I refused to join the cub scouts until my parents told me they had a football (soccer) team that played in a league against other cub teams in the north Birmingham area.
I was a regular starter and played on the right wing because I was good at dribbling, passing and crossing. We used to play every Saturday morning come rain, hail or sunshine. My brother also joined the cubs and was often a substitute for our team because he was 18 months younger than me. His time would come during the following season when I would be too old to play for the team.
Halfway through the season, we had won most of our games and were still in a knockout cup competition for all the teams in the city of Birmingham. We didn’t get many injuries after that, so for the second half of the season, we had more or less the same starting eleven every week.
Once the winter was over, the fields became smoother, which suited our passing game. Like last year’s team, we ended up winning the league, but for the first time in our club’s history, we had made it into the last four of the Birmingham Cup.
The semi-final was tough, the opposition’s defence was strong, but so was ours, and as full-time approached, the score was still 0-0. In the last minute, I whipped in a corner from the right just above head height, and our centre forward, Peter Smith out-jumped everyone and headed the ball downwards. Their goalie never got near the ball, and it bounced on their goal line rising to hit the back of the net. We were through to the final!
All our games took place on large playing fields with several football pitches crammed next to each other, so I was excited to discover that the final would take place in a stadium.
Soon after arriving at the ground, we walked around the pitch to get a feel for it. There was a stand on all four sides – plenty of room for all our friends and relatives to fit in and get a good view of the game.
We were sitting in the changing rooms having just put on our shiny new kits when our manager, Akela, began his pre-match talk.
‘Do you remember how tough the semi-final was? Well this team will be even better because they also made it to the final,’ he said before pausing for his point to sink in.
‘That doesn’t mean we can’t win – if every one of you plays at your best, you know we can beat anyone. Right?’ We all stood up and cheered in agreement. By now, my whole body was tingling.
‘And if you don’t play at your best today, then you never will. You wanna know why?’
We looked at each other. I had no idea where he was going with this one.
‘Because,’ he added, ‘I’ve just heard that the trophy will be presented to the winners by Ray Graydon!’
There was a look of absolute amazement on all our young faces. This Aston Villa legend was coming to watch us play? Like me, he was a goal-scoring winger and he played for the team I supported. So, if I was ever going to get a winners’ medal, I wanted my hero to present it to me.
We were absolutely buzzing as we shuffled down the corridor towards the sideline, before running onto the pitch to the cheers of our supporters. Our captain won the coin toss, and decided to play with the afternoon sun behind us, so it would be shining in their goalkeeper’s eyes for the first half.
This meant they would kick off. We were playing with two wingers, a centre forward and two inside forwards. We had never played against this team before, so had no idea what to expect. Five of us were standing along the centre line when they kicked off. They casually played the ball backwards, and all five of us sprinted at them like hungry tigers.
The opposition didn’t know what had hit them. They passed the ball around like a hot potato, until one of us intercepted a pass, and then the ball came to me. I played it on the ground right through the middle dissecting their defence. Our centre forward, Peter Smith, accelerated past their defenders to get to the ball first, and then found himself one on one with their goalie. I wasn’t sure if he would go around the keeper to the left or to the right, but I needn’t have worried because he just smashed the ball first time, and it flew into the top corner.
There were big cheers all around the stadium. Their players dropped their heads and we congratulated each other as we jogged back to our half, pumped with excitement and enthusiasm, still not quite able to believe what had just happened.
As the game went on, we continued to press the opposition, closing them down very fast, forcing them into making mistakes. About ten minutes later, we won a corner on the left. The ball ricocheted around the penalty area until one of their defenders tried to clear it. Unfortunately for him, he sliced the ball past his own keeper into the net. He slumped to the ground with his head in his hands. It was then I knew luck was on our side that day.
After half an hour of constantly attacking them, the ball was passed to me on the right wing. I cut inside my marker and moved forward into the space just outside of their penalty area. Looking up, I could see some teammates free to my left and right, but as things were going so well, I thought, why not?
Their keeper was slightly off his line, so I just hit the ball as hard and high as I could. It flew over the top of everyone and glanced the underside of the bar on its way into the back of the net. I raised my arm and ran away, just like Ray Graydon did every time he scored. My teammates chased after me and jumped on me as we created a big pile-on near the corner flag.
Soon after, the ref blew his whistle for half time, and as we walked towards the tunnel, I remember passing the happy faces of my friends and family.
In the changing room, we were laughing and joking when Akela walked in smiling. However, he then slammed the door shut, which made us all turn around, and growled, ‘If you go out for the second half with this attitude, you won’t be the first team to let a three-goal lead slip.’
The smiles on our faces collapsed. We were expecting congratulations.
‘The job is only half done,’ he continued, ‘you need to rediscover that hunger you had at the start of the game, because by the time their manager has finished with them, I can guarantee they will be coming out with all guns firing.
‘Yeah, he’s right,’ our captain said. ‘The first half was good, but we need to lift our game because they certainly will.’
Akela added, ‘I hear there are scouts from both Villa and Blues here for the second half, so now’s the time to show them just how good you are.’
The attitude in the room completely changed. No laughing now. Just a real desire to show everyone how good we could be. We stood up and completed a loud chant in unison. Now we were focussed and ready to take the opposition apart.
The second half passed quickly, and we went on to win 10-0. It was Roy of Rovers stuff. I completed my hat-trick by scoring another two goals, but the man-of-the-match award rightly went to Peter, who had scored five.
I was pleased my brother had come on for the last ten minutes, as it meant he would also get a medal. As I approached Ray Graydon, I felt very nervous. He passed me my medal with his left hand and shook my right, and then paused. He looked me in the eye and with his calming west-country accent, said, ‘Well played lad, you did well!’
It meant so much to me. Even though I was only 11 years old, I knew I would savour this moment for the rest of my life. After scoring a hat-trick in a 10-0 cup final victory in front of all my friends, family and footballing hero, I thought to myself, ‘Life probably won’t get much better than this!’