So its is now less than one week away from D-Day, signifying that I must dust off my proud parent smiles and prepare to declare to the world I have a newborn son and heir. I thought as a family we were ready for our new arrival, that was until earlier this week when I felt blindsided after having (as you do) a conversation about the beautiful game with our carpet fitter. It would be rude not to, right?
The day before hadn’t gone well as I had to move all objects from five rooms into rooms that weren’t being carpeted, so that underlay could be done properly. In addition to this life-threatening process I also had to sort workman’s tea all day long and spray the house with an untold amount of air freshener as the fitter God love him, was rather fond of a snout or two with his cuppa’s. Thankfully this was made bearable by the fact he was a nice lad. Naturally, it was my alpha male role to provide banter and probe him for vital information such as does he like football or rugby? Then taking said answer to embark on a 60-minute conversation (probably broken over four or five sessions) on the finer points of whichever code he preferred.
Living in the polar North as I do now (Bristolian by birth who attended University in London) it’s quite rare to bump into a ‘Saff Londoner’. But having spent the best part of seven years living between Wandsworth, Lewisham and Chislehurst you come across a good deal of the South London accent variations. So it was with delight and some surprise that our fitter introduced himself with a cheeky little handshake, a wink and an “alwight fellar”. Within .2 of a millisecond, I had guessed the approximate location of his upbringing. He was definitely ‘Deep South’ somewhere in the ‘Corridor of Darkness’ one mile either side of the A2 starting around Bermondsey headed as far out in a South Easterly direction as I affectionately call it, to the ‘Triangle of Doom’ suitably demarcated at its vertices by Deptford, New Cross and Lewisham. I’ve always said if the British Army fancied a change of scenery for the SAS selection course they might not find many more suitable UK locations to rival the bleak inhospitable and threatening environments offered up by the TOD.
Anyway as my man returned from his third ciggy I provided him with a bonus tea, which he hadn’t asked for and therefore I felt it within my power and influence to embark on ‘the journey’.
We quickly established he was indeed a Bermondsey boy so I was initially quite chuffed with my initial geo-positional accent deciphering skills. It then dawned on me his local club was most likely going to be Millwall. ‘Oh shit’, this could be a short encounter I unfairly thought to myself.
I went to the New Den once and that was enough to last me a lifetime. It scared the bejeesus out of me and it too should perhaps be used by the SAS as a tiebreaker solution if one is ever required because as sure as Stanley is a knife they don’t go to watch football there. No sir it’s an organised fear festival with a kickabout attached to it and a football match attached to that. However, every dog has its day and I remembered back to the FA Cup final and thought that this could still be quite fun.
It wasn’t long after I replaced the look of pain with one of happiness he confirmed his love for the Lions. I hypothesised that when you’re from that neck of the world you can’t really contemplate going East to the Hammers, UpWest to the Chavs or God forbid North to the Gooners or Tottenham. He agreed and described it as a proper rite of passage. We then discussed the pull of a club and how far the magnetism stretches.
Soon after he asked me “so who you do you support?” I stumbled around thinking long and hard as to what I should say, which was quite unlike me. Here were my options:-
Bristol Rovers FC
Born and bred in North Bristol means my default club is Bristol Rovers. Rovers hosted the first game I went to with my Dad. A turgid affair versus Fulham at Eastville Stadium 5th December 1981 Rovers were shyte and I remember a bloke called Dean Coney in the Fulham side making us look like total muppets. However, I was immediately coupled to the club because it was ‘my club’ and my Dad took me to that game got me a scarf, a program and a bag of eye-watering lemon drop sweets which I’m sure could have doubled as drain unblocker. It was magical. At the time, I was turning into half decent footballer, therefore, appreciated the finer points of the game and would from time to time keep my Dad company and attend matches with him. The buzz was cool even way up in the sparsely populated main stand. Even when I knew the foul-smelling bloke that gravitated towards us would tip up to every game, I still wanted to go. Even if I derived more fun from watching Booby Gould on the sideline than the players on the pitch.
It was that irrepressible bond between father and son that kept me going. It sure as hell wasn’t the tiki-taka football. It has to be said that from time to time Rovers would climb their way out of the 3rd and 2nd divisions on the back of a quality player like Gary Mabbutt, Olly, Nigel Martin, Barry Hayles. My best day out was the 2007 JPT final versus Doncaster Rovers at Cardiff Millenium Stadium. An amazing game versus a much superior side. Two nil down inside of six minutes only to claw it back to force extra time. Chances aplenty at both ends before disaster struck and we lost in extra time. But a wonderfully entertaining game and most fans left singing ‘Goodnight Irene’ until we lost our voices with our Yorkshire counterparts in various bars that night. So the answer I should perhaps have given was Bristol Rovers, but sadly I didn’t. Sorry Irene
Back then, loving football as much as I did, I knew I wasn’t going to learn that much from watching Rovers week in and week out. Neither was my Dad going to let me anywhere near Ashton Gate. Thank the Lord certain rights of passage come with a big luminous sign saying do not enter this ground, especially if you are thinking you might get a better quality of football here. You Won’t!
In some mysterious way, my Dad appreciated that while this experience was a crucial bonding exercise for the two of us, he was also a decent man with enough humanity to encourage me to watch footy on telly a couple of years prior to going to my first game.
So at the age of 7 in 1979 most of the kids at school had Nottingham Forest, Man United and Bristol City replica kits one nut job even had a Watford kit WTF? Anyway, I couldn’t help but notice that Liverpool were quite tasty. The likes of Thommo, Hansen and Phil Neale stood out at the back while Terry Mac, Souey, Ray Kennedy, Scammy Lee, Stevie Highway and King Kenny and Super Sub dealt with matters further up the park. I don’t know if it was the Liverbird crest emblazoned on the jersey’s that inspired thoughts of soaring beasts rising from the flames of Hades destroying allcomers compared to Forest’s bumbly tree or if I found at that early stage in life that Brian Clough was an arrogant git (albeit a very talented one or I just preferred King Kenny’s smile to that of Trevor Francis’s nonchalant Brummie swagger or Souey’s perm to Tony Woodcocks omni-afro or perhaps David Fairclough’s exquisite ginger albino exuberance over Peter Withe’s Missing Link look. Probably a bit of all of em’.
But the decision was made albeit subliminally to forge my allegiance to the mighty Reds of Anfield. How was I to know that was going to turn out like it did?
Initially, my love manifested itself in the replica shirt and the world’s largest investment in Panini stickers over the next 6 years. The cost only escalated from there as did the unbounded joy, happiness as did the sadness, worry and angst over the next 34 years. I’ll return to my how my allegiance has lasted as long as it has later.
My third option was to ‘go local’ much like a trip to the co-op or the NISA over a longer journey to Tesco or Booths if I’m feeling flush (For those who remain in the Kings Landing or any other part of South Westeros, Booth’s is the Winterfell equivalent of Waitrose per se). When I moved into the area about two years ago. I had the following options. Blackpool FC, Fleetwood Town, Preston NE or perhaps a sneaky little foray into non-league with AFC Fylde.?……….
Here’s how I ended up at AFC Fylde. Blackpool is run by a nutter who doesn’t care about the club or the fans or the performance of the team, think I’ll give that a miss. Fleetwood, on the up, nice ground, good progression from Non-league over the last decade, but a bit of a journey to take my siblings to.. Preston NE, the in-laws would never speak to me again. So posh non-league football down in the Vanarama North with AFC Fylde is where I go with my daughter. It’s a great little setup and currently, we’re Top of the League and promotion is looking like a reasonable shout. But I’ve only been going since the start of the season, so I’m hardly a seasoned campaigner, and as much as I have read up on the club and have got involved with some of the characters and shown my daughter the ropes with tours and visits to see the players and nice friendly club officials, I can’t really speak informatively about anything pre-August 2016
Now all of the above three answers flashed before my eyes and was processed in about 2 seconds before I blurted out “Liverpool of course!”. To which our friendly fitter raised his eyebrows and eyes to the sky and let off some form of derogatory harrumph of a noise, which he quickly followed up with a “Oh yeah that’ll be about right”. Just hang on for one cotton picking minute sunshine, I made that decision to follow LFC from Bristol at the age of 7 with my Dads subliminal guidance fuelled with Vim Drops. Furthermore, while the first decade or so of following LFC was let’s face it a sublime decision realising the most spectacular successes a boy could imagine, the majority of the next 30 years thereafter have been at times disastrous and at times horrific.
As early as the age of eleven my resolve was tested as I had to endure one of my heroes Phil Neale get gobby with my Dad while in a restaurant on holiday. I think it was Majorca when my Dad approached him to say my son is one of your biggest fans, (which was entirely genuine) only to get a load of attitude back. Thankfully my mother was on hand to calm things down, good job or Liverpool we’re probably going to be without a right back for a while. And me a father while he did a stretch inside a Spanish clink. But I learnt one very valuable lesson early doors from this, and that was (generally speaking and with a few noticeable exceptions) footballers at the highest level are arrogant and totally detached from reality and the people who love the clubs they play for. At that time I also had to absorb a constant tirade of abuse from my so called school mates for being the only kid with a Liverpool top, that was until about 1983 and I was about to go to secondary school by which time we had just nailed 3 out the 4 previous titles, a smattering of League cups and a couple of European Cups to boot. So stick that (you know who you are!).
From there it went to pot with Heysel. I fell out of love with the club and before we had secured another two league titles I was already playing and caring more about rugby. This transition coincided with the subsequent rises of United, Arsenal and latterly the Chavs and City in recent times. A 27 year stretch with only an evening of Turkish delight, a nail-biting trip to Cardiff and goal fest against some Portuguese no-hopers, to really write home about. The likes of King Kenny, Barnes, Rush, Fowler, Stan, Owen, Sammi, Carra, Stevie G, Torres, Pepe and Suarez to mention a few of the talents I appreciated all passed through and some even left for greener grass. During this ‘baron period’ we saw managerial appointments go horribly awry, the club purchased thugs over quality players, irresponsible ownership led to huge instability and near bankruptcy. Globally we were surpassed as a brand by many. Worse still the club and its fans had to endure the Hillsborough disaster and the aftermath which is still being felt today, thankfully I feel and hope we are near to some form of closure nearly three decades later. However, through it all, I remained a fan albeit at an arm’s length. Over the last decade, I have been further disenfranchised from the club by waiting for what seemed like an eternity for a season ticket only to miss my opportunity due to an admin error. Many could perhaps think I am a greedy sod for wanting more given the rich heritage of the club, but Liverpool football club has fallen so far from grace, the club is unrecognisable from the one I grew up with under the tutelage of Paisley & Dalglish.
Thankfully for him, I didn’t converse with the fitter about how I had fallen out of love with the club. I put up a token resistance to his dismissal and found myself waxing lyrical about AFC Fylde instead and how they played great football for the league they are in. It is perhaps easier to forgive footballers who have a bad game when they are paid the same as the rest of us? Furthermore, as I scribe my thoughts after witnessing another abject performance put on by the club tonight versus Leicester City, I feel that we haven’t even moved forward under Klopp as we languish in 5th place and will be sure to continue our descent as we plummet to 6th come the weekend.
In my humble opinion clubs don’t have a divine right to expect loyalty of their fans. Owners overtly treat their clubs as businesses, which I understand, but in return, I as a customer have a choice and want value. Perhaps a club as mighty and proud as LFC feels it can rely on / expect undying loyalty, but I propose it cannot. You only have to look around and see that the atmospheres have long gone from our stadia. The Premier League exists to market its product to a global audience which subsequently forces prices up whether you get a ticket for a game or subscribe to a non-terrestrial provider to get your fix. It’s a product that has mutated so much that corporate customers rule the roost and grass roots football is suppressed by the lack of investment that could so easily be cascaded and would do so much for the heart and soul of our game. So to conclude until owners like Mr Henry and Managers like Mr Klopp re-instil the principles such as the never say die spirit, a deep and visceral understanding of the way we should play and importantly an appreciation of the fans by the players and the club as a whole (all of which were the cornerstones laid by the likes of Shankly and Paisley) the shirt my son and daughter will be wearing for now at least will be that of AFC Fylde. By the way the carpet looks great.