There were a number of St George flags hanging in windows and off cars as the Leek bus came through Sneyd Green tonight. The air of expectancy hangs heavy as our boys set off for South Africa and their destiny in the World Cup.
I was thinking as the bus weaved its way up Ralph Drive of what it was like on a similar estate Abbey Hulton 44 years ago when we won the Cup. I cannot recall much triumphantism. No St George flags, no dancing in the streets. I did my 11 year old bit by reading a book about Agincourt, “on, on. You noblest English” I am imagine people were pleased, but not the orgasmic celebration that will almost certainly occur if Rio Ferdinand lifts the trophy on the 11th July.
When did the St George Flag flying start? I would pin it down to Euro 96. I don’t recall it in 82, or 86 or even much in 90. And what do I put down the discovery of the St George Flag. It’s a hunch but it’s probably a response to devolution for the Welsh and the Scots and also a reaction to Europe.
I mention 1990 when famously Gaza shed those tears. The match before that England played Cameroon and overcame the Africans mainly through Lineker’s penalties. It was hard fought and the game flowed backwards and forwards. I was watching the match in the Westend in Oakhill with my brothers. At some point a group of Vale fans came in an engaged in racist grunting at the Cameroon team. One of my brothers challenged them and pointed out (a) England had black players in the squad such as Walker and Parker, and (b) Vale had black players such as Earle and Beckford. A fight nearly broke out and I recall on of the Vale supporters in an attempt to sound reasonable say what would I think if I discovered my wife in bed with a black man. I said that I would be upset irrespective of his skin colour. Psychologically it probably said it all. The Valeites left before England equalised and then won the match.
If anyone things I am making an anti white point here I should point out that approximately 40 miles away friends in a pub in Wolverhampton witnessed Sikhs engaged in the simian- like chanting against the black players.
Racism is largely controlled in football especially in the Premiership although I noticed a couple of years at Yeovil in a cup-tie against Liverpool when black players were abused. On continental Europe in Spain and in the countries that made up Yugoslavia it remains endemic. Although I have only been to Stoke twice in recent years- the cost being prohibitive- I think that racism has largely been tackled. It was not always so at Stoke and the bigger grounds. In the 1994 I heard monkey noises made at Beckford who was playing for Oldham at the time. And when Stoke beat Stockport in the Auto Glass Final two years earlier the tedious coach journey was not improved by some of the victorious fans abusing any Asian driver they saw on the motorway.
The experience of black players also mirrors the changing climate. When I did the “Port Vale Tales ” project I read of former Vale player Mark Bright’s experience playing for Crystal Palace at Newcastle when a stall at St James’s sold bananas to fling at black players. Garth Crookes when playing for Stoke in the late 70s also wrote in his autobiography a similar experience at Liverpool.
The manager of Stoke in the 60s Tony Waddington once called football “the working class ballet” and from my trips in my youth down to the Victoria Ground I saw some of the best practitioners. When the Hungarian Puskas died the Guardian writer David Lacey called the “galloping major” as one of the 5 greatest players one of the last 50 years along with Pele. Cryuff, Best and Maradona I saw three of the greatest at the Victoria Ground with the exception of the “hand of god” fellow and the Dutchman. I also saw the Russian Yashin, the Frenchman Kopa and veterans like Wally Barnes and Wor Jackie Milburn play in the veterans match prior to the World X1 playing in the Matthews Testimonial in April 65. I think I am blessed to have witnessed this..
I will watch the World Cup and reveal in it as a spectacle. I will want England to do well, but do not expect them to win. I have the English cynicism too much at my core. I am reminded the last time in the quarter finals against the Portuguese when Ray Winston read chunks of Henry V at the squad unfortunately the team behaved too much like the foppish and vain French ” see how the sunlight glints off my armour” than the yeoman English.
However I will reveal in the competition, as it will reconnect me with my youth especially that wonderful Brazil team of 1970 and such memories! The save of Banks, the amazing dummy that Pele sold the Czech keeper, the attempt on goal from the halfway line and Carlos Alberto’s goal- the 4th- against the Italians in the final.
Football does not, I think, produce the greatest sports writing, that honour probably goes to either Boxing or Cricket and its probably the famous lines by Thompson that sum up the pull that sport even cynical and world-weary, despite all its faults, still has over me. And it is an antidote to all the crass, tabloid generated nationalism that we will be subjected to in the next month.
“For the field is full of shades as I near the shadowy coast,
And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost,
And I look through my tears on a soundless-clapping host
As the run-stealers flicker to and fro,
To and fro: -
O my Hornby and my Barlow long ago!”