Opinion: Jumpers for goal posts or no ball games, please?

No Ball Games sign Bedford street
No Ball Games sign Bedford street

As I write this, there’s a young lad playing football on the green outside my house. He’s already been out there for three hours with his rebounder net practising his ball handling and control.

Nothing too exciting about that, it’s a scene hopefully happening on greens and driveways and in parks and gardens up and down the country.

What makes this a little more interesting though is there is a ‘no ball games’ sign on our green, right in front of the lad.

This lad is on our green a lot, he’s often out there, sometimes with a friend, and he clearly loves what he’s doing and I’m pleased he’s doing it.

He’s within sight of his home and earshot of his mum or dad, our road isn’t busy, and no one else is using the green right now. Have at it, lad.

But his proximity to a sign that suggests his activity is not welcome by all bothers me.

It’s clearly been there a while. It’s not the same style as more recent signs, it’s well-weathered and is home to large families of lichen and algae.

It bothers me that someone somewhere decided this strip of grass on a quiet road should have limitations to how it should be enjoyed.

It bothers me that many years ago the local council decided children shouldn’t be allowed to enjoy our green spaces. So much so, they used public money to put up a sign.

Apart from several squirrels, no one else uses this green that much.

There may be an annual easter egg hunt or some daisy chain-making with other children in the spring, but mostly it just sits there looking lovely and acting as a sales tool for local estate agents.

So, I love that at least one local youngster is making the most of it on a cold Saturday afternoon in January.

What about that sign though? Why’s it there and who put it up? Should I warn the lad that if he’s not careful he’ll be issued with a fixed penalty notice and his parents might be sent to parenting classes?

Might he have his ball taken away? Could we see enforcement cameras installed outside our homes to stop this abhorrent act of civil disobedience from happening again?

Is this lad aware of all this? Is this a minor display of defiance? A “f*** you” to law and order? A chance to show the ‘man’ he won’t do what he tells him if it means he can’t practise his football skills?

Bedford’s Wembley

Being born in the 70s my childhood was full of ‘no ball games’ signs, they were everywhere.

I remember our ball games being cut short as angry older men would shout, “you can’t do that ‘ere” followed by, “I know your mum, you’ll be in for a hiding when you get home”, as we ran off laughing.

We’d often be back the very next day.

It seems most of these signs appeared in the early 1970s. Mass rebuilding from the second world war had ended and new estates began poping-up with spaced-out homes and idyllic greener spaces.

Adults would see fresh-cut grass, a few trees for shade, and maybe even some daisies or daffodils for colour. Their little piece of Eden needed protecting, they wanted it to look nice and they wanted peace and quiet.

To a child of the time, who may have spent their early years in a crowded city, the view was very different.

They now had their own football pitch outside their home, their own hallowed turf, their own Wembley.

It was a chance to relive the glorious moment when England won the world cup in ’66, it’s where they could emulate their sporting heroes, it’s where they could play out their dreams.

Jumpers would be goalposts, daffodils would look like fans in the distant stands, and younger siblings would keep score.

Unless of course, that is, the council decided otherwise.

ASBOs for ball games?

Apparently, the signs were installed to keep children safe and away from playing close to busy roads, in case they chased a ball into the road and came worse off should a Ford Anglia speed by.

But our road is quiet, very few cars drive along it and when they do they’re relatively slow. It sounds cynical, but could the sign have been put up because children make too much noise or their games would ruin the view?

Could it be that killjoys and jobsworths believed children weren’t welcome?

Ron Manager, a big fan of using jumpers as goalposts

Maybe so, but thankfully it doesn’t actually matter anymore. The heady days of over-the-top red tape are (as far as this goes) gone, and these signs are now as irrelevant as those that installed them.

Thanks to various initiatives to get children to play outside more, councils have reviewed their open spaces and the ridiculous rules around what can and can’t be done on them.

This fresh drive to battle obesity and encourage children to rediscover sports with a kickabout, street cricket or garage wall tennis has seen many of the country’s ‘no ball games’ signs being removed, and the ones left ignored.

In fact, 11 years ago this month (18 January 2012) Bedford Borough Council even added an entire section on the subject of ‘no ball games’ signs to their Anti-Social Behaviour policy.

It said, ‘everyday living noises or minor lifestyle differences are not classified as anti-social behaviour, such as children playing ball games, or the noise of a child playing in or near their own home, people mowing their lawns, vacuuming or using washing machines’.

It continued, ‘The Government aims to encourage children to play outside more, as this positively impacts on their development, behaviour, learning and health.

‘It is therefore recognised that unless playing by children is inclusive of other more serious nuisance, such as verbal abuse or criminal damage, the Borough Council will not take action.

‘In addition, unless there are exceptional circumstances, ‘No Ball Games’ signs to communal areas or open spaces will not be fitted.’

Great stuff. So, if you see a child playing ball games in front of a sign that seems to suggest they’re breaking the law, leave them be and let them have fun.

The sign on our green is a relic of the past. It stands as a symbol of restrictions that had to make way for common sense, a historic artefact that I hope remains in place as a reminder that things can change for the better.

As for the lad on our green, he’s gone in now. It’s getting dark and Final Score has started. Maybe he wants to see if his team scored as many goals as he did, maybe it’s time for tea, probably beans on toast and a glass of milk.

Maybe one day he’ll lift the FA Cup, better still the World Cup, and it all started on a little green in Bedford where a few years before he wouldn’t have been allowed to play.

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