Ian McMillan: Well, it had the bloke from the church laughing

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IT was like a sudden solar eclipse: one minute it was bright sunshine and the next minute it was pitch black. Pitch black with stars. It was like when you’re rushing out of the house on a winter’s day and you put your balaclava on back to front; sudden darkness again. It was like a power cut. It was like walking into a room with black walls and blacked-out windows. And it hurt.

It must have been about 1963 and for some reason I’d gone with my mam to watch a football match in what we called The Bottom Field. It was near The Bottom Club, not far from Low Valley School, in The Valley. We had utilitarian names in our part of Yorkshire in those days, although The Top of Dodworth Bottoms took some beating, as did The Other Side of Jump.

It was teatime on a school day and we’d wandered down Snape Hill and stood by the side of the pitch watching the game. It wasn’t a school match: there were big blokes playing, some straight from the pit, some with silky skills, some with bellies that bounced like melons. A man next to me, who I recognised as a quiet bloke who sat near us in church, kept shouting “Gee him some bleb!” which made no sense then and makes no sense now. The whole match is seared on my memory, or rather smeared on it like butter on a toasted teacake, because of what happened next.

There was a bit of a melee (what my Uncle Ted Fullilove used to call a mell) on the halfway line, and a midfielder who looked like Desperate Dan’s harder brother Desperate Nigel kicked the ball as hard as he could. Let’s all remember that in those days the ball wasn’t the light and gentle sphere it is now. It was what they called a casey, a hard leather lump hand-built by the women at the football factory in Darfield. It had mass, it had weight. On this occasion it had weight plus mass plus velocity, which made it into a lethal weapon as any professor of physics will tell you.

The ball sped through the air at the speed of light. It homed in, like an Ian-seeking missile, on my innocent face. I can remember people shouting “Watch thissen kid!” and “Get thi eead darn!” Everything seemed to go into slow motion, as apparently happens when you move at the speed of light. The ball approached me at walking pace, strolling in the air. It got bigger and bigger in my field of vision. It took up the whole of the sky. It was, indeed, like a sudden solar eclipse: one minute it was bright sunshine and the next minute it was pitch black. And it hurt.

The football got me full in the face. I was knocked from the Top of Dodworth Bottoms to the Other Side of Jump. The man from church said, in another of his colourful phrases, “that’s cabbaged him!” I saw constellations and my head spun like one of those things posh people use to wash lettuce in. The game stopped. The referee sounded his whistle again and again, a shrill symphony of uselessness. Apparently the first words I said afterwards were “Is my face flat?” Which made the bloke from church laugh. I’m glad he found it funny.

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