Off to Brandon Welfare Ground today to see Julio Arca and more softly sentimental football.
Here's something from Back Pass about one of those trophies that time forgot.
There’s was one thing every kid growing up in the 1960s knew about football – you didn’t play it indoors. Not even with a tennis ball. ‘And not with a balloon neither. Now get outside the lot of you before you feel the flat of my hand’.
Imagine then, the surprise, the delight, the frankly illicit thrill of that November Wednesday night in 1969 when, dressed in Star Trek-style pyjamas and a lurid blue Brentford Nylons dressing gown that generated enough static electricity to power a small factory, I nestled down on the sofa with my Ovaltine for that evening’s edition of Sportsnight and found myself watching football not only being played indoors, but by some of the best teams in the country.
The longer I watched the Daily Express Five-a-side Challenge Cup the more excited I got. The squeak of the players shoes on the solid floor, the smack of the ball against the walls, the fact you could hear the stars shouting the sort of things we shouted in our playground games (“Man on!” “Leave it!” “Did you see Wacky races last night?” Nobody swore in those days, or so it seemed anyway). Here was everything I liked best about football (plus rebounds) and none of the things I hated about it: studs, sliding tackles and headers.
What exactly occurred that night at what was still called The Empire Pool Wembley (despite its name host to everything from ice hockey to bike racing via the Horse of the Year Show) is a bit of a blur (quite literally – we had a black and white TV with one of those adjustable aerials, even the Mexico World Cup looked like it was being played in a snowstorm), but I do recall that Manchester City beat League Cup-holders Swindon - featuring one of my new idols, the extravagantly skilful and moustachioed Don Rogers - in the final. City’s team included Neil Young and Colin Bell who hit eleven goals between them. For Young it was second in-door football triumph in two years – he’d been part of the City duo that won the National Head Tennis Championships in 1968.
I was elated by what I saw on Sportsnight. And I was not the only one. At primary school the following day the playground was buzzing with excited chatter about The Daily Express Five-a-side. It is hard to credit it now but the whole event had about it something of the carnival sideshow. It was football, as the Starship Enterprise’s Dr McCoy might have observed, but not as we know it. Schoolboys all over the country were similarly enamoured – little wonder Subbuteo rushed out a five-a-side set, named Subbuteo Express, so we could merrily recreate the tournament on our bedroom floors.
It seems that the feeling of novelty and adventure extended to the players too, at least if the comments from members of City’s winning team were anything to go by.
Skipper Tony Book told the following week’s Man City programme, “We all enjoyed it a great deal. There was a variety of footwear. Most of the other players wore PT shoes. All the City team wore the practice shoes which were just right. It was a bit hard on the feet though.”
Midfielder Alan Oakes meanwhile sounded like he had been visiting a foreign land, “The atmosphere was dry, hot and quite dusty. But the pitch was quite a big one by five-a-side standards - 70yards by 30yards - which gave us plenty of space. It was a change from the normal routine and the competition as a whole was well organized. After four matches on that surface your feet did feel it a bit, though.”
Book’s comment about PT shoes raised another point in five-a-side’s favour. Football boots were something else I loathed. This was because the pair I owned had been bought for me by my grandfather who hated all new-fangled things and had somehow managed to find a pair that reached up to ankles. They were made – he said – of horsehide, to which, judging by the weight of them, the horse was still attached. Running in them made me feel like Frankenstein’s monster.
The Daily Express five-a-side competition – played in lightweight PE pumps, or sandshoes as they were often called for reasons I can’t fathom - had actually begun the previous year, though the 1968 tournament had somehow passed me by. The newspaper organised a series of regional qualification rounds at various roller-skating and ice rinks around the country. Quite how seriously the clubs took the competition in those early years is hard to judge though the fact that the qualifiers from the Scottish section – played at Kelvin Hall, Glasgow – were Morton may give some indication. The men from Greenock were joined at Wembley by an equally unlikely group from around the country that included Gillingham, Peterborough, Lincoln City and Grimsby. Charlton Athletic were the eventual winners.
The Daily Express weren’t the first newspaper to sponsor a five-a-side tournament. The London Evening Standard had organised one for the capitals teams that had begun in 1954 (Charlton Athletic won that inaugural tournament, too, beating Spurs 3-1 in the final at the Empress Hall, Earls Court). The London competition was usually held in May and at first at least it was seen to give the London teams a bit of an advantage in the national competition, alongside the partisan crowds who – at least according to City keeper Joe Corrigan – tended to get behind the southern teams.
Living in the North-East, the Evening Standard competition was as unknown to me as the vagaries of the Chilean title race, but the Daily Express national competition became a date I ringed on my calendar. In 1970 City were defending champions but were able to send only a virtual youth team to the tournament because it clashed with their Cup-Winners’ Cup tie with Honved. This time it was their arch-rivals United who lifted the trophy.
Ted Bates’ Southampton (In League matches heavily reliant on the aerial power of Welsh centre-forward Ron Davies) won in 1971, and Spurs took the crown in 1972 beating Ipswich in the final on penalties (another novelty – they had only just been tested out in Europe and were decades away from becoming a main stay of English domestic cups). Pat Jennings’ long-time understudy Barry Daines was the unexpected hero for the Londoners. The following year, Derby County, still in turmoil after the resignation of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor, showed there might be life after the Godhead by beating Celtic 3-1 in the final. In 1974 there was another surprise when Leyton Orient battled through the opening three rounds winning each in penalty shoot-outs before overcoming Spurs 2-0 in the final thanks to a couple of goals from the unlikely source of centre-back Phil Hoadley (The defender scored just nine times in 255 senior appearances for the Os).
Orient would go on the win the 1976 Evening Standard competition, beating QPR 6-1 in the final. That win later acquired a whiff controversy when Stan Bowles commented that, "The only time I done it [thrown a match] was a five-a-side. Do you remember the national five-a-side tournament? I was playing for QPR and we reached the final against Leyton Orient. I had a good mate who was an Orient supporter - Jewish Dennis he was called, he's dead now - and he'd backed them to win the thing, £1,000 at 8-1. He said to me, 'If you go boss-eyed in the final, you've got a grand'. Well, I only stood to get £200 if we won the final, so I said, 'Certainly'. I scored a goal but we lost 6-1, and our manager, Gerry Francis, said to me afterwards, 'You looked a bit tired in the second half'. But it was only five-a-side, it didn't matter.”
Bowles may have thought five-a-side unimportant, but the quality of the Daily Express competition (‘It was a big deal in those days’ Lou Macari observed in his autobiography) suggested otherwise. Wolves won the national prize in 1975 and retained the title in 1976 beating Tony Waddington’s cultured Stoke City in the final thanks largely to the excellent goal-scoring midfielder Kenny Hibbitt, one of many fine players to be mysteriously overlooked by England. Bobby Robson’s elegant Ipswich Town took the title in 1977 and went on to win the FA Cup that same season. Terry Venables’ Crystal Palace made a further claim to being ‘the team of the Eighties’ by carrying off the trophy in 1978. My club Middlesbrough finally made an appearance around the same time, but a team that looked ruggedly hard to beat in League matches quickly came unstuck in the quick give-and-go of five-a-side. To rub salt in the wounds in 1979 Boro’s local rivals Sunderland carried off the title, conceding not a single goal while scoring ten, of which star man, midfielder Kevin Arnott got six. That an ex-Boro player, the diminutive and skilful Stan Cummins (whom Jack Charlton had once claimed would be Britain’s first ‘million pound player’) was in the Rokerites’ side only made it worse.
Aston Villa took time out from their successful First Division campaign by lifting the trophy in 1980 and the following year Celtic became the first – and only - Scottish club to win the tournament, with a team of unknown young tyros who looked for all the world like extras from that year’s hit film Gregory’s Girl. Under the guidance of youth coach Jim Lumsden, Celtic surprised everyone by beating a Manchester United side that included Lou Macari, Ray Wilkins and Bryan Robson, and brushing aside Uefa Cup holders Ipswich. In the final they met a Southampton quintet that boasted World Cup winner Alan Ball and twice European footballer of the year Kevin Keegan. Celtic triumphed 1:0 thanks to a goal by teenager Charlie Nicholas and some flying saves by English keeper Peter Latchford.
By that stage my own interest in the competition had begun to wane. So to it seemed had the nation’s. After the 1983 tournament the BBC, which had covered the competition since its inception, decided not to bother with it anymore. Without TV exposure to make it attractive to sponsors the competition quickly shrivelled and died, the situation not helped by the announcement of the new Atari-sponsored Soccer Sixes competition that would be held at the NEC in Birmingham. The last hurrah for the national five-a-side competition was in 1986 when Norwich City – with Dean Gordon outstanding - beat Man City 5-0 in the final.
The Daily Express five-a-sides are largely forgotten now, a relic of the past like the Watney Cup, the annual Football league v Scottish league fixture and the Anglo-Italian and Anglo-Scottish tournaments. Few of the winners even bother to list the trophy on their honours boards. Perhaps in the end it really was only small boys who took the competition to their hearts.