When football was ‘special.’

Of course it’s an age thing, but doesn’t everyone look back through rose-tinted glasses to wallow in a bit of nostalgia from time-to-time. The thing is though, that with all of the current unsavoury issues swirling around the game, there’s a distinct attraction to hark back to a time when everything seemed so much simpler. Systemic corruption, the ‘loadsamoney’ attitude at the heart of the game and unedifying equations about the relative importance of results and morals all conspire to make football a fickle mistress to fall in love with. Flaming passions tinged with infidelity. It wasn’t always so, however.

We probably all have particular moments that stick in the mind, when you first fell for football’s fatal charms. I know for my wife, it was the first time she emerged from the concrete and steel of Molyneux stadium, and saw the green sward laid out before her. For me however, it was when I was five or six I guess and used to go to with my Dad on a regular basis to watch Walsall, my local club. Strangely, it wasn’t the match itself, although I always enjoyed that of course. My most poignant memory however is actually of the journey to, but particularly back from, the game on the old ‘football special’ buses that ran from the town centre out to Fellows Park.

We used to live on the north side of Walsall, and had a bit of a walk to catch a bus into the town, walk five minutes or so the other bus station, and then queue to catch the football special out to the ground. This is where the magic started for me. Standing in the queue with so many other people – this is going back to the early sixties, so there wasn’t the propensity of private cars that there is now, and catching the bus was the de rigeur method of getting to the game – you became part of the event, rather than merely a spectator looking in from the outside.

Whether standing or sitting on the inevitably packed bus itself, there would be lots of conversations going on simultaneously with people dipping in and out different discussions as the subjects ebbed and flowed, but always swirling around the game ahead. Who would play? “No, don’t pick him, he was hopeless last time.” Aghast, others would reply that, “He’s the best player we’ve got.” My favourite player at the time was Colin Taylor, a left-winger with a howitzer for a left foot. Knowing this, my Dad would often comment that Taylor shouldn’t play, merely to provoke a reaction from me, and then conspiratorially wink at the others in the conversation as I argued. Everyone would laugh. Of course, i knew it was just a joke, but it meant I was involved. I belonged.

If the fifteen minutes or so of the journey to the game was full of expectation, the return one after the final whistle was better. Now the conversation was of all the things that had gone wrong, the open goal missed. The great saves, and how the opposition had managed to escape with a draw. Forget your Sunday Supplement on Sky with journos kicking around the issues of the hour. This was analysis at the coal face of the game. For all but a brief journey up and down and down and back up again, the football was distinctly Third Division – League One in new money, that is – but any lack of comparative quality was hardly relevant. This was Walsall, and you expected things not to be great. In a working-class Midlands town, it was staple fare.

As well as the sound of the conversation as you stood cheek by jowl, or cheek by by an entirely different type of cheek in my case as a young sprog, there was the heady smell of stale tobacco as cigarette smoke smoothed away the disappointment of more dropped points. This was of course in the heady days before the world knew that cigarettes were anything but therapeutic in reality. Then, piling out into the street as the bus arrived in Walsall. We then walked back to catch the bus back towards home.

These were much less crowded as the throngs exiting the football special dispersed in many directions. Now it was just me and Dad. Talking about the game. Complaining about this and that, occasionally exalting the rare moments of joy.

By now of course we were full of the opinions of others. “That bloke didn’t have a clue,” he’d say, and we’d both laugh – even though I wasn’t sure who he was talking about. But that didn’t matter. We’d been part of football. And I guess I have been ever since. Now, that’s ‘special.’

(This All Blue Daze article was originally produced for the ‘offsiderulepodcast’ website).

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