BY WILLIAM ‘FATTY’ FOULKE

You lot, you don’t know you’re born. Why, in my day we didn’t have physiotherapists. We had to make do with  the trainer who’d run on, fag jutting out of the corner of his mouth, ready to give you a quick swig of gin, before sending you back on your way with a song in your heart and a fog in your head. Oh yes, those were the days!

It was 1905 when I signed up for Mr. Mears’s new Chelsea team, where I instantly became the highest-paid player in the land (there was of course the small matter of the maximum wage back then, but ’twas nothing a few pounds tucked away in your boots after the match didn’t take care of). And, you’d better believe me, I wasn’t paid one and ten (thirty four of your new-pence, I believe) to fetch the ball when it went out for a goal-kick. Out onto the running track that encircled the Stamford Bridge grounds? I don’t think so, my lad! Why, Mr. Mears was such a generous figure, that he’d scour the Fulham Road for urchins to fetch the hide for me. I couldn’t be running after such things with my pre-match meal of faggots and steak in me. Why, I’d be sick all over the goalmouth.

And lo, were Ball Boys introduced to association foot-ball. Of course, they were no mere boys; that wouldn’t do for the mighty Pensioners. No, the urchins he hired were the real deal, victims of the Boer Wars that had fallen on hard times. For their effort, they were given a shiny ha’penny and a cup of Bovril to keep them warm on their long, cold nights dossing down in the doorways of the Broadway. Don’t talk to me about this living wage nonsense, they’d have only spent it on pints of Watney’s and saucy pictures down the nickelodeon.

Another thing that I fail to comprehend is all these players nowadays with exotic names like Moussa and Andros. When I was starting out, back when I was a mere thirteen-stone slip of a lad, you were considered foreign if you were born further north than Blackpool. Why, I remember well, back in my Sheffield United days, playing the ‘Spurs in the 1901 Cup Final at the Crystal Palace, and being charged by Sandy Brown. When he bounced off of me, he hurled a torrent of abuse my way. At least I presume it was abuse, for I couldn’t understand a word he said, so broad was his Scottish brogue. I made monkey noises at the vile Scotchman, and no more was said on the matter. Nowadays, were centre forward and goalkeeper to collide, it would result in either or both pretending to be dead! Play up, play up and play the game, we always said. Not lay down and pretend you’ve been shot by a Prussian sniper.

Yes, it was a different game, and a better one to be sure. If you could bulldoze your way through a two-man defensive line whilst still maintaining your pipe-holding technique, you were sure to be idolised in the national papers the next day. During the good times at United, we had a right back by the name of Thickett who would take to the field with a pouch of chewing tobacco hidden inside his stockings. Many was the time he’d take out the opposing left-winger with a well-timed spit in the direction of his face. My, how the fans on the John Street side would enjoy that!

But now I’m wallowing in the depths of memories long since passed and forgotten. Here am I, dead for nigh on a century now, and all I can do is talk about the game that was, rather than the game that is. But that is the way of things, I suppose. Ah yes, the memories, and what stirring memories they are – back when laws were few and far between, there were just two defenders, and Ball Boys were, indeed, Ball Men!