Away from home

Cod Almighty | Article

by Pat Bell

3 January 2017

"If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with". Pat reflects on his football experiences away from the Mariners.

It is just gone 3pm on boxing day. I'm keeping an eye out for three teams. Aberystwyth, my home town team, are well into their second half. I'm a little disappointed they aren't beating Newtown, a few points below them in the Welsh Premier League, a bit relieved they aren't losing. Trafford, their ground a short walk from my current home, are away at Colwyn Bay. I'll be pleased if they win, but, like Aber's result, it won't colour my mood for more than a moment.

Town are kicking off against Accrington Stanley. If I'm not careful, I could let a Town defeat ruin my weekend.

I grew up in Aber and have gone back there regularly ever since. Aber provided my first experience of football watching. There is a stand at Park Avenue named after one of their most popular forwards, David Williams. He was my first male teacher. He liked me and I liked him, but as I type, the news that Aber have scored a late winner against Newtown is easily outweighed by the fact that Accrington seem to have made the better start at Blundell Park.

Park Avenue, AberystwithAs a young child, it never occurred to me to claim as mine a team playing in the Mid-Wales League – a league whose table was only in the local weekly paper and which never featured on Match of the Day. In my darker days, I've feared that Grimsby kids today might feel the same about their local team.

I've lived in Trafford for 13 years. My son has grown up here and Trafford FC provided his first experience of watching football. I've watched them through two promotions and a relegation. They have become much the least temporary of the temporary affiliations I've fostered – Carmarthen, Torquay, Tooting & Mitcham and now Trafford – as I've moved around the country. But even so, the flurry just now when the 'as it stands' table showed a change in Grimsby's position, and then the leap in my heart when our goal difference moved from 0 to +1 and it was confirmed that Tom Bolarinwa has put us ahead eclipses everything that may be going on at Colwyn Bay v Trafford.

Bolarinwa, like all the other players in the Town squad, I take for granted I can name, although the infrequency with which I make it to Blundell Park means I'm slow to identify them in action. I can only name two current Trafford players without checking: Josh Granite, as he happens to be the PE teacher of one of my nephews, and Matt Darbyshire, who has the touch you would expect from a big man. A friend watching Trafford for the first time asked me who to look out for. I named Darbyshire at random and, on a rare start, he did me proud with a hat-trick. He is a very big man and now and again, when he is facing goal and has got his legs moving, you know that the only person on the pitch who can stop him will be himself.

Once, I thought I needed rules to protect the primacy of Town in my emotions. Pursuing a relationship for which I was not ready, I lived a ten-minute walk from Plainmoor one season. Torquay were no rivals to Town then; we were having our best season under Alan Buckley while the Gulls battled for their League status. I told myself I mustn't watch Torquay more often than I watched Town as I got mildly caught up in Torquay's struggle.

My relationship didn't last, nor did my feeling for Torquay. I did go to watch them once or twice when I was back in London, but one afternoon I watched their game with a London radio commentary of Grimsby v QPR in my ear, frequently startled by the discord between what I was seeing and hearing. I don't know if a football team can dump a fan, but I was asking to be dumped.

Sandy Lane, Tooting & MitchamSingle again, my London convenience became Tooting & Mitcham, a team so accommodating of my needs that they play in the same kit as Town, right down to the red socks. In the 1990s, they still played at Sandy Lane, an open bowl, its sides a concrete terrace. It was easy to imagine a big crowd standing on that terrace, or sitting under the corrugated hangar of the one remaining stand, during the post-war sporting boom. But now weeds peeped out of the concrete. It was impossible to imagine the crowds coming back. Whatever I was looking for, I wasn't going to find it at Sandy Lane.

Far from detracting from my love of Town, these encounters reminded me of what I was missing. I lived in Carmarthen for less than a year in 1987, in a bedsit which had a view of two thirds of the football field. Usually at a loose end on a Saturday afternoon, it became natural to wander out, put 50 pence in the hat of the man who came round to collect admissions and take my place on a low grass bank, opposite the single, perfunctory stand: four poles and a roof. I'd be on my own. Usually a middle-aged woman with a dog on a lead would stand near me, but the only time we exchanged a word was if one of us was late, to confirm the score.

The only moment from all the Carmarthen games I recall was a one-person pitch invasion after a bad tackle, a gentleman in overcoat piping up a warning to the invader, repeatedly because it was so ineffectual. "You are trespassing. I know what I'm talking about because I'm a lawyer. You are trespassing," he called, with the pompousness that only a Welsh member of the professional classes can muster. Such was football in Carmarthen in 1987.

Through the 1980s, my interest in football had been little more than a check of the scores in the newspapers and a glance at the table to make sure that Grimsby were still in the old second division. Now that I was watching a game – any game – it became natural to hurry home to catch the Grimsby result on the radio.

The sense of loss from that one moment of Grimsby's relegation is more vivid than all the hours of Carmarthen Town matches I'd watched in the half-season I lived there

I started to study the second division table. Grimsby were mid-table, not far short of being mathematically safe from relegation. But every other week I hurried home to find that they had lost. The odd win we needed for safety never came. I'd not attended a Town game since the third division championship season. All those years in the second flight I'd missed.

My alarm at missing out on an era had grown to the extent I made a point of listening to the scores for a midweek game, rather than as a simple Saturday afternoon ritual. We ended a goal drought in a 2-2 draw at home to Hull. The draw confirmed that we were relegated.

The sense of loss from that moment is more vivid than all the hours of Carmarthen Town matches I'd watched in the half-season I lived there. My interest reawakened, I moved to London later that year determined that watching Town would be part of my life. In December 1987, I watched Grimsby for the first time in almost eight years.

I don't mean to belittle any team. One of the two finest individual goals I have seen was at Sandy Lane in an FA Cup qualifying round: a dribble past two defenders then a chip from distance. The other was by the peerless Shelton Payne of Trafford; close control, a tight turn and a shimmy opening up the chance for a precise shot from the edge of the area.

Real fans of any club will have epic tales to tell, as we have of Town. It's just that my passions were not engaged the way they are for the Mariners. Instead, the strongest emotion I remember from Tooting & Mitcham was after I'd overslept a planned trip to watch Bradford City v Grimsby. I don't remember anything about the game I was watching, but Town won 4-3.

Shawe View, Trafford FCIf Trafford have captured a larger part of my life than my other temporary home town teams, it is in part because the young side I started watching set up and played like a non-League Buckley team. It is also because I now had a family, and a son ready to take an interest. Trafford have no pretensions; George respects my injunction against wearing the colours of one team at another's game, but United and City hats and shirts are not unusual at Shawe View. No pretensions, but a real claim to be a family club. While the adults keep their eyes on the pitch, their children play their own games behind the grass bank. 

Starlings off Aberystwyth PierPart of the attraction of these teams is their convenience; I'd never think of travelling to watch them. Even Aber, from my real home town, I've only watched away from Park Avenue once. Two seasons ago, they were in the final of the Welsh Cup at Wrexham. I didn't know anyone there, didn't start any conversations, but the faces reminded me of people I had grown up with. If I had said I went to Penglais School, they would have known to speak to me in English, not Welsh. Their murmurations were familiar; I was part of the flock.

Aber lost 3-2, having led 2-0. If that happened to Grimsby, I'd be sulking until the next game and beyond. But I enjoyed the day, the sense of my town being out on a day trip.

Leaving Aber is some undertaking. Like Cleethorpes, it's a seaside town at the end of the railway line. There the resemblance begins – they are both remote, both resorts – but it also ends. Most of the year, the resident population of Aber is augmented by students. Some will come for three years and never leave. Some may have come from Cleethorpes or Grimsby and places like them, people who had to leave home to complete their education and for whom there are no opportunities to return.

Besides, Aber takes some people that way, a little world of its own. When the sun goes down on a summer's evening, it makes exotic landscapes of the few thin clouds; imaginary awaylands. Out in the real sea below the sea-like sky, the hills and promontories of the Welsh coast look detached, like islands. Aberystwyth is a long way from anywhere, so isolated that even its neighbours seem stranger than they really are, while the strangeness of the sky invites fantasy.

Cleethorpes has never been my home, not really. My associations – the seafront, the Greenwich Meridian, Sussex Rec, Loftus's, Blundell Park of course, but so changed – are those of a frequent childhood visitor.  My father left the town long before I was born, and I'd feel a fraud to use the familiar 'Meggies', a nickname I never heard from my dad or his relatives.

And yet. I have twice in my life felt that sense of heart-bursting pride that is not directly to do with people but with the sheer sense of a place you call home. Once was on a coach, catching my first sight of the Iron Age hillfort that overlooks Aberystwyth. The second was on my first return to Cleethorpes after an absence of nine years.

Aber won today, and Trafford rescued a draw; that's good. The Mariners won too – that's the stuff of my life, whether it's genes or loyalty or just an accretion of memories and friendships that happened almost without me knowing it

And yet. One Saturday I was walking up Alexandra Road (I have to look it up to check I've got the name right – but then I'm hopeless on the names of streets in Aber as well) and caught myself staring at someone across the road, now staring back at me. I couldn't decide if he reminded me of one of my brothers or a young Kevin Drinkell, but he was somehow familiar. I'm no longer in touch with any relatives in Cleethorpes, but the shapes of some skulls here as well as in Aber remind me of people I knew.

It's tempting, then, to reach for the cliché and say my feeling for the Mariners is genetic, something born and bred. But my father was a lukewarm fan. The last time I went to a game with my brothers – all of us then in our teens – he put on rather more than the usual show of pantomime reluctance that was his common mask (and is mine), and gratefully decided we were old enough to go by ourselves.

It's tempting, too, to put it down to the steadfastness of loyalties sworn young. When I was six, I was persuaded I wanted Labour to win the 1970 General Election. As an adult, a socialist by conviction, the arguments that we should form a new party fell on stony ground. The six-year old in me held on to Labour. But I had been ten before I committed myself to Town.

Aber won today, and Trafford rescued a draw; that's good. The Mariners won too – that's the stuff of my life, whether its genes or loyalty or just an accretion of memories and friendships that happened almost without me knowing it.

The son of an exile, my support for Town has relied on my willingness to travel. But nowadays, despite the ebullience of our away support, my favourite journey is to Blundell Park. I enjoy my rituals: a quiet pint in the No 1 Refreshment Rooms; a bag of chips from the chippy almost opposite my great aunt's old house on Grimsby Road (a chippy which, for some reason we could never fathom, she was always inclined to look down upon); then meeting friends without any need for prearrangement in the trust bar or the Rutland. Even talking to people I don't know, I don't feel a stranger. Wishful thinking, no doubt, but I feel myself at home.

Seagull over Blundell Park

The pictures used in this article are:

  • Park Avenue, Aberystwyth, © Copyright Phillip Perry and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence (cropped)
  • Sandy Lane, Tooting & Mitcham, courtesy of the Memories of Sandy Lane Facebook page (Especial thanks to Martin. When asking permission to use the shot I warned him the section about his club was less about them, more about the state of my life at the time. "I've often wondered about the state of my life watching T&M", he replied)
  • Shawe View, Trafford FC
  • Starlings off Aberystwyth Pier, © Copyright Ian Capper and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence 
  • A lone seagull over Blundell Park

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