“To say that these men paid their shillings to watch 22 hirelings kick a ball is merely to say that… Hamlet is so much paper and ink. For a shilling, Bruddersford United AFC offered you Conflict and Art… and what is more, it turned you into a member of a new community, all brothers together for an hour and a half. Not only had you escaped from the clanking machinery of this lesser life, from work, wages, rent, doles, sick pay… but you had escaped with most of your neighbours, with half the town, and there you were cheering together, thumping one another on the shoulders, swopping judgments like lords of the earth, having pushed your way through a turnstile into another and altogether more splendid kind of life, hurtling with Conflict and yet passionate and beautiful in its Art.” From ‘The Good Companions’ by JB Priestley, 1929
This article was originally going to be based around Thai Football grounds but a number of factors during the course of my research suggested that a wider view of the football watching experience was required. None more so than the quote above, featured at the beginning of a recent Observer article heralding the baptism of Huddersfield Town in the Premier League. You cannot separate the stadium from the fans; without them, whether glitzy or run-down, it is no more than a soul-less, conglomeration of concrete, plastic and steel with a bit of grass neatly laid in the middle. The fans are what bring the stadiums, the game, to life and are integral part of the match-day experience.
On Zone B, we may not be paying in shillings, we are not escaping, in most cases, clanking machinery or dole queues, but, for most of us, it is indeed a world away from our daily routine. Our Port match-day experience is a special, tribal rite, which we share with our mates on the terraces. Bereft of that experience for the last 3 weeks has only reinforced how important a factor the ‘match’ is in my life, a life which has had football at its heart since as long as I can remember.
I come from a football mad family, on the male side anyway: my dad and my brother were players like me, dad followed Aston Villa for reasons I still find hard to recollect, my brother, Blackpool, for Stanley Matthews. My mum and two sisters didn’t follow, but understood. Like most boys of my age growing up in the Fifties, playing football filled my waking hours, mostly with a tennis ball up and down our alleyway. We lived in open countryside between two villages and sometimes it was a bit of a trek to the recreation ground in the nearest village to play with my mates, especially in winter, so, as a 7 year-old, my first football-playing arena was created in my imagination. ‘The Orchard’, I called it and you have to admit, it is a fitting, romantic, rural name. Subsequent research has found there actually is a ground with this name, home of Bedfont and Feltham FC currently playing in the Combined Counties Premier Division.
But my Orchard, owned by my uncles next door, was a proper one, with heavily laden apple trees, slightly overgrown grass, a wall at one end, which served as one goal, and a fence, bordering the chicken run at the other end, for the other goal. I had been given my first, proper, lace-up football at Christmas and so, with this, dubbined and tucked proudly under my arm, I would stride out into The Orchard at the head of my Imaginary Team (Me) to face my Imaginary Opponents (Me). We (Me v Me) played out many epic encounters in this leafy stadium, winning, drawing and losing in equal measure, a 3rd Me refereeing and a 4th Me providing a running commentary. There was an Imaginary Crowd too, some preening their feathers in the branches of the apple trees, others in the form of a few curious sheep peering over the gate of the field next door (my uncles were farmers), while a few chickens clucked in approval from the henhouse as I dribbled round the apple trees as if they were rooted to the ground. Once a fight broke out between two enraged cockerels over a disputed penalty, but a dousing with the hose pipe soon quietened them down. On another occasion, a particularly nasty foul by Me on Myself ended with a sending off by Me and the inevitable abandonment of the game.
It was about this time, 1959, when I was eight years old, that another uncle, who lived at the end of our row of four family houses (we hadn’t been ostracized from the village or anything, my uncles were just clever with a trowel, bricks and cement and built four houses on a prime plot of Buckinghamshire countryside before it became a designated Green Belt and well before the advent of Milton Keynes) took me to Kenilworth Road, home of Luton Town, to watch them play the mighty Manchester Utd. I was presented with a black and white scarf, bobble hat, a rattle made by my dad (he was clever with wood) and a two week old programme to learn the names of the players on the journey to the game….Baynham, McNally, Hawkes, Groves…. Luton were to make it to the FA Cup Final that year, losing to Forest 2-1.
Luton then, were my first date, the Oak Road my first memorable, ‘behind the goal’ experience, none better than when John O’Rourke scored two late goals to sink local rivals Watford. I even sat on a bench a few feet away from Sir Alf Ramsey when Ipswich visited as League Champions in 1962 and the ground was so packed we were put around the edge of the pitch for our own safety.
Then in 1964, I met Liverpool. I had just turned 13 a few days earlier and Mark, my best mate in school, a Scouser, whose dad was head of the school, suggested that we go to watch Liverpool in a 5th round FA Cup tie at Highbury. Now this was Highbury, Arsenal in London, and for a country lad whose biggest regular experience of a metropolis outside his little hamlet, was the small market town of Bletchley, I might as well have been going to Timbuktu. My entry into the dark world of the ‘teens’ must have emboldened me as I promptly agreed to go, not knowing what I was letting myself in for. My tearful mother waved me off that Saturday with a grease-proofed pack of cheese sandwiches and a look of hand-wringing anguish normally associated with sending your offspring into war. Little did she know.
The crowd was 61,295 that day, nearly all standing, and, arriving late at the back of the Liverpool end, Mark and I were passed, hand to hand, over the heads of the crowd to the front, “There you are lads, you’ll be safer down here”. A quick glance at the empty, tossed bottles massed on the touchline behind the goal didn’t exactly confirm that sentiment. The game seemed to pass me by in an instant, but I still remember the noise, the passion, the drama and Ian St John’s winning goal, a towering header from the smallest player on the field. He was to become my hero. There was also a fight: Joe Baker trading blows with the massive Ron Yeats; both send off. A month later we were in London again to watch Manchester Utd win 3-2 at White Hart Lane in front of 56, 392 equally passionate fans. Best, Law, Charlton, Greaves – I was a child in sweetshop. But it was Liverpool, Ian St John, Bill Shankly and those strange accents that had captured my imagination.
I hadn’t exactly dumped Luton, in the cruel, heartless way that Wendy Osborne, nicknamed Quackers on account of her large protruding front teeth, had dumped me behind the bike sheds the previous week in school, but Liverpool and the truly big match atmosphere was getting a grip. I alternated between Kenilworth Road and wherever Liverpool were playing within reasonable, parentally approved territory. However, I didn’t tell my parents I had a knife pulled on me on the tube coming back from Upton Park, and that year, 1964, Liverpool won the League title just two years after gaining promotion. Although my Luton supporting uncle may not have done, my father approved of my new-found love, being a great admirer of Bill Shankly, a man of the people.
When I moved to Stratford-upon-Avon in 1975 for my first teaching job, it was that little bit closer to Anfield and I would drive up, mostly for mid-week games, as I played football at weekends, to stand on the Kop. It was the eras of Keegan, Dalglish, Ian Rush and a world with no compare.
“I remember the Kop when it was like a bowl of maggots. It was one of the most inspiring sights of my life. The thing levitated, man. Like any gathering of people, a rave or a gig, where people react together en masse, it was spiritual.” (John Power, singer The Cast).
On a wet day, with the steam and the cigarette smoke hanging grey and yellow in the air, and the derision exploding in wicked humour out of this gloomy cavern, the Kop had all the menace of an hysteric’s nightmare. (Arthur Hopcraft).