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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DANCING ON THE VALENTINE: Smash Hits, April 26, 1984

Thirty years ago this week, when I was 12, I bought my first ever issue of Smash Hits. This is it.

1I found it baffling – full of in-jokes I didn’t understand and references to people I’d never heard of. But something about it drew me in. I immediately ditched my regular order for Roy of The Rovers and every second Thursday for the next four years had Smash Hits delivered instead.

This was a golden era for pop music – and crucially as far as Smash Hits was concerned – for pop stars. Of course every generation has its own great pop and everyone thinks the music they listened to growing up is the best, but it’s not always been the case that the artists behind the hits have been worth reading about.

In the mid-to-late-eighties, though, the pop world was overflowing with funny, interesting, controversial and outspoken people. Boy George, Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Morrissey and Frankie Goes To Hollywood all had plenty to say for themselves, and Smash Hits was more than happy to provide them with a fortnightly platform to impart their “wisdom”. The writers clearly loved and understood pop, but the tone of their coverage was far from reverential or obsequious. The magazine enjoyed nothing more than poking fun at the pretentions of pop stars and ridiculing their pomposity but did it with a sense of humour and style – and, perhaps even more significantly, without any of the sort of cynicism that you’d expect today.

As the eighties progressed, Smash Hits developed its own parlance that started in the letters page (overseen by the mysterious Black Type) and soon seeped into the rest of the magazine. Much of the credit for this goes to the late Tom Hibbert, the brains behind the letters page.

Among the many Smash Hits inventions and obsessions of the mid-eighties were Sir Billiam of Idol, Lord Frederick Of Lucan, Uncle Disgusting, Um Bongo, foxtresses, various spellings of actually, the overuse of exclamation marks (!!!!!!!!!) and “inverted” “commas”, Mark Unpronounceablename of Big Country, Frightwigs (as sported by Tina Turner, Sigue “Sigue” Sputnik and Spagna), Fab Macca Wacky Thumbs Aloft and the phrase that somehow answered everything… Roland Orzabal and a kangaroo.

In 1984, under the editorship of professional Paul McCartney lookalike Mark Ellen, Smash Hits was just setting off down this road. Here’s a look back at some of the highlights of that first issue I bought exactly 30 years ago. For context, Hello by Lionel Ritchie was at number one in the UK charts, and the Top 10 also included Phil Collins, Queen, Thompson Twins, Duran Duran, Shakin’ Stevens, Kool & The Gang, Captain Sensible, Depeche Mode and OMD.

You can see the full issue (minus a couple of pages that turned out to be missing from my copy) here.

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When Nena, the German foxtress with the hairy armpits, scored a number one single around the world with 99 Red Balloons, her record company bosses must have assumed that a glittering global career lay ahead of her. They were wrong. The follow-up  Just A Dream reached number 70 in the UK and the dumper was soon beckoning.

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Song lyrics were one of the big selling points of Smash Hits, especially in the early days. Phil Collins sitting side-by-side with Sandie Shaw and The Smiths, summed up the eclectic nature of the magazine.

 

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Sandie Shaw recorded Hand In Glove with The Smiths. So here she is on the news pages posing with her hand in a glove. Clever, eh? Meanwhile, Andy McCluskey of OMD claims Liverpool FC is one of his obsessions, then adds “Funny, because I never go to the games or anything”.

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Fifteen posters for £3? Worra snip! Meanwhile, future Big Brother contestant Pete Burns coins the phrase “Gender Bender” to describe people who “look like him” ie Boy George and Marilyn.

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Toni Basil, The Fraggles and Spear of Destiny, rub shoulders with The Cure, OMD and Echo And The Bunnymen on the album review (half) page. But who on earth remembers Bauhaus spin-off Tones On Tail?

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David “call me Dave” Gahan of Depeche Mode reviews the singles. He likes the Cocteau Twins, Gene Loves Jezebel, Echo & The Bunnymen and, er, Marilyn. He doesn’t like King, the Flying Pickets or Alvin Stardust much. Or, surprisingly, Roland Rat. And Morrissey is “obnoxious and narrow minded” towards other songwriters…

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Not sure that “young, free and single” teenagers having their names and home addresses published in a national magazine was a particularly clever move, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. The 80s was such an innocent era. Wonder how many responses the call for “actors, poets and Steve Wright fans” got. A pretty niche group, you’d imagine.

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This was C&A fashion, 1984 style.

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A brief history of the Eurovision Song Contest by Tom Hibbert. In the days before post-modern, irony it was simply mocked for being dreadful. The UK’s 1984 entry by Belle And The Devotions came seventh, although Belle would go on to have much greater success as one half of a fey, indie pop duo with the historical novelist Sebastian Faulks (Are you quite sure about this? – Ed)

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By 1984, picture discs were soooo old hat. Shaped picture discs were, like, where it was at.

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Want to know Green Gartside’s home address? Or where Jim Kerr does his shopping? Linda Duff (no relation) has all the answers for creepy stalkers.

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Tape the Bluebells off the charts and sing along with this handy lyric sheet.

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George Michael denies rumours of a “romantic link” with Hazell O’Connor, two members of Fiction Factory get on a tube train and a selection of football folk go to a George Benson concert. Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan also gets an unlikely mention among the “hot” gossip.

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Frankie says… 1984 was the year of Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Three consecutive number ones singles (in the days when that actually meant something) and a million-selling double album, more controversy than you could shake a stick at and those swanky t-shirts. Oh, and the interview was by soon-to-be Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant, fact fans.

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Nile Rogers did some fiddly bits in the studio and transformed a mundane Duran Duran album track into this stomping pop masterpiece. The single is also notable for some of the most impenetrable, meaningless, bonkers lyrics ever committed to vinyl.

You’ve gone too far this time
But I’m dancing on the valentine
I tell you somebody’s fooling around
With my chances on the dangerline
I’ll cross that bridge when I find it
Another day to make my stand
High time is no time for deciding
If I should find a helping hand

[CHORUS]
So why don’t you use it?
Try not to bruise it
Buy time don’t lose it
The reflex is an only child he’s waiting in the park
The reflex is in charge of finding treasure in the dark
And watching over lucky clover isn’t that bizarre
Every little thing the reflex does
Leaves you answered with a question mark

I’m on a ride and I want to get off
But they won’t slow down the roundabout
I sold the Renoir and the TV set
Don’t want to be around when this gets out

[CHORUS]

Oh the reflex what a game he’s hiding all the cards
The reflex is in charge of finding treasure in the dark
And watching over lucky clover isn’t that bizarre
Evey little thing the reflex does
Leaves you answered with a question mark

A few foaming beakers of Um Bongo were quaffed before that was written, you’d wager.
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The letters page with Black Type. Soon, it would all get very strange.

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If such a thing existed, would the Smash Hits of today carry a live review of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5 (or their modern day equivalent)? I think it’s doubtful, Nice frightwig though.

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Nick Heyward was slightly bonkers, what with all his talk of “giant onenesses” (whatever they are) and the like. He should have been a superstar.

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A full page ad, but you do wonder how many Smash Hits readers bought this single by post-punk psychobilly rockers King Kurt, even with its free flexi-disc

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And speaking of Mack The Knife…

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Lastly, a life size poster of be-snooded pop pixie Nik Kershaw. Pin it up!!! Take it down!!!! Hours of fun guaranteed!!!!!

Byeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

SNOOKER LOOPY NUTS ARE WE

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It was one of the most memorable – if unlikely – sporting images of the last 30 years. A slightly portly middle-aged man in a bow tie and comedy glasses, wagging his finger in an “I-told-you-so” fashion, with an enormous grin on his face.

Dennis Taylor was said finger-wagger. He had just beaten Steve Davis on the last ball, of the last frame of the 1985 snooker World Championship final and more than 18 million of us had stayed up after midnight to watch it on TV. Yes, that’s right. 18 million. Watching snooker. On a Sunday night. On BBC2.

This was arguably snooker’s finest hour, and certainly the peak of its mass-market appeal. In the mid-eighties, with football in the doldrums, Britain had gone snooker loopy. If you are over the age of 40 and remotely interested in sport then there’s a good chance you watched the 1985 final. Not only that, you probably also watched most of the other big tournaments that filled hours of television schedules at the time.

You will also have known the names of all the leading players on the snooker circuit. Davis and Taylor obviously were superstars of the green baize but by far the most popular players were the mavericks, Jimmy White and Alex Higgins. But there was strength in depth and the likes of Cliff Thorburn, Tony Knowles, John Virgo, Kirk Stevens and Terry Griffiths all had their devoted fans. And with the arrival in 1991 of the BBC1 quiz show Big Break (with its theme tune that was originally written by chief Womble Mike Batt and performed by Captain Sensible for an ill-fated musical based on Lewis Carroll’s poem The Hunting of The Snark. It’s like punk never happened…) these guys and those that followed in their footsteps, all became prime-time celebrities.

2014-04-21 14.03.45Just as famous as the players, was the venue. The Crucible Theatre in Sheffield started hosting the World Championship in 1977 and by the mid-eighties it had become synonymous with the sport. Three decades later it remains the spiritual home of snooker. As a British sporting venue, it is up there with St Andrews, Lords, Wimbledon and Wembley in terms of prestige and history. But compared to those grand old locations, it’s an unlikely icon. There are no ivy-clad walls, no 700-year old stone bridge, no giant arch. In fact there’s nothing in the way of grandeur or tradition in its four concrete walls. It looks exactly like what it is: a provincial theatre tucked away in a quiet corner of Sheffield city centre.

For 50 weeks of the year, the Crucible happily fulfils that worthy, if rather unglamorous role, providing a stage for the same sort of hotchpotch of plays, shows and lectures that you’ll find in any similar-sized venue throughout the country.

But for the other two weeks of the year the place is transformed from regional playhouse to international sporting arena. And not just any international sporting arena. For the duration of the World Championship, the Crucible becomes a battleground with a cauldron-like atmosphere that is hard to beat anywhere in sport. Think Centre Court at Wimbledon, but more oppressive. The 18th hole on the Old Course? A mere bagatelle in comparison.

Snooker may have lost a lot of its popularity in recent years, but for its devoted fans the Crucible has lost none of its magnetism. Thousands are drawn to Sheffield every year for the tournament and it remains a major event on the British sporting calendar. I’ve stopped following the sport closely but I’ve certainly not forgotten how much of an impression it made on me in my formative years, which is why a visit to the Crucible has long been on my “must-do” list. This year I finally got to tick it off.

POT THE REDS…

I’ve seen the annual trip to Sheffield described as a pilgrimage and a near-religious experience for the sport’s devoted followers. If so, it must be the only spiritual journey where the pilgrims are mainly middle-aged men dressed in polo shirts and Jeremy Clarkson jeans and surrounded by the faint (and frankly, sometimes more than faint) whiff of fart.

My Sheffield experience began at the Landmark Chinese restaurant across the road from the Crucible, where the excellent and extensive all-you-can-eat buffet is an obvious attraction for the snooker fans. Indeed, judging by the staggering amount of food being shovelled away by some diners (and that’s coming from someone who’s no shrinking violet when it comes to repeat plate fills) I rather suspect this may be the source of much of the aforementioned wind problem.

Inside the Crucible we queued and were subjected to a bag search. I’m not sure what we were banned from bringing in – perhaps a doggy bag from the Landmark Buffet – but I was allowed entry, despite my “joke” about having a vuvuzela with me. However, as we shall see, perhaps security needs to be a little more thorough in their bag checks.

Behind the scenes. The message on the TV screens seems a bit harsh though

Behind the scenes. The message on the TV screens seems a bit harsh though

In the arena, there was an overwhelming sense of being behind the scenes at the recording of one of your favourite TV shows. Everything was familiar, but with the very obvious presence of the cameras and production crew, it all seemed slightly strange, almost surreal. It quickly becomes clear that everything is driven by the demands of television, which is hardly surprising given the vital role TV played in the development of the sport. The cameras are huge and conspicuous, but they silently glide around the table like giant robots, somehow managing to keep out of the players’ way. Watching the cameramen choose their positions and their shots, you realise how knowledgeable they must be about the game.

The man in charge – in public at least – is the MC, Rob Walker, a lanky, sharp-suited sports reporter with spiky hair, a catchphrase (“let’s get the boys on the baize”) and a penchant for inventing nicknames for the players. He uses these when he announces their arrival, boxing-style, in the arena, accompanied by an appropriate blast of music (veteran Alan “Angles” McManus walked on to Return of The Mack, for example). Walker’s brand of fast-talking patter is about as far removed from the hushed tones of whispering Ted Lowe as it’s possible to get and you’d imagine that snooker’s old guard probably don’t approve. But whatever they think, it’s all good fun and the Crucible crowd certainly seem to enjoy his attempts to inject a little showbiz into proceedings, although I would question the wisdom of whipping a snooker audience into a state of mild hysteria.

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No sooner are the aisles rocking than we have to shut up and let the players concentrate. As a hush descended over the arena I became vaguely aware of the white noise of a radio trying to tune into a station. At first I thought it was something to do with the headsets that allow you to listen in to the TV commentary but it quickly became apparent the sound was coming from my rucksack. As fellow spectators started to glare in my direction, I realised it was the radio I’d taken with us on our camping trip the night before. Not only had it switched itself on, but somehow the volume had been turned up to full. It was surely only a matter of time before Hallam FM was blasting through the silence and I would be hauled out of the theatre in front of a national TV audience and banned from ever attending another snooker match. Then, inexplicably and without warning, the radio switched itself off and the drama was averted.

…THEN SCREW BACK

In the opening stages of the tournament, there are two tables playing at a time. On the far side, it was McManus against the “Wizard of Wishaw” John Higgins. On table one, where i was sitting, we had Chinese world number two Ding Junhui against debutant Michael Wasley. Ding was leading 6-3 after the opening session and with five ranking tournaments to his name this season already, he was expected to cruise through to the second round against his inexperienced opponent.

DSC_0007The opening frame of the afternoon was not memorable. It took 13 minutes for the first red to be potted, then another five for the next as both players focused on making sure they didn’t give their opponent a chance. The guy immediately behind me was unimpressed – greeting each safety shot with increasingly audible groans and the occasional “SHITE!” In those opening stages, the biggest excitement was when the ref in the other game knocked over a bottle of water. Judging by the regular bursts of laughter from the other side of the theatre, the veteran Scots didn’t seem to be taking things quite as seriously as they were on our table.

Wasley eventually won the frame but it was scrappy and to be honest I was beginning to wonder what all the fuss was about. Then it got interesting. In the next frame Wasley put together a break of 135 and then won his third consecutive frame to draw level. Ding took the fourth and fifth frames of the afternoon to go two ahead again, only for the Englishman to win the following two. Without realising it, I had got caught up in the drama. Just as Wasley seemed to have seized the initiative, Ding fought back again to take a 9-8 lead.

DSC_0014He needed just one more frame to progress to the next round but much to everyone’s disappointment time had run out. The players were told they had to return to finish their match at the end of the scheduled evening session. We were turfed out and would have to watch the rest of the game on the BBC’s Red Button that night. Just like that classic match between Taylor and Davis 29 years ago, it would be after midnight before the game came to a conclusion. And just like in 1985 it was the underdog who won it, Wasley taking the deciding frame on the pink.

…FOR THE YELLOW, GREEN, BROWN, BLUE, PINK AND BLACK

I don’t pretend to know that much about modern-day snooker, but those who do have some insight put Ding’s defeat down to the fact that he does not cope well with the unique pressures and mental demands of the Crucible’s claustrophobic atmosphere. And that’s what makes the place so special.  There is speculation that the tournament could be moved away from Yorkshire when the current contract ends in 2015, possibly to the Far East. But you wonder if any new venue would be able to recreate the sort of atmosphere that the Crucible can generate.

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It seems unlikely, but the reality is that it will be market forces that will determine whether or not change happens. And with snooker’s growing popularity in China, who would bet against it? It would, though, be a sad day for snooker, and in fact British sport in general, if the Crucible, with all its memories, was abandoned. Whatever happens, I’m just glad to have been able to enjoy it, even if it was just for a few hours. 2014-04-21 17.40.53

 

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

VIDEO: Rangers 2 Bayern Munich 0, ECWC semi-final 1972

Exactly 40 years ago, Rangers achieved one of their greatest ever results when they defeated Bayern Munich 2-0 at Ibrox to progress to the final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup. The Germans would go on to dominate European and international football for years to come, but in front of a passionate 80,000 crowd at Ibrox they were reduced to arguing among themselves.

You can read all about the game from the perspective of players and fans in my book Follow On: 50 Years of Rangers in Europe but here’s some TV footage – the commentary is in German unfortunately.

From the same match, a bit of cheek (or disrespect, depending on how you view it) from  Willie Johnston

And finally, the Ibrox crowd in full voice

 

When The Rangers came to Wolverhampton Town

From all over Scotland they came with their Union Flags and Scottish standards. Soaked to the bone from the torrential rain, 10,000 of them paraded through the streets of Wolverhampton. Despite the weather, many were without coats, but they didn’t care. All they wanted to do was enjoy their day away from home and see their team win. Their red, white and blue flags and banners that brightened the grey skies protected them from the elements anyway. The locals – bemused and amused in equal measure – may not have recognised the songs and chants, but they would surely have appreciated the passion with which they were delivered.

The battle cry of ‘We are the people’ echoed off the red-brick buildings as the procession wound its way through the town centre. It had started early in the morning as the first trains rumbled into the station. By lunchtime, office workers were abandoning their desks and lining the streets to watch the show. In return, the Scots bellowed their anthems: ‘There’s not a team like the Glasgow Rangers’ and ‘We will follow on’. They broke into The National Anthem, and were met with spontaneous applause from the bystanders.

It may have resembled an army, but there was nothing hostile about this invading force. There was alcohol consumed of course, and plenty were in high spirits, but no-one embarrassed themselves or their compadres. It was simply a display of passion and devotion to a football team that was then, and remains to this day, more than a just a club. On the streets of this industrial Midlands town, they were celebrating a way of life. ‘The supporters were parading up the streets about ten abreast, waving flags and banners,’ Rangers defender Harold Davis recalled. ‘It was fantastic. They stopped the whole city; there were thousands of people there.’

April 19th 1961. That was the day The Rangers came to Wolverhampton town.

Three weeks earlier, Wolves had visited Glasgow for the first leg of the battle for a place in the European Cup Winners Cup final. Interest in this cross-border clash of the giants was phenomenal. Rangers had sold out 80,000 tickets and, such was the demand, could easily have sold at least half that number again. The Wolves fans weren’t quite so keen to wander north, though, with less than a thousand making the trip.

That night’s Evening Citizen devoted its entire broadsheet front page to the match. The headline ‘Guardians of Ibrox’ was emblazoned above a montage of pictures of the expected Rangers line-up that had been superimposed over the stadium’s famous iron gates. Injuries to key players like Jimmy Millar, Ian McMillan and Max Murray had hampered Scot Symon’s team selection and he was forced into naming an experimental front line, featuring Doug Baillie at centre forward instead of his usual position of centre half.

FA Cup holders Wolves were considered to be a strong, physical team more than capable of holding their own in a battle. In many ways they were similar in style to Rangers. But they too were under strength, with England international Peter Broadbent injured and the Scottish press predicted a win for the Scots.

After just 10 minutes of a tough tackling encounter, Rangers suffered another injury blow, although it was purely down to bad luck. Harold Davis overstretched and pulled a muscle in his leg. After lengthy treatment, he returned to the pitch with his right thigh heavily strapped but in those days of no substitutes, Davis had to soldier on. He was moved to the right wing to keep him out of harm’s way and the Rangers front line was reshuffled again.

Davis performed out of his skin to help the cause. ‘In those days you had no substitutes so you either finished with ten men or with 11 and the injured player remained on the park. Even if you had a twisted ankle or something, you were better out of the way than actually in the middle of the park.’

At this stage, even the most optimistic home supporter must have doubted whether a Rangers victory was likely. But 30 minutes into the first half, the Ibrox crowd erupted as Alex Scott scored a superb goal.

After the break, the game flowed back and forth as one team then the other gained the upper hand. Davis refused to remain a passenger on the wing and on more than one occasion tracked back to help out the defence as well as getting involved in attacking moves for Rangers. Wolves exerted more pressure on the Scottish defence as they sought the equaliser and Ritchie justified his selection by pulling off a string of saves. Then with just six minutes to go, Ralph Brand pounced on a mistake by Wolves and smashed home a low, hard shot past the goalkeeper to give Rangers a two goal lead to take to the Midlands.

The Rangers players and supporters were delighted at the win, especially as it had come in such difficult circumstances. Not everyone appreciated the efforts of injury victim Harold Davis, though. ‘There was a comment made at the speeches after the game,’ Davis remembered. ‘The opposition manager Stan Cullis said something like, ‘If that guy who got injured and played on the wing was seriously hurt then I’m a bloody Dutchman.’ I ended up on the wing and I made a contribution and he didn’t like it.’

The second leg was to take place four days after the annual clash between Scotland and England in the Home International championship. This year the match was being played at Wembley, and as usual thousands of Scots travelled to London for the match. Many planned to return home via Black Country and take in the Rangers game at Molineux.

Wembley was a disaster. Scotland suffered a humiliating 9-3 defeat. It was now down to Rangers to restore some pride in the Scottish game. Despite the huge prize at stake – the finalists would make at least £20,000 from their appearance in the final – there were warm words from the English club towards their Rangers before the match. The programme notes for the game showed the respect they had for their Scottish visitors.

Since we qualified for one of the comparatively new international cup tournaments we have been privileged to receive on our ground some distinguished clubs from other countries. None of them however have been more welcome visitors to Molineux than the famous Rangers whom we see here tonight. Rangers are among the elite in Scottish football and all of us at Molineux are eagerly looking forward to seeing them.

What we can promise is another 90 minutes of hard football in which this time the roars from the terraces will be urging the English side into action just as the tremendous crowd at Ibrox sought to inspire their favourites three weeks ago. Those who were privileged to be there on that occasion will not hurriedly forget either the scene, or the sound, as the crowd roared Rangers into action.’

The bookmakers were offering odds of 5-2 against Rangers winning, but Wolves had a magnificent home record that season, losing just one of their 17 matches at Molineux.

Molineux was barely a stone’s throw from the town centre and, after congregating for some time for a singsong outside the hotel where Rangers had based themselves, the Scots fans marched to the ground to claim their spot on the terraces. From the start of the match to the end, the Rangers supporters roared on their team, to the amazement of the local fans. The local Express and Star newspaper said the thousands of visitors ‘helped give the scene an atmosphere that has not been matched since the famous floodlit specials of ‘54.’

In their famous old gold jerseys, Wolves had the better of the opening exchanges, with Rangers were limited to breakaways. But as the half progressed the Scots managed to gain more of a territorial advantage. Davie Wilson, one of three Rangers players who had appeared against England, was out to make amends for the Wembley fiasco and put in a man of the match performance. Just before half time Alex Scott and Ralph Brand combined to score and send the Rangers fans into delirium. Latching onto a long clearance from the Rangers penalty area, Brand managed to evade the challenge of defender Bill Slater and broke away, before laying it onto the path of Scott, who carefully placed it beyond the ‘keeper.

The cheers of the travelling fans were still reverberating around Molineux when Billy Ritchie was forced to pull off a magnificent diving save from a long range shot. The save, which was greeted with almost as big a roar as the goal, broke English hearts. Wolves eventually found a way through with a goal midway through the second half, but they would have needed another two to take the tie to extra time and, despite wave after wave of attack, that never looked likely.

Finally the final whistle blew, and Rangers were in the final. Their fans spilled onto the pitch to celebrate their victory. The tolerant Wolverhampton constabulary stood back and let the delighted Scots enjoy their fun as hundreds of fans hugged their triumphant heroes and carried them shoulder-high down the tunnel. Others danced with joy in front of the main stand before lining up in formation and starting a victory parade back through the streets to the town centre, where the late trains were waiting to carry them back north. ‘We had a fantastic result,’ said Harold Davis. ‘Wolves were a great team in those days and that was one of our really good results. We were definitely helped by the fans. The backing of all those supporters was really super.’

The victory took Rangers into the final of the Cup Winners Cup, the first British club team to reach a major European final. Birmingham City had played in the previous year’s Fairs Cup final, but technically they were a representative team appearing in a competition that was only open to cities that hosted trade fairs. Having overcome teams from Hungary, Germany and England, Rangers now faced their biggest test against the Italians of Fiorentina.

Taken from Follow On: 50 Years of Rangers in Europe

Archive Rangers photos ‘n’ stuff

I’ve started a couple of other blogs for hosting some of the old Rangers photos and other gubbins I’ve accumulated over the last few years. I’ll try to update them as often as possible… no promises mind.

Retro Rangers will celebrate the players and games of the late 70s, 80s and early 90s – basically the era when I enjoyed football most.

The Ibrox Gallery is simply a website where I will post interesting old pictures, most of which won’t have been seen for a long time.