WEEKENDER: Sporting memories rekindled in the mud
11:27am Saturday 8th February 2014 in News
AS I WRITE this, the sky is an unfamiliar blue, there is barely a puff of wind and, whisper it quietly, it’s not raining!
Unfortunately, by the time you (hopefully) read this, leaden skies are likely to have returned, along with fierce winds and driving rain.
Yet it is also unseasonally mild. For those of us who must brave the early morning elements to walk a dog, having to wrap up in waterproofs, even if skipping a couple of layers, makes for an uncomfortably warm experience.
Oh how some of us yearn for the sharp cold and snow of last winter. I would much rather feel the crackle of ice under my boots than the sloop and slurp of mud.
But either way, the result of the weird winter weather is once again the wholesale cancellation of weekend sporting fixtures.
True, the higher end stuff – Premier League, Six Nations etc – escapes largely unaffected these days, given the advances in pitch technology and means of drying surfaces or removing water.
It is lower level contests that suffer, bottom-of-the-pyramid football leagues sponsored by your nearest garage or car dealership, in which teams barely take to the field from the beginning of December to the end of February and then have to play four times a week until the end of April to catch up.
Most play on council-run parks, and it is entirely understandable that local authorities want to try to minimise damage by calling off matches scheduled to take place on muddy pitches, or even those that appear green on top but, which 20 minutes after kick-off, resemble a freshly-turned cabbage patch.
There are also the demands of health and safety and, sadly, the weight of potential insurance claims is heavier these days, too.
It was not always so.
Back in the 1970s, whole programmes of football fixtures were called off on winter weekends, even in leagues’ upper echelons. But some hardy souls soldiered on.
I remember one game in the late ‘70s, played on a pitch which was described as being as hard as Tarmac and slippery as an ice rink.
It would never happen these days because some outfield players might not want to risk snagging their designer gloves on a patch of ice.
And there was the perpetual bog that was the playing surface at the home of my dearly beloved Derby County.
It is difficult to explain to youngsters these days what the Baseball Ground pitch resembled from mid-November to mid-March. Magor Marsh without the fascinating flora and fauna, and the expert management of Gwent Wildlife Trust, is as good a description as any.
I simply refer my kids to YouTube, where sufficient footage is posted to give an idea of the wasteland it became after sustained rainfall.
Somewhere on there is grainy old Match of the Day footage of a match against Manchester City, when the penalty spot had to be repainted prior to a penalty being taken, City keeper Joe Corrigan helping the groundsman make sure he painted it in the correct spot. Derby won 4-0 by the way. How times have changed.
If memory serves, that wasn’t in the depths of winter either, but sometime during a ‘70s April.
Back then, if I wasn’t at the Baseball Ground, I was playing in the stuff myself, on the local recreation ground.
Regularly, a dozen or more of us would spend hours playing on a quagmire of a pitch, “first to 20, 10 is half-time.”
By half-time, we were caked head to toe in mud, very cold, wolfing down Vimto and a Mars Bar before returning to the fray, which would last as long as as it took for one team to reach 20.
On returning home, mums merely indicated from behind the kitchen or living room window that we strip to our undies outside, then sprint upstairs for an immediate bath. I’ve thought about those days quite often in the past few weeks, while slogging through the mud and throwing a ball for the dog to chase across a waterlogged football field.
Today, there aren’t kids out there getting dirty, wet and tired, happy kicking a football about for hours. They do all that virtually, pre-setting match conditions on video football games.
And me? I’m going back to my computer, to try to find footage of the old Baseball Ground with some grass on it. That should whittle away the hours, days, weeks (?) until the sun shines again.