Football

My first ventures into football was when I was living in Chingford where I was born (1938). At the time this was in the county of Essex but our address was in a London postal district (E4), so I suppose I could claim to be a Londoner, an Essex boy, or neither of these. When I was very young I must have had various kick abouts on lawns, on Chingford Green, nearby parks and the playground at Normanhurst where I went to school, but football began in earnest after World War II when my father had returned from soldiering in the Middle East.

When I was nine I started 3 years at St. Aubyn’s, a prep-school in Woodford Wells in Woodford Green, about 4km from my Chingford homes. Until the family moved to Sussex, I lived either at 5 The Green Walk or 109 Endlebury Road, both in North Chingford. Whoever St Aubyn was seems a bit of a mystery, but the name is probably a corruption of the much better known French Saint Albinus (who had nothing whatsoever to do with Woodford Green or football).

On certain afternoons we abandoned Latin and geography classes and clad in sports shorts and shirts and small, tough boots were herded to various grasslands to play rugby. St Aubyn’s had a rugby rather than a soccer tradition, perhaps because the headmaster, Colonel Colley, had been a keen rugby player and as well as its other virtues the school set out “to give a varied and enjoyable experience of physical activities” according to its 2023 publicity. I however would have preferred to be in a warm classroom or at home. Mostly we played rugby and other sports on the green space that was and remains the school playing field but this was not really set up for rugby and from time to time we were taken by coach to an off-site sports ground. Possibly the Ilford Wanderers playing field in Forest Road, Ilford which to a small boy seemed terrifyingly vast with its many pitches, white grid lines and skeletal rugby goal posts at impossible distances. It was very cold, very wet and very muddy. However, I learnt enough about the game to be able to enjoy watching it in later years. I knew about scrums, drop kicks and line outs and played variously at fly half, wing three-quarter and everything between and was a linesman for one important game, and hopeless at all of them.

While I often listened or watched broadcasts of football (soccer) on radio or TV, it was not until 1946 or 47 when I was 8 or 9 years old that I started paying serious attention encouraged by my father. For one of the English cup finals in those years we were invited to a friend’s house to watch the game on TV (we didn’t have one).

My father was a lifelong Tottenham Hotspur (Spurs) supporter as had been his father when the team was in the Southern League and played on public land on Tottenham Marshes in the Lea Valley. His younger brother, my Uncle Robin, was also a Spurs supporter and he once told me long into his retirement that he still regularly went to games at White Hart Lane from his home in, I think, Ware, some 16 miles north up the Lea Valley. Remi (short for Rembrandt), a two and a half year old great grandchild has started to play infant school football near his home on The Ridge in Hastings.

Spurs were elected to the national league in the 1907/08 season when my father would have been about the same age as I was when I started supporting them. I have a 1947 pocket diary with a few brief football entries made when I was 8. My first football entry was for a game on 11th January 1947 about which I wrote, somewhat laconically, “Tottenham 2, Stoke 2”. On 29th November 1947 I wrote “Cycled to Waltham Abbey and went into the abbey. Daddy went to see Spurs v. Coventry. Spurs 2, Coventry 1”. It is not clear if I was left in the abbey while the game was on, but I suspect not. My great auntie Alice also had a vague interest in football. She had been a teacher in West Ham when West Ham football club had much local renown (as it still does) and she claimed to recognise some of her former pupils playing in games she saw on TV.

In late February 2000, Sir Stanley Matthews ‘footballer of the 20th century’ died in his 80s. In his heyday he played for Stoke and then for Blackpool and I am one of those now rather few lucky people who saw him play. In the late 1940s and early 1950s I often used to go and watch Spurs at the now rebuilt White Hart Lane stadium, Tottenham (currently rebuilt as the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium). In those days, before serious pitch invasion had started ,one could get practically to the touch line. Small boys like me were allowed by the older men (there did not seem to be any women there) to hang over the pitch side fence, which meant one was only a few metres from the touch-line. Stanley Matthews was a winger and therefore came very close for half the game as he dribbled up the wing with the ball. Watching him do this was a genuinely memorable experience as one could see at very close quarters the speed and explosive power that went into those apparently effortless moves as he wrong-footed one challenger after another with a ball that appeared to have some mysterious connection to his feet.

Stanley Matthews: the best of the legend

Another fond memory from my days on the terraces was my admiration for Spurs and England goalkeeper Ted Ditchburn. He used to wear a bright green jersey and would chat to the spectators behind the goal when play was at the other end of the field. It has even been said that Ditchburn was the finest goalkeeper ever to play for Tottenham. I also remember conversations about Northern Irishman Danny Blanchflower who played for Spurs from 1954 to 1964, as captain for much of it. He was ranked as the greatest player ever in Spurs history by The Times in 2009. During most of my spectating days, Spurs were in Division 2 of the football league, but were promoted to the first division in 1950 and were founder members of the Premier League in 1992. Their first games under floodlights were not until 1953 before which games had to end whilst there was still enough light.

In my spare time in those days I often used to play kick about football, using our dropped jackets as goalposts, with my friends in Ridgeway Park, just a few hundred metres from where we lived at 109 Endlebury Road in Chingford. It was in this park that Ridgeway Rovers FC was created in 1979 to provide a better team experience and coaching for local youngsters and this gave early opportunities to two famous footballers, David Beckham and Harry Kane both of whom played for Ridgeway Rovers young teams and later captained England as well as having celebrated careers in various well known professional clubs. Harry Kane played much of his career for Spurs as striker earning, in his final season, around £10.5 million before going to the German team Bayern Munich in 2023 for a transfer fee of around £95 million. With 213 Premier League goals in his career, he was second highest scorer of all-time in the English game. I was, coincidentally, born in a nursing home in The Ridgeway opposite the gates of Ridgeway Park, so perhaps I picked up some of the footballing aura of the place when I was a baby.

In the late 1940s/early 1950s I went with my father to watch many Spurs games at White Hart Lane. It was still the era of post-war austerity and there were few cars on the roads but plenty of pony carts and bicycles. White Hart Lane was about 5 miles or half an hour’s bicycle ride from North Chingford. From our Green Walk home we set off free-wheeling down King’s Head Hill then pedalled along the long straight stretch of Waltham Way to the crowded tangle of streets round White Hart Lane. The return ride along Waltham Way was miserable. It was dark, or getting dark, busy, cold and wet, often with a strong wind blowing down the Lea Valley. The last half mile involved the ascent of King’s Head Hill where we had to dismount and push our bikes. I think I remember these bicycle journeys more than some of the football games that drew us out on winter weekends.

Fortunately my father knew how to negotiate the crowded narrow streets round the stadium and there were places where we could safely park our bikes. We bought tickets at huge, iron turnstiles giving a prison-like appearance to the place. Inside there were vast, covered areas underneath the stands crowded with spectators. These places were, to me, rather unlovely and forbidding: drab caverns of asphalt, corrugated iron and plaster board smelling of beer, pies and chips that were sold, along with programmes, from kiosks. In those days people generally wore rather plain, utilitarian clothing and the colourful aspect of crowds today with supporters in their team’s colours and the generally brighter day out wardrobes of women and men.

After finding the best door into the stands my father always managed to get us to the front of the terraces and it was a convention, as mentioned above, that small boys were allowed to hang over the pitch side fence so that they could get a better view of the game. Crowds, mostly standing on the terraces, could reach 70,000 and the noise they generated was unique. As it does today, the sound rolled like waves according to the activity in the game and swept the individual up within it. At half-time many, but not all, the spectators retreated to the under-stand caverns for refreshment. There were no fancy dress mascots, or half-time entertainments. Most people stood patiently where they were and the focus was strictly on football or keeping warm.

My father was so enthusiastic that on days when Spurs were playing away he would take me to watch the reserves playing, but I only remember one outing to another club — a Leyton Orient match. I probably persuaded my father to go because of their rather exotic name. While I enjoyed football I was also much taken by the colourful strips the different teams wore and was, perhaps, slightly disappointed in Spurs’ choice of white shirts and navy blue shorts (hence their alternative nickname of “the Lilywhites”). I liked the bright orange of Blackpool and was also taken by the green and white stripes of the Scottish team Hibernian and remember watching a friendly match between them and Spurs. This was probably the one on 25th April 1949 programmes for which are now selling at £125 each.

When I was 12 in 1950 the family moved to East Sussex and I started as a boarder at Lancing College in West Sussex. My father (now a very busy farmer) had little time to think about football, though he continued to follow Spurs in the media. Lancing was a football rather than a rugby public school and I often played on one or another of the well-manicured pitches overlooking the Adur valley. I was in Seconds House and in 1951 played in the house team that won some sort of college championship. I was the goalkeeper partly, perhaps, due to my memory of Ted Ditchburn and partly because it saved much running about. We played rough and tried to inspire fear in our opponents by abandoning shin guards and playing with our socks rolled down. I escaped most of the bruising tackles but well remember lying face down in muddy goalmouths clutching the football as most of the other 21 players seemed to run backwards and forwards over my prone body. It was during this period that my spinal problems developed and some doctors thought it might be due to our particularly physical form of football. At Lancing we also used to play an equally rough game called ‘back yard’ which was a kind of football played with a tennis ball in a space like a squash court between two of the college buildings. Although there was much footballing activity at Lancing, interest seemed to focus on inter house and inter school games and there was little discussion of the fortunes of teams in the professional football leagues.

After I left school at 16 I paid little attention to football being preoccupied with work, family and much else, though sometimes I used to see rowdy but harmless football fans gathering on railway stations to go home after a game. One of my friends at this period was Bill Richards, a Crystal Palace supporter, and us two oldies still sometimes exchange banter on the varying fortunes of our two teams. In the early 1970s we spent 3 years living in Little Hayfield in North Derbyshire where football had a slightly higher profile and the people who lived and worked there were much more interested in the game than people in Sussex or London. I worked for Ferodo who made brake linings and clutch facings. We also had a factory at Caernarvon in north Wales and here there was an enthusiastic following for Manchester United such that blinds were, I was told, drawn in the Factory when the team lost. Caernarfon (Welsh spelling) had a very active, semi-professional team when I worked for Ferodo, but the local people seemed to prefer to support a distant club in another country, presumably because they were regular winners and had a national and international status. Almost all males from infancy upwards had to declare their colours as supporters of one team or another and by the start of the 21st century women increasingly followed suit and professional female football was also developed.

Probably in 1990 when the FIFA World Cup was in Italy, Cynthia, my wife, bought a large colour TV, using my money, bless her, so that I “could watch the World Cup on a large screen” (which we did). We also watched the 1993 rugby World Cup Final on the same television set and were able to enjoy live Johnny Wilkinson’s drop goal, taken in the last half minute and which tipped the score in England’s favour – a truly memorable moment. Cynthia only really took a very marginal interest in football though she would often watch the Match of the Day programmes with me on weekend evenings. I made her an honorary Fulham supporter because that was where she lived through much of her childhood. Also, Tana, our oldest daughter became a Newcastle supporter around 2020.

In 1995 I worked for the Earth Centre, one of the many doomed millennium projects, at Denaby Main between Doncaster and Sheffield. Most of the men there were football fanatics and there was much discussion of the national games at our lodgings in High Melton, in the home of the chief executive, Jonathan Smales, and various pubs and restaurants in the area. In this atmosphere I quickly got up to speed on the hot topics of the game, mainly the Premiership and was able to revive what I could claim as my lifelong support for Spurs. Most of my Earth Centre friends were northerners, so my affection for Spurs was regarded as somewhat eccentric. One friend, Ricky Burrows, seemed to think about little else but football and installed two TV sets side by side at High Melton so that he could watch two games at once. When I spoke to him many years later he said he had got fed up with association football and now preferred rugby. A very senior executive, David Copeland, said his ambition was to retire and spend his life drinking and watching football. My son Charles used to come up to the Earth Centre from time to time and this may have started a growing interest in the game.

While I was working at the Earth Centre there was one interesting little episode. Some academics from the University of Sheffield who were doing research on school playgrounds came to see us. I was talking to one of them and he showed me some of the primary school children’s drawings. The boys in the area mostly played football but the girls did not. However, though they didn’t play the game they knew the layout of a football pitch with great accuracy and it was during this period that women’s football was growing rapidly. At the time of writing this, the English female team had just qualified for the 2023 World Cup final and women’s games at top level were starting to attract crowds of 70,000 or more. The slogan “Football is for girls” appeared and it seems like a fitting development in a game that has continued to develop over its long history. The modern game as we know it can be said to have started in 1863 with the first issuing of the often revised Laws of the Game by the Football Association. I once heard a radio academic claim that this was one of the finest books ever written for its effectiveness and conciseness and the modern game owes much of its success to this modest work of art.

And so into the 21st century. My son and I increasingly talked about football, particularly Spurs, on car journeys to Land’s End and other places. When our journeys together stopped Tottenham intelligence continued to be regularly exchanged via various Internet routes. And football changed too. There was more focus on the worth of international managers and star players who were bought and sold for increasing millions. Television audiences grew and countries like Morrocco, China and Saudi Arabia started to invest heavily in the game, usually in one of the top teams or their national side. As with politics and much else it seemed that wealthy elites saw football as one of their ways to prominence.

In the late 19th century, when my grandfather would have been supporting Spurs in the Southern League, clubs were allowed to pay players provided that they had either been born or had lived for two years within a six-mile radius of the ground (Chingford was 5 miles from White Hart Lane). Top players could earn as much as £1 a week, though apparently they often found a few notes in their football boots. At present the highest paid footballers can earn up to £200 million as an annual salary and they come from many different countries. It is difficult not to wonder what the ultimate consequences of the increasing off-pitch superlatives in one or another aspects of the modern game will be. And I reflect that it is only 150 years after Spurs efforts were no more than muddy winter scrambles on Tottenham Marshes.

ends