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  1. Above Head Height

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    We are delighted to have James Brown write us a guest blog this month, featuring an extract from his excellent book ‘Above Head Height’. The book is about five-a-side football, of course, but it’s more about the social bond that playing football brings which is captured brilliantly throughout the book. The poignant extract below is from the opening chapter.

     

    We Cremated James Yesterday

    For the last few decades James has organised our regular Wednesday night and Sunday morning football games. Amateur football is a strange brotherhood – whether, as in our case, it’s midweek indoor five‐a‐side or outdoor Sunday nine‐a‐side. Artificial surfaces, artificial dreams. Grown men still imagining they’re playing for their childhood teams.

    I’ve rarely seen the men alongside me at the crematorium in non‐football clothes before, never mind funereal black. We normally wear a mixed bag of old club shirts (Derby County, Arsenal, Spurs, Chelsea, Charlton) and thinning, well‐washed T‐shirts that are unfaithful to their original colours.

    I don’t know many of the men’s surnames. Instead, they’re known by a series of poor tags that aren’t even nicknames – Sunderland Graham, Beardy Dave, Tall Ben, Little Ben. I’ve only been to the houses of two of them and I don’t know what half of them do for a living or what their wives are called. I know some of their children – but only because we’ve been playing long enough for nippers who occasionally watched from the sidelines ten years ago to turn into young men who play regularly and bring some youth and ability to an ageing team. I occasionally come across the players in real life and what surprises me is that they’re wearing long trousers, not shorts.

    The thing that binds everyone who plays five‐a‐side is the same thing that made us, as kids kick a ball in the playground at school, in the streets as it got dark and in the park at weekends. It’s the overwhelming desire to stay true to that feeling you get when you score or tackle or pass and it prompts a round of applause and you are, just for a moment, Allan Clarke or Thierry Henry or whoever your childhood hero was. It’s not televised, so there’s only word‐of‐mouth proof, but even crap amateur players can score world‐class goals.

    Five‐a‐side runs as an unusual parallel to the rest of our lives. Come rain, shine, birth, divorce and even death, we show up and play.

    When news came that James had died, I tried to explain our connec‐ tion to my girlfriend, who had met him maybe twice in a decade, a passer‐by on the street. He wasn’t a close friend but he was a good friend. A nice, genuine guy. I’d attended his birthday dinner at his favourite curry house in the summer. When I heard I just sat in a state of shock and then went out to walk in the park where I used to bump into him weekly, riding his bike round the ponds.

    I’d first met him thirty years earlier on a musician friend’s doorstep; I’d attended his birthday dinner in the summer. How do you approximate the familiarity that comes from seeing someone twice a week at football for seventeen years?

    These regular fixtures have lasted much longer than all my jobs and almost twice as long as my longest relationships. Despite occasional are‐ups on the pitch, they’ve remained more good‐natured, more consistent and less painful than following the teams we support.

    They offer windows into the personalities of the people you share the pitch with. Every regular five‐a‐side player with an eye for the game can describe in clear detail the playing styles of his or her own teammates. We’ve enjoyed and endured them for what seems like for ever: the sharp shooter; the late tackler; the on‐pitch organiser who doesn’t do what he asks others to; the one who produces almost accidental bril‐ liance from nowhere; the one who shows up and plays in what looks like your grandma’s slippers; the ones who can’t run any more because their chests or their legs are letting them down.

    There’s more: the angry player who’s calm off the pitch; the lazy, selfish player who won’t go in goal; the person who runs round and round in circles, not hearing the pleas for passes from everyone around him; the grown man who will kick a fourteen‐year‐old; the player who thinks he’s still as good as he was ten years ago; the generous, hard‐working, selfless player; and the player who’s a long way from a natural but turns up and does his best.

    This last description suited James Kyllo. He was ungainly – not, you suspect, someone who played as a kid – but there were few things better than seeing James edge in from the far wing at a corner and celebrate an unexpected goal with almost childlike glee. A man who never expects to score looks great when he does, running away to his own half while pumping his sts in a mixture of happiness, sense of achievement and disbelief. That was our friend James.

    Importantly, James was the man who booked the pitches, collected the money and, in his own statistically fascinated way, took charge of a long‐running series of annual tables, awarding individual players points for victories or losses. This tended to create more competitive tension than is necessary in a friendly game – but it felt fantastic the year I came top.

    James Kyllo was a tall, large, quiet man, well read and endlessly enthusiastic about music. He rode a bicycle in massive army shorts, sandals and a eece. The newer Sunday footballers who joined us over the years would never have guessed that he had been a punk rocker and was one of the invisible mainstays of Creation Records – a pillar around which the excess and success of Oasis and Primal Scream thrived. But then Creation founder Alan McGee couldn’t believe James was a long‐standing Sunday footballer when I rang to tell him of James’s unexpected death and to ask him to pass on the news to his record label colleagues.

    It was only with James’s passing that I realized what a strange,open‐ended family exists on these small AstroTurf and wood‐panelled pitches. It’s the same the country over.

    The Sunday after he died, we gathered around the centre circle and stood for what seemed like ve minutes’ silence. No one arranged it. Just amateur footballers honouring one of our own.