I was never any good at doing keepy-uppies with a football. But I was reminded of someone I played football with who was a master at it when I read about David Moyes passing a bunch of Man City players doing their warm up before the premier league game between City and West Ham recently.
The journalist noted that the skill of the City players might have been daunting for Moyes as, not only were they keeping the ball off the ground between them in spectacular fashion, the group - which I think included Cancelo, Jesus, Bernardo Silva and Mahrez - were all on City's bench that day.
Leaving aside why Moyes would be intimidated (he wasn't playing after all) it made me reflect on a couple of things. The first is that people who can do tricks aren't necessarily the best at the real game. Golf "long drive" is a sport all of its own and the competitions aren't won by tour professionals for example. According to Wikipedia the "most famous" winner of these competitions is Jason Zuback, one of three people to win multiple World Long Drive Championships, with four consecutive wins from 1996–99 and a win in 2006. Sean "The Beast" Fister is another, winning in 1995, 2001, and 2005. Jamie Sadlowski had back to back wins in 2008–09. Ever heard of them? Exactly!
Now obviously those City players are quite handy at the real game. As, in his own way, was my buddy John, whose pre match warm up consisted of doing a stream of keepy-uppies off both feet, knees and his head. But his party piece, when he'd had enough (because he could keep the ball up almost indefinitely) was to flick the ball up over his head, take half a step forward, dip his head, arch his shoulders and catch the ball on his back. After holding it there for any period he wished he would move his head up, letting the ball slowly roll down whereupon he was usually able to flick it up with his heel and resume keeping it up. Try this at home sometime!
John would often do this trick as a pre-match routine at a place where players of the opposing team would pass him. Clearly it was intended to impress and maybe intimidate them - we'd seen it all before. I remember one such opponent muttering to a colleague "blow me, he looks good" or something similar. "Yeh and he's our left back" we would say. Because John was only any good in the back four or, at a push, as a defensive midfielder and, like me, was a long way of being the best player at the club.
But he was a great guy and I played alongside him for the best part of a decade. John is pictured here with the Warrington League Division 5 champions from 1977. He's front left (I'm front right):
There are a few odd things about this photo. Yes, the first is the strange kit, a style we got a "deal" on (you can see why). It didn't catch on. The second is that several key players were, unfortunately, missing when the photo was taken after the end of the season (but at least we had the trophy). The third is that several of the taller players, including myself and Herbie the keeper are sitting on the front row instead of standing. This was because we hadn't come to train or play (it might have been an AGM). So the players who had appropriate footwear with them had to be at the front. And, yes, those 70s hairstyles.
The best player, with the Rod Stewart barnett at back left, was only 17 and went on to play for Northwich Victoria, then famous for playing at the Drill Field in Northwich which was believed to be the oldest football ground in the world on which football had been continuously played. That was until 2002 when, having got into financial difficulties, they had to move out. The Vics are now in the North West Counties Premier League, the ninth tier* in the English pyramid. Back then they were founder members of what became the Conference, immediately below the Football League, i.e. the fifth tier. They had got to the fourth round of the FA Cup in 1977 and won the FA Trophy in 1984. Paul wasn't much good at keepy-uppies but he was a super no 10 with an eye for goal and a killer pass.
But back to the left back, John. I played many games at centre back with Herbie in goal and John at left back. We all had each others backs, we all had a lot to say for ourselves during a match and very little of it was negative (unless you count sarcasm). As you can see John was very much a red head with a temperament to match. Manager Brian would often say that John was one minute in an angry pushing and shoving match with the player he was marking and the next appeared to be his biggest chum. John was a decent player but, like me, played most of his matches in the reserves. Watching him in a match you would never have guessed he was a consummate ball juggler.
One of the things about moving around the country, as I did a lot from the 1980s on, is that you get to know a lot of people quite well. You also get to lose contact with most of them, or at least you did in the days before the social media revolution. Social media has benefits and many obvious downsides but one that I've often thought about is how much easier it is now to keep up with someone you haven't met in a while.
I lost touch with John but just a couple of years ago called Herbie - 6 house moves for me but he still lived where he did in the 70s. And he's been coaching football at one of Liverpool's best amateur sports clubs for many years. The news of John wasn't so good. He'd fallen on hard times and didn't even want old friends calling on him.
Best wishes, John old mate. I can still see you catching that ball between your shoulders. Bet you could still do it....
*Our team first team would have been in about the 13th and the reserves the 16th tiers, if anyone counted that far....