Rossi & Me

No, this is nothing to do with the Quo frontman.

I mean this Rossi:

I was very saddened to learn this week of the death of former Italian striker Paolo Rossi. Yes, I was sad when former Tottenham legend Maradona and greatest player in the world died recently – and before any of you call me out on that, he played one game for us, Ossie Ardiles’ testimonial, but (and this is aimed at fans of UK teams only) that’s one more than he played for your team, and here’s the proof:

– but Rossi was a footballer who meant more to me than any other when I was young.

I wrote here about how in 1981 I first came to support Tottenham, and how that decision from a boy who had never even been to London at that point (other than Heathrow), let alone North London, was galvanised by them retaining the FA Cup in 1982, and then my love of the game blossomed as I spent a summer watching the first World Cup finals that I properly remember.

Up until then, my engagement with football had been limited; I enjoyed playing in PE and at breaktime, and I was kind of alright at it, but not good enough to get into the school team.

At junior school, I once decided to combine my love of football with my love of showing off – and, let’s be honest, my undying love of the sound of my own voice – when I persuaded one of the teachers to sit on the touchline with a microphone and cassette recorder, and record a commentary of the school’s team playing, a recording which, had anyone ever actually listened it, would have been one of the dullest 90 minutes in recorded history.

For whilst I knew all of the players on our team, I had overlooked the fact that I knew nobody on the opposing team. This was in the days before players had names on the back of their shirts, which would have helped me enormously. So when my school team didn’t have the ball, which was often, my commentary was reduced to me saying things as incisive as “…the player from the other team has passed it to someone else on his team…and he’s passed it to…um…somebody else on his team…they’ve still got it…and…oh! Yes!…No…they’ve still got the ball…”.

I’m fairly sure I realised the hopelessness of my task before the end of the first half, and then just didn’t bother speaking for the second, but kept the microphone pressed to my lips to make it look like I was.

If memory serves, I listened to the first ten minutes when I got home, decided it should never see the light of day again, taped the charts over it, and told my teacher that the sound quality was poor, there was too much wind and you couldn’t make out what I was saying.

There was one school match which I did play in though, a Boys v Girls match, when I would have been nine or ten, I think. This had been set up, if memory serves, because there was one girl at our school, Joanne Reid, who was really rather good at football, but was not allowed to play for the school team for the simple reason that she wasn’t a boy. Looking back, I think this was to appease her. Gregory’s Girl had probably just been shown on the telly for the first time, too. None of the boys from the school team were permitted to play, which meant that I got a run-out for the Boys team (obviously). The game pretty much came down to a shoot-out between Joanne and I as to who could score the most goals. I scored 5. I don’t remember exactly how many Joanne got, but it was definitely more than me. About 8, I think. Probably more.

At around the same time, I was chosen as captain as Captain for our local Cub Scout team. In our first game, we managed to lose by an impressive 19-0. I don’t recall us ever playing a second game.

By 1982, I had moved to secondary school, where the pattern continued. I was still a just-a-bit-above-average player, but not good enough to break into the school team. I knew my place.

But in the summer of 1982, I was mesmerised by the performances of Paolo Rossi for Italy, especially in the games leading up to and including the final. He played (but didn’t score) in the 2-1 win over reigning champions Argentina; scored a hat-trick against Brazil in the next game (one of the greatest games in the Cup’s history), which took the Italians through to a semi-final against Poland where he scored twice, and then on to the World Cup final against West Germany, where Rossi scored the first goal in a 3-1 win.

Here’s a summary of his World Cup appearances (including some from 1978):

A year or so later, I was approached by a lad I was at school with, Martin Jones, who told me his Dad, John, and a couple of his mates, Dave Clayton and Colin Tomsett, were putting together an Under-15s team, and that he thought I might want to come along and see what they thought of me. Martin was one of the kids who was one of the stalwarts of the school team, and so he saw me play in PE lessons, so to have him approach me about this gave me a huge amount of confidence. Sensibly, I didn’t enquire as to how many others he had approached before he got to me.

I went to the first training session, which I remember being absolutely knackered after about ten minutes of. John, Colin and Dave thought enough of me to give me a place in the team. My best attribute back then was that I was quick, and I was picked to start in the right-wing position. (You can make your own political allegiance joke here if you like.)

There was just one problem: up until then, I had been playing football in trainers. I needed football boots, and fast.

Luckily, I stumbled across this advert one day:

I had to have them, and after no small amount of negotiation with my parents, I soon owned my very own pair of Rossi boots (the Rossi Specials, middle left in the picture).

And what a job they did for me: I scored 16 goals in that debut season.

Occasionally, I would play centre forward, when our usual one, Matt Jarvis, was injured. His dad was a journalist at a local paper and so every week he would come and watch, and then we’d get a couple of inches in the paper later in the week. He had the same problem as I had when doing that commentary years earlier: he only knew the lads on our team’s name. But this time it worked in my favour, as consequently, each review mentioned the names of the goal scorers on our team, and I have no shame whatsoever in telling you that, almost forty years later, I have one of those articles framed on my wall, for it mentions the glorious occasion that we beat in-form hot favourites for the league St Ives 3-2 away from home.

I scored twice that day, and I still remember both goals like it was yesterday. I was playing centre forward that day, and for my first I nut-megged one of the central defenders – who was so feared and renowned as a bit of a hard man that he was the only person on any opposing we knew the name of: Darren Lyons – and slotted home.

The next time I was in his vicinity, he growled at me “You got lucky that time. Do that to me again, and I’ll break your fucking legs.”

So I did it to him again for my second, just to prove the first time wasn’t a fluke.

“What did I say I was going to do to you?” he hissed at me.

“Break my fucking legs,” I replied, laughing in his frothing angry face “but you’ll have to catch me first”

When I woke up in hospital….

KIDDING!

We progressed to the finals of one of the cup competitions, and again Matt was unable to play, so I was shifted to centre forward. It was a tight game of few chances, but in the second half I found myself running through on goal, with the ball at my feet, nobody else anywhere near me, just the goalkeeper to beat, having beaten the offside trap.

The goalkeeper came out to meet me and close the space down, but I managed to poke the ball underneath his body as he fell, trying to block exactly that from happening. It sped towards goal and I stopped to admire it, knowing that I’d got enough pace on it to prevent anybody from being able to catch it and clear it.

And then it hit a divot, and bounced the wrong side of the post.

The game went to extra time. We lost 1-0. If only I had carried on my run, I could have side-passed it into an empty net and, frankly, been a hero.

But I didn’t, and pathetic as it sounds, I still wake up in a cold sweat about that miss.

I rarely made the first team the following year, blighted by a massive knock in my confidence after that match – I only made a few appearances as substitute, and managed just one goal all season (it was a 35-yard screamer, mind) but it wasn’t just my confidence that had gone: so had my magic Paolo boots.

After a season of me refusing to clean them properly for fear of washing away the magic I felt they had helped me create (and also, I was a growing lad, so they simply didn’t fit me anymore), they were replaced by what I considered a vastly inferior pair, which I would describe as “like playing with a Bakewell tart strapped to each toe”.

And that was the end of my footballing career, snuffed out before it ever got started. Sure, over the years games of 5-a-side with mates followed, and a brief stint in a works team when I lived in Cardiff, by which time I was much older, fatter and slower and had been moved back to a central midfield role.

But for that one season, for 16 goals (and untold assists), and for your magical boots, I thank you, Paolo.

This is for you; try to imagine it’s a football singing to you:

More soon.