Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Issue 6: The loneliness of the football close season

In mid-July, I find that I’m pining for football, although since having nippers, football’s all-encompassing hold over me is no longer what it was. With kids comes a shift in priorities. I now disagree with Bill Shankly’s epic quote about football being more important than life and death, although I accept that it’s able to produce strong emotional responses. But then again, so do cancelled trains on First Capital Connect or the decidedly crooked practice of online “passport-checking” services, who masquerade as a bona fide government website and then charge you £34 for filling in a form on your behalf.

When I was a kid, Final Score’s last results of the season chewed my insides. I felt bereft. The following day, the People newspaper would clatter through our letterbox and in the sports pages you’d find the forecasts for the following weekend’s Australian football fixtures. Aussie pools. You’d get such scintillating two-pointers as Wooloomooloo v Brisbane, North Dandenong v Doncaster (there was a Down Under version) and Ayers Rock v The Sullivans. I had visions of a demarcated rectangle of orange soil, screaming-bright sunlight, temperatures of 103°, kangaroos hopping past corner flags, snakes wrapped round the upright and eleven spectators drinking tinnies. Our school kickabouts were bigger deals!

I was never bored in the ensuing six-weeks holiday. There was too much to do. I busied myself with key pastimes. I’d embark on long bike rides on my trusty Grifter through miles of woodland; construct and play with 1:72 model aeroplanes; take my toy cars for a full-day backyard safari; organise football matches on the school fields that the headmaster had strictly forbidden us to play on; and write out my own World Cup competitions on paper.

The latter would be an ongoing tournament that could last anything up to a month in duration, starting at the qualifying stages and leading right up to the tournament finals. In fact, and I’m ashamed to say it, I think I staged my last boredom-beating World Cup when I’d turned 16 – this is before I’d discovered the joys of literature, and I didn’t stick a chance with local birds back then. All of the lasses my age were sexually active with Vauxhall Cavalier Convertible-owning men who were 23 years old. If the police investigated all these cases of under-age nookie, I reckon half of Doncaster’s male population around the age of 50 would end up with a Stuart Hall-type sentence.

My World Cup competitions were fixture marathons, usually scrawled on the back of reams of unwanted wallpaper. The choice of venue would be chosen from the index of an aged Sixties atlas at random. I closed my eyes and pointed at the page. I remember Northern Rhodesia were once handed the golden chalice, but after consulting with my dad, I had to snatch the tournament back as the nation no longer existed, and I didn’t really want my prestigious tournament held in Africa anyway – it would be too hot, like the Aussie league. One time – and I wasn’t happy about it – the lucky recipient ended up being Mongolia, who had to rapidly piece together an infrastructure of football stadia and motorways to meet my FIFA requirements.

I loved my made-up tournaments. At school, I used to get butterflies in my tummy because I knew I’d be returning to a packed fixture list that coming evening. I’d grind through group stages two matches at a time and work out the table accordingly, so the story of the World Cup would gradually unfold. England never won the damned thing. We usually went out in the quarter-finals; they made a semi-final once. Got knocked out by the cheats of Argentina. Despite the lack of success with the home nations, I soon realised that I had an unacceptable bias towards them, meaning all but Wales would usually find themselves lining up against the likes of Brazil, West Germany and those shirt-ripping scoundrels Italy in the finals proper. In the end, I had to devise a system to police myself, because I could no longer rely on my impartiality.

As an avid collector of Panini sticker books, the answer was literally in front of my eyes. Each World Cup or European Championship sticker album would contain records of international matches played during the previous four years. I’d also started collecting The News Of The World Football Annuals, and pretty soon, I had a comprehensive list of internationals that had been played since 1976. To offset my warped favouritism, I started using real results, where possible, to determine the outcome of my matches. This created a few upsets – all of a sudden, the might of West Germany could slip up at Malta, just like in real life, and elements of chance suddenly entered the fray. I’ve got to admit, it made the whole process even more exciting.

By the mid-Eighties, I suspected I was the only person in Yorkshire, possibly the entire universe, who’d have the patience for such a time-consuming endeavour. I’d write until my hands hurt. Although I believed I was ploughing a lonely furrow, the truth is, I was a Johnny-come-lately to fictional football competitions, a fact I learnt with much shock when, in 2002, I interviewed sports commentator Jonathan Pearce, the Young Turk of Channel 5’s football coverage.

During a lively exchange of football opinions and anecdotes, Pearce revealed that he was well versed in staging his own World Cup competitions, all the way from qualifying to the Final. Incredibly, Pearce’s vice was not biro but Subbuteo. At five minutes a match, Pearce’s World Cups must have lasted considerably longer than my simple results service. My tournaments merely required cursory glances through international records to determine a score. Pearce would’ve played out his games flick by flick, shot by shot.

During the Q&A, Pearce stated that one of his favourite childhood moments was when England and Scotland reached a Subbuteo World Cup Final, and in an animated state, he excitedly re-lived the staggering 7-6 (after extra time) encounter. When I told Pearce of my own paper-and-pen competitions, his mouth dropped in astonishment. “Listen, I think we’re both unusual in this respect,” he admitted. “Good times, though,” I said. “Absolutely,” Pearce boomed. We departed with a firm handshake.

In the yawning chasm of the close season, I tend to read a football tome to keep me going. The trouble is, there’s very little decent sports literature out there, but I’ve recently come across a cracking sports writer called Duncan Hamilton. In the Seventies and Eighties, when I was scribbling out my World Cups, Hamilton was a sports reporter on the Nottingham Evening Post and would, each week, meet Brian Clough to gain a quote or two.

In 2008’s Provided You Don’t Kiss Me: 20 Years With Brian Clough, Hamilton catalogues Nottingham Forest’s double European Cup triumphs and the manager’s subsequent fall into sozzled ineffectiveness. For me, it’s one of the most illustrative biographies ever written. The book is as much about Hamilton learning his journalistic trade as Clough’s brash methods and reads all the better for it. The words glide like a George Best dash down the wing; every paragraph has been crafted. I’m now reading Hamilton’s latest title, The Footballer Who Could Fly, a silky review of football’s leading figures, featuring the likes of Jackie Milburn, Bill Shankly, Clough and Sir Bobby Charlton. It’s fantastic, a joy to read, and I welcome every train journey so I can get back to Hamilton’s peerless descriptions of bygone greats. Last week, it made me want to interview Charlton, but when I asked in my office, the sports editor replied, “You’re going to hate this, but I went up to Manchester and interviewed ‘Our Bub’ last week, in the centre circle of Old Trafford. Lee, are you crying now?”

My own footballing superhero was Kevin Keegan, the England captain, the wearer of that all-important No.7 jersey. I never wanted a poodle perm like King Kev – I wasn’t mad – but his attitude to the game impressed me mightily. I think I wanted my hair to resemble West Germany’s Bernd Schuster at this point; I was well into the way the Germans plied their robotic football around 1980, and Keegan’s move to Hamburg fitted perfectly with my emerging Teutonic football style in the school playground. Like Keegan, I was brought up in Doncaster and I followed his ensuing nomadic career with avid interest. When KK dropped a division to play for Newcastle United, I thought he’d lost the plot, and sensed – rightly – that his England career was in its twilight.

I loved Keegan’s unbending captain’s approach, but I only ever saw him play once. When I was 12 and already dreaming of taking over England’s No.7 shirt, I used to travel around the North and Midlands with an FA linesman called Mr Topham. I never found out his first name. He drove a decrepit Triumph Toledo, and hanging from the interior mirror was an air freshener that was a naked green imp in a state of extreme sexual arousal. I didn’t agree with that at all, but lived with it because I was getting free match tickets and a chauffeur service.

In November 1983, Mr Topham invited me to watch Newcastle United v Fulham at St James’ Park. Keegan had been captain at Toon since August 1982, after joining from Southampton for £100,000, a staggering purchase at the time, especially as Keegan was wanted by 20 clubs. I suppose the equivalent would be Steven Gerrard signing for Blackpool today. I was desperate to get Keegan’s autograph. Before the match, in the bowels of the stadium, I was introduced to some of the team. I recall David McCreery, Chris Waddle, Peter Beardsley and there, centre of the melee, Keegan, Captain Fantastic. My impending trip to St James' Park had created a vortex of jealous interest at my new secondary school, and rather foolishly, I’d started taking orders for Keegan autographs, even from girls. By the time matchday had arrived, I realised that I’d need to ask for ten separate signatures – a bit of a tall order. I approached Keegan with my heart pounding…

Lee: “Hello, Kevin, I'm from Doncaster!”
Kevin: “You’re from Donny, wow! Is Armthorpe still there?”
Lee: “Phhh! I think so! Can I have your autograph?” 
Kevin: “Yes, give me your pen. Eh, what colour’s this?”
Lee: “It’s red. It’s all I could find when I left home this morning.”
Kevin: “It’s not a popular colour round here, you know.”
Lee: “You did play for Liverpool, though – I thought you might like it.”
Kevin: “That’s true – well give it here.”
Lee: “Can I have ten autographs?”
Kevin: “Ten?!! Well, look, come back after the game, and if we win, I'll give you them all.” 

I had to accept this frail offer, but instantly realised I’d made a world-class cock-up, a cock-up that Mr Topham’s air freshener would have been proud of. During the match, I sat next to Liverpool manager Bob Paisley and was given a private commentary on how the match was shaping, but his accent was so strong that I could barely understand a word he was saying. In fact, when he introduced himself as “Bob Peersley”, I replied, somewhat confused: “Oh… you look a lot like Bob Paisley, the Liverpool manager.” He laughed like a wartime toilet, and it was only during the first half that I realised his 1890s Durham accent had caught me out, and he was indeed the Liverpool boss. As for shiny-tete Mr Topham, his energetic rabbit-like dashes down the touchline had caught the attention of the home massive. “Gan an, ya bald-heddad bunneeeeee!” they roared.

At the 90th minute, Fulham led 2-1, but Keegan grabbed hold of the match by its breeches, and by the final whistle, Toon had overpowered the Cottagers through sheer force of will and won 3-2. The victory meant I could still leave Tyneside with a full loaf. I made my way like an electric charge to the corridor by the changing rooms and stood patiently by a white-painted, scuffed wall. As jubilant Geordies dissipated, my ebb reached the relegation zone – he’d obviously beaten me to the changing room and I’d muffed it! But wait a moment, what’s this? Out of a mob of flat caps and brown raincoats, an excited throng of bipedal zebras, sponsored by Newcastle Brown Ale, approached, jumping, dancing and singing. Such was the jubilation of King Kev and his vertically striped cohorts that they rushed straight past me and before I could shout, the changing room door had slammed shut.

I think the tears were trickling down my cheek before the door had even closed. I wanted his signature like nothing else on the planet. Keegan had had my pen in his hand, and I still managed to mess it up! What I must have looked like in that hallway, I can only imagine, but a policewoman approached. I thought she was concerned at first, but then she asked how I’d managed to slip through security to gain entrance to the Newcastle United inner sanctum. Only by getting a grip of my senses was I able to tell Juliet Bravo that I was the personal guest of the linesman, the bald bunny. She quickly made up her mind that I was a confidence trickster and attempted to eject me into the black of the Newcastle night, where I’d have to sleep under a pile of Pink Uns until the boat came in. Thankfully Topham arrived like the shopkeeper in Mr Benn, otherwise I’d still be walking down the A1 today. It was a long, long drive back to Yorkshire. Mr Topham chuckled at my sob story and bought us fish and chips in Newton Aycliffe.

Back in Doncaster, I forged Keegan’s signature for my school pals – I can still conjure a passable Keegan scrawl to this day. What angered me most was that my peers didn’t really care if I’d managed to get the England captain’s autograph or not and lobbed the strips of paper in their Puma and Patrick bags. They were more interested in mischief or how expensive their trainers were. Seeing my anguish, family members sprung into action and very soon I had a huge, colourful poster of Keegan in an England kit with the message “To Lee, Best wishes, Kevin Keegan” in permanent marker. In the Seventies, Keegan was the best footballer in the world. Today, it would be almost impossible to secure the signature of Lionel Messi, but back when I was composing my own World Cup competitions, I wouldn’t have wanted anything from an Argentinian, because they were bloody cheats and foulers.

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