Chris O (follow on Twitter: @COakleyFtbl)
Tue 24 October 2006


How easy it is to take for granted something which holds great significance for us. Things that we see every day so often fade from view because we don't look at them with the necessary sense of perspective.

Such is the case for our local parks. In every town in every corner of Britain, you'll find a green space providing a home to a few trees, some grass and any number of further embellishments that make it unique from the one down the road, the one across town or the one you've never seen in a completely different area altogether.

For those of us that grew up living and breathing every moment of our lives high on the joy that football gave us, the local park was the best place to go to kick a ball around and live the dream that we, too, were the superstars of our day. That vast expanse of grass long vacated by sunbather and dog-walker alike was like having our very own Wembley to play on for the day. No cuts or grazes here - this was the lush surface that repaid the love we had for it with the sort of safeness that no concrete pavement could provide.

Better still if the grass had just been cut by the Council Parks Department. That unique smell drew you in the moment you passed the vandalised 'Welcome' sign by the gates. With ball in hand, your stride lengthened ever so slightly as you made your way to that place where you always played - your pitch. The ball would be tossed in the air and as it fell again, the inevitable volley would come as it was kicked high onto the big green, followed by an excited run in pursuit of it.

I remember so many happy days playing football with my friends in the park. While others would use a pile of old coats as goalposts, we had the luxury of two young trees spaced (ideally) the right distance apart to constitute a goal frame, albeit without the cross-bar. One of us would elect to go in goal first - often me - and everyone else would play outfield.

And off they'd go. A series of passes would neatly and tentatively be made from one to the other, waiting for the moment when someone would fashion a set-up move that resulted in a final flourishing shot or header towards the expectant keeper. Goals weren't scored as often as we'd like, but when they did arrive, they were usually greeted with a disproportionately gleeful celebration that sent the keeper on his way to fetch the ball that was by now half way to the other side of the park.

Sadly for the goalie, this long walk to retrieve the ball became the bain of our afternoon. Only the promise of an occasional spectacular save made the job worthwhile, but for the greater part it was a diet of tedium and tree-gazing as the wait for another shot went on.

But at least they were lovely trees. We'd sometimes sit under them when the weather became too hot or too wet, our backs propped by the huge, rippled trunk. We'd stop to rest and catch our breath, taking a while to finish off our drinks and talk about all kinds of unimportant things. Big willow trees, they were, yet their shadow never seemed to fall on us as we played football in our collective boyhood idyll.

We'd carry on playing, but by now our legs were growing tired and weary and the chance to score that one last memorable goal gradually diminished like the sun which so often warmed our backs. By unanimous vote, we'd eventually call it a day, pick up our things and go, walking slowly home with the satisfaction that we'd performed as well as any multi-million pound player could ever hope to.

All a distant memory, and yet the park where you used to play is more than likely still there, still retaining a modest, silent beauty, silent as people pass it by as though it wasn't even there.

It deserves more respect than that. Parks are responsible for so many of the happy memories we hold, so let's celebrate them for what they are and what they've given us. If you get the chance, pay a visit to your old park, or if not, go and make use of the park round the corner from where you live.

It's a privilege to have such a wonderful resource on our doorsteps, so make sure yours doesn't get taken for granted.

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