On Saturday evenings after everyone else had gone home for their tea the two of us played on. A lamppost for a goalpost, our heads full of fantasies of playing for our country. Only thing was we both couldn’t be Northern Ireland.
John was older than I was so he was always Northern Ireland, always Georgie Best. I can still hear him commenting on his own efforts in his best David Coleman impersonation: “And Best scores again!”
So I had to be someone else and select another country to play for. I chose West Germany. There were reasons. My dad, a soldier in the early 1960s, was posted there for a while and I was born in a British military hospital in Iserlohn near Dortmund. When we moved back to Coleraine my mum was always telling me that I could claim West German citizenship when I grew up.
More than that, though, I decided if I couldn’t be Georgie Best I could at least pretend to be Gunter Netzer.
Netzer was the 1970s footballer incarnate. Playing for Borussia Monchengladbach and later Real Madrid, his dirty blond hair was long, his shorts short. A show-off player. Not so different from Best then. But Best I knew because in the north it would be hard not to. Netzer I discovered for myself.
The first football game I can remember watching with any attention was West Germany’s visit to Wembley in June 1972. I was almost 10 at the time, sitting in front of a black-and-white telly gripped by the vision of this towering No.10 surging past Alan Ball and Colin Bell, or picking out Jurgen Grabowski on the wing with inch-perfect passes. West Germany had never beaten England at Wembley. But there was no doubt they were going to win on this night in April, so superior were they. And everything went through Netzer. This was a German vision of total football and I was enthralled. Watching highlights of the game now it’s clear that my memory (and the game’s reputation) is a little overplayed. There was more than a parcel of luck in West Germany’s 3-1 win (Netzer scored from the penalty spot, but it should never have been given in the first place). But Netzer still looks majestic.
A few months after that game Netzer was at the heart of West Germany’s victory in the European Championships. He didn’t play in the 1974 World Cup, but the perfume of that performance at Wembley lingered with me. That night I had a vision of everything I would come to love about football – the appreciation of space and time, the illicit thrill of individualism in a team game and the arrogance of genius. Every player I loved afterwards – Hoddle, Maradona, Bergkamp – was similar.
I’m not sure Netzer’s imperiousness is my favourite football memory now. As a Spurs fan it doesn’t have the same emotional resonance of Ricky Villa scoring in the 1981 FA Cup final, or of Gerry Armstrong scoring against Spain for Northern Ireland in the 1982 World Cup, or David Healy’s goal against England at Windsor Park a few years ago. But it’s my first football memory. It makes me think of Saturday evenings, dinner cooling on the table, and the boy I was, running around pretending to be something I’d never be. In my head I can still hear Barry Davies (in the voice of a 10-year-old boy from Northern Ireland) “Muller scores. But what a ball from Netzer!”