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The Golden Winter

January 10, 2011

Football can play strange tricks with the memory. Not to mention the emotions, digestion, everyday equilibrium and spiritual well-being.

It lends itself to nostalgia just as easily as cricket or, as I get older, any other realm of human activity. If all my years so far have been formative, probably the most formative of the lot were my teens, which I spent in a growing state of resentment crossed with existential grouchiness in comfortable Chester. Much of that ill-will was based on the city’s very comfort, my anti-establishment ardour craving something a little more proletarian to match my misjudged self-image. The rest was founded on disappointment that it wasn’t London, which we left in late 1967 when my father got his ideal job.

My brother, my friends and I hitched ourselves to Chester’s fourth division football team (a poor substitute for the West Ham I’d left behind) and we became regulars at the old Sealand Road ground, now inevitably demolished.

And I recall a magical age of spring afternoons standing at the Kop end, squinting into the sun and marvelling at the skills of a legendary team: Terry Carling in goal, Edwards and Birks at full-back, hard-man stopper Barry Ashworth (‘Sir Barry Ash’ to the Sealand End), Graham Turner (later a very intelligent manager), Eric Brodie, two real wingers in Billy Dearden and Andy Provan, a Bobby Charlton-like baldie (Derek Draper) providing midfield inspiration, and lethal strikers in Eddie Loyden (or Gary Talbot) and the elfin Alan Tarbuck.

Great days, fondly remembered. Why then, do I also remember, and not at all fondly, trudging home once a fortnight vowing never to return after yet another mind-numbing 0-0 draw? But that’s nostalgia for you. It fixes the memory like a computer repair programme, so you’d never know it had been any different.

Fast-forward nearly thirty years and I’m a regular at Field Mill, alternating visits from my Worksop home to Mansfield with expeditions to the furthest reaches of small-town England, often for equally sterile goalless borefests. Rochdale, Carlisle, Plymouth, Southend, come on down…or, preferably, come on up, to Nottinghamshire, and save me the journey.

On balance I’ve enjoyed my time as a Stagsman. Ups and downs certainly, but one brief period in my relationship with the Yellows really was a golden age. It lasted from just before Christmas 1994 until early new year 1995, a matter of a couple of weeks at the most.

In charge of Stags at the time was Andy King (“he’s got no hair but we don’t care”), a maverick, a ‘character’, an enthusiast and, occasionally, a footballing inspiration. It was his first full season running a club and he’d assembled a team which, like those Chester gods of the late 60s, I can still reel off and see in my mind’s eye. Darren Ward, a brilliant young goalkeeper, Ady Boothroyd, later an up-and-coming manager, Ian Baraclough (ditto), Paul Holland the team’s engine, Lee Howarth and Mark Peters as solid centre backs, Simon (‘Fantasy’) Ireland, Steve Parkin, Kevin Noteman, and up front the brilliant and much-maligned Steve (‘Wilko’) Wilkinson and Stewart (‘Turbo’ because he could run quickly) Hadley. And, waiting in the wings for most of the season after being injured in a friendly, the magnificent Iffy Onuora.

And were they so great, or was I now still driving (instead of walking) home cursing the wasted time? No. They were. I’m not much given to quoting Spandau Ballet, but I know this much is true.

We started the festive period by hammering local rivals Chesterfield 4-2 on a bright, crisp Sunday morning. I was able to go to the Christmas meal with the theatre company I worked for boasting our talents rather than making excuses for supporting a bottom-division side. (Three goals for Wilko, by the way.) I spent the holidays in Kent and my combined Christmas and birthday present was a long-distance lift back to Field Mill to catch the game against Hereford. The weather was foul, with cold wind and lashing rain, and I took the pre-match precaution of planning the last leg of my journey home. There was, I was told, a ‘skeleton’ bus service from the town centre, which would mean leaving the match a few minutes early. The alternative was taxis at ‘silly’ prices. I decided on a sensible bus and left my luggage at the club shop.

Boxing Day was the start of what Glenn Hoddle, had he been aware of Mansfield Town’s existence, would have called the ‘O’Neill Donaldson Situation’. I, and the crowd of around 2,400, noticed someone warming up who we’d never seen before. Unaware that Kingy had just signed him on loan from Doncaster reserves, we knew nothing about O’Neill Donaldson, and I only learned his name when someone near me demanded to know of John (‘Doobie’) Doolan who the hell was he. We took his reply (“O’Neill”) to refer to a surname. Donaldson, although unknown and so far partially nameless, was instantly recognisable as possessing effortless class, and his name soon became official when several letters from it illuminated the malfunctioning scoreboard. He scored two goals on his Stags debut, but most memorable of all was a freak free-kick from Ian Baraclough. Planting the ball a few yards inside his own half, Baraclough aimed long and the ball sailed in for the most glorious goal I’ve ever seen at Field Mill. Reports refer to it being ‘swept in’ by the strong gust of wind, but believe me, it had plenty of momentum from Baraclough’s boot alone, and needed no intervention from the weather. 6-1, as I left to retrieve my luggage and head for the bus. Walking away from the ground I heard a seventh goal acclaimed and felt broadly satisfied with life.

In the ghostly town centre the skeleton bus service turned out not only to have no flesh but neither any bones whatsoever. It was, in fact, devoid even of a skeleton. I approached one of the ‘silly’ taxis drivers hovering like vultures for mugs like me, heard £50 mentioned and turned away to walk home. Mansfield to Worksop is about 15 miles, and with two suitcases, a strong wind, driving rain and a main road to negotiate (plus, apparently, a killer on the loose, a fairly regular Mansfield occurrence), this was going to be interesting. Staggering along the soggy, grassy stretch that boarded the A60, and half-heartedly gesturing at the few passing cars, I got home at nearly midnight, aching all over, frozen to my own (actual) skeleton, and feeling a world-weary sadness. By now I was broadly dissatisfied with life and looked forward only to tomorrow’s trip to Scarborough and dining out on the long walk experience for the rest of my life.

On 27 December I felt as I’ve only subsequently felt the day after running my first marathon. My limbs were like lead. Someone else’s lead, for that matter, and not my own. I caught the train to Scarborough, where the weather was no improvement on the Field Mill Boxing Day storm. On a North Yorkshire mudbath we won 5-2, with Donaldson adding another two goals and instantly acquiring hero status. So far that’s 4-2, 7-1 and 5-2. Far from believing that it couldn’t last, I could never see it ending. Kingy’s boys were playing glorious, flowing football and, for the sake of a classic football cliché, scoring goals for fun.

So could it last? Barack Obama would have said yes it could. And he would have been briefly right. Next up were Barnet, the following Saturday, easily despatched 3-0 at home with, inevitably, another two goals for O’Neill Donaldson. The spell was only broken when, being early January, the third round of the FA Cup dropped in at Field Mill. Graham Taylor’s powerful Wolves team recovered from being two goals down to win the match, but still Donaldson managed his seventh goal in five games.

The end was near, and Kingy, realising that other football managers read the papers and word gets round, knew that Donaldson, as a loan signing, still belonged to Doncaster and wouldn’t be grubbing around the fourth division (or whatever it was called by then) for much longer. And that Doncaster, if they had any sense, would soon be a bit less generous in what they were lending out to their rivals. We knew the game was up when he started belittling O’Neill’s contribution in the papers and playing down his form. So, Andy King, seven goals in five matches – not quite good enough? Donaldson went to Sheffield Wednesday, where I hope he earned the money he deserved, and spent the next few years in their, rather than Doncaster’s, reserves. I just can’t help feeling…

The Golden Winter became the Silver Spring. There were great moments then too, when Onuora finally recovered from his broken foot and put in some storming performances which combined the delicacy of a ballet dancer with the brawn of a bulldozer. That team scored 100 goals for the season before losing to Chesterfield (yes, them!) in the promotion play-offs. In the second leg two Stags were sent off and we went down 5-2 in extra time as I, and many others, wept not just for the defeat that night, but for what we knew would follow. Ady Boothroyd threw his shirt into the crowd, and they were gone. The team was broken up, the best talent sold off, and it was back to square one next August. Well, that’s football, Brian.

Any regrets? Any what?

From → Stagsville

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