Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Sunday papers, scrapbooks, and knowing that Brechin beat Forfar

Scores, scorers, crowds and
tables = six-year-old's paradise
When I was six years old in the early 1970s I provided the Sunday afternoon entertainment for the Cocking brothers, the butcher’s sons who lived two doors up. Chris, the youngest, was my mate. We played football together, but he preferred war games, which always ended with his mum yelling at us for treading on her wallflowers while sidling up on the enemy. His two older siblings, Steve and Ian, were already teenagers who had nothing better to do on the Sabbath than pick up a copy of The People and test me on the previous day’s football results.

I can’t remember how it started. I was probably about to confront a Lincolnshire-based Nazi spy when I overheard one of the Cockings casually ask how Grimsby had got on the day before. I would have turned my attention from Fritz the Enemy - making an imaginary thick-accented plea for mercy - to chirp, “Lost 3-2 at Watford, goals scored by Coyle and Lewis. Crowd: 5,669.” What else did I know, they must have wondered?

And so I began to habitually turn up just as they were finishing off their weekly roast. They’d kick off with the big games (easy) and, in an atmosphere of increasing hilarity, make their way down through the four divisions, and then into Scotland too. Their incredulous delight came from the fact that I could remember every single score, from the Manchester derby to Forfar’s 3-1 away win at Brechin City. I
buzzed with pride that I never got one wrong, while Chris stood impatiently at the dining room door with his arsenal of plastic weapons.

Never forget: Ayr 1 Clyde 0
My own Sunday entertainment began much earlier. Over-sleeping parents would leave out the correct money, and I was charged with going out to buy the Sunday Times and the Sunday Express. My dad has always had the peculiar habit of only buying Tory papers so that “I know what the bastards are thinking”. His other peculiar habit was (and still is) that no one could read the papers until he’d read them cover to cover, otherwise “we’d mess them up”. So I sat on the sofa and fidgeted until he’d got up, had his breakfast, read his pristine print of the Express, and then finally tossed it my way (all messed up).

The Sunday Express was still a broadsheet in the 70s, so the only way for a little lad like me to read it was to spread the thing out on the floor, and then I pretty much lay on top of it. I doubt that I read many of the actual match reports - it was just the results and tables I wanted. I meticulously trawled through the score lines, savouring the salient details of each game until they had sunk in. Even if I’d heard the scores the previous day on Grandstand or in the car on the way home from Sincil Bank, that was no substitute for the mathematical beauty of an at-a-glance overview of the entire day’s most important events and their final outcomes.

In my future, Saturday nights would often see disappointment outweighing romance, but there was always a consoling thought as I dragged myself home alone – I’d be able to get up early, buy a Sunday paper, and peruse the results in peace. I wouldn’t even have to wait for my old man to finish swearing at the John Junor column. Later on, in my early 30s and living in Zürich, I’d offer to take the baby for a Sunday morning walk so that my wife could lie in. Very generous of me, and just by chance we always passed the one newspaper stand that sold an expensive, flown-in copy of that day’s Observer.

Bad day for Jim McDonagh. Plus:
 Gillingham's "ploys and prods"
The instant accessibility of the digital age and the abundance of non-Saturday kick-offs have long since killed off the thrill of the Sunday sports pages. How fortunate, then, that I was so attached to those Sunday Express pages that I began to cut them out and stick them in scrapbooks. Early efforts were shoddy and later destroyed in embarrassment at my cack-handedness with scissors and tape. My documentation of the 1974-75 season survives, however, and by this point you won’t be surprised to hear that scanning its columns today affords me the same kind of thrill that it did 42 years ago.

My wife has half-jokingly threatened to divorce me for my hoarding habits, but this is one tatty, fragile artefact that I would hold on to all the way back to bachelorhood. I’m quite impressed at the diligence of the nine-year-old me, and grateful for his explanatory note to my current self on March 22, 1975: “Some weeks missed out because of space reasons” (though I’m not happy about it). This week-by-week chronicle is by far the most satisfying way to re-live Manchester United’s championship-winning season (albeit in the second division), and Lincoln’s heartbreakingly close promotion campaign to the third, at the end of which they missed out on going up “by a 400th of a goal” (as my scrawled annotation explains).

By this time, my Sunday sessions with the Cocking brothers were over. “This’ll get ‘im,” said Steve one afternoon. “Football Combination. Chelsea versus Reading.” Without hesitation, I replied, “5-0 to Chelsea.” Steve literally fell off his chair laughing. “Ah fookin’ give up,” he cried. “He even knows the bloody reserves!” It was almost like he thought some games weren’t important enough to remember.

The Quiet Fan was published by Unbound in autumn 2018 and is available here.

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