Play Up, Play Up & Play The Game…

I’ve always loved sport. Participant or spectator.

I suspect my passion for it is, partly, down to my Dad. He was very much into his sport as well-and not from the comfort of his favourite armchair either!

Dad joined the Army as a young man and, almost as soon as he’d made his fondness for the occasional game of football known to those who must be obeyed, he was fast tracked into the British Army football XI.

The Army was, at the time (and probably still is, to a certain extent today) a great place to be if you were good at sport. Football, rugby, cricket, athletics and darts. Well, probably not darts-and more about that in a future blog-but if it was a team game that involved a lot of shouting and running about, then the British Army was the place to be, especially as it tended to get you off some of the more tedious aspects of military life, such as square bashing, more square bashing and, of course, square bashing.

When Dad was stationed out in Singapore, he played for the British Army XI in a game against the Malaysian national side in front of an attendance of 40,000 football  mad spectators, 40’000! That’s more than a lot of Premier League teams get for their home matches today.

He loved it.

Dad was a decent player too. As adept with his left foot as he was his right (it makes me laugh today when a football commentator or pundit is talking about someone earning £200,000 a week, letting them off a simple error by saying it was on his ‘weaker’ foot! For that kind of money there shouldn’t be a weakness in their game) which meant he could play in a lot of positions across the pitch and, more often than not, would be a difficult opponent to mark as he could pass or run with the ball at ease without having to worry about a ‘weaker’ foot.

The British Army team won that game 2-0 and I am sure that all of their officers enjoyed taking the credit for their victory after the game.

Once Dad had left the Army, his burgeoning reputation as a footballer accompanied him and he ended up signing for Arsenal, although, sadly, he never made a first team appearance during his time at Highbury, although he featured regularly in their reserve team, so he didn’t do so badly. He did, at one point, have the chance to make his way down to the south coast to join Brighton & Hove Albion but, although he would have had more than a fair chance of playing for their first team, I think he enjoyed life at the Arsenal and in London a little too much, so he turned the offer down.

Like Father, like son then. Because I also dreamt of a life playing professional football for a living.

I was good enough to be signed by non-league Farnborough Town when I was in my late teens. It wasn’t quite the Arsenal of course (but then, what is?) but they played at a decent enough level and have, as many other clubs of their side have done, brought through quite a lot of players who went onto have a good career in the full time game, the likes of Matt Holland and Michael Kightly for example.  

I was (and still am!) a right back so yes, I admit it, my right foot is slightly better than my left one so my regular job was always to mark the opposing teams winger and make sure he didn’t get too many crosses into our penalty area. I recall one game in particular very well as it was a Hampshire Senior Cup game that we were lucky enough to play at Fratton Park, the home ground of Portsmouth FC. My pre-match instructions were, as usual, to stick tightly to the opposing teams left winger, easy enough to understand and, usually, something I was fairly competent at doing. Except, in this particular match, there was a bit of a problem!

He stank! I mean he really did. I’d never come across such  a bad case of B.O in my life, it was so bad that I genuinely felt nauseous everytime I went anywhere near him.

I wasn’t having that and, after only a few minutes, trotted over to where our captain was standing.

 “I can’t cope with the smell, he absolutely reeks. I’m not going to be able to stick a whole game keeping an eye on him”.

“Well leave something in then, that’ll sort it out for you”.

For those of you who don’t fully understand footballing terminology, my captain was telling me to make the most of my first opportunity to tackle him and to make sure, when I did, I went in as hard and physically as possible. Meaning that, if I injured my opponent in the process, so much the better.

Keeping a close eye on former Rangers, Norwich City, Chelsea and Scotland striker Robert Fleck. (LRB)

It was part of the game back then and still will be, unfortunately, today-there will be teams and players who go out with the sole intent of taking out the opposing sides most talented player. It shouldn’t be part of the game and it isn’t something I, or any other fan, likes to see. But it happens. I wasn’t happy to be in receipt of such instructions and, although I did my level best to keep my malodorous opponent quiet, I never went in quite so hard or recklessly as I could have done.

A few years later I was on the receiving end of that sort of challenge myself. My opponent took me out in an extremely violent manner, raking his studs across my kneecap in the process, displacing my knee as well as tearing both my cruciate and medial ligaments.

Game over. But not only that. I could barely walk for around three months afterwards and had to use a walking stick wherever I went.

By the time I was fit enough to play again, my ambitions were, just as they had always been, to push on and look to play at a higher level. It might not have been for Leeds United (where Billy Bremner had long been my favourite player) or Chelsea, who I often went to watch at the time, but I did think I might be good enough to play for Aldershot Town, who were then in the Football League and have always been a club I have a lot of time for.

No such luck. All of my dreams ended the day that the Farnborough Town physiotherapist was working on my knee and, as she did so, she said,

“Russell, if you don’t stop playing, you’ll be in a wheelchair by the time you’re 30”.

What could I do? Only the foolish go against the words and advice of a medical professional so I felt I had no choice but to retire from playing.

That didn’t stop me from enjoying an occasional semi-serious kick around of course, that includes playing a small part myself  in some of the charity football games I have organised over the years-and more on how you can be part of one of those in a future blog as well. But, as far as my dreams of being the next Billy Bremner or even Charlie Cooke were concerned, that was that!

That doesn’t stop me thinking I am the new Billy Bremner whenever I do manage a game these days though. Let’s just say if you’re playing in that game as well, you won’t have too much to fear from me, least of all my tackling-I’d probably end up hurting myself more than I’d hurt you!

Cover shot of Farnborough Town’s home ground courtesy of Shutterstock.

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