In 1998 Malcom Macdonald launched campaign to reintroduce street football into Britain. Nothing much seemed to come of the scheme, but at least I got a column out of it.
It is well know that the great footballers of yesteryear honed their skills as children playing 200-a-side matches in cobbled alleyways where the goalposts were piles of nutty slack, the half-time whistle was a cry of 'Away, man Bobby your tea's getting cold' and the ball was a turnip, or better still a pig's bladder. For as Wilf Mannion says in his autobiography, 'If you could control a pig's bladder you were a ruddy genius'. Or a pig, obviously.
Whatever the impact on ball skills, formative years spent playing street football also took their psychological toll. Men who learned their craft in an environment of rugged house-proud women in hairnets and tubby police constables who sent them packing with a clip round the ear developed behaviour patterns that no amount of later training could shake. For example, right up until the 1960s it was common for the British centre-half to react to a sliced clearance into the crowd by yelling 'Cripes that's going to hit Mrs Potts' front door and she's only just finished washing it, too!' before racing off the field to hide behind the nearest outhouse. Often he was followed by both sets of players. Little wonder the England team struggled in the post-War years.
This caveat aside, most would agree that the standard of football in England in the decades before and after the Second World War was markedly superior to that which is offered today. This is why Maclom Macdonald's newly launched campaign has been broadly welcomed. Amongst the doubters are some who see it as a retrograde step, and others who view it as by no means retrograde enough.
Falling into the latter camp with a loud bang and a cry of 'How buggeration!' is veteran North East football writer George Clarts. Clarts has in mind a far more radical programme than that proposed by Supermac. He has called on the FA to purchase the Beamish North of England Open Air Museum and turn it into a centre of excellence for England's junior footballers, who could learn their craft as their forbearers did, amongst the rattle of trams and consumptive chests.
According to Clarts, team spirit would be fostered by having the players sleep eight to a bed, except on the nights when the air raid siren sounded and they all went down into the cellar for a good old fashioned singsong, periodically interrupted by loud explosions and the appearance of a man with a sooty face and dishevelled hair yelling, 'Blimey, Dean Street just bought it.'
Training would involve a good deal of running - errands mainly - and the accuracy of shooting and passing would be ensured by hanging a line of freshly laundered sheets down the sides of the pitch, each line guarded by a team of powerfully built old ladies armed with rolling pins.
'You see,' Clarts explais, 'It was a totally different world back then. There's no use having the street, if you don't have all the rest. Would it be successful? I don't see why not. Look at who we had in them days. There was Mathews and Finney, Carter and Mortensen, Mannion and Lawton, Flannagan and Allen, Flanders and Swann, Wee Bobby Twatt and his Troublesome Trousers,'
'But you've got to realise, it was about more than just a bunch of scabby-kneed, jinking bairns, their heads kept warm by the freshly baked stotties their mams stuck under their caps before they shooed them outside of a frosty morning saying, 'Go out their and play football till sunset and mind you work on your range of short and long passing, and none of that ruddy stepover nonsense or your father will hear of it'. No, it was about the whole environment in which the players were brought up.'
'And that's why I'm calling on the FA to do the right thing and bring back rickets. Bring back rickets, and the sooner the better.'