Alan Pattullo: Celebrating five-a-side way of life

The goalie looks behind him and is momentarily confused. The ball he presumed had zipped by him and then scudded into the net via a crossbar is not there. This is because the ball is now spinning in the air above him, where it has arced after bashing back off said bar.
Team names are genius distilled into a few slightly modified phrases: Teenage Mutant Ninja Skrtels, Phantom of the Chopra& Picture: AFP/GettyTeam names are genius distilled into a few slightly modified phrases: Teenage Mutant Ninja Skrtels, Phantom of the Chopra& Picture: AFP/Getty
Team names are genius distilled into a few slightly modified phrases: Teenage Mutant Ninja Skrtels, Phantom of the Chopra& Picture: AFP/Getty

So what else was likely to happen than for the ball to then drop back down on to the goalkeeper’s head before rebounding back into the net? His face is a picture of resignation mixed with embarrassment. He knows he is just the latest to occupy the role of five-a-side fall guy.

As our hero heads back to retrieve the ball from the back of the net he then even seems to execute a little skip – like when you have stumbled on a paving stone in the street and want to pretend it was meant all along by adorning the misstep with a jaunty flourish. In true fives-style, there is another ball already in the back of the net, for when the first-choice ball – or at least the not-quite-so-flat-one – is booted over the fence, an inevitable occurrence in an hour of high-octane, low-quality action.

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As is the way of things these days, this clip, filmed in Glasgow, went viral this week. It seemed to sum up five-a-side football in just a few seconds.

All life is there, including the gleeful scorer of the one-in-a-million goal who proceeds to celebrate this slice of fortune with both-arms-in-the-air shamelessness (he’ll have been cemented against the boards by the end, bet your life on it). This is five-a-side football in all its colour-uncoordinated, your-turn-in-goals-avoiding, black-balls-of-rubber-in-the-socks, head-height-only glory. It is such an incredibly fertile subject area it is surprising no-one has thought to write a book.

Well, until now, that is. Of course there is more to what is now a global phenomenon than hapless moments. As outlined in The Five-A-Side Bible by Chris Bruce, the small-sided game can be just as competitive and highly skilled as its 11-a-side big brother. In terms of participation numbers, it is currently a lot more popular.

John Durnin, a Liverpool reserve player in their 1980s heyday, recalls training at Melwood, the club’s training base, consisting of little more than endless five-a-side games. Sofiane “Sof” Ferrad, once on the books of Marseille, still blazes a trail in his late 40s through the five-a-side game in England, where he has won more than 900 trophies.

But the tragicomic experience of the goalkeeper mentioned earlier is something with which most will empathise. If cameras were fixed on goalmouths in every five-a-side complex in the land it would be possible to compile an entire reel of such goofish moments at the end of each day. Indeed, there was another­ one recently involving another goalkeeper’s efforts to prevent a goal; his valiant attempt is thwarted when he gets his foot tangled in the net instead, cue hands-on-knees laughter from everyone, including his team-mates. This was in Glasgow, again.

Which seems appropriate. For just as Scots gave the passing game to the world as well as perfecting the art of dribbling, they can also lay claim to starting the five-a-side culture as we recognise it today.

As explained in The Five-A-Side Bible, the first custom-built five-a-side facility in the world opened in Paisley in the late-1980s, on some under-used tennis courts (shhh, ­no-one tell Judy Murray). Not content with building up one successful business, Pitz, Scottish entrepreneur Keith Rogers sold it on and then built up a rival company called Goals, the handy acronym – so my “bible” informs me – deriving from Glasgow Open Air Leisure Services.

Indeed, the book is almost worth it for the section on team names alone; genius distilled into a few slightly modified phrases: Teenage Mutant Ninja Skrtels, Phantom of the Chopra, Basement Ajax. There are also some delicious sentences that could be the start of novels in their own right: “In the roughest part of Glasgow the sending-off record is still held by a psychotic French horn player.”

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But the real genius of this particular book is that so many can identify with it. The truths are universal. They resonate with this writer. More than likely, they will resonate with you, too.

Every Monday at 9:30pm, or thereabouts, we gather in Portobello on the site of the old outdoor swimming pool turned into a patchwork of five-a-side courts by Rogers. The complex was opened by Andy Goram and Dave McPherson, then of Hibs and Hearts, in 1989.

Socrates once had a kick-about here. Sometimes, through the wire meshing, it’s possible to catch a glimpse of David “Bingo” Bingham, ex-St Johnstone, Forfar, Inverness and Livingston, playing in the next-door game to us.

It is getting near the time of year when we can expect an occasional firework lobbed over the fence by youths intent on recreating some hostile continental arena for our benefit. But mostly it has been an unremarkable 20-years-and-counting tale of multi-goal scorelines no-one remembers from one week to the next.

We stick to the same teams. At least, as much as is possible when there are headaches of the sort Jose Mourinho doesn’t have to endure. These include holidays, childcare and the impromptu post-work drink that has spiralled out of control, prompting – if you are lucky – a shame-faced text accounting for the no-show.

Consulting my “bible” again, I realise I am what is known as The Organiser, the patsy who sends out texts each Monday morning and treats every excuse rendered with unalloyed scepticism. Wife’s birthday? Pah. Holiday? What’s wrong with leaving on a Tuesday morning? Injured? Just come and run the pain off, best thing for it.

But there are other recognisable types, several of which are carefully and comically outlined in the book, including The Latecomer: “His warm-up is the sprint from the car park to the pitch where his mates have already kicked off with nine – [he] throws his keys and phone behind the net and doesn’t even have the decency to go in goals first.” Then there’s The Net Dodger: “Will not accept that it’s his turn until issued with court papers and frogmarched to the ‘D’.”

Despite the frustrations, it is a sacrosanct hour, whether in the rain, hail, sleet or snow. It has become a way of life, one I dread ending. This is why the interview with George Greig lifts spirits. At 70, he is still playing, still competitive. His advice? “Never stop”. By my reckoning, I have roughly another 1,400 Monday nights left to organise – at least.

l The Five-A-Side Bible is out in hardback and ebook, published by BackPage / Freight, £14.99.

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