Reflections on school and council estate sport

As soon as the clocks went forward, and throughout the summer, many weekday evenings were spent playing football on Daisy Farm Park about a mile away from our council estate. Large numbers of boys from the estate would travel to the park on bicycles, with some of the older ones, including me, on small motor bikes and motor scooters. The age range was large and teams could contain any number of players. If there were enough of us we would play on the park practise pitch. This was full size but had a slope and no nets. The rest of the park was filled with flat pitches used every weekend for local league games. If there were fewer of us then a smaller pitch would be created with piles of clothes for goalposts. There were no touchlines.

The main hazard was dog turds, a major blight of my childhood. We hardly ever played cricket and only then in the street with a tennis ball.

Team selection first involved the identification of two ‘captains’, usually the two best footballers (by easy universal agreement). These then took it in turns to pick the players for their team. If there was an odd boy left at the end he would be allocated as an extra player to the team whose captain had ‘second pick’ at the start. This ensured well matched teams that would result in a good game. This was much more important than which team won or lost. Both teams would contain boys whose ages ranged from less than 11 to 16/17. Older boys were not overly rough with the younger ones, but it was always competitive in a muscular sense, despite no-one being too bothered about which team won.

The games would often continue until it was too dark to see the ball. At that point the younger boys made their way home but if it was a warm evening some older boys, including me, would walk to the ‘Prince of Wales’ pub across the road from the park, which had a beer garden around the back. The boy judged most likely to pass as 18 (none of us were) would then buy half pints of Mitchells and Butler’s mild ale for us all at 11d (5p) each. He was always served and we were never challenged. We never had more than one glass each then we all went home. We were never involved in delinquency of any kind (if you excuse the under-age drinking). The notion of council estates as hotbeds of juvenile crime was many years in the future.

The council estate girls, with whom we spent increasing amounts of time as we grew older, never played football, either on their own or with us boys. However, when it came to support for professional football clubs it was a different matter entirely. Almost all of us were regular attenders at First Division matches from the age of about 14. I was often accompanied by a girl who was an Aston Villa fan and lived in the block of flats opposite.

My fellow Villa fan was as keen as any of us boys. We all made our own way to matches on Birmingham Corporation buses. Support was split between Birmingham City followed by Aston Villa then West Bromwich Albion. This largely reflected the distance from our south Birmingham estate to the stadiums. The entry price for a child to the Holte end at Villa Park was one shilling (5p). From there, transfer to the Trinity Road stand could be made for sixpence. We were passionately loyal to our teams and great (but temporary) ill feeling could be generated especially after local derby matches.

The contrast with school sport was considerable. In the local park we all played football together, grammar and secondary modern boys alike. We all loved playing football regardless of individual skill levels, which varied considerably.

At school, the 11 plus selective schools, including the Technical School that I attended, all played Rugby Union and the Secondary Moderns all played football, so within the Birmingham education system there was strict sporting apartheid.

In games lessons at my school, at the start of the Autumn Term the Rugby teacher head of PE would supervise the pupils’ choice of sports for the Games Afternoons. Except that it was not a free choice. First, he would read out the names of the boys he wanted for the School Rugby Squad. Then the remainder could choose between various other mildly sporting activities staffed by teachers of other subjects drafted into the timetable slot. No-one much cared what these groups did, except that playing football was strictly forbidden. I played Rugby for my school team (hooker) and football for the council estate team in the local junior Sunday league. This was when I could get a game, as I was not one of the best players.

I was very clear where my true loyalties lay. This could cause difficulties, because although the school matches were on Saturdays and our council estate team played in a local parks Sunday league, our school rugby teacher told us that school sport must always take precedence, because of an agreement with the Football Association.

It was always apparent to me that there was a class-related conflict between school and home based loyalties. Clearly this does not arise when children attend local all-ability comprehensive schools. Maybe some of the secondary modern boys might have become Rugby Union stars, but they never had any contact with the game.

At least in my northern comprehensive headship school the boys played both football and Rugby League, but never, of course, Rugby Union.


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