A ROAD LESS TRAVELLED

This is just a bit of a round-up of stuff. Last autumn, I came up with what seemed like the  great idea of following the FA Trophy from the earliest round through to the final, sticking with a team until they were knocked out, then going to see their conquerors in the next round and so on.  Which is why I found myself in Cambridgeshire on a Sunday afternoon in October, watching St Ives Town play Rugby Town in the preliminary round of the competition. Needless to say, life soon got in the way – aided and abetted by postponements and  replays – and after three rounds I had to give up my quest.

2015-10-04 14.54.18I did, though, start a blog to document my “Road to Wembley” and actually wrote up a couple of posts, so if you’re interested in non-league football and want to have a read, click here.  You’ll also find pictures from the following round’s tie between St Ives and Kettering Town there. If that tickles your fancy, visit my Flickr page, where there are pictures from Kettering v Burscough. And if that’s not enough non-league match-day stuff for you, then, as Jimmy Cricket would say, there’s more…  specifically pictures of Boston United against Solihull Moors.

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ABANDONED: ROCKINGHAM ROAD, KETTERING

2016-03-03 12.10.56On a door on the main stand at Kettering Town’s old Rockingham Road ground, someone has daubed the words “KTFC WILL NEVER DIE.” It might be a trite slogan, but it’s almost certainly true. No matter how badly they’re treated by the people entrusted with their well-being, football clubs generally don’t die. If a club really matters to the community it belongs to then the chances are it will survive, even if it is in a much-diminished form. Kettering are living proof – but only just.

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2016-03-03 12.04.51A decade ago, the Poppies found themselves in the unlikely position of being at the centre of the football world. In October 2005, the non-league club’s new owner Imran Ladaak revealed that Paul Gascoigne, the most famous and most talented footballer of his generation, was the new manager. It was an announcement that took absolutely everyone by surprise, possibly including Gazza himself. His role was to coach the part-time Conference North club, to the upper echelons of English football and at the same time bring the crowds into Rockingham Road. Anyone who knew anything about Gascoigne should have known that the former was never going to happen but he certainly achieved the latter, albeit briefly.

Gascoigne’s first game in charge – an FA Cup defeat to Stevenage – attracted a crowd of more than 4,000, compared to the usual 800 or so. It was the biggest attendance seen at the ground in years. Fans were caught up in the hype and for a while bought into the notion that the club was heading for the top. Sadly the Gazza revolution came to a swift and predictable end. He fell victim to the personal demons that have plagued so much of his life and lasted just 39 incident-packed days in the job. The media circus moved on from Northamptonshire, and Kettering Town fell back into obscurity as far as most of the country was concerned. But for the fans it turned out to be the start of a nightmare that they still haven’t properly emerged from.

2016-04-14 13.11.54Stalwarts of the non-league scene, Kettering had enjoyed moments in the spotlight before. In the mid 70s they were the first English club to have a sponsor’s name on their shirts when chief executive Derek Dougan signed a four-figure deal with a local tyre company. The move caused predictable uproar at the FA and the club was threatened with a fine if they didn’t remove the advertising. Another slightly more bizarre claim to fame is that they were apparently the first – and, for all I know, the only – club to have their initials spelled out in their floodlights.

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2016-03-03 12.20.41Those floodlights still stand today, looming over the crumbling stadium that had been Kettering’s home since 1897. In August 2011, with the lease on Rockingham Road – or the Elgood’s Brewery Arena as it was officially known – coming to an end and a long-term agreement apparently not forthcoming, the owners made the ill-fated decision to move out. The team took up residence at the former home of Rushden and Diamonds, Nene Park, and a few months later Rockingham Road was repossessed by bailiffs. It has lain empty ever since, gradually falling apart and slowly being reclaimed by nature. The land has been put up for sale and is expected to be purchased by housing developers.

However there could be a glimmer of hope. Kettering, after a nomadic five years of drifting from one Northamptonshire ground to another, continue to search for a home in the town. This month the club submitted an application to Kettering Borough Council for the Rockingham Road stadium to be listed as an asset of community value, with a decision expected within eight weeks. This would give them the opportunity to bid should the land be sold, although there would be no guarantees that they’d be able to match a commercial offer. Without the classification, the possibility of a return to Rockingham Road would seem unlikely and the longer the stadium is allowed to deteriorate the chances of it ever being used for football again diminish.

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And that’s a great shame. When it closed in 2011, the ground had a capacity of more than 6,000 and with its huge main stand, towering floodlight pylons, traditional terracing and red-brick perimeter walls, Rockingham Road still looks and feels like a real football ground, a throwback to a traditional style of British stadium that is fast disappearing. First impressions as you walk round the outside are that, apart from a few patches of rust, it looks to be in surprisingly good condition for a structure that has been abandoned for so long.

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Inside it’s a different story. All the plastic seats in the 1800 capacity main stand have been removed and the offices and food outlets trashed and stripped of anything of value. Windows are smashed and walls covered in graffiti. Trees and bushes have pushed through the concrete terracing and the pitch is overgrown with weeds and shrubbery. Some intruders have placed chairs on the playing field, presumably for an al fresco drinking session. Pitchside adverts for the likes of Dr Marten’s, British Steel and McDonald’s, as well as numerous local businesses, remain in place, paint peeling and colour fading. It’s a sorry sight and for fans of the club a frustrating one.

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The supporters have suffered much since the end of the Gazza debacle. Things started off well enough, with Kettering winning the Conference North in record-breaking fashion the following season. Subsequent FA Cup runs brought finance and profile and for a while it looked like the club was moving in the right direction.

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Then it started to go badly wrong. The move to Nene Park – itself now abandoned – never worked out and financial chaos quickly followed, with players not being paid and huge debts being run up. Eventually the club entered a CVA agreement that saw the team being relegated two divisions, deducted points and having a transfer embargo imposed. To add to the turmoil businessman George Rolls, who had taken over day-to-day control of the club from Ladak in February 2012, was suspended from football for five years after breaching Football Association betting rules.

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2016-03-03 12.09.27In October 2012, a humiliating 7-0 defeat in a game in which they could only field 10 players seemed to signal the end. With Nene Park no longer available, and a lack of registered players meaning they were unable to field a team, several games were postponed until a temporary home at Corby was found. Now at long last, with a team of volunteers led by club chairman Ritchie Jeune now at the helm, there are signs of stability.

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35The Poppies are currently in the Premier Division of the Southern League and going for promotion. They  play a few miles outside Kettering at Latimer Park, ground sharing with Burton Park Wanderers of the United Counties League. It’s been a nightmare few years for Kettering but a move back to their spiritual home at Rockingham Road remains the dream.

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LIVE AID: THE GLOBAL JUKEBOX

It’s 30 years since Live Aid. Whatever you think of the concert and the motivations behind it, there’s no doubt it was an era-defining event. Everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing when it was on – although for most people it was nothing more exciting than sitting in front of the telly in their front room. I was on a school holiday in Italy and watched part of it in the hotel’s TV room and part in a cafe at Venice airport as we headed home. I heard the tail end of it on the radio of the coach taking us home from Gatwick to Glasgow. Not quite on a par with Phil Collins’ transatlantic jaunt but impressive nonetheless, I’m sure you’ll agree.

cover_bigBy now everyone knows the accepted narrative of the concert – how U2 and Queen stole the show with their bombastic performances at Wembley. But we don’t care about them or their ego-driven, career-enhancing, cynical opportunism. Nor do we care about Bob Geldof swearing on live TV, even though he didn’t actually say what everyone thinks he said.

What we do care about though, are the acts that made Live Aid the truly international event that it was… just about. Back in the mid-’80s, Johnny Foreigner wasn’t taken seriously as a pop force in the UK. After the demise of chart titans Abba and Boney M, the Top 10 here was rarely troubled by European artists, and when it was, it was almost always dreadful one-off hits from mullet-and-moustachioed horrors like Opus (“Live Is Life”) and Art Company (“Susanna”).

This was a problem for Live Aid, the self-styled Global Jukebox. The main event, of course, was split between London and Philadelphia, but to maintain at least a façade of international involvement the organisers clearly felt they had to feature contributions from other parts of the world. Hence, the output from Wembley and JFK Stadium was interspersed with live and pre-recorded segments from events taking place elsewhere. For the baffled TV audiences this was the ideal opportunity to pop the kettle on and get ready for the next act they had actually heard of. But if they’d bothered to hang around they would have got to see some top-class entertainment, although not necessarily in the way intended.

The first overseas segment wasn’t too bad – Australia’s Oz For Africa was headlined by INXS, who had already enjoyed some international success and would soon become bona fide rock stars around the world. Time differences meant the Sydney concert, featuring a load of Antipodean pop stars including Mental As Anything and Men At Work, had taken place the previous night. The compere was Aussie pop TV legend Molly Meldrum, best known in the UK for his excruciating interview with Prince Charles in the ’70s. He also fronted the Australian TV coverage of Live Aid itself, which mostly seemed to involve random punters walking in off the street to hand bundles of dollars to Molly (for the charity obviously, not for him to stuff in his wallet), and in the absence of any actual famous people to interview, become a studio guest.

The Oz For Africa segment fell between Wembley performances from Adam Ant and Ultravox, fairly early on in proceedings. The acts shown in each country depended on the local broadcasters, and in the UK, the BBC showed two INXS songs, “What You Need” and “Don’t Change”. Michael Hutchence put in a fairly standard ‘80s rock-god performance, all hair-tossing, loose fitting vests and that weird dancing-on-the-spot thing that Courtney Cox does in the Bruce Springsteen video.

Then it started to go a bit weird. Sandwiched between Ultravox and Spandau Ballet, we were treated to the Japanese contribution. Japan is not renowned for its impact on the international pop-scene and from this evidence it’s not hard to see why. This was also pre-recorded but this time in a studio rather than as part of a concert. First act was the heavy metal band Loudness performing their hit “Gotta Fight”, complete with Spagna-style frightwigs, a star-shaped guitar and a lot of spandex. According to the introduction they were “known internationally through their records” but you would have been hard-pushed to find many people outside of Japan who’d ever heard of them.

Next up, according to the voiceover guy, was “a group of pop artists with beautiful harmony and sophisticated sounds.” Off Course had been around since the mid-‘60s and were apparently the founding fathers of Japanese folk-rock, a hitherto unknown musical genre to me, and not one I’ve encountered since. A few seconds into their pleasant song “Endless Night”, the feed from Fuji Television went down, forcing BBC presenter Richard Skinner to waffle to camera for a bit before the link returned.

The name might not mean much here, but Eikichi Yazawa is rock royalty in Japan. He came to prominence in the 1970s as part of the band Carol then as a solo artist and by the time Live Aid came around he was established as one of the country’s biggest pop stars. Sadly his contribution to the Global Jukebox, “Take It Time”, was as insipid musically as it was illiterate, sounding like something that had been rejected as a filler track for the soundtrack of a low-budget ‘80s action movie.

Finally, the producers unleashed a sweaty Motoharu Sano (“known internationally as Moto Sano”) to sing about “the dilemma between human conscience and greed” on his song “Shame”. The chorus, sung in English for added impact on the global stage, went simply “I’m Angry, I’m So Angry”. We felt his pain. To be honest we were all getting a bit annoyed by now.

Austria was next to get its moment in the limelight, with a live rendition of their Band-Aid style single, “Warum?” (Why?) Austria Für Afrika featured such Austrian pop luminaries as the aforementioned Opus and er, well… lots of other really famous stars. Like most of the Band Aid-style charity records, the song itself was truly appalling. In particular, the line “We’re sending money so we don’t feel bad” was, regardless of intent, right up there with Bono’s infamous “Tonight, thank God it’s them instead of you” in terms of morally-ambiguous messages. Warum, indeed.

Rather than inflict any of their home-grown popsters on the world, the Dutch sensibly chose to provide a live link to BB King performing four songs at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam. From the country that was soon to produce MC Miker G & DJ Sven this seemed a wise decision. In contrast, Yugoslavia decided to focus on its own version of Band Aid, Yu Rock Mission, during its five minutes of fame. It was something of a rarity to get a peek behind the Iron Curtain at the time, and although Yugoslavia was the most open and “Western” of the Eastern Bloc countries, the grainy pictures from Belgrade were still an eye-opener.

The charity song “For A Million Years” was a predictable cocktail of platitudinous, clichéd lyrics and vapid melody, but what really made it stand out was the absolute state of most of the performers (not to mention the fact that they appeared to have forced numerous reluctant-looking children from a variety of ethnic backgrounds to appear in their video).

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The segment from the J-R T studios was presented by Mladen Popovic, an editor on a local pop magazine show, who wrote the lyrics to the song. Looking a little like a podgy Sheldon from Big Bang Theory and sporting a standard ‘80s-issue lemon jacket with de rigeur rolled up sleeves, he seemed affable enough what with his little finger-shaking gestures and his message of hope to the watching masses: “We know that music cannot change the world, but it can make it little better place to live in.” Wise words.

By now it was late afternoon in London, and after half an hour of Sting and Phil Collins boring for Britain at Wembley, followed by Rick Springfield and REO Speedwagon doing likewise in Philadelphia, everyone was in need of pepping up. So where better to turn to for a bit of cheer than Eastern Europe’s fun capital, Moscow?

It’s fair to say the Soviet authorities were somewhat wary of popular music and its related culture, what with its rebellious undertones and close associations with American culture. This was a time when bootleg cassettes of Bruce Springsteen albums and pairs of knock-off Levi jeans were selling on the black market for upwards of three or four beetroots each. Russians were clearly desperate for rock ‘n ‘ roll. Instead they got Autograph… Genesis without the fashion sense. Or the tunes. Or the lead singer dressed as a sunflower. Or, in fact, any redeeming features whatsoever. Despite being an art/prog rock band 10 years after the rest of the world had  moved on from such nonsense, they had built a huge following performing hundreds of live gigs across the USSR. So when Live Aid came around, they were the obvious (only?) choice to represent the Soviet Union to the world.

Screen Shot 2015-07-13 at 15.14.42Predictably, errant technology almost ruined their moment. After a gushing introduction from Richard Skinner, the satellite feed switched to Moscow. We got the sound OK; an introductory speech from ubiquitous and slightly sinister Russian spokesman-to-the-West Vladimir Posner followed by some tuneless, cod-reggae guff. But rather than pictures of a rock band strutting their stuff on stage, we were instead treated to a bizarre, silent film of Bulgarian cherry pickers. It says a lot that it took an age for anyone – including the BBC producers – to realise that this was a technical error and wasn’t actually the Soviets’ idea of a pop video. It took more than two minutes for the penny to drop and the correct switch to be flicked, allowing Autograph to finally burst onto our screens in all their glory. As suspected, we weren’t missing much.

The next “truly worldwide” moment came from the foot of Cologne Cathedral in West Germany, where Band Für Afrika – made up of the cream of the German pop world – performed their fundraising song “Nackt Im Wind” (and yes it does mean Naked In The Wind). It was predictably awful – worse even than the Yugoslav effort. But before the performance got underway, we had to sit through a heartfelt, if somewhat rambling, political statement from veteran rocker Udo Lindenberg condemning the West for squandering billions on “murderous weapons” while Africans died of starvation. The governments in Washington and the Kremlin, he declared, were “sick in the head”. He had a point, although the rant seemed strangely out of kilter with the general non-political nature of the event.

The final overseas segment came from Oslo and the Norwegian version of Band Aid, imaginatively named Norway For Africa. The video of Kenny Loggins and Sheena Easton introducing this for MTV as they attempted to present Phil Collins is up there with Mick Fleetwood/Sam Fox at the Brits in the toe-curlingly embarassing stakes. Not least because of Sheena’s amazing Hollywood-via-Bellshill accent. Meanwhile, Norway’s pop stars turned out to be a rum-looking lot, including one bloke dressed in skimpy shorts, clumpy shoes and a Hawaiian shirt, one who looked like an ‘80s geography teacher and another who could have passed for Jerry Sadowitz on a dark night. The video also featured standard-issue, multi-cultural children, who were forced to stand and stare longingly at a market stall filled with cherries.

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I like to believe that the cherries on the market stall were the same cherries being picked by the Bulgarian teenagers earlier. Now, how amazing would that have been?

VORWARTS INTO BATTLE: A COLD WAR CLASH

The history of European football is littered with the names of once famous and successful teams that have, for one reason or another, fallen on hard times and plunged headlong down the dumper. Sometimes they can still be found slugging  it out in the obscurity of local amateur leagues – but often they simply cease to exist altogether.

dfs_wl_ddr_berlin_vorwaerts_ask[1957_1966]Nowhere is this more common than in the former Eastern Bloc, where football clubs were often little more than a plaything of the various wings of the State and found themselves unloved and unwanted when the old regimes either got bored and moved on to something else or stopped existing themselves. One-time giants of the East German game, Vorwärts, are a perfect example. Regular competitors in the European Cup in the sixties, the name has now completely vanished from football. A brief run through the complicated history of this club reveals that it had a confusing time of it over the years, to say the least.

Founded as the army club KVP Vorwärts Leipzig in 1951, the authorities evidently felt the lack of immediate success meant a change was required, so two years later moved the club 100 miles to Berlin and renamed them ZSK Vorwärts Berlin. The next season they underwent another subtle transformation, being re-named ASK Vorwärts Berlin, a decision that clearly had the desired effect, setting the club off on a period of success which saw four Oberliga championship wins between 1958 and 1965. A further change to FC Vorwärts in the mid-sixties preceeded another couple of league wins, before the club moved again, this time to the city of Frankfurt an der Oder, to replace the local secret police sponsored side. After re-unification in 1990, the club dropped its affiliation with the army and became FC Victoria Frankfurt/Oder before changing again to Frankfurt/Oder FC Viktoria 91 and sinking into the depths of the German non-league. In 2012, they merged with another local club to form 1 FC Frankfurt.

It is all a far cry from their Oberliga-winning glory days of the fifties and sixties and their regular forays into the European Cup. It was during one of those European campaigns, in 1961, that the players of Vorwärts and Rangers found themselves at the centre of a Cold War political and diplomatic storm. In the preliminary round of the European Cup, Vorwärts had been drawn against Northern Irish champions Linfield. After a 3-0 win in Berlin in the first leg, the East Germans were refused visas to enter the UK, and as Linfield couldn’t raise the money to travel to a neutral, alternative venue, Vorwärts were given a bye into the next round where they would play Rangers.

The first leg in East Germany in November 1961, took place only months after work had begun on the Berlin Wall, which would physically divide the two halves of the city. The decision by East German leader Walter Ulbricht, and approved by Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev, to create the partition was made in a bid to stem the flow of economic migrants from east to west and secure the future of the East German economy. With defectors facing being shot if they tried to cross the wall, tensions were high on both sides of the Berlin divide.

vorwaerts-rangers61-62It was in this context that Rangers travelled to East Berlin to face Vorwärts at the Friedrich-Ludwig-Jahn-Sportpark. The Scots won the first leg 2-1 through a penalty by Eric Caldow and a header by Ralph Brand and, although he had not been prominent in what was a scrappy match, Jim Baxter reportedly cheered up the 14,000 East German fans with his skill in setting up the second goal.

Under normal circumstances, Rangers, of course, would have defended their lead at Ibrox in the second leg a week later. However with the Cold War at its height, these were far from normal circumstances. The East Germans were again denied visas to travel to Britain for the return, so the game was moved to the Swedish city of Malmo. As well the obvious footballing disadvantage, this was something of a financial blow for Rangers. European football then, as now, was a money spinner and a home tie with a capacity 80,000 crowd could have pulled in £20,000 for the Ibrox coffers. Against Vorwärts, two overseas trips meant the Scots actually lost £6,000 from the tie, a fair amount in those days.

Despite concerns about the thick fog which had hung over Malmo for much of the day, the match got under way in front of a crowd of around 4,000 at 7pm. A mere 45 minutes later the game was over, having been abandoned due to the re-appearance of the heavy grey fog which was rolling in from the sea. Rangers apprentice Willie Henderson, making his European debut at the age of 17 in place of the injured Alex Scott, had been the only scorer in the first half, and in fact, was the only player to provide any sort of entertainment for the miserable, freezing spectators.

The match was rescheduled for a 10am kick-off the following morning, meaning an early rise for the players and a surreal atmosphere. But not before more drama. After the abandoned game, two of the Vorwärts party, including interpreter Karl Ernst Zelm, defected, vanishing from the hotel where the teams were staying. Earlier in the evening, at a reception organised by Rangers, Zelm had approached Ibrox secretary James Simpson and some of the players, pleading for help in his bid to be reunited with his fiancee in West Germany. Suspecting they were being set up by Communists, the Scots declined to help, but the club officials still managed to make their escape and handed themselves in to Swedish police.

glasgow-vorwaerts61-62Surprisingly 1,800 spectators attended the following morning’s game, which Rangers eventually won 4-1. Henderson, making his second ‘debut’, scored again and put in a man of the match performance. Back home in Lanarkshire, Henderson’s dad John was waiting for a full account of the game. It was the first match he had missed since his son had started playing – because he couldn’t get a passport in time.

As an aside, the match was also notable for the appearance in the stands of the legendary Danish forward Carl Hansen, who was the first foreigner to play for Rangers in the 1920s. Hansen, known in his homeland as Carl Skomager (Shoemaker), had been a superb player who specialised in scoring against Celtic, but his Rangers career was blighted by two leg-breaks which eventually forced him to return to Denmark. During the war he was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to a concentration camp, for shouting ‘Quisling’ at a local who was too friendly with the occupying Germans.

After the war, Hansen had divided his time between coaching and journalism, and he was working at the Danish paper Politiken when Rangers were playing across the sea in Sweden. He joined up with the Rangers party, and when he couldn’t get a room in the team hotel, bunked up on a chair in the room of a Scottish newspaper reporter.

* Despite their heavy defeat, Vorwärts went on to win the East German championship again that season, while Rangers were beaten to the Scottish title by Dundee. In the next round of the European Cup, the Ibrox club were knocked out by Standard Liege of Belgium.

 

 

 

 

1991: A BIT OF A BLUR

Unless you’ve been living under a rock recently, you’ll probably be aware that Blur have just put out a new album called Magic Whip. It’s their first since Think Tank was released 12 years ago. And funnily enough, almost exactly 12 years before that, May 1 1991, I saw them live at King Tut’s in Glasgow.

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I think it was their second UK tour and I had ticket No. 00034. These were the days when you could see Blur live for £4.40; tickets for their upcoming Hyde Park show start at around £80.  Their debut single She’s So High had been a minor hit and the follow-up There’s No Other Way – complete with a bizarre video featuring (if I’m not mistaken) art teacher Miss Booth from Grange Hill – had just been released and would propel them into the upper reaches of the charts.

Pop stardom was just around the corner. Indeed, a few days earlier they’d made their first ever TV appearance on Top Of The Pops, followed swiftly by Eggs ‘n’ Baker – a Saturday morning cookery/pop crossover show presented by ex-Bucks Fizz singer Cheryl Baker. A sort of prototype Sunday Brunch aimed at kids with Cheryl in the Tim Lovejoy role. Judging by Damon’s haircuts, the Eggs ‘n’ Baker appearance must have been filmed first.

Memories of the actual King Tut’s gig – shoegazers Catherine Wheel were the support act – are predictably sketchy, although I do vaguely remember being down the front and trying to twang Alex James’ bass for some reason. I got a swift boot to the side of the head for my troubles, which I suppose is fair enough.

I also remember buying one of the “controversial” topless-lady-on-a-hippo t-shirts and a copy of a Blur fanzine called Down, named after one of their early songs. And that’s the real point of this post. Not only do I still have the saucy t-shirt (it stopped fitting me many moons ago) but I’ve also still got the fanzine, so I thought I’d share a few pages.

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INSIDE AN ABANDONED TOY SHOP (PART 2)

Earlier this year I visited an old toy shop that had been a fixture on the High Street of the Welsh town of Holywell for seven decades. The shop closed down five years ago – and has sat untouched ever since. Thousands of toys dating as far back asthe 1950s – some rare and valuable – were left behind when the doors closed.

In this second post, I’ve shared pictures of many of the old toys that we discovered when we explored the shop.How much of this stuff do you remember?

PS Just in case you were pondering popping along and, ahem, liberating some of this stuff, the shop has now been cleared and the old stock is being sold at auction on behalf of the owner.

CLICK HERE TO READ PART 1

FOR MORE PICTURES, VISIT MY FLICKR ACCOUNT

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CLICK HERE TO READ PART 1

Legal note: All pictures are subject to copyright and should not be reproduced without express permission. Please contact me by email if you want to use them.

INSIDE AN ABANDONED TOY SHOP (PART 1)

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There are some things in life you just can’t turn down, even if it involves a 300-mile round trip to North Wales on a miserable Tuesday in January. The chance to explore inside an old toy shop, abandoned five years ago with all its stock left behind like the Mary Celeste of retail is definitely one of them. I’m glad to say it lived up to all expectations.

For generations of children, Frank Beech’s toy shop in Holywell was paradise. An Aladdin’s Cave, where stock was literally stacked from floor to ceiling and it seemed that they sold every toy ever made. For decades the shop was run by Mr Beech’s daughter Dorothy and, until his death, her husband Stanley. Dorothy tried to continue to run the store on her own but five years ago, aged in her nineties, she decided she could no longer manage the business and made the decision to shut up shop.

The legend goes that until a few weeks ago, the shop remained in the exact same condition as it was on the day it closed down in 2009… and if that is the case you wonder how on earth it ever managed to operate at all. To be blunt, as I discovered when I visited, the place was an absolute shambles.

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The main public part of the shop was piled high with toys. Until recently it had been impossible to even walk in this room, so full had it been. But towards the end of 2014, auctioneers Vectis, who specialise in rare toys, were brought in to clear the shop and sell anything they thought was valuable. By the time of our trip, there had already been seven van loads removed by the auctioneers and the shop was still more than half full.

Inside the door, an old Christmas Club poster lay on the ground, but other than that the path through the front shop was now clear. On the left was the glass counter where Mrs Beech had served local customers for so long. Behind that were shelves packed with all sorts of long-forgotten toys and games and beyond it a display cabinet containing slightly creepy-looking porcelain dolls.

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If this had been all there was it would have been interesting enough, but it was just a taster. The premises were massive, with at least three floors of storage rooms, each packed with boxes of toys from the 1950s right up to the early 2000s. It wasn’t so much a time-capsule as a time-line of toys, charting the changing tastes of kids through the generations, from the dolls, cowboys and toy soldiers of the post-war years to the fantasy and super-hero action figures of the modern era.

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As we crept carefully through the warren of passageways in the darkness, doing our best to avoid holes in the floorboards and huge spider’s webs, it seemed that in some places the only thing holding the building up was the amount of toys piled up against the walls. Every square foot of the building was covered with toys. They filled stairwells, were piled up on shelves or left neatly stacked on the floor. In some rooms a huge mountain of toys rose from the ground, sometimes reaching as high as the ceiling – either the neat piles had collapsed or the toys had just been thrown in to make space for new deliveries.

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CLICK HERE TO SEE PART 2 AND MORE PICTURES OF THE ABANDONED TOY SHOP

Often it looked like junk, but appearances can be deceptive. In one room full of boxes damaged by water coming in through a leaky roof, we opened an unpromising looking carton to discover 96 mint condition Return of the Jedi figures. Some of these individual figures can be worth up to £100 each so there’s potentially £10,000 worth of toys in that one box. The auctioneers found seven similar Star Wars boxes. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. For the avid toy collector, the shop was a treasure trove. Other highlights included trade boxes of Action Man figures and accessories from the 1960s and 70s, along with Raleigh bicycles that were still wrapped in plastic and Triang pedal cars.

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But for me, the real joy of this place wasn’t so much the rare and potentially valuable toys, but the memories it evoked. Exploring Beech’s was like flicking through a pile of old Argos catalogues, but in real life. Room after room conjured up long forgotten childhood memories. In one there was a Paul Daniels magic set, in another a Subbuteo Snooker Express. Each room was filled with nostalgia. Scalextric, Hornby, Airfix, Matchbox, Corgi… all present and correct. There were TV tie-ins like the Les Dennis fronted Family Fortunes board game and the Buzby cuddly toy. Not necessarily worth much in cold hard cash, but priceless when it comes to memories.

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Of course, you couldn’t escape the feeling of melancholy. This had once been a thriving business, somewhere people used to flock to, especially at Christmas. The window displays, featuring the likes of Triang, Meccano and Lego, were legendary in the area. On Christmas Eve, parents would queue up to collect orders they’d placed – sometimes it’d be so busy they’d be told to come back in a couple of hours to pick up the bike or train set they were waiting for. Kids would spend their pocket money here, doting grandparents would take them in for a special treat. Despite the apparent chaos, Dorothy knew where everything was – and if she didn’t she would ask you to return the next day. That big Tesco round the corner probably sells toys, but  it’s not quite the same.

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It was sad to see how business had clearly deteriorated, as the proprietors aged and shopping habits changed. And you could pinpoint by the types of toy that sat on the shelves, exactly when things had started to go downhill. And judging by the piles of unsold Fisher Price toys, the 80s was not a good decade for Beech’s.

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Like many similar sized towns around the UK, Holywell is a place with its best days behind it. A real sense of gloom hangs over the High Street today. Too many shops are closed down and boarded up. Traffic is banned from the High Street and these days you’ll struggle to find many pedestrians either. The shops that remain are clearly doing their best, but you get the distinct impression that they’re swimming against the tide. It wasn’t always like this though. Holywell was once a busy retail centre, where independent shops of all kinds thrived. It’s obviously far too late for a revival for Frank Beech’s toy shop but it would be nice to see a resurgence in the town’s fortunes one day.

CLICK HERE TO SEE PART 2 AND MORE PICTURES OF THE ABANDONED TOY SHOP

Legal note: All pictures are subject to copyright and should not be reproduced without express permission. Please contact me by email if you want to use them.

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THE ONLY WAY IS ESSEX

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“Get up number 10, you useless fat caaaant. And try passing the facking ball to one of your own players next time. Wanker.”

Poor number 10 was spread-eagled on the sodden artificial grass. He’d just been flattened by a huge centre-half, who’d barrelled into him as he attempted an ambitious cross-field pass. Sympathy from the spectators was  in short supply. As he gingerly got to his feet, he glanced over at the stand, rolled his eyes and slowly shook his head before sloping back to the centre of the pitch to re-join the action.

“Yeah, piss off.”

The disgruntled Harlow Town fan responsible for this colourful tirade of abuse had clearly not taken on board the message displayed on a poster next to the food stall. “This is a family club. Please moderate your language”. But the stoical reaction of number 10 (aka James Smith) suggested that there was nothing particularly out of the ordinary about such name-calling. Not that Smith was even remotely fat. He was also, by some distance, the best player on the pitch. But this is football and football fans are rarely rational when it comes to dishing it out, even to their own team’s players. In fact especially to their own players.

Now it’s one thing to yell abuse in a crowd of 30,000, when a lone voice will usually be drowned out by the general hubbub. But when you’re one of only 182 paying customers your voice tends to be heard by everyone. Including the object of your ire on the pitch.

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I was in Essex at the grandly-named Harlow Arena, where the local team Harlow Town were taking on local rivals Romford in the Ryman Isthmian League North Division.  It’s a world away from the millionaires of the Premier League but the passion for the game among the players, fans and officials is still there – in fact it’s probably even greater. You really need to have a zeal for the game to follow or take part in it at this level, because you’re certainly not there for the glory.

Harlow Town have a long, but largely unremarkable history. Founded in 1879, the club has undergone a variety of mergers, takeovers and name changes over the years. There have been moments when they looked like they might cease to exist altogether: in 1992/93 they dropped out of football after the league shut down their dilapidated old stadium.

2014-08-12 20.45.56But there’s been the odd moment in the spotlight too. In 1980 the Hawks went on an FA Cup giantkilling spree, knocking out first Southend United and then Jock Wallace’s Leicester City, Gary Lineker and all, before eventually losing narrowly to Watford in the fourth round. In 1966, Harlow played a friendly against the Uruguay national team, who were staying at a hotel in the town during their preparations for the World Cup. The South Americans won the game 6–1. A couple of years later, Benfica prepared at Harlow’s ground for their European Cup final against Manchester United.

In October 2008, Harlow moved out of the old Sportscentre ground – their home since 1960 – into a new 4,000 capacity stadium at Barrow Farm. In 2013 it became the Harlow Arena, complete with a new “state of the art” (whatever that means) 3G (whatever that means) pitch. I’m firmly of the luddite view that football should be played on real grass, but the reality is that the artificial surface allows it to be used by local clubs, not only providing income for Harlow but also helping to cement its role as part of the community.

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The main stand

 

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The storm clouds gather

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“Do not climb over fence”

 

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The club megastore looks like it needs re-stocked

The match itself started well, with two early goals, one for each team. But it quickly went flat – the highlight of the first half being the rainbow that appeared like a multi-coloured version of the Wembley arch over the stadium. Harlow eventually ran out 3-1 winners, much to the delight of the noisy home fans on the terracing in the Jack Chapman stand. Needless to say, Mr Angry remained unimpressed. His verdict? “Load of crap.” But will he be back for the next home match? “‘Course I bloody will. Never miss a game.”

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THE NIGHT SINATRA PLAYED AT IBROX

Frank Sinatra

Of all the international superstars who have graced the Ibrox pitch over the decades, none could get close to the global fame of the man who appeared at the stadium on 12 June 1990. Cruyff, Di Stefano, Puskas, Beckenbauer, Gascoigne and Ronaldinho may have been household names around the world, but all paled into insignificance compared to the legend that was Francis Albert Sinatra.

Sinatra may have been past his best by the time he performed at Ibrox. His show may have been overpriced and something of a shambles. But as events go, it was up there among the most memorable ever to take place at the stadium. Sinatra himself, even at the age of 74 and after five decades in showbusiness, was moved to tears. For the audience, many of whom had waited a lifetime to see Old Blue Eyes in the flesh, it was something akin to a religious experience.

In 1990, Glasgow was enjoying something of a renaissance. Forever plagued with the No Mean City image of razor gangs and random violence, Scotland’s industrial capital had suffered badly from the decline in manufacturing in the 70s and 80s and was in real need of an economic boost. The International Garden Festival of 1988, held on the southern banks of the Clyde, not far from Ibrox, was the first step on the road to recovery. Two years later the makeover was complete when Glasgow was named European City of Culture. A year-long festival of culture ensued, which did much to change the outside world’s perception of the city, although critics argued that there were few benefits for the impoverished local population.

For many, the highlight of the festivities was Frank Sinatra’s show at Ibrox. The man considered by many to be the world’s greatest singer, hadn’t played in Scotland for almost 40 years, after a series of disastrous concerts in the 1950s when his career had temporarily gone into free-fall. But by the time he returned at the age of 74 he had assumed legendary status.

Tickets for Ibrox were not cheap, with some fans paying £60 each for premium positions in front of the stage. Even the cheapest seats were £35 and the promoters soon realised that the projected sales of 33,000 were never going to materialise. The decision was taken late to only use the Govan Stand and the capacity was cut to just 11,000. Fans who had bought tickets for other parts of the ground had to be reallocated new seats, meaning some who had paid £60 were put in cheaper areas.

Queues began to build up outside the stadium and thousands were locked out of the ground as Sinatra started his performance. Some fans didn’t get inside until the fifth or sixth song, while others had to wait even longer. Refunds were handed out to dozens of devastated fans but it was scant compensation for missing the show. Even Rangers manager Graeme Souness was affected – he discovered his £60 seats were occupied by someone else and ended up watching from an Ibrox hospitality suite.

Those who had got through the gates earlier were treated to support performances by Glasgow jazz singer Carol Kidd and, somewhat bizarrely, a stand-up act by local comedian Arnold Brown. As he would say, “and why not”.

A letter from Sinatra to then Rangers manager Graeme Souness

A letter from Sinatra to then Rangers manager Graeme Souness

But there was no question who the crowds had come to see. Dressed in a dinner suit and black bow tie, Sinatra, performed on a stage set up in the middle of the pitch, miles away from the audience. He opened with You Make Me Feel So Young. It set the tone for the night as Sinatra rolled back the years, performing many of his classics like I Get A Kick Out Of You, Strangers In The Night, Bewitched, Mack The Knife, My Way and New York, New York.

The stage set-up lacked intimacy, but the chemistry between performer and audience was so strong that the distance was barely noticeable. Tom Gardner and his wife were among those who had paid the top price for a ticket. “Our seats were supposed to be on the pitch directly in front of the stage and cost £60 each,’ he remembered.

“On the day they changed all the arrangements. Our new seats put us at the edge of the Govan almost where we normally sat on matchdays. We went back and complained and got centre front seats. I think we were ahead of the disaster that then occurred when queues lasting several hours formed.
 The show started promptly at 7.30pm. Frank came on at roughly 8.00 pm and I remember he travelled across the pitch in a little golf buggy.”

Sinatra performed for more than an hour then, as he approached the end of the show, he left the stage. To the shock, and delight, of his fans, he suddenly appeared on the track in front of the Govan stand and began shaking hands with members of the audience. Sinatra enjoyed the performance so much that he performed a rare encore, coming back onstage to perform a rendition of Where Or When.

“Just as he finished his encore, an old woman squeezed in and sat down beside us,” recalled Tom Gardner. “First thing she asked was did we know when he would be coming on. She burst into tears when we told her the show was finished.

“I believe many refunds were given out and the council lost a fortune in the end. But it was great show and for a 74- year-old his voice was pretty good. It does remind me that my mother also saw him play the Glasgow Empire back in the 1950s during one of his unpopular phases. The hall had less than 100 people in it.”

Sinatra’s English driver and friend Dennis Parker later revealed how much the Ibrox show had meant to the singer. “He hated being so far away from them,” Parker told newspapers. “Half way through, he grabbed a hand mike and walked off stage to get close to the crowd. It was completely unrehearsed. The emotion that passed between artist and audience that night was magical. Afterwards, back at the hotel, tears started running down his cheeks, he had been so affected by it.”

Sinatra later told his entourage, “In all my time in showbusiness I have never had such a stupendous feeling. I have never been so moved by anything in my life before.”

This first appeared in my book Temple of Dreams: The Changing Face of Ibrox