Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Jumpers for goalposts?

My childhood memories of playing football in Glasgow. Better then or better now?

The Sunday newspapers last weekend contained an excerpt from a new book "And the Sun Shines Now" by Adrian Tempany which reflects on the state of football and the UK and where it could go now. The subtitle of the book is "How Hillsborough and the Premier League Changed Britain".

It sounds interesting and the excerpt in The Observer newspaper is nostalgic for a time when children would daily run home from school kicking a ball along the street, where it seemed a normal part of everyday life. The local team was part of the local community in which it had grown. The argument he makes is that the marketing of football now cuts out younger fans and the sanitised atmosphere, enforced sitting at stadiums and escalating prices are excluding more and more people.

He reflects back upon his earliest memories of playing and watching football. However the bit that sent me off into my own nostalgic bubble was when he recalled a cheap football from the 1978 World Cup which he had been lucky enough to get.
"I'd got my hands on a real beauty, a plastic World Cup ball, panelled in black and silver hexagons bearing the names of Peru, Iran, Holland, Scotland, Argentina, Brazil, Italy..."
I hadn't thought about that ball for years but I know exactly which cheap, fly-away football he is talking about as I had that same ball. It eventually died when I let it rest on a discarded (but still glowing) cigarette butt which burnt a large hole in it. If the plastic of the ball had been thicker, like on an orange "Captain's Ball", a knife heated at the ring on the cooker could have gently guided the pliant plastic over the hole. Alas, it was beyond repair. This led me to thinking back to a succession of old footballs which I had owned, and to how at primary school or afterwards I'd probably have been kicking a ball about most days for almost a decade.

Let me get one thing clear. I have never been any good at football, but like to think that my enthusiasm in some way compensated for my lack of skill. When choosing teams at PE, I was never one of the first choices, but safely in the middle. After reading the piece I went out for a jog and in a dwam ended up running through Maryhill Park. Here I remembered the patch of ground where we came for our annual school sports day from Maryhill Primary School. What I remembered as a vast, lush hillside turned out to be a rather neglected, small, muddy corner of a Glasgow city park. I know that I won the "potato and spoon" race here and we then headed to the bottom of the slope after eating our packed lunches for a kickabout. Were the goalposts only 4 foot high back then in 1979 too?

Goalposts in Maryhill Park, with Dumgoyne off in the background
The hills in the distance make it all very scenic, but if these goals were still in regular use by the local kids shouldn't there be a big, bald patch of grass in front of the goal? Looking down the pitch towards the other goal it may be that the thick, uncut, tufty grass is too off-putting to today's more skillful footballing children. Or perhaps the fact that there is a gradient of several feet across the pitch from right to left is now deemed not good enough.

Less than perfect playing surface of Maryhill Park

As this was a place I only came to play football on special occasions, I thought that I would try to swing by some of my more regular early pitches. One of my sons plays football regularly, occasionally for his primary school, but only ever trains or has matches on nice, flat astroturf. At lunchtimes he plays on a muddy, red blaes pitch with his pals and has knackered more school shoes this way than I ever did, so I won't make any false argument that kids today don't play as often as we did. It just all seems a bit more organised and planned nowadays, paying membership to football teams, arranging pick ups with other parents. Was it always this way, but I just didn't notice? Schools and councils continue to sell off playing fields for short term gain, and the imminent Commonwealth Games in Glasgow means that there will be a lot of focus on the "legacy" of the games. So what other glorious playing fields did children of the 70s and 80s use?

Until I was 6 years old we lived in Whiteinch and I will make no false claim to playing football in our tenement back court. You couldn't have, it was just a true midden. At Whiteinch Primary School we ran backwards and forwards in a year long game of British bulldogs as far as I remember. The newly built council house we moved to in Maryhill (council houses, remember them?) had big empty car parks and lots of wee squares which looked specifically designed for football (despite the "No Ball Games" signs). So that's what we used them for.

Goalposts painted on a wall beside Maryhill Road
The goals painted on the wall in the picture above are just as I remember them 35 years ago. I also remember that a mis-placed shot would necessitate scurrying down the grass to Maryhill Road. "Wallie" and "Long kicks" were the order of the day on this pitch. When just two people were playing various elaborate games allowing only two touches each were played in the wee nook below, from where it was harder to lose a ball, although looking at it now I think it's a while since anything has rolled smoothly across here.

Another  Maryhill footballing arena
Bigger games required going up to the pitch behind the church hall on Sandbank Street, where the BB team played. This was surrounded by a chain link fence and I am sure was red blaes but is now a plateau in a grassy slope. Virtually no trace of it remains today except for an old painted goal on a wall at one end.

In Maryhill Primary School we kicked a ball about on every break, sometimes more akin to the ancient village games of 100 people kicking a pigs bladder up and down town. That school is now closed and the playground on which I played is a row of new flats now, trampling all over my memories.

The old Maryhill Primary School building at
the top and playground in the foreground
My first game for the school team came in primary 6, against St Mary's School, the local catholic school at the bottom of the hill. They had their own pitch in the school grounds (and still do) and I got my first pair of football boots bought for playing in that game. I was in goal for the first half and in defence for the second, but despite my new boots I think we lost about 21-0. This pitch hasn't changed one bit in the 30 years since I was stood in goals here.

Football pitch at St Mary's Primary School, Maryhill
It was at this time that I started going along with my parents and my brother to support the local Maryhill team, Partick Thistle, and I am going along there every second Saturday still. We moved to Knightswood and again the primary school playground was a pitch three times a day (now it's the garden of the nursing home which the school has become). I swung past my old secondary school in Knightswood and their red blaes pitches are also completely unchanged in the intervening decades. PE largely meant football for the boys, hockey for the girls (what else can you safely do on these pitches?)

My secondary school pitches - we didn't play rugby at our school

All through the summer I'd play "three and in" with my brother and pal Alan from the flat upstairs in Knightswood Park, but the monkey bars which made a perfect goal are no longer there. We regularly had to climb onto the roof of the changing rooms for the 5 or 6 red blaes pitches in Knightswood Park, squeezing under the barbed wire to retrieve a ball from an errant shot. The changing rooms have gone the way of the monkey bars. Also the pitches look as if they are no longer being maintained and various news articles report that Glasgow city council has been implementing plans to move to grass or astroturf sports pitches in it's public parks.

"The ba's burst". Red blaes pitches in Knightswood Park have seen better days
(the ball was just lying there, I didn't add it as a prop)
Knightswood Park, and many others do now have astroturf pitches (below) with basketball hoops, etc but the days I remember of there being dozens of 11-aside games on of a weekend in Knightswood Park appear to be in the past. There are decent astroturf pitches at nearby Scotstoun now or up at "Goals" at Drumchapel, but again it involves booking and fees and planning.

Knightswood Park, Glasgow
For me what altered in the early 1980s was that due to changes the Thatcher government were trying to bring in, school teachers were involved in a long running industrial dispute. Football teams and other extra-curricular, voluntary activities by the staff were the first thing to be boycotted. The goodwill element was lost as pay and conditions of staff worsened and organised schools football in my part of Scotland at that time died.

The old goals still stand, with the hooks for nets.
Did everybody hear about someone who knew someone who
got their wedding ring caught on one when jumping up
to affix a net and ripped their finger off?
My only parting thought on this would be that the conditions we played on in the 70s and 80s weren't great. We didn't have lush playing fields which have now all been turned into houses. However we played football more regularly, more informally, more parents and teachers ran teams in their spare time than appears to be the case nowadays. I would therefore like to make a point of praising some of the new developments at the club I follow, Partick Thistle. This year they have created the Thistle Weir Youth Academy. The aim is to help 11 to 17 year olds from the local community progress in football. There is also the Partick Thistle Community Trust which is particularly focused on working within the local community and employs nine coaches and numerous volunteers. Don't forget that the free entry to Partick Thistle home league matches for under 16 year olds still continues.

With these initiatives I hope that, unlike the situation which Adrian Tempany was bemoaning, my local team remains an integral part of the community which it grew out of.

Partick Thistle Community Trust teams do a lap of honour at Firhill,
at half time in the game vs Hibs


  1. A Captains baw scelped against yer leg on a cold day, Oh ya bas. A memory that remains.

  2. My grandad was the jannie at that school. Any chance the jannie's house is till there, or is it away?