Peacetime and football. Up the Gas.
To his credit, my father tried hard to develop a relationship; he tried hard to engage me in conversations, but I was having none of it. I always blurted out some lame excuse and made a rapid escape out of the front door. Undaunted, he persisted and finally found a weakness in my defences. He discovered my love of football. He was a good story teller after a few beers, and I had an insatiable thirst for football history and knowledge. It wasn’t long before I was curled up at his feet, in front of the fire, whilst he filled my head with stories about his beloved Bristol Rovers.
He told me about the very first game Rovers had played in the Football League. He told me about the great players of the past. He spoke with pride about the men he called the five ‘Macs’ who played for the club in the 1930s. He whispered their names in almost reverential awe; James McCambridge, Robert McKay, George McNestry, John McLean and Wally McArthur. His biggest hero was clearly the goalkeeper, Jesse Whatley. Listening to Dad, Jesse must have saved every penalty ever conceded by the club. He promised me he would shortly take me to watch a game at Eastville. I didn’t wholly trust the stranger, but on this occasion he was as good as his word, and I didn’t have to wait long.
It was Saturday, the first day of December 1945; an occasion that will long remain in my heart and my memory. The day was a cold, grey and misty one. Mum had ‘wrapped me up nice and warm’, and I was wearing my navy blue raincoat and my black cap. Dad was anxious to get going, but Mum was fussing around me, making sure everything was covered up and that I was wearing a vest to protect my sickly chest. Finally we got moving, ventured out into the thick fog, and set off down the hill. It was a special moment; man and child; father and son; side by side; not quite shoulder to shoulder, although I did try briefly to match strides with him. I soon gave up on that, and I relaxed, determined to savour every moment of our very first adventure together.
The fog was growing thicker by the minute. “I don’t like the look of this,” muttered Dad, and then he went off on what had become a familiar rant about the Directors. “They are a crowd of Butchers, Bakers and Candlestick Makers, a crowd of amateurs who’ve made a few bob and think they can run a professional football club.” Dad grumbled away as we made our way gingerly down the hill. He had just discovered that Rovers had sold the ground at Eastville to the Greyhound Company, and were now the tenants instead of being the Landlords. “They’ve sold the family silver. One day they will lead us back out of the league, into bankruptcy and then oblivion.”
He was still grumbling under his breath as we crossed Marlborough Street and then carried on down Whitson Street. He paused awhile as we reached the Haymarket before leading me into St James Churchyard.
“I am just popping into the Bay Horse, for a swift half. Stay here and wait for me.”
I found a stone which I dribbled around the park. “Kelly to Lawton, Lawton to Mathews… here comes the cross……Kelly shoots…Goal!!! We were winning 5 - nil by the time he returned, and then we scrambled aboard the bus that would take us to Eastville. The bus bumped and rumbled its way slowly over the cobblestones and through the fog. It wasn’t long before I was out of my comfort zone and lost in completely unfamiliar surroundings.
“Stapleton Road - Rovers Ground,” shouted the bus conductor. The crowded bus emptied in a flash, and we were now being swept along the road in a sea of men, all wearing hats or caps, raincoats or overcoats, scarfs or mufflers, and all, seemingly, with a cigarette dangling from the corners of their mouths. The air was heavy with the buzz of excited adult conversations and many frequent bouts of coughing. Dad placed a reassuring hand on my shoulder as he guided me around the corner at His Majesty’s Cinema. He then took my hand and held it firmly for the first time as we marched up the incline. The gates of the Gasworks appeared out of the mist and we turned off to the right into the car park. The cinders beneath our feet crunched reassuringly, and for the first time I experienced that very special smell. I was to learn in the fullness of time that the smell was a heady mixture of the Gasworks to the left, the River Frome to the right, and the inimitable scent 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 wild 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 calm, 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. 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 roars 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 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 of calm authority 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.”