I took the kids down the field today. We had a quite muddy, very windy game of three-pots-in. These days, I have all the reactions of a rusty spike, so there wasn’t much difference between me and the squared metal goalposts separating the kids from knee sliding glory.
The desperation of the young ‘un to play football was obvious when he asked if we could play, adding the unheard of sweetener that he didn’t mind if his big sister played, too. He usually minds. A lot.
The reason? Santa had brought them new Newcastle United strips, despite Santa’s elves having a nightmare getting the socks in the correct size. There’s nowt quite like a new football strip when you’re a kid. Even when you’re a big kid, putting your top on for the first time is almost ritualistic.
And on Christmas day this year, one blue and orange away strip and one home strip, was all it took to get the kids out of their new Christmas pyjamas. They usually have to be bribed with Quality Street.
It wasn’t until I was watching my new ‘The Big Match’ DVD (thanks, Mrs Santa) that the Puma strips in our living room became wrapped up with Christmas 1979. Newcastle United v Queens Park Rangers and Peter Withe diving for a dog had me thinking back to that Christmas, and my first Newcastle strip; and until that point, probably the coldest I had ever been.
Santa had been a very splendid chap. He had brought me and my brother a Bukta Newcastle United strip each, with white socks and a canny sized collar. He had also brought a non-NUFC tracksuit each. Now, this being the 70s, the collar was utterly acceptable in its floppiness, and the tracksuit had these loopy bits on the ankles. Interestingly, Santa had brought red ones… with two white stripes down the sleeves and the legs.
I don’t think I have ever seen black and white stripes as vivid as the stripes on those freshly unwrapped Bukta strips. I have never since been quite as amazed at the badge on a football shirt as I was by that circular, stitched piece of identity. ‘Newcastle United Football Club’ around the outside, with a magpie, the river, and the castle. It was immaculate.
It hadn’t been through a washing machine, or soaked in Biotex to remove odd stains inflicted by the unidentifiable yuck in the field over the road from our house. The shorts had the Bukta logo running down the sides, as all Butka strips did that year. A couple of years later, my brother would somehow rip this strip down his shorts, probably through some robust tackle. On concrete. Bit nails in the tackle, my brother was. The socks were blindingly white; thick; and neither of us had bled on them yet.
Before our Christmas dinner, we jogged out of our house to play in the street in our new Newcastle United strips. We bounced our orange Trophy football, just like we had seen the players do as they came out of the tunnel at the match. Never before has there been so much intent in a couple of kids running out onto a path.
It felt a bit weird playing one-against-one wearing the same strips, but not as weird as it felt cold. The jog onto the path turned into a tentative step across the iced patches and thick frost. Kicking the ball without slipping like a cheaty-diver-pants became a minor success.
Five minutes later, we went back in for our tracksuits.
It was at this point we realised how utterly cool a tracksuit top on top of a football strip can look. It would have looked truly awesome if we weren’t wearing those elasticated plimsoll thingies you had to wear for PE in Primary Schools in the 70s.
It was about two minutes later when we realised that we really had to put the bottoms on, or our white-washed liquorice stick legs were going to develop frost bite and we didn’t want to get wrong off our mam and dad for needing medical assistance on Christmas Day. Nor did we want to admit defeat and go back in after ten minutes. It would have looked ungrateful.
Flash-forward nearly forty years, and as the kids’ strips went in the washing machine, it dawned on me that while fabrics have become more washable, and tracksuits have become less loopy on the bottom, the excitement of the first time you step out and wear your strip as a kid withers a little. As you realise that it is increasingly unlikely that you will be picked from the footballing obscurity of middle age, or even your late prime, and chosen to lead out Newcastle United.
However, the simple joy of watching the kids slide on their mud thickened knees because they’ve hoofed the ball from two yards past their inanimate dad, might just be even better.
Football… for big kids everywhere.
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