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Clark Gable and your Grandad

June 12, 2017

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                                                                                                                                                                                             (picture credit: Julia Urwin)

It’s a picture of a group of old men.

Except it’s not.

To me  they are all in their twenties – Spence scoring for fun, Alex with defence splitting passes, Big Red terrorising defences, and Colin Alty always doing all that was asked of him

This is the team, managed by Billy Bingham, in the centre, who, in 1967, won Southport FC. Promotion from the Fourth Division, for the first time in their history.

I was fifteen and hardly missed a match that season. Summer of love? You  could  stuff Haight Ashbury, I was at Haig Avenue, watching the Port.

In those days, it was not uncommon for players to spend 5-10 years at a club. If you went every Saturday (or sometimes in Southport’s case, Friday night) they became like family.

They mostly stayed in the town: Spencey taught your mate PE, Arthur Peat was someone’s next door neighbour, you saw Brian Reeves in his greengrocer shop, and Alex Russell was completing his Apprenticeship as a printer. They were accessible during the week, but, to us, at the weekend, they were as legendary as Law, Best and Charlton, plying their trade  down the road at Old Trafford.

There was hardly any football on television then. When a game was televised it was a special event – like Fireworks Night, or Gala Day – really good but made better by its rarity. The fun of football was going to the game, smelling the liniment, drinking sweet tea and laughing with your mates.

I’m sure the likes of Messi and Ronaldo will be remembered for decades to come – but their memory will be of ethereal genius flitting across a screen, rather than the flesh and blood of a Saturday afternoon or an evening under the lights. Everybody remembers Clark Gable because he is famous and appeared in the films, but he was an elusive fabrication; your grandad shines far more brightly in your memory because, though not famous, he was there, and accessible, and you could interact with him. That’s the difference between hero worship and human contact. That’s what watching Southport FC taught me.

Being there at the game was actually more important than the result. We had an understanding then that competitive sport meant that only very few teams could actually win anything – 4 division titles, 7 more promotion spots, and two cups:  13 opportunities for 92 clubs was not high odds. Most clubs had never won anything ever!

So a Cup run to round 4 or 5, a top ten position in your league, or even avoiding relegation,  were all celebrated. The idea that you would stop going because your team wasn’t winning would have been laughed to scorn. What did results have to do with support?  Long losing streaks would  make  you angry and belligerent towards players and manager,  of course, but largely because you knew you would be  back week after week to watch the team, irrespective of success or failure.

Maybe that was a sign of the post war times.

I remember the excitement building before the game, the nerves on the day of the match, the routine,  home and away, of getting to the game, the butterflies before kick off, and being utterly lost in the game for 90 minutes.

There’s no enthusiast like a teenage fan. I was totally hooked on Southport – even though I didn’t know I was establishing a lifelong commitment to watching live football. The essence of those games is still with me 50 years later – I only have to close my eyes to be there. And I often do.

On the 50th  anniversary of my first Southport game in 1963, I went with my son to Haig Ave to watch the Port and I was able to meet my heroes Eric Redrobe and Alex Russell.

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I’ve written about that meeting a few times – but I don’t really have the words for it. A 60 year old man hugging a pair of 70 year olds and saying thank you? What is that all about? How do you convey to someone that you’ve carried the happiness they brought you as a teenager through the whole of your life? Without coming over as a complete prat, that is?

Well, you don’t. You hug them and say thanks, and hope they can understand without getting too embarrassed.

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It’s a part of life that everybody believes that the music and sport of their youth was a golden age. You wouldn’t want it any other way. Maybe, just maybe, being a “child of the Sixties” I’ve got a good claim to that.

I saw three World Cup games at Goodison Park; Everton, Liverpool and Man Utd all had epoch defining teams, and I had Bingham’s  Boys at Haig Avenue.

I wouldn’t trade it for the world. They defined who I am as a football supporter, I measure everything against them. Their all gold kit still shines under the floodlights of my memory.

Looking at them in that picture, aged like me, but still the essence of that marvellous team that meant everything to me, I’m tempted to say I still love them.

But that would be ridiculous, wouldn’t it?

Well, yes, it would be.

But it’s true.

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