It was all Pele’s fault. Well him and Jairzinho and Gerson and Tostao and Rivellino and Carlos Alberto and all the rest of the great Brazil World Cup winning side of 1970.
You see – I was 12 and I was football-mad. I just about remembered the previous World Cup, and the 1970 England side were supposed to be even better than the 1966 winning team. But we were beaten 3-2 by West Germany in the quarter finals; they then lost 4-3 to Italy in the semis; and then the Italians lost 4-1 to Brazil in the final.
The whole tournament was amazing, but Pele was its star – shooting from his own half, selling Mazurkiewicz, the Uruguay goalkeeper, an outrageous dummy on the edge of the penalty area, bringing THAT save out of Gordon Banks in the group match, laying off the pass for Carlos Alberto to score in the final.
I loved it. Trouble was, a couple of months later, when the English football season resumed, West Brom versus Millwall just didn’t cut it. What an anti-climax. Pele had spoilt it all for me. Football would never mean as much again.
Into this void of sports fandom rushed athletics. Dave Bedford was setting records; David Hemery, Olympic 400 metres hurdles champion in 1968, was still running; people like Brendan Foster and Alan Pascoe were emerging; and on the evening of 10th August 1971, my life changed forever.
I was staying with my grandmother in south Wales, and was watching television, when the European Athletics Championships came on. The men’s 10,000 metres was the first event.
The championships were held in Helsinki, in front of a Finnish crowd who were mad about distance running but who had not had a champion since the days of Paavo Nurmi in the 1920s. Dave Bedford had been setting European records, and whilst he could obviously run very fast, he did not have much of a sprint finish. The whole thing was set up for a classic race.
I watched mesmerised, as Bedford led for lap after lap, but could not shake the other runners, who, to the delirium of the crowd, included a Finn. With 300 metres to go, that man, Juha Vaatainen of Finland together with Jurgen Haase, the defending champion from East Germany, burst past Bedford and sprinted away.
It looked like they were running a 100 metres race. It was otherworldly. It was like nothing I had ever seen before – in any sport.
In the end, Vaatainen prevailed by a yard, and the crowd went even wilder than they had been before.
I did not know what to do. I just sat there.
Then I did the only thing that made any sense. I went outside and ran up and down the long, steep hill on which my grandmother lived.
You see, I was just trying to connect with those athletes, to be part of their world of athleticism and pain. I was desperate to join in the same activity – and although obviously nowhere near as fast – like them, I was running, and, like them, I was trying to run as fast as possible when tired.
After running up and down that hill a few times, I felt that the gap between them and me, which had been vast at the beginning, was a little narrower.
And I guess I’ve been trying to close it, inch by inch, mile by mile, ever since.