I was eight in 1987. We lived in Scarborough, and my Dad took me to see the local football team for the first time in March. I remember struggling to push through the rusty old turnstile at the same time as my old man, a trick that a lot of guys used at football grounds in the eighties to get their kids in for free. There can’t have been more than two thousand people at that match against Weymouth, but I was four feet high and it felt like a lot more. I had to sit on a ledge at the back of the stand to see the game because I wasn’t tall enough to lean on the posts that lined the terraces. It was next to the battered shed where they served drinks and dodgy pies from the local Westler factory.
I’d listen to the older guys in Scarborough Building Society sponsored replica shirts as they queued up for dishwater tea and imitation Bovril that would always burn your tongue – a sensation that to this day still reminds me of my earliest football games. From them, I learned about the team. Craig Short, who went on to play for Everton, was big but too slow. Our cockney ‘keeper, Kevin Blackwell – later manager of Sheffield United – was the best they’d seen at this level but was never the same after he broke his leg. And right back Cyril “Ces” Pod – the first black person I had ever seen in the flesh - was our international star, having turned out for Saint Kitts and Nevis. When opposing fans visited, they made monkey noises at him. It was something which I heard at Scarborough from fans of all teams well into the 90s.
At the time, I didn’t realise that even if every person in Scarborough had turned up to the Athletic Ground (we didn’t have the infamous ground sponsorship from McCain yet) we still wouldn’t get near to the average Old Trafford attendance. Scarborough is a two hour drive from a motorway. Players couldn’t be attracted to sign for a club literally at the end of the road. And away fans couldn’t be bothered with the trip down the A64 to see their teams either. There was an obvious glass ceiling of achievement at the club. But in 1987, we were on the up. Neil Warnock – a chiropodist in the town – had guided us to the top of the GM Vauxhall Conference. And a few weeks after my first game we became the first ever part-time club to be automatically promoted to the football league and turn professional. The Sun ran three pages on the team of firemen, foot doctors and McCain’s factory workers that were soon to be playing Wolverhampton Wanderers, Bolton and Wigan Athletic in the old Division Four.
I was at the first league game we ever played, when Wolves fans tore the ground to shreds. One visiting supporter fell through the roof of a stand and was crippled for life. The away end shed was set on fire. The PA man began crying as he begged people to stop. We drew 2-2, although that wasn’t the reason the team was on the television news that day. And it was to be the last time the rest of the country really paid any attention to Scarborough FC until the winter of 2004.
The club reached a play-off or two and were infamous for a day when our shirts became sponsored by Black Death Vodka
I carried on following the team through secondary school and into college. I’d wear the shirt in the gym and it was always a neat way to make new friends. People were genuinely interested in talking to me about a team that was not on Sky Sports or the back of the Sun every day. By wearing the shirt I discovered closet Maidstone, Whitby and Crawley Town fans – all of whom are mates to this day. Meantime, the club reached a play-off or two and were infamous for a day when our shirts became sponsored by Black Death Vodka, but they remained rooted in the bottom division. The club’s debt from “big” spending in the early 90s – trying to keep up with much larger teams in the division, sleeping giants like Fulham – was starting to bite. The town wasn’t big, or interested, enough. Crowds rarely spilled over the 1800 mark. The club spiralled into debt.
In 1999, I was at Nottingham University in my halls of residence bedroom when I learned we’d been relegated back into the non-league. A goal scored deep into injury time by Carlisle United’s goalkeeper saved them and sunk us. Much was made about whether or not Jimmy Glass should even have been on the pitch to score that goal for the Cumbrians, but Scarborough hadn’t been good enough for many years.
In 2004, we played Chelsea in the fourth round of the FA Cup. I travelled from London, where I had been working as a radio DJ, to stand in the same spot I had against Weymouth in 1987. And just like when I was eight years old, I couldn’t see. But this time it was because we had a genuinely large crowd, there to see Lampard and Terry play against a Scarborough team that was part-time for the first time in 12 years. The Sun was interested again, sponsoring the team’s shirts for the game. And the money the club received from Sky for the television rights was supposedly enough to secure the team for years to come.
Administration – and points deduction – followed. Scarborough were relegated again in 2006, and wound up in the summer of 2007.
I felt widowed.
When I was eight, Scarborough really were my Manchester United, my everything. Some of the other boys at school followed the major clubs, but it never occurred to me to do so. I remember looking at the league tables in 1987 and thinking, cutely, that in just a few promotion’s time we would be playing Leeds or Chelsea. Except now we never would. We were gone. And to start supporting another team felt like cheating or a betrayal, which my London friends found baffling. They were the proverbial prawn sandwich brigade; a new breed of casual middle-class football fans that chose their team according to how successful it was or who played for them. And now, they chortled, I could do the same.
Scarborough were relegated again in 2006, and wound up in the summer of 2007. I felt widowed.
But I had other ideas. I decided to become the neutral that Dad and I had talked about so often as we walked back to the car after games. What a great game it always is for the neutral!
Except it isn’t. Neutrals miss out on a lot. You are never truly pissed off with the referee or angry at a vicious tackle and you don’t make new friends in the gym because of the shirt you’re wearing. You don’t nervously stand in the living room in front of the Sky Sports News ticker on a Saturday afternoon waiting for your team’s league to flash up (which, of course, it never does for long enough). The tribal passion which truly makes football the obsession of so many men’s lives is absolutely extinguished if you do not follow a team – no matter how lowly or obscure.
So in the end, I plumped for Barnet.
The nearest ground to me at the time was actually the Emirates. But watching matches there felt wrong, like I was watching a Hollywood interpretation of soccer. And ultimately, it didn’t really matter if Arsenal won or lost. They would always be alright, Champions League place or no. So I got onto the Tube one Saturday afternoon and went as far as the Northern Line will let you go.
You can see Underhill as soon as you come out of the station. It has a cowshed and seats behind the goal that aren’t covered. You will burn your tongue on the Bovril. You can’t hear the announcements on the PA properly. And when the away fans begin to sing, you know which part of the country the team has come from because you can hear the regional accent in the “O”s and “A”s.
It is like 1987 for me again. And I love it.
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