Supporting a football team is a funny old business. Mostly it just seems to offer the odd island of joy amongst an ocean of misery; for an Argyle fans the last 6 years or so has offered far less than that but this blog goes back further, much further than the last 6 years to 11th May 1984. Exactly 30 years ago to the day.
The world was a very different place then and I was a very different person: thinner of waist, thicker of hair, better of eyesight, poorer than I am now. I was, in fact a pretty typical 19 year old student living in Cheltenham and I had been invited to a student party in Ponders End which is a part of Enfield which is north, very north (well north of the nearest tube station, Seven Sisters), London. By coincidence Argyle had a game in London that day and I, along with my buddy Andy, decided to combine the two.
It’s not far from Cheltenham to London. In those days it was straight down the A40 so we decided to hitch-hike there. We got up, Andy lived in the flat downstairs from me, met up and headed off. We got a lift very quickly from, as I recall, a fella who was a branch manager for the Chelsea Building Society. There had been a glitch and he was heading off in his company car to a “meeting” during which he expected to become an ex-bank manager of the Chelsea Building Society. They had a strict “no hitch-hikers” rule and he picked us up as a last rebellion against his evil, as he saw it (he swore blind he had nothing nothing wrong) employer. Anyway he took us all the way down to west London and dropped us off at which point we were on the outer-reaches of the tube network. Virtually there!
We bought our travelcards and headed off to the depths of south-east London with Millwall our destination. We were there with hours to spare. What we did not have was cash. I needed a cashpoint or somewhere that would cash a cheque because banks didn’t open on Saturdays back then. I asked a copper where the nearest cashpoint was: “which bank?”, “Lloyds”, “I bank with them. About 3 miles away…”. Great. So there I was in darkest Bermondsey, not long after the infamous riot at Luton, miles from anywhere I could get money and with insufficient cash to get in to the game I had travelled to. Up and down the street of shops we went. “Can you cash me a cheque, please?”, “no”. It was hopeless. Just as it was dawning on us that we were likely to miss the game a few lads I knew from school (!), also going to the game, turned up out of the blue. They stumped up a loan and we were sorted.
Off to The Den we went. In those days there was a huge, sprawling car park outside the ground which had a pathway running through it. By now we were a crew of, maybe, 6 lads: Colin, Mark, Dave, Lawrence… (it was a loooong time ago) desperately trying not to be identified as away fans. There was a similarly sized group of blokes, older than us, walking along, slowly, in front of us. We were close enough to be able to hear their conversation: “if we see anybody whose face don’t fit we’ll fahking well knife ‘em…” was one choice comment. We were bricking it but ambling along as nonchalantly as possible, keeping our traps shut and hoping to survive long enough to get somewhere “safe” (there wasn’t anywhere safe for about 10 miles in any given direction).
Eventually the path we were on split: home fans this way; away fans the other. It was a moment of truth. Our nonchalant amble turned into a nonchalantly sprinted stride and we got to the turnstile safely. So we thought. But no. The turnstile was on the other side of a sodding great wrought iron fence with a gate in it. The gate was padlocked with a impressively heavy chain wrapped around it. We rattled the gate. “Fahrk orf!” came a cry from the inside. We rattled it again. “Wha’d’you want?” this time. “We’re Argyle fans. Let us in!” we shouted. There was a brief delay but the key was found and we were in.
Inside it was bedlam. Millwall were in with a shout of winning Divison 3, as was, and needed to win and it was fair to say that the home crowd was well and truly up for it. There was nothing in the game for Argyle and no transport had been laid on to the game at police request – they didn’t want to have to police away fans as well as home ones, obviously. There could have been no more than 200 Argyle fans standing on the covered terrace that day and I’d imagine that all of us were questioning our own sanity for being there.
Anyway they battered us. Took an early lead and added a second. The Den was in fine fettle that day and it remains probably the most intimidating stadium/atmosphere that I have have ever “enjoyed”.
With about half an hour to go we were approached by a grey-haired police sergeant. “Look lads. You shouldn’t have come here today. We won’t be able to guarantee your safety afterwards. We’re going to lock the gates to keep them” [pointed at the home fans] “out in a minute and then keep them locked for at least an hour after. It looks like they are going to be Champions” [they were] and there’ll be all sorts going on. When we do let you out don’t hang around or you’ll find out why it is called “Cold Blow Lane” outside. Or you could leave now.”
Basically we couldn’t get out fast enough. Not having any idea where we were or where to go we just got on the first bus (travelcards, see?) and stayed on it until we passed a train station at which point we got off and caught a train into London proper and started the long trek out to Ponders End for the party.
Along the way we stopped here and there for a beer. In one of the pubs an Australian barman told us that “Leeds fans had set a bomb off somewhere” and that it was real bad. No mobile phones, no internet, no way of getting instant reliable news like there is today. We didn’t believe him. A bomb? This might have been the bad old days of football hooliganism but a bomb? Unthinkable.
And so the day wound on. We ended up at the party. Had a great time. Drank too much and ate too little. Stayed up waaaaay too late. Eventually we crashed out.
Sunday morning came so horribly soon. I was very hungover and awfully stiff from having slept on the floor. The flat looked like a first class party had happened in it, which it had, and was a complete mess. It was cup of tea time and clean up time. Somebody turned on the TV – it was that long ago that Breakfast TV was something of a novelty still and there it was: the truth about that “Leeds bomb” was that he had got muddled up with the Bradford Fire. We just watched the horrific footage in stunned silence as the news rattled on: “playing Lincoln”, “Valley Parade”, “packed because Bradford were about to win Div 4”, “spread in minutes”, “56 dead”. I don’t think have ever seen anything as horrible in my life. We were stunned into slack-jawed silence until somebody turned it off at which point we completed the clean-up, Andy and I headed off to the local pub, The Gilda (which had a stripshow going on!), with a few others before going on to the A40 to try to hitch-hike back to Cheltenham.
We quickly got a lift from a young yuppie-type fella who, apparently, had got off with the daughter of somebody so famous the night before that we wouldn’t believe it if he told us. Funnily, because he never did spill the beans as to who she was, I believed him – and still do. He took us to Oxford at about 100 mph all the way where our next lift was a crazy old man who should not have been driving “I’m 85 years old, y’know!”. If he kept on driving he was unlikely to see 86. God knows how he got that far. Anyway he took us to Whitney and dropped us off there. Dual carriageway. We were stuck there so long we decided we were best off walking the 30 miles we still had to go. It started to rain. It was getting dark. Spirits were very low as we plodded forlornly along.
In such circumstances you need a stroke of luck and we got one. If we could have chosen a fantasy lift it would have been two gorgeous girls and that was exactly what happened. Proper Australian Page 3/Barbie Doll types they were too. “I don’t usually stop for hitch-hikers but you two looked so miserable I felt sorry for you…” Sadly they didn’t seduce us but they did take us to Cheltenham. The adventure was over.
All of which I have been reminded of by today’s 30th Anniversary stuff about the Bradford fire. 56 people went to football match, just like Andy and I did, and through no fault of their own never went home. That awful, horrific tragedy, in conjunction with Heysel and Hillsborough, changed what it is to be a football fan in England forever and 30 years on watching football is nothing at all like what it was then – even in the few grounds that still have terracing. In many ways it is far better now: the threat of violence is remote; the view is better; the toilets are better; it’s far more family-friendly. It’s not what it was though. The feral terraces have gone; the apprehension when travelling is more or less non-existent; it is easier to meet-up with friends; the other scores are easily looked-up… Is it better now? Of course it is. It isn’t as exciting though. I can’t imagine how 56 people could be killed at a match in England again – but nobody could back then either.
All of this has been running through my mind all day. If you are still here then thanks for reading it all but amidst the obvious highs and lows of following a team there is always the adventure involved in going to an away game somewhere. It doesn’t matter where and it doesn’t matter who you support. There must be a million, several million hugely personal different folklores out there unique to each and every fan; the episodes are all shared either directly or indirectly with other people. We all have our bank of memories and tales to tell and they are all precious and they all make us into what we are today. That is what following a team gives you and it may be subtle but the cumulative effect is more profound than any win, defeat, goal or red card.