There were periods in the eighties when, as a teenager, I would spend most of my evenings kicking a football about the playing field up the back. I’d nip round to my friend’s house and we’d leave by his back gate, through the woods and over a stream, emerging onto the scrubby hillside. We often saw snakes and slow worms, careful to avoid the former but brave and bold when it came to picking up the latter, thrilled by the smooth skin and flickering tongue. Once, we came upon a huge wasps’ nest and spent a stupid ten minutes trying to skelp it with the ball, when we actually managed to hit it – fleeing in terror whilst simultaneously helpless with laughter.
There were usually a few of us, sometimes just the two, and we would play repeated games of three-and-in and something called Wembley, the rules of which escape me. It was a mostly happy time, the inevitable squabbles notwithstanding, away from the troubles of school. It didn’t matter that I was a rubbish footballer – I would escape easily into a world of fantasy football. Depending on the mood, or the shirt I was wearing, I would play for Scotland or Ipswich, occasionally Celtic and, thanks to a still unexplained hand-me-down, Crystal Palace. I appeared in World Cups and Cup Finals, Scotland v England games at Hampden – big matches all. In fact, never anything less – no wet Tuesday nights in Stoke for this fantasy footballer.
The goal we played into was just a few yards from where the hill began to fall away – anything that we hit too hard would have to be chased over the edge. If we were lucky, and this always felt like the greatest treat, the nets would have been left up. Oh, the sight and wonderful sound of the ball hitting the back of the net! It felt like the real deal. And then there was the disappointment of that day each year when the goals came down – the football season was over. For six weeks it was either jumpers for goalposts or, for one magical summer in our mid teens, cricket.
We were bit older by now and there was a decent number that would turn up to play. Not enough for a full match, but enough for a good knockabout. A few played seriously and would bring kit – pads, gloves, a real ball! One of the boys even turned up with a box – not strictly necessary, but the cause of much larking about. There was never quite enough of us to set a proper field – eight of us, minus batters, bowler and wicket keeper, would leave just four. This is where Derek Pringle comes into the story.
In a hedge at the back of the pavilion (more of a concrete shed, to be honest) there was a men-at-work sign, left behind who knows how many years before. We leaned it up against a bicycle and this neat bit of ingenuity became the slip cordon. We called it Derek. Now, I have no recollection of whether the real Derek ever played in the slips (it seems unlikely, given his bowling duties) but it didn’t matter. He was a particularly cool cricketer – the first to play for England with an earring! However, I suspect the real reason we named our slip fielder Derek was nothing to do with his status, but because we thought the name was funny. Either way, in that summer of 1986 or 1987, Derek Pringle, whilst covering the duties of first, second and third slips, took hundreds and hundreds of catches.
The rule was simple – if the ball was edged and hit Derek, you were out. No discussion about whether the ball had carried or not – if it clanged, and boy, does a men-at-work sign clang when hit by a cricket ball, you were out. It was also hilariously funny – the combination of bewilderment on the batsman’s face and the comedy of the clang was a perfect thing and something that never dulled.
And so we whiled away one of those lazy summers of childhood. By mid August the goalposts were back up, Derek was back in the hedge and football ruled the roost once more. I don’t know what happened to our Derek; maybe he’s still there. By the time the following summer came around, the new seemingly sophisticated distractions of beer, girls and parties were commanding our attention. The quintessential sound of willow against leather, and the less traditional clang of leather against sheet metal had been supplanted by the clink of glasses. We had moved on.