It's not the spoilt-professionals who are responsible for England's lack of national footballing success, it's the altitude of the sod at grassroots level. Seriously.
A level playing field. – Fair competition, where no advantage is shown to either side.
We can blame many things for England’s failure to dominate the world stage in the very game it invented, but geology rarely gets a mention. Experts decrying the dearth of home grown talent will throw away clichés like “grass roots investment”, but what they should really be asking is where all this grass is taking root, for in the north of England where the landscape is famed for it’s breathtaking gradients, it often seems that every other pitch is marked out on the side of a hill.
At the dawn of the last decade I was living in a small Catalan town where I somehow conned my way in to playing for the local veterans team. Apart from the post match clubbing, it was a sobering experience. Even in the smallest villages, where people still point at cars, there were astounding facilities for all levels of players. The Catalans treat access to good sporting facilities as a birth right. Floodlights, covered terracing, decent changing rooms with hot showers and despite the region nestling in the rugged foothills of the Pyrenees there wasn’t a single sloping pitch to be found. Even when there isn’t a pitch they manage to improvise in style.
Every week the huge market square in Vic is turned in to a football pitch for hundreds of local school kids to train on. All this was quietly taken for granted by Atlètic Ges de Torelló, my team full of ageing lotharios, all brought up and spoilt on the glories of Barcelona FC who’s ethos of football being “more than a club” is hammered home by the fact they have four stadiums, eighteen soccer teams, an American football team, an ice hockey team, a roller hockey team, a basketball team, a handball team and probably even a fucking pub quiz team.
“In the north of England where the landscape is famed for it’s breathtaking gradients, it often seems that every other pitch is marked out on the side of a hill.”
Where have we gone so wrong? A quick look on the satellite view of Google maps reveals that the grass pitches of my youth have mostly been swallowed up by housing estates – no doubt full of lethargic brats playing Pro Evolution Soccer on their PS2’s instead of going out for a kickabout with their mates before tea.
One of those housing estates has replaced the pitch where I played football for the local under 12’s.
It was on a field shaped like a pudding bowl. The centre was a sticky swamp that sucked in many a boot and hoofing the ball in to the clouds was the only way to attack the opposition. In those days footballs weighed about the same as an old man’s head and for someone who liked to hug the touch line I rarely got to see the ball. Nobody had the strength to launch it up to me. Either that or they thought I was crap.
There were no fancy dans in our team. Step-overs, back heels feints and flicks were frowned upon as the moves of a homosexual. If you could string two passes together and shout a lot you were in the team, yet we never complained about the uneven, poorly drained porridge of mud and dogshit we were forced to suffer every weekend. It’s all we knew. When we were lucky enough to play on a flat surface it was often on the top of a hill. Livestock from neighbouring grazing fields would often wander on to the pitch. You’d dribble the ball around five men on the edge of the penalty area and then you’d have to beat the fucking horse. Whenever the ball went out of play there was a ten minute recess whilst some poor asthmatic had to chase the ball downhill before it landed in a stream full of dead sheep.
We’d gaze in envy at the old soldiers strolling around their lovingly manicured bowling greens – and then there were the fucking massive cricket pitches – several acres of perfectly level green baize for a game that takes up the space of a fats cunt’s sleeping bag… and as for golf… well that was taking the piss. All protected by grumpy old bastards who would sooner shoot you than let you set foot on their hallowed turf whilst we endured undulated playing surfaces more suited to fell running. Crampons would have been better than studs. We’d spend ninety tortuous minutes kicking a stubborn ball uphill, our sodden and exhausted bodies lashed by a tornado of rain, sleet, snow and crisp packets.
That’s not to say a sloping pitch can be an obstacle to glory.
Since 1932 Oxenhope Recreation FC, have played on a pitch that you can literally sledge down. Such is the nine foot slope on it, that from one end you can only just make out the top of the crossbar on the opposite goal, but they have successfully used it to their advantage having won various honours in the Craven & District Football League. However, it appears they have reached the pinnacle of their glory. They’ve been refused membership of the West Riding Amateur League because of the sheer incline of their pitch and have struggled to find funding to get it flattened.
“There were no fancy dans in our team. Step-overs, back heels feints and flicks were frowned upon as the moves of a homosexual.”
Many bigger teams than Oxenhope have played on varying degrees of slope. Motherwell, Wycombe Wanderers and Barnet to name but a few. Yeovil Town’s Huish ground was probably one of the better known sloping pitches with a drop of eight feet.It was a giant killing pitch until 1990 when Tescos bought it off them and invented the worlds first sloping supermarket.
Perhaps the most extreme on record was Horwhich’s Grundy Hill ground which had a slope of 16 feet and contours like corrugated iron. Like Oxenhope it was seen by the club as an asset, but eventually the F.A had a word. Horwich were forced to move to a new ground and Grundy Hill became a legend…and a housing estate.
At the end of my stay in Spain I went to see Barcelona play Valencia in their final game of the season. A stunning last minute goal by Rivaldo secured their place in the Champions League and was the cue for a huge pitch invasion. As I joined the hysterical Catalans on their field of glory I couldn’t help being overawed at the pristine condition of the Camp Nou turf. It was like walking on the finest Persian carpet, and yet it had endured an entire season of league and cup football. It was a thing of wonder. I ran my hands through it, softly caressing the perfectly manicured blades of grass. They seemed to shine and flicker like tiny emeralds under the powerful glare of the stadium floodlights… and then everyone started digging it up.
Like hungry vultures they clawed at the flesh of this wonderful, green beast until the entire penalty area had been stripped bare, and like the Tartan Army at Wembley in 77, nobody stood in their path. I couldn’t resist joining them. I grabbed a large sod of this beautiful pitch and despite my treasured souvenir withering over time I managed to smuggle it back to Bradford where I planted it in my garden. I’ve moved house since then, but when ever I see that wonderful Rivaldo goal I think fondly of that little sod, that perfect pitch and what might have been had I laid down roots where they don’t play football on sloping pitches.
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