Sporting Loyalties

An introductory note: this piece has been kicking around in my drafts folder for the best part of two years, and for some reason I never got around to finishing it. I’ve finally been prompted to complete it by a post a few weeks ago from Michael, a blogging friend from Australia, who wrote in My Sporting Memories what his sports team meant to him. So I dusted this one down.

A couple of years ago I wrote a post I called A Man Blogs, Aged 64 and a Half , which, if you’ve read it, you will have seen is my little rant on what I perceived as a degree of ageism and sexism in certain blogging quarters. In that piece, I mentioned that many viewed sporting loyalties as a predominantly male preserve, and that I disagreed with that. That may well be the subject for another post but, for now, I’m mulling over something else that struck me: how and why we develop those sporting loyalties, and how they can inveigle their way into our hearts and minds. The complete absence of sport in these days of Coronavirus has given me plenty of time to reflect on why I enjoy watching sport so much, how much I’m missing it, what it means to me, and how my loyalties have developed over 60+ years.

If you have ever looked at my Twitter profile you will have seen that it declares my support for three football teams and one county cricket side. For the avoidance of any doubt in the land of handegg (or down under, where guys in vests play with an eggball – sorry, Michael), when I refer to football I’m giving it its proper meaning, as in association football or, if you must, ‘soccer.’ Having three teams to support may seem excessive, or perhaps self-indulgent – or just downright indecisive! But they all have my support for a reason and, until a few years ago, they gave me interest in different parts of the English football world. And then for a while the unthinkable happened – but more of that later. For this post I’m just featuring my football teams: I suspect that many readers won’t have a clue what cricket is!

My first team was Dover FC, as they were in those days, who have since become Dover Athletic. They were my home town team and my Dad first took me to a game when I was very little, probably about 5 years old.  Dad wasn’t really that interested in the game but it is one of the things Dads do with their sons, isn’t it? I was instantly hooked on the game, and poor old Dad was then committed to taking me again. We didn’t go to every match – far from it – but probably four or five a season. This was at the end of the 1950s and into the early 1960s, until I was deemed old enough to be allowed to go with schoolfriends and Dad could spend his Saturday afternoons in more pleasurable activities (for him, anyway), usually involving his shed or the garden. If you’re old enough to recall those days you will be aware of a couple of things: firstly, that football was played in black and white (just look at the old clips!) and secondly that as there were then only two tv channels in the UK there were very few live football matches broadcast. The FA Cup Final was shown each year but I don’t recall seeing much football on tv until Match Of The Day started in 1964, on the newly launched BBC2 (yay, three channels!) and that was only packaged highlights of one game a week. Just occasionally we were given an international match to watch, for no apparent reason, but tv football didn’t really take off until the glories of July 1966, when England hosted and won the FIFA World Cup. For those who don’t know, an image I have used in a previous post is a meme of the commentator from the Final and a very well chosen set of spontaneous words:

To any English football supporter of a certain age those words are now part of our culture, so much so, in fact, that they were used as the title of a tv sports quiz show some years ago. Not even Johnnie Cradock (‘May all your doughnuts look like Fannie’s’) has achieved that.

Cricket ground below, football pitch higher up. Spent a lot of time here!

In both incarnations Dover are what is known in this country as a ‘non-league’ team and can hardly be deemed to have set the footballing world alight. I first saw them in what was then the lower division of the Southern League, from which they were eventually promoted into the Premier division. After a relegation and another promotion, Dover Athletic, as they had become in 1983, reached the top tier of non-league – in those days called the Conference – in 1993. After 9 games Dover Athletic were top of the league, but it didn’t last! Several relegations and league reorganisations later eventually found my first ever team languishing in the fourth tier of non-league football, but several promotions later they were back at non-league’s top table, now known as the National League, and have stayed there comfortably for six seasons. A few FA Cup runs and wins over Football League (EFL) teams have been enjoyed, but that’s about it. You must by now be wondering why I bother! But anyone who has ever formed an affiliation to any sports team, particularly from the area in which they were born, will tell you about the strength of that loyalty. You never lose it: it becomes a part of you. Even though I haven’t lived in the Dover area for 50 years the team still matters to me, and the rare occasions on which their matches are broadcast on tv are treasured by me, most recently a 1-0 win over an EFL side – Southend United – last autumn in the FA Cup, made all the sweeter by the goal being scored by a player on loan from…Leyton Orient. I don’t know who wrote the script for that day! I have many happy memories of going to games as I grew up. One of the earliest – I was 8 – is when Dad and I went on the team coach to see the Whites (as they are still known) play away to Ashford Town in the final of the Kent Senior Cup. Dad knew someone through work contacts so we were offered some spare seats. We reached the ground, Dad gave me the exact admission fee and directed me towards the kids’ queue. I promptly spent some of the money on a programme and poor Dad had to get someone to keep his place in the grownups’ queue while he topped up my funds. Kids, eh? But it was worth it – we won!

1960/61 double winners!

In addition to our little local team we all had a ‘proper’ team that we supported too. Mine has been Tottenham Hotspur (Spurs) ever since my Dad read something out from the newspaper about the club history of Bill Nicholson and I thought ‘that’s my team!’ At a rough guess I’d say that was around 1958-9, and when in 1960/1 ‘my’ team became the first team in the 20th century to ‘do the double’ – i.e. win the league and cup in the same season – I knew they were definitely for me! They won the FA Cup again the following season, having by then added the legendary Jimmy Greaves to the team, and followed that the next year by becoming the first British team to win one of the European trophies, beating Athletico Madrid 5-1 in the final of the grandly named European Cup-Winners’ Cup. The first time I went to a game there was on 14 December 1963. I was 10 and it was part of my Christmas present. Spurs beat Stoke 2-1, Greavesie scored both of the goals, and I got to see Sir Stanley Matthews play for Stoke at the age of 48. He was a very special player! Since then, the club has won four more FA Cups (making eight in total), four League Cups and two more European trophies, as well as a fluke run to last year’s Champions League final. But nothing has been won since 2008, despite some great seasons, and even the most loyal amongst us is wondering ‘when?’ To be honest, the suspension of the current season due to Coronavirus was probably welcome, in purely footballing terms, of course, as 2019/20 was shaping up to be Spurs’ worst season for years, and we were even in danger of finishing lower in the league than the Red Mess (sorry, I mean Arsenal).

Since the 1970s I’ve lived in Essex and always took an interest in the nearest Football League team: Leyton Orient. I started going to games regularly after I retired but ill health has kept me away for some time now. In that time the Os, as we know and love them, have had their ups and downs. The high point for me was reaching the 2014 promotion playoff final which, this being the Os, we managed to lose on penalties having been 2-0 ahead both in the match and the shootout. I still remember the tube journey home: unlike Wembley Stadium, the tube trains weren’t segregated and we had to put up with the celebrating Yorkshire oiks! We then suffered dreadfully for three years from from a malevolent (and probably insane) owner and for two seasons, from 2017 to 2019, found ourselves in the same league as Dover Athletic – I endured two years of extremely divided loyalties! Thankfully, promotion back to the EFL was achieved

 and the Os were able to begin the slow path towards recovering former league ‘glories.’ I think we’ll call 2019/20 a season of consolidation, but at least we weren’t about to get relegated again when the season was brought to a shuddering halt – without a climax, so far. We live in hope.

There are rumblings that the German Bundesliga is going to resume next weekend, with games being played without spectators.  At least one team has found a way around that, though:

Enjoying the game, guys?

My tv provider will be covering the games and I’ve no doubt that, having
been starved of real live football for two months, I’ll be watching to get my fix. Somehow, though, it will all seem a bit unreal. It isn’t a league in which I support a team and, with everything going on at present, I have to admit that even the strength of sporting loyalties that have been with me for so long pales into insignificance. I hope I can get my mojo back, as I have really missed the game. The late Bill Shankly once said something like ‘football isn’t life or death: it’s more important than that.’ No matter how much I want to see my teams again, I have to disagree with him on that one. But it would be good to be able to escape into the football world again, hopefully soon.

PS I’ve just realised that this is my 400th post. Thank you to anyone who has ever read, liked or commented on any of them. I’m rather glad this was the milestone post, as it is full of memories for me.

A Grand Day Out

iPad pics 001

Football has always been a very important part of my life. For the benefit of North American readers I should make it clear that by ‘football’ I mean what you call ‘soccer,’ not the game where a squad of 946 Terminators fight over an egg, and only 2 of them ever kick it. When I was younger I used to play a lot, never at any recognisable level but I enjoyed playing for my school and Sunday League teams. I even won a trophy once. A very small trophy, as Deal and District Sunday League Division 2 Cup Runners-Up, 1970/1. Eat your heart out, Ronaldo! But it was enough to generate a lifelong love of the game, back in the days when there was much less televised football, and very few live games broadcast. In those days, the games that were shown were all in black and white, which makes them seem like ancient history now.

The major lesson I learned from that introduction to the game was that, no matter what the level, actually being at the game and being a part of the atmosphere is a far better experience than watching at home on the large colour TV, in a comfy armchair, in the warm and dry, with a beer to hand. Yes, really! As a spectator, I was an ever-present at Dover home games – my home town – for several seasons in my teens, and have attended many games over the intervening years. Being brought up in a small town like Dover, of course we all supported the local team, but we also formed an allegiance to more distant, glamorous clubs. The nearest club to home that was actually in the main Football League was only Gillingham, and unsurprisingly they scored ‘nul points’ for support at my school! My chosen team was Tottenham Hotspur, and I saw my first live game there when I was 10. The great Stanley Matthews was playing for the opposition, Stoke City. You just don’t ever forget memories like that! I still regard Spurs as my Premier League team – we all have to have one, right? – and Dover Athletic will always be my first love. But in recent years I have become a big supporter of my local League team, Leyton Orient, and now have a season ticket for home games there. For the uninitiated, the Os, as we know and love them, are currently in the fourth tier of English Football which, naturally, is called League Two. But we are hopeful of an immediate return to the third tier – League One – after being relegated last season. That would put us back on a par with the dreaded Gillingham!

Yesterday the Os were at home to a club with a long tradition in English Football, Accrington Stanley. Thanks to a virus (1 game) and a knackered back (3 games) it had been a while since I had last been to a game, but I was declared fit to take my seat in the stands yesterday and went with the usual hope and anticipation. For 25 minutes it was really good. The Os were playing well, creating loads of chances and could have been 3 goals up. Then I decided to invoke my jinx-like capabilities by saying to my neighbour “we need to start taking these chances, or they’ll score on the break.” Yup, a minute later Nostradamus would have been proud of me! After that it all went downhill. Fast. We hardly created another chance after that, and the one really good one left every supporter wishing their grannie had been playing (“even my grannie could have scored that”). The game drifted away to a 1-0 defeat, and the good football was played by Accrington and his mate Stan. Loyal to the end, we booed our team off the pitch!

Our chairman. He may be playing next week!
Our chairman. He may be playing next week!

As far as I’m aware I’m neither insane or a masochist, but I have to say that I enjoyed my day out. We had some laughs, and there were still a few things to encourage us about the future, even though the team has been on a terrible run recently. There is another home game next weekend, in the FA Cup against a team three tiers below us, so that should be an easy win, shouldn’t it? Dream on! Why do we love the beautiful game? Anything is possible, that’s why. The only thing I can say with any degree of confidence is that the crowd will be much smaller next week because 1) we were bloody awful yesterday and 2) we have to buy a ticket for next week, as Cup games aren’t included in the season ticket. But, bad back and snotty nose permitting, I’ll be there. It’s an addiction, you see!

For some, yesterday evening would have been horrible after watching that performance. Me? I went home, turned on that large TV, ordered a pizza and enjoyed an evening of Strictly Come Dancing and nasty Swedish crime. It was a grand day!

It's a risk we take!
It’s a risk we take!