles when I said we had scored.  He didn’t understand the rules of the game and I had to explain to him about being off-side.  Merc asked if there was anywhere he could come to watch the next game.  I thought about this and then remembered that there was a park bench to one side of the pitch where my parents usually sat behind which there was a tree with a low branch.  I could go early to the park, climb on the bench, put Merc on the lower branch and he could climb up the tree to get a better view.  Merc agreed this was a good idea and so on the Sunday morning that is what I did.

Merc was wearing his hat with the long ribbons tied across his chest and tied behind his neck.  When I arrived at the park with Merc in my pocket I was surprised to see how the ground had been transformed.  The park-keeper had found some more benches which were along the side-lines, there were nets on the goal posts and flags on sticks in each of the four corners of the pitch.  He had also painted in the white lines, which had become very feint and had found a banner which said ‘OrvillePark’.  He later told us that there had not been a football team in the park for many years but that he had kept the banner ‘just in case’.

I walked round to the other side of the pitch and sat on the bench under the tree with a low branch.  Merc said that it would draw attention to us both if I were to stand on the bench and reach up into the tree so I went round behind the tree and held him as high up on the tree trunk as I could, standing on tip-toe, until he had a good grip and he then scrambled up the tree and disappeared very quickly.  I was surprised at just how nimble he was for a fat rat, and I could hear him squeaking that he had a good view of both goals.

Merc wished me ‘good luck and play well’ and I went to join the other members of the team who had started to arrive.

Just as the other team had lined up to welcome us, so we did the same.  We shook hands, won the toss this time and kicked off.  I think that this match was more exciting than the first and we certainly played a better game.

NutwoodPark scored the first goal, when the ball slipped out of our goal keeper’s hands, but after that, he was complaining that he had nothing to do because the play was all in the other half as we were pressing to score. 0-1, 1-1, 2-1 and then half time.  One of the other market traders had given my mum some oranges for the teams and she had been helped by John’s mum to cut them up and prepare the drinks.  John had scored both our goals and was the champion at this time.  With the score on the first game being 2-0 in favour of Nutwood Park and this game being 2-1 in our favour, that meant that we needed to score one more to draw or two more to win overall.  My dad told us to just enjoy the game and to play as we had been in the first half.

The second half started and there were only two kicks of the ball before we had another goal.  John was standing, on-side this time, on his own and ran halfway up the pitch with the ball almost stuck to the tips of his toes.  He kicked at the goal, lifted the ball with his toe and scored into the top left-hand corner of the net.  All the parents and villagers who were sitting on the benches jumped up and cheered.  It made us even more determined to win overall.

We tried and tried, dribbled, passed and kicked at the goal but the ball would not go in.  There were only five minutes left before the end of the game and I could see my mum jumping up and down with encouragement, shouting ‘Come On Orville’.  I was really tired and I could see that the others in the team were as well, but I passed the word to two of the others to try one of the tactics that my dad had shown us on the kitchen table.  We passed the ball between us moving closer to the goal, we changed positions each time we passed to confuse our opponents, and this seemed to work.  By the time we were close to the goal I was in the middle of the pitch, right in front of the keeper.  I received the pass, kept it low and side-footed the ball into the net.  The team went wild, the spectators went wild, and Merc told me that he had nearly fallen out of the tree at that point.

I was so pleased to hear the final whistle that I collapsed onto the grass, my legs all wobbly and my body aching all over with the exertion.

We had won the game and the contest !

At the end of the game both teams had their photograph taken for the local paper and it wasn’t until many years later when I was looking at that photograph and saw what I thought was Merc sitting proudly near the football at my feet.  He was very brave to come that close and he never told me that he had his photo taken as well.

This was the start of many similar contests with other local teams, although NutwoodPark was the nearest and we played them more often.  Sometimes we won, sometimes we didn’t but there were always good games and both teams improved by playing against each other.

Merc was nowhere to be found when I went looking for him to bring him home, but I did find a large piece of chocolate cake beside my bed in a brown paper bag when I got home.

He let me rest that night, but the following evening, after school, he was on my bed and playing out the game again, as though he had been taking part.

To Chapter Eight

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