With my footballing-life in tatters I was doomed to the ragged-edge. Destined to always be in the ‘last two to be picked when choosing sides’ league for any subsequent 10 minute 20-a-side games during what we referred to as ‘play-time’ or ‘dinner-break’. Whenever I was ‘reluctantly’ chosen I always tended to try to get on the right wing, the scene of my fateful knitted jumper début. As the years passed I continued playing and I think the average ‘ball-touches per game’ would be about twice every other game. At times, however, I may get a tiny dribble together and gain a few yards before attempting to slot one through the defence to one of the first team goal-hangers. But alas my final touch would either see the ball ‘fanny-off ‘at break neck speed at a right angle to my foot or I’d swing and kick fresh air. This ‘air-kick’ was usually accompanied with a pirouette followed by my arse hitting the deck. I lost count of the times I returned home only to have my mother detect a huge grass stain down the side of my flares or my pockets full of caked-in baked-in mud. My football craft was not pretty in fact if smart-phones and YouTube had been about back then I’d have been a viral internet sensation.
Off the field things were very different as I’d been lucky enough to be taken to most West Brom home games so the fan-side of my football-world was another story. I managed to see many of the greats of the era including, Astle, Doogan, Charlton, Best to name a few, as my dad would take me to the Hawthorns regularly. It was only a few minutes up the M5 in his silver Ford Corsair from my Granddad’s house in Blackheath. There were very few if any seats at any ground in my day so everyone generally stood on concrete or shale held in place by railway sleepers. There were also evenly spaced tubular bars, called crush barriers, placed throughout the stands behind the goals. If you were there early enough before a game you could stand behind one and rest your elbows on them, if you were tall enough of course. I could easily walk underneath one without even ruffling up my perfect, ‘curling tong’ crafted feather-cut, hair style.
One of my first memories of being the Brummie Road End was Dad and Granddad resting on the crush bars next to something I’d never seen ever before. It was a man, I’d say in his early twenties, who was wearing denim jeans rolled up to mid-calf, Albion socks and bovver boots that had been casually sprayed with silver spray paint. Laces-and-all. He was sucking the life out of a Park-Drive and had his scarf, not around his neck, but fashionably tied around his left wrist. Silver boots I could not compete with but my green and yellow WBA ‘away-scarf’ was straight onto my wrist I can tell you.
Another thing that struck me about my first full West Brom game was the terrace chant singing. Everyone sang the same songs and knew all the words. I was captivated as to how they did this. Did they have songs sheets? Was it someone’s job to pass them out at the back? Did they meet, say on a Wednesday, and practice singing, in perhaps a scout hut or someone’s garage? Was there a conductor perhaps standing on an upturned Banks’s Mild Ale box, conducting these wondrous ditties and tunes? There was a vast array of songs. Some for when we were winning, some for losing, some for being displeased at referees and also specialised ones reserved for when we played The Wolves. I was amazed. Supporting The Baggies and singing these songs at the top of my voice was definitely something I needed to be involved in. I decided that I would learn every song throughout the rest of the season. My personal favourite was always sung generally after the opposition had scored against us. It went something like, ‘You’re going home with a fork and ambulance’. I wasn’t sure what it meant but whenever we were playing Wolves there were loads of songs about ‘forks’ and ‘forking’ things.
It’s strange really what you remember and a few events ‘up the Hawthorns’ stick in my mind. One is the West Brom theme tune that the players used to march onto the field before a game to. I later found out it was called The Liquidator and was an outstanding song as the Baggies choir had worked out a few choice words they could drop in at the appropriate time in order to score maximum insulting points again at The Wolves’ expense. It was a triumphant rally call and also the opportunity to sing ‘F**ck off Wanderers, West Brom!’ without being clipped around the ear or sent to a juvenile detention centre.
Along with that was the time I witnessed an unforgettable free kick at the Smethwick Road end. The Smethwick End was for three types of people. 1, for the opposing team’s fans, 2 for Albion fans who wanted to be close enough to throw Steak and Kidney pies or worse at opposing fans and 3 for Albion fans who couldn’t get in the Brummie Road end as it was jam packed. One Saturday I was in the Smethwick end with my Dad. I always struggled to see as I was such a shortie. Anyway, it was late into the second half and West Brom were awarded a free-kick on the edge of the box attacking the goal towards the Smethwick End. Everyone was on tender-hooks as Tony ‘Bomber’ Brown stepped up to take the direct free-kick. Bomber had a killer right foot so we were all expecting a ripper of a goal or alternatively the untimely demise of any of the opposing teams players who were daft enough to make up ‘the defensive wall’. Through gaps between people in the stand I managed to just see Bomber’s boot connect with the ball. It was a cracker and absolutely flew through the air bound for goal. Then, just at the last second, it veered right whizzed past the goal post and proceeded crowd-ward. In the blink of an eye it hit a chap, who was standing three people behind me, square in the face. He dropped like a sack-of-hammers. The poor chap ended up being stretchered out of the stadium by a gaggle of grey-haired Albion first-aiders who looked like they’d seen at least a couple of World Wars each.
Football was a big part of my life. It was something I did with my Dad and Granddad and was the hub of any conversation at school. A famous football past-time for us kids in the 70’s was managing your own league table. This was an essential part of school-life and ranked up there with football cards and 1970 world cup cream-coloured plastic heads that your dad could get free from certain petrol stations if he’d bought over a certain amount of ‘gallons’. League tables were ace and were offered as a free gift with the magazine ‘Shoot’ at the start of each season. They consisted of a cardboard ladder of tables, divisions one to four and a set of pop-out cardboard team names. Every week when the league table was published in most newspapers and we all used to adjust our tables to match the actual tables. In principle this was a fantastic idea and looked great on the black and white ‘Shoot Magazine’ TV advert but after about the third week I used to just get bored with the fiddly bits of cardboard so I’d end up just putting the teams in my own ‘dream team’ order. That would be WBA top, Man Utd second, Leeds third and Wolves ALWAYS, ALWAYS at the bottom of the league with Birmingham City and Aston Villa just above them. Sometimes I’d even move Wolves to the 4th division.
So, we’ve established that my football skills were beyond help. That was until one day…one…shall we say…perfect day… What can only be described as a miracle occurred.
As most will know the 70’s were fashion-fuelled. Love it or hate it fashion dominated music, sport and school. Everyone wanted to look like their heroes who were generally ‘pop-stars’ or sports-stars. This extended to us young-un’s. We wanted to be like the big-un’s. We wanted feather hair cuts, flared trousers, platforms and ‘tank-tops’. I was no different. My problem was finance. On 50p a week pocket-money there is no way I could afford to deck myself out in the same sparkly-gear that The Osmonds, T-Rex or The Jackson Five used to wear on the un-missable Top of The Pops Thursday night BBC TV programme. So, I needed to improvise. Some kids in my year must have had rich parents as they always seemed to have the latest clothing or foot-wear. They were ‘in the fashion’…I was generally not and was a bit jealous as ‘not being on trend’ was a sinful thing at my school and would possibly bring on imminent mickey-taking. To be honest mickey-taking was absolutely and fundamentally part of daily school-life. It was uncomfortable and unkind but everyone accepted it. For example; new hair-cut you got bullied; new shoes, you got bullied (you also got them scuffed and stomped on by all your mates for at least the next week); new ‘unfashionable’ clothes, you got bullied; new school-bag, you got bullied. It was the law of the playground. You had it done to you and you delighted in doing it to others. So, I wanted to be fashionable and fit in but I had no money to catch the bus up to the Concorde Market [emporium of cheap, badly made rip-off fashion items] and buy cool gear. That’s where mom came in. She had recently been acquiring strange new skills at what she called the local ‘Women’s Guild’. She had made a lampshade and some other odd ornaments and more recently she’d constructed a scarf by using an exotic method of hand-made-crafting called ‘crocheting’. This process is some weird black-art of creating ‘things’ from wool and in order to do this ‘craft’ you need a tool called a crochet hook which for any fishing fans resembles a mediaeval disgorger. Crocheting is bit like knitting. My mind began to ‘fashion’ a crafty thought. ‘If mom can make scarves, couldn’t she not construct and finger-build me a crocheted tank-top?’ I thought it wouldn’t hurt to ask.
Seeing my request as a challenge my mother decided to accept and set about obtaining some mystical coded document called a ‘pattern’. The seed was sown; all I had to do was choose the colour. That was a doddle. ‘WBA colours please mom!’. It was Christmas 1972 when I laid down the tank-top challenge. Days turned into weeks, weeks into months. Occasionally I’d have to report to mom for a fitting, whereby she would hang the flat material against me to check on size and arm-hole placement. At the beginning of summer the garment was completed. I ran upstairs to mom and dad’s bedroom and leapt onto their bed so that I could see the navy blue and white tank-top in all it’s glory in their dressing room mirror. It looked amazing! I was fashion-boy! I was cool. I could not wait to wear it to school the next day and dazzle my fellow fashionista’s with my hand-made garment of style.
‘That day’, that perfect day is lasered into my memory. It was a sunny day (but not so warm that I would need to remove my prized made-by-the-hands-of-my-mother navy and white fashion garment). It was Monday. We always met early on a Monday before school to talk about the weekend’s football, torment any of our mates with new hair-cuts, eat sweets we bought or ‘borrowed’ from the local newspaper shop across from the school or drink milk that may or may not have been borrowed from a local doorstep. My new top passed the test and I got the knowing nod of approval from my school-mates.
And so, to the miraculous part…where do I begin…
We picked teams in the usual way. Captains alternatively chose from the pack. I was usually last or last but one to be picked owing to my unusual ‘Is he trying to dribble that ball or is he Northern Soul dancing?’ footballing skills. We kicked off and this is no word of a lie and I have no idea how I did it but I could not put a foot wrong, I was quite simply on fire. I pretty much won the ball in tackled from any player, including lads who were in the school first eleven, I dribbled like the ball was magnetised to my ‘Winit’ trainers and I must have scored three or four goals in about 15 minutes. I quite literally played like I was possessed. My mates were all saying stuff like, “Bloody hell, what’s happened to you then” and “Wait until the sports teacher sees you he will definitely put you in the first team”. The sense of my abilities was incredible, it was a miracle. When the school bell rang out I remember marching back to the class room not quite realising what had just happened. Then it dawned on me…it must be my magical tank top, that was the only reason for my new gift. I couldn’t wait until break so we could play again.
Morning break came around and I was first on the little pitch. For the first time in my life I think I was picked from the pool about second or third. Before we kicked off our match one of the stars of the first team said “Put him in goal”. So I joined my tam-mates and took my place in the five a side goals. Once again, I was amazing. Nothing got past me. I was literally cat like. If I had known what a ninja back then was I would have been a ninja-keeper. Shot after shot, I parried, punch and saved. It was the best footballing day of my life.
However, the next day I marched out once again at break –time expecting to ‘ do my thing’ but alas my super-powers had deserted me. I was back to tripping over my flares. Miss-kicking the ball and general uselessness. Even though I was wearing my magic tank top, I was once again a mere mortal.
© Andrew Mark Rudall for @awaycolours 2014