An Ordinary Spectator: 50 Years of Watching Sport – Extracts

Ticket to 1960s cricket international

These three extracts from An Ordinary Spectator: 50 Years of Watching Sport are taken from different “Ages” of my sports spectating.

In the first extract, I describe watching the Great Britain versus Australia rugby league international at Headingley in November 1963. I am nine years old and attending the match with my father and uncles.

…This was my first international match: Great Britain versus Australia in the third test. We had seats in the main stand, on the left side, just inside the 25-yard line, close to the concrete ramp down which the players made their entrance on to the corner of the pitch. The coaching staffs walked down the touchline in front of us to reach their respective benches on the half way line.

In the jargon of modern parlance, there was a “context” to this match. For one thing, Great Britain had enjoyed a highly successful tour of Australia in the summer of 1962 when, if not for a touchline conversion in the last minute of the third test, they would have won the test series 3-0. I had read about this tour so often in my Windsors Rugby League Annual 1962-63 (price two shillings and sixpence) that the pages had all come away from their binding. More relevantly, however, the Australians had already extracted revenge in the first two tests of the current tour, winning both games comfortably and scoring no fewer than 50 points in the second test at Swinton. This time, it was to be Great Britain’s turn to attempt to avoid the whitewash.

The game was one of unremitting ferocity, notwithstanding the stern discipline imposed by the referee, Eric Clay from Leeds, who sent off two Australians and the British prop, Cliff Watson. I remember sitting in the stand and being awed – and, it has to be said, somewhat frightened – by the violence of grown men.

In amongst this, however, the finer points of the game continued to be revealed to me by my father and uncles. I have a clear recollection of Vic pointing out that, in broken play, when the Australian backs threw the ball across the line, their forwards stood behind them, out of the way. He was implying that this allocation of responsibilities had been carefully pre-determined and that any forward slowing the action down by being part of the movement would incur his coach’s wrath.

The Australian backs had some talent, of course, one of the centres being the famous Reg Gasnier. I thought back to this match – and Vic’s tactical tutoring – many years later, when I read the first volume of Clive James’s autobiography, Unreliable Memoirs. James recounts, as a boy at Sydney Technical High School, being commandeered to provide practice opposition to Gasnier’s first grade schoolboy rugby side. Gasnier was “the brightest schoolboy rugby prospect in years…. He was all knees and elbows. His feet scythed outwards as he ran, like Boadicea’s hub-caps”. James’s account of his two brave attempts to tackle Gasnier provide a painful warning of the likely fate meted out to mere mortals by the rugby gods.

But, on that day at Headingley, Gasnier and his team did not prevail. The home side’s tackling was more effective than Clive James’s had been. Great Britain won 16-5 to avert the whitewash. The Australian frustration was demonstrated by one of their coaching staff who, walking back along the touchline to the exit from the field by the corner flag, threw the contents of a bucket of water over the celebrating spectators located in the section of the stand below us…

A page from a cricket scoring bookBy the age of 14 in 1969, I am an experienced cricket watcher, travelling across the county to see Yorkshire CCC in action. In this second extract from An Ordinary Spectator: 50 Years of Watching Sport, I recall three of the matches from that year and note a particular change in my spectating behaviour.

…Given Yorkshire’s lowly position in the county championship, it became evident that the key domestic match of the season would be the Gillette Cup semi final against Nottinghamshire at North Marine Drive, Scarborough. An added attraction was that Nottinghamshire were captained by the world’s greatest all-rounder, Garfield Sobers.

In those days, the road journey from Leeds to the east coast was a slow one, with traffic hold-ups guaranteed as the A64 wound its way through York and Malton. My friend Brian Stevens and I caught a full bus at a ridiculously early hour from Leeds City bus station in the confident expectation that we would be at the ground well in time for the start. And so we were. We arrived an hour before play began. The trouble was, so did thousands of other people, who now formed a long queue from the entrance to the ground along the main road and around the neighbouring Trafalgar Square. My recollection is that there was relatively little in the way of pre-sold ticketing for a match such as this. It was first come, first served, and, after our long journey, there was a clear danger that we would not get in at all.

In the event, Brian and I must have got two of the last available places before the gates were closed. We queued for two hours and eventually entered the ground an hour after play had started. We saw immediately that the rumours circulating outside had been true: Geoff Boycott was already out and Yorkshire were struggling. We found some space on the grass on the far side of the ground near the big white marquees that served as refreshment tents.

It was a fantastic day’s play. Yorkshire reached a reasonable score, though not an overwhelming one, thanks to some sensible batting by Phil Sharpe and Doug Padgett and a few big hits by the tailenders. These included a towering six from Don Wilson that I followed on its full trajectory, as it nearly disappeared into the sky and then, as gravity took its toll, plummeted to land somewhere between us and the refreshment tents. It was a magnificent strike, characteristic of Wilson’s potential for dangerous hitting, when, as a tall left hander, he would plant his right leg down the wicket and look to free his arms in a full swing.

Thereafter, the match hinged on whether Yorkshire could dismiss Sobers before he cut loose and won the game by himself. I watched entranced as Wilson bowled what appeared to be over after over at the great batsman, apparently tying him down for several minutes at a time with his accurate left arm spin, before Sobers would take advantage of a rare loose ball and send it crashing to the boundary. When Sobers was out, I thought that the roar would probably have been heard back in Leeds. The other Nottinghamshire wickets fell steadily – one to a running catch in the outfield by a young Chris Old – and Yorkshire had won. I could not have imagined a more perfect day.

Brian must have persuaded his parents that we had had a good day out at the Gillette Cup semi final because they offered to take us back to Scarborough for a John Player Sunday League match later in the summer. The opponents were Leicestershire, now captained by Ray Illingworth, who had left Yorkshire at the end of the previous season when, as was the norm for the county in those days, he was not offered the security of a contract lasting more than one season.

I watched Illingworth closely. He batted at number seven and made a quickfire 30. He bowled when he thought it was the right time and the Yorkshire batsmen would not score heavily off him. He positioned himself in the field so that he was not called on to do any acrobatic fielding. He switched his other bowlers cleverly and moved his fielders around so that the favoured scoring shots of the Yorkshire batsmen were cut off. Through his leadership, Leicestershire were always in control of the match and they won without being seriously threatened. Illingworth was the epitome of a professional cricketer, schooled in the Bradford League and the hard Yorkshire changing room of the 1950s, and, to me looking on from the stand, it showed…

…For our late summer holiday, my parents arranged to spend the week’s vacation in North Wales. We were scheduled to come back to Leeds on the Saturday morning, as usual. I spent most of the Friday evening trying to persuade them that it would be a good idea to set off very early – six o’clock in the morning would be about right, I thought – in order that I could make it back to Headingley for the start of the three day match against Somerset. My tantrums were to no avail. My parents were fairly down in the dumps after a rainswept week and a jellyfish-ridden beach in Rhyl and the last thing they wanted was to be hurried along by their impatient son. I spent the whole journey in the back of the car, looking at my watch and wondering how many overs I would miss: those up to the lunch interval, as it turned out.

The Somerset overseas player was someone I had never heard of, but I judged that he was clearly something of a demon with the ball, as he took seven wickets in Yorkshire’s first innings: he was a 21-year old Australian called Greg Chappell. His scores of 43 and 32 suggested that he might be able to bat as well.

The autograph hunting at this match was as productive as previous occasions: Chris Old, Doug Padgett, Mervyn Kitchen, Greg Chappell…. And the prize one of all, carefully written in blue biro: Geoff Boycott. I was ecstatic at this last capture, as Boycott’s mark was – supposedly – very hard to obtain directly from the man himself. After that: nothing. I think it is interesting, looking back, that the Yorkshire versus Somerset match was the last at which I collected any autographs at all. It was as if, by capturing the prime scalp of Geoff Boycott, some psychological threshold had been reached. As a result, the succeeding pages of the book have remained empty to this day. The next time I would see an autograph book would be exactly 30 years later, at Disneyland in California, when my children were excitedly holding their books and waiting in line for the marks of Mickey Mouse, Goofy and Pluto.

I can remember that, after the Somerset match was over, I knew that it would be the last one I would see in 1969, and that I was really disappointed that the season was about to end. There was an overwhelming feeling of anti-climax. When I got home, I worked out how many days there were until the beginning of the 1970 season – roughly, as the fixture list had not yet been published – and began the process of mentally ticking them off. I should think that this exercise lasted about three days: that is, until I had lost myself in the new rugby season and my attentions had turned elsewhere…

Ticket from England v Hungary football matchIt is the 1980s and I am living in London. The third and final extract from An Ordinary Spectator: 50 Years of Watching Sport describes three visits to major football matches in that decade. They left vastly different impressions.

In the first match, England played Hungary at Wembley in November 1981 needing a draw to qualify for the following year’s finals in Spain.

…It was a position that England scarcely deserved. In a five team qualifying group – also containing Norway, Romania and Switzerland – from which two countries were to gain automatic qualification, England had managed to lose three of their away fixtures. They had succeeded only in Hungary, where Trevor Brooking’s famous goal – in which the ball was left wedged against the stanchion at the back of the net – had put them on course for a 3-1 win. Fortunately, a series of favourable results amongst the other teams had left England – with 7 points from 7 games – able to move above Romania if they avoided defeat in the final match of the group.

The match programme contained the usual clichés. The England manager, Ron Greenwood, stated that “there are no easy internationals nowadays”, whilst the captain, Kevin Keegan, pledged that “England’s players are prepared to offer blood to achieve World Cup qualification tonight”. This provided the reassurance we all needed.

At no stage during the match did I feel that England would not succeed in qualifying for the finals. It was clear, almost from the outset, that this was not going to be a repetition of the Poland match in 1973, which I had watched on television, when England, needing to win, had fallen a goal behind and only drawn the match. Hungary, who had already qualified as group winners, never really threatened the England goal. When, after a quarter of an hour, the Hungarian goalkeeper made a hash of an England lob forward into the penalty area and Paul Mariner swept the ball into the net, the capacity crowd reacted as if the trophy itself was about to be lifted. I saw things rather differently: Mariner had merely confirmed the inevitable and put everyone out of their misery.

I reflected on these thoughts for some time afterwards. Perhaps I knew that the moment Mariner scored simply represented the start of a long period of unjustified hype about England’s chances in Spain. Perhaps, also, I recognised that I would find myself caught up in that hype and more than willing to go along with it. Certainly, when, seven months later, Bryan Robson scored in the opening half minute of the first group match against France, I was fairly confident that that augured well for England’s prospects in the tournament as a whole. However, I should have thought back to the second half of the Hungary match when, in steady drizzle, England missed several chances attacking the goal in front of me. One of these was when Mariner, set up by a neat Keegan dink, managed to head wide from six yards with an open goal and the goalkeeper absent. It was a portent of Keegan’s later – and crucial – miss against Spain in the tournament proper. Not for the first or last time in following the fortunes of the national football team in major competitions, disappointment followed, albeit at a safe distance via the television screen…

…It was a characteristic of the major football league matches in the 1980s that, on the vast majority of occasions, one could attend by simply turning up and paying at the turnstile, rather than having to order tickets in advance. A work colleague and I decided to go at such short notice to the Arsenal versus Manchester United fixture at Highbury in February 1985, thereby taking advantage of a flexibility which is largely not available today.

We stood in the massed home support on one of the touchlines and could feel the consistent and unremitting venom with which the United players were subjected whenever they came into our vicinity. I tried to make sense of it. When one of the visitors stood on our side of the white line to take a throw-in, it was not simply routine banter that was being tossed in his direction: it was an outpouring of hatred. My colleague was a Manchester United supporter, but he fortuitously kept his counsel when Norman Whiteside slid in front of the Clock End to score the winning goal for the visitors.

Late in the second half, a flow of urine – weakening, but still discernible – reached our tier of the terrace from its sources higher up behind us. My one and only visit to the old Highbury Stadium was a quarter of a century ago and those are the recollections that survive: the dark passions around me, the goal, and the emerging sensitivity about where exactly I was putting my feet.

A similarly casual approach to planning attendance at football matches occurred some time earlier, in May 1982, when I happened to be staying with friends in Bishop’s Stortford and one of them suggested – or, rather, pushed at the open door – that we go along to watch Ipswich Town play Nottingham Forest. With two games still to play, Ipswich were still in with an outside chance of that season’s league championship title, although this depended on Liverpool faltering in their remaining games, and they were widely admired by the soccer neutrals for the style of their play and their ability to match the bigger and wealthier clubs in the first division. Forest had won the European Cup in successive seasons in the late 1970s, of course. They were managed by the same Brian Clough whom the Leeds United programme of October 1969 had described as one of the most dynamic of the younger school of managers, having done “right well” at Derby County.

Ipswich fell behind, and their need to chase the victory became ever more urgent. On one occasion, the ball ran out of play and an Ipswich player ran to collect it to take the quick throw in. Clough saved him the journey. He leapt up from his spot on the bench and intercepted the ball and rushed over to throw it back to the Ipswich player. The Portman Road crowd in his vicinity politely applauded his sportsmanship. In the event, Forest won comfortably – 3-1 – and it looked as if it were they who were challenging for the title, rather than treading water in mid-table.

The quality of their play was exemplified by John Robertson. He hugged the left hand side of the pitch, taking up the ball as an outlet from his defence and midfield and relaying the ball inside to his supporting colleagues. I watched him closely for several minutes. He did not waste a pass: not one. Every time he received the ball, he used it to his side’s advantage, whether with short passes inside or more penetrating passes to his advancing midfield or forward players. I came away from the ground feeling thrilled – as I always have done – at seeing a professional sportsman at the top of his game…