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Closer To The Stars

August 8, 2010

Supporting a small club has its consolations. You develop a sunny, positive outlook on life because, failure already achieved, there is everything to hope for. Demotion from the ‘real’ Football League is unthinkable and so can never happen. You’re closer to the action, too, and your involvement represents a bigger share of total fan commitment than, say, at Old Trafford. ‘Small’, by the way, means ‘unsuccessful’. Manchester United are not small.

I was introduced to Mansfield Town, as if to a soft drug, by a friend who lived, inconveniently enough, in Kent. He hooked me in (“Go on, trying it once can’t hurt, surely.”) by heading north and dragging me along to the penultimate home match in our 1992 promotion push. We won and went up, and I was intoxicated by the excitement, the exploits of cult hero Phil Stant, and the atmosphere of the wonderfully run-down, old-fashioned ground. A more sensible option would have been to choose one of the ‘big’ Sheffield clubs to support, but living in Worksop at least I shared a county with Mansfield, and travelling to Field Mill offered a scenic journey by bus or car through rural Nottinghamshire.

The next season I started surreptitiously slipping out on my own for the odd match, without telling my friend in distant Margate that I’d gone native. Within two years I’d moved onto the harder stuff and my football habit had escalated to a football problem. I was now going to every match, home and away, and seeking out confidential help groups where I could stand up and announce: “My name is William and I’m a Stags fan”. To which the circle would nod sincerely and intone in a dull unison: “Hello William”. I ended up joining the supporters club instead.

I once heard fandom described on Radio 4’s usually pointless Thought For The Day slot as ‘a harmless way to belong’. And it’s true – all fans crave closeness to their club. One Saturday afternoon, sitting in the West Stand, I was mistaken (from behind) for Stuart Watkiss, the Stags’ rugged centre back, by someone who actually worked at the club. That’s Stuart Watkiss, ex-Hereford, ex-Walsall. It was a proud moment.

The scenic journey to homes games became familiar, whilst travelling ‘away’ you develop a good sense of the geography of small northern towns – in particular learning to nose out the route from station to football ground instinctively, navigating a matrix of chip shops, pubs and programme sellers.

Longer distances usually involved the supporters club bus. A journey to, say, Plymouth, meant setting out from home around 5am and laying your head down early the next morning. The team would usually lay on a goalless draw, or worse, as a token thanks for the effort. During bad times the bus would be sparsely populated. One long haul, for example, attracted 13 people to the sporting equivalent of a consignment to Siberia. There would be no compensating camaraderie, either, as the party usually contained a high proportion of social misfits who, rather than huddling together for moral support, would spread themselves out for maximum privacy. The ‘meet’ was always at Field Mill, and often coincided with the players checking in and leaving on their own marginally more glamorous coach – logically enough, as supporters and team were both heading the same distance to the same place.

Timing could be unpredictable, and we would often arrive unfeasibly early in some far outpost of footballing (or any) culture with plentiful hanging-around time to fill. On such an expedition, to Colchester in fact, we were so far ahead of schedule that I was the first person into the Layer Road ground, perched alone behind a goal as I waited for something, anything at all, to happen.

And then, suddenly, it did, and involved Steve Harper, one of our better and therefore least popular players. I liked Harper, both for his Herculean work-rate and for his sharp looks and slinky hairstyle. He had been injured and was working his way back into the team. A good hour before kick-off he emerged from the tunnel to double the population of the stadium and started lapping the pitch. I assumed he was warming up to play that afternoon, which was good news. Surely he hadn’t travelled all the way to Essex to indulge in some bizarre fitness ritual which could easily have been acted out back home. As he approached the away end I prepared then launched my opening (and, as it turned out, closing) gambit: “Are you playing today, Steve?” The answer, honest, direct and shocking as he passed me, was brief: “No”. Digesting this disturbing fact I had maybe a few minutes to formulate a follow-up clarification question and advance the dialogue as Harper embarked on another lap. But I’d already invaded his conversational space and feared the response next time might be twice as long and half as polite. So the Steve Harper Incident was wrapped up there, short but possessing a certain minimal perfection.

There is something about being a footballer that turns perfectly ordinary lads into heroes, god-like creatures even. Milling about with players and club officials as they arrive, you notice interesting and impressive things, such as that striker Iyseden Christie wore glasses for driving. Though not, unfortunately, for striking. Finding myself close to Steve Slawson, a lanky youth who had been hired to replace the legendary Steve Wilkinson, I buttonholed him and let rip: “Are you playing today, Steve?” I realised immediately that this had become my default chat-up line – effective enough, but impractical equally with anyone not called Steve and on the other six days of the week. I recall the conversation in its brief, mundane entirety, perhaps flattering myself (and Slawson) in my belief that it could have been scripted by Samuel Beckett for its lack of purpose, repetition and faintly circular quality.

Me: Are you playing today, Steve?

Slawson: I don’t know.

Me (incredulously): You don’t know?

Slawson: Well, the manager hasn’t announced the team yet, but I hope I’m in it.

Me: Oh.

Unaccountably disappointed, I had nevertheless established the existential fact that Slawson either would or would not be playing that day, and hurried off to communicate this void of information to my fellow travellers. For those who care, Slawson’s dreams that day went unfulfilled.

My conversational nadir arrived with the Brian Kilcline Affair. The Viking lookalike had been imported to stiffen the defence and put the boot in where required. For all his other sterling qualities he was not blessed with great pace, and had been dropped several weeks earlier after a disagreement with the manager, who maintained that the defence (notably ‘Killer’ himself) was playing ‘too deep’. Minus Kilcline, the team went on a run of eight games without conceding a goal, rather undermining the centre-back’s counter-argument. At 2.50pm one Saturday I spotted Kilcline getting into his car. Almost by reflex I hailed him, inevitably, with: “Are you playing today, Brian?” As the words left my mouth I realised the ineptitude of the question, fatuous, amounting almost to sarcasm, and feared for my physical safety. Kilcline fixed me with a silent, angry stare for several seconds, as if to ask where I thought he might be heading in his car – home, or straight onto the football pitch. Then suddenly he ducked into the vehicle and was on his way out of both the ground and my life. There was my answer. Brian wasn’t playing today. At least I hadn’t called him Steve. After that I retreated into my shell and kept my own counsel. After all, I’d find out soon enough if Steve, Brian, or anyone else was playing that day.

In 2008 Mansfield Town were finally relegated from the ‘real’ Football League. It could happen, after all. So now, at last, in the world of non-league minnows, they are a big club. But not successful. Which rather subverts my earlier equation of size with achievement.

But there was one last conversation, where I was an observer rather than a participant. Steve Harper’s wife often used to bring the kids to watch their old man at work, from a vantage point near me in the West Stand. A brave choice of weekend leisure activity, given the amount of gratuitous abuse her husband received for his efforts, but probably character-forming for their brood. In a 4-0 win over Darlington he scored a hat-trick, impressive for a striker, but more so for a left wing-back, and even more so for Steve Harper. Good goals, too. Through the bustle and jostling to exit the ground at the end of the match I was pushed close to the Harper family. In the warm, pale, late afternoon light the mother leaned down, smiling, to one of the offspring and, in that special tone reserved for talking to children, asked: “Who scored three goals today?” The child, beaming proudly, looked up and said: “Daddy”. Now I bet that’s something you don’t hear too often at Old Trafford.

From → Stagsville

One Comment
  1. The Owl permalink

    The rich tapestry of life lived in the poverty of a football cu-de-sac. Are these sepia memories of the 40’s or of the 50’s? Do you not look back to when Mr Frost’s two roads diverged in that yellow wood, and you looked up the road towards the undergrowth and that big club in blue and white, and realise that the far less travelled path you took was a great big honking mistake?

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