Whereas I watched very few cricket matches, I was a keen Nottingham Forest supporter during my years at Grammar School and from 1960 I watched every game played at the City Ground, including the strange encounter with New Zealand, who were seeking to improve their national football side, and which Forest won 8-0. Looking back, I think one reason that I liked watching football live was that, unlike cricket, one could get very close to the action. The City Ground was small, with a capacity of around 33,000, and by arriving early and getting to the front row behind a low concrete barrier I was within a few feet of players on the side of the pitch. Forest had won the FA cup in 1959; we had just bought a TV, still comparatively uncommon, and several neighbours piled into our living room to watch the game. So excited was I by the result that I watched the whole TV replay on the Sunday afternoon.
My heroes included Geoff Vowden, our centre forward, who scored a lot of goals with his head; Billy Gray, left back, who was a specialist at long free kicks, scoring a couple of goals that ‘bent it like Beckham’; Peter Grummitt, our under-23 England goal keeper; and ‘Flip’ LeFlem whose mazy runs down the left were reminiscent of George Best. My supreme hero, however, was Bob McKinlay, the tall undemonstrative centre half. In those days of 5-3-2, the job of the centre half was to stick like glue to the centre forward, in particular preventing him from heading long kicks up the field to the feet of an inside forward. This Bob did with unflappable panache, as he quietly chewed gum. I rarely saw an opposing player get the better of him, the consummate professional. Professional, that is, in a way long gone. Not for Bob the so-called ‘professional foul’. Only once in all the years I watched did I see a free kick awarded against Bob; and, IMHO, it was a refereeing error.
This brings me to an amazing statistic. At the time I watched, Forest had never had a player booked, let alone sent off, since the Second World War. Only once in about five years of watching did I see an opposition player sent off. As spectators we were genuinely shocked that any player would behave so badly. Were standards of refereeing more lax back then? I don’t think so; it was, rather, that the players were extraordinarily disciplined and that, much as they wanted to win, they wanted above all to win fairly. In this case, the past is indeed another country, and they did things differently there. These were innocent times. The only concession to ‘showbiz’ was that our lads emerged from the tunnel to a well worn record of Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen – a fairly humdrum recording that somehow made the charts in the 1950s. Were there pitch invasions? Well, a small lad once ran on with one red and one white balloon and attached them to the centre circle, only to be escorted off by a friendly ‘Bobby’. Swearing was confined to an occasional ‘bloody’, as in ‘Use your bloody eyes Ref’.
I saw little football while at Newcastle University. At a local derby at St. James Park the gates closed fifteen minutes before kick off with, I think, around 65,000 standing on the terraces. I was behind the goal and could only see the most distant third of the pitch. Come the kick off the crowd surged forward when the ball came down our end, and I was carried down several steps without my feet touching the ground. I managed to get out, along with several other people, after about ten minutes and with the help of a policeman. When the Hillsborough disaster occurred I could imagine only too well what it was like to be trapped in a crowd.
Twenty years on, while in Oxford, I went with a former student and his girl friend to see Coventry play Spurs. Near the ground we met a Spurs supporter who told us which pubs to go to and, more importantly, which not to go to. At that point the visiting Spurs fan arrived off the train. They were in a double column, with police with dogs every few feet. One fan tried to escape and was firmly put back in the line. At the ticket office, despite our saying that we were neutral and wanted seats, we were told that as we were not local we had to go in the visitors’ pen. After about five minutes the Spurs supporters surrounding us started cheering, which I thought odd as Coventry had the ball at the time. It turned out that they were cheering a fight on the next terrace. When they were getting over exuberant a middle aged sergeant appeared and said ‘calm down lads’, at which point they did. I was sure that had they sent in riot police with shields there would have been a fight, because that was what they wanted. The racial abuse, even of black Spurs players, was appalling. One perpetrator, on seeing the woman in our group, apologised – but clearly for using the f-word, not for the racism, which they could not imagine being offensive.
That was the last time I have been to a top-flight game. I have been to see Crewe with my friend Stephen Clifford, and found the atmosphere very pleasant, and virtually unchanged since the early 1960s.