Like most of us, we look back on our childhood with fond memories. The rose tinted specs are firmly on when I think back to balmy summer nights playing football each evening. Even the winters seemed cosier as we wrapped up but still kicking a ball even when the snow was 6″ deep! I was lucky, I had great parents (still do!). Like many of the time, I was brought up on a council estate where friends were just seen as extended family. We had great fun in our adventures climbing trees, making dens and playing games outside until we were called in at night. It was all physical in nature but my passion was always football. With the specs still on we had great games with great players and consequently I developed this love of the game from an early age.
BUT…….was it really as good as I remember?
The reality was a bit different on reflection.
I played my first game of 11-a-side at the age of 7 for the u9’s. We must have been pretty good because I stood at the back and hardly touched the ball. So much for game time.
We played on red ash pitches. The only time we ever got to play on grass was when we reached a cup final. Grass was the holy grail and only ever used a few times per season. On the same red ash pitches, the ball we used was a plastic Mitre Mouldmaster which bounced 30 feet in the air and stung when it hit a cold leg. Garvel rashed were an all year round injury.
So many talk about street footballers and yes we are probably also the last generation to be part of that culture. We played under streetlights on concrete paths. Our main pitch was in front of a block of garages with the same lock-ups on one side and a wooden fence was the other touchline. Broken glass and stones were a constant hazard and the games was intermittently interrupted by cars going to their home for the night. Visits to the local hospital for stitches were commonplace.
As a 12yo I signed for Celtic BC, the premier club in Scotland at the time. My trial was against Celtic captain Peter Grant who was a year older than me. Must have done alright as I was invited back to sign. We trained at Barrowfield where the Celtic first team trained every day. So here I am at this great club where every schoolboy wanted to play (We even had many Rangers supporters playing) and training where the first team trained and all I can remember is doing ‘doggy sprints’ every night! I think we maybe had 1 ball for the team if we were lucky and that was used at the end as a treat if we had trained well.
As I progressed a bit, I signed for Hamilton Accies as a 14 yo. Our training was done on a little piece of ‘grass’ outside the old Douglas Park. Grass is a bit of an misrepresentation. It was a mud bath for 10 months of the year but that is where we trained. When I was at Hamilton there were only a handful of young boys so we trained alongside the first team and reserves. It was great experience but then a new manager in Lisbon Lion, Bertie Auld was appointed. Let’s just say that he was a great Celtic player but as a manager you just wouldn’t get away with things that were done then. His party piece was running across us youngsters with his boots on as we were doing sit-ups. This was to help build up our stomach muscles!!
Throughout my youth, I can’t think of many coaches that held any coaching qualifications. They had little, if any, tactical knowledge. However they could shout the loudest and generally ridicule players. The only time we had a proper coach was when someone like Craig Brown or Davie McParland took the sessions. The difference was palpable.
In my late teens I entered the junior ranks. I played for a few teams but the pattern was pretty similar. Our training facilities were generally a nearby local park. We trained at night. There were no floodlights although there may have been a little light from the adjacent streetlights. In the winter months we just ran all night. In the summer we maybe saw a ball but only after the running was done.
So you can now see the picture I am painting. Ironically it did produce players from these environments.
Compare that to the present day. All our teams train on 3G pitches with floodlights by qualified coaches who have PVG clearance. Matches are well organised with refs and sometimes linesmen. Clubs have codes of conduct, constitutions and well structured committees.
Players are generally given all their playing and training kit. Parents provide some of the flashiest and most expensive boots on the market. Bullying which was very evident in my day, will not be tolerated in any shape or form. We have progressed massively from the days I have described. However, the contradiction is that despite all these improvements we are not producing players in the same way.
I definitely don’t want to go back to the bad old days but how do we build in the resilience that was created back in the day? The world has changed a lot through my life. Progress is key. Learning is critical. Are we taking these lessons and applying them today or just accepting our plight? Can we learn from these ‘old days’?
My world is very different from my childhood and youth. I spend less time with my kids than my parents spent with me as I work longer hours and many times away from home. I remember having lunch every day with my Dad (even if it was a Scotch Pie and a sticky bun). Dinner was always at 5pm and we ate together as a family every day. Supper was toasted cheese before bed as a religion. So, as I strive to give my kids more than I had, the irony is not lost on me that I actually might be giving them less!
So as much as I hark back to my youth, I need to find a way to take the good bits and bring them into modern life.Once we work this out, maybe then we will produce modern footballers from a modern world.
Finally, remember we are living the good old days for our future self. So live in the NOW while learning from the past. Or put better by my favourite Stoic, Marcus Aurelius:
“Forget everything else. Keep hold of this alone and remember it: Each one of us lives only now, this brief instant. The rest has been lived already, or is impossible to see.”