Archive for the ‘ football ’ Category

Football crazy, football mad

When I was a kid I daydreamed about turning out at Wembley in a cup final for my beloved Shrewsbury Town FC. In my dream I was the star player, a terrier-like midfield maestro in the mould of Steve Gerrard and, with the inevitability of daydreams, I would score a hat-trick, the last goal coming in the dying minutes.

I had it all worked out. I would make it into the team by being so incredibly good that the fact I was female would be overlooked, rule books would be torn up, and I’d be an icon for women players all over the world.

I was only nine at the time, so of course anything and everything was possible. After all, I was a regular in my school football team and was as good as any of the boys – so why not?

We didn’t have girls’ teams back then, when tackling from behind, elbows in the ribs, players turning up sozzled for a big match, and proper punch ups on and off the pitch were de rigeur. You either mixed in with the boys, or packed it in.

My fledgling career reached its zenith in the 1977/8 season, when my school team reached the final of the Shropshire schools cup. This was a BIG DEAL. We had a special assembly at school, a pep talk from the head, and a special pre-match meal. This had never happened before, so come the day we were all hyped and nearly sick with anticipation.

Best of all we were going to be watched by none other than Graham Turner. Graham Turner! Yes, I know, hardly a household name now, or indeed then. Before you bother to google his name,  he was Shrewsbury Town’s player manager during the greatest period of the club’s history, when we reached the giddy heights of Division 2 (when that meant second best division) and went toe-to-toe with high flying Ipswich Town and Manchester City in the FA Cup.

Anyway, us kids were convinced Turner would take one look at us and sign us up on the spot. Me and my best mate Tina Birch, the only other girl in our team, had no reason to think that couldn’t include us.

I was gutted when I was told I wasn’t in the starting 11. Truly gutted. It was probably my first real disappointment in life. I was going to be the sub though – in those days teams had one, not six. To my barely disguised delight, one of my teammates twisted his ankle in the first few minutes, so I got my chance.

I’d love to now regale you with my man-of-the-match performance, but strangely, the match itself is a blank. I have no memory of it at all. I do remember, though, that we lost. I vaguely recall trooping up to get my loser medal off Turner, and shaking his hand. He didn’t ask me along for training. Pah. His loss.

This was our team picture that year, taken by the local paper the Shrewsbury Chronicle in the school hall. That’s me, arms folded, middle row, second right, looking very much like the boy I longed to be.

The following term we moved house 12 miles away, but I continued to go to the same school, mainly because I had so many friends and loved all the sport I was playing, and had a kindly teacher living nearby who gave me a lift every morning.

That first week back, my football dreams came crashing down. I remember trooping off the school field after a lunchtime 50 v 50 kickabout, when I was called over by the sports teacher. He told me I wasn’t allowed to play for the football team any more and would have to try out for the netball team instead, ok? And then turned and walked off.

I was distraught, convinced it was because I was just not good enough. This point was reinforced when I told my friends I was out of the team, and one horrid kid (Colin Day, wherever you are, I remember it still) said I was indeed rubbish, and a stupid girl to boot, and the team would have won the cup if I hadn’t been in the team and ruined everything.

It was a couple of years before I learned the truth, when I reminded my mum of my distress at the time. She laughed and told me it had nothing to do with ability – my demotion was just because I was “developing”. Apparently it was becoming obvious that I was a girl not a boy, a fact of life that caused the school quite a bit of discomfort. In those non-PC times, they did the only thing they could think of – and booted me off the team.

A lot has changed since then, both in the way girls and women are encouraged to play football, and the way the game is played, watched and run.

Back in the 1970s football was a truly working class activity, and going to the game was part of the Saturday ritual for most men and their kids. There was hardly any football on the telly, so if you wanted to see players in action you had to go. There were downsides of course – the racist chants, hooliganism, heavy pre-match drinking and smashed up windows around the grounds were a horrid part of the game.

But everything seemed so much simpler. Managers and players were loyal to one club. Agents were hardly heard of. If you wanted to watch a match, you queued up for a ticket. The FA Cup was THE match of the season, when everyone (even my mum) would tune in from 9am to join in all the pre-match banter. We’d go shopping specially the day before to pick our match snacks and drinks.

My footballing idols were Liverpool players – Keegan & Dalglish. The club were champions of everything, except for when they got the occasional jolt from those upstarts at Nottingham Forest. My dad had a perm, telling his hairdresser Vic Breeze to make it “just like Kevin Keegan’s”. He gave Vic one hell of a row when he ended up looking more like Shirley Temple.

Dad and me would go to the Gay Meadow to see Shrewsbury Town most Saturdays – we even joined the away supporters’ club for a year and I used to sometimes be the only girl on a coachload of male, drink-fuelled supporters. They all looked after me, and would constantly tell each other off with drunken shushing if the swearing or talk about girls went over the top in my hearing.

I recall those childhood days with absolute joy. There’s nothing like being part of something, is there? I was part of a gang, the blue and yellow barmy army, the Gay Meadow Men (ahem). The terrace chant I remember most fondly was the “11 men went to mow, went to mow a meadow…” and shouting out “Spot!” at the right time. Sounds daft and stupid now, but being a kid, without inhibition, was just great.

Hard to imagine now, but in those days Shrewsbury Town were in the same division as the likes of Chelsea, Newcastle United and Sunderland, so we got to visit some real footballing meccas.

A few years ago, I made a brief attempt to relive those heady football-loving and playing days of my youth. I joined up with a local women’s team to get fit, played twice and then managed to tear the ligaments in my ankle during a training session. Too little, too late.

I still follow football, but it has long lost its capacity to make or break my day or weekend. I keep a watchful eye on the fortunes of Liverpool, and occasionally make it back to Shrewsbury to watch the Town in their fancy new Prostar stadium. But I’m not part of the gang any more – I’ve not earned that right.

So, talk about things coming full circle. Graham Turner is now back at the helm at Shrewsbury Town, after being summoned last season to halt a scary tumble towards the non-league. Town are now riding high in Division Two again, only this time it’s what I still know as Division 4.

And in a few hours time my old hero Kenny Dalglish will lead Liverpool out to play Manchester United in the FA Cup. It’s the first game for months that I am looking forward to watching from start to finish (mainly because it’s on terrestrial tv so I can actually see it). I’m even off to Sainsbury’s in a minute to get the snacks and pop in for the kids, just like in the old days. I’m no longer football-crazy, football-mad, but there are still moments in sport that I want to feel part of the gang again.