Most football fans have bought into the Leicester City story this year. It’s not just the football but the romance, the power of daring to dream. In a cynical era of big money signings and powerful elite clubs always having it their own way, along come unfancied Leicester with good old-fashioned values like hard work and organisation and have eclipsed everyone.
They represent all the good things about the game and stand on the threshold of an unbelievable Premiership title. Maybe it’s because we love a plucky underdog. Their striker Jamie Vardy is living the dream, a 31-year-old rags-to-riches story, rising from non-league football in just a few seasons. These kind of things had stopped happening in football.
It’s almost a feat of imagination, of old-school psychology, playing to your strengths, being resolute in defence, quick on the counter attack and fitter, just fitter than the opposition.
It’s also fitting that Claudio Ranieri, who returned just nine months ago to a less than spirited welcome, a sarcastic chorus of derisory condemnation is being rewarded too. How satisfying to read that The Tinkerman was shrewd enough to tinker with his contract to receive £100,000 for every point he finished above 17th.
Football lends itself to the imagination. Everyone has a Leicester City story. Here’s mine.
It’s the late 1970s. The scheme’s local punk rocker, Womble is walking by in full punk regalia. He’s daring to dream. Fame. I want to live forever. The ice-cream van skilfully meanders around the FA cup final, holding up traffic as it’s spilled onto the road.
We were so much more resourceful then. Not only did we play in a field of dreams, in our heads the San Siro, Nou Camp or Maracana, in reality, waste ground, lock-ups or in this case a concrete rectangle, known somewhat erroneously as the square. But we would also commentate on our moves. The power of imagination.
This wasn’t twenty kids running around like crazy chasing an orange scarred Wembley Trophy ball. A ball that had been bladed and wore every scar with pride. The scar tissue in question being the emergency surgery from the scolding hot knife which melted the plastic ball and covered the wound.
This was a tense FA Cup final that had entered into a fifth hour of extra time but the ‘side-aff’ (game of Association football between two sides ranging in numbers from three to 19-a-side). Any skilled twist was voiced over with ‘Cruyff!’, any mazy dribble, ‘Maradona!’ Any hold up play, measured pass or half volley, ‘Dalglish!’ We were raising a generation of players both skilled at football and commentating on our own moves. Dare to dream.
I’d go out and start playing keepie uppie, work on my weaker left foot rattling the ball against the garden fence while avoiding the Thrashbush bus. Then my pal from across the road Paul Hawthorne (Hoffy) would come out, we’d start a small game of crossy-in (game for a minimum of two or more, winger controls, traps, turns and cuts back, laying in crosses for the striker to practice volleys).
On this memorable occasion, Hoffy floated the perfectly weighted cross at the right height and of course, I was commentating. ‘Hoddle!!!!’ I said it with the same surety of Motson and put my laces through it. Perfect connection between ball and foot, the speed and power saw it bullet into the top corner, or our living room window, as it’s known. When I bump into him now he tends to open any dialogue with the same thing, in best Motson impersonation; ‘Hoddle!’
Usually, I would be out with the ball and Bobby Shaw (Shug) my pal next door would come out and have a kick about. He was a great footballer, a few years older, so when he came out to play, he would instinctively coach you and chip it up for you to control it, pass and run. He was messing about out in the street but everyone could see he could make it. He didn’t ever show off when he played with us, there would be the odd flash of instinctive genius, he’d have the ball with his back to us but would drag it away and spin so quickly and be off, while you were still wondering where the ball was, he was lightning sharp.
I would go and see Bobby playing for Gartcosh, anything football related he’d bring me along. Gartcosh at the time had a great team. He’d get picked up and I’d be sitting waiting for the car horn and Bobby’s wave to come along. Anything football related me, Bobby and Angus Gilchrist my pal and neighbour on the other side would go to see Airdrie at Broomfield. Sometimes we’d get on a supporters bus to old Muirton Park in Perth, to Forfar, Brechin, and Montrose. With Alan Jaap, my pal across the road on the other weeks we’d go to see Albion Rovers. Going to a game, any game was brilliant.
On one occasion, Bobby and Gus dragged me along for a trial for Chapelside to play in the Airdrie Schools Cup. If you got picked, you played at Airdrie’s ground, Broomfield. The trouble was, I didn’t attend their school. I went to St Serf’s but was selected from about fifty trialists at Rawyards Park. It was down to playing football every day with them. ‘Yer name’s Drew if anyone asks’. (I got found out and never got to play at Broomfield).
I remember exchanging football programs with one of Bobby’s school pals, Brian Irvine who would later develop and have a long career in the game. There seemed to more of a chance of people you knew back then getting a professional contract. It all felt more accessible.
By this time Bobby got better and better we would see less and less of him. When we were playing games down the park he and I would normally be first out, long passes, short passes, two touches, pass and move, always running into space. I couldn’t concentrate I was always thinking of music, drumming and girls. Ironically when I was drumming I couldn’t concentrate for wanting to look at girls, listen to something else or be over the park kicking a ball with Shug and Hoffy. Gus and Jappy, last goal’s the winner.
I learned loads from watching and would copy his moves, the way he sprinted at teams from the kick-off and tracked down the goalkeeper. The way he’d play off the centre-half, hold up play, allow the others time to come into the game. He played with this desire and attitude and will to win and that’s what separated him from everyone else.
I knew how much Bobby was improving while I watched his games and scouts were also starting to take notice. Clubs up and down the country were keen to talk to him. Most October or Easter breaks from school he would be on trials or training with big clubs. There was a constant array of scouts and managers showing up at his door.
I got blasé about top managers walking up next door’s path. I’d look out the window and see legendary faces like Jock Wallace get out the big car and walk into his house. I’d immediately grab the teamie and was outside playing keepie-uppie and dribbling around the cones on the square in the off-chance I’d secure a deal.
Bobby would bring me back autographs and programmes from places who’d invite him for trials. Loads of clubs were after him. Aberdeen and Everton were the front-runners. He would chat about these famous names from the various clubs. Famous names who weren’t nice and others who were very surprisingly approachable and helpful. I remember he was surprised with the pressure at Everton and how big a club it was. He had been training with Airdrie too who I’m sure offered him terms. In hindsight they may have been a better option, he was similar in stature and style of play to Diamond’s favourite, Sandy Clark. Airdrie would be a great club, get in the shop window. Leicester seemed to be the most persistent though and he signed with them.
He came back from Leicester, part injury but part homesick. I went in to see if he was alright and there was Bobby, sitting in the kitchen, unpacking this gear. He was taller, leaner, muscular. Handing me over a real Umbro Leicester training top, a real cotton one. Loads of programmes, he also gave me Adidas boots.
Now these boots were the best I’d ever owned. I was 14 or 15 and still growing and knew at best I’d have 6 months as despite my best efforts, my feet kept growing and it felt like the Adidas boots were shrinking.
Players and teams are always given a better quality of strip or boot, I didn’t know that. These weren’t the cheap mass-produced gear made in sweatshops. Teams were given the best kit. These boots were magical, the softest leather, they were like slippers yet the soles were firmer, far more robust than normal Adidas.
Anytime I wore them I scored. I remember scoring four and five goals regularly when I wore these boots. Then eventually they started to check and hurt and almost cripple me. I knew it was time to give them away, I gave them to Paul Hawthorne.
Years later, talking to Bobby I mentioned the boots. He explained as an apprentice, he had to clean and polish them. They belonged to Gary Lineker. When he was leaving, he gave him them to Bobby. Bobby liked Lineker, said he was helpful and encouraging.
I always wondered why he didn’t tell me they were Gary Lineker’s boots? He told me that if I knew they were his I wouldn’t have worn them. He wanted me to play in them and use them.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Leicester and Gary Lineker thanks to Bobby and Gary’s boots. And like most people who dare to dream, I genuinely hope they get over the line and end a fairytale season in style.