Review: Chapped Legs and Punctured Balls
by Paul Cooper
Headmaster of the ‘well, in my day’ school Paul Cooper teaches us what football used to be like. No, not regurgitations of Kevin Keegan anecdotes or tales of Diego Maradona’s oft-mentioned controversies, but nostalgic re-tellings of the adventures of Keith King, Stevie Brown, the fantastically-named Johnny Neptune, and a little childhood team called Redstar United.
We have all, at one time or another, dreamed of becoming footballers. Playing for a proper team, on a proper pitch, with proper goal nets, and with whatever we could get to be as close to a proper referee as is humanly possible. Instead, the large majority of us are still left dreaming, left behind by the multi-million pound game which now looms over us like a gargantuan behemoth. Indeed, many of us will have already passed our footballing peak, when it was still fun and before the knees started to go, and for many of us there is comfort to be found in Chapped Legs and Punctured Balls.
Cooper – founder of the Give us Back Our Game movement which aims to make football less of a cutthroat competition for kids, and focuses on teaching children to have fun, learn new skills, and just play the game – digs deep into his memory to recall why he fell in love with the game at an early age.
It will resonate with many readers who, most probably, lived the same childhood as Cooper. Tales of ‘The Wembley Trophy Ball’ – or as the author dubs it, ‘The Holy Grail of street football’ – and jumpers for goalposts conjure up images of football in its purest form, played as a game first, and a sport second.
Categorised into chapters including ‘Equipment’, ‘Venues’ and ‘The Enemies of Street Football’, the book is a comprehensive record of what football used to be when we were all children. Where once, chubby-cheeked children would be out of the house at 8am until 8pm, football under the arm, the modern-day is epitomised by mildly obese kids staying in and playing FIFA on the Playstation, with a big bag of Walkers sat next to them.
Cooper manages to write with humour and warmth, ensuring that the usual pitfalls of writing a nostalgic memoir are strictly avoided. The only danger is for younger readers, the ones who Cooper is bemoaning at times, who grew up in the Premier League-era rather than the times of street football. Many references will fly straight over their heads like a well-timed lob.
But the large majority of readers will find something which kick-starts a reminiscing session. Be it vivid memories of playing in the park, the playground or the living room, there is something for every football fan in this book.
And it is towards the climax of the 187-page book where an extraordinary mini-story emerges. As youngsters in 1966, Cooper and his friends decided to form a team and take them across the world, starting with north Devon and ending with…well north Devon, as an invitation from a team in Guernsey goes tragically unanswered as Cooper et al – collectively, ‘Redstar United’ – cannot scrape together enough pocket money to afford the trip.
It is in these final few chapters where the story really takes on a life of its own, absorbing and entertaining in equal measures. We are told how the team is formed, with witty character analysis of each player – the likes of Johnny Neptune and little Pete Dart, a boy who needed to wear a special vest for his respiratory problems – providing laugh out loud moments and immediately creating a personal bond between reader and author. It feels like we are in this together, behind Redstar as they look to conquer the planet.
We are told of a couple of epic games against a local gang and a virtually professional boys’ team, and you cannot help but warm to the tale. Indeed, the whole book is an affectionate tribute to simpler times. The boys of Redstar were footballers for those balmy days in the sixties, no matter what anyone else said.
The FIFA computer game include a feature for modern-day children to create themselves as a player and earn a place in the starting XI of a Premier League football team, but is this even close to creating your own, real-life team?
As a short book, it is easy to pick up and read in one sitting, and the only downside is that you will pine for your youth again. Instead of typing this review on my computer, and yourselves reading it, we could be out playing football, inspired by Cooper and his Chapped Legs! It’s a fine effort, and it will provide a fast escape from reality for a couple of hours.
RATING: 4 OUT OF 5
Tags: Book Review, Paul Cooper