Wednesday, 31 December 2014

THE SIX AGES OF FAN



1950s And Before

“You can say what you like, but he wouldn’t have been able to do that with the old leather football”. Can’t help absent-mindedly scanning the Premiership table looking for Preston North End, still thinks of Wolves as one of Europe’s top sides, has a niggling feeling that there really ought to be two League teams in Bradford and calls Crystal Palace “The Glaziers”. Refers to players “breasting” the ball down and calls scarves and hats “team favours”. Would still take his rattle to games but police confiscated it in 1987 telling him “That thing would be lethal if you clocked someone with it” Admits that the maximum wage was a pernicious and unjust system, yet can’t help thinking that its abolition has ruined the game. Raised on Matthews and Finney he likes to see wingers taking full-backs on, but insists that “That Ronaldo wouldn’t have fancied it so much after Frank Brennan had put him into the stands with his first tackle (because that’s what he’d have done, you know?)”. Laments the passing of the good old-fashioned shoulder charge and the inception of mass goal celebrations. Greets the sight of a player rolling about in agony on the turf with a cry of “Tell his Mam to give him a jelly”. “Roy Keane? He’s a right Shirley Temple.”

 

1960s

“He wouldn’t have been spinning round on the ball like that if Dickie Rooks had been marking him”. Insists on taking a thermos of tea with him to matches despite the fact that throughout the 1980s police confiscated it from him “because you could throw it at someone” Can recall the exact qualification criteria for entry into the Inter-City Fairs Cup (“And you see that was how Newcastle came to be playing in it that year”). Still talks about Hartlepools, occasionally calls Everton “The Toffeemen”, thinks of Sheffield Wednesday as a top flight side and gets cross at the very mention of Antonio Rattin. At the back of his mind there is a feeling that the European Championship is a competition only countries from behind the Iron Curtain take seriously. Talks of “London’s fashionable King’s Road” and can name all the Miss World’s George Best slept with. Mists over at the mention of that golden summer day at Wembley. Still has his Star Player cards and “even after all these years if you sniff Colin Suggitt you can still smell the bubblegum”. Associates Saturday morning with Sam Leitch and would like to see The Home Internationals revived. “They’re in Division Two, or whatever stupid name they’re calling it these days”.
 
 

 

1970s

“You wonder what these modern players would have made of Cloughie”. Believes that the proper way to wear a football scarf is tied round your wrist, but whenever he does it the kids wail “like, stop being soooo embarrassing, Dad”. Cackles merrily at the very mention of The Watney’s Cup and the Daily Express five-a-sides and can tell you every team that won the Anglo-Italian without even looking in the stash of Jimmy Hill’s Football Weeklys he has in the loft. “Call that a dive? You should have seen Frannie Lee”. Never sees a big centre-half without repeating the old Jim Holton chant “Six feet two, eyes of blue…” Has the theme from Sportsnight with Coleman as his ringtone and says, “His application for re-election was rejected” when a workmate is made redundant. Can’t help wondering why goalkeepers all wear gloves when “Jimmy Montgomery pulled off that incredible double save with his bare hands”. Has those Shoot! League Ladders somewhere but has just bought five more sets on eBay just in case. Occasionally yells “Interesting…Very interesting!” for no apparent reason and has been heard to ask, “Whatever happened to the teleprinter?” more than once and grits his teeth any time anyone says ‘an assist’.

 
1980s

Is no stranger to the word Simod and will always think of it as The Littlewoods Cup. Secretly resents the fact that police no longer search him when he enters the away end at grounds. Used to rage against The Saint and Greavesie, but now he’s seen what was to follow can’t help getting a bit wistful for all those gags about Scottish goalkeepers. Still regards Oxo as a drink. Bitterly remarks “Where were this lot in 1988?” when he can’t get a wagonwheel because the man in front of him is demanding to know why there’s no sun-dried tomato paninis left. Recalls being made to remove the laces from his Doc Martens by police at Ipswich and views it as a reproof to “all these middleclass tossers who have turned up since 1990”. Don’t get him started on Toni Schumacher. Can sing Half Man Half Biscuit’s “All I want For Christmas Is The Dukla Prague Away Kit” all the way through, still has an inflatable banana and a box full of photocopied fanzines with names like Brian Moore’s Head and And Smith Must Score. Used to complain about the fact that you couldn’t hear the PA in grounds and tell people it was “a health and safety issues” but now rather regrets it as he listens to “The Power” by Snap at deafening volume for the 3,000th time. ‘He wouldn’t have lasted two seconds with Mick Harford’.
 
 

 

1990s

“They make all this fuss about Soccer AM but it’s not a patch on Fantasy Football”. Views the season ticket renewal notice as the real harbinger of summer. Wears replica Peru shirt with his nickname on the back in honour of his club’s brief liaison with a left-winger from Lima when watching away games in the pub. Can’t help wondering if the Cup-Winners Cup wouldn’t be worth reviving. Thinks 606 has never been the same since Danny Baker left. Has “Three Lions” as a ring tone. Still associates the words “dentists chair” with “that” Gazza goal against Scotland.  Will always hate Andreas Moller and occasionally wonders what happened to Maidstone United. Likely to start chortling if someone says, “Barry Venison’s mullet” or mentions John Barnes’ jackets. Views a mobile as an essential match day accessory and spends much of the game yelling, “Can you hear me? We just scored. Are you there? I can’t hear anything. I said, “We just scored”. Is still looking for Mark Draper (Notts County) to complete the 1992 Panini sticker album. “He plays in that position the legendary Teddy Sheringham once made his own”.

 

2000s

“So Gary Lineker wasn’t always a TV presenter then?” Looks blank if somebody mentions terracing or turnstiles and tends to base his assessment of players on how they perform in Pro Evolution Soccer 6 Platinum. Doesn’t really support a team as such, but takes a passionate interest in whoever Zlatan is playing for at the time. Owns replica shirts from a variety of Spanish and Italian clubs that were bought while on holiday in Portugal because “Y’know, I just sort of liked the colours, really”. Knows the precise difference between a Predator Absolute TRX and an AZT90 Lazer FG. Totally believes the stats and ratings on the Shoot Out Premier League trading cards. “No, look Craig Bellamy has got more stars than Hernan Crespo, so he must be better”. Thinks the “Easy” chant is nearly as funny as the bubble captions in Match! Wishes Tim Lovejoy lived next door and considers the visit to the megastore the key part of the match day experience. Doesn’t actually believe that football was invented by SkyTV but thinks it was “pretty boring” before they took over. Enjoys going to a game, but secretly wishes it was all a bit more like one of those cool Nike adverts. “What d’you mean, Gabby Yorath’s dad?”


HAPPY NEW YEAR!

 

 

Saturday, 20 December 2014

WE'LL TAKE GOOD CARE OF YOU...




The only thing my father liked about football was the crowd. He shared their pessimism. He enjoyed the sense of impending doom. He did his best to add to it.

The last time I went to a game with my father was in 1987, Middlesbrough versus Blackburn. It was Boxing Day. Both teams were battling for promotion from the old second division and Rovers had just signed Steve Archibald on loan from Barcelona. There were long queues at the turnstiles. The air was filled with expectation and a noxious festive fog of slim panatela smoke, after-shave fumes and the smell of new leather gloves.  Several of those around us were wearing knitwear so garish their only possible explanation was that a child had swallowed the contents of a kaleidoscope and then thrown up down the front of them. A man nearby was biting the tops off liqueur chocolates, swigging down the contents and nonchalantly tossing the chocolate bottles over his shoulder. Somewhere amidst this colourful and odiferous throng my father recognized a welder he worked with at Cleveland Bridge, Port Clarence. He was a big bloke with the drooping moustache of a gunfighter in a spaghetti western and a Raffles king-size clamped in one corner of his mouth. My Dad said, ‘I’ll ask him what’s happening. Find out where we’ll get in.’

My Dad tapped the bloke on the shoulder. He turned round, eyes narrowed, smoke streaming from his nostrils. ‘I didn’t think it would be as busy as this,’ my Dad said cheerfully.

The welder studied him a moment, ‘Well,’ he said, eventually ‘It’s bound to be isn’t it? If even buggers like you are turning up.’

With that he turned and walked away. Far from being upset by this exchange my Dad was greatly amused, ‘See the respect I command?’ he said.

We finally got into the Chicken Run in time to see Steve Archibald warming-up. And I’ve never seen anyone who looked more in need of warming up than Archibald. He was one of the most Scottish-looking men in history. Despite having spent several years in Spain his skin was still so pale it was practically luminous. He carried himself perpetually hunched as if walking into a gale force wind, always had his shirt sleeves pulled down over his hands and his head twitched about as if he was searching the pitch for a paraffin heater. I had a few mates who supported Spurs and they reckoned he was one of the sharpest strikers they’d ever seen. I’m not sure if that’s true, but he was certainly the coldest looking.

Archibald had scored 24 goals for Barca in 55 appearances. His reputation was such that every time the ball went near him you could feel the tension in the crowd rising; the anticipation of genius. In the end though nothing came of it. The game ended 1-1.

As we filed out a man to our left said, ‘There was this fucking bloke stood behind me, right? Fucking bloke. Every two fucking minutes he goes, ‘This could be dangerous’. Every two fucking minutes. Whole fucking game.’

And my Dad looked at me and winked.


 

 

Happy Christmas

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

BORDER CITY PLUG-A-THON

Last night I was at Gillford Park, Carlisle watching Celtic Nation v Benfield. Gillford Park is one of those grounds you can see from miles around but can only get to by a single, bewildering route that -if you are approaching from the railway station - involves walking right past the glowing floodlit rectangle and then hooking back on yourself across unlit parkland, presumably to throw off anyone tailing you.

It was pouring down. On London Road, near a drive-thru Pizza Hut, a car sped through a massive puddle, splashing me so thoroughly that if it had been a Laurel & Hardy film I'd have taken my cap off and found a fish under it.

Over the past few seasons the home side, buoyed by the financial investment of US-based Glaswegian carwash millionaire Frank Lynch, have barrelled up the pyramid, regularly attracting crowds of over 600 to their ground on the eastside of The Great Border City. There was talk of the Conference, even of the League. Alas, like Michael Knighton's plans to transform Carlisle United into a European superclub, the dreams crumbled like so many Carr's water biscuits. Another financially boosted side, Spennymoor pipped Nation to the top spot in Northern League Division 1 last season to earn promotion into the Unibond. This summer Lynch withdrew his backing claiming he couldn't run the club from Florida. Manager Willie McStay and many of the - by NL standards - highly paid players scurried away. The gloryseekers too have evaporated. Crowds at Gillford Park this season have wobbled around the hundred mark.



Part of my reason for going to Gillford Park was to see Benfield's veteran striker Paul Brayson. Brayson began his career at St James' Park back at the height of Keegan mania before moving on to Swansea, Cardiff and an assortment of other League and Conference sides. He is 37 now, but - as the blokes at Seaham remarked of the equally elderly legend Paul Walker when I was writing The Far Corner - 'He still has all the moves'. Brayson is a small, sturdy man capable of creating yards of space for himself with a barely perceptible twitch of his shoulders. So far this season he has scored 18 times for a Benfield side that has struggled to get out of the bottom half of the table. In the top flight of the Northern League only John Campbell of Jarrow Roofing and Consett's Michael Mackay can match him.

In Cumbria in the teeming rain, I sat in a main stand that smelled of petrol, behind two blokes who smoked electronic cigarettes and cleared their throats with such thoroughness they must have sucked the dirt out from beneath their toenails. On a pitch so marshy it was a surprise not to see a heron playing at centre-back, Brayson rarely touched the ball, expending most of his energy complaining at the referee. Benfield were 2-0 down at half-time. The gents toilet in the main stand is next to the away dressing room. Through the wall you could hear the clatter of studs and the manager yelling: 'We've missed three fucking chances. Three golden fucking chances in the first fifteen fucking minutes. The game kicked off at 7.45 not 8 o-fucking- clock.....'

I watch the restart, then begin the 45 minute walk back to the station to get the last train east. The rain keeps falling. By the time I get on the train even my pants are wet. My mobile buzzes. The game at Gillford Park has ended. Benfield have score five in the second half. Brayson outstanding. Go and see him while you can. It is worth a fiver of anybody's money - even your own.


On the train journey to Carlisle I read the latest issue (15) of The Blizzard. It's something of a North East special with excellent pieces by Jonathan Wilson on a sentimental walk from Roker to Wearmouth and George Caulkin on the grim situation at St James' Park. There's also a photo-feature on ex-Darlo target Tino Asprilla in which he dons the coat he wore when he arrived at Newcastle United in a snowstorm, and Scott Murray's account of the 1974 FA Cup Final (Geordies may need to read that from behind the sofa). Best of all is an edited extract from Michael Walker's new book on North East football  Up There.



I worked with Michael at The Guardian for many years and I am admittedly biased towards him since he looked after me at France '98, not only buying me meals when he found out the paper weren't paying me any expenses, but also intervening with the office manager to secure me a pay rise. Despite that I can honestly say that if I'd never met the author, or if he'd done me a grave injustice, I'd still heartily recommend Up There. It's brilliantly written, thoroughly researched, warm, passionate and funny.

You'll find Up There in local bookshops and on Amazon.

The Blizzard is available here:  https://www.theblizzard.co.uk/product/issue-fifteen/

Saturday, 13 December 2014

THE RIDDLE OF THE BROLLYMAN


The week it was announced that Steve McClaren would succeed Sven Goran Eriksson as England manager I was giving a talk at the Lit & Phil in Newcastle. Asked how I felt about the appointment I quoted Mark E Smith on Lard, ‘Success was the only fucking way we were ever going to get rid of him.’

McClaren’s spell in charge of Boro had been – by Teesside standards – a massive success, and yet…

 



You may think the new England boss Steve McClaren is barely interesting enough to justify the term enigma, but there is certainly one thing that is intriguing about the Yorkshireman – the reaction he has produced on Teesside. The rubicund 45‑year‑old is far and away the most successful manager in Middlesbrough’s history. He led Boro to their first major trophy, to their highest League position since the Second World War, a European final and two FA Cup semi-finals, yet despite that I have not met a single Boro fan who mourns his departure.

It’s not that there is much animosity towards him either, you understand. That would make the whole thing altogether explicable. As it is not even his most vociferous critics can quite put their fingers on what it is that so grates about a man who has had the Future England Manager label stuck on him ever since he walked through the doors of the Riverside Stadium for the first time.

True, he annoyed fans with his early flirtation with the Leeds job – a boyhood dream, of course. McClaren was born in York in 1961 and it’s hard to see anyone with his orthodox sensibility rejecting Billy Bremner et al in favour of chanting along with the Bootham Crescent Nutter Squad. And the moment when he got all giddy over the chance to succeed Sir Bobby Robson at St James’ Park still rankles. Certainly his Blairite pronouncement that “we must educate the fans” got up a lot of pipes because, as one veteran remarked at the time: “I’ve been watching football for 40 years and nobody is going to teach me that turgid crap is bloody fantastic entertainment.” His habit of saying “tremendous” after the limpest display was irritating, right enough, as was his insistence on “taking positives” from thrashings.

It has to be said as well that under his guidance Boro played a lot of desperately dull football that no amount of last-minute 4-3 UEFA Cup wins can quite erase. And that possibly is the crux of it.


“Big Mac” (as the tabloids dubbed him hopefully) comes tagged as a moderniser, a technocrat in the European style. At Middlesbrough he brought in a psychologist as his assistant and introduced vibrating warm-down chairs. On the field, however, things were altogether more predictable. To many fans McClaren’s main tactical innovation during his five-year reign appeared to be to instruct his team to spend the first 20 minutes of any match “taking the sting out of the game”, even at the Riverside. As such his was probably the only side in history who have set out to “silence the crowd” when they were playing at home.

Taken all in all, though, the reaction McClaren produced most was not anger, but apathy. Fans who were prepared to celebrate Bruce Rioch, Lennie Lawrence and Bryan Robson chanted his name so rarely that when they did – during an away game at Blackburn – people made a note of it.

There is nothing particularly the matter with McClaren. He isn’t boorish, bullying, a whiner, a moaner, or a bug-eyed mad man. He’s not an embarrassment. People simply didn’t warm to him. Maybe it was the caution of his pronouncements. In the countdown to taking the England job, rumour had it that he was taking lessons in presentation skills from an ITN newscaster. That seemed likely – after all, for most of his time at Boro he sounded like he was reading from an autocue. The politician’s smile, the measured tone of voice, the overriding sense that he was a man in transit, bound for something bigger and better.

McClaren is neither a bad man nor a bad manager. He is just a – what? Well, the word that springs to mind is “nonentity”. This is surely a very harsh judgment on a man who was assistant manager at Manchester United when they won the treble, but it has to be said that, like a dream, McClaren seems to fade inexorably from your mind the moment he’s gone. His rise from lower-division scuffler to the pinnacle of English management has been so seamless and free of incident it recalls the famous dismissal of David Frost as a man who “rose without trace”. I can’t shake the feeling that he’s employed PR Guru Max Clifford to ignite a few juicy scandals for him rather than defuse them.


 

The England boss is said to look like a coach driver*. But with his Fifties quiff, rosy cheeks and goofy grin he also calls to mind one of the minor characters from the holiday camp sitcom, Hi-De-Hi. He looks like the sort of bland, smiley Yellowcoat who would turn up occasionally to help the plot along (“You better come quick, Ted, the knobbly knees contest has turned nasty”), but not get any funny lines to deliver. Regular viewers would recognise him as part of the show but struggle to recall a single word he had said. In four years’ time England fans may feel exactly the same way.


*Mainly by me.

 

 
 
 
 

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

BACK OF THE NETTY

In 1998 Malcom Macdonald launched campaign to reintroduce street football into Britain. Nothing much seemed to come of the scheme, but at least I got a column out of it.



It is well know that the great footballers of yesteryear honed their skills as children playing 200-a-side matches in cobbled alleyways where the goalposts were piles of nutty slack, the half-time whistle was a cry of 'Away, man Bobby your tea's getting cold' and the ball was a turnip, or better still a pig's bladder. For as Wilf Mannion says in his autobiography, 'If you could control a pig's bladder you were a ruddy genius'. Or a pig, obviously.

Whatever the impact on ball skills, formative years spent playing street football also took their psychological toll. Men who learned their craft in an environment of rugged house-proud women in hairnets and tubby police constables who sent them packing with a clip round the ear developed behaviour patterns that no amount of later training could shake. For example, right up until the 1960s it was common for the British centre-half to react to a sliced clearance into the crowd by yelling 'Cripes that's going to hit Mrs Potts' front door and she's only just finished washing it, too!' before racing off the field to hide behind the nearest outhouse. Often he was followed by both sets of players. Little wonder the England team struggled in the post-War years.

This caveat aside, most would agree that the standard of football in England in the decades before and after the Second World War was markedly superior to that which is offered today. This is why Maclom Macdonald's newly launched campaign has been broadly welcomed. Amongst the doubters are some who see it as a retrograde step, and others who view it as by no means retrograde enough.

Falling into the latter camp with a loud bang and a cry of 'How buggeration!' is veteran North East football writer George Clarts. Clarts has in mind a far more radical programme than that proposed by Supermac. He has called on the FA to purchase the Beamish North of England Open Air Museum and turn it into a centre of excellence for England's junior footballers, who could learn their craft as their forbearers did, amongst the rattle of trams and consumptive chests.

According to Clarts, team spirit would be fostered by having the players sleep eight to a bed, except on the nights when the air raid siren sounded and they all went down into the cellar for a good old fashioned singsong, periodically interrupted by loud explosions and the appearance of a man with a sooty face and dishevelled hair yelling, 'Blimey, Dean Street just bought it.'

Training would involve a good deal of running - errands mainly - and the accuracy of shooting and passing would be ensured by hanging a line of freshly laundered sheets down the sides of the pitch, each line guarded by a team of powerfully built old ladies armed with rolling pins.

'You see,' Clarts explais, 'It was a totally different world back then. There's no use having the street, if you don't have all the rest. Would it be successful? I don't see why not. Look at who we had in them days. There was Mathews and Finney, Carter and Mortensen, Mannion and Lawton, Flannagan and Allen, Flanders and Swann, Wee Bobby Twatt and his Troublesome Trousers,'

'But you've got to realise, it was about more than just a bunch of scabby-kneed, jinking bairns, their heads kept warm by the freshly baked stotties their mams stuck under their caps before they shooed them outside of a frosty morning saying, 'Go out their and play football till sunset and mind you work on your range of short and long passing, and none of that ruddy stepover nonsense or your father will hear of it'. No, it was about the whole environment in which the players were brought up.'

'And that's why I'm calling on the FA to do the right thing and bring back rickets. Bring back rickets, and the sooner the better.'

Saturday, 6 December 2014

SNOW JOKE - A BEEF WITH MITTENS, OR SOMETHING

This was written long before Carlos Tevez and the snood controversy, provoked by a trip to see Boro v Coventry at The Riverside. At Harlepool last night no outfield players was wearing gloves, though the air was so cold even the Professor's 'smart socks' couldn't prevent his feet going numb. Amazingly two Poolies chose to mark the occasion by running on the pitch at half-time and dropping their trousers. Given the icey temperatures there wasn't much to see. Even Ha'Angus the Monkey's inflatable banana seemed to have shrunk.


During the 1930s Chilton Colliery met Stockton in a Northern League match. Despite protests that it was too cold for football, the referee ordered play to go ahead. In the 83rd minute the official was finally forced to concede defeat to the freezing temperatures and abandon the match. His decision came too late for the one of the players who had earlier collapsed with exposure.

Two decades later a game between Bishop Auckland and Shildon went ahead despite the fact that there was so much snow on the pitch that Bishop’s keeper Harry Sharratt (seen above in action at St James Park against Crook in the 1954 Amateur Cup Final first replay) was able to amuse himself during the first half by building a snowman on his goal line.

It was surely nostalgia for such displays of good, old fashioned senseless British pluck that provoked Alan Curbishley’s December 2000 outburst about players clothing. “When you wear woolly hats, gloves and all sorts you cannot play properly,” the Charlton boss thundered. And quite right too.

Older readers will recall a time when even goalkeepers didn’t dare wear gloves. Thirty years ago any child who tried to slip a pair on when taking up a position between the sticks would find the PE teacher sneering, “Oh dear does the nasty ball sting diddums lickle fingers?” The games master would then go on sarcastically to posit a future in which a generation of namby pamby stars would refuse to head the ball unless they were wearing a crash helmet, insist that the floodlights be fitted with heat bulbs and strap hot water bottles to their torsos on frosty afternoons (To judge by his body shape an approach already adopted by Phil Stamp).

The man who changed such attitudes to hand protection was seventies German goalie Sepp Maier. As an argument for legislation against the slow encroachment of gloves onto the field of play Curbishley could not do better than to cite the example of Maier. The Bayern Munich custodian started off with perfectly normal mitts but gradually expanded them until by the end of his career they looked like a pair of enormous flat-fish. Indeed naturalists believe that the noise of Maier clapping his hands to encourage his team mates is the nearest we will ever come to hearing the sound of manta rays mating.

Maier’s vast gloves were re-enforced with wire. In thousands of years time archaeologists will discover their skeletal, metal remains and conclude that during the latter part of the 20th Century a species of huge handed Homo Sapiens roamed Northern Europe until they all starved to death one Bank Holiday weekend because their mighty salami-like fingers were incapable of successfully punching their pin numbers into ATMs.


As if gloves were not bad enough, some overseas players are flagrantly wearing vests under their shirts. For managers of the old school, raised in the harsh environment of, well, the old school such developments must set alarm bells ringing. They know where it will lead. One minute it’s keeping his vest on during games, the next it’s a note from mother excusing him from showers because he’s going through “that shy awkward phase”.

At least vests are worn to keep warm, though. That cannot be the main purpose of gloves. If it were why would so many players wear them in combination with sleeveless shirts? When you are cold you cover up. And tuck your shirt in.

No, footballers’ gloves are a role-play thing. The mix of bare arms and black leather  makes the even the most soft-hearted winger feel like they are in a cyberpunk movie or a motorcycle gang. They think they look cool and tough. Keep an eye out and you may even see the odd bustling midfielder throttling up an imaginery Harley with his right hand before accelerating off into the opposition half.  

Gloves are just fashion masquerading as utility. They are a fad like cycling shorts. Half-a-dozen years ago there was not a striker in the land who did not don a pair of these form-hugging garments. They were so ubiquitous the FA even had to legislate on their colour. The lycra trunks were supposed to guard against hamstring strains, though the main effect may well have been psychological. They suggested dynamic bursts of speed even where none existed, the football equivalent of the go-faster stripe. And where are they now? Mouldering in the back of the changing room lockers with the peroxide bottles and those strips of elastoplast players used to stick across their hooters to increase oxygen intake. My guess is that if Curbishley bides his time the gloves will join them there before too long. 



    

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

HATFIELD'S AND THE WRONG MCCOY

Woke up the other morning thinking of the first football I ever owned, an Ayresome Angel. It was white with red lettering, lasted for years, then burst on a rose bush in the Valley Gardens, Marske. I bought the football at Jack Hatfield's...

 
 
Back in the 1960s shopkeepers in Britain took a particular delight in telling you they didn’t have what you wanted. You’d ask them for something and they’d shake their heads, all the while giving you the affronted yet superior look of a Salvation Army general refusing whisky from a drunk Catholic.

Jack Hatfield’s Sports Shop in Borough Road, Middlesbrough was different. In Hatfield’s they didn’t have what you wanted, they had something far better than that: they had what you needed, you just didn't know it yet.

Jack Hatfield had opened his sports shop in 1912. Hatfield was from Stokesley. He was a national and local hero. In the Stockholm Olympics of that year he’d won two individual silver medals in the swimming pool and a bronze in the relay. For a man from the North Riding of Yorkshire that was a phenomenal effort. Because Hatfield’s main rivals were Australians and Americans, men who trained in the warm azure waters of the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea. By contrast, Jack Hatfield trained in a pond in an ironstone quarry in Gribdale called The Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon wasn’t a lagoon, obviously, but it was otherwise aptly named. The water in it really was blue. It wasn’t the cerulean blue of the Aegean, admittedly. It was a sort of opaque, milky blue. It looked quite a lot like anti-freeze. And indeed it may have been.
 
 

After training in the Blue Lagoon, Jack Hatfield went over to Sweden and finished second in the 400m freestyle and the 1,500m freestyle. And, as my Granddad often said, ‘If the swimming pool in Stockholm had had dead dogs and dumped bedsteads in it he’d likely have won both.’

Off the back of his triumph Jack Hatfield set up his sports shop and he did a roaring trade. By the time I started going Jack himself was dead and the shop was staffed by an assortment of his sons and nephews.  

My first encounter with the staff at Jack Hatfield’s came remotely, but it set the tone. I was at infant school. My mother had promised to go into town and buy me a Boro shirt. The atmosphere in Hatfield’s was always frenzied. The brothers were fantastic salesmen. They shouted and yelled and rushed about, scaling ladders and rugby passing shoeboxes and tennis racquets to one another over the heads of customers. It was like being in a Marx Brothers movie. Perhaps it was this that bamboozled my mother, because instead of buying me a plain red Middlesbrough shirt she came back instead with the red-and-white stripes of Stoke City. The Stoke City shirt differed from that of Sunderland by dint of having white collar and cuffs instead of red. This subtlety was lost on my contemporaries and for years I would be saluted with a cry of ‘Ay, ay, it’s Colin Suggett.’

My mother had also purchased me a pair of shin pads. These were of ancient vintage – I have some vague idea they were endorsed by Charles Buchan - and stuffed with horsehair, to which, judging by the weight of them, the horse was still attached. When I put them down my socks they made my shins so thick I had to run with my feet wide apart like Frankenstein’s monster.

 

Within a few years I had become seriously addicted to Subbuteo table football. The teams came in green cardboard boxes and there were hundreds of different ones to choose from.  The teams were quite expensive. I had to save up. All the while I was saving I was studying the Subbuteo catalogue - which had pictures of all the teams in it - and deciding which to buy.

When I’d made my choice I’d go to Jack Hatfield’s. Hatfield’s had the biggest range of Subbuteo teams on Teesside. I’d go in through the door with my money in my hand. ‘I would like to buy a Subbuteo team, please.’ I’d say, ‘I would like to Ajax of Amsterdam, winners of the European Cup.’

The salesman in Jack Hatfield’s would consult his racks of teams. He’d shake his head. He’d say, ‘Ah, now, I don’t have Ajax of Amsterdam, but I tell you what I do have...’

And five minutes later I’d leave Jack Hatfield’s Sports Shop with a big smile on my face and a brown paper bag containing a team. It was not the XI of Cruyff and Neeskens that had revolutionised the game, but something far, far better than that. It was a 00 scale version of Alloa Athletic.