In the early 60s after a bad knee injury, my Dad’s Bangor City career had been cut short and although he returned to play for Bethesda Athletic at a lower level, the experience probably had something to do with his decision to train as a teacher, specialising in PE. He got his certificate from The Normal College and taught for a while at Glanadda school, during which time he ran Bangor Juniors football team, in charge of players like future City legend Paul Whelan.
When he returned to the college as a lecturer, Nantporth was its sports hub. The upper level, now occupied by the 3G and the car park, was for football and cricket and the lower level, at the foot of a huge grass bank, for rugby and athletics. When I was in Friars, our sports day was held at Nantporth and on special occasions, we played football there – when the pitch at Eithinog was fit only for canoeing. In my last season at Friars we lost 1-0 to Eirias High School at Nantporth in the North Wales regional final of the Welsh Schools Cup. With 5 minutes to go, my centre-half partner, Tony Vickers, hit a shot so hard against the crossbar that every bird in Menai Woods left its roost and fled. The term ‘cannoned off the bar’ was surely invented that day in 1981.
One golden afternoon on a quiet summer’s day a couple of years earlier, we had a family kickabout on that bottom pitch. It was cut beautifully for the athletics season and our jumpers for goalposts were placed at the bottom of the towering bank from which the current main stand was carved. The centre of our goal would have been roughly where the pointless 4th official snoozes nowadays…
It’s a recurring theme that people are wont to say that the footballers of yesteryear couldn’t cut it in the modern era. They wouldn’t be fit enough, or quick or strong enough. Well, that’s not true and being brought up in football family, I’ve witnessed first-hand, exactly why.
Ultimately, football is about co-ordination, control, vision and the execution of a set of core skills. The rest is application and hard work. We played crosses and headers, crosses and shots. Uncle John (Bangor City, Liverpool, Scunthorpe, Crewe, Chester City) delivered cross after cross that my old man buried past whichever of us was in goal. When it was the winger’s turn in the middle, his control and technique in despatching the ball with either foot and his head was stunning. When it was our turn, the two of them called all the shots, beseeching us to attack the ball and when we scored or made a good connection, the praise was as loud and exaggerated as that of a Brazilian commentator. Every air shot was greeted with howls of mock derision as I’m sure it would have been in Hirael, where they learned their craft.
In 1980, my Dad was coaching in the USA with former City boss Roy Rees, at The Tampa Bay Rowdies Soccer School and I was working on the training fields as a water-carrier. I played every day at some point and once or twice a week I played in evening games for the coaches team against a mixture of reserves, youth team and players returning from injury. My old man was 46, Roy, a couple of years younger. Both played 90 minutes in humid 90 degree heat and both dictated proceedings against blokes half their ages. At half time, whilst I was taking on board gallons of Gatorade, my Dad had a fag and a swig of water and him and Roy would give us little tips about the game. On the same training pitch during that two-month assignment, I watched George Best train with San Jose Earthquakes and I watched European Champions, Nottingham Forest, train before a friendly against Tampa.
The footballers of a bygone age, from what I saw, were every bit as good as the ones who play now. They may have been less inclined to fall over on feeling ‘contact’ – Best certainly stayed on his feet when it seemed almost impossible to stay up – and they may not have sported quite the same body art. But I saw them close up. The balance, strength, vision, control, fitness, finesse and character was there in spades. From semi-pro to the greatest in the world – they’d have cut it. No question.