Sunday, 8 January 2017

Jimmy McGrory’s Boots

Jimmy McGrory’s Boots

The first day at a new school can be a bit daunting but I don’t recall feeling too worried on that bright windy August morning when I went to my third Primary School in as many years.  My Mum called me into the kitchen and held out her hand for one of my shoes. I handed it to her and watched as she skilfully cut a piece of linoleum from the kitchen floor and fitted it neatly inside the shoe. She did the same for the second one and then looked at me saying, ‘There, that will keep the stones out until I get some money for a new pair.’ I nodded and slipped my rather scruffy shoes on before sitting down to a jam sandwich and a mug of hot, sweet tea.

I ran down the hill to the school with the bell already ringing and joined the children of class 7. We lined up in class groups as the Head Teacher emerged into the pale morning light to view the lines made up of cocky old hands and the nervous new recruits.  He quietened us all down before sending us in to face another year at school. I walked up the stairs with forty others to my new class. There were some rather spooky looking religious statues in the corridors, including one of St Roch with his gashed leg and mangy dog which had, what appeared to be, a roll clamped securely in its mouth.  At the top of the stairs I noticed a more reassuring statue of the Virgin Mary which seemed to be smiling encouragingly at me while simultaneously stomping on a serpent.  A scruffy boy in a hideous pink check jacket nodded towards our teacher and muttered ‘She’s O.K big man, she doesn’t like belting people.’ I nodded quietly as we entered the class. Our teacher called us to order and began reading our names from a register.

There were three new starts in the class, a thin red faced girl called Angela, a long haired sleepy looking boy called Mick, and me. The young teacher called us out to the front to introduce us to the class and being rather shy in those days, found it acutely embarrassing. We sat at big old fashioned desks with ink well holes in them, and began our work. The first day flew by and my keenness to join in the rough football at playtime soon broke the ice with my new class mates. We were all Celtic mad and I wanted to be Dalglish in our wild, 20 a side playground game. My new friend Franny was one of those boys who commentated while he played and it helped us imagine we were strutting our stuff at Celtic Park instead of the black tarmac of the playground. All in all I was quite happy with my new school. Sure I was a bit scruffy but there seemed to be plenty like me in those harder times and a few worse off, including one boy whom, I was told, wore wellies all the year round.

After a week or so at school I had a sore foot due to small stones coming in the holes in the bottom of my shoes. I told my mum, who nodded and said she would fix it for me. The next day she went to work on the linoleum as before but cut extra pieces and fitted two into each shoe with some soft material between them to cushion my feet. ‘There you go,’ she smiled ‘that should keep you comfy today.’ I set off for school a little late and despite the rain, I was feeling much more comfortable. However, as I splashed through the puddles on my way to school, I could feel the cool damp water seep into my shoes. As I made my way to the class, I left a trail of damp foot prints on the corridor floor and my shoes were making a strange squelching sound.

I entered the room and was surprised to see that my usual teacher wasn’t there. There was absolute silence in the room and everyone seemed to be staring at me. An older, stern looking lady regarded me with distaste and said, ‘And you are… ?’ I mumbled ‘Eh, Pat, Miss,’ and squelched my way to my seat.’ She looked at me for a while before calling me back out to the front of the class. ’Come here, boy,’ she said in that disdainful manner with which the arrogant addresses lesser mortals. My classmates followed the unfolding scene with mixed emotions; some were clearly enjoying my discomfort, while others looked on in pity.  ‘What is that thing sticking out from the bottom of your shoe?’ I glanced down at my soggy feet and saw that the linoleum and padding were indeed protruding from my left shoe. ‘Well?’ she said, raising her voice. ‘Lino, Miss,’ I said quietly.  She had a look of utter disgust on her face but continued with the ritual humiliation. ‘Take it out and put it into the bin,’ I tugged at the lino and it came free but to my horror I saw that the padding used by my mother was in fact a sanitary towel….  

The teacher’s eyes widened and there was an audible degree of muttering and sniggering in the class as the more worldly pupils spread the news. I dropped the damp, rather muddy, sanitary towel and lino into the bin and stared at the floor, wishing that it would open up and swallow me. ‘Sit down,’ she hissed at me. I went to my seat and we began our work amid a heavy silence.  Later, I felt a tap on my shoulder and a bleary eyed boy whispered to me, ‘Was that a fanny pad in yer shoe, Paddy?’  For once, I was lost for words.

As the leaves turned orange, the school held trials for the football team and as a keen player I put my name on the list. I was told to report with shorts and boots on the following Friday and I rushed home and begged my Mum to buy me football boots. Money was always tight, so the chance of a smart new pair of modern boots, like those which sat proudly in the Greaves sports shop window, was not an option. I had dreamed of swanning around like King Kenny in a shiny pair of modern boots but it was not to be. For the less well-off there were always other places to go. My long suffering mother dragged me through Paddy’s Market, a rough flea market which catered for those of limited means in the dear green City of Glasgow. As a child, I was always impressed by the sights, sounds and smells of the damp old market. Tinny radios blared out pop music and the smell of cooking and greasy food was everywhere. We toured the nooks and crannies of this Aladdin’s cave of junk, looking for a pair of size 7 football boots.

It looked as if we would have no luck obtaining the necessary second hand football boots when fate, in the form of a large, red faced Irishman with wild, unkempt grey hair, stepped in. He had tuned into our discussion about football boots and beckoned my mother over to his stall with a theatrical wave of his large hands. ‘Football boots is it? Sure, I have just the ting fur yer boy, missus,’ he drawled in a broad Donegal accent. He produced two pairs of boots from beneath his stall and I looked on in horror at these antiques from a bygone age. They were large leather boots with uppers which covered the ankle and toe caps which were more appropriate for a coal mine than a football field. To my dismay, the pair of pre- war monstrosities was indeed size 7.  Fifty pence changed hands and the boots were stuffed into a plastic bag and handed to me by the cheery red faced son of Erin. ‘There ye go wee man,’ he drawled ‘you’ll score a few with these tings on, they’ll make ye play like Charlie Tully!’ I somehow doubted it.

The following week in school dragged slowly by until Friday, and the football trials arrived. There were more than twenty players trying to get into the team and we all changed in the school gym before heading up to the black ash pitch behind the school. There were a few sniggers at my rather outdated boots and my classmate, Phil, looked at them and said ‘You do know it’s a fitbaw trial, don‘t you?  I mean it’s not rugby’ I made no reply and sprinted up the hill to the pitch in a clumpy sort of way wearing my monstrous boots..

A few unemployed local men had come to watch the practice game. Some were swigging from bottles of wine and shouting encouragement to boys they knew.  I was playing in defence and waited for some time for my fist touch of the game. At last a long through ball came towards me, chased by the aforementioned Philip. I hit it back the way it had come with all my might. Much to my surprise the ball flew fully sixty yards up the field. My stout old boots were not only superb at launching the ball long distances, they were also, as I discovered, useful in the tackle. Later in the game, Philip came at me with the ball at his feet. I waited until the time was right and lunged in to try to dispossess him. There was a heavy collision and a cry of anguish rent the Garngad air. ‘Aaaghh, you’ve broken my toe, ya mad bastard.’  Philip appeared to be in some distress; I on the other hand, didn’t feel a thing.

The local wine drinkers were soon in on the act, ‘Hey ref,’ they shouted at our teacher as Phil writhed on the ground ‘It’s not fair, he’s got Jimmy McGrory’s boots on.’ At this they descended into raucous laughter. Now, Jimmy McGrory was the greatest goal scorer in British football history. He scored more than 400 goals for Celtic and Scotland in the twenties and thirties. He also went to my school as a boy and had lived in the local area.  To be compared to him was an honour indeed, but alas only my ancient boots were receiving such praise. 

Phil hobbled off the field and the trial continued. I must have done enough that afternoon to impress the teacher in charge as I was later included in the 14 players selected to represent the school. Phil was too and the teacher responsible for the team, grinned at me and said, ‘Remember to save your aggression for the opposition, Patrick.’ I smiled nervously and glanced down with a little satisfaction at my dangerous looking boots thinking that the game must have been tough indeed when all the players wore these.