I wonder why I’m not at a game today. It’s Saturday at the start of another football season. But I remember discussing the overkill of boom-time sport with the old Labour Minister Denis Howell, just before he died. He agreed that the solipsistic sloshings of money in the game, the media saturation of coverage, bordered on the obscene. I prefer to pick the odd game these days, where I can meet the remnants of the family. It’s easier to get on now, no dying mother to feel guilty about, just the fortunes of Burnley Football Club and the gossip from Turf Moor. The Turf’s been there for all of one and a quarter centuries now, a ground still grandly placed in the centre of town, bringing together diverse elements of the place and the area in a regular swell of vociferous reaffirmation of identity. Wherever Burnley is playing, I can still be reminded of the simplicities of my self, the constants of my identity. The anticipation of the game, the poetry and drama of the match, still bring a frisson to the soul, a smile to the cynical gaze.
When I was a kid in Burnley the first match of the season would be the biggest day of the year. It made wars look trivial, elections peripheral, school prizes the height of absurdity. The end of the season heralded lingering summers and forced-march family holidays, dull cricket games with none of the intensified drama and physicality of football, days out to see severe-looking battalions of grannies and aunts. Trips around the Lancashire mill towns and the posher Southport, where mum, Doris, came from. Dad, Chris, came from a mill-working family in the Blackburn area, though his dad had wandered the land as a professional footballer.
Doris’s father and grandfather, local Hills, had been medium-size industrialists (as Business Studies jargon now puts it), passing entrepreneurial success and petty-bourgeois modernity down a couple of generations before Uncle Stanley’s laissez-faire hedonism lost the local and regional market. Stanley died early, no longer the dashing hockey club extrovert, of a form of premature senilia – got what he deserved, muttered the jobless former employees and the embittered relatives whose investment in the company was wrecked. What else could you expect from a chap with an Erroll Flynn moustache, RAF cap slightly ajar in those Canadian World War Two portraits? And he even drove a Ford Zephyr, with all that American tailfin flash.
Before Stanley’s careless management, the family had been big in Southport, the first and foremost central heating engineering contractor. It made elegant little rooms in cold homes suddenly sweltering, stuck fat squat radiators against walls and undermined the coal business. It was Chris’s dad, after his successful but shortened-by-injury professional football career with Blackburn Rovers, Brentford and Norwich, who failed in that business before walking forty miles across the county, westwards as so many hopefuls tramped, to find whatever employment you could. For Jimmy, England football trialist and Great War veteran, this was as a bottle-washer in a Southport pub.
When we walked around Southport, we had a little game: spot the firm’s vans. On the rooftop of the vans was a marketing pun, “By Hill it’s hot”. We giggled as small kids, knowing the daringness of the language game. I’d once said bugger if not fuck in an innocent more than malicious fashion, some lazy summer afternoon hanging about the house at 85 Windermere Avenue: Doris dragged me into the kitchen and foamed up a slab of carbolic, which she used to wash my mouth out with soap and water. It wasn’t like washing though, more like an unadulterated pummeling. So the boundaries were clear. The family firm could tease its local punters, with respectable seaside wordplay. Back home things were less loose. There were no punters to smile at back in No. 85.
Summer was like a drawn-out unending series of enforced Bank Holiday outings. There were supposed treats. The Scouts carted us off to rainy campsites in Scotland, and there was school camp once or twice when a little older, in grammar school. There, respectable sexually confused sixth formers would, in the name of ritual and rites of passage, blacken the balls of rookie first-years, or force them to fart into the flame of a lighted match. But generally, summers flew by because they seemed always to be the same. Waiting for the kick-off, waiting to be big enough to wash down the pre-match pie and peas with a gallon of Masseys local bitter. They got more interesting later, when I could hitch to Stratford, sleep on the pavement for early morning tickets for David Warner’s Hamlet, and hitch back to Burnley with tales of Shakespeare and actors and other arty types. But in that horribly unending phase between the pubescent and the post-adolescent , Summers threatened to last forever – a gaol sentence, an exile from the meaningful world of football.
The summer holidays flew by too because they were shorter than others had in the rest of the country. Industrial Lancashire still took its wakes weeks, factory shutdown for a whole fortnight when there were still a few factories left to shut down at all. So the schools finished early, the working-classes went to Blackpool, the others anywhere but, and then we were back in school in mid-August, and the football season loomed within the set rhythms of everyday survival. Perversely, in early/mid September, it all stopped for Burnley’s September holiday, and out of synch with so many others we were left dawdling again. But at least by then there was the match to go to.
When floodlights came to Turf Moor it was like a major technological and cultural event, as memorable as a Spielbergian set-piece. On the foot of the moors, bordered by the ugliest however worthily conceived council estates that the post-war architectural mind could conjure up, the football stadium was bathed in miraculous techno-generated light. It was open-air theatre, physical spectacle, an escape-hatch to another world. And when Burnley was the national champion and played host to teams from France and Germany it was worldly, it was on display to the rest of the world and Europe. The team was invited to New York. We were early industrialists in decline, but the world had to take notice. At the time Liverpool was in Division 2, Arsenal was struggling in mid-table mediocrity, Manchester United had yet to reconstruct itself after the Munich air disaster had killed the core of its wonderful young side. Being in Burnley was a bewildering blend of naivete and knowingness. Feelings of local pride meshed with a nagging sense that you had to get out, that it was never going to get any better than this.
So when school came to an end for the summer, and the football season seemed a long way off, the male romance of sport and the soap-operatic genre of the football season had everything – your sense of place, your sense of a Beckoning Other. I’d dash to Jim Melia the barber’s, where he dealt in season tickets as well as short-back-and-sides and anything for the weekend. The little white booklet of tickets was the passport back to the glamour of the game. It reminded you of the tradition that you’d never want to lose, but always too the promise of something else, of a different breed of human being out there somewhere. The fixture-list was like a travel guide.
Players came back for pre-season training and we watched them turn up at the ground, collected endless copies of the same player’s autograph. “Sign ‘Best wishes’, go on, please”. The autograph launched you into the player’s world. I wrote to the lithe athletic Chelsea and England goalkeeper Peter Bonetti. He was nicknamed “The Cat”, though with his long lean legs he didn’t look at all feline to me. More like a Can-Can dancer at the Folies-Bergeres. But I suppose it was a deserved pet name, an accolade for his jumping and leaping ability. He wrote back to me, sent back the photo that I’d enclosed, across which he’d neatly scrawled “Best wishes to Alan”. It connected. This was a national figure with a fashionable London club, writing something to me. So in those innocent close-season times, and the beginning of the new season that followed, there was a scrapbook connection with this world of celebrities. They weren’t all as nice as The Cat though.
Stanley Matthews was an icon, still playing when Turf Moor was a citadel of the elite. He was a national symbol of traditional loyalty, fair play and decency. In the 50s you did big colour jigsaws of him flying down the wing. After all, hadn’t he finally got that Cup Winners medal in 1953, the same year that Sir Edmund Hilary conquered Everest, and of the New Elizabethan coronation? Stanley was to be idolized by generations beyond his own playing days. Wannabe superstars in the England schoolboys line-up in the mid-1980s included one of my younger academic colleagues – hard working-class survivors from South London who were introduced to Stanley the legend. They were taken aback when they met not some mild-mannered working-class gent, but a cynical sports professional who told them that the best way to win a game was to humiliate the opposition. Taunt the opposing defenders, shame them, provoke them. Sir Stanley was more than dubbin and high-ankled boots and fair play. It seems obvious really. How could you compete at the highest level into your fifties on cherished amateur values of fair play? But I didn’t know that fully in the very early 1960s. My grammar school, at least in the lower and younger forms, was perpetuating the stereotype of Sir Stanley as the embodiment of the sporting spirit, the myth of Matthews, blending working-class values and upper-class ethos. And you still wouldn’t have known it at Sir Stanley’s death, when with barely an exception, the encomiastic obituaries perpetuated the myth. I was to learn though that our cardboard jigsaw heroes weren’t all they were cracked up to be.
I once led a posse of autograph hunters in chase of Sir Stanley Matthews, was the only one to keep in the hunt by the time he was bundled into his car by his minders. “Sign please, Sir Stanley” I pleaded, “please”. “Fuck off son” he spat. When I got back I told everyone that Stanley Matthews was a cunt. I didn’t really know what that was but it sounded just about right – forbidden, hard, taut. My mother wasn’t there, so I was spared the carbolic. But autograph hunting was never the same after that.
And neither were Saturday afternoons.
© Alan Tomlinson