It’s Friday evening and London is alive with the buzz of millions of workers who’ve finished the weekly grind and can head off for the weekend. I’m joining them, but before I leave the city I’ve got an appointment with one of the country’s best established and longest running 5-a-side teams.
Just a short walk from the City’s financial hub is Shoreditch, which is home of the Lucozade Powerleague London City complex. It’s 6pm but the sun’s still shining like it’s two in the afternoon – most of the country has been on a heat wave warning for the week and there’s no sign of it letting up.
It’s a perfect warm evening for 5-a-side tournament, which will please the organisers of Powerleague who are hosting the Payday Cup. The idea is that teams get together for a Friday evening tournament, each paying a £50 entrance fee which guarantees them 3 games in the group stages before the top teams go through into a final 16 to play for a cash prize. The more teams that enter, the bigger the jackpot. As it stands tonight, the jackpot is £500 with a sizable amount going to the runner up as well.
The mere occasion of a tournament alone would bring out football mad IFC on any day of the week in almost any location (as I will later learn, these guys will travel the length and breadth of the country in search of a good game of 5-a-side) but the fact that it’s on their doorstep in London and there’s a cash prize on offer as well is just the cherry on top for these guys, and has drawn out the better players. I’m told that I’m guaranteed a spectacle…
My contact with IFC is a guy I ran into on Twitter; a man by the name of Roger Paul Noveal, who goes under his tongue-in-cheek nickname ‘The Cat’, the first hint I’d get of his goalkeeping exploits.
I had found The Cat whilst I was pursuing various contacts within the game for the best 5-a-side teams to feature on this site – eventually it seemed that a lot of roads were leading to him.
It’s not surprising that everyone pointed me to Roger, as he’s one of the game’s legends. I can’t give away exactly how old he is, but suffice to say that he started playing the game of 5-a-side as a teenager with his brother in 1982!
Roger is a veteran of the 5’s game and has seen it all in his time. The fine artificial pitches that people play on today were just a dream back in ’82, when Paul was first turning out in goal for his brother’s 5-a-side team. There was no such thing as Goals Soccer Centres or Powerleagues, which now speckle the map of the UK. Back then there wasn’t much of a set-up, which really an issue for Roger as he started to progress in the 11-a-side game playing for his school and district.
He made a decent past-time out of the 11s game, playing for reasonable non-league names but in his 20s he took a long spell out of the game. Whether it was injuries, falling out of love with the game or some other reason, it wasn’t until 2003 that he began playing 11-a-side again with Erith and Belvedere. It was whilst playing for them that Roger got involved in playing 5-a-side again and found himself playing in The Sun Newspaper’s national 5-a-side competition, one of that year’s true Grand Prix events.
Roger’s team were knocked out in the quarter finals, but he made enough of an impression in goal for Ferrad Sofiane to have seen something he liked and ask Roger if he fancied playing in goal for his team. “Who is Ferrad Sofiane?”, some of you might ask. Well, ‘Sof’, as he’s nicknamed, is widely considered to be the greatest player ever to have played the game of 5s in the UK. Full of freestyling technique and possessing more tricks than a magic circle magician; he has a right foot so cultured you’d think he could complete a rubix cube with it. Sof doesn’t turn out too often any more and so remains a bit of a mystery to those who weren’t close to him, but legend has it that in his younger days he played for Marseille in the French league, he was that good.
Roger needed no convincing to join forces with a guy like Sof, and so began a profitable partnership which resulted in both of them picking up plenty of silverware over the next couple of years, both trying their hands at Futsal with Genesis Futsal and Roger later going to Hungary with one of the biggest UK names in the sport: Helvecia FC. It’s a time that Roger talks about fondly.
“Sof was just the best. He’d dribble it round three players, do a trick and then lay it off to you for a tap in. Then he’d run up to you and say ‘you’re the best’, and you’d have to turn round and say ‘no, Sof, you’re the best! It would just go on like that.”, Roger grins, “he was the Emperor of 5s”. Together they formed a team ‘Liberties’ in 2006, who, to this day, are usually in and around the top 4 or so teams of any national tournament.
Through his adventures, The Cat is a man who has seen it all over the last couple of decades, playing with and against some of the best players ever to grace the 5-a-side or Futsal pitch and being a national competition winner an incredible sixteen times with five different teams (and 8 of those wins coming with Sof). That’s probably why, when I contacted him on Twitter, he began just pouring information on me about who is who in the 5-a-side football world. It was too much for me to take in over the short Twitter messages so he encouraged me to give him a call.
It turns out Roger is still as keen on playing 5-a-side as he’s ever been and had a tournament coming up with some of the IFC players, the Payday Cup, which he invited me to come to. He told me that there wouldn’t be many other top teams there but it would be a chance to see IFC and a guy called Kurtice Herbert, who he promised me was the player to watch at the moment.
Feeling a little bit like I was on a blind date, I eventually found Roger at the venue. He was as warm and friendly as he’d been on the phone, a true gent who not only loves his football, but loves all of the buzz that goes along with it. The sort of guy that is liked by the referees, organisers, his teammates and even other players – they all banter with him. There should be more people like him, and the day he does hang up his gloves (which I’m tempted to bet might never come) will be a huge loss to the 5s world.
As Roger and I stood there catching up with each other, Roger pointed out that Kurtice was coming over. “He’s the guy you’ve been telling me about?”, I asked. Roger nodded. This was the guy that I’d been told was the man of the moment; the real deal.
Kurtice cuts a relaxed figure, with no shirt on and sunglasses on his head; if it wasn’t for the fact that he had shin-pads and football shoes on, I’d think he was there to enjoy the warm Friday evening sun, not to play football. He casually struts over and Roger does the necessary introductions.
He looks like a man not short of confidence, so I figure I’ll test it, what the hell. “Are you as good as they say you are?”, I ask.
“Yes”, he simply replies.
I ask further whether there’s anyone doing what he does at the moment and, confidently he says “Nobody, I’m the best.”
“Better thank Sof?!”, I ask, impressed with his confidence and wondering how far I can take it.
For the first time he pauses. “We’re different players”.
Everyone talks of Sof with an air of reverence, including Kurtice, who I suspect is not old enough to have ever played with Sof in his 5-a-side prime. That speaks volumes. He’s got some legacy to live up to if he wants to be in the same bracket as Sof.
Over the next couple of minutes before kick-off is due to start, I meet the rest of the IFC players. IFC stands for ‘International Football Club’ – owing to the fact they’re made up of all nationalities and colours – they’ve been on the circuit for ages, and playing at the highest level all that time too. They’re relaxed ahead of this competition, knowing that there’s unlikely to be any other teams there that can touch them. Terry, their manager and organiser is keen to check this and just seconds after I’ve met him, he’s nipped off to scout the rest of the teams to confirm that there are going to be no surprises.
IFC have chosen to go in under a different name tonight so as not to alert too many suspicions, as Roger explains to me that a little misdirection is usually a good thing when it comes to tournament play. I can’t help but think he may have overcooked it though when I see that he’s chosen their team name as “We Can’t Play Football”. The rest of the lads, on realising their name for the night chuckle, shake their heads and ask “who chose this name?!”.
It’s not long before IFC kick-off their first game and it’s only seconds in when the ball finds Kurtice who rolls the ball, flicks it up and outrageously backheels it into the top corner from a seemingly ridiculous angle. The IFC team laugh as if to say “here we go” and my eyes nearly pop out of my head at what I’ve just seen, only stopping to curse that I didn’t have the camera rolling to record it. Maybe it was a fluke, a jammy one-off.
30 seconds later and Kurtice gets the ball again; tightly marked he drags it back, completely fooling his marker into going one way before snapping it forwards and round him then burying it into the bottom left corner – it’s a trademark move that I’ll see three or four more times that evening. I’m not quite sure what to make of it and neither are the opposition who, ironically dressed in Brazil kits, have barely had a kick but are starting to realise the horror of their situation – there is going to be a massacre if this continues.
Mercifully it eases off a little but IFC totally dominate the rest of the game winning by at least 5 goals. Frankly, I lost count as my eyes have been glued to Kurtice – I’ve not seen anyone wreak so much havoc on a 5-a-side pitch in such a short space of time. It’s an absolute masterclass and as the opposition walk off the pitch shaking their heads, not knowing whether to be annoyed at the loss or thankful to have seen some of the best 5s they’ll ever witness, I want to find out more about Kurtice.
Roger was right, he is the real deal. It’s rare to see a player of his standard allowed to be let loose on a 5-a-side pitch as anyone that good is almost always signed to an 11-a-side professional team.
As the players come off Kurtice gives me a knowing grin, as if to say “I told you so”. I ask him why he’s not playing for a professional club, and why he’s playing 5s instead. “There’s too much politics in 11-a-side”, he says, “5-a-side is just simpler, plus I’ve got a dodgy knee.” Rumor has it that as a youngster he was with a professional academy and things just didn’t work out for him – the last recorded 11-a-side records show that he was playing with Southall in the Spartan South Midlands League, netting 16 goals in 13 games from August 2012 to Jan 2013, but then the records mysteriously stop.
Clearly the talent is there to play at a good level, but for one reason or another it hasn’t worked out. Roger reckoned that he just needs a manager who will put his arm round him a bit, someone to manage him carefully. Anyway, whatever the reasons for him not playing 11s, it’s 5-a-side’s gain, and what a gain it is. For the next few games he and the rest of the IFC boys go on the rampage winning games by convincing margins without the other teams getting much of a look-in.
Make no mistake, Kurtice might be the jewel in the crown but the rest of the team are no mugs. Even without Kurtice, they would have won the competition that day. They’ve got a well drilled squad who know how to play the game and move the ball about – and they can all play! Bez weaves some lovely silky skills and tricks in his white training shoes; Leon Williams seems to do everything consistently well and pops up with some decisive finishing for goals; “Church Paul” provides solidity and possession; and Theo brings the jokes, as well as proving problems for the opposition all over the pitch. There’s pace and precision in the team, and although The Cat isn’t called into action much in the early games, he pounces adeptly on everything that comes near.
It’s easy watching, as I chat to Terry, the manager, on the sidelines witnessing IFC move to another victory on the pitch without moving out of second gear. I’m impressed, with how well drilled they are – everyone seems to know what’s going on and Terry’s happy to chat to me about how they work and it’s obviously something they’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about. From the roles of each player, to keeping a strong spine to the team, to making sure that the subs are used at the right time, Terry brings a watchful eye to what’s going on and a sense of organisation. I ask what his thoughts are on futsal, which seems to be growing at the moment, but he’s clear that it’s all about traditional 5-a-side as far as he’s concerned – futsal isn’t the game for him.
It’s another entertaining game that we see, and by the end of it IFC have comfortably progressed out of the group stages and into the last 16. In the meantime, based on what I’m seeing and with a little help from Terry, I’ve jotted down a rough diagram of the way they’re playing:
Things progress on into the knock-outs and the team gently steps up a level, but it still doesn’t feel like top gear. It’s almost the equivalent of switching from 2nd to 3rd gear – upping the tempo, but leaving plenty more room to step up again. With the knockouts, The Cat now becomes more vocal – shouting at the team for what seems like the entire 10 minutes of each game, and you could hear him 3 pitches away.
Soon enough the final comes round, at which point I take out the camera to begin recording the action. It’s easier to let you see the footage than to explain from this point – watch out especially for Kurtice, wearing the number 3.
The inevitable happened and IFC picked up the trophy. It’s a good night all round, some cash, some trophies and yet another win on the record of the team.
It’s been a smashing visit with IFC and I thank them for their hospitality before heading off. I know I’ll be seeing them at a fair few tournaments in the future.