It was destroyed in a fire 10 years ago but I can still picture the photograph now. There we were in our brand new, especially-bought-for-the-occasion football kit. Blue shirts and cuffs, bright orange sleeves and neck trimming. Blue shorts and socks. The whole pristine ensemble was only slightly marred by the fact that, as the photo session had come as a surprise, none of us had brought our boots in. We were therefore wearing our best Clarks sensible shoes with it. Back row, left to right (standing): Mark Harris (‘keeper), Toddy, Hoppy, Andy, Big Eddie, Dean, and Mark Bristow the headmaster’s son. Front row (crouching) Munny, me, a dark haired boy who I can’t quite remember, Dave and Herbie.
At the back, standing upright and looking all the world like a cross between Dave Lee Travis and Rolf Harris (only hairier), was our coach and teacher Mr Conde, his brown jumper and trousers matching perfectly his awesome facial hair. Between me and the boy with no name, was one of those small, brown leather footballs we used to play with in those days. They would get so heavy and sodden in wet weather, it made kicking them any distance or actually getting them airborne an impossibility. In retrospect this was probably a good thing, because if any kid had actually headed one of these waterlogged medicine balls, then he would have needed immediate hospital treatment - and any, however faint, chance of passing the 11+ would have gone out the window there and then. On that bright summer’s day, however, the ball looked great: polished for the occasion, with ‘1970/71’ written in white paint across it.
The person who I really want to talk about here was the hirsute hero mentioned above - Mr Conde, a man who proved to be light years ahead of his time. He had single-handedly taken a very average bunch of 10-year-olds to the dizzy heights of the Bracknell Junior School Under-11’s Cup Final. A very big deal in Bracknell in the 1970/71 season.
Before I go on to relate how he achieved this transformation, I should put it in some historical context, so that the enormity of the thing can truly be felt. 1970 was the year of the Mexico World Cup finals. More importantly it was the year of the Brazilians. The greatest team ever. This was the year when the over-used term ‘the beautiful game’ actually had some basis in fact. For a group of 10-year-old football kids, it was pure heaven.
Nick Hornby touched on this when he said that it was a revelation to anyone brought up on a diet of English football to see things that no English player could ever do, or ever contemplate doing. Whilst this was undoubtedly true, it wasn’t the whole story.
It wasn’t just that the Brazilians could do things we couldn’t, it was the way they did them. They had supreme style, you see, and even a 10-year-old who still thought Valerie Singleton was the height of coolness could see that. It all seemed so effortless and joyous. Even their celebrations were better. I remember my Dad saying that Pele (aaah Pele) jumped higher when celebrating a goal then any of our players could when leaping and straining to reach a header. Then there was their kit: those golden shirts, blue shorts and simple yet perfect white socks. Perfection.
Even their names were better, Pele (aaah Pele), Jairzinho, Rivelino, Tostao, Carlos Alberto... they just rolled off the tongue in a way that Charlton, Storey or Clarke would never do.
The whole of the football-watching country was deeply affected by this vision of loveliness, beamed to us onto our TV screens from the other side of the world. We had just got a colour television especially for the occasion. God bless you, Dad. Everyone wanted to play like Brazil. Everyone that was, apart from Mr Conde. What he was doing whilst this mass conversion was taking place was anyone’s guess. Maybe he didn’t have a TV. Maybe he never read the sports pages. Maybe he didn’t relive the previous night’s games on the way to school. Or at lunch-time. Or on the way home. Whatever the reason, there was no way he was going to let us (to use today’s jargon) express ourselves either out on the pitch or anywhere else for that matter.
Mr Conde’s claim to greatness was simply his early appreciation of the offside rule. Fully 15 years before George Graham went to Arsenal and perfected the art of killing off another team (and any chance of entertainment), Mr Conde had perfected it on the school playing fields of Bracknell New Town. Any chance we had - corners were particularly impressive - we would charge upfield in unison, one arm raised, screaming “Offside!” like miniature woad-covered Picts storming Hadrian’s Wall, only pausing for breath at the halfway line. This invariably left the opposing team (and I mean the whole team) fully 10 or 20 yards offside. All that was then required was for Mr Conde frantically to wave his flag (remember coaches also had to run the line) looking like a demented Grizzly Adams in a stretch nylon tracksuit.
If you could have only seen his face beneath the mass of hair, then I’m sure it would have betrayed a glimmer of smug satisfaction. And it worked. Time and time again. The other teams had never come across this heinous tactic before. Some of them probably never knew that an offside rule existed. Some of the more artistic among them even cried at the unfairness of it all. The beautiful game was brutalised as we triumphantly ground out victory after victory, until the cup was almost within our grasp.
What happened in the final? We lost, of course. There was some justice after all. Wildridings Juniors, clearly the better team, beat us 2-0. I don’t know what happened to Mr Conde. Perhaps he took his belief in the importance of teamwork and discipline over flair and enjoyment into industry; maybe he joined British Leyland and helped develop the great Morris Marina. Or just maybe he remained a teacher, moved to Essex and had a crucial hand in Tony Adams’s early career.
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