Bill Shankly, one of the great football managers, once said that some people regarded football as a matter of life or death. He expressed his deep disappointment with their attitude, adding: “I can assure you football is much, much more important than that.”
If, like me, you were a kid growing up in our town of Casterley in the nineteen-eighties, you cared a lot about sport. If you didn’t there were very few places you could put yourself on a weekend without risk of being battered by a ball, whether hard or soft. You learned quickly if you were good at sports, without having to resort to self-criticism: others told you readily enough. If you were good you played, if you were bad you watched.
Cricket? That was the nobs’ game, played on an immaculately manicured pitch behind their big semi-detached houses on the hill, and Casterley being a northern town, played mostly in the rain. To join the cricket club, all you had to do was knock on the pavilion door (it was a shed, really, though adorned with some beautifully painted signs) and show interest. Then they’d look at you to see if you were wearing whites, ask where you lived, and put you to work cleaning kit.
Football was a lot more democratic. Jack Masters, who was the physical education teacher at our school, also coached Casterley Town Juniors, and he didn’t mind what you wore or where you lived as long as you could play. There may not have been any match fixtures in summer, but that didn’t stop Jack. He held his ‘training’ sessions or Five-a-Side games at the Club ground from May to August, when anyone who was interested came along.
Sun or rain, on ground that was iron hard or quagmire soft, I unfailingly turned up for those Saturday afternoons with however much kit I could afford, and Jack would be there. Tall, broad shouldered, his black curly hair an unkempt mop, always with a football under his right arm and a crutch under his left elbow, he never smiled. He got angry, he got tired, he shouted and he cursed, but anyone who loved their football loved Jack. So, an hour after parting from Sue, that was where Jonna and I could be found. We joined a score of other lads on the Town’s pitch, all eager to benefit from Jack’s pearls of wisdom.
I confess even in those days I got a little buzz from the experience of walking out between the football ground’s spectator stands. They were rickety and they were bare of paint, but they were our club’s stands, and just being there was enough to make my chest swell with pride. Sue’s elder brother Dave and her classroom distraction Jess Abbott had already arrived, along with several others of our friends, John Hargreave excepted. Jonna commented: “No stickability, that lad.” referring to Greavesies’ decIared interest at a few sessions earlier in the year.
I felt that was a little unfair. “I think he tried. Jazzer was picking on ‘im, a bit, wasn’t he?”
“Why, that makes ‘im a bit o’ a Jessie, then, don’t it? Silly bugger should pick back. All he’d ’ave to do to crush Jazzer is sit on ‘im. ”
It was true; Jess Abbott always looked underfed to me. “I see Sarah’s here again.” I nodded towards the East Stand, where Sarah Coldbatch and a couple of her mates had set up camp. “Reckon she’s after you, Jonna!”
Jonna shuddered. “Nah! Affer you, more like. Oh, I forgot! You’re spoken fer, aren’t yer?”
Jack had spotted us. “Where’ve you been? Get over here, Chas; five-a-side – you’re playing! John Sutley, you work with Mark Higgins on those short passes, lad; I want to see you keeping your heads up, both of you! I’ll put you on for the second half, all right?”
As a match it was unremarkable. I scored three before the sides changed ends, and missed two more. Jack pulled me off at half-time to give Jonna and Mark Phelps a game.
As he passed me, Jonna nodded towards a tall figure engaged in conversation with Jack. “He’d be worth robbing.”
I had noticed the man earlier, a portly, middle-aged figure with thin hair and the cleanest, sleekest suede jacket I had ever seen. He was a stranger, and strangers, coat notwithstanding, always aroused suspicion amongst us lads. He was also clearly packing a well-stuffed wallet, something he would need to protect if he planned upon leaving Casterley with it still in his possession.
Jack called me over. “Chas, this is Allen Ranton.”
Ranton grinned at me so broadly his mouth nearly reached his ears. “Hello, Chas. You got two good goals today, didn’t you?”
When he spoke he leaned over me (I had a bit of growing still to do) so his face was just inches from my own. Since I’d scored three times, I wondered which goal he considered to be of less merit. “There was no-one stopping me.” I said.
Ranton appeared to consider this for a moment. “You step into your tackles a bit, don’t you?”
“I know which of us has got the ball.” I said.
Ranton nodded. Then he asked: “How old are you?”
I told him I was nearly fifteen. “Dangerous age, eh?”
And that was it. He turned to address our coach: “Well, Jack…”
“Aye.” Jack seemed ready to resume the conversation I had interrupted, so I turned away. “Hang on, Chas. I need to show you what to practice. Come here.”
Our beautifully upholstered visitor backed off so Jack could set me up for some sprints. “Here to the corner marker, all right? Then back to here. Standing start and as fast as you can.”
I enjoyed running when I was fourteen, not merely for the rush of wind to my face, but for the science I was just beginning to learn: to reach for each stride, use the spring of my feet, to command legs which were no longer just a windmill of motion below me, but instruments of power. So I ran. I was still practising when the call came up for a return Five-a-Side match, mixing up the teams to make things more equal. Without effect – my team still won.
Only at tea time as Jonna and I were leaving did we notice that Ranton had gone.
“Opportunity missed there, I reckon.” Jonna commented. “Us could have boned and rolled him properly, ah’m thinkin’.”
Jonna was fond of inflammatory comments. “You’ll get yourself in trouble saying things like that, young Sutley!” I warned him.
Jonna laughed: “Get us in trouble, aren’t y’sayin’? D’yer think I’d leave you out o’ it, man?”
I cocked a lip back at him. “When did he leave?”
“Just a bit after Jack put yer on those sprints, I think. A bit weird, like. He watched you down the field a couple o’ times – d’er think he fancied you?”
“Dunno. I’m pretty, there’s no denying that.”
When I got home there was tea on the table, and Ma and Da’ were pretending they were friends. After the events of a week that had shaken my world it seemed like the tremors had ceased. On Sunday I helped Da’ resurrect our kitchen worktop with a new leg, a process which stretched his temper, and expanded my swearword vocabulary. Us kids, we were resilient enough; it was easy to forget, to pretend we had forgotten, to believe in everything returning to normal. Normal service is resumed; isn’t that how we say it? After all, I had only one version of ‘normal’ to draw upon, then. I had much to learn.
With the turn of the summer, I turned fifteen. My Da’ gave me another bike for my birthday, which wasn’t exactly new, but it had twelve gears, so I thought it was really special.
“Good bike, that, lad. Keep it in our shed when yer not usin’ it. Don’t want t’get it stole.”
I had a bike again! It was my getaway vehicle, a further means to outwit and outdistance Trevor Bull, who had a score to settle with me ever since I worsted him that afternoon on the Addisons Estate. What was more, a bike meant freedom. It was a ticket to faraway places, to the homes of friends whose good fortune was not to be domiciled amidst the maze of Casterley’s squalid streets. August was a month of distractions, when the open road, with Sue cycling beside me if her parents allowed, first introduced the conflicting loyalties that would dog our teenage years. Those stamping grounds of our childhood, the riverside haunt beside the old jetty, the playground on Bread Street, the town park, became neglected as our friendships drifted: not apart, not yet, but falling into imperfect orbit. The unquestioning cohesion of childhood was no more.
Summer became Autumn. With September the football season began, and the hallowed turf of our home ground, though scarcely worthy of worship, drew its congregation nonetheless. Every home game, a masochistic gaggle of five hundred or so faithful supporters watched as it was churned to mud beneath a motley assortment of boots. Rain or shine we came, our hopeful eyes devouring a succession of ritual humiliations, because Casterley Town Football Club was not from the top drawer, but rather from the bargain bucket. Our centre half was forty-four years old, and nobody knew the goal-keeper’s age, or why he kept turning up. If he dived to make a save the move was greeted by ironic applause, because he spent the majority of his time watching the ball go past him.
We turned up, and we cheered. We cursed, threatened, or derided the visiting teams, and we went home in a sort of ritual depression.
“We’ll be going down this year, certain.”
“We’ve got Radley North End next week. They’ll slaughter us!”
Was it that other Liverpool hero John Toshack who likened a football team to a piano, because it took eight men to carry it and three who could play? ‘Town’ in my growing years not only lacked piano players, it had nobody strong enough to lift the piano.
Football was surely more vital than life itself to me, then Jonna and I, we spent long hours watching, discussing, arguing about the ‘beautiful game’. I would have given much for a father who would stand beside his son on the terraces, but my Da’ didn’t share my enthusiasm. “Ah’ve no time for it, lad. No time and no munny.”
Instead, my father was given to following the horses, which rarely had the courtesy to compensate him for his interest. I knew better than to suggest that Casterley Town’s very reasonable gate prices offered a cheaper Saturday afternoon than those he spent in the Bookmakers. Our relationship was never that close.
Did I really know him at all?
Throughout the summer he worked away from home, returning only at weekends. Then, one Friday night in late November his supper stayed on the stove. I remember that night; I remember my Ma moving like a ghost through the house, tidying, dusting, adjusting; going to the window to gaze out, unfocussed, at the darkness. I remember the silence.
When Saturday morning was well advanced with still no word of my father, my Ma put on her outdoor coat and set off for the ‘phone box at the top of the street. She was not gone for long. I watched her return past our window, her face set in stone. I met her in the hall as she closed the front door on the outer world, and I saw the tears come. I had never seen my Ma cry like that, or had to listen to her sobs as she told me my father would never live with us again, and it was a surprise to me – a shock. Where was he?
“Never you bloody mind! Listen you! If he comes back here again, you don’t let him in, you hear?”
“Ma, he’s got a key!”
“I’m changing the bloody locks! You don’t let that fornicating bloody bastard in here, in my house, wi’ my things…”
Did I lament the loss of a father and a friend? No, not as I thought I should. Not immediately. I blamed him. He shouldn’t have left us. He shouldn’t have caused my mother pain; but I was more confused than angry – I didn’t understand why he had chosen the woman in whose house he had stayed on weekdays over us. We were his family, Ma and me. It made no sense.
From that sad weekend, the bedrock of family was irrevocably lost to me. Everything changed.
My mother took a job minding the phones for a local taxi company, which meant I got my own house key. I was to tell nobody she was working, because she was being paid ‘on the knock’ and if ‘Social’ found out she would lose her benefits. The work kept her late some evenings, so I found myself learning to cook, and taking some share of household chores. I minded neither of those things, quite enjoying the sense of responsibility they gave me. And if Christmas that year brought less of the plunder I was accustomed to expect, well, I was prepared to be forgiving in a cause. The one thing I could not forgive was my inclusion in that most onerous of lists, the recipients of free school meals.
The content of the meals was unchanged. I was fed neither differently, nor less. My social status, however, nose-dived. In those days, ‘benefits’ kids had no cloak of anonymity, and the Monday register lit us up like beacons for the whole class to see. Those whose parents paid for their meals began to subtly distance themselves – the more worthy and wealthy gave me looks that suggested I might have lice, and even my friends could be caught occasionally pretending they would rather be talking to someone else. Of all the things I have never forgiven my father for, stiff as the competition was, that was the most heinous.
I was only saved from total ostracism by football. In January, Jack Masters made it clear he wanted me to play for the school team as a forward, or striker. The mob of kids who gave me the silent treatment every other day of the week dropped their animosity if I played well in school matches and cheered me instead. I think I dealt with their duplicity amicably enough, although my last year at school was also the year I lost many of my friends. The orbit had finally decayed, and a lot of my belief was falling to earth.
My last year? Yes, I was determined that was how it would be. I wanted to leave school in the summer of ’86. If I was good at football I was talentless in most other subjects and realistic enough to know it.
Sue tried to change my mind. “You could do a sports degree, couldn’t you? Physical Education? You’d be excellent!”
But no; I had been poor too long. I needed work, I needed to have money to spend, and to get out into the world. More than anything, I had a point or two to prove. And a tiny fire in my stomach told me my course must be different. When I said this to Sue she flicked her hair back from her face, smiled sadly, and patted my hand.
“Then all you have to do is find out what that course is, yeah? Shouldn’t be hard. Eventually you’ve got to get to a place where you can see everything clearly, though. You won’t be happy until you do. That might take longer.”
“A place that’s mine.”
“If you like.”
Sometimes it was difficult to acknowledge that Sue, with all her maturity of wisdom, was actually younger than me, but at the time of this conversation she had passed her fifteenth birthday too. The grown-up world loomed large for both of us. For her, it meant study, university and a life given to a career. For me…?
I was still thinking about Sue’s words on a Sunday in March, when I heard that ‘Spirit of Lübeck’, a four-masted schooner, had docked in Bedeport for fitting out before she joined in the Tall Ships Race later in the year. Had I some vague idea of joining the crew of one of those impressive vessels? I don’t know. Anyway, under rain-laden skies I decided to take my bike and ride down to Bedeport to see her. It was a journey I would do alone, because Jonna did not possess a bike that could be trusted over distance, and Sue’s parents would forbid her going on such an adventure.
The rain began when I was still some miles from the port, and it got very heavy, very quickly. In water-saturated sweater and jeans I had no choice but to keep going. The road that followed the river from Casterley down to the coast was an old one, always busy with heavy traffic which churned the surface water into a mist. Unthinking, teeth firmly clenched, I kept my rhythm. The rain became a curtain through which vehicle after vehicle dashed down upon me, headlights blazing. I did not see the one that hit me: I just felt the sideways blow.
My eyes opened first. I spent a few moments wondering why I was looking at a white ceiling. Then everything fell quite rapidly into place, as I recognised I was in a hospital, and the pain in my side told me why.
“Hello, lad.” He wore a police uniform. He was sitting beside my gurney. “We have to find out who you are…”
A nice man, I thought, a man with an open face, a family man of a nature that would make him a better father than mine. I couldn’t be in trouble, not from a man like that. Maybe he had rescued me from whatever it was that had brought me there. I told him who I was.
He mulled my name over to himself: “Charles, eh, lad? Chas.”
“What happened?” I asked him; because at that point, I really didn’t know.
The nice man smiled generously. “You came off your bike, lad. Got knocked off it, likely. No lights?”
“Am I bad?”
“Hurt, you mean? No, no. You’ll be all right. A cracked rib or two, most likely. It was no weather to be riding without lights, Chas. Where did you get that bike?”
I frowned. My memory still wasn’t perfect. “My Da gave it me.”
“Did he now? Well, we’ll be wanting to talk to your Dad then, Chas. Because that bike…” The nice man drew breath, whistling as he sucked the air between pursed lips; “That bike has an identity stamp on it, you see. It was reported stolen last August.”
© Frederick Anderson 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content