I was 17 at Christmas 1969, with a holiday job as a postman. Nash was the older brother of a guy I knew at school, and we were dedicated supporters of Southport FC. I bumped into him in the bleary early morning of the sorting office, before we went out on our rounds:
“Hey Nash – you going to Barrow on Boxing Day?”
“I might do, aye. You want a lift?”
And so, it seems, are the minor moments upon which our lives may turn.
If we hadn’t both been doing Post Office student shifts, or had missed each other that morning, the trip to Barrow may never have happened.
It was a Boxing Day 11am kick off, so Nash arrived in his mini van around 8.00am, with his brother, Peter, sitting sideways in the back. We were celebrating that peculiar Christmas feeling – happy to be at home, but seeking to escape as well. My aunt and her family always visited on Boxing Day, but the early kick off meant I would be home in time to join them, satisfying everyone.
These were heady times for both teams, perennial members of the bottom flight, finding themselves in the unaccustomed heights of the old Third Division, and, despite the eighty odd miles between us, Barrow, along with Tranmere and Stockport, counted as a “derby” game.
Fifty years ago, roads and infrastructure were more basic than they are now, but most of the journey was fine – dual carriageway to Preston and then Motorway to Cumbria. However, from the M6 to Barrow on the A590 was basically a winding two track country road.
The conversation was desultory, hampered by the hangover from Christmas over indulgence. We talked about the prospects for the game, as you do. Neither side was going particularly well, and we would have settled for a draw.
I was quite drowsy after the early start: there was a fierce and low winter sun which added to the dozy feeling. We were about half an hour outside Barrow when Nash said:
“Bloody Hell, I can’t see a thing!”
The sun had flooded the windscreen completely and he slowed down to a crawl.
The next thing, we stopped. Very suddenly indeed.
I was jerked forward and hit the windscreen. My face was hurting and numb at the same time. Peter was groaning in the back and Nash was shouting:
“I’m paralysed, I can’t move” – till he realised he had put on his seatbelt. Their use was not yet compulsory, but luckily he had chosen to strap in.
We jumped from the car – propelled by some kind of fear that it might catch fire.
Once out in the sunshine, it was obvious what had happened.
The road curved to the right here, but a farm track ran off to the left down a slope. Separating the track and the road was a stone wall, and, driving straight ahead because of the sun glare, Nash had hit the end of it. Had he not slowed down so much, we may have been in a far worse situation – as was confirmed by the police, who arrived shortly afterwards.
“Aye, well, lads, you’re lucky – couple of guys were killed here last week!”
We checked ourselves out –Peter was bruised from rolling about in the back after the collision, Nash had a stiff neck and sore ribs. I put my hand to my mouth and realised there was blood, causing me to check my teeth were all still in place. No damage there, thank goodness, though I found myself spitting out bits of splintered windscreen from inside my top lip where my face had obviously flattened itself against the glass.
I’ve no idea what arrangements were made for the car – it was an obvious write off, with the front embedded in the wall, windscreen shattered – but the cops asked us if we wanted a lift to anywhere.
In what was probably the defining moment in my life as a football supporter, I joined with the others – without hesitation – in saying:
“Holker St football ground please!”
The police duly obliged – no doubt questioning our sanity – and dropped us off outside the ground about fifteen minutes before half time.
By that time we were just delighted to have made the game – oh the priorities of youth – and pleased that the turnstiles were still operating.
We bundled into the ground and on to the terracing, not realising we were surrounded by Barrow supporters. There was a fair amount of aggression involved in following football in those days, though to be fair, in the lower divisions, it mostly took the form of macho posturing as the support changed ends at half time, so finding ourselves in among the home support was a bit worrying.
However, they seemed strangely quiet at our presence –maybe because they were already leading 1-0 and also, as I came to realise later, because of my appearance.
My gold and black scarf was covered in blood and my upper lip was heavily swollen, making me look like Plug out of the Bash Street Kids. Alternatively, my appearance may have suggested I had single handedly fought my way into the ground.
Predictably, very little happened for the rest of the game, and we began to wonder how we would get home. Barrow to Southport on Boxing Day was not an easy itinerary.
Possibly still light headed from the crash, I formed a brilliant idea:
“Why not ask for a lift on the team coach?”
The others looked doubtful, but could think of no alternative, so, after the final whistle, we headed round to the front of the main stand, hoping.
Holker Street in those days, and I suspect now, could never be mistaken for the Etihad. There was a door open to the street and various officials busy with post match tasks.
Suddenly the Southport manager, Don McEvoy, appeared in the corridor. With a boldness born, I guess, out of desperation, I shouted out:
“Hey, Don! Could we hitch a lift back on the team coach, our car crashed and we’re stranded!”
He was hardly nonplussed at all, and motioned us to wait where we were. He may have been preoccupied – given our slide towards relegation and his dismissal, which would come a few weeks later.
Now the disorientation of having been in a car crash was rapidly replaced by the excitement of getting to travel on the team coach!
It would be easy to rewrite history and say it was no big deal – but that would be unfair to our teenaged selves. In those days, supporting Southport meant as much to us as if they were a top division side. Indeed, Best, Law and Charlton were plying their trade an hour’s drive away, but we still chose to watch these Southport guys each week. In addition, the media focus with which we are familiar today was much less intense. What happened “behind the scenes” at a football club was rarely shared with the public.
Eventually the players came out and we felt the shyness that always pertains when the on field hero becomes the on street person next to you.
We climbed on the coach without comment and took our seats. My particular idol, Alex Russell, was sitting in front of me. I wracked my brains for a conversation starter – to no avail. Then he turned round and said:
“Were you lads in a crash?”
It wasn’t the chat you would imagine with your favourite player, but I filled him in on the details.
Most of the journey down the motorway, I sat there thinking:
“I’m on the Southport Team Coach!”
A bit of the mystique of the game was finally broken when I heard the captain, Arthur Peat – a battle hardened veteran, giving some advice to our young tyro centre back, Chris Dunleavy. It referred to the importance of being able to knee an opposing forward in the back when the referee was unsighted! So much for the beautiful game!
Back in Southport, sadly having driven past nobody we knew, the whole day started to seem like a dream. It was just after 3pm so I was in time for the family meal and I looked forward to telling them all, or boring them all, about my trip on the team coach.
It was only when my mother opened the door and let out a gasp that I realised I must be looking rather the worse for wear. These days, mobile phones would telegraph such news ahead, but back then, she knew nothing about our adventures.
I had to work quite hard to reassure her I was alright, and then had the presence of mind to go and clean up before I faced the rest of the family – “face” being the operative word.
That was when more glass splinters were spat out and, in the mirror, I finally noted my resemblance to Plug!
It was a day which taught me about the vagaries of fate – though it was some time before I fully took on board its significance.
I had gone to Barrow only after a chance meeting with someone whom I knew had a car. Had anything more serious happened that day, and 20mph faster and it might well have, I would have been linked for ever with a couple of guys who weren’t even close pals. My ending would have come about through a trip to see two obscure football teams in the lower reaches of the leagues, on a Boxing Day morning of sparkling sun and clear blue skies. There would have been no exams, no university, and no career, no partner and no son. Barrow v Southport December 26th 1969 would have meant something much more than a football fixture to everybody who knew me.
The other irony, of course, is that I’m a Hibs supporter and my family have supported them since 1894. I was living in Southport because my father had died when I was five and my mother had moved there from Edinburgh so she could be closer to family.
However, my thanks to Southport are due because it was during the ten years I lived in the town, the crucial teenage years, that I established the routine of “going to the football” every Saturday – a life long habit that has, predictably, brought joy and sorrow – but defines part of who I am.
And that day, in retrospect, was the crucial instigator of that passion for live football – when I realised that “watching the lads play” was more important than my own condition or the tragedy that we had narrowly avoided.
Of course it’s more complicated than that – life always is; but that collision in the Lakes taught me that, just as sometimes you have to treat bad times with humour, equally, on occasion, you have to take seriously some things that aren’t really that serious – like football.
A good motif for a balanced life.
I am currently Education and Welfare Officer at Hibernian – hopefully giving something back to the club after a lifetime of supporting them – and working with the development squad youngsters. They know I’m Hibs daft, but also are aware of my affection for Southport FC. One of them set me the question:
“European Cup Final – Hibs v Southport – who do you want to win?”
After some hesitation, I plumped for Hibs, who are, after all, in my blood for generations – but I wouldn’t be devastated if Southport won this game – for, after all, they gave me a lifetime of going to the match.
I still go down to watch “The Port” when Hibs duties allow. The signposts on the road point to a succession of former league clubs: Workington, Barrow, Southport – as we drive down the M6, passing the junction for the Lakes and Cumbria.
But whether in Edinburgh or Lancashire, it’s a Saturday habit happily engrained in me for life, dating, I suspect, from that Boxing Day on the A590.