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Park Life – Part Two

This is the second part of my mini-series of memoirs about football in the village where I grew up. You can catch part one here if you missed it.

Zaine Brookes – The Ultimate In Man-Marking Jobs

Up until this point, Zaine was perhaps best known for his fusion of the dribbling and consistency of Denilson and Paulo Wanchope in the infamous ‘Sloths Go Through’ campaign. The man who patented the almost unplayable ‘Doberman stepover’ was normally an unpredictable yet effective attacking weapon, yet Brookes set out, for some bloody-minded reason known only to himself, to prove that he could mark a player out of a game.

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And when I say a game, I mean every conceivable form of football that his target attempted to play at anywhere or any time. He picked his victim, and then whether it was on the tennis courts for tennis-ball footy, on the school field, a street kick-a-round, or in a big match at the park, he would stick to them as if his very soul depended upon crushing their attacking virtues.

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His two most regular victims were two of the best footballers in our year: Southampton YTS player Neil Bradshaw and barnstorming pace-merchant Adam Allaway. Like a jungle panther, a walking shadow, Brookes tailed his victims relentlessly, getting in their heads as well as in their way. He made sure there was never more than half a foot of space between himself and his opponent, and he followed them like a bloodhound for the entirety of every second of the games. No attacking, no forays forward, simply determination to act as the ultimate spoiler. The signature of his unique method of defending was to scream ‘MAN MARK, MAN MARK!’ at the top of his lungs whenever he was about to make a challenge. Even when he alerted his opponents they were unable to prevent this tenacious talisman from winning the ball or upending them.

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The level of dedication was simply astonishing. It reached a zenith when Adam Allaway, having been sliding tackled and clattered for the 14th or 15th time on the 2nd or 3rd week of having been chosen as the victim for ‘MAN-MARK’, got up and said to Zaine ‘You win, you win, just stop it, you are ruining football, I give up, just stop it’. A couple of years before Claude Makelele would make his name with Real Madrid, Brookes can be argued to have pioneered the midfielder destroyer role and laid the path for Jose Mourinho’s anti-footballing smash-merchants. In short: a brutal and uncompromising visionary with a will of iron.

Phoenix From The Flames – Jacob Thomas Proves His Worth

In late 1998, all of the students from my school, Crofton, were thrown into the melting pot of St. Vincent’s college. Arguably the greatest outcome of this transition was the creation of the Stubbington football equivalent of Woodstock, The Oscars and The World Cup combined: Ultimate Park. Over 45 people turned up to the first event, and every player who planned on coming to the festival of goals had a ‘price ranking’ attributed to their name on the notice-board at St. Vincent’s based on the impact they were expected to have. The price-rankings were based around the ‘Sensible World of Soccer’ system whereby the best player in the game was priced at £15 million (that was a lot of money back then); players with flair that could light up games with moments of magic were also favoured over try-hard defenders like myself. So, the more likely you were to dribble like Maradona and hit long range screamers, or Trevor Sinclairesque overhead kicks, the higher your value would be.

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Jake Thomas cut his chops as a goalkeeper at the first Ultimate Park, and despite usually being one of the safer pairs of hands of the group, he didn’t enjoy his finest performance and dropped a series of clangers that would have made Massimo Taibi blush. As a consequence, Jake’s value dipped to the lowest in the game, lower even than Keith ‘the dying sheep’ Hammond who was renowned for being less coordinated than a pissed up Bambi on ice (although somehow was a brilliant cricketer). It was little short of abject humiliation, and many feared for Jake’s Ultimate Park future; would he even show up for Ultimate Park 2? This was the question on the lips of many of the park ultras. Little did anyone know but Jake was planning a metamorphosis to shame a butterfly and brewing up some redemption that even Andy Dufrain would have been jealous of.

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Jake arrived at the park and his first contribution was to perform an act of baffling defiance: he refused to go in goal and instead touted himself as a Left Forward in a rebranding as audacious as when Jif became Cif. There was an air of confidence about him, a half smile that hinted at a secret only known to him. The action started. About 10 minutes into a tepid 0-0, goalkeeper Robert Meakings punted a hopeful kick upfield. The ball bypassed the opposition midfield and was hurtling through the air into the ‘Raumdeuter’ space occupied by the likes of Tommy Muller and Gianfranco Zola. We looked on in amazement as Jake did what looked like shaping to take the ball over his shoulder and volleying first time – Van Basten style – except this time from 35 yards. It seemed a preposterous act of desperation from yesterday’s laughing stock, but Thomas had his own ideas.

The meeting of ball and left foot was a symphony, pure poetry in motion and the thunderous crack that ensued was the herald of a shot that blazed like a bolt of lightning launched from the arm of Zeus himself. The ball fizzed through the air, a potent combination of laser-sighted accuracy and animal ferocity, careening past the despairing hand of the stranded keeper.

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The stanchion was nearly snapped off the post as the net of the top corner rippled in a wave of glory. Jake wheeled away in a Jan Fjortoft style celebration and the hex of mediocrity was broken. And once it was broken it was like a floodgate opened – Jake finished the game with a hat-trick, including an expertly executed scissor kick and a poacher’s finish. So rarely had the dichotomy between expectation and reality been so wide; so rarely had a judgement been so wayward. The next time the price lists went up, Jake found himself at a hefty £14.8 million, second only to the ultimate sexy footballer: Brad McMillan.

Overhead Over Heels – The Ballad Of Sam Pitkeathly

Every now and then a distant relative, kid from a different school or visiting friend of a friend would turn up at the park to much fanfare, breaking up the predictable routines of our games. Was he going to be any good? Had he played before? What position did he play? What level had he played to? Swarms of questions prickled in our minds as we eagerly awaited the debutants’ early contributions. The most memorable of these visitors was an Oxford youth keeper who joined in a hotly competitive 11-A-Side game. It was the usual suspects from my year on our team – Sam Pitkeathly, Craig Sterne, Kevin Hayward, Matt Davy, Matt Teague, Owen Gray, Nick Leigh, James Shearsmith, Ian Hudson, Rich Meek, Robert Meakings et al versus a motley collection of older lads.

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For 70 or 80 minutes we attacked relentlessly, peppering the opposition area with shots and crosses. It was a passage of utter domination the likes of which haven’t been seen since Barcelona recorded 81% possession against Celtic in the Champion’s League. But for all the supremacy and all the chances, nobody could find a way past the absolute leviathan, the giant amongst men who was playing in goal for the older guys: the legend of Oxford City. His repertoire included every kind of save imaginable: brave plunges at the feet of onrushing forwards in 1 on 1s, flying top corner tip overs and lightning-reaction dives from close range headers and volleys; his goal was an impregnable castle and with every new save came another taunt and rise in confidence from the opposition. But Sam Pitkeathly had other ideas.

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Just as it seemed that hope was evading us, and the game slipping away, another erring cross was swung into the box. On the face of it, it didn’t look threatening. It was outswinging and looked to be heading for the edge of the box; to most it was a chance lost, another wasted moment, but then the football Gods sprinkled a pinch of their magic dust on to the right foot of Pitkeathly. He waited with an assassin’s poise, perfectly following the arc of the ball and setting himself with a cage fighter’s conviction. The ball began to drop. It seemed too low to head and too high to volley, but then in one movement Sam swivelled so his back faced the goal before leaping acrobatically into the air and executing an absolute artist’s stroke of an overhead kick. A stunned silence fell upon the pitch as the ball headed towards goal; the Oxford keeper had been wrong-footed by the maverick manoeuver and was scrambling to make the dive that would keep it out. He stretched out his palm despairingly as he failed to make contact with the ball and Pitkeathly had made the impossible possible, beating a would-be pro at his own game with a moment of genuine class. You can keep your Ibrahimovices, your Sinclairs, your Zolas, this was better than the lot.

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