I blame my dad…well initially I blame him. I also blame the man who should have become my husband and my best friend Jack. All three of them, the father, the turd and the holy spoke. It’s why I am here this evening, here freezing my backside off watching my team playing against Oxford United in the F.A Cup. My company as you can see, is a fairly warm pie, a Thermos flask and a rucksack containing a fairly well read and crossword attempted newspaper, a new note pad, envelope, pen and a diminishing book of stamps in which at some point I will write to the man who should have been my husband two and half years ago that I completed the challenge laid down before me. I shall write, much more kindly it has to be said, to my dad who decided to stay at home and watch some old tosh on the television rather than see me complete the task….that’s not fair as he went to quite a few games with me but a few weeks back he slipped over in the ice outside Wigan station and broke his leg, and I shall write with glee and pleasure to friend Jack and tell him he is not the only stupid arse to complete the ninety-two.
I blame all three of them for in some way or another letting me do this insane and expensive task, to complete the ninety-two, actually seeing as there have been two sets of promotions from the non-league since I started, ninety-six grounds.
Oh, oh wait, wait…go on lad take him on, don’t be scared of him. Ah bloody hell. Where was I, oh yes…you see it started when on what should have been the happiest day of my life, that of marrying Robert Banter, a man who I adored, who also happened at one time to adore me, decided at the last minute to walk out of the wedding just as he was about to say I do. He looked at me and said to the vicar, that regretfully he didn’t, he didn’t love me, he actually needed to be true to himself and he needed to marry a woman who wasn’t such a football fan or a keen repeater of key jokes and phrases that were littered with Monty Python. Bob didn’t like football, Bob didn’t get the cerebral comedy of Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, John Cleese or my favourite Michael Palin; he liked me, he certainly liked himself that’s true enough but if he stayed with me, my obsession over my favourite formation, the lack of passion on the pitch and how do you think we would do against the likes of Bolton, Blackburn and Birmingham away he was likely to say…you stupid idiot!…that he would regret marrying me.
So he left me standing there in my blue dress, blue flowers and match day scarf as he walked off down the aisle quicker than a Sunday league player scenting half time coffee being poured.
We still had the reception of course, my dad was not one for wasting money and family had come from all over to be the country to finally see their little girl become respectable. Respectable? Me? Blimey, if only they knew the scrapes I had got up to over the last couple of years carrying out my end of the bet.
My dad, well he was like, he had supported the team all his life, he had no sons, so much against my mother’s wishes, God rest her soul, he would take me along to every home game. We rarely went to any away games. Once I went to a different ground to see them play, Well, we were in Cleethorpes on our annual holiday and our mam says take her out for a walk, she’s mithering me something rotten. Get her out before I take her out and dump her in the Humber or the North Sea. Well of course we had it planned, Dad and I. I had been pestering her, bothering her to do something. I was being a teenager.
My mum never bothered reading the sports pages, all that kissing and cuddling, I’m surprised they don’t make it all X-rated like one of the smutty films your dad tried to take me to…what was it called now…oh fuck me, can’t you play with the ball properly….that’s right Deep Throat. Anyway, because mum thought it was out of season, football doesn’t go on all the time, once the F.A. Cup was over that was it till the next season. However she never thought about the friendly matches and by the greatest stroke of luck, we had elected to give Grimsby a game at their ground. Dad said it was because we were scouting for new players from them, I just thought it was the best holiday ever.
Anyway I blame the husband who never was, I blame my dad because on the night of the party for the wedding that also never was, he took me aside and told me to…push it out, make him tackle you toss…sorry mixed company. He told me that he was worried that I would mope in my room, I would take up some sort of weird hobby, weirder than supporting eleven men, all of whom I would never get to see naked unless I applied for a job as shower attendant at the club, and collecting the vast amount of football programmes. Mum used to say, can’t you be a normal girl and collect pop records like I did or even one day your walls will collapse with the amount of weight hanging off them. Soon fixed that in the spring of 98 when I had the garage converted into a strong room for all…mum’s old Fiesta going rusty in the forecourt.
Jack was there, my friend Jack, Jack the Wheels. No he didn’t have a really super car, bloody idiot took the bus and train everywhere, nor did he have a side line in ripping off people’s cars for material gain. No, Jack had been in a wheelchair since he decided one evening to try and climb the wall and watch what was supposed to be a behind closed doors training session. He got up the wall o.k. but then decided that wasn’t enough, he wanted to sit quietly in his usual place in the stands and take in the sight of the new left back we had signed in the January transfer window. So he got there o.k. and for ten wonderful minutes he was the only one in the stand watching our team play. Had he not screamed out as if he himself had scored the winning goal in the Cup Final when the Argentinean fired one into an empty net then he might have stayed there all game and done something so many of us wish to do, to watch a game between two sides and be the only spectator, to have all that testosterone to yourself and smile when it is over. He got away of course; Jack was always too quick for anyone and might have been a decent footballer himself had he not found out that the club were going to be a strict on his behaviour as his old man was. So he got away, clean away. The wheels bit, well that was that same night and he found Dad, Bob and I in the pub and preceded to buy us a drink and to revel in his escapade when Butcher Mule came in, realised that Jack owed him money and proceeded to batter him near to death in a friendly persuasion over a hundred pounds. He doesn’t mind so much anymore, when the Mule got out of prison, Jack even took him to a game for getting him in a lot cheaper than he had been paying.
There I am in my blue wedding dress, tighter than a close encounter between Paul Gascoigne and Vinny Jones, sat on the decaying wall of the car park that was to the left of the pub when Jack and my dad came over to me, a combined look of condolence and mirth etched upon their faces. “Why not do the 92?” Jack said with some seriousness in his voice. I looked at him with a mixture of awe, sympathy and the sudden realisation that my Dad and Jack were insane! The 92 club, the act of going to every league ground in the country. From Plymouth to Gillingham, from several trips to London to Hartlepool and Carlisle, what was the point, what was….goal! Oh you beauty, slammed right into the back of the net. What was the point, why the 92? “Why not” Jack argued, I always liked Jack’s logic. Even at school it was why not, why not bunk off school, go up to the training ground and see if we can see someone coming in, why not hang around after the game and try to get every player’s autograph for the fifth time, why not kick a football against a window repeatedly until it breaks, why not…
The 92 Club, the act of aggressively putting your body through the terror of miles, the agony of getting to a football ground two hundred miles from home and having the game postponed six minutes from kick-off due to some unseen band of clouds dumping five inches of rain on the pitch, the drama of trains grinding along at four miles an hour and making you miss your connecting service, meaning a three hour wait on a deserted platform and the cold penetrating parts of your body that you had forgotten had existed, the desperate clash with stewards who decide that for some reason you are a concern to them, that the camera you have taken out of your pocket to take a snap of the stand emblazoned with the owner’s textile company, means you are a terrorist and you miss two-thirds of the heated one all draw in a pointless argument; of course it was my dad’s and Jack’s fault because in one fleeting minute I had answered all the above issues with the one simple response, why the hell not!
Oi Linesman, you are such a blind bastard, that was about as offside as a fumble in a brothel, surely you would understand the difference, wasn’t your mum a…fan of Bristol City, sorry I was never a fan of Bristol City, for no other reason than they beat us in the cup one year, I have the same illogical hatred towards Coventry City and Portsmouth, my distaste of Middlesbrough built upon more sound footings, I came round from having my appendix forcibly removed, after suffering toxic shock from Peritonitis to see my dear dad had written in the get well soon card, Sorry, Boro beat us one-nil, I love you, Dad. Now that was just cruel and to this day I cannot abide the Boro, a reasonable declaration of hatred I have always believed. However despite my antagonistic thoughts towards the men from Bristol, it was on a hot summer’s day me and my dad found ourselves trundling into Bristol Temple Meads Station, our rucksack’s struggling to contain the huge pile of sandwiches our Aunty Vera had made, the two flasks of coffee and the latest News of the World Football annual, probably for me the closest thing I ever owned to being a Bible.
Over the course of time, the well spent hours debating the merits of each ground, the taste of the local pies, the good natured banter of the fans…except for that one time down in Millwall when Bury played there, me and my dad forcibly arguing about which side we were going to support, to show willing to the spirit of the occasion, my dad rightly saying that as we were northerners we should be true to ourselves and support Bury, me being pragmatic, reasonable, realistic, reminding him that in the scheme of things should Bury score, we were actually closer to the Millwall fans and they might take exception to two people jumping and down within say twenty feet of them and taking delight in seeing the rampant lions going behind. My father saw sense and as the game progresses we nervously watched as the attacking football of Millwall was soon to result in an early lead. We cheered, boy did we raise the roof as Millwall found the back of the net. As one, a section of the stand nearest us swivelled their heads and the contempt was written on their faces, with fingers pointed so far out infront of them you could see the nails glisten in the sun the terrace came alive with the musical refrain, “Who’s the fat bastards over there?” Now my father’s face turned ashen and underneath his breath I heard him mutter…oh fuck off referee, he dived, you were sold a pup there…I don’t like this, I don’t like this at all. I have only ever seen him look so frightened once before in his life, the day the riots came to town, the day when he had me walking down the main street as a young girl and the peace around him erupted like a volcano sensationally sending television sets smashing into the void and the local supermarket up in flames.
I told him to give it five minutes then pretend he was going to the toilet, I would follow five minutes afterwards, once at the loo to make his way to the exit and start making his way to the local station, I wasn’t hanging round, I knew the rules of the club off by heart by then, as long as you see the game kick off the ground stood as having been visited; there was nothing in the rules which said I had to stay and be reminded of why my dad never went to football in the 70s.
Millwall, a great club but one that I have no wish to visit again, unlike going to towns and cities for the first time in my life and falling in love with the wit and charm of the home crowds, the hidden programme shops that found their way into Saturday society and the feeling of accomplishment when another ground was ticked off the list. Plymouth’s Home Park, Bournemouth, Arsenal, Crewe, Eastlands, Spotlands in the howling rain and in which an older gentleman with a glint in one eye introduced me to his other eyeball as he rolled it across the bar infront of me, Wrexham in the rain, Hartlepool in the rain, Shrewsbury in the rain, twice! Coventry in the snow and just for good measure Charlton Athletic where my Dad regaled me of the day he saw The Who perform at the ground whilst working away from home; these ground I will happily venture too if I get the chance.
It all started though at Bristol City, a hot day, the opening game of the season, boiling hot and by half time I admit I was already feeling the oncoming effects of the fateful snore, the moment every fan dreads where those around you of not enjoying the game. To be fair the game was good, it was enjoyable and for the first time since Bob had paced out of the church, scampering out sheepishly to a tune on the violin played cheekily by my friend which sounded like Blue Moon, I felt gloriously happy, I was doing what I loved and it was all to prove a point, that a woman can be just as hard driven when it comes to obsession as a man.
However happy I was I also realised that ninety two clubs was a big ask, hundreds and hundreds of miles, the chances of postponed games clogging up the systematic process of fixture planning we had gone through from that day in the middle of June when the games are announced, the chance of meeting someone ever again, someone nice, someone…fetch him a towel he looks as though he’s wet himself, someone as cool as my dad and Jack was as likely as Crewe finding themselves in the top flight and hanging onto their close knit family like status.
The game ended, I believe I nodded a couple of times but by the time we had made our way back to Temple Meads, I found myself on the verge of telling my dad that it was a worthy experiment but it was just too much, that travelling to Norwich, Gillingham, Portsmouth and Carlisle was just something only fools like Jack did. I looked at my father’s pained expression as we sat down on the much sought after benches and I quizzically asked him what was wrong?
“Don’t look now, but Michael Palin’s behind you”, he whispered, the sound of his voice barely audible above the tin like announcement that always made me think of Supertramp’s song Rudy and the stations in which the young man went sailing past. I began to smile, Michael Palin here, now, a game of football and Michael Palin all in one day, well if that man could travel half the world, then I’m sure I could easily do some football matches, it wasn’t as if I was going to be eating anything dodgy as I went to each ground…
I turned slowly on my seat, my dad’s hand on my shoulders almost guiding me, swivelling me round with the temptation of meeting a hero, telling him I was going to follow in his footsteps and introduce myself to different cultures, just not on a camel or spending a night on the frozen wastes of Antarctica, that I would do whatever it took to be an equal in his eyes. I blinked, my smile already in position and yet there was nobody there, just a train slowly being prepared to go on its way to the next stop down the line.
Then I saw it, I saw the name plate that had been positioned onto its gleaming hull, its tight uniform metal body and laughed, the Michael Palin train, long may she reign sublime because just by being there at Bristol Temple Meads Station at that time I was resolved to complete the ninety-two, I vowed to be a member of a club that would have me.
I have completed it of course, I’m here in Oxford as the living proof, a picture of every main stand, a photograph of me outside every ground and as a souvenir I even brought a mug from every shop and tried a pie from a kiosk just for good measure, who needs to get married after all, I have the love of the game to keep me company, although now I’m finished I might struggle to fill my Saturdays…there’s always Scotland mind.
Dedicated to Judith Hall, a companion in the madness of 92.
Ian D. Hall