When some people’s idea of the greatest coach in football had his temper tantrum about the ball his players were made to use being not fit for purpose, a whole generation of men laughed. And then they winced and rubbed their thighs, as if feeling for dimple marks.
Pep Guardiola complained that the official ball for the Carabao Cup was too light after Manchester City’s superstars failed to find the net with it against Wolves. They only squeezed through the tie on penalties when, of course, the crazy sphere would have been nice and stationary and they were standing 12 yards from goal.
We laughed because the ball is made by Mitre. We winced because in our experience – and this is why we’re football fans and never became players – Mitre don’t do lighter. Was that the advertising slogan for the Mouldmaster? It should have been. That ball was insane, like kicking a mealie puddin’ or a depth charge or a polished boulder.
We are the children of the Mouldmaster, or rather the stubbed-toe, stinging-hurdie casualties. When Lord Shaftesbury (1801-1885) stopped youths being sent up chimneys to clean them he thought his social reforms were complete. They weren’t. My generation was still made to chase the Mouldmaster across school pitches a century later – and while the scrawniest boys could barely nudge the infernal thing through a full circumference, there was always the risk of a big galoot achieving decent contact and woe betide anyone who got in its way.
Pat Stanton, the Hibernian great, once told me a poignant story of the rare occasion when his mother joined his father in watching him play. “I took the ball full in the face that day and was knocked out,” he said. “To add insult to injury, we lost. Then to add more insult, Mum asked me that night: ‘Son, how’s the lad who got hit with the ball?’ Now, I’m pretty sure I had indentations: ‘Hand-stitched in Pakistan’ back to front down one cheek.”
I sympathised of course but failed to see how that could have been any worse, or any more howlingly painful, than the tiny buckshot holes created by the pattern on a flying Mouldmaster, especially on a raw winter’s morning.
So how light could the new Mitre, the Delta, possibly be when the old one was so thuddingly unforgiving? “It’s not a serious ball,” complained Guardiola. “No weight, nothing.” Man City midfielder Yaya Toure moaned: “When you touch it, it’s floating. It’s rubbish.” “Like a beach volleyball,” cursed goalkeeper Claudio Bravo.
The offending ball is used in all EFL competitions – those are all the ones which aren’t the Premier League, where they play with a celestial orb which is removed from the pitch every four minutes to undergo rigorous testing in a lab ensuring the correct weight is always maintained. That’s supremely irritating as it ruins the flow of games but, hey, these guys need to know that when they sclaff a shot, which sometimes happens, it must be the fault of the playing surface, even though that always appears to be glisteningly perfect.
I’m joking about that. At least I’m pretty sure I am. The response from the EPL to Man City’s criticisms was funnier than anything I can muster: a clip on Twitter of a long-range goal by Toure from the final of the 2014 incarnation of the Carabao with the caption: “Pure class with a Mitre. Top drawer, not rubbish.”
The sports firm clearly believe in their product. We might wonder if they attach the same credibility to the complaints of a player who once threatened to quit his club because they forgot his birthday. I’m not saying Toure’s a bad workman who’s blaming his tools but this latest flounce is edging him ever closer to the title of the Premier League’s Mariah Carey. The pop diva doesn’t do stairs or flies, even on visits to Africa. Toure says “Balls” to the Delta.
This kerfuffle may not last; the air could fizz right out of it. You’ll remember the stooshie about the official ball of South Africa’s World Cup in 2010, the Jabulani Crawfish Pie Fillet Gumbo or Jabulani for short. Players whinged about its bounce being difficult to read and how they were made to look stupid when failing to control its virile bounce. Manufacturers Adidas hailed the Jabulani as the “roundest” ball there had ever been. In those early attempts to tether it, Brazil’s Luis Fabiano insisted it had a mind of its own. “It’s supernatural!” he gasped. But by the final the magnificent Andres Iniesta was making the Jabulani do what he wanted when he banged home Spain’s winning goal.
Once again my generation had little sympathy with the gripes. If the best players on the planet thought the Jabulani had a fiendish boing then they should have tried a SuperBall. This explosive knob of vulcanised rubber the size of a plum wasn’t meant for football but, being brave little 1960s Space Race boys, we used it in playground kickabouts. Challenging ourselves like that, it’s an absolute tragedy none of us graduated to the professional game.
The SuperBall was produced by a company rather tremendously called Wham-O, having been dreamed up a Californian chemist, Norman Stingley. With that name, Norm must have had a hand in the Mouldmaster as well. And surely there are therapy groups for its victims who retain the psychological scars from being scudded by the orange cannonball, even if the dimples eventually disappeared.
We were tough kids, though, and were happy to play with any kind of ball or stone. Our football heroes had it slightly better but not by much, being required to wade across gluepot surfaces or skitter over ice rinks. Graeme Souness, who reigned supreme in such adverse conditions, told me the other day that he didn’t think many of today’s footballers knew he even played the game. “I often get asked: ‘Could I have played now?’ he said. “My answer is always: “Do you guys think you could have played back then?’” The modern player gets all the money and if he doesn’t like the ball, a comforting arm will be placed around his shoulders. He’s the snowflake footballer who, by the way, won’t play if snowflakes fall.