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The Other Woman

November 1, 2010

Maintaining a long-distance relationship can be a challenge. Or, as we used to say in the days before the language of positive thinking, a pain in the arse. You start with the finest intentions. We’ll take turns to visit on alternate weekends. Actually, make that long weekends, as I can get away on Friday late afternoon, maybe catch the very early train back on Monday morning and still make it in time for work. Time being so precious, we’ll maximise every moment and make much more of it than we do right now. Think about it, that’s (part of) four days each week that we’ll be together – better than now – so it’s a potential upgrade in both quantity and quality. Of course, neither of you minds the other hanging around with exciting new people and doing the kind of things you do as a couple, as we’re both mature and it’s NO THREAT. And there’s always the phone and email, of course.

And that’s fine – for a while. After that while, it’s less fine. Work’s really heavy this week – actually for the next couple of weeks – and I really don’t think I can get away for the weekend. Can we miss the next two, in fact? The next two turns into the next few, and before you know it, “I’ve actually been spending quite a lot of time with x” (where x = some loser who’s previously been casually dropped into the conversation in a wholly innocent way, but has now moved up from being NO THREAT to a REAL AND PRESENT DANGER). “And we get on really well together.” Then it’s “I think we could both do with some time apart and see how we feel about things.” Then it’s the showdown, the long goodbye (actually, can we make this quick?), the mature parting of the ways. Followed by the recriminations. The other person just “didn’t work hard enough at it”.

In the late 1990s I left Nottinghamshire after nearly a decade there, and moved back to live in London for the first time in 17 years. It was a big change, exciting but a wrench, mainly because it meant severing my ties with Mansfield Town.

But hang on. It’s only a couple of hours up the M1 for Saturday home games, and when you think about it, most of the away games are in the southern half of the country this season. London’s a doddle – there’s Barnet, Brentford and Leyton Orient to look forward to and, not much further afield, Gillingham, Wycombe, Cambridge. So away travel will actually become easier. OK, Torquay’s a trek, but easier from London than from Notts. Yes, I’ll have to forgo the odd midweek home match, but I can always take a day’s holiday if it’s a really crucial one. All things told, I’ll probably only miss about ten games a season. And there’s always the phone and email, of course.

That’s how it started off. And yes, it was indeed fine. Then, on a monochrome, London autumn Saturday, as grey as the 1950s, I had one of those across-the-crowded-room-at-a-party moments. Stags were playing at Leyton Orient, and climbing the steps up to the away-end terracing I anticipated, as a connoisseur of lower-division football grounds, being confronted by the usual ramshackle melange of construction works, hoardings and embryonic flats or car parks. As I reached the modest summit I stopped, looked, and let out the footballing equivalent of ‘phwooar’. Probably ‘phwooar’ itself, actually. The ground was gorgeous. Four perfect, un-redeveloped sides, two facing stands, two matching terraces, surrounded by a grid of closely-packed houses. My mind quickly got to work populating the empty space with crowds of post-war men in cloth caps, clutching their twopenny programmes, wearing rosettes and waving rattles. Jaw-droppingly beautiful, unlike Field Mill, which seemed to be in a permanent state of almost being rebuilt. I could move in here, quite easily.

When I thought about it, Leyton Orient and I went back a long way. We had friends in common. First there was Mr Grew. As a pupil at Barrow Hill Junior Mixed School in north west London, I had been aware that little clubs theoretically had fans, because I could see the attendance figures in the sports pages of the Sunday papers. But these weren’t necessarily real people. My friends and I didn’t know anyone who failed to support a proper club. We followed Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal. I was West Ham back then, in the days of Moore, Hurst and Peters. But Mr Grew, a teacher, claimed to support Leyton Orient, an attachment he always admitted with an embarrassed smile, a shrug and an over-acted confessional whisper. Mr Grew’s other distinguishing feature was that he sported extremely baggy trousers with turn-ups. By the mid-1960s it was 30 years since these had been fashionable and another 30 before they were to become so again. So the O’s did have supporters, albeit people who had missed their sartorial moment by two equidistant thirds of a century. Teachers generally didn’t  have first names in those days but I think his might secretly have been Peter.

(In support of my thesis, my own class teacher, Mr Perkins, who had taught me, by then, most of what I usefully know now, was a Spurs man. He coached the school team and advocated the ‘push-and-run’ methodology of Arthur Rowe’s 1950s sides which were still fresh in his memory. Ambitious really, when his squad of ten-year-olds were more interested in keep-and-shoot. I once heard someone call him Bill.)

And then, of course, several players had turned out for both clubs during my time as a Stagsman. There was the bug-eyed crazyman Stuart Hicks, always eager to place his head in zones of maximum danger. There was Wayne Corden, dubbed, in one of those many football nicknames that don’t quite work, Cordinho, for his quasi-Brazilian ability at set pieces. Well, his quasi-ex-Port Vale ability, anyway. Not forgetting Mark Peters, who always seemed about to suffer, or to be recovering from, a broken leg or two. And there was Iyseden Christie, a representative of that footballing genre known as mavericks. Maverick status is usually conferred on big drinkers who won’t be told what to do on a football pitch, but Christie always struck me as a quiet, thoughtful man, who was blessed with unusual skill and trickery and an equally special ability to fall over. I believe he inspired the same kind of devotion amongst O’s fans as he did in his Stags days.

Thinking about it further, Leyton’s just down the road from my new home – with a following wind, 15 minutes on the 93 bus. We’re even in the same borough. Exploring the streets around the ground, I had noticed a sign in an estate agent’s window proudly boasting that their business was ‘protecting Leyton from the fear of unsold property’. That sounded like a fairly serious phobia for anyone in E10 to have developed, and I was thankful not to be suffering the same terror in neighbouring Walthamstow. Still, it was reassuring to know that some right-minded citizen, in however small a way, was fulfilling those supervisory duties and giving a whole community peace of mind and a good night’s sleep. Phew!

So, Leyton Orient. You and me, eh? It needn’t mean anything. I wouldn’t actually care about them. No-one need know. Just a casual fling which would keep me busy on a Saturday afternoon. Harmless, surely. And tempting. So tempting, in fact, that I started searching for reasons not to get involved, and save myself from a lifetime of guilt and regret. I found a few. For a start, could I live with that matchday announcer?

Leyton Orient’s PA wordsmith was surely in the top five most irritating practitioners of his craft. Not unusually, the name of the scorer of an away-team goal would be muttered under the breath like a curse. But a home goal was greeted by a routine which actually relieved the announcer of doing anything more than pushing a button. The recorded message that was broadcast to the ground, to the surrounding streets and for miles beyond was ‘Gooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaalllllllllll!’ Only much, much longer. Lasting what seemed to be several minutes, its enunciation might outlive even the restart by the away team. Initially provoking a wry smile, the ‘goal’ word pushed tolerance very quickly towards annoyance and finally to fury amongst the travelling support who would eventually turn, illogically, to the nearest loudspeaker and swear volubly at it. Fuck off indeed.

I had a hunch that the same employee was responsible for the selection of the ‘It’s A Knockout’ theme for the teams to run out to – a bit like some underachieving indie band choosing an irritatingly quirky retro TV tune with which to take the stage. I remember the programme well from the 1960s, mainly because watching it was the first time I recall experiencing embarrassment on someone else’s behalf (the programme-makers, not the plucky participants).

And I had to admit that when I looked again at my new love interest’s clothes there was something not quite right – red and white checks, like some kind of yuppie chess board, presumably to imply equal footballing status with the Croatian national team (or whoever it was whose shirt they’d copied) and to lend a cosmopolitan touch to the club in keeping with the vibrant cultural mix ‘on the street’.

But what really did it for me was an incident outside the ground a season or two later, an Alan Partridge moment born straight out of Spinal Tap, if that’s not too much of a genealogical stretch of the imagination. I was waiting for a friend, an O’s supporter, who in the end never turned up (he later flannelled that Chelsea had an equal hold on his affections anyway). It was a couple of minutes before 3 o’clock and I was about to cut my losses, write off my alleged mate and take my seat in the stand when a limousine pulled up outside a wide-open gate leading, via a tunnel, straight onto the pitch. Out stepped a short, scruffy, grey-haired man who shuffled down the dingy passageway to the half-way line, waved in desultory fashion and was greeted by a lukewarm round of applause. He (for it could have been no-one else) was announced (yes, by that man) as George Best. Even if they’d paid for nothing else, Leyton Orient had clearly laid on a posh car to allow the thirsty Irishman to raise his hand for a few seconds and then take his seat in the not particularly VIP area. Astonishing. Gratifyingly, the club, and especially the announcer, must surely have been crapping themselves silly that George Best would do a ‘George Best’ and join my friend in the ranks of the no-shows, having presumably been advertised as a matchday attraction. I justified my now rapidly-cooling ardour by rationalising that this was no way to manage a celebrity appearance, let alone a football club.

Taking an uncharacteristically logical approach to my complicated love tangle, I decided it was time to draw up an emotional balance sheet. When the accountants packed up and moved out I was relieved to see that Mansfield Town, by doing nothing much at all, emerged on the assets side, while Leyton Orient, offenders against several behavioural norms, were listed as a clear liability. That was that, then.

Next time I went back to Brisbane Road the away end I’d admired a few years before was gone for redevelopment. It was no longer there. Flats, apparently.

So, Mansfield Town. You and me, eh? My dalliance was never actually consummated, or more truthfully should I say I withdrew at the last moment? Either way, I didn’t inhale. Yes, there’s always the phone. And I must get round to sending that email. Wonder if they’ll have me back.

From → Stagsville

One Comment
  1. This is brilliant!

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