The pass out of defence seemed to accelerate as it hit the wet grass and skidded towards me. Like most other enthusiastic, Sunday, footballers I couldnâ€™t rely on skill, experience or talent to guarantee that the ball wouldnâ€™t bounce away in some random direction (or worse, pass under or around me without contact of any kind). Instead, I found myself doing a large number of maths, geometry and physics exercises in a very short space of time.
While trying to stay aware of the players around me, I had to estimate the height and speed the ball would reach by the time it arrived so that I could then angle my foot in such a way that the ball (after contact) would drop limply beneath me â€“ mine to then have my way with. I understand from childhood coaching manuals that this is called â€˜trappingâ€™ and I share it with you now only because on Sunday morning I pulled it off and it felt great! Actually it wasnâ€™t perfect as it came off my calf rather than my boot but I got all the angles right and could look up trusting that the ball would still be there when I looked back down again.
I know what I’m good at on a football pitch. I have what they used to call â€˜an educated right bootâ€™ which means when I can look up I see an opportunity (a player in space ahead of me, or a space that they can run into) and I can generally put the ball where I want it, or close enough. But I can also write a book about what I don’t have: pace, stamina, determination, bravery, guile, left foot, etc, which means that in most games my â€˜educated right bootâ€™ might as well be on the sidelines, doing its nails. Because an â€˜educated right bootâ€™ needs time and space to be effective.
So, this year I decided to concentrate on only one aspect of my game: my first touch. Almost every Sunday morning, with the boys from Newtown Athletic, I trundle down to Rugby League Park (where the Hurricanes and Lions usually train) and we chase a ball around and try and stick it between two cones. As we don’t keep score, players change sides often and no one yells at you for being out of position, I have found the perfect environment for simply enjoying the game and working on the things I wished I did better. Like trapping.
Former West Ham United Manager Harry Redknapp once said of a triallist, â€œHe traps it further than I can kick itâ€ but thatâ€™s no longer true of me. A few minutes after the calf-trap described above I found myself chasing a high ball across to the right-hand corner of the pitch. Using my trigonometry skills I put myself where I thought the ball would be only to see it bounce higher than expected and have it bounce off my throat — and land softly at my feet. â€œGood controlâ€, I heard someone yell and I thought ‘yeah, good control’, and looked up for an opportunity for that â€˜educated right bootâ€™.