The Beginning: The seeds of inferiority are sewn.
Soundtrack:- ‘True Colours’ – Cyndi Lauper
‘Faith’ – George Michael
‘Got My Mind Set On You’ – George Harrison
‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ – Gerry & The Pacemakers.
‘Nessun Dorma’ – Luciano Pavarotti
‘Mersey Paradise’ – Stone Roses
‘Movin’ On Up’ – Primal Scream
Where to start? Most football books open with a heart-warming if sickly tale about someone who was kicking a football from the moment they left the womb, of an obsession that started the instant they could breathe. That is not the case for me. Don’t get me wrong, my passion for football is without doubt an obsession, but it wasn’t something I was destined to have.
The truth is I found my own way to football. My parents weren’t football supporters in any shape or form. Neither were either set of grandparents. My extended family were however, and of course some influence may have come my way, albeit subconsciously at first, directly later. I was a social kid, and inevitably growing up in a small Isle of Wight village I mixed with boys of a range of ages and our dusky evenings were spent like most young lads at the time, playing a wide range of football related games. ‘Jammy Cup’, ‘Headers and Volleys’ and ‘Spot’ were the most popular. To quote the Fresh Prince ‘on the playground is where I spent most of my days’ or in my case Godshill recreational ground.
It was amongst this group that football became a ‘thing’ in my life. I was mixing with people who supported teams. It was an odd concept to me. In our group there were a Birmingham City fan, a Dundee fan, a Manchester United fan (yes, just the one) and an Everton fan but the resounding majority were Liverpool fans. It offered me no concern at the time that no one in my village supported either of the local professional teams, but it certainly seems odd to me now.
This was the mid-eighties. Liverpool were at the height of their dominance of English football, so it was natural that the easily influenced kids of the time would have their heads turned by the trophy laden reds. This was also an easy fit for me. My mother was an Island immigrant from Bootle, so I had a genuine reason to follow the Scouse team, not that this was my reason at the time. My reason at the time was that they were a good team, that my friends supported them, that they boasted an abundance of stars and that they rarely lost. Alas, I was one of the very things I dislike about football supporters today. A glory seeker. But the worm would turn and not a moment too soon.
‘I was mixing with people who supported teams. It was an odd concept to me. In our group there were a Birmingham City fan, a Dundee fan, a Manchester United fan (yes, just the one) and an Everton fan but the resounding majority were Liverpool fans.’
Life as a Liverpool fan was not all it was cracked up to be. Firstly, the extended family on my maternal side may have been from the city, but they were 90% Everton fans. This meant Christmas and birthday presents would inevitably come with some blue paraphernalia from Goodison Park. Everton were doing pretty well at the time too, so I did what any right-minded child would do in that situation, I supported both. Well, that is to say I didn’t really support either. I flirted with both, but neither felt right.
In hindsight I was given a golden chance to grab success. I had a perfectly valid reason, in fact more valid than those who supported Liverpool around me to be a fan. I was half Scouse, it was in my blood, a birth right if you will. But it wasn’t right. I had every Liverpool and Everton home shirt in my drawers from a period of two or three seasons, but in reality they were just things I wore to fit in with the older kids when we played football. I was never a Liverpool or Everton supporter, just a distant admirer.
It never occurred to me that perhaps it wasn’t the clubs that didn’t feel right, but the success. I had the closest to what you might call a ‘footballing epiphany’ on the 14th May 1988. The FA cup final was always a big deal to me, a day of unprecedented grandeur. I don’t want to go down the nostalgic road of things being different and better in my day, but, well, the truth is, they were. The FA cup final was an event to behold, the centrepiece of the season, not like the 5 O’clock afterthought it seems to be now. In the week leading up to it at school we talked of little else. Nearly every boy in my class supported Liverpool, and so did Mr. Brown (another of Scouse origin) our teacher. We made red and white rosettes on the Friday, as Mr. Brown confidently proclaimed to us that this would be the most one-sided FA cup final in history, as the mighty Liverpool faced Wimbledon. I’ve always disliked arrogance. I’m not saying Mr. Brown was arrogant, far from it, I distinctly remember him instilling in us the concept that there could be an upset, though he thought it unlikely.
‘I had the closest to what you might call a ‘footballing epiphany’ on the 14th May 1988. The FA cup final was always a big deal to me, a day of unprecedented grandeur. I don’t want to go down the nostalgic road of things being different and better in my day, but, well, the truth is, they were.’
The day of the game was a wholly frustrating experience for me. I wanted to watch the captains play subbuteo against each other. I wanted to see Jimmy Tarbuck give us his tactical insight. I wanted to see a plethora of pundits patronise the South London underdogs “They’ve done so well to get this far”, “Let’s hope the occasion doesn’t get the better of them” etc. But my parents had other ideas. They wanted to buy a carpet. Of all the Saturday’s in all the year, they chose this one to browse soft furnishings.
While Des Lynam, Bob Wilson and Jimmy Hill were discussing how the game would be won and lost I was wandering aimlessly amongst rolls of woven fabrics on the Carisbrooke trading estate. Wembley could not have seemed further away. When we eventually got back to the car I was fit to burst, kick off was less than 10 minutes away and we weren’t even going straight home. We were going to visit a family friend. Upon arriving at their house it pained me to see the television not even switched on. The game was underway and I was missing it, the cold metal of my rosette pin against my skin hammering home my sadness. I got my dad to ask. To my joy they said it was ok, so there I was alone, perched on the edge of a setee in the living room of a relative stranger’s house and I had only missed 15 minutes.
The game was unspectacular as I remember it. Peter Beardsley chipped the ball into the net in the 37th minute and Liverpool should have taken an expected lead, but for some reason, and I don’t think anyone can explain why even now, referee Brian Hill blew his whistle and brought play back for a free kick due to an earlier incident. Then my life as a football fan was turned upside down just two minutes later. Steve Nicol gave away a free kick out on the left touchline. Dennis Wise stepped up and delivered a right footed cross. Lawrie Sanchez rose above Gary Ablett and effortlessly flicked the ball goalwards. Wimbledon led the cup final. The whole of football took a breath and I reacted like no other Liverpool fan in the world. I cheered. All alone and no one to hear me, I cheered. It was like a release. I had never really been a Liverpool supporter, I was a football supporter who had been swept up like a 9 year old boy might be in a tide of peer expectation. The underdogs were beating the league champions, and I was loving it.
Half time came and went and now I felt nervous, for Wimbledon to take the lead was one thing, to hold onto it would be something else entirely. Retrospective looks at the game will tell you that Wimbledon’s intimidating style and ‘hardman’ reputation might have gotten to the Liverpool stars a little, but I don’t remember it feeling like that at the time. I remember worrying every time that Liverpool went forward they would score and ruin this fairytale for me. But Wimbledon held on. That was until the 61st minute when Hill pointed to the spot. Talk of the big clubs getting the breaks with referees isn’t a new thing, and I remember the Wimbledon players being furious that the penalty had been given, despite Clive Goodyear playing the ball.
Of course justice was done. Beasant’s penalty save defined my new love of the underdog, and effectively ended my association with Liverpool FC. I even lacked any sympathy for John Aldridge, a man who was and would continue to always be one of my football heroes. This wasn’t just a victory for Wimbledon, it was a victory for every fan of every small club that dared to dream. I wanted a part of that. The feeling of winning an FA Cup would always be special, but it must feel a whole lot more when you don’t know when the next one will come.
‘Of course justice was done. Beasant’s penalty save defined my new love of the underdog, and effectively ended my association with Liverpool FC.’
Liverpool were only a calendar year away from their next attempt and win in a cup final, Wimbledon, well the rest as they say is history. I was teamless again, but Lawrie Sanchez, Dave Beasant et al had set me on a totally different footballing journey.
The following season was pretty comfortable to me, 1988/89 was the beginning of a period without a team to worry about. I was ten years old, I didn’t need the hassle. I was fresh from the sight of Marco Van Basten scoring the best volley of all time in the European Championship final and football as a sport was getting my full attention. My only vivid memory of that domestic season again involved the FA Cup, and again Liverpool, but no joy would come of the 15th April 1989. It seemed unreal as I watched those tragic events unfold live. It is the shame of football and the relevant authorities that only recently do the families of those 96 fans start to see justice on the horizon.
That summer saw my first true experience of a World Cup. I had watched bits of 1986, but 1990 was to be the first time a four week festival of football truly caught my imagination. Holders Argentina opened the tournament against Cameroon. The African’s didn’t stand a chance, but if they had nobody else on their side, they had me. If Wimbledon had wetted my appetite for the joys of ‘underdogdom’ two years earlier Oman Biyik’s weak header going through the Argentine keeper’s hands and giving Cameroon the victory dunked it in the Solent. To say I lost the plot would be an understatement. The following week at school we had to make a patchwork picture in art using various fabrics. I made a full body portrait of Cameroon winger Cyrille Makanaky. Sadly, I no longer have it, but it remains, artistically my best work.
By this time I was at Nodehill Middle School (*I had to get a bus and everything) and my own sporting prowess was growing. My footballing skills didn’t transfer from the ‘kickabout’ to the competitive match, though I was somewhat unfortunate to go to a school with a ridiculously talented team for my age group, so despite being prolific in jeans and pumps, I had to make do with the odd sub appearance in shorts and boots. I did however have a better aptitude for cricket, and established myself as opening bat for the school team. This was no mean feat for someone whose shot selection was that of two choices. Forward defence or the low hook shot. It was with this cricket team that I actually had a very memorable football moment. It was in the minibus, on our way home from an away fixture on the mainland. It was the 1st July 1990 and we had England v Cameroon on the radio. The World Cup quarter finals and it was the country of my birth against my beloved ‘Indomitable Lions’. The game was frantic. The driver (probably a teacher) stopped the bus and we just listened to it unfold. It is renowned for being one of the best games of the tournament but for me it was a day of hideous disappointments. Rann caught behind 0.
I guess it was around this time that, not having a team of my own started to weigh on my mind. I had felt a feeling of love for the giant killing efforts of that Cameroon side that I had never felt before and I felt ready to commit.
‘If Wimbledon had wetted my appetite for the joys of ‘underdogdom’ two years earlier Oman Biyik’s weak header going through the Argentine keeper’s hands and giving Cameroon the victory dunked it in the Solent.’
Tranmere Rovers were about as unfashionable a club as you can get. Manager John King described them as the ‘Deadly Submarine’ in comparison to the luxury liners of Merseyside neighbours Everton and Liverpool. They were a third division team playing in a dilapidated stadium in front of nobody. I felt a natural affinity with them as a club, and the hopelessness of their situation (they could never realistically compete with the two giants across the Mersey) I found endearing. Actually Tranmere would have a fantastic season, with me their only Isle of Wight based fan (that I was aware of) watching via teletext. Chris Malkin scored in extra time to seal a 1-0 win over Bolton Wanderers in the play-off final at Wembley. And this was just the start. My time with the Super White Army (it isn’t really over, I still follow them from afar today) coincided with the brightest period in its history. It was fate that one of my heroes, John Aldridge would join the club that summer and that team that also included Pat Nevin would come within inches of the Premier League over the next few seasons. But still I never felt quite at home as a Rover.
By this time the family had uprooted from the small village of Godshill, to the small (but big in comparison town) of Cowes. This would be another deciding factor in my footballing future. It meant that in the summer of 1992 I would go to Cowes High School rather than the South Island alternatives. This may seem insignificant, but it was huge.
If football had been a big part of my growing up to that point, it was to become a huge part. When I arrived at high school, I found that people supported a whole range of clubs, and many supported the more local teams, Portsmouth and particularly Southampton. It had never occurred to me to support either of those teams, although the irony of that now, having yearned for the underdog seems ludicrous. I said the location of the school was significant, and this is all to do with ferries. On the island, as a general rule you can draw a line directly down from the eastern side of East Cowes to the bottom at St. Catherine’s point. Those to the east of the line tend to be of the Pompey persuasion. Those to the West are usually Saints fans. This is at it’s most prevalent in Cowes/East Cowes where the ferries serve Southampton and Ryde where the ferries serve Portsmouth. This doesn’t apply to everybody of course, but it would be a pretty high percentage.
So I was suddenly amongst a group of friends that contained many Saints fans, and these were the first proper football club supporters I really knew. They made the pilgrimage to the Dell every Saturday to watch their team.
At this point, I was already a football obsessive. But you could count the number of actual matches I had been to on one hand. I had seen the Island based sides a few times, usually in pre-season friendlies and I had made a few ‘treat’ trips to Anfield and Prenton Park but nothing regular.
It was December of my first year at Cowes and one of my Saints supporting friends turned to me in our History lesson and asked if I fancied going over to watch them play Arsenal…..