Thursday, 6 July 2017

The first thrill of Wembley - schoolboy internationals in the 1970s

Where is the Sunkist
 Trophy now?
"I hear you missed a penalty at Wembley last night." That was PE teacher Mr. Baxter's snarky putdown of schoolboy international Gary Hargreaves in an early episode of Grange Hill, when Hargreaves had been acting all cocky with his mates. This was a fine touch of Phil Redmond script-writing, because nearly all young male viewers would have known that England schoolboys played midweek at Wembley. The June international on a Saturday afternoon, meanwhile, was one of the few live games shown on TV in the 1970s.

Better still, our school organised an annual outing to the game, including a visit to London Zoo in the morning. Our own version of Mr Baxter growled at us before we left one year: "This will be my 12th visit to the zoo, and frankly I'm sick of it. So if I catch anyone misbehaving, don't expect me to be in the best of moods."

True, the zoo was just the warm-up act ahead of visiting the national stadium, but it was a crucial part of the day's ritual. If you go all the way from Lincolnshire to London for the day, you have to do something else besides watching 90 minutes of football. But why the zoo every year? Perhaps it was considered much easier to keep us
enclosed with the animals than it was to let us explore Hyde Park or Soho.

There would also be hundreds of other schoolboys wandering around the zoo in England attire that helped give the day that sense of occasion. Before the game against Scotland in 1978 I was proudly/foolishly wearing my replica Scotland shirt, and found myself cornered by a bunch of lads in a dead end behind the reptile house. But these were no hooligans, they were respectable boys from the shires. They let me pass without the requisite beating, while jeering about how England were going to thrash us (they were right - Scotland lost 3-0).

The first game I saw was two years earlier against France, aged 10. Up to that point I'd mainly experienced fourth division football at three grounds - Sincil Bank, Blundell Park and The Old Showground. I walked up the steps in Wembley to our standing section and was almost blown backwards by the dense noise and the sheer dimensions of the stadium that opened out in front of me. I was awe-smacked for the rest of the afternoon. It seemed a hundred times bigger than it did on telly, and about a thousand times bigger than Sincil Bank.

No we fucking don't.
The schoolboy fans had one chant: "England! England!" Most of our voices had yet to break, so it was very high-pitched. England hammered France, and we thought we had already seen tomorrow's stars. Yet when you look at the match programmes, you're struck by how few of these players made it as professionals. From the France game in 1976, only Clive Allen went on to play for England - five times, without scoring. Andy Ritchie, Brendan Ormsby and Wayne Clarke enjoyed solid club careers. None of the French names are familiar.

Against West Germany one year later, Mark Chamberlain was the only future England international - he played eight games, scoring once against Luxembourg in a 9-0 win. Otherwise, Gary Mills and the late Tommy Caton went on to the big time. And from the side that beat Scotland in 1978, Terry Gibson and Kevin Brock are the sole half-familiar names. Although the Scottish bench boasted Paul McStay (76 full caps) and Maurice Malpas (55).

Exploiting schoolboys' dreams...
Of course that didn't matter to us schoolboys, who all imagined that it could be us stepping out of the tunnel in a couple of years time after the community singing led by Ed 'Stewpot' Stewart. Now there was a famous name we could all now say we'd seen in the flesh. I could slip Ed an envelope with my request for Junior Choice ("Please, please, don't play Mike Reed's Ugly fucking Duckling ever again").

There were more celebrities at the Scotland game, where the match programme helpfully provided the line-up for the 6-a-side challenge between the Radio 1 DJs (in red) against the "TV Select" (in blue). The latter included John Cleese, Dennis Waterman, Ricky Parfitt ("of Status Quo", in case you didn't know) and Rick Wakeman (we're not told "of Yes", or what he was even doing in a TV Select side). Any memories of this encounter escape me, but no doubt it was all treated as a bit of a lark by Simon Bates, who was doing the "kick-by-kick commentary" to entertain the rapscallions and their weary teachers. Maybe Cleese even clipped Radio 1's Paul Gambaccini around the ear for having a Mediterranean surname.

Forty years later I feel a need to thank my schoolmasters for taking a precious Saturday out of their weekend for what must have been a stressful 16 hours or so on a coach, in a zoo, and at Wembley with squeaking, combustible, erratically behaving little bastards. I doubt we said thank you at the time. And after the Scotland game, I didn't go again. Either I'd too had enough of the zoo after three years, or the trip was discontinued due to a surfeit of the usual illicit smoking, drinking and general idiocy among minors.

For that momentary first thrill, though, I'll always be grateful, because I never experienced anything like it again. Not the following two years, and not at any other major or minor stadium in the decades to come, no matter how loud the crowd. It was the mighty force of pure, pre-adolescent enthusiasm harnessed into one shrill rush of frenetic, skin-chilling atmosphere, felt for the very first time. I was simply high from losing my big-crowd virginity - a massive and special moment for a skinny wee oik from the countryside.

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

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