We have all at some point in our lives smashed the ball home from ten yards out against a rubbish keeper and deluded ourselves that it was a volley Van Basten would have been proud of. We have all immensely regretted sliding full-pelt on astroturf. We have all grimaced from a stitch five minutes in and vowed to cut out the takeaways.
According to a 2014 survey there are over one and a half million of us who play 5-a-side with 30,000 teams competing in organised small sided leagues but when the benefits are weighted up it’s a small wonder why that colossal figure isn’t even higher. Playing 5-a-side unites us by making club allegiances redundant. It gets us fitter while offering up the chance to mimic our heroes. It extends our social circles and often leads to a pint or two on a night of the week when you’d otherwise yawn through Newsnight with a hot beverage. It’s also – and this should never be under-valued – an ace laugh.
To some it remains an occasional pastime: Barry from work mentions his team are a man short and you step into the fray wheezing in shorts that have seen slimmer days. To others it is a way of life and after reading James Brown’s Above Head Height it’s fair to say that the former NME and GQ editor and founder of Loaded very much falls into the latter camp.
Written in a highly engaging conversational style this is part autobiography, part celebration of amateur footy and considering the author plays several times a week and attributes playing to helping kick his addictions into touch the two strands dovetail seamlessly throughout. Brown writes candidly and charmingly, taking us through a life-long love affair that began on the streets of Headingley (with Leeds legend Alan Clarke a neighbour no less) to nutmegging David Baddiel in a weekly game. In between friendships are forged – with Brown perfectly illustrating the difference between ‘real’ mates and 5-a-side friends with some relationships lasting longer than marriages despite not even knowing their surnames – and a multitude of sweaty socks are thrown into the laundry basket: if you’ve played down your local leisure centre even just the once this is a book that you’ll find yourself nodding along in recognition to on countless occasions.
Frankly it is worth buying for the fabulous anecdotes alone but what really hits home is here, finally, is a book that gives football beyond the floodlights the respect that it deserves. And then some. By exploring the ‘physical, mental, ritual, and social’ aspects of 5-a-side Brown has produced a bible for the casual kickabout.
Now then, who is up for going in goal on Monday night? Barry is on his hols.
Above head height by James Brown is published by Quercus and is available here.