Keep it up, lad (or perhaps not)

The Sunday Times, December 24, 2006
There’s a new book out there that promises to teach young dads and their sons the skills of their dreams. It is called The Book of Cool, but before you rush out to buy, hear my cautionary tale.

I came across the book (which comes complete with three DVDs) by chance with my 11-year-old son Harry. It seemed perfect not just for me but for him too. Written by Fred and Clive Rees, a father and son team, it promises to illuminate the hidden art behind a dazzling array of tricks and skills that are bound to get you noticed on the playground.

Not only that but the skills are explained by people at the pinnacle of their sports. I could learn how to pull off pool tricks demonstrated by Thorsten Hohmann and Mike Massey, champions from Germany and America respectively, or brush up on long-lost skateboarding skills with the Brazilian icon Sandro Dias.

If I felt like it I could learn rope and whip tricks, how to kick a rugby ball courtesy of the All Blacks fly-half Carlos Spencer, how to perform slick moves with a pack of cards, how to be quick on the draw with a Wild West-style gun and even how to emulate Tom Cruise in Cocktail.

Imagine the kudos to be gained from being able to perform the sort of tricks that get schoolboys instant recognition from the prettiest girl in the class. These were, I quickly surmised, essential life skills that every dad should know and be able to pass on to his son.

However, so as not to jump in at the deep end I decided to begin with something that I was at least on nodding terms with: keepie uppie.

For those of you unfamiliar with this discipline, it entails keeping a football off the ground for as long as possible using only the skills that are legal on the soccer pitch. The reasons for this choice were many, but chief among them was the fact that I was already quite good at it. Ever since I was a boy and a fan of Queens Park Rangers, spinning the ball from left foot to right then juggling it on my thighs, I can usually complete at least 250 repetitions, and my record is 1,643. Yes, I counted them all.

In The Book of Cool these tricks are taught by Hee Young Woo from South Korea — better known as Mr Woo — who broke a world record in 1989 by heading a ball for 5hr 6min 30sec. A former professional with the Stuttgart Kickers in Germany, Woo, 43, now makes his living juggling the ball.

He appears at Premiership games during half-time, corporate events and on commercials. It is Woo who features in the Nike “Stickman” advert mixing it effortlessly with Ronaldinho, the Brazilian football star, who asked him for his autograph after filming.

Woo takes his ball juggling seriously. There are echoes of Brian Clough in his belief that to play football well you must “become friends with the ball and spend time with your friend”, but Woo is rather more Zen-like when he suggests becoming “one with the ball” and states that “the ball is honest, it never lies”. As I watched Woo performing a series of bewildering tricks — from back-heel juggling all the way to an extraordinary move in which he lies on the floor

and pedals the ball on the soles of his shoes — I said to Harry: “That’s easy, I can do that.”

To prove my point I issued a challenge to Mr Woo himself, fully expecting it to be turned down. Of course, my luck being what it is, Mr Woo happened to be in England and accepted. What’s more he offered to come and visit me at my son’s school and give a demonstration of his skills before skinning me alive. Harry’s last words to me were: “Dad, you’ve got no chance.”

And so it came to be that in my 40th year I found myself in the gym of my son’s school in a pair of shorts and plimsolls trying to juggle a ball in front of 300 baying children.

Harry arrived last of all the kids and barely acknowledged me, as if he knew that his father’s lack of cool was going to be confirmed once and for all.

Shouts of “Woo! Woo! Woo!” went up as the diminutive but fit-looking Woo entered the hall, and within a minute he was into his routine. I stood slack-jawed and mesmerised as he kept the ball in the air for ever, using just about every part of his anatomy.

At one point he walked back and forwards with the ball glued to his foot, did the same heading it and then cheekily nodded the ball into a basketball net. It didn’t seem to matter whether he was lying on his back, his front, or standing on his head, Woo could have juggled the ball even if he’d been blindfolded. I managed 56.

The fans rejoiced at this abysmal failure, but I wasn’t to be outdone. “Best of three, Mr Woo, remember?”

I said, with an attempt at nonchalance. We started — and I dropped the ball at 66. Second time round I made it no further than 40. Woo, meanwhile, had the ball spinning from heel to shoulder and back again. The challenge was over.

“If you don’t work hard in life you will not succeed,” said Woo afterwards quite seriously. “The dedication I apply in mastering the ball can also be applied to education. The ball never lies, and shows how hard you are working.”

This may have been a more valuable piece of advice to a roomful of 10-year-olds than my own guidance: learning to show off some skills will make you look cool in front of your mates and one day your children — but by that time I didn’t care.

Later Harry and I had a debrief. “Dad, you were mad to think you could beat Mr Woo,” was his verdict. Time to try my hand at skateboarding I think.

The Book of Cool is distributed through HMV, Virgin Megastores, Borders and Amazon among others and retails at £29.99. See www.bookofcool.com and www.woosoccer.com for more information

Mr Woo's tips

Mr Woo has dedicated his life to ball juggling, but with a few simple tips he says even the less committed can gain the skills needed to impress their mates.