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A rude awakening

There was a time when bad news which occurred overnight was not transmitted by your radio alarm, or your first bleary glance at Twitter on an iPhone.

When I was a child, thank God, there were only a few incidents of my being woken by bad news, and none of them involved the family or people to whom I was close.

However, that didn’t mean they lacked impact, and probably the biggest moment came fifty years ago today in December 1966 – when my mother woke me to tell me that the grandstand at the local football club had burnt down.

My family, from Edinburgh, were long time football supporters, our team being Hibs, but when I was five, my dad died and we ended up in Southport, twenty miles north of my Everton supporting mother’s hometown, Liverpool.

By the time I was eleven I had started watching Southport FC in the old Fourth Division, and I seldom missed a game at the compact but atmospheric Haig Avenue ground.

In 1966, most football grounds, at all levels, were little changed since the war years. In the late 40s attendances had been sky high, but the local businessmen who owned and ran most clubs raked in the money without much thought of spectator comforts.

Given its position in the footballing food chain, and its perennial struggle to compete with the nearby giants in Liverpool and Manchester, Southport’s ground was relatively well appointed.

There was covered terracing behind one goal and all along the “popular side”, an open cinder and earth banking behind the other goal, and a 2000 seater grandstand along the other touchline. So, with three sides fully covered and a capacity of around 20,000, it was one of the better lower division grounds.

The “Grandstand” was probably the least impressive part of the ground. Long and low, wooden, and with tarred felt over its roof, it betrayed its origins as a showground stand which had been purchased and brought to Haig Avenue in the early years of the century – with additions and extensions made later.

Cramped dressing rooms, offices, a tiny gym and cupboard space were huddled beneath sloping wooden ceilings. Supporters sat on wooden bench seats – although Directors in the central area had individual seating. In front of the structure, there was standing space, known as “The Paddock.”

Though when it is viewed now it almost seems Victorian in its simplicity, there were a good few similar structures around in the football league in the mid sixties – and Southport’s stand would have attracted little adverse attention.

The team’s fortunes had long fluctuated, but I would be lucky in that my ten years spent in Southport would be the best decade in their history, and in 1966 they were on a bit of a high.

Billy Bingham, ex Everton and Northern Ireland, had been appointed as a young and ambitious manager in June 1965. It’s fair to say he had galvanised the club and raised high interest in a town which was traditionally quite ambivalent towards its football team. In his first year, he had taken the club on a cup run, with victories over Division 2’s Cardiff and Ipswich before bowing out in the fifth round at Hull City in front of a crowd of almost 39,000 in March 1966.

Now, in the 66-67 season, the team had their eyes firmly set on promotion from the fourth division for the first time. By Christmas, they were solidly in the top four, fighting it out with Stockport County, Barrow and Tranmere Rovers in a northern battle, though Southend and Wrexham were not far behind.

Because of that, there was a bigger crowd than usual in the ground for a tough game v Wrexham on Boxing Day 1966; victory was imperative and “Bingham’s Boys” were expected to do the business. So some 8,307 attended the game that day, around 3000 more than the average attendance – swelled, no doubt, by holiday visitors, and travelling support from Wrexham.

It was a dour game which Southport deservedly won by 1-0. Strangely, I can clearly remember thinking how packed the main stand and paddock looked that day – even more so than for the Cardiff game months previously, when over 14,000 were packed into the ground. It was just an innocent thought, not a foreshadowing of disaster.

Pictured during Southport’s 1966 Cup game with Cardiff City – the dimensions of the old stand can be seen – as well as the nature of crowding.

Delighted by the result, I headed home for a family meal. As is always the case around Christmas, what with the food and excitement, I slept well that night.

So I struggled a little next morning when I realised my mother was at the door of my bedroom and saying something. This was not unusual during school term time, when occasionally cold water from a face cloth had to be flicked at me to get me to come to consciousness, but normally in holiday time, I was left to rise at my own discretion.

She was saying something about Southport. WHAT?

“Southport’s stand has burned down.:”

Far removed from the modern trend of ‘citizen journalism”, there was no hope of “live video” or rolling news coverage; at that point, apart from the ship based pirate stations, there was little that could be called local radio. It had been a two line item on the “national” radio news – no details, no explanation.

It was one of those moments which, in retrospect, highlights the innocence of youth. As we grow, we learn from experience, and when something extraordinary happens, we eventually have a library of emotional reactions from which to pick our response. At 14, I had never been faced with such news, my father’s death coming at an age when I was too young to fully react. Distant disasters happened – JFK being shot, my favourite footballer, John White, had been struck by lightning two years before – but I was detached from these events, they happened to other people, and elsewhere.

This had the alarming content of being close to home – geographically and emotionally. I had sat in that stand, I was at the ground every week, I had been looking at it only hours previously – how could this happen? What had happened? When did it burn down? All questions which twitter would answer in a flash today, but, in 1966, these thoughts were buzzing like wasps round my head as I got dressed and went downstairs.

There were no more answers, and so I acted on the most human of impulses, got on my bike, and cycled the couple of miles to the ground. I had to see what had happened to understand it.

As I pushed the pedals along familiar streets, following my Saturday route to the game, I tried to make sense of it. It should be remembered that disasters and mishaps at football stadia were not as pronounced in the fans’ psyche as they are now. There had been tens of people killed at Ibrox Stadium in 1902 and at Bolton’s Burnden Park in 1946 when walls or terracing collapsed, but I knew nothing of that. It was linking fire and football and my club’s ground that was so difficult – and I had no idea what I would find when I arrived at Haig Avenue – around 11.30, which would be around six or seven hours after the fire had been discovered.

There is a short ITN news film clip which shows the aftermath of the fire. In the foreground there is the 14 year old me, and even though the shot is from behind, it’s possible to identify the stunned nature of my reaction as I stand looking through what would have been the main entrance to the stand but which now allowed a view straight across the pitch to the terracing on the far side. I can’t remember the cameras being there, so it was quite a surprise to come across the film clip some forty years later.

To the left of the picture, my bike forgotten, as I gaze across the pitch, trying to take in what has happened

Basically, the whole structure was reduced to ash, apart from a handful of charred beams, a few bits of twisted corrugated iron, and an old fashioned metal safe which stood about seven foot tall in the middle of the devastation. Manager Bingham, and Chairman, John Church, were next to it, examining it, no doubt wondering how to access the contents, as the heat of the fire had fused it shut. There was a smell of burning and brokenness; though the day was damp, clouds of ash were raised by any movement; there was a rumour of heat about the place despite the firemen’s damping down of the site. It was scary to see a substantial structure reduced to this, a reminder that appearance is not always everything.

All that was left on the morning of December 27th 1966

Children are resilient. I had an initial fear of what this might mean for the future of the club, but that was very quickly replaced by a consideration of how it would affect our promotion challenge. The idea that the club might be threatened with extinction was too huge to be tolerated for long – at least for this 14 year old supporter. It never occurred to me at that point that everything had been lost – legal papers, kit, boots, training gear, records, and administration details.

I wandered round the scene of devastation for half an hour or so – the kind of access which would be unheard of today – and then cycled home, hopeful of more news about the impact of the disaster.

News trickled through – Chester had donated a full kit for the team to play in, and for one game, white shirts with thin blue stripes replaced the familiar old gold. Other clubs and organisations rallied round. The local school at Meols Cop, a hundred yards from the back of the terracing, would provide changing rooms, and it emerged that the club would be able to fulfil its fixtures. Fund raising events were organised and it was announced that a new stand would be built and that the club would be attempting to raise £70,000 pounds towards its construction – a huge amount of money in those days for a club of such thin resources. Luckily and coincidentally, one of the Directors ran a building firm, who would be responsible for the work. Meantime, two temporary scaffolding stands were erected for the Directors and season ticket holders.

All’s well that ends well they say, and at the end of the season, Southport were promoted in second place amongst scenes of great joy and relief. A cup to recognise their strength and perseverance was presented after the game by comedian Eric Morecambe, a big football follower, who happened to be performing in the town – a bizarre moment on the scaffolding edifice.

Next season, Southport performed well in the Third Division, and had gone from having one of the oldest to the most modern stand in English football – at least for a short time.

A modern stand rose from the ashes

Of course, it is generally in retrospect that such events gain impact.

It was probably only when I saw those horrifying pictures of the similar stand at Bradford City’s Valley Parade ground burning fiercely during a game, nineteen years later, that the awful possibilities about the Haig Avenue fire really hit me. 56 died and nearly 300 were injured at Bradford. Given the lack of fire resistant materials in the early 60s and the crowded and constricted nature of Southport’s old stand, the possible casualties at Haig Avenue had the fire started during a game could have been of truly awful dimensions.

It emerged that the old structure at Haig Avenue had been under insured, and, even now, when people complain about the “nanny state” with all its Health and Safety implications, I can’t help wonder how many unregulated football grounds in those days came close to disaster without realising it. Certainly, the ground regulations which have emerged since Bradford and Hillsborough have transformed our grounds and limited the chances of further disasters.

When the Bradford fire was blamed on a dropped cigarette dropped through the wooden boards and on to accumulated rubbish below, many seized on that as a possible cause for the Southport fire – which had never been fully explained. There are, however, various reasons why this seems less likely at Haig Avenue: the construction of the stand, the time it took to smoulder, the ferocity of the fire at some points and not others.

In the end, it is all past history, and, thanks to good fortune, what might have been a defining moment in my life – I can’t imagine any who were at Valley Parade on the day of their disaster can ever get the sights or sounds out of their mind – has become an interesting footnote in my childhood.

For all that, it is still a big memory in the context of my football supporting life, and the promotion which Southport achieved against all the odds that season. Who knows? Perhaps the misfortune hardened their resolve and increased support for the club when they needed it most.

As has been pointed out, it was, in some ways, a fortuitous moment for disaster to strike. The club was on the up and had a positive aura around it; financially it was in a better position than most years. A year or two in either direction and the decision may have been taken to wind the club up as a financial basket case – not something that really occurred to me as a teenager.

Four years later, I was back home in Edinburgh at university and have remained here ever since. Hibs have reclaimed the foreground in my footballing affections, but, in the time honoured phrase, Southport’s result is still the first I look for, I watch them whenever I can, and I still feel very close to that 14 year old on his bike, heading towards Haig Avenue, full of doubts and questions about what had happened overnight. The players I idolised during those seasons are still heroes to me. When I met two of them – Eric Redrobe and Alex Russell – at Haig Avenue a couple of years ago, I was as star struck as I would have been in 1966. As a 14 year old, you are far more wrapped up in your life than during your later, busier, years. Southport FC were a big part of that life.

With perfect recall of that day and its events, it’s hard to credit it’s all of 50 years ago today.

I suppose it was an early lesson in not taking things for granted, and, on reflection, an indicator that there is a thin line between mere bad luck and absolute disaster.

Southport played Wrexham on Boxing Day again this year – although away from home. When they return the visit at the end of this week, I wonder how many of the older Southport supporters will glance at the once modern, now established, main stand, and think of December 1966, and how close we came to a nightmare.

And, because, ultimately, football supporting is a sentimental pursuit, I am sure the echo of those feet banging on the old wooden floorboards of the original stand will be hovering over the ground. As ever, we’ll be wondering – is it approval of the team’s play, or merely a desperate measure to offset the cold?

Enjoy the game, whoever you support!

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