Heath150: The football club where everybody got a kick

An ode to 'Pitch Number 9'

Monday, 28th June 2021 — By Dan Carrier

Pitch nine today

How ‘Pitch Number Nine’ looks now

HE glided across the rutted ground, taking the peaks and troughs of muddy Heathland in his stride.

To my young eyes, he appeared like Michelangelo’s David – the perfect specimen, cast in the role of a footballer.

Karl combined speed and grace, ball control, an eye for goal, and watching him slalom past through challenges on a shivering February Sunday morning some time in the early 1980s is one of my earliest memories of Hampstead Heath.

On the Fields, and up towards Kenwood, the then common land’s managers, the Greater London Council, would paint wobbly lines across patches of uneven ground for team sports.

There were rugby goals set on a slant at the eastern foot of Parliament Hill, while the southern slopes boasted full-size football pitches with an incline that gave a winger when attacking from higher ground.

One now defunct football area was known as Pitch Number Nine. It was on a plateau of the slope leading up from the Highgate Number Three pond, and it was here Dartmouth Park United made their home ground.

Formed in the late 1960s by neighbours in Dartmouth Park, the club started with a Sunday morning kickabout using jumpers for goal posts.

Soon word caught on, and the club was to play come rain, snow or shine relentlessly for around 25 years, until cranky knees finally called time on the organisers.

The players’ day jobs were wide ranging: the lines ups included Labour MP and now peer Bernard Donoghue, broadcaster and fellow Lord Melvyn Bragg, and the writer Hunter Davies.

They joined teachers, cabbies, singers, dustmen, journalists, shop keepers, builders, chefs, artists… everyone.

Melvyn Bragg (fourth from right, back row) and author Hunter Davies (fourth from left, front row) were among the Dartmouth Park United team in 1977)

The founders charged 50p a game, and hired posts from a park keeper.

The rules were simple. Each player had to bring one white tee shirt, and teams would be picked before kick off.

One of the players, who was a qualified referee, would be asked occasionally for his view on any disputes, though he recalls 22 chipping in their views. Players came from across London for the 11am kick off.

Afterwards, it was the Duke of St Albans for a pint and a bag of crisps As well as Karl’s devastating ability on the left, other faces and styles stand out.

There was Portuguese Tony, who liked to score screamers and was prone to temper tantrums and pitch-long arms-in-the-air celebratory sprints when one of his long range shots flew in.

There was a Rastafarian decorator called Kevin, graceful who brought less skilled team mates into the game. T

here was an American academic, Fred, built like a brick wall, and the all-round sports jock.

George the Cabbie, the dirtiest footballer ever to grace the Heath, but read the game as a centre back so well it didn’t matter he was past 50. He was brutal – as a 12 year old, he felt no shame in kicking me up in the air if I ventured too close.

Abe from Ethiopia, with a swagger like Ossie Ardiles. He’d take a touch, and pass it on, enjoying the team aspect. That stood out against the few who hogged the ball and wanted to dribble past everyone.

Watching United on a Sunday (before being deemed old enough to play) meant the pitch had special resonance, and was the place I made my football “debut” aged nine for Brookfield School, the first time I was to get to play real, proper football, on a real football pitch, with real goals, in a real kit and against real opposition.

Our school team had swept the board that year, beating all by crushing margins, and played at Highbury as they won the Camden Schools Cup. The players were two years older than me, and after watching them present the cup in assembly, they were my heroes.

The PE teacher took things seriously – an Olympic weight lifter as well as working in a primary school, he was a competitor in every part of life. Aware he was about to lose his first team to secondary, he began to blood younger years to ensure his position as the Alex Ferguson of schools football was maintained.

Come on you Lilywhites! The CNJ’s Dan Carrier third from the left

I stood close to him during the game, warming up enthusiastically, hoping I’d catch his eye, get my chance. Half time arrived. No subs were made.

The game continued, and still no call to take a bow: I waited, waited and waited, watching anxiously as the clock ticked down.

Two of my peers were given a run about. I did some more pretend stretches and puffed my cheeks out theatrically a few times.

Finally, a finger beckoned and it was my go.

I ran up and down the right wing, and I have a fuzzy childhood memory-feeling of the ball coming towards me, trapping it and then hitting it down the line for a team mate.

I also recall nearly touching it a second time, when it skimmed past having been squirted out of a rabble of children chasing the ball.

Five minutes later, the game was over and that was that – a moment that is vivid, 40 years down the line, when I walk across the meadow that has grown over good old Pitch Number Nine.

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