On Football and How It All Began
The Swansea City team were sunbathing on a beach in Majorca. The manager, John Toshack, was there, as was Alan Curtis and Ray Kennedy. I’m pretty sure that the two James’, Robbie and Leighton, were also on the beach, and think, but can’t confirm the presence of Bob Latchford.
But it would be a surprise if he was not.
My dad ushered me towards them. I was 9-years old, shy and reluctant to go, but I seem to remember them being nice to me and signing a plastic football that I’d been kicking around on the sand.
It was early in the summer of 1982 and football was dominating my thoughts. In a matter of weeks, the World Cup was taking place, in Spain — the very country I was currently in. It was the first World Cup that had captured my imagination. I’d been aware of Argentina, four years earlier, but as a five-year-old, the detail of it passed me by.
World Cup excitement had been building in school, Panini sticker books and exotic names. The holiday to Majorca. The banners and ads, football was everywhere. World Cup fever.
We were in Magaluf. My parents used to like Mano’s Bar, who had the gimmick of letting a live duck run loose through the bar at the same time every night.
I’m not sure why.
We met the Swansea football team on the beach.
A few months earlier, I’d been to see Swansea play. A day out with my cub scout football team. I was happily unaware how abnormal it may have been for Cardiff kids to head to the Vetch. In the morning we had a tour of the stadium, which amounted to a quick look in the changing rooms and a chance to run around the empty stands.
With my team mates I ran, full pelt, up one of the terraces. I didn’t see the steel crush barrier, head height, in front of me.
I felt it though, the immovable metal impacting forehead. A dull thud and a blinding flash in my eyes. Back then, as today, I loved cartoons — Looney Tunes, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Road Runner. The way little blue birdies would tweet around the head of a hapless toon, following collision.
I like to think this is what happened to me.
Probably concussed, definitely sporting a new lump, I was soothed back to some form of health by my dad, some chips and some ice-cream. It was the cure to many ills and injuries.
Swansea played Ipswich, both near the top of Division One, both with aspirations of winning the league. Both, ultimately, falling just short.
Toshack had inspired the Welshmen through four divisions with successive promotions: guiding them to the top of the first division.
Ipswich had won the UEFA Cup, challenged for the league, were packed with names I recognised. Eric Gates, Alan Brazil, John Wark.
Brazil swept Ipswich into the lead in the first half. I’d seen him do similar on Match of the Day. He was a poacher. A goalmouth predator waiting to snap up loose chances. If he’d been at school with me he’d have been the goal hanger we all despised.
The stands I’d run across in the morning, the terraces where I’d come a cropper not three hours earlier, were now crowded. A swaying mass of limbs and scarves, a din of white noise.
A Swansea corner led to a penalty; Robbie James fired it home to level the scores.
Gates won it for Ipswich in the second half. In my mind it was a screamer from about half a mile. In truth, a half volley smashed from the edge of the box, flying past Dai Davies to take the points.
Bob Latchford, Swansea’s centre-forward that season and who may or may not have been sunbathing in Majorca, later that summer, had played and scored in the first match I ever saw live.
Everton v Leeds, March 1978
We had family in Liverpool, a great uncle and aunt who owned a hotel in a less than salubrious part of the inner-city. Visits were often through my childhood, and always exciting.
We’d stay in a family room, my brother and I having the run of the house, making a fuss of Bender the dog, an old black Labrador. The porter, an aging Scouser who thought everyone was called ‘Lad’ would bring us tea on a tray in the mornings.
Football always had a part to play. On one occasion I saw Sammy Lee in the bar, and Terry McDermot was once in the car behind us at traffic lights. He waved at us, and my cousin, who was with us and had no footballing interest, later told her dad we’d seen Trevor McDonut, from Tiswas.
On one of our first trips to the city, my dad took me to see Anfield. I knew of Toshack and Keegan. I had no idea I’d one day share a beach with one of them.
Anfield was empty, save for a security guard at the gate. He told me he was a scout and would keep my name on file. I’m not sure I’ve ever been that naïve as to have believed him, but it was fun all the same.
The following day we went to watch Everton play Leeds at Goodison Park. I don’t remember it in great detail, my first ever experience of a live football match. Snippets of memories, flash images of my dad and my grandfather, sitting either side of me. Of big men in big coats in close proximity.
And a lot of noise.
Brief images of the players, the blue and white of the teams — nothing that I can grab hold of; no footage that I can call upon.
I know Everton won. I know Latchford scored.
Wales v England, 1982
You always want your home team to win. Cardiff City, however, were not doing much of it. I’d been to Ninian Park with my dad’s best friend earlier in the season, to watch them play Chelsea in Division Two.
The crowd was restless throughout and gloom settled in long before the end. Chelsea won 2–1. Cardiff would be relegated to Division Three at the end of the season.
My next trip to Ninian was in the spring. An evening match in the British Home Nations Championship: Wales v England.
There was greater buoyancy in the packed ground, a chance for little Wales to put one over the old enemy. It didn’t happen.
The match was tight, settled near the end by a Trevor Francis goal for England.
We walked back through Canton to get to the car, made the drive back to Rhiwbina, dad asking if I enjoyed it.
I did. I really enjoyed it. Not the result, so much. But being there, that felt special.
We stopped in the chippie on Caerphilly Road, bought chips and curry sauce that I ate with my mum and dad, late on a Wednesday night.
A school night.
Liverpool v West Bromwich Albion, August 1982
In 1982, football had my fullest attention. We were between Star Wars episodes and Raiders of the Lost Ark was a year old.
There’d been the Milk Cup Final on the TV. Liverpool v Spurs, Brian Moore setting the scene. Spurs took the lead through Archibald, Whelan equalised for Liverpool, taking the game into extra-time. Whelan’s second put Liverpool in front, Rush added a third and sealed the win. Ray Clemence in goal for Spurs, playing his former team. Liverpool’s new keeper, Grobbelaar, walked on his hands after the match.
Spurs got to the FA Cup Final as well, meeting QPR at Wembley. A 1–1 draw and a replay the next Wednesday. Hoddle scored a penalty, Spurs won 1–0.
The World Cup followed. It was every bit as good as I had hoped and the sport had me hooked.
By now, Liverpool were my team. I loved Rush, the Welsh centre-forward, loved Souness and Grobbelaar. But it was Dalglish I wanted to see the most. The magician who played differently to the rest. Who could see a pass that no one else could, who scored the impossible goals.
Our seats were in the Anfield Road end. Dalglish didn’t score, but his every movement mesmerised. He came close, turning a defender and rasping a left-foot shot that either hit the post or whistled just wide, the memory not sharp enough to recall exactly.
If ever a year can lay claim to being the one that inured me to a lifetime affair with football, then it would surely be 1982.
The year I went to Ninian Park and The Vetch and Anfield. The year I went to Majorca and met the Swansea team on the beach. The year of Espana ’82, international football and a cup sponsored by milk.
Liverpool won 2–0 thanks to goals from Sammy Lee and Phil Neal. A week later I started my second year of Primary School.
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