Shirts and Stickers

As best as I can remember I’m in the back yard – standing on some grass? in bright sunshine. I’m about two foot tall, and in front of me is a photograph of what later turns out to be Pat Jennings. Pat is wearing a green jumper and the sort of smile that makes little boys feel very safe and secure.

I found that picture – in an old “Shoot!” – later on, when I had learned to read, and discovered that Pat was Player of the Year, so that bitty early memory, so specific and meaningless, comes from summer 1973.

In 1974 came my little Georgie Best shirt. The Georgie Best shirt was not, as you might have assumed, a football shirt. No; the Georgie Best shirt was a trendy number with long collars, dark with a natty pattern on it. I wonder if it was new? because we didn’t really get new clothes in my house, then, nor for a long time afterwards. And surely Bestie no longer had the boutique? Childhood mysteries: George Best, Nixon, Vietnam. Bad endings without new beginnings.

Because of the shirt, and my new stepfather’s attempts to pass on knowledge to a bewildered 5 year old, I heard of George Best long before I heard of Manchester United. Before I’d really, absolutely and decisively heard of football, in fact. The thought drifts by that it’s a lesson in fame. A rather empty thought, on the whole.

Manchester United came along next. Bored one summer Saturday (where was my stepfather on this occasion? He was a supporter, biroing “MUFC Champs” in plastic ’65 and ’67 diaries. Or have I misremembered this?) I span the tuning knob on our small black and white TV to find the FA Cup Final on, and United losing it. I thought they were the underdogs, and began to cheer them on.

At around that time, I became sufficiently intelligent to pick up what was a kind of family anecdote from twenty years before. The subsequent twenty years had been all that was required to take a sizeable Bedford family that was notably lacking in children and virtually wipe it out. My early memories are full of dying old ladies. And Pat Jennings.

The anecdote was about a trip to London, to see Bedford Town, then of the Southern League, take on Arsenal at Highbury in the FA Cup. The family album has blurred shots of fantastic railway points systems outside St Pancras taken from their hot, upholstered train compartment. Wikipedia:

But possibly their greatest achievement was to draw 2-2 with Arsenal at Highbury watched by a crowd of over 55,000 in season 1955-56. The Eagles nearly caused a major shock in the replay leading 1-0 until 4 minutes from time before going down 1-2 after extra time, having had 2 goals disallowed for offside.

Family outrage: the anecdote turned 2 disallowed goals into 5.

In my teens, I’d bike down beside Bedford’s wrecked, industrial river and gaze in late June light at the glowering back of Town’s grandstand. It didn’t look like a place to have fun, not by then. Perhaps it had been, back in the Meccano age of which it was a beached survivor. They brew Red Stripe on the site now.

I never went to see Bedford play, or anyone else for that matter until the mid ’80s. But having a father-figure into football meant afternoons in the park amongst slaughtered elm trees with a plastic Persian Blue size five. Then our dog arrived on the scene, and bit through it, and through its successor, and its successor, and we gave up and got a leather ball.

Come 1978. I’d watched my team win the FA Cup against Liverpool with all a boy’s expectancy and sense of entitlement. I didn’t know the players’ names, and I can’t have been looking out for George Best as I was still unaware that he’d played for us. But the Argentina World Cup brought Panini stickers into the playground, and a kindly mate gave me a few of his to get me started. Not to collect, mind. Only Giovanni was collecting them, and we were as excited by his progress through the album as we were about the World Cup itself. (He didn’t make it – who did, before Ebay? but he was single-figures short by the end).

No, this was all about competition. The cards were for a desperately-fought game of skill and chance played out playtime after playtime on the pavement outside the third year classrooms. In turns, you and your opponent would flick a card onto the floor. You tried to cover your opponent’s cards with yours – any card yours ended up on top of you could keep.

Fights could start over this, and did, but we also learned to trade. Little by little, my Manchester United card collection grew.

I didn’t care about any other clubs at all. Or about internationals. Or famous players. I could have had Cruyff. I could have had Rossi. Or the van der Kerkhofs or Zico. But I wanted both Greenhoffs, I wanted Coppell, I wanted Houston, Hill. Most of all, I wanted Stuart Pearson. When I was eight, I was the typical football fan – adored my club, hated the rest. I was a complete nuisance when we won, and couldn’t deal with losing, putting it down to cheats and black magic. How familiar and friendly that is, looking back.

If things had gone on that way, no doubt in time there’d have been records – 45rpm first, then albums: Sabbath, Leppard, KISS, or maybe Bob Marley who was a hero in Bedford – “Black Tom”, where I still lived, throbbed with reggae even then. Girls (I’d had a couple of puppy-love “girlfriends” in primary school) and perhaps a motorbike at 17.

I was still on course as the World Cup got underway. We put up a chart on the classroom wall, and wrote down who we thought would play in the Final. These penniless punters’ bets went into a sack, and vanished until it was all over. I was so proud of my own prediction – Italy v Peru – that I insisted on sharing it with the class – “One famous team will make it, along with a smaller team” or something like that. Rubbish, of course: the only reason I even knew Peru existed was Paddington Bear, and that they were to be Scotland’s first opponents came as distressing news.

One of my classmates actually got it right. I still have no idea how. At least he’d heard of Argentina. I only knew that that was where it was all happening. I didn’t know they had a team as well.

The World Cup was past my bedtime. I had to wait until morning school to catch up, and even then the news was utterly garbled by 8-year-old chatter. Something about Ally MacLeod’s name got him through the infant ether intact. But the rest became the kind of memory you check against official sources, years later, weighing what you remember but cannot believe against what really happened:

I don’t know if Scotland were already out when I picked up my first sporting injury in Bedford Park. I was keeping – dwarf conifers for goalposts, in those days – against my stepfather, who sent in a magnificent straight drive towards the right stick. He’d had to sidestep Duncan Edwards’ ghost to make the chance: I was unsighted by the absence of one of his doltish Sextonite successors, but still made the dive, twisting in mid-air to push the ball wide with the fingers of my right hand.

A greenstick fracture of the wrist isn’t something you need to worry about at your age. And it’s just as well that you’re past it: it hurts like you wouldn’t believe. And I admit it: I was carried home screaming uncontrollably, not in the manner of the tantrums to which I was then and still am prone, but because of the animal pain that just wouldn’t go away. And, behind it all, at the back of my mind, the knowledge that it had been a quite superb save. It would be a comfort to me as the months in plaster crept by – at least I’d kept it out.

I’d return to action prematurely after the plaster was removed, and nearly repeated the fracture in identical circumstances. But I wouldn’t have cared by then. Something far worse had happened, the thing we boys all feared most of all. I’d got glasses.

You resign yourself to it pretty quickly, even when they are National Health specs. I remember seeing a tree for the first time, in the full Shakespearian glory of summer leaf, standing wide and proud in the sunshine for all the world as though it wasn’t really the seventies. Because suddenly I could see it, in sharp detail. I’d never seen anything so beautiful. My eyes are deteriorating now, and I’ll never have another moment like that again.

But it means what it means. You are now and forever on the speccy side of the wire. Your complaints, as the cruelty begins with such automated promptness and efficiency, are muted. Because you know the rules: you are no longer good at sport – this coming only weeks after I’d made the school football team at centreback. You can forget about girls. You can’t fight. You have years ahead of you – you don’t know how many – of leaving blood in the water wherever you go.

You are also going to be prone to excess self-pity. But still. Goodbye to records, girls, bikes. During the summer, my stepfather took me around the railway carriage works at Wolverton, where his dad had been a fitter all his life. By autumn, I was with him and Ian Allen on platform ends at Derby, Reading, Crewe. Change comes fast when you are a child.

I’d had “the look” by then, too.

“The look” is familiar to most of you who are reading this. You’re at your little state primary school in the provinces. You’re sitting cross-legged on the floor surrounded by your peers. Your teacher is on a chair, smiling around at everyone. They’ve a thin book clutched all colourful to their chest, hiding its secrets, and they ask “Now then, has anyone heard of a man from long ago called Vasco da Gama?” And you can’t help yourself: your hand shoots up before anyone else can get in in front of you – you don’t know then that they won’t, that they never will and won’t care – and you’re piping on about the first circumnavigation of the globe..

The teacher gives you “the look.” You don’t recognise it at first. Because until now, doing well, getting things right, has been approved of, by and large. Of course, a lot of what you’ve been doing – colouring, shaping clay, BAGA gymnastics – you’ve been safely average at. You don’t know that those things have had their day now, and that it’s all about to change.

In some obscure way you are aware that you don’t like “the look” and it doesn’t like you. But you’re going to become familiar with it, and you’re going to do it the hard way, because it will take you a long time to realize what it means.

Eventually, “the look” tells you what it’s been trying to tell you. That first you were speccy, and thus on that side of the fence, the four-eyed brig prisoner of the little-boy navy and its immemorial customs. And then you go and make it worse for yourself by being clever in England. Now the fence, which you so ignored for so long as someone else’s unfortunate problem, is electrified, doubled and barbed, and patrolled with guns by those who you’d thought were friends and allies.

It will take you the best part of fifteen years to dig Tom, Dick and Harry out beyond the wire, with many a tunnel collapse and claustrophobic spasm along the way. And you’ll leave a fair few mates behind you, the people shared the blockhouse and the hard years with you and made the whole thing bearable.

Scotland made it back to the World Cup in 1982. There’s another dream you have to forget once you’re inside the wire. You know which one I mean:

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6 responses to “Shirts and Stickers

  1. What a marvellous story about Bedford Town. Can I take it you grossly dislike Charles Wells?

  2. Not all that fond of anything Bedford, come to that. Suffice to say that, within an hour of my getting home from my last day at school, I was on a train to London.

    Charles Wells weren’t really responsible for Bedford Town’s demise IMHO. Bedford’s a rugby town – won the Challenge Cup as recently as ’75 – and the football side were very poorly supported. Football was in decline everywhere and at every level at the time they closed down – crowds in the low hundreds etc. The new Bedford Town has real local support behind it and is thriving.

    Charles Wells Bombardier is a great bitter – and now Youngs brewing has moved to Bedford, so you can add things like Special and Double Chocolate Stout to the mix.

    I haven’t “had” Red Stripe since 1989 and a visit to a Jamaican restaurant in Oxford, who were so charming about never actually providing the drinks yet still billing us for them that we paid up with a smile.

  3. Hey …just come across your site via link from Clive Davis. Such a weird thing this internet. I, too, lived in Bedford for a while. And I was born in Glasgow. My dad moved us south when I was about 5 years old and we lived in the High Street and St Peter’s Street above shop premises where my dad worked before moving to Reading (where I’ve been ever since) in around 1965. So …I’ve lived nearly all my life in England and don’t feel I have a Scottish nationailty as such, yet I’m still in love with the Scotland fitba’ team. If anything, I see my self as a European first and then maybe British. Don’t know if this has any relevance to your blog and the post with the stuff about Ally McLeod and also “I Have A Dream” but I found it all very interesting. Take it you have a Scots background yourself.

  4. Furthermore, I used to go and see The Eagles at the old Eyrie! My best mate of the time, Richard Newman, his sister went out with Bedford Town’s winger Norman Cooley! Saw the FA Cup Ties against Carlisle Utd and Everton after The Eagles had reached the 3rd Round Proper. Had to stop going once I passed the 11-Plus and went to grammar school — which frowned on “posh” kids (not that I was!) mixing with the “lower orders”.

  5. If that was a grammar school in Bedford, then it was either “the” grammar, Bedford School, or BMS, where I ended up. I was considered “posh” myself at BMS, which gives you some idea, although it was my year that got voluntary football going out of hours and established the subbuteo league etc.

    I think I might just remember the Everton game, although in pre-internet days you could wait the best part of a week for a poorly written report in BoS to keep up with things.

  6. Can’t claim a Bedford connection, at least, not later than my great-grandfather, but my home town only differs by two letters. Other than that, and the glasses, and the fact it was rugby not football… This is a beautiful, insightful piece, thank you.