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‘We can only use this on grass' - the days when we treasured a proper leather ball

In an extract from his new book Wonder Boy, Dave Hannigan recalls the joy of a new leathera.

MR HEALY STOOD up from his desk with a folder in his hand, calling fifth class to order.

Then he started to talk rather strangely about milk and cows and all matters dairy.

We were bemused until he announced that there was to be an essay writing competition sponsored by An Bord Bainne: The Milk Board. My ears pricked up. I could write. At least I thought I could. I was ten, too young to spell hubris, old enough to feel it.

And I’d heard of this competition before. I’d been waiting for this day since my older brother had come home three years earlier with the eyes-widening story of the boy in his class who won first prize – an actual, real, authentic leather soccer ball. Or, as we called it, a leathera.

I sat up straighter in my chair as the teacher continued his lecture. Slides of cows and farms and milk floats flashed up on the screen from the overhead projector. The way that I remember that phase of my education is that there were always slides about something. On this day, it just happened to be milk and cows. Cows and milk.

To suburban kids who’d only ever seen farms blurring past our car windows on the way to the seaside in summer, this was dull and boring and badly in need of somebody livening it up. I was going to be that somebody.

At some point, Mr Healy started to explain the milking process and, over a visual of an old woman coaxing milk from a cow’s udders into a bucket, he uttered the word ‘teat’. He moved on swiftly but I couldn’t. That four-letter word was all it took. I dissolved into a laughter so organic I didn’t even bother to try to stifle it. Teat. It sounded almost like, well, you know…

It was as if somebody had tickled my funny bone. The giggling was uncontrollable and contagious enough that it soon spread, rippling its way around the room. Had the others found it funny too? Or were they laughing at me laughing?

Or were they guffawing at how angry Mr Healy now looked? Possibly all of the above.

He stopped speaking, put away his script, and bore down on my desk. Plenty of others had joined in the merry chorus as it grew, but he knew I was the instigator of the whole kerfuffle. I was the boy in the sights of one very angry teacher.

Funny thing is, I wasn’t the class clown. I hadn’t the courage or the wit to fulfill that role. I left the jokes that cracked up the room and tormented Mr Healy to braver and sharper kids.

Well, until this day.

There were no violent reprisals. Mr Healy wasn’t like that.

He was a wonderful teacher, if not, on this particular day, one inclined to tolerate any juvenile carry-on from me. As was his wont with miscreants, he simply sent me from the room. A cursory wave of his right hand towards the door. His version of the red card. I slinked off the field, my head now slumped into my shoulders, my cheeks reddening at the embarrassing nature of my dismissal. I was bang to rights. It didn’t enter my head to protest the decision. I knew the rules. I broke them. I had to pay the price.

While my classmates spent the next hour learning more and more and more about milk and the dairy industry, I stewed outside in the corridor. My own private prison. I leaned against the wall like a weary lag wishing the end of his sentence would come quicker. I distracted myself by goofing around, swinging out of the nearby coat racks, every Lord Anthony jacket inevitably damp and smelling of rain.

At the sound of footsteps, I drew one of them around me and hid lest I be discovered by the principal, Mr Lynch. I did not want to explain the nature of my offence to a higher power.

Mostly, though, I just seethed out there because I wanted to win that competition. Badly.

Sure, milk was about as dull a subject as I could imagine but here was a chance to take home a new soccer ball. A leathera. That opportunity trumped everything. On Clashduv Road we had kicked every type of sphere around in our street games, but never, ever, a proper leather football.

How badly did I covet one? Sometimes, when my mother would get groceries at Roches Stores in the Wilton Shopping Centre, she’d deposit me at the door of Lifestyle Sports. There, I’d often stand in front of the leather balls, for both soccer and Gaelic football, that they had perched on holders attached to the wall. They were up there almost like trophies.

If no one was looking I might take one down, bounce it on the floor, and squeeze it between my hands the way goalies did before launching it down the field. Very occasionally, I’d even hold it up to my face and smell it. Only occasionally. I didn’t want anybody working there to think I was weird or anything.

I was just a kid who dreamed of one day owning a leathera of his own.

Now, it looked like I’d blown my chance to do just that. As the duration of my exile lengthened, I began to seriously worry that I might be prohibited from even entering the competition. It was not a thought I wanted to entertain yet the more I ruminated about it the more I realised Mr Healy would be entitled to do just that.

After all, I knew soccer players in England got banned from subsequent matches after every red card. Would the same justice system apply here? I worried unduly. Mr Healy was a fair man. Once I was reintegrated back into the general population that day, he handed me the same hefty booklet of government-sponsored dairy propaganda that he’d given to everybody else. I was back in the game. Indeed, I was back in the game with a heightened sense of purpose, like an embittered sub who’d missed out on the opportunity to start. Now, I was a frustrated player determined to prove the manager wrong, more up than ever to pen something about milk.

It mattered little that the sum of my knowledge of the liquid was this – I hated the sight, smell and chalky taste of the stuff, especially when it came in the subsidized cartons given to us by the school. I hated that cow juice almost as much as I loved the thought of one day owning my own leathera. I wrote and wrote and wrote.

Weeks passed. Maybe months. Enough time anyway that I’d completely forgotten about milk and essays about it. Then one damp morning (in my memory they were all damp and overcast), Mr Healy beckoned me out of the classroom to the corridor. The same place I’d spent my quarantine during his bovine lecture. This time though, the mood was different.

He was smiling before he even started speaking. I could see in his hands a slim, glossy brochure of some kind. He held it up as if in affirmation and he said, ‘You won.’

I have no memory of what I even wrote in that essay. I just know I wrote enough to convince some judge somewhere that mine was better than everybody else’s in the class.

‘Have a look through that,’ he said, beaming as he handed over a catalogue showing a host of prizes selected by An Bord Bainne.

I only recall two of the items on offer. At least I only had eyes for two that day: a soccer ball and a camera. In my house in 1981 we didn’t have a working camera. There was a damaged Polaroid Instamatic that had been put on a bookshelf in the living room a couple of Christmases earlier after causing too much frustration when it kept malfunctioning. But that was more or less it when it came to photographic equipment and the Hannigans.

Briefly, I considered opting for the camera. Very briefly. We were not the kind of family that captured every significant moment on film. We were the kind who stood reluctantly and stiffly for portrait photographers in breezy church yards before First Holy Communion and Confirmation ceremonies.

My father had watched too many Westerns and read enough Zane Grey novels to regularly trot out the old line about Native Americans believing every photograph stole a little from your soul. He seemed to take his lead from that. He was obviously part-Cherokee from way back.

‘I want the ball, please,’ I said, after taking all of maybe 45 seconds to think it over.

‘Wise decision,’ replied Mr Healy. He wasn’t surprised. He coached us in Gaelic football in his spare time and the very first week I sat in his class I impressed him by naming the Celtic goalscorers (Tommy Gemmell and Stevie Chalmers) in the 1967 European Cup final. He knew my inclinations.

The ball arrived two weeks later. It had black and white octagonal patches, and it was as beautiful as I’d imagined it when going to sleep each night dreaming of its arrival. There was no brand name on it. Never mind.

I was too young to care about that or to know what it signified regarding quality and the price. It mattered only that it was black and white and greatly resembled the ball caressed and pinged about by Pelé and his pals in the Giants of Brazil video that I’d recently seen at my Uncle Eddie’s house over in Ballyphehane. And it mattered that it was leather. A leathera.

Well, what I thought was leather at the time. It was actually some sort of synthetic fibre, a kind of ersatz leather, but, hey, when you’re ten the style is much more important than the substance. And, unlike every other ball we used to hone our talents, it wasn’t made of an especially unforgiving version of hard industrial plastic. This was almost like a real ball.

‘We can only use this on grass,’ I declared to my friends that day. ‘Otherwise, we’ll ruin it.’

It is a measure of how much we prized new things that everybody agreed with this stipulation. A boon like this was indeed to be treasured. Knocking it about on the harsh, stony surface of the concrete square that abutted our houses and hadn’t yet been colonised for car parking would shred the ball in weeks. Using it on grass would prolong its life for who knows how long. Maybe until one of the younger kids on the road could win a future edition of the essay contest.

And the ball did last. We had it through the 1982 World Cup and, it remained stubbornly inflated and usable even when the 1984 European Championships came around. At various points in its life span, when the black and white patches began to peel and fade, I tried to stave off the tell-tale signs of ageing and overuse.

Source: jazzforall/YouTube

I sat at the kitchen table one night with a heavy black marker that I’d found in my sisters’ room and a bottle of Tipp-Ex correctional fluid. With the determination of somebody attempting to restore a great work of art, I tried to colour the ball back into something resembling its original beauty and almost got high from inhaling the fumes.

My restoration job succeeded too – at least until the first time we kicked it around again and the ‘new’ coat came off on our shoes. After that, I never tried to clean it up again, accepting that it was to see out its days with every patch turned eventually to darkest grey, the colour transformation a fitting monument to how many hours it had served us.

And it served us, oh, so well. It felt different from the notoriously hard plastic balls we lashed around the square. It stayed inflated longer and it didn’t have difficult ridges on it like the David O’Leary ball that Texaco offered to get our fathers to buy their petrol by collecting stamps in a book.

The leathera seemed easier to juggle and felt gentler on the head. It was, as we kept reminding ourselves every time we contemplated its magnificence, almost like a real ball. Like they’d use in a real game. Maybe that’s why we persuaded ourselves it made us play better.

We ran into difficulties that the professionals we worshipped never encountered. One of our favourite venues for the leathera was a swatch of green that stretched the length of Riverview Estate. It was perfect for soccer because some of the trees that grew there had thick trunks that made for ideal goalposts. Even better, there was a six-foot metal fence behind the trees. If you scored, the ball rebounded directly off it and right into your path.

No running miles to fetch it. Of course, that was if you scored…

If you didn’t score and the goalie didn’t save it, there was a chance the ball would fly over the fence and right into the Glasheen Stream that meandered by on the other side of the barrier. That’s where the trouble started. That’s where we turned into intrepid bounty hunters, running along the riverbank, hurdling fallen branches like tribesmen in this urban jungle, trying to find a dry spot from which the escaping ball might be corralled and returned to safety.

Sometimes, the ball got stuck in the weeds or the debris that made this one of those down-at-heel suburban Irish waterways never destined to attract tourists or feature in the pages of glossy magazines. An upturned shopping cart here. The front seat of a Ford Capri there.

The detritus was varied and colourful and bloody annoying for aspiring soccer players needing to rescue a ball fast drifting away to obscurity. Or wherever the stream went after it passed under the small bridge that led to St Finbarr’s hurling and football club.

These sorts of obstacles ensured that there were days we spent more time hunting in the river than we did kicking the ball. Which may also explain why none of us ever made it to the top. Either that or we just didn’t have any talent.

balls The evolution of the adidas FIFA World Cup balls. Source: fluid branding

In any case, there was one particular evening when the stream wouldn’t give up the ball. We spent an hour trying and failing to reach it. But it was too far from the bank, strangled in a fresh crop of weeds. Reluctantly, we headed home, deflated, defeated, deprived of our beloved leathera, still assuring each other that we’d return the next morning to restart the rescue effort.

Morning broke wet and windy. Nobody was going anywhere to search for a ball. The rain continued. The wait went on. At one point, I was standing in the living room, staring out the window at the relentless showers, wondering, as usual, whether the dark clouds on the hill up towards the airport were on their way in or out. That’s when I thought I saw it.

A leathera that looked suspiciously like my leathera – I’d know the missing patches of white and black anywhere – in the possession of a kid from the flats next door as he sheltered from the rain in the stairwell of that complex.

I wiped the condensation from the glass and pressed my nose closer for a better look. No doubt about it. That wasn’t any ball.

It was my ball. My leathera. This boy was a year younger than me. I’d never had any run-ins with him. But, at that moment, it wouldn’t have mattered if he’d have been ten feet tall and the toughest kid in Togher (a title for which there was some serious competition). I ran out of the house. No coat. Nothing. Angry enough to be oblivious to the driving rain.

There was no great confrontation. I just blurted out words and grabbed my ball. He offered no protest. He knew it was mine.

I stormed back into the house, placed the ball safely by the back door in the kitchen. My mother shouted at me for making the floor wet and dirty, but I scarcely heard anything because my heart was thumping with excitement. The ball was back in its proper place. All was right with the world.

Soon after that, the kid, like many of our neighbours, moved from the flats to a freshly-built Cork Corporation house out in Bishopstown. I never did get to ask him how he had got the ball. Had he stomped the riverbank in the rain? Had he seen me and my friends give up the ghost the previous night and nipped in as soon as we left? Had he walked into the water just to grab it?

However he did it, he’d shown the kind of enterprise in tough circumstances that demonstrated just what a truly great prize a leathera was.

Boy Wonder is published by Gill Books, priced €14.99.

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