It was a piece of rock hard, orange moulded rubber…well, vinyl actually…and if I gave my lad one and told him to go and play footy with his mates, he would cringe with embarrassment. But when I was a kid, if you had one of these, you were never short of mates and if I still had one today it would sell for stupid money on ebay. It was the Wembley Trophy – King of Balls.
Back in the late seventies the streets of council estates and school playgrounds were full of wandering mongrel dogs, their inexplicably white leavings and kids playing footy, kerbie and wallie with a range of plastic and rubber footballs, none of which bore any resemblance to the ball that the actual game of football is played with, and which you can get for a couple of quid at Sports Direct nowadays.
In those days, the ‘leather football’, or ‘Casie’ as it was known, was as rarely seen as a replica shirt and was only for proper teams and posh kids. Everyone else was restricted to flyaway balls (a thin PVC sphere that when struck would head for the top corner like a rocket before inexplicably losing its impetus and falling out of the sky), Frido vinyl balls (usually nicked from school), and the Mettoy Wembley Trophy Vinyl regulation size 5 football.
The Wembley Trophy was coveted in those days because you could have a proper game of football with it. Yes, it stung like hell if you copped for it on your bare legs. Yes, it had little rubber pimples all over it and collected grit off the road. Yes, it shredded the goalkeepers hands and was responsible for the grey scuff patches which adorned the toecaps of every seventies schoolboy’s shoes. But when you kicked it, it flew straight and true and behaved like you expected a football to behave. And most importantly for a football in those days of football in the streets and jumpers for goalposts, it could do one thing that a Casie couldn’t – you could play with it on concrete. There was nothing worse than a concreted Casie. That suede like grey texture where all the panels had scuffed off. That ‘wop’ sound it made when you kicked it because of it’s new water retaining quality…
The Wembley Trophy retailed for the princely sum of exactly one book of Green Shield Stamps (which were the currency in Great Britain before decimal). It was a single piece of orange moulded vinyl with a valve for inflation, Deep black ridges to simulate the panels on a real football, and the words Wembley Trophy 5 printed in black onto the centre three panels. Even the box was a work of art. The ball was sold in an origami cardboard cube with the front and rear panels triangulated to reveal the ball suspended in all its glory in its box. When you took the ball out, you didn’t throw it away. Oh no, it went onto a shelf in the shed. It was too nice to throw away. For the first few weeks, you might even be tempted to give the ball a wipe after use and put it back into it’s box!
In the shed, on the shelf, inside the seemingly empty Wembley Trophy box, tucked into one of the origami corners of the box was a small square brown envelope with the inflation adaptor inside. You knew it was the inflation adaptor, because on the envelope was a technical drawing of said object. You had to look after the adaptor because you were gonna need it! You see, the Wembley Trophy had a mortal enemy, a truly feared nemesis – the Thorn Bush. We had thorn bushes behind the goals in the back garden and I distinctly remember that sinking feeling when the ball went in there, wandering into the thorns trying to remember how full mum’s Green Shield Stamps savings book had been at last check. That hiss on approach that could only be the air escaping from the ball. Thorns were responsible for about 90% of Wembley Trophy fatalities back in the day, the other 10% being a combination of valve explosions from playing Wallie, getting stuck on school roofs, under cars etc, getting chewed by a wandering mongrel dog, getting sat on and ‘egged’ by the school bully, and finally, by angry elderly neighbours putting knives through them.
But just because the ball was burst, it didn’t mean the end for the Wembley Trophy. Hell, some of us used to prefer them being a bit under inflated because they went like stink. Many’s the game of footy I’ve played with a burst Wembley Trophy. But the Wembley Trophy, like a cat, had nine lives. All you needed was your dad, a gas hob and a butter knife.
Most seasoned Wembley Trophy footballs bore shiny orange patches, often obliterating the print - these were the scars of numerous hot knife repairs. Hot knife repairs were Ok unless the puncture was in a ridge – ridge punctures could not be repaired with the hot knife method and were the most feared punctures of all. What would happen with hot knife repairs is that your dad, realizing the danger that a deflated ball presented to his greenhouse windows, would take the ball and hold it in water to locate the puncture. Then he would take a butter knife from the drawer (muttering something about ‘don’t tell your mum”) and hold it over the gas flame on the cooker until it glowed red. Then he would skilfully apply the hot knife to the puncture, melting the vinyl before allowing the melted vinyl to set again with the puncture hole sealed. Get the adaptor from the shed, blow the ball up with a bike pump and Bob’s your Uncle. This process had about an 80% success rate, with clumsier dads going right through the vinyl and ruining the ball. Balls ruined in this fashion were recycled into space helmets by cutting a couple of panels out with a Stanley knife and turning them inside out. The white version of the ball – The Wembley Trophy ‘International’, though an inferior ball, made a better space helmet due to its glossy white colour.
Nowadays a decent Nike, Adidas or Mitre scientifically designed, wind tunnel tested aerodynamic ball (which moves all over in the air and gets you knocked out of the World Cup) will cost you upwards of a hundred quid. But if I had a hundred quid to spend on a ball, I’d go on a well known online auction site and find a mint in the box, orange vinyl Magical Mettoy Wembley Trophy regulation size 5 football, (with original adaptor) as recommended by Jimmy Greaves.