You will often hear much talk about the ‘grass roots‘ of football. Minor leagues, Sunday mornings, Deep Heat and industrial defending. The phrase ‘grass roots’, of course, implies the very lowest level. And yet, there lie many levels below this.

I know this kind of thing has been done to death. But not by me.

At the very lowest end, the level of the football is not defined by the players, the leagues or the strips. It is defined by the quality of the two most crucial things in the whole game, the pitch and the ball. Any brand of football that takes the pitch and the ball as a given is, as the Americans would have it, Major League Soccer.

You see the football pyramid has a very wide, flat, squidgy base. And in this base we find real football. Yes, I could steal someone else’s description : “small boys in the park, jumpers for goalposts“. But even having a park and jumpers is all a bit la-di-da if you ask me. You see, I grew up playing proper bottom rung football.

(pause briefly to fire up Spotify and listen to this music from the Hovis advert and play while reading the remainder of this post)

The Anatomy of Bottom Rung Pitches

The first thing to understand is that the definition of ‘pitch’ needs to be redefined and made a lot less grand. Maybe ‘space’ would be better. Of any shape. On any surface. Or multiple surfaces.

First, lets look at the characteristics of an ideal bottom rung space.

  1. No jobbies – you need to work round what the dogs have left behind. A thorough fod walk is essential. This may mean that you may have to alter the desired quadrilateral into a funkier shape to avoid a smelly streak on your staypress.
  2. Things that look like goals – one of the main issues with bottom rung football is the lack of goal line technology. Even in the high-fallutin’ world of “jumpers for goalposts” deciding if the ball is in is, well, somewhat vague and can lead to some disagreement Or, as Bill McLaren would have it, “a little bit of argy-bargy“. This is spectacularly brought to life by an actual story from a youth (which I’ll abridge for speed). Final of school 5’s competition. Very grand skittles for goalposts (we had real goals the previous year, I guess they got nicked). It was even at full-time, the headteacher gave permission to play on beyond lunchtime and, with the whole school watching, I hit a shot that hit a skittle and went in, sending the skittle the other way. It was the world’s very first Golden Goal* – next goal the winner. Cue mayhem. Half the school jumped on me Mel Brooks style. The other half started a fight. Members of the opposition went bananas. They attacked the janitor (who was the ref), back in the school, chairs were thrown. A few of them were suspended from school. I got a medal. Yes, this was Primary School.Anyway, you see my point, if you have something that makes a better job at goals, you can avoid an awful lot of aggro (especially where I grew up). If you look closely enough and with sufficient imagination, you can see goals almost anywhere. Obviously, trees, lampposts and the like make very obvious posts and offer a definitive ruling on the goal on not issue. But that is talk of nirvana. You were much more likely to get a section of fence, a patch of wall which was a different colour or the hemispherical arch of a climbing frame. All were good and were immediately commandeered by the massed ranks of footballers and anyone wanting to use them for their intended purpose had to shuffle off.
  3. Surface – obviously you want grass but if you can’t get it then anything will do and, most often, something like tarmac/pavement/etc usually does the trick. This is, after all, is how you get good scabs. And you need to have good scabs to be doing bottom rung football right. The ultimate surface? Snow. Overhead kick heaven. This week I am mostly Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.
  4. No Ball Games – invariably, a cunning network of “No Ball Games” signs will try to block your way like Balrog meets Prosser. That is so incredibly geeky (or is it nerdy?) that I’m going to delight in it and say it again, Balrog meets Prosser. Thankyou. Thing is, eventually the best of these places will attract the police. They will move you on apologetically the first time with a “C’mon lads“. The second time, the will start to get narked with a clear “I can’t be arsed with this, I just ordered takeaway” tone. Third time they are proper grumpy. In the end, avoiding the law is recommended.

To give you a great example, let me talk you through one of the best spaces from my youth, the perfect bottom rung pitch.

Where the flats ended, some waste ground started. We called it ‘the field’. A triangle of barely grass was formed by the fence of the railway, the edge of the grass as it got wilder and taller and a hill that dropped off down to the flats. Yes, a triangle. I know. The goals at one end were a section of the railway fence. The goals at the other end were, well, the point of the triangle with coats/jumpers/whatever spread the the approximate width of the fence section at the other end.

At the fence end, almost all was well. You could take corners, although you very rarely did. You see, the ball only crossed the line if it crossed the fence. And if it crossed the fence? Yes, it was on the railway line. It took a while to get the ball back. Up the fence, under the barbed wire, dodge the trains, get the ball. Bloody hell, just get on with the game. A corner only made it more likely for it to go back over again.

The trains weren’t the only peril. Down the rough edge of the grass, the thick stuff contained a fairly dense growth of hemlock**. Wasn’t much fun getting the ball out of there either.

And the third side of this sporting triangle? Get your John Robertson jink down the wing wrong and you were arse over tit down a 10 foot grass bank.

So there it is. The perfect bottom rung pitch. It’s a miracle I’m alive. As a footnote, it was on this very pitch that I did the first of the mega-rips of my right ankle in a pot-hole.

The Anatomy of Bottom Rung Balls
( say it out loud, it’s just funny )

A football is just a football? Nay not so. There are more to balls than you may think. They are seasonal. They are variable. They define demographic. Above all though, they decide the quality of the game. Let’s look at the lifecycle and some of the ball-factors.

The Filly Lifecycle
A ‘filly’ was what we called the thing that you would recognise as a football. It was called a ‘filly’ because it was a fabric/plastic outer filled with a rubber inner. Rubber inner? The key characteristic of the filly is that they followed a very distinct and repeatable lifecycle. Sometime after Christmas (or perhaps a birthday) someone would appear outside with a shiny new filly. This was the happy time. Everyone loved playing with a brand new filly. It felt right. It was a higher rung. Ever touch was velvet on silk, every volley sweetly struck, every header like kissing a rose. Sadly, Christmas comes but once a year and a new filly didn’t stay new very long. They didn’t like concrete much. The shiny coating very quickly wore off. Gradually, the underlying fabric became exposed until the ball was a sad reflection of its former self. Soft, saggy and grey; a Brucie’s scrotum of a ball. Nice to kick it? To kick it nice. You see, this was the keepy-uppy phase. All of your youthful keepy-uppy records were made with a filly in this state. The fabric was grippy on your Adidas Kick, the softness of the ball hugged your feet. You really couldn’t lose control. It literally was like trapping a fish supper. Joy. And then it rained. They didn’t like the rain. They got heavier and heavier. Water got inside and spun out into your face when kicked. And heading? Leave it out John.

Not long after this phase. A filly would die. The a gap would appear in the fabric panels and the rubber inner would start to peak out like a displaying Amazonian frog. And the filly would die, flappy dead skin hanging off, burst and dead and, in those final moments, held aloft like the head of Charles I. “Ma’ filly’s deid.

If we were lucky, it wouldn’t be long to Christmas because the alternatives were…

The Captain’s Ball
I know not the real name of these balls. I’m pretty sure they had “Captain’s Ball” written on them. They were usually orange, sometimes white and made of very robust, thick plastic. This was a good thing in some ways. The tended to last. Kept away from sharp objects they might even last a whole summer. But there were drawbacks. Catch a fast one in the thigh or face and you might well be off home pretending you’d been called for your tea.

They were cheaper than fillys too, so there were more of them around. After all, you need to have a ball to have a ball. Just don’t head the feckers, that way remedial reading and SRA Tan lies.

The Fly-Away
Ba’s burst, better buy a fly-away.
You need to have a ball. So when the filly’s deid, the Captain’s Ball got twatted on the railway, you had to fall back on a fly-away. They were light, cheap, thin plastic balls that were utterly useless to play football with. They were for toddlers. A slight breeze, a bit of spin and “whoof, it’s swept away“.

You gotta end with a bit of Archie… the top rung of commentating.

* – in a Derren Brown style, I’m going to predict that Stuart comments on this blog post saying, to this very day, that it wasn’t a goal
** – there’s a whole other blog post there