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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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.

 

 

 

 

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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END OF AN ERA AS STAMFORD MOVE AFTER 118 YEARS

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Progress. Where would we be without it? For a start this would have been scrawled in pig’s blood on the wall of a cave. Although chances are you wouldn’t have been able to read it, because as soon as you turned your back a hairy backed troglodyte would have clubbed you over the head and dragged you back to their cave for a spot of “natural selection”. But for the most part, unless you’re a UKIP supporter, progress is considered to be a positive thing in life.

Football is big on progress too. Without it we’d still be playing in a 1-1-8 formation, have crossbars made out of tape and leather footballs like cannonballs. But in football progress isn’t always a Good Thing. For a start multi-coloured boots, ridiculous kick-off times and footballers covered in tattoos can all get in the bin. And of course there’s half-and-half scarves (Scotland/England: “Together in friendship”.)

Modern football grounds are a tricky one. On the one hand, it’s obviously difficult to make an emotional case for a modern, soulless stadium over a traditional ground, steeped in the history of the club. The old wooden stands have seen every glorious win and every heartbreaking defeat, witnessed all the last minute penalties and the missed sitters. There are fans who have sat in the same seat or stood on the same spot on the terraces for decades.

But sometimes sentiment has to give way to practicality. Supporters want comfort, safety and somewhere to park their car and all three can be lacking in old grounds.We all have nostalgia for the good old days of terracing, but the truth is, it really wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The potential for harm came from everywhere. Injuries caused by crushing or falls were numerous, and with little or no segregation between home and away fans,  there was also the risk of getting caught up in fighting between rival gangs of hooligans. Furthermore, the threat of being knocked out by a flying bottle launched from the rear of the terracing was never very far away. And even if you managed to avoid physical injury, getting caught in a downpour while exposed to the elements could cause a really bad cold.

In purely monetary terms, the cash to be made from selling a prime town centre plot of land can be enough to secure some clubs’ long term future, while the facilities that new grounds can offer play a vital role in making the club part of the community, helping to attract a new generation of fans. Sentimentality is all very well, but it doesn’t pay the bills.

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And so the latest club to embrace progress is Stamford AFC from the Northern Premier League. The Daniels – named after a man said to be the fattest person in history – were formed in 1896 and played their first match on Hanson’s Field, where they remained for the next 118 years. There is apparently evidence that the site staged football in the early 1870s making it possibly one of the world’s oldest football grounds. But sadly it is no longer. After more than a century, Stamford have moved to a shiny new ground on the outskirts of the town and the gates have been locked for the last time at the Vic Couzens Stadium – aka Wothorpe Road, aka Kettering Road, aka the Town Ground.

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The old ground will eventually be bulldozed and the town centre site used for housing. It’s progress of course and it’s difficult to criticise the club for making the move. The new Zeeco Stadium is modern, comfortable and easy to access and the club will no doubt benefit greatly from the move. That doesn’t mean the loss of another historic old ground isn’t a bit sad.

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Visiting Wothorpe Road, it’s easy to see why the club decided to move. Parking is limited and inside, the facilities are showing their age, to put it kindly. Paint is peeling, woodwork crumbling, metal rusting and signs fading. And while that may be in part down to the long-awaited move, there’s no doubt the old place has seen better days.

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The main stand, with its corrugated iron roof and decorative wooden front, was built sometime between 1894 and 1911 (no records exist to pinpoint the exact date) and it remained largely unchanged for decades, until an upgrade in the mid 1990s.

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New perimeter fencing, turnstiles, plastic seating and a walkway round the pitch were added to bring it up to league standard. At some point a snack bar was opened and a portacabin selling programmes and souvenirs installed.

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The final first team game at Wothorpe Road was against the grandly named Rushall Olympic on November 22nd 2014. A crowd of 410 saw the home team sign off in style with a 3-0 win, their first home victory since August. A week later though, I was present for the very last game at the old ground, a Peterborough and District League Division One match between Ryhall United and Sutton Bridge. This time the audience was barely into double figures. I wonder how many of the players, and the assorted dads and girlfriends who made up the crowd, were aware the significance of the game.

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MY BRUSH WITH SUBBUTEO FAME AND FORTUNE

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Back in 1985, Saturday mornings were all about my quest to be the next Boris Becker. Or at least Jeremy Bates. This mission involved two hours of whacking a sponge ball over a net on a badminton court at my local council sports centre followed by a plate of chips, drenched in vinegar. It was tennis, east end of Glasgow style.

I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time, but at the age of 13, deep down I’d already resigned myself to the reality that I wasn’t going to make it as a footballer. Tennis, though, was another matter. That I could do. Surely a couple of hours practice a week was all I’d need to bring me up to the standard of someone like Bates? I even had a real coach, for God’s sake – even if he was a Bobby Ball lookalike who, judging by his bedraggled state every Saturday, spent Friday nights on the razzle, rather than preparing to impart his wisdom on a gang of oiks.

But this is not about tennis. Much as I enjoyed my weekly sessions of short tennis – that’s the official name for indoor tennis with a sponge ball – football was my first love, so when the chance to play alongside some of Scotland’s best players came I didn’t hesitate to grab it. Even if they were of the table football variety.

IMG_3720Out of the blue, one Friday evening I got a phone call at home from a man. Phone calls for me were a fairly rare occurrence back then – calls from strange men, I assure you, were even rarer, which is why the rest of the family clustered round the trimphone as I took the call. The man on the other end of the line turned out to be Bob McGiffen, the president of the Scottish branch of the Subbuteo Association, and he was calling to invite me to take part in a competition the very next day. I was nearly sick with excitement.

I’d been playing Subbuteo for about six years and for a while it had been an absolute obsession. My pal Kevin and I developed our own league, filled with fictional teams and players. We compiled league tables, invented knock-out competitions and drew up endless lists of stats. I made match programmes for big games and we even recorded radio programmes, complete with live commentaries and match reports. We also made up our own rules and developed our own unique “style” of play that would have given the traditionalists heart failure. I loved Subbuteo so much, that in first year at secondary school I did a presentation in front of my entire English class on the history of the game, complete with props.

Actually, by 1985, my passion for Subbuteo was on the wane, with pop music gradually taking over as my Big Thing (home-made radio shows and stats were still to the fore, natch). But we still played fairly regularly and I was still a member of the Subbuteo Association, hence that Friday night call from Mr McGiffen.

IMG_0055At some point, I had apparently expressed an interest in taking part in official competitions and may also have told a little white lie, implying (or more likely, stating) that I competed in a proper league. The Glasgow regional heat of the Scottish Championships was taking place the next day and there had been a last-minute withdrawal. He knew it was short notice, but Bob wondered if I could fill the vacant space. Could I be in Jordanhill by 9am the next morning?

Could I? COULD I? Of course I bloody could! Once I’d checked that my dad would be able to drive me across the city, that is. Having cleared that hurdle, short tennis was promptly cancelled and I set about preparing for the competition. Clearly the most pressing issue was reading up on the rules, since this competition was not going to be played under the Baillieston and Mount Vernon Subbuteo Association’s code.

The biggest problem was that we had eschewed one of the fundamental tenets of the table-top game, the concept of the flick-to-kick technique. Essentially this meant you were only allowed to move players to by flicking them with your index finger. Kevin and I had decided at an early stage that this was far too difficult and that you should be allowed to use any method of propulsion you liked, as long as it was with the hand. My favoured technique was to use my thumb, which gave you a lot more power and height on shots. Unfortunately, by the letter of the law, it was completely illegal.

The other difference between the official game and our take on it, was that until now, every match I’d ever played had taken place with the pitch laid out on a carpeted floor rather than nailed to a specially designed table. Not only did this call for a completely different playing style, but also resulted in numerous injuries to players, caused by misplaced knees and rampaging little sisters.

IMG_0157IMG_0154After an evening studying the regulations, I retired to bed, although obviously I hardly slept. Armed with two teams – I’ve forgotten which ones they were but I suspect it would have been Belgium and Watford, two of my favourites – we headed west to leafy Jordanhill, and the venue for the tournament, the Jolly Giant toy superstore.

OK, it might not have been Hampden or Ibrox but the Jolly Giant still held some sort of cachet for a 13-year-old boy. The toy superstore had been opened by a Scottish businessman inspired by a visit to Toys R Us in the USA and at the time there was nothing else like it on this side of the Atlantic. This was my first visit and I was somewhat taken aback to be confronted by a huge, animatronic giant as we entered the shop.

scan0037A section had been cleared for the tournament at the back of the store, featuring two tables surrounded by the famous green Subbuteo branding. The pitches were brightly lit (significantly, not by pisspoor Subbuteo floodlights) and pristine, like Wembley on FA Cup final day – or, more accurately, like the green baize at the Crucible on Snooker World Championship final day.

After the giant, er, giant, the next surreal moment of the day was receiving my COMPETITOR badge and seeing my name on the board listing all the fixtures. This shit was real! I was down to play against an R. Lee (I think his first name might have been Ronnie, so let’s call him that) and I scanned the gathered players to see if I could identify my opponent. I imagined he would be the one looking supremely confident after being drawn against some unknown, but in truth everyone looked a bit like I felt – nervous and apprehensive.

Then came surreal moment number three. As I looked around, I spotted a familiar, if unexpected face. Who was that anxious looking old bloke in the duffel coat, carrying a supermarket plastic bag? Surely not Mr S, the chemistry teacher from my school? With his dad. No, it couldn’t be. Could it? Well, yes it could, and in fact it was. As I read in the following Monday’s paper, it turned out that he’d actually won a Daily Record competition to take part in the tournament. Unfortunately for him, he was hammered four nil in the first round but still had to have his picture in the paper.

Meanwhile, as the minutes passed before my match, I was getting increasingly anxious. Watching the other games, I began to worry that I had agreed to something that I simply wasn’t up to. The formations and tactics being used by the other players were frankly baffling, and of course, there was the small matter of never having actually played the game properly before.

I briefly toyed with the idea of doing a runner, but it was too late to back out now. Before I knew it my name was being called out and it was game-time. Looking back, I’ve got very little recollection of the match itself. It all passed in a bit of a blur. For all my fears, I must have absorbed enough from watching the other matches to get the gist of the style expected because I don’t remember any strange looks from my opponent or the referee. In fact not only did I hold my own, somehow I managed to score a goal. I’d love to be able to describe it in great detail here, but again, I have no memory of it all.

IMG_0277Sadly, I wasn’t able to hold on for an unlikely victory. Ronnie equalised in the second half and the game went to the Subbuteo equivalent of a penalty shoot-out. Yet again, I don’t remember any of it, but needless to say I lost. Fittingly, my adventure had ended in typical Scottish football style – glorious failure. So near, yet so far.  Yada yada. My opponent made it through the next round before being defeated in the semi finals. Who’s to say how I might have fared? Maybe with a bit of momentum and a kind draw, I could have made it all the way to the final. And then… well, who knows?

But now it was over. It never really began, but in my heart it was so real. That’s what Morrissey might have said if he’d played Subbuteo. I was a bit less poetic, but just as emotional. I stayed until the end of the tournament before slinking off home.

My brush with the glamorous stars of table football was over and the following Saturday morning I returned to the hard slog of trying to become a tennis professional. Looking back, I wonder if that week of missed sponge-ball-whacking was what caused me to fail in my quest? I chose not to share my weekend’s activities with my school pals – playing Subbuteo might have been acceptable when I was in first year of secondary school, but by the age of 13 it was decidedly uncool. And that’s why I also spared Mr S the embarrassment of telling everyone what he was doing at the Jolly Giant toy superstore with his dad on Saturday morning.

So that was the end of my top-flight Subbuteo career. I let my membership pass and although I carried on playing sporadically at home, to be honest my heart wasn’t really in it. Real football, pop music and, ahem, “other stuff”, would take up more and more of my time. Without wanting to sound like Kevin from the Wonder Years, in some ways that Saturday morning marked the end of my childhood. But more important than that, it was probably the most exciting thing I’d done in my life up until that point. And almost 30 years on, it’s probably still in my top 10. What that says about my life I’ll leave you to decide…

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HEROES HONOURED

In 1917, King George V visited Glasgow to honour heroes of the Great War, both military and civilian, at a massive outdoor investiture ceremony at Ibrox. It was appropriate that Rangers’ home should have been chosen as the venue for the investiture. The working class industrial districts which surrounded the arena were key to the war effort. The Empire owed a huge debt to those who lived in the area’s tenements and who worked close-by. As the Scotsman pointed out, ‘Within easy hail are the great docks and the yards, where the busy hammers are clanging the death-knell of enemy hopes, and shell factories, where night and day many toilers are aiding the defeat of the German military machine.’ Several thousand women workers from local munitions factories were packed into the north stand and a choir made up of factory workers from Cardonald provided musical entertainment to the crowd.

standardAfter a morning touring the city, the King travelled to Ibrox from the city chambers in his royal car, along streets lined by crowds. By the time he arrived, at least three-quarters of the vast bowl was filled. In size, it was the sort of crowd normally only seen at football matches but it differed greatly in make-up. With thousands of men still serving in combat, many of those attending were women, and they dressed for the occasion. Rather than the usual row after row of drab flat caps, the steep Ibrox slopes were filled with colour from brightly-hued hats and dresses. Entrance to the stadium was first come first served and there were huge queues outside Ibrox when the gates were opened two hours before the ceremony was due to start.

It wasn’t just the crowds who brought colour to the scene. The ground was festooned with a multitude of flags from all the Allied countries. Notably, the US Stars and Stripes flew alongside the Union Jack on the roof of the north stand and a long line of small flags hung above the terracings. The royal platform, which had a prominent position on the playing field, was covered with crimson cloth and was surrounded by brightly coloured flower arrangements. The Glasgow Herald wrote, ‘The famous enclosure has housed many crowds, but seldom has it presented such a scene as today, when the sombre monotony of the football spectators’ bonnets gave way to the blaze of colour provided by the military display.’

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To the sound of a bugle, the King entered the arena at 3.30pm and was greeted by deafening cheers from the crowd. The Herald described the scene in glowing terms. ‘They waved tiny flags and handkerchiefs and cheered as though they would never cease. The demonstration was as a whole of the most superb character’ while the Scotsman said the welcome ‘reinforced the spirit of loyalty and personal regard’ for the monarch.

A company of wounded soldiers from local hospitals faced the King as he took to the dais on the Royal platform while to his right the recipients of the day’s honours were seated. The greatest ovations were reserved for the three soldiers who were presented with the Victoria Cross, particularly Private Harry Christian of the Royal Lancaster Regiment. He had been brought north from a hospital in the north of England but was so ill that he had to be carried to the stage on a chair by members of the St Andrew’s Ambulance Association. The official description of his deeds read as follows:

He was holding a crater with five or six men in front of our trenches. The enemy commenced a very heavy bombardment of the positions with heavy ‘minenwerfer’ bombs, forcing a temporary withdrawal. When he found that three men were missing Private Christian at once returned alone to the crater, and although bombs were continually bursting actually on the crater, he found, dug out and carried one by one into safety all three men, thereby undoubtedly saving their lives. Later he placed himself where he could see the bombs coming and directed his comrades when and where to seek cover.

Private Christian was followed onto the stage by a cheerful Highlander, Private George Mackintosh of the Gordon Highlanders. His commendation read:

During the consolidation of a position , his company came under machine gun fire at close range. Private Mackintosh immediately rushed forward under heavy fire, and, reaching the emplacement, he threw a Mill’s grenade into it, killing two of the enemy and wounding a third. Subsequently, entering the dug-out, he found two light machine guns, which he carried back with him. His quick grasp of the situation and the utter fearlessness and rapidity with which he acted undoubtedly saved many of his comrades, and enabled the consolidation to proceed unhindered by machine gun fire.

The third and final VC was received by ANZAC Lance Corporal Sam Frickleton, of the New Zealand rifle brigade As well as the injuries he suffered carrying out his act of bravery, it also transpired that he had been gassed. The official description of his actions read:

With attacking troops which came under heavy fire and were checked. Although slightly wounded, Corporal Frickleton dashed forward at the head of his section and pushed into the barrage and personally destroyed with bombs an enemy machine gun and crew which was causing heavy casualties. He then attacked a second gun, killing the whole of the crew of twelve. By the destruction of these two guns he undoubtedly saved his own and other units from very severe casualties and his magnificent courage and gallantry ensured the capture of the objective. During the consolidation of the position he received a second severe wound. He set throughout a great example of heroism.

EDIT: August 7th 2014: Cpl Frickleton originally came from Slamannan in Stirlingshire

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The most poignant moments of the investiture came when the mourning widows of fallen soldiers stepped forward to receive posthumous awards on behalf of their late husbands. Among them was the widow of Lieutenant J. Giffen of the Cameron Highlanders, who collected her husband’s Military Cross amid sympathetic applause from the crowd. Their two young sons and daughter watched the ceremony from the grandstand.

William Wilton and Rangers president Sir John Ure Primrose were introduced to the King as the day’s events drew to a close. By all accounts it was a good humoured exchange, with the monarch laughingly suggesting that most of the crowd at Ibrox that day would rather have been watching a football match. After the playing of the National Anthem, the royal party left the ground to yet more cheers from the crowd and a chorus of Rule Britannia from the munitions girls. For the Ibrox men it was the perfect end to what had been a historic day – and a hugely successful one for the club, which cemented its reputation as one of Scotland’s greatest sporting and social institutions.

DEATH OF A GOALKEEPER

On November 12th 1921, Rangers played Dumbarton in a Scottish League game at Ibrox. In goal for the Sons was a promising 24-year-old former Scotland schoolboy international named Joshua Wilkinson. He had already packed an incredible amount into his young life. More commonly known as Joe, during the First World War he spent three years at sea where, according to newspaper reports, he had his ‘fair share of adventure’, including being torpedoed twice.  On his return to Scotland, he spent a season with Rangers and another at Renton before signing up for his hometown team, all this while studying for an honours degree in the Arts at Glasgow University. According to his father William he was ‘a young man of robust constitution.’

Dumbarton were no longer the force they had been when they shared the very first league championship with Rangers 30 years earlier. They were destined to be relegated from Division One at the end of the season, but on the day they played above themselves and managed to secure a draw against the champions. Despite telling one member of the Rangers training staff he hadn’t been feeling ‘up to the mark’ before the start of the match, Wilkinson had a brilliant game and managed to limit Rangers to just one goal, from Tommy Cairns. In the style of the day, Cairns had shoulder challenged the ‘keeper as he stood on the line with the ball in his hands. Wilkinson carried the ball over the  line and a goal was given. Dumbarton players claimed the challenge was illegal but the referee was in no doubt it was a fair challenge

What no-one realised at the time was that Wilkinson was already suffering from an internal injury that he had picked up earlier in the game. At the Fatal Accident Inquiry into his death, several incidents were suggested where he might have suffered the injury. Dumbarton right back Donald Colman, who had travelled to the game with Wilkinson on the subway from Partick to Govan, told the inquiry that the goalkeeper asked him to take goal kicks because he was in too much pain to take them himself. Despite his pain, he played on until half time, when he complained his injury was ‘pretty bad’. But he went back out for the second half and completed the game. Colman recalled, ‘He played extraordinarily well, right through the game.’

Following the game, Wilkinson was violently sick. He went to White and Smith’s, the restaurant where the Dumbarton team had their post-match tea. But according to the club’s director John Carrick, instead of joining his team mates at the table he crouched down beside the fire. When Carrick asked him how he was he pointed to his left side and said ‘I have an awful pain here.’ He said he got the injury when he ‘knocked against’ the Rangers forward Andy Cunningham. For his part,  Cunningham told the inquiry he was certain he had not had any sort of collision with Wilkinson during the game.

As his condition worsened Wilkinson was put in a taxi and driven home to Dumbarton from the restaurant. He was seen by a local doctor, who immediately diagnosed peritonitis. He was driven back to Glasgow the next day and underwent emergency surgery at the Western Infirmary. Rangers manager Bill Struth visited him in hospital after the operation and although the young goalie recognised Struth, he lost consciousness soon after and never woke up again. His devastated parents were at  his bedside when he died on the Monday morning. His father’s last words to him were,  ‘You have played the game too well’.

Mr Wilkinson  may well have been right. Doctors discovered that his son had suffered a ruptured intestine during the game that had caused infection to set in. The cause of the rupture was never established, but one expert speculated that the intestine might have been damaged early in the game, but did not fully rupture until later, possibly as a result of his own exertions in goal.

The Fatal Accident Inquiry heard that Wilkinson told his mother that nothing out of the ordinary had happened at Ibrox and that he had not been kicked. His family were at pains to exonerate Rangers from any blame attached to his death and as a mark of respect, the Glasgow club paid for his headstone.

It was a tragic loss of  life and it is sad that the death of such a promising and popular young footballer has gone largely forgotten. In those more stoic days, the sort of collective, public grieving that is commonplace today was largely unheard of. Life simply went on and so did football, with both Rangers and Dumbarton fulfilling their respective fixtures the following Saturday, just two days after his funeral.

VIDEO The Souness revolution – Rangers champions 1986/87

Rangers clinched their first Scottish Premier Division title in nine years on this day 25 years ago. A 1-1 draw at Aberdeen was enough to secure the championship for Graeme Souness’s team as Celtic lost 2-1 at home to Falkirk. Here’s some video of the day as well as a clip of Radio Clyde commentary with Richard Park