It was the summer of 1986. England’s World Cup campaign in Mexico had begun dismally, a defeat to Portugal and sterile draw with Morocco brightened only by the sending off of Ray Wilkins.
For the vital game against Poland a large crowd assembled in the front room of our flat in North London. A few minutes after kick-off my flatmate Pete’s girlfriend, Annie, appeared bearing what appeared to be a cable-knit giant squid in her arms. “You’ve got to try on this winter pullover I’m knitting you”, she said to Pete.
Pete protested that this was hardly the time for such matters since all his concentration must be directed at the screen if England were not to continue floundering, but Annie was insistent. And no sooner was the vast jumper pulled over Pete’s head than Gary Lineker scored. By the time Annie had finished fiddling about with the sleeves the Leicester striker had completed a hat-trick and England were through to the knock-out stages. Others said the transformation in fortunes was down to the inclusion of Peter Beardsley and Steve Hodge in the starting line up. We knew different.
For the game against Paraguay we insisted that Pete wear the half-completed winter woolly from kick-off. This required some sacrifice on his part, because it was a hot summer evening, the windows of the flat were all painted shut and our Barbadian landlord, who lived below, insisted on having the central heating turned up full blast all year round. As a consequence the place was as hot and humid as a skunk factory. Sweat poured down Pete’s face at such a rate it put out his cigarettes. By the end of the game he had lost more weight than the players. England won 3-0, again.
Before the quarterfinal Pete unexpectedly began to voice reservations about his pivotal role in our game plan. “I’m wondering whether I should wear the lucky jumper for this one,” he said.
“What are you on about?” We responded, “Argentina are one of the best teams in the tournament. How can you even think about discarding the lucky jumper? Against Maradona we’ll need all the lucky jumpers we can get”.
“Well, yes, I know all that,” Pete said sadly, “It’s just I’m thinking that if I wear the jumper and England lose, then it won’t be lucky any more, will it?”
I knew what he meant. In the 1980s my friend Tim got his first car. He used to drive to Ayresome Park in it on match days. Whenever Middlesbrough won Tim announced that he had discovered a lucky route to the ground. In the mid-1980s Boro did not win very often. No sooner had Tim found a lucky route than its magical powers were shattered by a home defeat to Notts County or Shrewsbury. By the middle of the 1985-86 season Tim was approaching Ayresome Park via Sheffield and Preston, a somewhat circuitous procession since he lived near Sedgefield.
A few years back Tim wised up. Instead of having a lucky route to games he started taking a lucky route returning from them. Given Boro’s patchy form under Tony Mowbray and the rising cost of diesel this was undoubtedly a good thing. Some will say the idea that something that happens after a match can have any bearing on what goes on during it is totally ludicrous. Despite Sepp Herberger’s maxim that “After the game is before the game”, the doubters may have a point. It is certainly true that believing that Tim’s choice of whether to use the Newport Bridge, or opt instead for the A19 Tees Viaduct on his way home, requires a certain suspension of logic, but isn't that what being a fan is all about?