“We’ll take you along tomorrow to see about getting you a game,” my dad said to me the night before and after a restless night I awoke with my stomach awash with butterflies. Today was to be the day I was to be catapulted head first into the high-octane blood and thunder world of Under-10s boys football and make my debut in a game for Cumbernauld Heart Boys Club.
It really was as simple as that. There would be no signing announcement, no holding up strips with managers and no training sessions. It would be as simple as taking me along to see about ‘getting a game’. It was 1987 after all so there was no risk assessments to be done, no background checks – everything was just more carefree. Don’t get me wrong, taking me along was not completely out of the blue due to my older brother, four years my senior, already playing for the older teams and my dad always being there in attendance to offer support. He was already connected.
In the drive towards the match my mind was racing and to make matters worse, I was carrying a fresh injury from the morning. I woke up with severe bedhead and no amount of toxic green 99p hair gel from the local corner shop could tame it. Although it was in the back of my mind, I had already made the decision to not raise my concerns with my dad. I would continue to put myself forward for selection and thus convinced myself that I was a true warrior, showing the type of bravery that would be hailed in the trenches and that future generations would sing folk songs about.
As we drove up the hill towards the match location, the football arena would slowly reveal itself ramping up the nerve levels in my tummy. We were approaching the footballing mecca that was St Joseph’s Primary School Football Pitch where many in Cumbernauld had cut their teeth from years past. The best thing about St Joseph’s Primary School was that although it was in the lawless hotbed of Carbrain, one of Cumbernauld’s many neighbourhoods, it was situated in the ‘safer side’ and far away enough from the medieval Milcroft that I wouldn’t have to play in chainmail.
I observed the playing surface from the car window upon approach. It wasn’t the beautiful, luscious green pitch cut to perfection with perfect white goal posts and glorious crisp white nets rippling in the breeze that I had dreamed of the night before. It was a red-ash pitch with netless rusty goal posts that had seen far better days and had long succumbed to the west of Scotland weather throughout the years. That was unlike the Red-ash of course because, quite simply, red-ash succumbed to nothing. This surface wasn’t the stuff of dreams, it was the stuff of nightmares. Red-ash, also known as red-blaes, was an unforgiving, malevolent footballing surface with a texture that could best be described as ‘violent’. Celebrated for its practicality and zero maintenance upkeep in even the harshest of climates, it fed itself on the tears of boys throughout Scotland. Giving an appearance like it was made from quarry off-cuts, if you were unfortunate enough to take a tumble on red-ash, you’d be left with knees and palms looking like they’ve been roughcasted by the council. Everyone always knew the odd nutjob who would slide tackle on red-ash but all that alluded to was trouble at home, and would result in their name placed swiftly on the ‘Worry List’.
After my dad parked up the car, we approached a smiling Mr Rooney who was manager of the Under 10s at the time. Mr Rooney Junior was a man in his early thirties and my dad knew him well. I also knew from watching my elder brother’s team play through the years. Even though he was smiling and very welcoming, to me he always cut an intimidating figure. That wouldn’t be hard of course for I was a painfully shy child around adults, but he also had a quick temper on the sidelines and that mixed with his tight wavy hair and a black moustache giving him a mentalist Souness-like quality which was popular in the 80’s. He also regularly sported a black leather bomber jacket, slim stonewash jeans and black leather Adidas Sambas. It was ‘Post Office Robber Chic’ and you got the feeling that only twenty minutes previous he’d been sprinting into a stolen Ford Escort with a face covered in poor Mrs Gillespie’s ‘claret’, who had only popped in to post a parcel.
“Here comes the superstar,” he said which completely caught me off guard. ‘Where had he seen me play?’ I thought to myself. My brain was too underdeveloped to notice that I had been subjected to my first taste of ‘man management’ and that it was only really said to build confidence during such a momentous moment in my young life. Little did Mr Rooney know however that he was dealing with a nine year old who had the worrying capabilities of a middle-aged, manual skilled father of four and all his man management was doing was giving me unnecessary stress. I had become the Great White Hype before I even had a pube to my name.
“Where do you want to play?” he asked. “Centre forward,” I said. Of course I did. Everyone wants to apart from the goalkeeper weirdos and it’s not as if I couldn’t say the Makalele role as he hadn’t been invented yet. Centre forward it was to be.
In the changing rooms I was nervous. The pungent and unmistakable smell of winter green filled the air as people hustled and bustled around me. Timidly I changed into the kit before forcing my feet into my new Gola football boots. I had so much Gola forced upon me before I was a teenager that I wouldn’t be surprised to find a 12-year contract stapled to my birth certificate. These were certainly no Puma Kings. The best thing you could say about Gola football boots was that they’d be great for potting plants.
I scanned my fellow teammates, many of whom I recognised from my primary school, as well as the local area, and could already see that they were all noticeably bigger than me due to them being over a year older which can be quite significant at such a young age. The star striker in the team was Nugent, who didn’t so much carry an air of arrogance, but had someone carry it around for him and even at such a young age he was already gathering a big reputation in football as being one of the moaniest players in Europe. My name was called out on the team sheet and much to my relief I was to be a sub. Perfect. I was to be eased in gently. The public would have to wait.
The team ran out with me following at the back and for the first time in my life I was part of a proper football team and it felt great. I had my strip on, my Gola boots on, my big padded subs jacket on and now that unmistakable sound of scuffing football studs on concrete when teams made their way to the pitch that I had always heard, I was now helping to create. It was an incredible feeling.Embed from Getty Images
For most of the match I watched on the sidelines as the size four Mitre Mouldmaster pinged around the football pitch collecting more skin than Ed Gein and, unsurprisingly, it wasn’t appealing. The sight of a Mitre Mouldmaster never was. The Mouldmaster was a unique ball in the world of football. Made by Mitre, designed by Fred West, it was a football made so robust that it was the only man made surface that not even red-ash could cause it the slightest concern. A spherical flesh magnet made from a hard moulded rubber with a dimple texture that when mixed with the harsh Scottish climate it simply became depraved. It was an absolute bastard of a ball that would put hairs on your chest, before violently ripping them out after being struck by a rogue shot, leaving you to desperately chase the ball around so you could try and get your nipples back.
The game flew by, although not because of the high quality on display. My head was elsewhere and the longer the game went on, the closer it would get to me getting my chance. I was getting so nervous I was starting to hope that I would just be forgotten about and not brought on at all. Unfortunately for me, we had taken a three-goal lead and the match was more than comfortable, so with around 20 minutes to go the substitute was called and I was to be given my chance to enter the field of play.
The nerves were palpable as I waited for the leaving player to come off and to help dissipate the nerves from my body I ran onto the pitch with all the enthusiasm of John Leslie at an orgy. The red ash cracked beneath my boots as I sprinted on and I quickly took my position in the centre of the halfway line with my dad advising me to hold my position and not rush to wherever the ball was like most boys in Under 10s football.
My patience was soon to be rewarded as the ball bounced to one of our midfielders and in a flash he lashed the ball forward. The nearest defender to me had committed himself to intercept the ball on the halfway line but in his hot headedness he had completely misjudged the ball which flew over his head. In no time at all, I left him for dead and I was racing down on goal with now only the goalkeeper between myself and legendary status. The keeper sprinted from his line. It was textbook goalkeeping from a highly trained athlete. He was a man mountain and he used all of his colossal 3ft frame to narrow down the angle. Like all great footballers, I processed my options at rapid speed. I had multiple options, all viable, all achievable, but requiring different skill sets.
My first option was to go for the lob. The ball was already bouncing slightly and he was off his line after all. It was a great option. A confident yet subtle connection combined with just the right amount of leaning back would see me lift the ball over his head. He would be left so helpless that I could run away celebrating before it had even crossed the line. I could do a Klinsmann celebration on the red ash leaving forensics to sweep up what’s left of me and hand them back to my dad in a food bag.
Option two was to round the keeper before sliding the ball into the empty net. A good option but also a lot more difficult to execute. It would take a drop of the shoulder sending the keeper one way as I go the other and slot the ball home in a style that was dripping with arrogance. Taking it around the keeper may look easy but it’s an art form that was probably best mastered by the Brazilian Ronaldo in the mid 90’s and sadly the only similarity between myself and Ronaldo was the massive teeth I went on to develop in my teenage years.
I decided to go with Option Three. Power. Raw unspeakable power from the fiery pits of hell. A shot so ferocious that if the keeper dared get in the way, Mitre Mouldmaster and face would become one and he’d be left so disfigured that he would be rejected by his mother. I had made my decision. Option three it would be. It wasn’t skilful, but it was reliable.
I locked my leg back and had one last rapid thought if I really wanted to go through with this. I could have a death on my hands here but I didn’t care. Sometimes people need to be sacrificed. Not a rare occurrence in Carbrain. I catapulted my leg forward with all the might my body could muster. As I unleashed hell I forgot about one vital detail. Below me I was being supported by a pair of legs often found on poultry, meaning my shot was as weak as Beverly Hills Cop III. I hadn’t unleashed Hell, I had unleashed Purgatory. My shot didn’t fly towards the keeper, it seemed to get the bus and although it was on target the keeper caught it easily in his hands. I had blown my big chance and I was devastated.
The disappointment was overwhelming. It was a hurricane of emotion for such a small person. Disappointment, guilt, embarrassment, shattered dreams, abject misery and hopelessness. I had become an episode of Eastenders. While I tried to work my way through the seven stages of grief, my day was only about to get worse. True to his ‘enfant terrible’ reputation, Nugent wasn’t happy and he wasn’t shy in letting me know of his displeasure. He let me have it from both barrels. The pitch felt like a lonely place and my dream had quickly spiralled into a nightmare. Only one minute ago I was hurtling down on goal and now I’m being publicly slaughtered by a teammate. Where was the camaraderie, the team ethic? Could he not see I was suffering from bedhead and technically playing with shoeboxes on my feet?
Each of Nugent’s highly public verbal assaults felt like a punch. I wasn’t mentally trained or prepared for this. I was being publicly hung out to dry and I could feel all sixteen eyeballs from the capacity strong crowd focussing on me. My body and mind were so overwhelmed with the whole situation that there was one inevitable outcome for such a sensitive artistic soul like myself. It was tears. Aw for fu….
The tears started to come and there was nothing I could do about it. My body tried so hard to reject them that I started doing that hyperventilating thing that kids do. My body was at war with itself. The more the tears came, the more I tried to reject them, the more I hyperventilated, the worse it got. My body tried to fight it so much I had created body-popping type motion while sobbing and producing bubbles from my nose like I had just been snorting some Fairy Liquid, and even though body-popping was completely befitting of the decade, it certainly had no place on the football pitch. There were sympathetic eyes from everyone except Nugent, who continued his vitriolic verbal attack undeterred. The anger built up in me so much that I finally snapped. “WHY DON’T YOU JUST SHUT UP?” I shouted with tears and snotters. It was a weak and pitiful put down. It certainly wasn’t Richard Pryor at the Apollo. It wasn’t even Richard Blackwood. It was so frail that it didn’t even register with Nugent. “THAT’S IT VINCENT, YOU TELL HIM!” shouted Mr Rooney, his voice a mix of encouragement and sympathy, but, thankfully for me, it saw Nugent move on with the match. It took minutes for my body to calm down and strike a peace deal with itself. I wiped my nose with my sleeve for the final time, my sleeve crustier than a teenage boy’s Linda Lusardi calendar.
The rest of the game passed buy in a daze. My head was long gone and my debut was a PR disaster. Only three years later in 1990, Paul Gascoigne would become his nation’s national treasure for bursting into tears at the World Cup, but he at least had Gary Lineker on the pitch to look out for him and do that pointy eye thing. This was the west of Scotland in the 1980’s however and tears were for the weak. After the final whistle I slunk off to the changing rooms emotionally exhausted with the public humiliation weighing me down and I wondered to myself if this would all be shown on Sportscene later that night.
The drive home was quiet. I wasn’t in the mood for saying anything. I was trying to come to terms with one of the most humiliating football debuts ever recorded. As I looked out the car window I realised that even in the darkest moment you should always try and take some cold comfort that no matter how bad things can get, there’s something to be learned from it. That’s how we’ve progressed as a species after all. Recover from setbacks, pick yourself, dust yourself off, and move on. I racked my brain and then it came to me. There was a positive to take from this. There always is. “Oh well,” I thought to myself, “…at least I never shat myself”.