Skinny dipping

Matt Nation explains why his name can be added to the list of people who have had life-changing experiences involving Norman Hunter and a cinder pitch

Norman Hunter was one of the few players who would have induced me to wade bleeding and naked through an open sewer for a chance to see him, such was the esteem in which I held him. Although in the twilight of his career when he arrived at Bristol City, he was still famous, still a cut above the rest and still capable of turning the flow of a game by scything down the opponents’ playmaker in full flight. If there was one man who definitively captured and held my interest in football, that man was Norman Hunter.

However, you grow older, more discerning, world-weary cynical, prone to spot the frailties of the hero, lurking behind the moments they were dancing through the opponents’ defence, crashing in shots from forty yards out or battering Francis Lee into submission in the players’ tunnel. So I could manage little more than a disillusioned shrug on realizing, during an HTV Flashback for the Fans video, that Norman Hunter – man of iron, man of character, man with whom I used to attempt to threaten my own father (“Listen, Dad, either I stay up to watch Ironside or Norman is on the doorstep within the hour. It’s up to you.”) – always played in a longsleeved shirt.

The importance of sleeve length was brought home to me during a recent six-team, round-robin tournament in Germany, in which I was an active participant. On paper, as on most other surfaces, our team was staring the customary lost cause in the face. Having forgotten more about football than we had ever known anyway, and at an age where we had developed love-handles but lost the urge to use them, spend more time shaving our nostrils and ears than our lower jaws and are forced to rely on the ‘Alan Gilzean-after-a-night-in-the gutter’ look as our token concession to footballer fashion, we were about to be slaughtered by young, slim, smooth-skinned, hairy-headed opponents.

But it was the playing surface – cinder – that caused the worm to turn. There must be a reason for the existence of cinder football pitches, just as there must have been a reason for the existence of concrete children’s playgrounds. Unfortunately, although the combination of laws of gravity, uncoordinated patrons and astronomical hospital bills caused the authorities to see sense and abolish the latter, no such legislation was passed for the former, and they continue to abound in Germany.

In an effort to ease overcrowding in prisons, penal reformers were rumoured to have drawn up plans to force convicted criminals to play for ninety minutes on a cinder pitch as an alternative to six months in prison, but it floundered in the wake of protests from human rights’ organizations, and even the most severe judges were known to recommend the more lenient custodial sentence.

If watered with a high pressure water cannon 24 hours a day for a year, a cinder pitch is just about playable; if not, one might as well play on the floor of a giant bottle bank. The lasting damage to the skin caused by slight contact with the surface could only be equalled by an afternoon inside a blast furnace, and anybody attempting a sliding tackle causes the game to be held up for ten minutes while bob-a-job boy scouts collect the slivers of thigh and buttock in plastic buckets. In short, it is the Tommy Smith of football pitches.

And it was due to said surface that our opponents, clad in layer upon layer of protective clothing that would have been pilloried even by an overly-cautious beekeeper, noticed our playing attire. Owing to a lack of foresight that would have landed any of us on the short list for an influential post in the purchasing department of Blackburn Rovers, we had turned up wearing shorts, ankle socks and a dappled collection of T-shirts, singlets, vests and, in one inexcusable case, a short-sleeved, synthetic blouse with buttons all the way down. With a Party Seven under our arms, we would have looked more like a 1960s works outing to Margate than a football team, but it shocked the opposition into something resembling humility. They began pointing, tugging at their own sleeves, shaking their heads in blank incomprehension and, by the time kick-off arrived, their overweening youthful arrogance had given way to a timorousness formerly reserved for opponents of Norman Hunter.

The outcome of the tournament is of little relevance, not least because we came last. Nonetheless, the double-figure defeats that everybody had anticipated never came. Our opponents, whether out of politeness or fear, avoided bodily contact of any description, picked us up and dusted us off when we fell over, slapped us heartily on the back when it was all over and, for all I know, now spend every waking hour envying the weeping elbows, bloodied knees and mutilated thighs that we came away with.

Norman Hunter would not have lasted five minutes in our team. But it is pointless speculating about what might have been, about whether he would have done it in his pants in a head-to-head with Ron Harris if he hadn’t been wearing a wincyette long-sleeved number at the time, about whether short-sleeves would have stopped him from crying like a baby after his mistake against Poland prevented England from going on to win the World Cup in 1974.

It’s the future that matters. And therein lies the problem: the Continentals have rumbled us. The awe in which they held the British combative style has disappeared. Not only have we bought half their players but, as demonstrated by Croatia during Euro 96 and various teams in the early European rounds this season, they have discovered that they can mix it as well, if need be. The only way to out-hard them now is to go one step further. Pitches must be liberally sprinkled with gravel, shirtsleeves must be shortened, the thickness of the fabric must be reduced. Better still, we should take a leaf out of the book of many British holidaymakers abroad and resort to playing in ‘skins’.

The decision will not be well-received, skin grafts will be necessary and several cases of hypothermia may well be reported. A winter of discontent lies before us. No matter. Life is not fair, never has been and never will be. Wrongs must be righted, reputations must be salvaged, cans must be carried. Norman Hunter was allowed to live a lie for too long, and the sooner his spectre is exorcized, the better it will be for all of us.

From WSC 117 November 1996. What was happening this month