James Brown has played five-a-side football with the same group of men for 18 years. The journalist, radio presenter, founding editor of Loaded magazine and former editor of GQ, discovered a love of the game as he grew up in Leeds.
He gravitated back to football through regular games at local pitches and punctuates every working week with matches. He’s not alone: over 1.5 million adults play small-sided football every week with over 30,000 teams playing in organised and competitive leagues. This type of football is increasingly considered the purest expression of the game.
James wrote a book, Above Head Height, that connected with the five-a-side community and outsold many of the autobiographies of professional football players. It’s part personal testimony, part collected anecdotes and recollections.
A book Tony Parsons has called ‘the Fever Pitch of five-a-side’ – it explores Brown’s passion for the amateur game, collating hundreds of real-life tales of cameraderie, commitment and comedy.
We asked him a few questions about his five-a-side life.
You describe Above Head Height as an appreciation of the people who show up week after week to play five-a-side football. After collating personal stories for the book, did you get the sense that there is a shared collective experience among folk who have a regular game?
I’ve had so many people write to me on social media saying “you’ve described my game” or even “my life.” That makes you feel great obviously.
I think my love of the game is pretty typical, it was pretty easy to write about - the kit, the players, the pitches, the team names, the entry to playing football as kids, how it changes and what it means as you get older.
What's your own football life at the moment, how does your week revolve around your regular games?
Much as in the book. Three games of various levels. All around 7-9 aside.
Sunday morning outdoors, Tuesday evening indoors, Thursday evening indoors. It’s better if I don’t do all three and I’ve worked out that if I have a hot bath before I play and stretch properly afterwards I don’t get muscle injuries.
How seriously do you take your games, do you remember things like your best goal or your worst miss?
Yes of course. I scored from my own half in the Sunday outdoor game two weeks ago - we allow Above Head Height in all three games as none are traditional 5-a-side rules.
I scored an inexplicable own goal this Tuesday…
What do you think is the particular appeal of small-sided football? Why do so many people pause their life to make their way to the pitch every week?
It provides competition, camaraderie, social hook ups and a chance to create and experience true glory - all in the space of one hour!
Are there stories from the book that have really stayed with you?
Yes the whole book. It’s my whole footballing life from the playground to the grave (my mate’s funeral where I got the idea to write the original article which inspired the book). I like the story a guy from Leeds told me about a 5-a-side tournament he won, after which the young match-winning player asked Liverpool legend Alan Kennedy if he knows what it’s like to score in a final.
Do you think you can pick up much about your team mates' personalities during a game, apart from which ones are solid defenders or ball-hogging show-offs?
Yes, you get to know what people are like on the pitch. Their personalities are often different off it, but on the pitch you know who is greedy, who will give their all, who make good team mates, who you can rely on to win you the game .
If people haven't had a game for a while, will reading Above Head Height get them lacing up the boots again?
I’ve had some great responses but the most common, after the simple “really enjoyed reading it”, has been “it’s made me want to play again and i’ve started doing so.”
That feels good when people say that on Twitter and I didn’t expect that at all. I am The 5-A-Side Whisperer.
Above Head Height by James Brown is available to buy from Amazon and all good bookshops.
Begin your five-a-side life by booking a game at your local Goals club.