Seriously muddy pitches, heavy leather balls and builders’ boots were regarded as normal by the Saturday afternoon entertainers of old.


If there’s one thing, other than money, that footballers who played for buttons in the 1950s and ’60s envy their modern counterparts for it’s the pitches they play on nowadays. Oh yes, and the balls and boots, too.

‘It’s a different game from when I played,’ Roy Wood, Leeds United’s fine goalkeeper in the Fifties, says. ‘For a start, the playing surface is virtually the same every week. I look at the television and they’re playing on a blinking billiard table.

‘I remember the Chelsea ground. If I stood in one spot for two minutes my feet would start sinking in.’

‘Stamford Bridge was always a bog,’ Terry Neill, once a stalwart of Arsenal teams, recalls. ‘Upton Park was like a beach by the end of September but at least after Ron Greenwood went there as manager it was like a well-rolled beach.’

‘You look at White Hart Lane today and the pitch is immaculate. It is unbelievable and it will be like that at the end of the season,’ Cliff Jones, Spurs’ dashing winger, says. ‘When we played, at the start of the season the pitch was OK, come autumn it wasn’t too bad, come the winter and it was fuckin’ awful.’

But mud was not the only problem. Pitches had quirks. Bolton’s was the most notorious. It used to be the widest in the Football League and was cambered so that from one touchline you could not see the other one. The pitch was surrounded by a gravel running track and a three-foot drop, known as the moat.

The bottom of the moat is where many a winger’s mazy run came to an end, notably when ushered into it by Tommy Banks and Roy Hartle, Bolton’s uncompromising fullback pairing.

Neill remembers another way in which Bolton’s pitch created problems for opponents: ‘When Brian Pilkington, a five-foot-nothing, tricky little winger, was taking a corner he’d disappear down this slope and then all of a sudden he’d come up in instalments and the ball would come over… it was one of the greatest tactics ever.’

The ancients are almost as abusive about the ball they used as the pitches. ‘When I was at Chesterfield,’ Bill Leivers, who went on to play for Manchester City, says, ‘they would take the old leather T-ball, fasten a brick to it and put it in the plunge bath with enough water to cover it. This was on Friday, ready for the game on Saturday. So it weighed half a ton to start with.

‘They used to do that and people just won’t believe it. I don’t know why they did it. I never queried why they did it but they did it. If you headed it it knocked your damned head off.’

The logic behind giving the ball a bath would be interesting to know. The fact is that it was only when it was soaked that the old leather ball was heavier than the non-absorbent synthetic leather ball used now. The dry weight has remained at 14-16oz (410-450 grams) since 1937. Which may surprise some, particularly old footballers, but hardly explains why anyone would want to dip a match ball in a plunge bath.

Invariably, given the nature of English winters, the leather ball did absorb some moisture even without a pre-match dousing, which may mean heading has become safer. Time will tell.

As Dave Whelan, a Blackburn Rovers player before he became known as the owner of Wigan Athletic, points out, the weight of a leather ball when wet was not its only unwelcome characteristic.

‘In my day,’ he says, ‘not only did the leather balls become much heavier by taking water in, they had big, protruding laces in them. If you caught that lace on your head it would hurt, cut you even. Bang. But you had no option. The ball now is a constant weight. It doesn’t matter if it’s raining or whatever – the ball doesn’t get any heavier.’

The synthetic ball with its smooth surface also behaves differently. Wood, a goalkeeper who knew where he stood with the old leather ball, says: ‘I think a lot of goals today are scored by accident because with the ball they use anything can happen.

‘The old ball was a different kettle of fish altogether. If some of them had to play with the old ball on a muddy ground we’d see how good they are. They wouldn’t be able to do all the tricks they do today, back-heeling and God knows what.’

Boots have undergone the greatest change in the kit players wear. The heavy, natural materials once used to make shirts, shorts and socks were abandoned long ago, but this was mere window dressing compared to the effect that modifications to footwear would have.

The boots England played in at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil would not have looked out of place on a building site. And three years later before the Hungary match at Wembley the England captain Billy Wright was deriding the Hungarians before kick-off for wearing boots that looked as though they came from a fashionable shoe shop.

Bolton’s policy was to allow each player one pair of what would now be regarded as ludicrously heavy boots. These had to be purchased from Albert Wood’s sports shop in the centre of town – and any player paying more than two pounds for a pair risked the wrath of the club secretary, who scrutinised receipts.

‘At Chesterfield they gave you a pair of boots twelve months in advance,’ Leivers says. ‘So you had two pairs of boots, one that you were wearing and another pair that you had to wear now and again and they were for the following season.

‘Some of them had metal toecaps inside. Totally different from the carpet slippers they wear nowadays.’

What we played was football,’ Wood says, ‘what they play today ought to be given a different name.’

This is an edited extract from When Footballers Were Skint by Jon Henderson / @hendojon published by Biteback Publishing