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 couldn’t rely on skill, experience or talent to guarantee that the ball wouldn’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 – mine to then have my way with. I understand from childhood coaching manuals that this is called “trapping” and I share it with you now only because on Sunday morning I pulled it off and it felt great! Actually it wasn’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 “an educated right boot” 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 “educated right boot” might as well be on the sidelines, doing its nails. Because an “educated right boot” 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, “He traps it further than I can kick it” but that’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. “Good control”, I heard someone yell and I thought “yeah, good control”, and looked up for an opportunity for that “educated right boot”.