Loaded founder James Brown has written a heartfelt and celebratory book about the unique world of five-a-side football inspired by the death of a team-mate. Chris Bond met him.
James Brown is sitting in the Heart café in Headingley with the look of a man who has just stepped back in time.
The Leeds building has a particular resonance for the Loaded magazine founder as it used to be Bennett Road Primary, his old school. So, too, do the nearby streets. “I grew up right next to the cricket ground and the neighbouring streets, places like Estcourt Avenue, Headingley Avenue and Canterbury Drive, that’s where I started playing football,” he says.
He talks about these formative years in the early 1970s in his new book – Above Head Height: A Five-a-side Life – which doffs a cap to amateur football and all its joyous eccentricities.
There have been some sublime books written about football over the years – from The Football Man by the peerless Arthur Hopcraft to Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch –but few have captured the peculiar world of five-a-side. I say “peculiar” because there are few hobbies that can boast such a devoted following, where you might find an actor playing in the same team as a window cleaner and an architect.
“Years ago there was a guy who started playing with us. He was quite a mysterious player and he ran a bit like a camel. I asked somebody what he did and I was told he was a film director. So I looked him up and it turned out he’d directed these big rom-com films with people like Julia Roberts and Jennifer Aniston.”
It’s the kind of anecdote that peppers Brown’s book. Not that it’s all about name dropping, far from it. This is a journey into the heart of a sporting community where would-be Ronaldos and Rooneys play the beautiful game for love not money. It is a world of damp kit and ill-fitting tops stretched over ever widening bellies – a world where a hitherto bunch of strangers come together each week to play out their sporting fantasies.
But it was the death of a longstanding team-mate and friend James Kyllo, with whom he played football for 17 years, that proved the genesis for Brown’s homage. He wrote an article for a national newspaper that went viral. “It was just about how you can spend a couple of hours every week with people for years and yet not know much about them. You don’t know what their wives are called, what their jobs are and sometimes not even their surnames.”
Brown, an avid Leeds United fan, was sent correspondence from people from all over the world. “It gave me the confidence to think there was something about the five-a-side community that hadn’t been documented,” he says.
His subsequent book weaves his own footballing memories dating back to his days growing up in the back streets of Leeds with anecdotes from other five-a-side devotees.
“It was important that it wasn’t just about me because quite often when professional footballers write books they’re not very interesting. So the idea of an unprofessional footballer’s story didn’t sound great. That’s why I talked to people online asking for stories and I got loads of them, some of which are hilarious.”
There are recurring themes such as people’s stories of playing against celebrities like Robbie Williams and Woody Harrelson who turn up as “a friend of a friend” to make up the numbers. There are comic tales, too, such as the team that played on Viagra and the man who worked for the water board and flooded a pitch because he couldn’t get a good enough team together for a cup tournament.
Brown has his own incongruous stories from his days writing for NME when he travelled the world interviewing rock bands. “I played against Spandau Ballet in Peckham back in the days when Peckham was still very rough,” he says.
“But probably the furthest from Headingley I’ve ever played was Beverly Hills. I played on a pitch at this place called Coldwater Canyon and my mate, who was in a band called The Cult, invited me along and then Steve Jones from The Sex Pistols showed up on his motorbike. I was just in awe... I’d gone from Bennett Road to Beverly Hills.”
Then there’s people’s encounters with famous ex-players like John Barnes and Alan Kennedy, and in Brown’s case the time he went toe-to-toe with former Man United star Mickey Thomas.
“It’s pretty self-deprecating,” he says of his book. “I’m just an average team player and I don’t pretend to be anything more than that.
“But I’ve met a lot of people over the years who’ve claimed to had trials with Chelsea or Man City and then you play with them and they’re rubbish.”
Brown is now 51 but still plays two or three times a week down in London where he now lives. He’s often up against teenagers but says he gets the same buzz he did when he was their age. “It’s still about the dream that a scout will see you one day and sign you up”.
That boat may have sailed for him, but for one youngster he played with the dream came true. “I played with a lad called Sean. On the Thursday he was playing with us and one of the guys sent an email out with a video of him scoring a goal at Wembley for the Nike Academy against Barcelona’s Under 21s, and two weeks later he was signed by Sheffield Wednesday who loaned him straight out to Bury. So within three weeks of having to play with me he was playing against Bradford City for Bury – and that’s the dream.”
But even if the scout doesn’t come calling there’s still the joy of simply playing football. “People sometimes say to me ‘should you really still be playing at your age?’ But when you put a cross in and your team-mate hits it into the back of the net it’s exhilarating – I’ve written a whole passage about the feeling you get when you execute the perfect one-two.
“One of the guys I play with, called Charlie, told me that when he goes home he lies in bed thinking about the best bits of the game, hoping that he was part of them. And I’m really glad he said that because I’m the same.”
But what is it about playing five-a-side that makes men in their 50s still charge around the pitch like they’re 25? “It cuts everything else out. If you’re worried about your job, or you’ve got money problems, whatever your stresses are in life you forget about them for an hour while you’re playing.
“It’s a bit of an oasis, it’s like a noisy equivalent of the calm that anglers experience. I call it sporting karaoke – because when you do you karaoke you’re singing along to your music heroes and you’re pretending to be them and it’s like that when you play football,” he says.
“One reviewer called my book a 300-page love letter to five-a-side football and hopefully I’ve opened a little window on to that world.”
Above Head Height: A Five-A-Side Life, by James Brown is out now, published by Quercus, priced £16.99.
James Brown is appearing at the Headingley Lit Fest on March 10 to talk about his book. Tickets cost £6. For more details call 0113 275 4548.