To Send You To Your Sleep…
Evening. Are you sitting comfortably? Because due to the lack of Bolton news, barring the odd story about our own England international, there is nothing new about. So I am going to tell you a bedtime story.
This is the story of why a boy from Urmston, who grew up in the shadow of Old Trafford, who supported the team from that place for a large part of his formative years, who even had a season ticket for the Stretford End, ended up supporting a team in the fourth division. You`ll laugh, you`ll cry, maybe you`ll think “Wow, Frank Worthington!” But hopefully, in the end, you`ll understand why I sit down at my computer for two hours a day and write such utter prose/rubbish, depending on your point of view.
It is in two parts, as it is bloody long. Think of it as the North West answer to Breaking Dawn, except without the vampires and werewolves. As there will probably be no Bolton news tomorrow, the second part should follow then. Then we can all return to some sort of normality.
Are you sitting comfortably?
“So, why exactly do you support Bolton Wanderers? Surely if you were born in Manchester, within virtual spitting distance of Old Trafford, you should support Manchester United. And even if you had some sort of rebellious streak, not wanting to follow the crowd, you would go for Manchester City. But Bolton?”
It is now somewhere in the region of twenty five years since the first person asked this question. And it is a fair question. All my friends support Manchester United, most of my family support Manchester United, with the exception of the obstreperous ones who follow City. Since Bolton moved home from Burnden Park to the Reebok Stadium in 1998, I haven`t set foot in Bolton. Nor do I desire to. On the way to the ground on match days, when the M61 splits to go either towards Preston or onto the A666 to Bolton I do not even give the way to Bolton a second glance. So how did I, a child of Trafford, end up supporting a team that are close in distance, but far away in footballing ideology and even further away in football finance? Well, two dates made this story possible, nearly six years apart; October 21 1978 and September 8 1984.
But first of all, I have a confession. As a teenager I was a Manchester United fan. A red in the days that being a red could still get you twenty five years to life or a one way ticket to a two bedroom flat in Moscow. A red when the biggest rivals of your team were City, Leeds and Liverpool and teams in London had their own little squabbles to contend with locally without having to worry about United. A red in the days when we won nothing other than the odd F.A. Cup and had to put up with the constant sound of crowing coming down the East Lancs Road. A red in the days of Docherty, Sexton and Atkinson, of Buchan, Hill and Coppell. And a red the first time that I came across someone who did not support his local team, a member of my cub scout troop who, for some inexplicable reason that was never got to the bottom of, supported Liverpool. I remember him saying that he supported them because he wanted to, but this never washed, even with the City fans and he was frequently picked last for any sort of game due to his lack of allegiance to Manchester. Even at the age of 9, Mancunians can have an unhealthy love of their city.
As for myself, I didn`t really have a choice. Most of the boys at school were United fans as their fathers were United fans. There were some City fans, naturally, but their parents had moved from other areas in Manchester, closer to the inner city than Urmston and closer especially to Maine Road, moving to the suburbs for a better life. So it was natural that my team would be United.
This is not to say that my parents didn`t try to give me a choice. My father was born in Limerick and had no real cares one way or the other, although if pushed later on in life leant more towards Old Trafford. It was decided that I would alternate my games, go to United first and then City, until I was old enough to make a decision. Naturally, the decision didn`t take long.
Sitting in the Scoreboard End at Old Trafford, I watched Gordon Hill score twice in a 2-0 victory over Middlesbrough. United had just missed out on a league and cup double the year before and the sense that the team could do something special this season was palpable. At the other end of the ground, the Stretford End looked like a wave of energy, continuously moving with the mass of bodies within it. My father, Dunhill continuously between his lips, laughed and patted me on the head every time I asked a stupid question of which he best was “Where`s the commentary”. I missed Motty, and when the ball was at the other end, as it mostly was in the second half as United attacked the home end, I couldn`t tell what was happening. It was probably at this game that I chose my footballing position for the next thirty years when Alex Stepney, sporting a fantastic seventies porn moustache, positioned himself to throw the ball to a defender, I shouted “kick it”, and over the collective voices of 60,000 Mancunians he heard me. Of course, they probably weren`t all Mancunians and there are many that have told me the reason why I chose to play in goal was that I was rubbish anywhere else and liked getting kicked in the head.
Ask me about my first game at Maine Road and I can tell you that they played Stoke City and that Brian Kidd was supposed to have played but got injured in training. I can tell you that I didn`t like the stadium, that I thought the atmosphere wasn`t as good and it actually wasn`t until I started writing my previous blog that I discovered that it was actually the first game that I saw, three weeks before I went to Old Trafford, so it obviously made a large impression on my life. I cannot tell you anymore. Indoctrinated early, the experiment of alternating teams lasted until the early winter when my father admitted defeat and I became an official Manchester United fan.
However, this gets us no nearer to the reason why, thirty three years later, I walk in the valley below Winter Hill to watch Bolton. This partly stems from another family experiment by my parents that also roped in my sister. One Saturday, every month, one of us would choose what we were going to do. So we went walking on my mother`s Saturday, we went walking on my father`s Saturday because my mother told him we were, we went to the cinema or ice skating on my sister`s Saturday and on my Saturday we went to football. The first time that it came to my turn, however, my mother refused to set foot in Old Trafford as it was “full of hooligans”. The bars had only recently gone up, thanks to United fans predilection for running on the pitch, trying to stop getting relegated, and she was having none of it. This meant if I wanted to see football, we had to go to a lesser ground. You will have guessed already where the ground was. By the luck of the fixture list, Bolton were playing City.
Eschewing the delights of Rochdale, the only other team in Greater Manchester playing at home, the car was packed and the dog was put out into the back yard to annoy the neighbours. Thirty or so minutes later and we were in central Bolton, looking for a parking space when an excited scream came from the back seat. To this day my sister and I disagree as to who gave this scream, I still think it was me, but whoever gave it had spotted my uncle and eight year old cousin, City fans, walking down the road. Now, I`m no mathematician but even I could tell you that the chances of bumping into them on that particular road in that particular town on that particular day were pretty high, although the odds would have been diminished by the fact that they were City fans going to the match.
After stopping, picking them up, which is a tight squeeze in a Mini, finding a parking space and depositing all of us back onto the pavement some mile and a half away from the ground as, according to my mother, it may have been my weekend but we were still going to do some walking, it was agreed that we would all stand together in the away end. This seemed natural. I had no great problems with Manchester City, some of my best friends were Blues, and in the spirit of the aforementioned Mancunian solidarity against this little Lancashire mill town that seemed grey and dank against the bright lights of Manchester and its gleaming city centre of large hotels and the yellow brick Arndale Centre, it was pretty much a no brainer.
Of course, I say small, grey and dank, but it could have been large, bright and breezy for all I remember about what was happening outside the ground, although I do seem to recall a lot of cloth caps and the smell of Uncle Joe`s mintballs on people`s breath. Granted, Uncle Joe`s are made in Wigan, but you get my point.
Having walked to the ground, the first thing that struck you was the size of it. It may have held 70,000 when Bolton were in their pomp, at a time when Nat Lofthouse pushing a goalkeeper into the net in an FA Cup Final was deemed to be acceptable, but compared to Old Trafford it seemed so small. Manchester United had a neon sign over the front of The Scoreboard End proclaiming their name, Burnden Park had what appeared to be stuck on letters over the ticket office proclaiming theirs. I visited the ground many times as an adult and never quite got the same feeling about it. Actually, in the end I preferred it to a great many other stadiums, even when the club were in such dire financial straits playing in the fourth division they had to sell a corner of it to the Co-Op. However, looking now at old photographs of the outside of Burnden Park I can understand my nine year old self`s viewpoint. The parts of the stadium that were extended onto the front of the ground look like a small working man`s club, the red brick of the ground remind you of the colour of the mills that surrounded the town.
After thirteen years of playing at The Reebok and having visited grounds like Stamford Bridge, which has been redeveloped over the years, and the new Emirates Stadium, the only word that can sum up the pictures of Burnden Park now is “quaint”. But it wasn`t quaint in 1978. It was about to become terrifying.
Bolton, for the none geographically minded, is just under 10 miles as the crow flies from my hometown of Urmston. Good transport links either by car, train or bus prevail. However, as a nine year old, this was a foreign country. Urmston is suburbia, Bolton is dark satanic mills, comparatively. Although I was no longer at the age where I held mummy`s hand, I still kept close enough to either be called back, pulled back or just given a clout. As my cousin and I walked slightly ahead of the adults, a strange man came towards us and said “Nowthenuowdulikeafreetikit”? Being slightly better at understanding the local dialect, as our local priest was a Lancastrian, my hand went out and the “freetickit” was mine.
Quicker than that, however, my mother was by our side, fixing the man with a glare that could only be described as Paddington Bear like and saying “What`s this what`s this what`s this?” in the tone of voice she only reserved for the playground of the school she taught at. The man, apparently, took two steps back, probably already regretting giving his absent sons ticket to these one of these two surburbanite kids. He explained as best he could that his son was due to come to the ground but was ill in bed, trying to get away from the steam coming out of my mother`s nostrils whilst pointing out the turnstiles that the ticket would get you through. Happy with the explanation, to the extent that she offered the man one of my father`s Dunhills, an apology was given, a pat on the head was given to both my cousin and myself by the man and we turned towards the turnstiles with a cheery wave, although my father`s was slightly half hearted on account of being a cigarette down.
Times have changed. If this had happened now there would be the suspicion of the man being some sort of paedophile, trying to lure little boys into the stadium to have his wicked way with them in the disabled cubicle.
The turnstiles that we were to go in were next to each other, with a block of brick wall no more than five metres across between them. As the other five went through their turnstile I waved, passed my free ticket to the man on the gate and went through. I looked to my right to see my parents and was met with a wall. A big wall. A big wall that went up a very long way. I walked along the wall in the sure and certain knowledge that any second I would come across a corner that I could turn to be reunited with my parents. This corner did not materialise. I climbed a set a stairs to see if I could look over to see them. These stairs just led to the seats but still the big wall was in the way. After another five minutes of scurrying around, trying to find a way through to my family, I did what any self respecting nine year old would do in circumstances like this. I started to cry.
I don`t know how long this was for, it felt like a long time and the years have embellished it to between ten and fifteen minute. But the good people of Bolton aren`t that heartless and it was probably twenty seconds or so later that a couple of nice ladies saw me, asked me what the matter was, “I`VE LOST MY MUM!!!!”, and found me a nice policeman.
Now, I know what you`re going to say; women, at a football game, in Bolton, in the late seventies? Yes, and they both found me. What are the chances? My name was taken by the policeman (not for the last time, unfortunately), my parents names, where I was from “Urmston eh? You`re a long way from home lad” (he probably said) and a promise to put my name over the tannoy and a can of Coke while I waited. The policeman led me through a gate and into a door in the wall that had separated me from my parents. I remember the smell of liniment regaling my nostrils and as we walked slightly further on I heard the clattering of boots on the floor. As we came to a side door I almost collided with a man in a white shirt and blue shorts. I looked up with red rimmed eyes, he looked down, smiled from underneath his moustache, mumbled something to the policeman who mumbled something back and the next thing I know I`m being led into Bolton`s dressing room.
“Boy here got lost?.can`t find his mum?not from round here?.crying?can of coke” said the player. “Never mind son?enjoy game?. sure they`ll find her soon” came some remarks from around the dressing room. I didn`t recognise anybody, which was no great shock, as I didn`t know any of them, not even “Big” Sam Allardyce, who was to become synonymous with the club`s new glory days some twenty years later. Then came the question “Who do you support”? I`d like to say that I had the balls to say Manchester United but I didn`t. I said Bolton. Luckily no one asked me why. In 2010 Bolton have fans all over the world; in 1978 they would be lucky to have fans from outside the borough, never mind in South Manchester. A couple more pats on the head and I was back in the corridor. The encounter in the dressing room must have lasted all of two minutes.
As we made our way to the lost children office, which doubled as lost property, the policeman told me that that was a stroke of luck and that most supporters would give their right arm to meet Frank Worthington and I`d just bumped into him in the corridor.
Frank Worthington, there was a player, as my uncle`s will often say about George Best whilst putting their hands behind their head and looking wistfully into the sky. Nearly a quarter of a century later I bumped into him again in a pub in Cardiff before Bolton`s play off final against Preston.This time he said “Scuse mate” on his way to being bought another pint by a hero worshipper. How quickly they forget.
I was collected by my mother twenty minutes into the game after they all, to a person, had not heard the first three tannoy announcements. It may have had something to do with it being the third highest crowd of the season making a loud noise at a derby, or it may have had something to do with them hoping that they could leave me there. Either way, I had finished my Coke. My new hero scored in a 2-2 draw and everyone went home happy.
It turned out that when my parents had gone through the turnstile they had turned left and saw a wall that looked similar to mine but could see through a door that led to the corridor that the changing rooms were in. So, that five metre long wall contained two dressing rooms, the lost child/property room and a police room. I should have half expected to see Dr. Who wandering around. They had searched around and then spoken to a policeman who said that he would be on the lookout. He was never seen again. They had surmised that it was unlikely that I would be going anywhere as there was no way out of the ground and I was bright enough to seek help. Or cry.
On the way home my mother asked me if I was now a Bolton fan. My answer was firmly in the negative, I was still a red, but I would now be keeping an eye on Bolton`s results. And I did, as first Frank Worthington left the following summer after leading the First Division in goals scored, through relegation the following season and a slow but inexorable decline towards the bottom of the professional game. When I returned to Burnden Park it was nearly nine years later, two divisions lower, there were weeds on the terraces and a rather large superstore in one corner.