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Don't talk to me about relegation battles.

My father came home from the war in November 1945. He was a complete stranger to me, having been away fighting the Germans and their submarines for almost 6 of the first 8 years of my life. I had been just a toddler when he had sailed off to war, and I had no memories of him.
 At first, our relationship was a difficult one, with both parties suspicious and jealous of one another, but Mums are shrewd, clever operators, and my mother was no exception to the rule.. She was soon busily building some bridges, and slowly but surely, Dad and I started to talk, like a father and son should do. We quickly discovered that we had one strong common bond...football.
There had been no professional football during my young life, but I was already football crazy. My vivid imagination had been fuelled by the hundreds of stories I had read in various newspapers; articles I had digested from the sepia coloured pages of old pre war books and magazines, and the numerous potted biographies of footballing celebrities, which filled the backs of cigarette cards. I had also been held spell bound and captivated by the grainy images of the many pre-war footballing heroes I had watched and studied intently on the flickering silver screens of the News Theatre, the Scala, the Embassy, or the Academy.


“The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away,” shouted Father Crehan from the pulpit of St Mary on the Quay church.
“The lord giveth,” whispered Granny Kelly, when I asked her for an explanation of Father Crehan’s words. She sat with her eyes closed, gently rocking in her chair, and praying silently as she clutched her rosary beads to her breast. I waited patiently, knowing that an explanation would eventually be forthcoming, and she didn't fail me. “It’s from the book of Job, and it means that everything we have has been given to us by Jesus.” She made the sign of the cross as she said the word ‘Jesus’ and I copied her, as I always did. “And the Lord taketh away,” she continued, after a short pause. “There are times in our lives when we are not using things for the reason we are supposed to, and the Lord takes them away. He takes them not as a punishment, but just to remind us that they are not more important than him. In his infinite wisdom and goodness he will then often give us something new to compensate.”

As I walked home along Eugene Street that night, with the echo of Granny Kelly’s words in my head and the rough touch of her whiskers still tingling on my cheek from the goodbye kiss, I suddenly understood what Granny and Father Crehan were trying to tell me. The Lord had taken away some of my meat ration, plus a piece of my bacon. The reduction in Mum's cooking fat ration meant he had also taken away my cakes and my pastries, but he had in return given me first cricket, and then football.

Cricket had resumed with almost indecent haste after the end of war celebrations. Within a week, thousands of excited spectators were queuing for admission to Lords to watch the first of five 3 day Victory Tests against a makeshift Australian X1. I had sat with my ears glued to the wireless, listening to the cultured middle class tones of Rex Alston as he described the closing overs before Lunch and the final overs of the day. Now it was football's turn.
"A gang of amateurs; Butchers, Bakers and Candlestick Makers, who have made a few bob and think they can run a professional football club," grumbled my father as he led me down Marlborough Hill, through the thick,swirling yellow fog, which was a frequent visitor to Bristol back in those day.Dad had just discovered that his beloved Eastville Stadium had been sold whilst he was away, and he wasn't best pleased with the Directors who had carried out the transaction.".They've flogged off the family silver and will, one day, lead us to relegation, and back out the Football League." 
 
It was 1st December 1945, and Dad was taking me to my very first professional game of football, at Eastville Stadium. After all those years apart, here we were; side by side; man and boy; father and son; setting off on a brand new adventure together. 

He left me in St James Churchyard, whilst he slipped into the Bay Horse for 'a pint'. I found a stone and dribbled it around the concrete covered park. I played an imaginary game,  as I passed the time waiting for his return. Kelly to Mathews, Mathews passes to Copping, Copping to Kelly, he shoots...GOAL!

Dad returned, belched, and then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Tradition," he explained. "One day you will understand."

The bus rattled and rumbled its way through the fog, and I was soon in unknown territory.
"Rover's ground, Stapleton Rd," shouted the bus conductor and as if by magic, the bus emptied. We were swept along Stapleton Rd in a sea of men, all wearing hats or caps, raincoats or overcoats, scarves or mufflers, and all, seemingly with a cigarette dangling from the corners of their mouths.
Dad put a restraining arm around my shoulder as we turned left at His Majesty's cinema and headed up the incline. We turned right when confronted by the iron gates of the Gasworks, and I felt and heard the comforting crunch of the cinders beneath the feet of the crowd. I also had my first whiff of that distinctive Eastville smell. Time and experience taught me that it was the intoxicating mixture of the Gasworks to the left, The River Frome to the right, and the inimitable stench of the Tote End toilets straight ahead.

My father guided me to the ‘Juvenile’ turnstile with instructions to wait for him on the other side. I suddenly felt alone, nervous and abandoned as I waited for what felt like an eternity, and it came as a relief when he finally emerged, bought me a programme, and then led me up a few steps to reach the terracing. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had just arrived at the famous ‘Tote End’. Visibility was poor, and we could barely see the far end of the pitch, but I could see enough, and the size and beauty of the stadium took my breath away.
“The Palace players have got lost in the fog. There are only 4 of them here,” announced a large man wearing a bus conductor’s uniform. As he spoke, the speakers boomed out a message that the start would be delayed. I decided the bus conductor was more knowledgeable than both my father and my cousin, Patrick.

“Kids coming over,” shouted a voice and some of the children in the crowd were passed over the heads of the crowd to the front. I declined Dad’s offer to do the same for me. I wanted to remain with the men. I particularly wanted to be close to the fat bus conductor, because he was clearly a source of good information. I wondered whether he had some form of hotline into the dressing rooms. “Any minute now,” he shouted and then I heard the Eastville roar for the very first time, as the players appeared from the tunnel to our right.

I carefully studied my programme, putting faces to numbers as the players warmed up. I was particularly intrigued by the name of the Crystal Palace number 9.  Fred Kurz didn’t sound very English. In fact, he sounded very German. My febrile imagination told me that he was probably a German spy. It didn’t take long for Jack Weare; the Rover’s goalkeeper to become my first live footballing hero. He was wearing a similar green, roll necked sweater to the one that my cousin Patrick always wore, and what looked like the same black woollen gloves. There was an air of calm assurance about the big man’s presence between the posts, and about everything he did. He was an island of calming composure and serenity in the middle of a stormy sea. Crystal Palace were wearing red and blue shirts. They did much of the early attacking, and I had a clear view of every move. Visibility was improving, but it mattered little, because most of the action was taking place right in front of me. But, however great the pressure, my hero, Jackie, was in control and I felt confident that Palace would never score.

“Windy!!!” shouted the crowd at the far end, and the bus conductor repeated the cry for us to follow suit at our end. Dad explained that this was a standard response to a visiting defender passing the ball back to his own goalkeeper. I was soon shouting out loud with the rest of the crowd, but couldn’t understand why the same course of action by a Rover’s player was always greeted with loud, prolonged applause. Despite all the pressure from Palace, it was Rovers who took the lead. We could barely see the far end, but we knew from the mounting crescendo of applause that Rovers were attacking, and then finally an ear-splitting roar signalled a goal.

“’Nobby’ Clark, I think,” reported the bus conductor as the back slapping, hand shaking players emerged from the mist, and I joined in, albeit quietly, as we all shouted “Well played ‘Nobby’.”
But, in football as in life, nothing good lasts forever, and yet again, a hero of mine turned out to have feet of clay. A harmless looking cross bounced into the Rover’s penalty area and Jack Weare,, hitherto my rock, suddenly turned into a hapless panicky juggler, and the ball into a piece of greasy soap. It fell eventually at the feet of a Crystal Palace forward who tapped it into the empty net. As he wheeled away in delight I realised it was number 9, Fred Kurz, the German spy. I promptly removed the unfortunate goalkeeper from my list of heroes and replaced him with Ray Warren, the captain.
Ray Warren wasn’t a big man, but he had a big heart, and it was a kind heart. I’d already noticed the encouragement he had been giving to our right back, who was struggling against the Crystal Palace winger. Ray was always there behind him, saving the day with a whiplash tackle, patting him on the bum or back and shouting instructions or encouragement to him. Now he was consoling his disconsolate goalkeeper in similar fashion.

Visibility deteriorated in the second half of the game, and most of the action was at the far end.
“Get rid of it,” was the constant cry from the bus conductor, and everyone echoed his advice apart from Dad, who was shouting “Keep the bloody ball.”

I stayed silent. I wanted to shout ‘Get rid of it,’ along with the majority, but I didn’t want to appear to be disloyal to Dad.

It ended 1-1 and the crowd streamed out of the ground. Dad led me across the road, gave me six pence and instructed me to “get off at the Horsefair, and buy a bag of chips. Tell your mother that I am going to the dogs, and I will be home later.”

Mum made a face when I gave her the news. “I hope he doesn’t lose all of his money. He’s promised to buy some new furniture.”
 It was the day, when I became a Gas-head. The day that I first stood on the Tote end terracing, and gave my heart and soul, and made my vow to Bristol Rovers. "I, Michael John Kelly, take thee, Bristol Rovers, to be my team, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for winning, for losing, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part, and accordingly, I pledge  myself to you."




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