By John Cartwright
As an ex-professional player who played in the late 50’s and 60’s I clearly remember the state of the playing surfaces on which one was supposed to perform. At the start of a new season pitches were well grassed, but by the end of September through to the close of the season in May, pitches consisted of nothing more than rolled and flattened mud with some remnants of grass remaining in the four corners. The mud was deep, squelchy or icy in the winter months and solid and dusty in the latter part of the playing season. The ‘diamond-shaped’ effect the wear and tear had on the playing surface became the standard look of football grounds from local parks to football league stadiums.
The slightest drop of rain before a game being played could easily call for a postponement and head grounds-men would not allow the players to warm-up on a pitch for fear of cutting up the surface prior to the kick-off, so players did their pre-match preparation in various ways in their dressing room.
If games were played on wet surfaces, the field would quickly turn into a quagmire; wearing Co-op Society, hard toe, high sided, nailed-on studded boots, feet would sink into inches of thick mud; the ball would increase in both size and weight as mud clung to its leather surface; players and their kit would become heavily coated in mud as they slipped and fell. In cold and frosty periods of the year when the pitches were hard and often icy and towards the latter part of the season as grounds dried out, the possibility of injury increased. Cuts and grazes were covered in layers of mud or dust and infection was a constant threat. Feet were always blistered due to the hard leather that boots were made of, or they suffered from the nails from the studs as they penetrated the sole of the boots. Despite the problems confronting them, players were expected to produce high levels of skill and many did over the years, leading one to ask; how would these talented players perform on the pristine pitches and in the kit of today?
The poor conditions in which the game was played for most of the season here had a big effect on the game-style used. Kicking long, high, forward passes out of the mud towards the opponent’s goal to big forwards who competed with equally large defenders, or passing the ball out wide to a less damaged surface on which skilful wingers of the period could ply their trade, was the hallmark of the British game. Although the game here once had a substantial amount of ‘home-grown’ and skilful talent, the conditions in which the game was played dictated the necessity for simplicity in the playing style. This directness and simplicity has not changed significantly over the years even with the huge improvements to playing surfaces at all levels of the game. Strength not skill is still a major factor in a forward’s armoury, whilst today’s wide players need ‘bellows’ not lungs to counteract the lack of necessary skills for the game.
The game abroad has mostly taken a different route in terms of playing styles. Even under conditions in the past similar to those encountered here, other nations embraced a more skilful approach to the playing of the game. Generally, players abroad have always been expected to play a more sophisticated, tactical game. The ‘up-and-at-em’ playing formula practised here has been rejected throughout most of the other parts of the football world. We loudly denounce our continued use of the ‘long ball’ game-style but do little to introduce more sophistication into the way we play. The improvements in both ground conditions and equipment has not seen a similar proportional improvement in individual or team playing ability.
‘ Mud, glorious mud’, may be just what Hippos’ love to wallow in, but football is best played in good conditions. It’s sad however, to see so many of our players impersonating Hippos’ on bowling green surfaces!