Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

November 16th 2013 Haig Avenue

In more than five decades of watching live football, there have been many players I have admired, and some who I have greatly respected. I have been privileged to watch  players such as Pele, Garrincha, Eusebio, Cruyff, Charlton, Best, and Dalgleish and, understandably, I have marvelled at their skills and abilities.

However, there are only a handful for whom I have developed an outright affection, call it “a one sided sporting bromance”, if you like, and one of those was Alex Russell, of Southport FC, who has died aged 78.

A lot of it is to do with timing, of course. Alex played his first game for Southport about two weeks before I first started watching them in November 1963. The heroes you adopt when you are  eleven year old tend to stay with you, and, for me, watching Southport and Alex Russell in the 1960s were synonymous.

I heard of his death during a tour of the childhood homes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney – an ironic coincidence, as, when he arrived at Haig Avenue he was quickly nicknamed “Ringo” Russell. At the height of the Beatles’ surge, comparisons were everywhere, and a prominent nose and a Beatle fringe was enough to lead  to the inevitable conclusion, though it didn’t really stick.

Everyone realised when he arrived that he was a cut above most of our players at the time, and it was our pleasure and privilege that, apart from spells at Blackburn, Tranmere and Los Angeles Aztecs, he spent the bulk of his career with the Sandgrounders, amassing  nearly 400 appearances, over 75 goals and God knows how many assists. He played in the team that reached the last sixteen of the FA Cup in 1966, the promotion winning team the following year, and scored the 93rd minute free kick against Hartlepool to give Southport the Fourth Division title in 1973. In the Port’s  greatest moments, he was there.

I always wondered if his allegiance to Southport commenced when his signing for the Port gave him the opportunity to complete his printers apprenticeship while playing first team football – an opportunity perhaps not so available in the Everton set up which he left to join up at Haig Avenue.

But why “affection”, as well as admiration for this talented player? Along with team  mates Redrobe, Spence, Peat and Alty, he generated something extra in our reactions. You felt he cared as much as the support, and his demeanour was everything you would want in a hero.

He never needed to show off – his talent such was that he could dominate the opposition, make our own side tick, control the play, and score goals of all types without needing to grandstand.  He ran the midfield against Cardiff City in the famous fourth round cup victory, he showed steel and determination as we headed towards the fourth division title, he linked the resolution of our defence to the flair of our attackers. The evidence of his talent was in its effect, and when Russell played on top of his form, the team inevitably got a result. When the Scarisbrick End sang his name, there would be a brief acknowledgement, but he never felt the need to milk it. It was not in his character on or off the field.

If he was all that an eleven year old could want in a modest hero, that feeling never diminished over time.

He was regularly to be seen at Haig Avenue in recent years, just a face in the crowd to some, a legend to others. I was delighted to meet him when I went to watch the team on the fiftieth anniversary of my first game at the ground. True to form, he looked a little overwhelmed to be the object of such affection from a retired gentleman referring to playing exploits of fifty years before, but predictably he took my gratitude and admiration in good part  as we reminisced.  It was wonderful to be able to thank him, to reasssure him that his legend certainly lived on in my heart and in our house, and particularly good to be able to introduce my son. In such moments immortality beckons!

Thoughts and thanks go to his family and former team mates for sharing this great man with the Southport football supporting public. If we will miss him, how much bigger must be your loss. I have never forgotten him and never will. He gave us so much joy and success.

Now I am involved in football  and  attend matches every week I still appreciate smooth and visionary midfield play. And, whenever  I watch a cute reverse pass, a ball winning tackle, or a defence splitting ball to the wing, no matter who the player might be, a part of my heart is singing the old chant from the Scarisbrick End.

“Alex Russell. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”

Stuck in the Mud

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It’s December 30th 1967.

After a summer of sunshine and promise, the winter has been drab and wet. Christmas has been more Gene Kelly than Bing Crosby and the skies have been grey with rain and steely blue with frost.

Gigg Lane, Bury, might have been designed by LS Lowry – the splintering wood and black corrugated iron of the stadium only brightened by the blue and white vertical stripes painted on the front of the stand at the back of the Enclosure.

Around the ground are neat streets – a level above the often imagined dingy “back to backs” of industrial northern England, tidily kept, front steps painted and swept, the odd car here and there.

I’m fifteen and this is the first season I’ve been following Southport to away games in the Third Division, four years after the lifelong bug of attending live football first attacked me at their Haig Avenue ground.

We don’t know it, but they are in the middle of the best period in their history. They operate in the National League North now, having lost their league status in 1978, but I still go down to watch them when I can.

What Southport gave me as a teenager was a lifelong love of “going to the match” and, incidentally, for a lad born in Edinburgh, a fair knowledge of the geography of the north of England: Bury, Blackburn, Oldham, Stockport, Barrow, Hull, Wigan, Tranmere, Chester, Chesterfield. At times, going to away games was like a seminar on the industrial revolution and its long term effects.

But this pre-Hogmanay Saturday is cold and damp. There is no segregation, and we find ourselves at the front of the Manchester Rd Terrace with a rumbustious section of Shakers’ supporters behind us. They don’t much like the Southport travelling support – seeing us as effete seasiders from a posh town on the coast. Like many of Southport’s residents, they don’t really see the point of football in a place like that. Waiting for kick off, we drink our sweetened tea and keep our heads down in a crowd just shy of 8000.

Neverthess, the game is engaging, with an end to end rhythm on a gluepot of a pitch, and a surprising amount of technical skill amid the fierce physical battle.

It’s 1-1 at half time, and anyone could win the game.

Shortly after the game re-starts, I’m hit a glancing blow from a bottle hurled from behind us. Most games at this level in those days were peaceful, with a lot of camaraderie between opposing supporters, but occasionally you would find teams whose support had excess testosterone and felt they had to impose their presence.

There had been  any amount of threatening chants and some shoving and pushing but I don’t think anybody felt that it was a dangerous situation. Football crowds were like that often in those days. I didn’t take the tumbling bottle personally, as it had arched up over the crowd, hit the metal framework of the terracing roof and dropped on me at random.

In any case, the game was too engrossing to be distracted by such an incident.

With ten minutes to go it was 3-2 to Bury but Southport were doing the pressing. Our big centre forward, Eric Redrobe, (who was, coincidentally, 75 years old yesterday) burst through and lobbed the keeper. Our arms were raised aloft to celebrate the equaliser. The ball bounced once in the six yard box, poised to cross the line, bounced again, and………

stuck in the deep clinging mud of the goal mouth.

It was cleared and we lost 3-2.

The game has remained  clear in my memory ever since. It was the only time I went to Gigg Lane, and I moved back to Scotland three years later, but, inevitably, following the news of Bury’s struggle to survive in the league over the past few weeks, that day has been in my thoughts, as have the Shakers’ supporters.

Looked at dispassionately, it was a game my team lost, a coach journey on holiday-busy roads to get there and back, in cold and damp conditions. The pitch was almost unplayable by today’s expectations, and the football more physical than technical. I was hit by a bottle, and we were robbed of an equaliser by mud in the goalmouth. For most of the game I was stamping my feet to try and keep warm, and the pushing, shoving, and chanting of the crowd around us made for a less than relaxed atmosphere.

In short, you would imagine it to be the kind of experience to put you off live football for life – so why do I remember it so clearly, and, to be honest, so fondly, over fifty years later?

Basically, because it was what I signed up for when I started going to the football every week: a feeling of being part of it, a sense of ownership – of the team, the support, the players, the ground; familiarity, belonging, and passion. The chance to lose yourself in something, in the company of other similar souls who might well have absolutely nothing else in common with you for the rest of the week. Being there was the whole point: the result, the level of skill on display, the state of the stadium, even the excitement provided, or not, by the competition – all of that was secondary – and still is.

And so, I really feel for those Bury fans this week, paralysed by the uncertainty of their club’s immediate future. Like football fans all over the country, they will each have their memories – whether fifty years old, or two or three seasons worth. Gigg Lane to them is more than a football ground and Bury FC more than a team. All of it is part of who they are, their past, and, hopefully their future. They are Shakers by association and everybody who knows them and cares about them is aware of the fact; it is a part of their personality.

And, of course, it’s not just Bury and Southport. It’s hundeds of clubs across the country. I’ll be watching Hibs this afternoon, but watching out for the Southport score and noting the progress at lots of grounds or clubs that have provided me with memories through the years. That’s what Saturday means to hundreds and thousands of supporters.

And in lots of places today an event will happen – a missed goal, a disputed penalty, a piece of wizardry, a wry remark, a refereeing decision, a managerial rant, a  red card, or a witty chant – that people will take away and gather carefully in their memory and remember it, at random almost, throughout the rest of their life. And they’ll be remembering who they were with and how much they meant to each other and they’ll be glad they shared the moment. And it will be about their club.

That’s why Bury are important, that’s why their survival matters, that’s why clubs are in people’s hearts and minds.

It’s not about oligarchs, television rights, pundits, VAR or marketing.

It’s about love and memories, corrugated iron and splintered wood, old fashioned buses in endless traffic jams, the shot that went in and the one that hit the post, the hot sweet tea and the frozen toes; it’s then and it’s now, and, hopefully, it’s this afternoon, tomorrow and next year.

It’s about passion and belonging.

It’s going to the game.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Boxing Day on the A590

 

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.