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Going to the match

(Written on 3.2.16)

Fifty years!

Even if you read it quickly it sounds like a lifetime – and it is.

And yet, my recall of a Saturday fifty years ago yesterday are as vivid now as if they were last season – and it never ceases to amaze me how formative are our teenage years.

What follows will read like a museum piece to anyone under fifty, and yet its influence, its impact, are as strong in me today as they were at the time, when, as a fourteen year old schoolboy, I got ready for the 4th Round of the FA Cup – Southport v Cardiff City at Haig Avenue.

I must have looked at the ticket a hundred times – gold and black writing on white card, my old gold and black scarf and bobble hat were ready, the rosette and the wooden rattle in place. I don’t think I got much sleep that week, school was a blur, and, for once, my Blues and Reds pals couldn’t patronise me.

I’d been going to watch Southport for two seasons now and live football had a grip on me which has never faltered, indeed, it’s been a constant in my life. This match would play its part in cementing that love of ‘going to the game’, but how was I, with all my teenage obsession, to know that this cup tie would live with me for a lifetime?

I cycled to the match, from Birkdale, and, after crossing Cemetery Rd, travelling down Southbank Rd, Cedar St, and Everard Rd, the number of bicycles steadily mounted, till there would be over a hundred, I suppose, all heading for Haig Avenue.

We left our bikes leaning against trees around the circle of grass in the cul de sac at Beatty Rd, just off the Avenue. The grass circle is still there, but I’d say you would rarely find bikes there on match days these days.

Approaching the ground, the turnstyles were separated by a red corrugated iron fence, the long, low, back wooden stand was overshadowed by four of the towering floodlights, less than a decade old and still state of the art for a lower league side. The street was teeming with supporters – over 14000 would be in the ground to day in a season where 5 or 6000 would be considered a top attendance figure.

Once inside, it was a queue at the tea hut. In all my life, the only time I have ever taken sugar in tea was at Southport games – you didn’t have much choice, and the wags said it helped counter the shock at watching some of the team’s displays!

To this day, the taste of sweet tea and the scent of pipe and Woodbine tobacco smoke in my nostrils remains, and it says: “Haig Ave”!

The ground is covered on three sides, and the terracing is one of the most impressive in the third and fourth divisions. When the Port win the toss they shoot towards the Blowick End, so as to attack the Scarisbrick End in the second half.

In those days, the supporters changed ends at half time, and so I found myself, marvelling at the tight packed terracing around the ground, the stand and paddock crammed full, on tiptoes, on the black compacted earth banking, about ten yards behind the Blowick goal for the kick off.

Though it wasn’t a particularly cold day, I was shivering with excitement.

I couldn’t know it, but I was in the perfect position for two of the greatest goals in Southport’s history and their moments have stayed in my head, freeze framed from a different age.

From the first few minutes, it became apparent that Southport were doing well. Cardiff seemed out of sorts, their keeper, Lyn Davies, dressed all in white, was soon muddied with the diving saves he had to make. Eventually, he failed to hold a shot from local man, Colin Alty, and there was our hero from Seaham, local PE teacher and record goal scorer, Alan Spence, suffering from flu all week, to pounce and hit the first goal. For us at the Blowick End, it was like slow motion – the bounce, his approach, his kick and its progress into the net. We had all gone up on tiptoes to see the ball cross the line – and then we were up in the air, shouting with joy and relief.

The second goal, unbelievably, yet somehow inevitably, arrived. A classic cross from my hero, Alex Russell, and Ron Smith jumps, hovers, makes contact and we have again what seems like minutes to wait for it to bounce and cross the line, just inside the post.

To be honest, the rest of the game is more of a blur. The second half was spent in a packed and celebratory Scarisbrick End – and all the tunes were belted out. “Ay yi yi yi – Reeves is better than Yashin, and Russell is better than Eusebio and Cardiff are in for a thrashing!” “From the shores of the River Ribble, to the banks of Fine Jane’s brook, we will fight fight fight for Southport…” “E for B and Arthur Peat!” “Alex Russell Hallelujah Hallelujah!” “Attack attack attack attack attack!” “Ooh it’s a corner, ooh it’s a corner!” “Southport FC they’re the team for me…”

At the end there was the race on to the pitch, looking round at the celebrations, and perhaps the dawnings of a realisation that I would never forget this day.

When folk talk about our “formative years” they seldom detail exactly what they mean. But that win against Cardiff was formative for me as a lifelong football supporter – so when I met Alex Russell and Eric Redrobe (who signed the following season) a couple of years ago, I was a teenager again – with a hug for Big Red and tongue tied in the presence of Alex Russell.

More than that, the thrill of live football – at whatever level, was established for me – as immeasurably better than 100 camera angles, fancy slow-mo and puffed up pundits. There is no substitute for being there – and Southport at Haig Avenue live would always be better than Barca v Atletico on television.

And that team of Bingham’s Boys shaped my reactions to footballers for ever. A loyal and sturdy “one club man” will always be compared to Arthur Peat, silky inside forwards all operate in the shadow of Alex Russell, prodigious goal scorers have to measure up to Alan Spence, is that winger as tricky as Ron Smith, and local heroes always bring to mind Colin Alty. And was Brian Reeves, unusually bearded at times, the first hipster goalie??? I loved that team as only a teenaged fan can do and I’ve never really lost that feeling. They brought so much joy to a fourteen year old and established a life long love of going to the game. I owe them a lot.

If you feel I’m writing with the rose tinted spectacles of nostalgia, consider this: In the mid sixties I could have seen Law, Best and Charlton at Old Trafford, Howard Kendall, Derek Temple and Roy Vernon at Everton or St John, Hunt and Callaghan at Anfield – but I chose to go to Haig Avenue and watch Bingham’s Boys.

And I’ve never regretted it. Thanks lads!

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