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Into The Abyss — Twice in a Weekend.

29 Aug

I have a confession to make! I was born with an incurable disease. It seriously impinges on my life at times, although I have learnt to live with it. Periodically I travel to meet up with fellow sufferers. We offer each other solidarity and support, and these gatherings help us all to cope with our affliction and somehow keep going. Some have got serious doses of the disease such that it has come to completely dominate their lives. Luckily, I have a relatively mild version of it although it does flair up to fever pitch every now and again. The disease is called Spireiteitus. It is little known outside north-east Derbyshire in the English midlands, although I have personally met people from: Belgium, Spain, the USA and even Japan who have been affected by it.  So what is it? I know it sounds like an unsavoury skin disease but it is thankfully a lot less serious than that. It consists of a compulsion to support and slavishly follow the English lower league football team — Chesterfield FC. They are affectionately known as the Spireites because of the town church’s famously crooked or twisted spire. I was born there in the dim and distant year of 1949, and my dad, a fellow sufferer, initiated me into the highs and lows of Spireitehood sometime in the early 1960s. I have been a sufferer or addict ever since.

Spireiteitus affects all kinds of people — young, middle aged and old, men and women, disabled and able bodied. I have met a blind person who regularly attends games, listening to the commentary on the local radio and enjoying the roar of the crowd and the exciting atmosphere as the match eddies to and fro. Recently, I met a Spireite in a wheelchair who had travelled for 3 hours on a train to see them play in the north east. He wasn’t having a good day — he had fallen off the last train at Hartlepool because his wheelchair went careering off the side of the ramp. Then he found he couldn’t get into the booking office to collect his pre-paid ticket because there was a high ridge at the bottom of the door. I helped him out by getting his ticket for him. That’s the thing about being a football supporter — it’s like being in a close-knit club where everybody helps and supports everyone else without hesitation. (I have written in a previous blog about the time when a Chesterfield fan shared his taxi with my son and I, from High Wycombe station to Wycombe Wanderers football ground but refused to let me share the fare because I was “a fellow Spireite.”) Later, going back to the Hartlepool match, I counted 8 wheelchair Spireites who had made the long journey from the north midlands to the north east coast.

Football fandom is a constant balancing act between hope and despair. I am not talking about “pseudo fans” who pretend to support the most succesful teams in the land even though they have no genuine connection with them. I am referring to the fan who has a club in his/her blood. He/she is stuck with following that team, irrespective of its success or lack of success on the field of play. The explanation for my strange addiction is a simple geographical one. I was born just a few miles from the ground. My father, grandfather, brother, cousins and nearly all my school friends, supported Chesterfield FC. A few friends pretended to be Manchester United supporters and basked in vicarious glory every time United won something. I suspect that many of them would have switched to another more succesful team, if and when Man Utd stopped winning. However, my fellow Spireites and I, supporting our own local team, stayed loyal to the team through thick and thin. It is a stoical approach to football which is sadly in danger of dying out. Many football fans demand success and have less and less tolerance of failure. As soon as their team loses a few matches, there are screams for the manager to be sacked or the Chairman to resign. Patience, deferred gratification and loyalty are becoming an increasingly rare commodity. This is why I’m pleased to be supporting a small club that is often struggling. I am proud to be a life-long Chesterfield supporter and to suffer uncomplainingly from spireiteitus.

Chesterfield had some success about 4 or 5 years ago. They got promoted from Football League Division 2 ( which is actually the 4th tier of English football). They went up as Champions and had a rare moment of “glory”, being able to hold up the trophy in front of their cheering fans. They then went on to get into the playoffs to get into the Championship ( 2nd Division) from League 1 ( actually the 3rd division) . I hope this is not too confusing for you! But then the rot set in. We lost our manager, lured away to Portsmouth for more money. Many of our better players were sold. The next 3 managerial appointments were unsuccessful. In fact 2 of them were absolutely disastrous. Chesterfield were relegated down to Division 2 again ( ie Division 4) and then, horror of horrors, dropped straight out of the football league altogether. For the first time in nearly a century, Chesterfield FC, the 4th oldest league club in the country, became a non-league club. It was a humiliating moment for the Spireites. In fact it was difficult to believe and accept. There were lots of expressions of grief and anger. It was almost as if we were mourning a death. Was this the end of the world as we knew it? As expected this was a time of exaggerated emotions and over the top language. Hyperboles flew back and forth like confetti. Just before the disaster became a reality, anguished fans talked of being on the brink of “oblivion” or of teetering on the edge of “the abyss.” People were full of dread and foreboding.

Well, we fell into the abyss folks! Weeping and wailing, we tumbled into the bottomless pit. Except, we found it did have a bottom — it’s called the Vanarama National League. It’s the 5th tier of English football. It’s a funny feeling at first — supporting a non-League football team. It’s as if we are invisible. There is little or no mention of it in the press; little or no coverage of it on the television. It contains teams from places you’ve never heard of such as Ebbsfleet or Maidenhead, or teams you never usually associate with the working class game of football such as Harrogate. However it does contain some sleeping giants– teams that were once mainstays in the football league such as Leyton Orient and Hartlepool United, and, wait for it– Chesterfield. It exists in the shadows, out of the mainstream of British football and public consciousness. As I contemplated going to support the Spireites in this obscure league I had a sinking feeling. Would the football be really bad? Would the crowds be really small? Would the matches be devoid of  real atmosphere? Yet I knew, in order to remain a true Spireite, I had to overcome these misgivings, bite the bullet and descend into the abyss.

I was unable to attend the first few matches but followed the scores avidly on my smartphone. ( all the ups and downs of a live match while sitting on my own sofa pretending to be a normal person.) At last, towards the end of August came an opportunity to go to Chesterfield and watch my first ever non-league match. As it so happened, by a complete fluke of the fixture list, the Spireites were also playing in Hartlepool just 2 days later, as it was a Bank Holiday weekend. Hartlepool is quite close to where I live, only about 1.5 hours away instead of the usual 2 to 3 hour trek to Chesterfield. So it would be 2 descents into the pit in one eventful weekend. What was in store for me? Apart from enduring the mockery of my wife who hates football and who thought I had gone mad when I told her, it was to be two fascinating journeys into the unknown.

I love my football day trips to Chesterfield, even though they are quite long. I am going home to my roots and I am going to meet up with 4000 to 5000 fellow Spireites. I usually go by rail as I hate driving down the traffic clogged A1 and M1. I can curl up in my seat and read a book or the paper and let the train take the strain. Around me are: couples with their children, elderly people struggling with their luggage ( I always offer to help), young people staring at their smartphones, colourfully and smartly dressed hen parties or race goers.( we pass through York) and groups of young to middle-aged men talking endlessly about football as they too, are going to a match. I suspect that none of them will give more than a passing glance at the silver-haired “old” man reading his book. I would imagine that none of them in their wildest dreams, would think I was going on a descent into a sinister, dark abyss. I look forward to spotting a steam locomotive outside the National Railway Museum in York, to glancing at the medieval walls and minster of that same city and at the impressive minster church at Doncaster. I drink in the views of the city of Sheffield spreading up the Pennine hillsides.  I used to live there in the 1970s. Finally the striking Crooked Spire of Chesterfield’s St Mary’s Church slides into view. I leave the station, slipping past the statue of George Stephenson, the famous railway pioneer who spent his last days there and walk up into the familier town. After a nice lunch at the Stephenson Tea and  Coffee Rooms and a nostalgic wander round the cobbled, medieval style market square, I walk out to the ground, about a mile and a half outside the centre. I like to walk because it gets my step count up and makes me feel as if I am getting some exercise.

So what was non-league football like? Well, to tell the truth, it wasn’t much different from a match in Division 1 or 2. Maybe a thousand had been shaved off the home crowd since I last went to see them in April. But there was still a crowd of over 4600 which is pretty good for non-league. Barnet, our opponants even brought 140 valient souls who had made the journey up from north London to support their team against lowly Chesterfield. Just think — being Londoners, they could have chosen to follow Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea, West Ham, Crystal Palace or Fulham, all teams in the Premier League of English football. But Barnet is in their blood and they are sticking with their team, even in this humble, largely unacknowledged league. The match was hard fought and competitive. There were moments of skill mixed in with the mundane and the clumsy. There was lots of hoofing the ball upfield instead of passing through the opposition. But there were exciting dribbles, last minute tackles, great shots and dazzling saves. It was the usual emotional roller coaster ride. The crowd was passionate and vocal, even though this was not the World Cup final or the Champions League. There was camaraderie beween the fans too. Everyone stood up to give a minute’s applause for a young , 19 year old Barnet fan who had recently died on a bus taking him to a match. Although rivalries are keen, there seems to be a friendlier feel to this lowly league. Looking at the fans forum on the Internet, there is a certain sense of “we’re all in it together.” Of course there was the usual moaning and groaning at the ref and about the perceived bad fouls of the opposition. But that’s normal and indicates that life in the abyss doesn’t lack passion.

I think I’m going to enjoy my excursions into the Vanarama National League. The matches have most of the ingredients of the leagues above, except there is an incremental diminuation of skill. The only problem was that Chesterfield fell to an excellent Barnet  strike in the last minute. It was like a sudden punch in the stomach. We all trooped out of the ground disappointed and disconsolate. But the good thing about football is that there’s always the next match. Hope springs eternal. As you know, on this particular weekend, I actually went to the next match — at Hartlepool. It was another keenly fought encounter on the north east coast with seagulls swooping over the pitch during  play. I watched it in the home stand but I was quite safe. We exchanged friendly banter and wished each other well for the rest of the season. Poolies, as they call themselves, are just as passionate as the Spireites. On their shirts is printed “Never Say Die.” On the side of their main stand, large banners proclain: ” Born a Poolie. Live a Poolie. Die a Poolie!” They are suffering from a lifelong disease too. You could say they are :”poorlie”! They have had triumphs and disasters just like us, and again like us, they have sadly endured more of the latter in recent years. Like the Spireites, they could be described as inveterate masochists.

Well at Hartlepool, Chesterfield contrived to lose again. It was their fourth defeat in a row. After the joys of 3 straight wins at the start of the season, it looks like we are in for another period of suffering. My weekend was ultimately disappointing as far as the results were concerned. But it was rich in experiences and encounters. In fact I quite enjoyed my double descent into oblivion!

 

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Mersey Memories.

31 Jul

The River Mersey — one of Britain’s most famous waterways. It’s so big that it’s had a county named after it — Merseyside( though I’m sure most Liverpudlians still consider themselves as Lancastrians.) It’s so big, that when I first saw it as a kid, I thought its grey, choppy waves were the sea. I grew up in the land-locked county of Derbyshire so I didn’t get to see the real sea very often. It was on the Mersey that I first sailed on a large boat. In fact I travelled on the ferry ‘cross the Mersey, between Liverpool and Birkenhead, many times before Gerry Marsdon and his Pacemakers immortalised it in their hit song of 1964/65. From the mid-50’s to the late 60’s our family travelled on it every year. To me, when I was a small child, the ferry seemed like an enormous ship, whereas when I see photos of it now, I realize that it was just a glorified tug boat. In fact, in the 1960s, there were 3 ferries, sharing the task of carrying people across the wide river estaury. They were called : Mountwood, Woodchurch and Overchurch.

So why did this north midlands family visit Merseyside every year? Well, it all began in the early 1950s when I fell into a boating lake in Colwyn Bay. ( North Wales.) It’s my earliest memory. I think I was about 3 at the time. I had struck up a friendship with

another toddler, a little girl called Margaret. ( my first girlfriend?) We ran excitedly round the rim of the lake, sailing our toy yachts, until suddenly, I slipped and fell in. I still remember being under the water. It’s my earliest memory. Then I saw the blurred, reflected figure of my dad reaching towards me to drag me out. Out I came, shocked, shivering and sopping wet. It was then that my mum uttered the immortal words: ” Oh look, he’s still got his cap on!” She didn’t seem to appreciate that her son had nearly drowned! Well, the incident brought the two families together, as Margaret’s mum had run to the rescue as well. Actually, I think we were already a bit friendly because we were lodging at the same guest house. From then on, Margaret’s parents became my unofficial aunt and uncle. I always referred to them as Auntie Joyce and Uncle Bill. They lived in Wallasey, near Birkenhead, across the river from Liverpool. From that time on, we visited them every year. They sometimes came to see us but Uncle Bill was in a wheel chair, so it was much easier for us to do the travelling, especially as my dad worked on the railways and we could go on 5 free journeys a year. Neither family owned a car, something that was consodered a real luxury for most families in the 1950s.

The annual trip to Merseyside was one of the highlights of the year. We were lucky enough to have a seaside holiday as well but the trip to Liverpool was something different. Instead of sitting in deck-chairs, walking along piers or making sand castles, my sister and I now got a glimpse of a big city ( in fact 2 cities if you count Manchester on the way there), saw huge, glittering shops, ate at a restaurant and went on the aforementioned big boat. It was all very exciting and very different from our everyday life in the relatively small Derbyshire town of Chesterfield. Normally we never ate out as we couldn’t afford to. Eating out was for richer folk I thought. But as soon as we arrived at Liverpool Lime Street station we were whisked up to the top floor of Lewis’s, next door, and had a sit down meal served by uniformed waitresses. OK, it was only a department store cafe and we only had fish and chips, but to me at the time, it seemed very  grand. Even today I remember the waitresses’ frilly white pinafores and the bread that accompanied our meal being cut into neat, dainty triangles. To me, it seemed as if we were being dead “posh.”

Next came the walk through the big, busy city and then the queue to get on the ferry to cross the water. I remember crowds of people and being crammed on to the upper deck as the Liverpool shoreline gradually receded and  Birkenhead slowly came into sharper focus. This was pre- Beatles and pre-Gerry and the Pacemakers, so we had no pop music to accompany us across the water as happens on today’s tourist version of the Mersey ferry. It was a regular, run of the mill commuter service. I may be suffering from false memory syndrone but I seem to recall that we had to pay upon disembarking, an unusual arrangement, which meant queues again. Still it was all very thrilling and different for me at the time.

Even before the big city and the ferry, we had the excitement of the rail journey between Chesterfield and Liverpool. We caught 3 trains all pulled by steam locomotives, changing at Sheffield and Manchester. There were none of the “boring” diesel or electric units in the north in those days. It was the last great hurrah of the age of steam. Being an engine driver’s son, I was a keen trainspotter and here was a chance to spot all sorts of locomotives that I wouldn’t normally see back home. The last leg from Manchester to Liverpool was pulled by a tank engine and we were in carriages that had no corriders and no toilets. I remember my dad once having to hang my little sister out of the window because she was desperate for a wee ( when the train had stopped of course.)

The Liverpool trip got even more exciting as the 60s progressed. By now, I was a teenager and was getting heavily into pop music. In 1963 The Beatles suddenly exploded on to the scene, instantly dating the old rockers, crooners and trad jazz bands that had been dominating the charts. The Beatles of course hailed from Liverpool and all of a sudden it became the trendiest city in the country. Other Mersey groups and artists quickly followed in the Beatles’ powerful wake. Gerry and the Pacemakers had number 1 hits with their first 3 singles. Other hit- making Liverpool groups swiftly followed — Billy K Kramer and the Dakotas, the Big 3, The Swinging Blue Jeans, The Fourmost, The Searchers — just to name a few. The music press dubbed it : “The Mersey Beat.” It seemed that any half decent artist from Merseyside could jump on the bandwagon and enjoy national success. And I’ve not forgotten Cilla Black of course. Liverpool’s Cavern Club became one of the hottest music venues in the country. The Fab Four had played there regularly upon their return from Hamburg. This is where they had honed and polished their act before they got a recording contract and hit the big time.

As a moody adolescent, I might have been expected to be reluctant to get dragged along on a family visit with my  “old-fashioned”parents yet again, but once The Beatles and co had taken off, I didn’t need any persuading to go at all. I was going to the centre of the action. Liverpool was “where it’s at” as they used to say in the 60s. I had  teenage American penfriends in Cleveland and Pittsburgh whose letters were dominated by endless questions about John, Paul, George and Ringo.  Who was my favourite? When was their next record going to be released? Were they going to come to the States?I was their passport to the very heart of the pop music scene. Just for the record, my favourite “mop top” was George Harrison, closely followed by John Lennon. I remember one visit when I was about 15. It coincided with the release date of The Beatles’ latest single: ” Can’t Buy Me Love.” It went straight to Number 1 as so many fans had pre-ordered it. Margaret, now a 15 year old Beatles fan, had pre-ordered it too and she proudly played it to me on the afternoon of its first day of release. It was a genuine thrill. If I had not gone to Liverpool that day I would have had to wait several weeks to save up my pocket money to buy it for myself.( which I eventually did.)

It was no fluke that The Beatles and their contemparies hailed from a major port city such as Liverpool. Soul, Blues and R and B records arrived from America on the trans-Atlantic ships. Much of the Beatles’ early repertoire consisted of covers of American records they had acquired and which were not commonly available in the shops. I can just imagine Lennon, Harrison or McCartney carrying home their vinyl copies of “Twist and Shout” by the Isley Brothers or “Please Mr Postman” by The Marvalettes, as if they were precious trophies. Their city was more multi-cultural than many others, more open to new ideas and thus was a “melting-pot” of musical styles.

In it’s days as one of the great ports of the British Empire, many people passed through Liverpool on their way to the New Worlds of North America, Australia and New Zealand. Between 1830 and 1930 as many as 9 million people emigrated from here. So it was a city of farewells, tears and hopes. Unfortunately, Liverpool was also a major port for the notorious slave trade until slavery was finally banned in the British Empire in the 1830s. In past visits I have visited moving and absorbing exhibitions about emigration and slavery at Liverpool’s excellent and free Maritime Museum on the refurbished Albert Dock.  The museum also has very good archives for private research. I remember the hairs standing up on the back of my neck while researching with my then girlfriend, the drowning of her father in the South China  Seas while working as a ship’s engineer on a White Star Lines ship in the 1950’s. We found the actual record of the voyage and a list of the ship’s crew. D’s father’s name was there, alongside the chilling words: ” Lost at sea.” He had sadly died while trying to rescue a colleague who had fallen overboard off the west coast of Malaysia.

I’ve recently been back to Liverpool to visit some exhibitions. It’s become an important cultural centre with its galleries, theatres and museums, including a major outreach of the Tate. I’ve visited the city regularly over the years. To me, there always seems to be a bit of a buzz about the place. There is invariably a great atmosphere. Most people are friendly, approachable and humourous. It’s days as a great port are over and much of its traditional industries have died out. I’m sure there is still quite a bit of unemployment and poverty there. But there is  a great spirit to the place. It took on the right wing Thatcher government in the 1980s, electing a radical left wing council which virtually declared Merseyide as an independent Socialist Republic. It inevitably lost the fight against the all powerful government but even Mrs Thatcher recognised  Liverpool’s plight and gave it the sop of hosting one of Britain’s first “Garden Festivals” and sending, her minister, Michael Heseltine to Merseyside on a charm offensive. Maybe, even the ruthless “Iron Lady” formed a grudging admiration for the cheerful stoicism and fighting spirit of the Liverpudlians. Who knows?

Say “Liverpool” to people in a word association exercise, and by far the most common responses will be “The Beatles” and football. Both still draw in the crowds today. The city has 2 premier League football clubs — Everton and Liverpool FC– the blues and the reds. Both command a huge fan base and generate great passion and loyalty. This applies not just in Liverpool itself but across the nation and even throughout the world. As Liverpool FC has enjoyed the most success over the years it has attracted the largest number of fans. Many people in Africa, Asia and North America, walk around, proudly wearing the red shirt of Liverpool. Probably only Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona rival them for world wide popularity. People are attracted to success so that they can extract a vicarious pleasure from it.  Liverpool FC has won the top English League, the FA Cup and even the European Cup ( Champions League) on numerous occasions. Back in the 60’s I adopted Liverpool as my second team. Chesterfield FC, my home town club were ( and always will be) my first love but they have perenially been stuck in the lower leagues of English football.  Peer pressure demanded that I support a top club. As most of my mates were pretending to be Manchester United fans even though they had nothing to do with Manchester, I decided to be different and eventually went for Liverpool, even though at the time of my choice they were actually in Division 2 ( now called the Championship.) With my backing they soon got promoted and quickly became one of the top teams in the country, and deadly rivals of Man Utd. I was impressed with Liverpool’s then manager, Bill Shankly and their energetic, attacking style of play. This penchant for Liverpool continued even when I went to college in Manchester, when I could easily have gone to see Best, Charlton and Law or the then stars of Manchester City. I only went to Anfield, the home of Liverpool FC ,once however.  It wasn’t an entirely comfortable experience. It was a top of the table clash against United and I travelled on the train from Manchester with my “Red Devils” supporting mates. We ended up in a pub before the match ( I was about 17 or 18 at the time). We were having a quiet drink, looking forward to the action, when the place was suddenly invaded by Liverpool fans. Ironically, considering I had travelled all that way to support his team, I got spat upon by a Liverpool fan and called “United scum!” The match itself was a tense 0-0 draw but I had to stay very quiet all the way through it because I was stuck in the middle of the away end, and had to endure relentless verbal abuse from the “Kop” opposite us.

I went to Merseyside recently to once again enjoy the culture, the architecture and above all the atmosphere. There are 2 impressive Cathedrals, Anglican and Roman Catholic, on opposite ends of the appropriately named “Hope Street”. Beautiful Georgian buildings grace the hillside above the centre. Three magnificant buildings, the “Three Graces” adorn the river front. They are the Port of Liverpool building, the Cunard Building and the Liver Building, topped by the famous mythical birds. Thanks to these, the Liverpool riverside had been appointed a World Heritage Site by the UN. Unfortunately recent adjacent , unattractive tower blocks have started to put this status at risk.

Tourism plays an increasingly important role in the city’s economy. The Beatles and the football have become the biggest draws. There are Beatles statues on the waterfront, Beatles taxi tours, Beatles open- top bus tours , a recreated Cavern club ( the original one was demolished) and a Beatles Experience museum. I think it’s over the top but plenty of tourists lap it all up. Yet, even I succumbed to the excellent ” John Lennon and Yoko Ono — Double Fantasy” exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool.  It was an absorbing 2 hour journey back into my youth, and was quite emotional at times. I never saw The Beatles live, unfortunately. The chance never came up. My wife Chris, saw them but didn’t hear a thing because of the constant screaming. The nearest I got to the “Mersey Sound”  was the Merseybeats, who were a support act to Traffic at a Chesterfield concert in 1966. However, I was a regular visiter to the city  when it was the “Mecca” of the pop music world. For a host of different reasons, I have been going back ever since. And it’s all thanks to a boating lake accident in a North Wales seaside resort.

World Cup Fever.

22 Jul

I’m feeling a lot better now. Only a week ago I was still feeling the after-effects of a mid-summer fever that had contagiously spread throughout the nation. People in its grip could talk about little else. Their normal, everyday lives were obliterated. You see, as well as the country experiencing it’s longest drought and heat-wave in years, it was also the football World Cup finals in Russia and England had unexpectantly advanced to the semi-finals. This was their best result since the distant 1990, the year of Lineker’s goals, Gazza’s tears and Bobby Robson’s  dignified leadership.

Getting to the semis again was a dizzying achievement for a national football team which has perennially underachieved and disappointed at the finals of big tournemants. Only 2 years ago England had been bewitched and bemused by mighty Iceland at the European Nations Cup! At the end of that match our highly paid team of Premier League stars, didn’t know whether they were coming or going. For a country that had given the game  to the world and whose top League is supposed to be the richest and most exciting on the planet, it was a huge humiliation to lose to tiny Iceland. Yet another manager (the very decent Roy Hodgeson) was forced to fall on his sword. This year, for the Russian adventure, the English team was led by the relatively untried Gareth Southgate. He had been a stolid central defender for his country, and had been a moderately successful manager of Middlesbrough in the middle reaches of the Premier League. The hopes of the country were resting on the shoulders of a manager untried at senior international level and with only moderate achievements at club level. The omens were not good, but England sailed through their group and qualified for the finals in Russia. Even so, hopes were not high.  Our hapless teams had regularly stumbled at the highest level and our present team was young, relatively inexperienced at international level and lacked any proven, “world-class” players. Thus the expectations of the English nation were low. We had been too often let down. Of course, most Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish fans, whose teams had failed to qualify, looked forward to seeing the English lose and get humiliated, yet again.

It was therefore a pleasant surprise when the England team won their first 2 matches, albeit against fairly humble opposition ( Tunisia and Panama), scored a few goals and then actually won a previously dreaded penalty shootout in the last 16 match against the cynical, “pantomine villains” of Columbia. This was a great achievement and a big relief for Southgate who had famously missed a penalty in a shoot-out defeat 20 or so years earlier. Luckily, the reigning World Champions, Germany had been knocked out, victims of their own arrogance ( in the words of their manager), so we now faced Sweden in the quarter finals. Sweden was another country with a much smaller population than England. One of their best players, Larrson had just been released by Hull City, recently relegated to the second tier of English football. Thus England entered the game with confidence and won comfortably, although our goalie, Pickford had to make 2 or 3 brillient saves to keep the Swedes at bay. England won 2-0 and progressed to the dizzying heights of the World Cup semi- finals, where we would meet Croatia who had just knocked out the hosts. Croatia has a population of only 4 million whereas  the English part of the United Kingdom probably has about 40 to 50 million people. So it was another catch-weight contest.  The country was confident if not over-confident. As my mechanic said, when I took the car in for an oil change, “we should easily get past the Croats.”

By now, Word Cup fever had really taken hold of much of the country, whipped- up by the press, TV and social media. People were driving around with little , fluttering red and white flags of St George stuck to their cars. Large versions of the same English flag were hung from bedroom windows on housing estates up and down the country or flew on garden flag-poles. At times I was reminded of driving through the Unionist areas of Northern Ireland earlier in the year. Pubs were full to bursting with beer drinking fans who could not afford the long trip to Russia. Big screens were erected in town and city squares for wildly patriotic supporters to enjoy the England team’s march into the last 4. Cliches and hyperbole were now common place. My Facebook page was daily dominated by patriotic boasting and over- the- top predictions. Apparently, we were going to make history and football was “coming home”, a reference to our invention of  the world’s most popular game. A pop song by the Lightning Seeds — “Three Lions — Football’s Coming Home”, shot to the top of the charts. It seemed to be on everyone’s lips. ( It had originally been composed in 1996, when England had hosted the European Championships — so football was really coming home then.) The whole country seemed to have been taken over by World Cup mania. After the bitter divisions caused by the controversial Brexit vote ( Leavers and Remainers at each other’s throats), it seemed that the UK was now coming together( except for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that is!)

I felt excited but slightly uncomfortable at the same time. I am a football fan and wanted England to win. But I have always been wary of overt, exaggerated patriotism. Simple patriotism ( support for one’s country) can easily spill over into bellicose chauvinism and arrogance. It can quickly change from “our country is great” into “our country is better than others” or “other countries are rubbish.) Flag waving and patriotic songs have also been closely connected with wars in the past. I am particularly sensitive about this sort of thing at the moment because it seems to me that the vote  for the UK to leave the European Union had a lot to do with dislike and/or distrust of foreigners. The same red and white flag of St George has been adopted by parties on the far right of British politics who are openly anti-foreigner, anti-muslem and racist.  The irony is that Saint George was an Italian knight and the red cross on the white background was originally commandeered from the Italian city of Genoa. So the origins of our patron saint and national flag are not English. Come to think of it, the lions on the English team’s shirts are animal from Africa. On top of this, all the English tub- thumping and flag- waving is not good for the unity of the United Kingdom which only just survived a Scottish independence vote a few years ago. Hence, for a variety of reasons I approached the semi-final against Croatia with very mixed feelings.

I watched it of course. I had witnessed, via the TV, every important England World Cup match since 1966. I had seen our famous victory over West Germany at Wembley in a crowded French cafe in Biarritz. I was on my very first trip abroad with my school. To my bemusement, all the French people in the cafe were rooting for Germany. Weren’t the French our allies and the Germans the common enemy in the Second World War?  Anyway I saw Geoff Hurst’s hat-trick and Bobby Moore holding the Jules Rimet trophy aloft. Were the team of 2018 going to unbelievably repeat that famous feat? The country held its collectice breath. The media was at fever pitch and in full hyperbole mode.

But, of course it wasn’t to be. English World Cup fever, 2018 style came to a shuddering halt as the second Croatian goal arrived in the first part of extra time. The English team finally looked exhausted and beaten. Optimism rapidly drained away as if from a punctured balloon. England made a valiant attempt at a comeback in the second half of extra time after their final pep talk from the dignified Southgate. However they were now down to 10 men due to injuries and they were up against a World Class Croatian midfield marshalled by Luka Modric (of Real Madrid), which had taken a firm stranglehold over the match. Our brave team were defeated and were reduced to exhaustion and tears. Many fans in Russia and back home also succumbed to despair and tears. They had perhaps believed all the hype and were now crest- fallen.

I was disappointed and felt sorry for the team and the manager that had represented England so skilfully. Like many others, I was actually proud of them. However, being a football realist, I knew that little Croatia had a sprinkling of world class players and could easily match us in spirit, organisation, energy and determination. Being such a young country, born out of the late 1990’s break up of Yugoslavia, they too were extremely patriotic. Apparently, the Croatian team was motivated by the over-the-top boasting and dismissal of their chances in the British tabloid press. Croatia had been grossly under-estimated. Chris and I had had a lovely holiday in Croatia just a few weeks before, so as well as being disappointed for us, I could also be pleased for them. I never had more than a slight dose of the fever anyway. I was still able to do normal things and retain a sense of perspective. I was helped in this by Chris, my wife, who hates all sport, especially football. She refused to watch a ball being kicked. So I recovered from the defeat quite quickly and the fever of overt patriotism subsided throughout the country.

I watched the final where the Croatians dominated possession but lost 2-4 to the French with a bit of help from the referee. ( He awarded a highly debatable free kick and an equally dubious penalty to France.) So football isn’t coming home after all. It’s gone to France, our near neighbour, who we will be soon saying au revoir to. Life has gone back to more or less normal now that the World Cup has ended and the mid-summer “madness” has subsided. Feeling a lot better, we can now concentrate on the tennis, the cricket, the athletics and the golf, not to mention the fantastic Tour de France. Even for sports fans, there is potentially a lot of life beyond football. The only unfinished business to look forward to is Gareth Southgate’s knighthood, even though he didn’t quite equal the great Alf Ramsey!

Masochistic Away Day.

23 Feb

It was another insane idea. I think I must be going a bit dopey in my old age. The choice was as follows: have a relaxing day at home or undergo 8 hours of train travel and hanging around draughty stations to almost inevitably experience disappointment. I chose the latter of course. I would travel from deepest Cleveland on the north east coast, to the far north west of England to support my team, a team that was next to bottom of the whole football league and had just lost 4 matches in a row. Many people would regard this as mad but I went because it was an adventure and I wanted to show support and loyalty to the team. I think support in times of adversity is real support. If you’ve read my previous blog you might understand this a bit.

I love travel as much as I love sport. Every journey is potentially an exciting adventure. In this case I was travelling to Carlisle but I was also journeying into the unknown. What would happen on the way? Would all my connections work out? What would I find when I got there? This is what happened.

It was an early start. The alarm clock rudely interrupted my sleep at 6-45am. This was like being back at work, a feeling I have largely forgotten since I retired. By 7.55 I was at Saltburn station, joining a small band of sleepy commuters going to work in the shops of Redcar and Middlesbrough. I huddled into my seat as our little, old diesel -railcar ground its way over the points, heading slowly west. I live at the end of a long branchline, and the first stage of any rail journey usually involves painstakingly trundling our way to the main line at Darlington, about 28 miles away. I settled into my book, hoping the miles would disappear more quickly that way. On this journey though, I didn’t have to go all the way to Darlington. I was routed via Hartlepool and Sunderland so had to change at Middlesbrough, and then have a slow but scenic train journey up the Durham coast. The changeover was only 10 minutes and soon I was on my way again. In 1 hour 20 minutes I would be meeting my fellow football masochist, Ian, at Newcastle Central station. Together we would catch the Carlisle connection.

However, you know what they say about the best laid plans. My second train went only one stop to Thornaby ( south Stockton) and then just stood in the platform. I found myself getting restless and started to wriggle around in my seat.After this had been going on for 10 minutes, the guard told us there had been a power failure in the main signal box and until it was fixed, no trains in the area were allowed to move. An electrician had been sent for ( there were none on site) and he had got stuck in traffic. I could see my Carlisle connection going up the swanee and even the one after that. Maybe I would miss the match altogether? Then, an idea started to form in my head. Out of the window I had noticed a regular stream of taxis coming down a drive into the station and dropping passengers off. As worry and frustration bubbled up inside me, I hit upon an escape plan. Seeing another taxi arrive, I leapt off the train, ran across the platform and knocked on the taxi man’s window as he was checking his money. The worst case scenario was that he wouldn’t accept me as a customer because I hadn’t made a proper booking, and then the train would suddenly depart with me stranded on the platform!  That really would have been “sod’s law!”As he wound down the window I asked the driver if he could take me to Darlington station and, thank God, he said “yes.” So in a few seconds, I was on my again, weaving through the rainy, grey streets of Thornaby, heading for Darlington and the main- line.

It was one of those chance encounters one sometimes experiences on journeys. I told the taxi driver where I was going and why, and he replied with stories of the travails of Darlington football club which had gone bust and dropped out of the league. His son had had trials there as a teenager and also at Hartlepool United, another struggling north- east football club. He hadn’t been accepted. The taxi man concluded cynically that success in football is about who you know not about what you can do. He said the whole system is corrupt and very harsh. I think I agree with him.

Within 20 minutes we were at Darlington station on the East Coast mainline. With a bit of luck, I would soon catch a fast train north to Newcastle. As I was paying the fare and saying my goodbye, another taxi man ran up and told my driver that he had a near flat tyre at the back. We looked and the rear passenger- side tyre was doing a good imitation of a pancake! It was only luck that had prevented us from having the flat on the A66 dual- carriageway a few minutes earlier and having to stop to change the wheel in the pouring rain! I caught an Edinburgh express within 10 minutes and as it glided out of the station I saw my taxi man still struggling with his jack and his wrench. I hope he got it sorted alright.

The express sped smoothly northwards only affording a brief glimpse of Durham’s magnificent cathedral and castle as we raced by. Soon we were crossing the Tyne on one of the 6 famous bridges. We swept round a corner and came to a smooth halt in Newcastle Central station. Ian was waiting for me with a welcome cup of coffee. ( I had texted him of my progress.) Meanwhile ( I heard later) my original train was still stuck at Thornaby. It was delayed for at least an hour. I would have been going spare by then!

The next stage of the journey took us along the beautiful Tyne valley and into Hadrian’s Wall country. A long gentle escarpment led up to the remains of the Roman wall and then dropped steeply away. It’s lovely empty countryside. Northumberland merged into Cumbria as we headed forever westwards. We caught glimpses of hill farms surrounded by grazing sheep. As we neared our destination we passed the shell of an old castle. Quite suddenly, the scenary switched from rural to urban as we were sucked into the suburbs of the City of Carlisle.

Carlisle is a border city. Scotland is not very far away. It has seen much conflict over the centuries. Coming out of the Citadel Station we immediately saw the 16th century round, stone towers ordered by Henry VIII to strengthen the city’s defences. Further in we came across the sturdy, red stoned castle that has witnessed much bloody conflict. Edward 1st had stayed there before going on to “Hammer the Scots.” In an earlier age Carlisle had actually been part of Scotland. It’s the only large English town not to have been recorded in the Domesday Book, ordered by William the Conqueror in the 1080s. It was left to his son, William Rufus to reconquer Carlisle for the English. One might expect that, given this troubled and violent history, its citizens would be tough, hard-bitten and wary of strangers. Of course, we found them to be just the opposite as the border battles and struggles  have now faded into the mists of time. Ian and I entered a nice little cafe near the station to have lunch. No staff were available to greet us but several customers encouraged us to sit down and told us the routine. When I thanked them, a lady commented :” No problem, we’re friendly in Carlisle.”

After our teas and toasties we had a bit of time to explore. Beyond the chain stores and coffees shops there was a very atmospheric and interesting historical quarter. Some streets were cobbled and we passed many old Georgian and early Victorian buildings in striking red sandstone. We strolled along narrow lanes and along a section of old town walls. The medieval cathedral and its close are magnificent. One feature is a spectacular barrel shaped ceiling painted in sky blue with golden stars. We made a note to return for a longer visit when football was not dominating the agenda.

After more helpful directions, we started to walk towards Brunton Park, Carlisle United’s football stadium. This took us up the busy Warwick Road and the leafy avenues that run off it. This is quite unusual as many of the original football grounds are found in more run down areas surrounded by humble terraces. One of the graceful Georgian town houses we passed had a blue plaque. It turned out it was the former home of the mother and grandfather of the American President Woodrow Wilson. He was one of the main architects of the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War. His mother, Jessie Janet Woodrow Wilson had been born in Carlisle and her father, the Reverend Doctor Thomas Woodrow, originally from Paisley in Scotland, used to preach in a nearby church. Carlisle was only a temporary staging post however, as the family subsequently emigrated to the United States where the future president was born.

Arriving at the football ground we looked at the fields and streets that had been severely flooded by Storm Desmond in December 2015 and January 2016. The nearby river had burst its banks. The pitch went underwater too and for a while, Carlisle Untied had to play their “home” matches in Preston, Blackburn or Blackpool. When the water eventually receded, all the community turned out to clear up the muddy mess in the ground. Even the players mucked in to help. The disaster had brought the team and the fans together in a united effort.

There now ensued a tense 20 minutes or so while we waited for Lesley. I had met Lesley at the Chesterfield box office a fortnight before when I was there for a home match. To my frustration she told me that the tickets for the match at Carlisle had not arrived yet, so could I pop in the following week? Not living in Chesterfield anymore, I said I couldn’t. So Lesley said she would bring my tickets on the team coach on the day and give them to me outside the ground before kick off. This seemed a neat arrangement but inevitably, when we arrived at the away supporters end of Brunton Park, Lesley was nowhere to be seen. We weren’t the only ones waiting and worrying. A small group of Chesterfield supporters who did not actually live in Chesterfield now gathered together. I met one guy who had travelled down from Glasgow. This was the closest he got to a “home” match. Thankfully Lesley at last appeared and we collected our tickets and entered the stadium.

Being in Brunton Park was like going back in time. We showed our tickets to a real person instead of introducing a bar code to a scanner. Inside I was surprised to see that both ends behind the goals didn’t have seating. People stood behind crash barriers just like in the old days. The opposite stand to us only had seats in the top half and the rest was for standing. I thought that since the Hillsborough disaster, all grounds had to be all seaters, but apparently, this rule only applies to clubs in the top two divisions.

Before the match, as we watched the players going through their warm-up routines, a strange thing happened. The Carlisle mascot came out sporting a fox’s head. Now I had always thought that it was Leicester City who were nicknamed “The Foxes”. But now it seems that Carlisle claim that name too. They used to feature a fox on their logo because of the local connection with the legendary huntsman John Peel. In 1976 for instance, the club badge featured a golden fox jumpimg over the abbrieviation CUFC. Later, a fox was shown jumping through a ring of stars. Not any longer is a fox featured though. Now the club badge shows the castle, a shield with the cross of St George and 2 red dragons. Maybe Leicester had threatened to sue them!

I was just digesting all this when the foxy mascot brought out a real stuffed fox mounted on a base and placed it in the centre circle. It stayed there until just before kick off, presumably to bring the team good luck. Football is full of these peculiar traditions and superstitions. I later found that the stuffed fox is called OLGA, which is an anagram of GOAL.

Finally at 3pm, the match kicked off. Chesterfield put in a miserable performance and were lucky only to lose 2-0, although we were very unlucky to have what looked like a good goal, ruled out for a marginal offside. Because this was real life and not on a telly screen, we were unable to watch slow-motion replays to check if the referee’s controversial decision was correct. For a moment we had all gone berserk, in a sudden surge of emotion, but now we returned to stoical acceptance of the inevitable. There was little atmosphere in the rest of the ground. Half of the Carlisle supporters seemed to be asleep. They only woke up when they scored or when there was a disputed throw-in near where they were sitting. There were just under 4000 of them and we numbered 248. We call ourselves the “Spireites” after Chesterfield’s famous and bizarre crooked spire. Even though we lost, I was pleased to be there, enjoying a couple of noisy, raucous hours amongst the Spireite faithful. The away fans nearly always make more noise than the home fans even though heavily outnumbered. Rather than acting like separate individuals they close ranks, feel the warmth of camaraderie and lose many of their inhibitions. A funny moment came when a Carlisle player finally got back on his feet after laying on the turf injured. Some of our number thought he was feigning the injury to waste time and break up the play. One Spireite fan lept up and sarcastically bellowed ” Hallelujah! Praise the Lord! He is healed!” So we lost and we trudged despondently out of the ground and into the darkened streets. I was disappointed with the result but had half expected it. I was still glad that I had made the effort to be one of the valient 248!

Ian and I walked back into the city centre and ate a tasty happy-hour pasta at a jolly Italian ristorante. Then we were back at the station ready for the long journey home. This time we were joined by gangs of Saturday night revellers — young people on their way for a night out in Newcastle. It was noisy but good humoured. At Newcastle, Ian and I parted company and I went on to catch 2 more trains, travelling south and then east. Some young lads I talked to had been drinking in Newcastle and then in Durham city. They were now on their way to Darlington for yet more drinking before getting taxis home to Bishop Auckland. They couldn’t believe it when I told them I had gone all the way from Saltburn to Carlisle and back to see a football match and had  not touched a drop of drink! I think they thought I was mad. It was the last interesting encounter on my long away day. Some may think of it as masochistic, others may think I was insane. Maybe they have a point, but there’s no getting away from the fact that I really enjoyed  it! It would have been even better if the Spireites had won but one cannot have everything!

 

 

It’s Only a Game — Or Is It?

15 Feb

I’ve been feeling slightly sick inside for a couple of days now. No-one close to me has died. The house has not collapsed. I have not had my income cut-off. I am not really ill with a sickness bug.( I had that over Christmas)  So what is the problem? I know you will laugh when I tell you. You will probably advise me to “get a grip” and “grow up.” The cause of my malaise is a football match played about 130 miles away from my home, in the lowest tier of the English professional leagues. I wasn’t even at the match. Yet when I saw the result flash up on the screen, it hit me like a punch in the stomach! Even 2 days later, now that I have had time to pull myself together, I am still wandering around in a semi-daze.

 

You see, I am not ill in the conventional sense, but I do suffer from a terrible, life-long debilitating disease. I am Stuart Bates and I am a Chesterfield FC supporter! It’s an affliction which I know I will never get rid of. It all started when I was born. Yes, you’ve guessed it — I was born in Chesterfield. It’s a little known Derbyshire industrial town in the East Midlands. It has seen better days and it’s traditional industries such as coal mining, engineering and steel making, have all declined. It now lives in constant fear of being swallowed up by its giant neighbour to the north, the city of Sheffield. Chesterfield’s most famous claim to fame is that it’s parish church has an alarmingly crooked and twisted spire. Unseasoned timbers caused the spire to warp and twist back in the 13th century. Ironically, that big mistake by those medieval builders has given an other-wise non-descript town, a unique and special identity. It is the Pisa of north-east Derbyshire, although lacking the Tuscan sunshine, it doesn’t attract quite so many tourists.

So I was born in Chesterfield, spent my childhood there and as I became a teenager, I started to support the town’s  football team. Chesterfield FC are the 4th oldest club in the whole English football league. They have never risen out of the lower divisions. I think they nearly got promoted to the old Division 1 sometime in the 1930’s, but lost out on goal difference. So near, yet so far! They have never reached those dizzying heights since. Commemorating the town’s most famous landmark, the team is nicknamed “The Spireites.”

Supporting the Spireites has always given me a sense of belonging. I left the town of the crooked spire to go to college in Manchester when I was nearly 19, and have lived in various different towns and cities since. But I have always had that strong feeling that my roots are in Chesterfield. When I visit the town I always feel that I have come home. The feeling begins as soon as I spy the crooked spire on the horizon or as soon as a bus driver or shop assistant calls me “duck”, the local Derbyshire term of endearment. I have lived much of my adult life in the land of “Bonnie Lad” and “Pet” but, silly as this sounds, I always experience a strong surge of pleasure when I hear the word “Duck.” The Derbyshire/ Nottinghamshire/ South Yorkshire accent is not the most beautiful in the land, but because I was immersed in it as a child, it is music to my ears.

Just as I identify with the town, I identify, but in a more concentrated and powerful form, with its football team. In the ground on a Saturday afternoon, anything from 4000 to 8000 Spireites are gathered together, united by a common love and a common cause. The numbers are no- where near those who go to watch the top Premier Division teams, but it is still a potent feeling to be amongst so many like- minded people. Spireites come in all ages from young children to so called senior citizens. They include men and women, though the former still predominate. At matches I have seen babes in arms, parents and children, young, raucous men, people in wheel chairs, blind and partially sighted, genteel couples and moaning old “codgers” giving the linesman some stick. In other words one can see a large cross section of the humanity at a Chesterfield match. I have encountered Spireites from Belgium, Spain and even Japan as well as from all over UK. I even met one at British passport control in Calais, who when he had studied my documents, exclaimed “Up the Spireites!” What unites us all is support for the team and identification with the town in some shape or form. I described it as an illness above, but a more accurate word is “addiction.”

“Addiction” sounds quite alarming, as it can be of course. I have already admitted that it has made me feel a bit ill. But don’t worry, I have it under control. ( I think!) For me, being a footballer supporter is like having an alternative, vicarious life. This is particularly so when one identifies strongly with one particular team. The situation will only get serious, in my opinion, if this alternative existance starts spilling over and swamping real life. The bad result last Tuesday made me ill- at- ease and out of sorts. I had to deal with disappointment, shock, and anxiety. Chesterfield are having a terrible season and are in grave danger of being relegated out of the football league altogether. Some of my fellow Spireites use exaggerated language such as : “disastrous”, “gut-wrenching”, and feeling “gutted.” I have said such things too, while in the grip of strong, negative emotions. One of my friends described the threat of relegation as staring into “the abyss.” That’s how many people would view death — the end of existance. Even for a big football fan like myself and ardent Spireite, I admit that that is a bit over the top. The despair of a defeat or the elation of victory are the causes of such colourful language. But, hopefully, these heightened emotions are only temporary and after a calming down period, lives, even Spireite lives, inevitably return to normal.

Being part of something is a powerful feeling. It’s great not to feel alone. I remember feeling wonderful when I marched in a massive torchlight procession for CND in the 1980’s. We were all united in our wish for World peace and for the banning of weapons of mass destruction. That same feeling of togetherness is evoked by headteachers when they tell pupils to be proud of their uniforms and of their role as representatives of the school. Belonging to a team, an institution, a movement or a political party can stir up great pride and satisfaction. It’s just the same with football. I’m not talking about the fake “glory hunters” who pretend to support whichever team is top of the league. Look how many Leicester City “supporters” suddenly and miraculously emerged a couple of years go when the Foxes were Premier League champions. Where are they all now? I’m talking about a deep-rooted and long-lasting support of a club and team. My support for Chesterfield was somehow born inside me. My dad passed it on to me and he got it from my granddad. I have been to many matches with my cousin  and my uncle.( sadly now passed away.) It’s both a joy and an affliction. It’s part of our lives.

Life itself is all about ups and downs. For every high there seems to be a low. Sport, including football, copies life. At the moment I am worried and depressed because my team is not doing very well. Two weeks ago I was worried and depressed because we had a burst pipe under the kitchen floor. Both situations made me feel stressed and temporarily out of control. One was much more trivial tha the other of course. That is the important point I think. My football supporting life must not be allowed to dominate and ruin my real life. Following Chesterfield FC is, or should be, like living in a parallel universe. It’s am alternative world to escape to every now and then. So, since the defeat I’ve lectured myself with phrases such as: “it’s only a game”, “it’s not the end of the world”, and “get a sense of perspective.” Also in the world of football there is the old adage: “there’s always the next game” Thus I have grounded myself in reality and then returned to my Spireite fantasies with a renewed feeling of hope. At the moment, hope is concentrated on an away match at Carlisle on Saturday.

For some insane reason I will endure about 8 hours of train travel to get there and back. Many would see that as a waste of a day — all to watch a poor, struggling football team in a far away corner of England. But I will travel in hope, revel in the gathering of hundreds of Spireites and will enter upon an emotional, 90 minute roller coaster. Whether I (we) emerge happy and elated, or crest-fallen and in despair, depends entirely on whether our 11 men beat their 11 men in a “silly” game of kicking a ball round a field. Hopefully my vicarious sickness will not have taken a turn for the worse by Saturday evening!

We’re all Foxes now — or are we?

12 May

If you’ve just come back from a holiday on Mars, I need to tell you that Leicester City football club have recently been crowned Champions of the Premier League. This has been such a shock that their  unpredicted triumph has spread from the Sports channels to the main news broadcasts. Their surprising success has leapt from the back page to the front.

It seems that Leicester’s trouncing of the bigger, richer, “elite” clubs has captured the public imagination. It’s a heart-warming David and Goliath story. A team of so-called journey-men, unknown foreign imports and loanees rejected by their parent clubs, has, against all the odds, come out on top. Everyone loves an underdog, especially when, totally unexpectedly, it becomes a dog.

Leicester City, known as the “Foxes”, is a football club that has not exactly been sated with success over the years. I think they might have won the League Cup ( the poor relation of the FA Cup) under the manager Martin O’Neill in the 1980’s or 90’s. They’ve won a few promotions from the lower leagues and, back in the early 1960’s, they got to the FA Cup Final at Wembley, but lost to the all-conquering Spurs side of that era. I remember watching it on our small, black and white telly. One of the Leicester defenders played much of the match with what turned out to be a broken leg, as substitutes weren’t allowed in those days. However, for most of their existence, the “Foxes” have had the usual frustrating mixture of: hope, disappointment and despair, peppered with occasional dashes of joy. In this respect, they are just like most of the other clubs in the Football League. Only the pampered fans of the wealthy elite — Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool, now joined by the suddenly super-wealthy Chelsea and Manchester City — expect and demand constant success and  regular lifting of “silverware”. ( the football cliché for trophies.)

Usually in life, money can buy you most things. As John Lennon once sang: “What it can’t buy, I can’t use.” Cash is commonly regarded as the route to happiness, although in reality, this is far from guaranteed. Materialism has taken over from religion as the main driving-force in many peoples’ lives. This is particularly true in the world of Premiership football. Huge wads of TV money has come into the top league from Sky, BT, and others, in exchange for exclusive right to broadcast a whole raft of matches live. The poor old terrestrial channels, the BBC and ITV, have been squeezed out on to the margins, reduced to showing brief, edited highlights or the occasional cup match. Top footballers demand and get obscene amounts of money to perform in this immensely popular section of the entertainment industry. Their enormous salaries are an insult to almost every other working person in the country. Money rules it seems. Multi-billionaires, many of them foreign, have taken over ownership of Premier League clubs, often to the detriment of their genuine fans. They see it as a business opportunity and are intent on buying success at all costs. “Mercenary” players and coaches are brought in at vast expense to achieve that dominance as quickly as possible.

Arsene Wenger, the long-serving Arsenal manager, who by the way earns about £1 million per annum, spoke of the adverse effects of “financial-doping” back in 2005/6 when Chelsea, previously a moderately successful, middle-ranking First Division club, had suddenly been plunged into the big time when a Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich, purchased it as his plaything to go alongside his: mansions, big cars, private jet and luxury yacht. Previously, money had obviously been important, but clubs could also gain success through: good tactics, teamwork, youth development schemes, clever scouting and canny management. Brian Clough and Peter Taylor’s Derby County and Nottingham Forest in the 1970’s and 80’s are excellent examples of this. Bigger, richer clubs were temporarily put in the shade. Both Derby and Forest, lacking really big financial investment, have now become regular inhabitants of the lower leagues.  The norm has largely returned to: “the richer you are, the more successful you are.” In other words, the road to success is paved with dosh. Other clubs’ best players, coaches and managers can be poached( i.e. stolen), lured away by the prospect of bigger bucks. Thus some have argued that “financial doping”, stemming from vast TV money and mega-rich owners, has warped and ruined the traditional world of football.

Sport’s most vital ingredient is “fairness.” There should be a level playing- field. When this fairness is challenged by a gross financial disparity, then the main appeal of sport — a contest between equals, in which the best individual or team wins  — is destroyed. I wrote a piece a few years ago about why it was not necessarily a good thing that Manchester City  had won the Premier League title. Perennially the bridesmaids in their own city, in the shadow of their illustrious neighbours, United, City had won their first top title since the late 1960’s. What’s wrong with that? Most people greeted it as good news, breaking the boring Premiership hegemony of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United. ( only Blackburn Rovers had done it previously and that’s mostly because they had a rich “sugar-daddy.) However, a couple of years before their triumph, City had been purchased by the Royal family of Abu Dhabi, an oil-rich Gulf state with limitless wealth. They proceeded to use their immense riches to take the short -cut to success. They quickly achieved this in 2012 and again in 2014. Money-bags Manchester City and Chelsea are now regarded as “elite” clubs such that their owners and supporters expect and demand constant trophies. Not surprisingly, their support has swelled immeasurably as millions of “fair-weather” fans have jumped on to their band-wagons. It’s all very depressing in my opinion.

This then, is the background to Leicester City’s astounding achievement in the season of 2015/16. Whereas Manchester City paid £55million for just one player, Kevin de Bruyne, Leicester’s entire team cost less than half of that at £25million. Even that figure would be like living in dreamland for the owners and supporters of the huge majority of lower league clubs, including my own home- town team: Chesterfield FC ( the Spireites) in league 1, the third tier of English football. Chesterfield had to sell their captain and best player, Sam Morsey, for only £750,000 to help pay off their debts. However, getting back to Leicester City, in the context of the super-wealthy Premier League, they have shown that  having the most money does not always automatically buy the most success. The normal axiom of “money rules” has been turned on its head — at least for one season.

The feel-good factor of the Foxes success has been further enhanced by the fact that they are managed by a genial, 64 year old  Italian, Claudio Ranieri, who, although respected and experienced, has never actually won a national title before. He has had some success but has never managed a team of champions. In fact, he was sacked from his last job as manager of Greece, when they lost, in humiliating circumstances to the lowly Faroe Islands.( although, to be fair, the Greek FA was in complete meltdown  at the time.) The journalists have loved his story. After being originally suspected of just wanting to add to his pension- pot in the twilight of his career, Ranieri is now hailed as a genius. As the unexpected victories rolled in so did the corny headlines — the “Wily Ranieri”, the “Cunning old fox” etc. The general public have lapped it up too. Ranieri has not employed the infamous, aggressive “hair-dryer treatment” of an Alex Ferguson, or the dark, confrontational style of a Jose Mourinho ,to gain his success. He has led Leicester with a quiet, genial charm and clever tactical nous. He has won the trust of his players and has motivated them to play out of their skins, week in and week out. He has created a very strong feeling of unity and camaraderie. Claudio has lit up press conferences with his quirky use of English and his genuine modesty. The improbable success of his very moderate ( on paper) team has given everyone fresh hope and has been like a “breath of fresh air.” ( Sorry- it’s difficult to avoid clichés when writing about football.)

At first, everyone expected Leicester to collapse at some point and fall away from the top. Surely the stress and strain would get them in the end? But it never did! It was the Tottenhams, the Arsenals and the two Manchester clubs who did the falling away. Chelsea, the previous champions imploded early on and Liverpool’s inconsistency led them to change managers. When the media sensed that Leicester, against all the odds, actually had a great chance of winning the title, the clichés started to roll in. Suddenly they were every football fan’s second team. It was “like a fairy tale.” Apparently, we were all “Foxes” now, according to the press. ( If it had been Everton or Stoke City winning, presumably we would all have been “Toffees” or “Potters.”) The sentimental slush just kept on coming. Even people who didn’t follow football or had nothing to do with the city, like my sister, started to avidly follow Leicester’s results and want them to win. It had become a human interest story, not merely a football tale.

I think the success of the Foxes is great. If you’ll allow me to be negative for a moment, it has been good to see the smiles wiped off the faces of the shareholders and fans of the mega-rich clubs who have tried to purchase success. However, as a life-long football fan, I don’t suddenly support Leicester or regard them as my second team. That, in my opinion, is blatant band-wagon jumping. I am pleased for the real, long-term Foxes’ fans, the ones who have supported them all their lives, through the numerous lows as well as the occasional highs. Real supporters follow their clubs through thick and thin. They don’t just turn up for the good times. Neither do they change their allegiance to the latest champion team. To me it’s ridiculous that most Manchester United fans don’t even live in England, never mind Manchester. It doesn’t make sense to me that football fans in Africa of Asia walk around in replica: Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool or Manchester City shirts.

To me, football is a primarily geographical thing. It all depends where one’s roots are. I was born and raised in Chesterfield , Derbyshire, and so I have been a lifelong supporter of the “Spireites”, even though I now live in a different part of the country. (The Spireites are so called because Chesterfield’s church has a famously crooked spire.) If I had been born in Accrington or Hartlepool I would have been an Accrington Stanley or Hartlepool United fan. On the main stand in Hartlepool’s ground, Victoria Park, is the proud declaration: “Born a Pooly, Live a Pooly, Die a Pooly.” Hartlepool diehards have not suddenly switched their allegiance to Leicester or whoever happens to  win the Champions League. When Chesterfield score a dramatic equaliser or a last minute winner, we all sing, quite truthfully, “we’re Spireites ’till we die!” I know it sounds daft but that’s what being a serious football fan is like. Being a football supporter is both a joy and a curse. It’s simultaneously a passion and a disease! And it lasts a whole lifetime! I admire Arsenal for the attractiveness of much of their football under Wenger, but my first and last love will always be Chesterfield FC.

So no, I am not, and never will be one of the Foxes. No matter what the press claims, Leicester City are not my favourite second team. I am really pleased for them and believe their triumph is a very good tonic for the game. However, I, and most genuine football fans, will not be leaping on to the Leicester band-wagon and trying to bask in some reflected glory. We will all be supporting our own teams, even if , like Aston Villa, Bolton Wanderers, Crewe Alexandria and York City, they have been relegated from their respective leagues. ( along with others), Misery, frustration and despair are as much a part of football as joy and elation. Football to me is not about fairy tales, fickleness or fair-weather supporting, it’s about: loyalty, identity and a sense of belonging. One’s team is one’s tribe or clan, and it would be traitorous to support another, even temporarily.

The Day I Met the Scunny Bunny.

23 Mar

At first it seemed an outrageous, if not plain silly, idea. A 66 year old man travelling for 3 hours by public transport to see a third tier football match in a rundown East Midlands steel town. For a while I held back from mentioning this crazy plan to my wife, for fear of being laughed out of the house. After all, I could save a lot of money and time by staying at home and watching some footy on the telly. And if I was desperate to see an old, crumbling iron and steel town — then there was one just down the road from us. However, that’s twice missing the point. It wasn’t any old match in any old industrial town I wanted to see, it was the one involving my home team — Chesterfield fc — otherwise known as the “Spireites.” I grew up in that town and spent my formative years going to see the Spireites play, first with my dad, then with my mates. More recently, I’ve watched them with my cousins, my late uncle and my nephew. Supporting Chesterfield runs in the family. You might say that this particular football team has now got into my blood. Chesterfield fc forms part of my DNA. So perhaps it wasn’t such a crazy idea afterall, wanting to go and see them play at  Scunthorpe fc, known as “The Iron”. It was the clash of “The Iron” and “The Spireites”, and reader, I was there!

  I like travelling on trains– when they run on time! I get to read my book, observe human life as my fellow passengers get on and off, and see the scenary constantly changing through the window. For me it’s far preferable to driving down endless miles of anonymous motorway, unable to take my eyes off the road, unable to move and getting increasingly cramped in my seat. It may be the “freedom of the road” but it is a very isolating experience, being trapped in one’s own little metal box, not able to speak to or interact with any of the people only a few feet away . In the end it becomes a case of counting the miles and just wanting the journey to be over and done with. Stopping at a service station fails to dispel the monotony as they are more or less all the same, with their franchised food and retail outlets, canned music in the toilets and glazed-eyed  motorists drinking bad coffee and wishing they were somewhere else. Give me a railway station anyday!

  My “exciting day” began in anti-climax though. I live in Saltburn, a tiny Victorian seaside resort which forms the terminus of  a branch line off the East Coast mainline. The little 2-coach trains leave the coast, grind their way through the blackened industrial landscape of Teesside, to finally link with the main line at Darlington. I decided to catch an earlier train than strictly necessary in order to make my mainline connection comfortably. However, without any notice, the train was cancelled. It never turned up! I stood on the platform with several bemused fellow passengers all thinking “What do we do now?” It was a tense wait to see if the next scheduled train was going to turn up. I sat in the platform shelter, read my paper and tried desperately not to bite my nails. Finally it came — 2 minutes late. My relief was palpable. For the past half hour I had been worrying that the whole trip was in jeopardy!

  So I made my connection and caught the mainline express at “Darlo.” We sped smoothly south. I enjoyed looking at the Cleveland and Hambleton Hills to my left and was looking forward to seing York’s ancient Minster and medieval city walls. You don’t get that on the A1! I was also looking forward to reading my novel. However, my reserved seat was right next to a noisy, high spirited Geordie “Hen Party”. There were 6 of them, heavily made up and  sporting funny hats and gaudy Dame Edna Everidge specs. Pink balloons announced to the world who they were, as if we didn’t know! They were drinking sparkling wine, telling jokes and laughing and shrieking at the tops of their voices. They were obviously having fun  and seemed pleased that they had an audience, albeit a reluctant one, to perform to. After a noisy half hour, Dawn’s Hen partiers stumbled off the train at York, sloshing drink over everybody as they went. They were replaced by a quiet group of Chinese students reading their textbooks and testing each other. So the next half hour to Doncaster was much calmer.

  At Doncaster I swapped trains to meander east, up another branch line into the flatlands of North Lincs. My train was terminating at Scunthorpe but others on this line, went on to the delights of Grimsby and Cleethorpes. A long time ago I went on several Sunday School trips to Cleethorpes, where we sat on the sand and gazed at the pier. There were very few distractions or amusements. It was pretty boring. I remember vowing never to go there again. I also remember the overpowering stench of fish as we passed through Grimsby docks. However, I had never been to Scunthorpe — its heavy industry putting me off.

  Our little train passed through a flat landscape punctuated by drainage ditches, short lines of poplars acting as wind breaks and gaunt forests of wind turbines. It was obvious that we were not far from the Fens with its similar flat, desolate landscape. We stopped at little places that I had never heard — Thorne, Crowle, Althorpe. Hardly anyone got on or off. It was a bit like the end of the world. Soon the train starting to run parallel to a long, straight canal. (the Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigation). It went on for miles and miles without even a hint of a boat or any human life. All I spotted was: a couple of ducks, a coot and a cormorant on the far bank, poised to strike. Eventually, after half an hour of monotony, we crossed a large river on a big  metal bridge of soaring green girders. ( Think of a smaller version of the Forth Rail bridge in Scotland.) I later learnt that this was the River Trent on the last few miles of its journey to the Humber, just south of Hull. It flowed through a largely empty landscape, much of it reclaimed land from the Humber estaury.

After all this excitement we finally arrived at Scunthorpe station. I had a fair amount of time and wanted to see a bit of the town before going to the match. However, the town centre was nowhere to be seen. I seemed to be on a semi-main road on the edge of an old housing estate. I resisted the temptation to get into one of the hopefully waiting taxis and followed a small blue sign indicating town centre and bus station. I passed the “Scunny Car Wash”, my first sign of life and walked on. Few people were around and I had no obvious clues, such as a church spire or tall public building to guide me in. Eventually, at a confusing junction I met a young woman and her son. I asked the way. Apparently I was only 5 minutes outside the centre, but then she added that there were hardly any decent shops there and they all now go to Tescos!

 At last I got to the centre. It was a late 60’s/early 70’s pedestrianised shopping precinct — neat, clean but anonymous. There didn’t seem to be any old, interesting or distinctive buildings. Yet the town goes back a long way and was actually mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1085. It got it’s slightly unfortunate name from the old Norse “Escumesthorpe, which translated, means “Skuma’s Household.” The precinct today however, celebrates the town’s more recent history. It’s  called “The Foundry Shopping Centre.” Just in case you’ve forgotten: Scunthorpe is an iron and steel town. It sits on a large bed of iron ore and limestone and became heavily industrialised in the 19th and 20th centuries. In the background, near the shops, I could see the Tata Steelworks, still dominating the centre. Further out I spotted the large, concrete cooling towers of the Drax Power Station. At its height Scunthorpe had 4 large blast-furnaces, all named after Queens: Mary, Bess, Anne and Victoria. However the town has struggled since the sharp decline of its heavy industry in the 1980’s and 90’s. The iron and steel workforce has shrunk from 27,000 to around 4,500 and is just about hanging on by its fingernails. The mines had all gone by 1981 as it was cheaper to ship in foreign ore. Scunthorpe’s boom years appear to be behind it. The town centre seemed very quiet for a Saturday lunchtime. Maybe that young woman was right and they had all gone to Tescos! I had a quick snack at the Jazz Cafe and then asked for directions to the football ground.

I knew the Scunthorpe United ground was out of the centre. The club’s advice was to take a taxi from the station to avoid the long walk. Buses out there seem to be infrequent. It was a fine day so I decided to walk. I took directions and learnt it was a long, straight, 2 mile hike if I turned left at Primark. So I did. My linear route out of town was a bit like a geography lesson. The newer shops of the precinct soon gave way to older, more decrepit businesses in Victorian or Edwardian terraces. Old houses in bare streets gave way to 1930’s leafier suburbs. Next came modern housing estates and finally the out of town retail park just off a busy roundabout near the motorway. ( the M181, a spur of the M180) I did pass a few, large, older buildings — a church, a private school, a red-brick arts centre being modernised but only half finished. On the edge of town were a couple of big pubs — the type that people drive out to for Sunday dinner or to watch a match on the giant screen.

I started to worry that I had gone wrong and quickened my step to catch up with a couple of blokes walking a little in front of me. But as I got closer I could hear that they were speaking a strange eastern European language. I remembered reading that the newer engineering and food processing factories had a large Polish and Slovak workforce. A young woman pushing a baby buggy told me that she “thought” the ground was about half a mile away. This was only slightly reassuring. Would I find the football ground in time? Would I miss the match that I had gone to so much trouble to see? It’s a shame that so many English football grounds are  out of town and thus more difficult to locate. The close link between the club and the community it belongs to has been partly severed. Newcastle United’s St James’s Park, is an honourable exception. The stadium still dominates the city and the roar of the crowd can be heard all over the centre.

I passed the “Welcome to Scunthorpe- Industrial Garden Town” sign and kept walking. But then I spotted the reassuring sight of the floodlight pylons of Glanford Park, and suddenly I was following scores of people, all walking in the same direction wearing their claret and pale blue shirts, scarves and hats. I kept my blue and white Spireite scarf hidden safely in my bag, although, to be honest, the atmosphere was easy going and friendly. Thankfully, the days of football violence are mostly over. Scunthorpe’s ground, built in the 1970’s, is part of a retail park just off the motorway. It shares the space with M and S, Debenhams, Boots, Costa Coffee and Subway. The whole lot is surrounded by large car parks. Here was Scunthorpe’s alternative town centre. It’s not actually in Scunthorpe! No wonder the real centre was so quiet. Everything is organised around the car, such that many matches up and down the country begin and end with a traffic jam.

  I collected my ticket and went through the turnstyle of the “Away End”. Here I met a sea of blue and white — the travelling Spireites. I reckoned there were about 700-800 of us in a total crowd of 3,800. I put on my scarf and grabbed a seat high up behind the goal. When you’re an away supporter, you usually have to go behind one of the goals. The atmosphere is great as we’re all squashed together, but the action is telescoped and you cannot judge distances very clearly. It was suddenly wierd to be amongst loads of people from my home town, all speaking in broad Derbyshire accents and calling each other “duck.”

  The whole stand smelt like a giant, steaming meat pie. This is still the standard fare of many football grounds, along with beer and Bovril.( actually, I think the popularity of that famous beef broth is at last on the wane.) On the stand opposite us I saw a  massive advert for PUKKA PIES. Maybe it’s not the healthiest of sponsers for a sports team! The players were out practising and the crowds chanting and singing, warming up their vocal chords for the actual match. The Chesterfield chants seemed to consist largely of “slagging off” Scunthorpe rather than extolling  the praises of their team. Basically they were saying that Scunthorpe was a dump, but they used a ruder word than that. It’s a pity that fans have to be so negative, but that’s actually one of the attractions of going to a match. You can be as negative and foul mouthed as you like and nobody cares. Expletives are just par for the course. ( so long as they are not racist.) No doubt the Iron fans were singing rude stuff about us as well, but we couldn’t hear them as they were at the opposite end of the ground. In fact they seemed to be so quiet that our lot suggested that their team was playing in a library!

  The atmosphere was great and building by the minute, and then I saw it — the “Scunny Bunny”. A man ( or woman) dressed in a slightly tatty Bugs Bunny outfit ran right in front of us waving and giving us thumbs -up signs. It is a quaint but charming custom for every team in the football league to have a nickname and to have a mascot. At Chesterfield we have a big grey  mouse , amusingly dubbed “Chester Fieldmouse” Ha Ha! So I now was confronted by the legendary “Scunny Bunny” his Scunthorpe counterpart. It was a memorable moment!

  The match itself was full on. It was 90 minutes of: hope, expectation, disappointment, frustration, and tension with explosions of anger and/or joy . I suppose the atmosphere must be very like it was in the Roman Colosium, except the gladiators now wear shirts, shorts, socks and boots. The action was full-blooded and fortunes swayed from one side to the other and then back again. To quote the well known football cliche: it was “a game of two halves.” The Iron were on top in the first half, but the Spireites came roaring back after the break. The final score was a fair 1-1 draw. When Chesterfield equalised right in front of us, everybody went berserk. We all experienced an irresistable surge of pure adrenaline. That’s why we go to watch football!

 Then it was the long journey home — the same 3 trains, but this time with half an hour waits at each station. I just holed up in a cafe with a coffee and my book. My last train was held up by a fight in the other carriage. Police were  waiting to haul the miscreants off the train at Middlesbrough. It was another one of the “joys” of public transport. Arriving home at last, I looked back on a fascinating, unpredictable and stimulating day. It had been much preferable to sitting on the sofa and watching the 6 Nations Rugby. Live sport is always far superior to  watching it on the screen, no matter how big. And just think, I had had my first, unforgettable encounter with the legendary “Scunny Bunny.”