This was taken from the opening chapter of my book I Had a Wheelbarrow (Pure Phase Publishing, 2010) and written back in 2009. I will follow this up in the near future with a post about my relationship with football now in 2019.
Falling in and out of love…
Ok! I admit, I am addicted to football. Although over the past few years I overcame my addiction to a certain extent, I am still very much addicted. In recent seasons I have attended fewer games, pretended that I was not thinking of the scores at 4.45pm on a Saturday afternoon when out for the day and I’ve told myself I did not need to buy the latest shirts.
Unfortunately, for many, it is what is known as growing up. Or settling down. Or whatever terminology you give it in your neck of the woods. Either way my addiction had changed of late. I was consigned more to watching from the comfort of my sofa (I utter the words armchair supporter) rather than travelling the country but it was still football. My partner has not accepted my footballing ways since we got together. Far from it. However, we appear to have met on some sort of middle ground in recent seasons that means I don’t spend the whole weekend dedicating myself to the game I love and I spread myself and my attention into other areas of everyday life.
However, as the 2009/2010 football season begins, I cannot help but feel like all her hard work is going to be tested to the limits. After all, it is in my old hometown that former England, Lazio and Benfica Manager (and supposed ladies man) Sven-Goran Eriksson has arrived on the scene as a Director of Football. And it is for the very club I grew up following…Notts County; the Oldest Football League Club in the world.
Bizarrely, his arrival at my club would go on to eclipse most of the stories during the summer months from the rest of the footballing world. For once, it was not the almighty, super-successful, global institutions dictating our back pages. This time it was one of the smaller fish. So what if Real Madrid were embarking on the biggest ever spending spree the globe had witnessed, bringing in Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo to name but two. The Notts saga was something much bigger. Outrageous even. As I realised the full implications of the news, I started to think back to better days. For I am one of those who had, for reasons I stand by 100%, began to lose faith in the beautiful game even if I had not detached myself entirely.
I lost faith in football, and therefore to some extent Notts County and what the club stood for some time ago. Teetering on the edge of mere existence for prolonged periods, Notts County have not treated their loyal fans to much in recent years. The issue, as many Notts fan would confirm, is the fact that by recent I mean the better part of a decade or two. In fact, ever since relegation from the elite division in England, Notts County have gradually faded, whimpered and struggled to the point that simply still being in existence is perhaps an achievement.
Sometimes, phases of hope and success can keep fans going through the more turbulent and harsh campaigns. For Notts though, it is some years since the likes of Don Masson, John Chiedozie and Pedro Richards strutted their stuff for Notts.
If you were to look at the history of English football, I doubt you could find a season that was worse than 1991/92 for dropping out of the top flight. Along with my beloved Magpies two other clubs; Luton Town and West Ham United, were relegated in the May of ‘92 after a long, grueling season that offered the dangling carrot of Sky Sports television money and worldwide media exposure for the following campaign.
When Sky Sports signed up to broadcast live football featuring England’s finest, no one could have predicted the impact it would have on the game as a whole. The timely arrival of satellite television coincided with the Taylor Report in 1989 (published in 1990), which sought to recommend improvements that clubs could, or rather should, make to their stadia and the match day experience following the tragic events of Hillsborough on 15th April 1989, when 96 Liverpool fans lost their lives. But as the report outlined the need to make football grounds a safer place to watch the game, Sky offered an alternative for those who still did not wish to risk it amongst the hooligans that had reportedly blighted our game since the seventies.
If it was a change that the people had wanted, it was indeed what they were set to get. There would be an impact of an unprecedented nature with everything from ticket prices, merchandising, player’s contracts and transfer fees spiralling out of control. But as the rich became richer, the poor became broke and for every club that benefited from the BSkyB boom, there were four or five that didn’t. Notts County certainly were one of them.
Ok. So West Ham were also relegated in 1991/92 but have since had success and on closer inspection, a whole host of clubs survived to see the new era begin but have since fell from great heights. Champions of England from that campaign were Leeds United whilst just two places below them finished Sheffield Wednesday. Meanwhile, in eighth, ninth and tenth respectively were Notts’ rivals from over the river along with Sheffield United and Crystal Palace. Further down in the table, Queens Park Rangers, Wimbledon, Southampton, Oldham, Norwich City and Coventry City all contributed to the top flight season, later proving that the Sky Sports era was not a sure fire route to success whatsoever.
Just by looking at this list of clubs that went on to fall out of the elite division in England, you can see that there were no guarantees when the Sky Sports moneymen rolled into town. Wimbledon ceased to exist, later becoming MK Dons, relocating, rebranding and losing all identity with the club it once was whilst the likes of Leeds United and Southampton struggled so badly, on and off the field, administration and further more point deductions meant they were consigned to more years in the lower realms than their fans would care to remember. Elsewhere, Sheffield Wednesday, Oldham, Norwich and Forest all went on to not only become relegated from the top flight, but fall further down the league structure without the administration suffered by Leeds and the Saints.
Meanwhile QPR, Palace, Sheffield United and Coventry have had little more than average seasons since their relegation with Sheffield United under the guidance of Neil Warnock being one of the rarities with a top flight return.
So being one of the elite group on the dawn of the new era may not have brought Notts any guarantees had they survived that season. But it might, just might, have helped.
As Notts County tumbled, this party began on our television screens that alleviated the English game into the most watched leagues in the world. Overtaking Serie A in Italy, both England and Spain became the new dominant leagues to watch and with BSkyB, England took number one spot in the years that followed.
Has the revolution been good for football? On face value, of course it has. Football was in something of a sad state prior to the radical changes that took place thanks to Sky owner Rupert Murdoch and his media empire. Rather like the state of the country at the time, the game was in need of change and repair. England had spent the back end of the 1980’s without European football following the Heysel Disaster in ‘85 that had seen a stand collapse at a European Cup FInal involving Juventus and Liverpool. Weeks prior to this, a decaying stand at Bradford’s Valley Parade caught fire killing over 50 fans whilst the hooligan culture had reportedly swept up and down the country and had found itself to be as common place in the stands as it is now for clubs to be owned by foreign investors.
With Sky, new impetus and ideas were on offer and without them, perhaps the English game would not be seeing its own clubs reach European Cup Semi’s and Finals with the frequency that they are now doing. As with any change, there has to be some luck along the way and in Bobby Robson’s England side, the national game found itself on the perfect stage. The England side of Italia ‘90 over-achieved but in doing so, there was new found pride in the nation and her players. Although defeated in the Semi-Final, the likes of Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne came back as heroes as opposed to the damning verdicts that would ultimately follow the national teams in the years that followed.
The new era became something of a promised land and everyone began to want in on the whole thing. The money that top clubs saw coming through their books increased considerably in the years that were to follow. Star players suddenly began to earn tens of thousands per week. Those tens of thousands eventually moved on to hundreds of thousands until, in the summer of 2009, the Daily Mirror told of how Chelsea skipper John Terry was offered a reported £250,000 per week by Manchester City...to play football.
Millionaires and billionaires have come across to our shores from Russia, the United States, the Middle East and across Europe to buy in to what is ultimately regarded as the greatest league on the planet. Players have become the all-powerful, all-demanding, business models with image rights, signing on fees, release clauses and extravagant bonuses, mostly down to the revolutionary ruling in favour of Jean-Marc Bosman in 1995 which saw greater rights for players. Meanwhile, you and I on the terrace have seen the cost of supporting our clubs rise far quicker than the normal rate of inflation and as such, some fans have simply been priced out of the game.
In the ever changing, world of business, we suddenly had clubs, players and fans finding themselves in the centre of a rebranded game. As the First Division initially became the Premiership, and later the Premier League, the rest of the English football would eventually follow suit. Following the launch of the new top flight in the nineties, 2004/05 would see the Football League rebranded accordingly, with what was the old Second Division now known as the Championship, Third Division now known as League One and the old Fourth Division now known as League Two.
In League Two, England’s lowest Division in the professional league don’t forget, we can pay £20+ for a ticket, £3 for a programme, £2.50 for a hot dog and £6 for two average pints of beer in plastic cups. From League Two upwards, these prices can only go the same way.
We buy into ideas that we’re not proper fans unless we have the home, away and third shirt. Clever marketing and peer pressure ensures we take the necessary steps to have all our club colours (even the ones that are temporary colours) but by the time we spot the first bobble in the fabric it matters not one jot as the next shirt is due for release with the only change from last season’s shirt spottable under a microscope.
Meanwhile, numerous clubs have upped from their old grounds that were steeped in tradition and character, moving to pastures new that are all too familiar as Derby County’s Pride Park looks just like The Stadium of Light in Sunderland and The Emirates of Arsenal resembles a bigger version of the Walkers Bowl in Leicester. The only difference from new ground to new ground is the colour of the seating and the quality of the football on offer.
No longer are sides filled with six or seven local lads, born and bred in the ground’s surrounding streets with the same accent as the fans and the same memories of the past. No players speak of it being “a dream come true” to represent the side you support without you questioning how this is the case what with him being as good as a foreigner in your own city.
So whilst we have lapped up the glamour and 24/7 football culture (Sky viewers just flick to channel 405 or whatever new number it is by the time you are reading this), what have we lost? For me, it is simple: Identity.
Back in the day, when my old man and his old man before him began watching football, people you knew played the game even at the very top. People who, despite the pride of being a professional footballer, were just like you and me. Every day, normal folks making their way in life by doing the job they were good at.
Players from yesteryear were not multi-millionaires living in the most expensive houses in your area. Yes, there were exceptions to the rule like the George Best’s of this world but on the whole they were the guys stood next to you at the bar on a Saturday night (Best neatly fitted this category too but you get my point).
They were the guys you saw down the corner shop on a Monday evening or the guys that financially, were not too dissimilar from us fans. But how, in this modern world we live in, can you identify with someone who earns more in a month than you may earn in a decade or even your whole career? You simply can’t.
Whilst it only became really evident at the top of the game, the effects it had on the rest of football were there if you looked close enough. The lower leagues lost potential young fans who wanted to support Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool. The stars of the Premier League were catapulted to a celebrity status that we all wanted to know about and within a matter of weeks, the rest of the Football League seemed to become detached, as though they were running as a totally separate entity. The culture we saw footballers living in became something we expected from them all, regardless of whether they played for Aston Villa or York City. Footballers were pigeon holed. It felt like us and them.
Perhaps this was not just football that was becoming detached from the real world. The emergence and growth of the English game appeared to run in tandem with a newfound hunger for celebrity culture. Other than the occasional Miss World that George Best seemed to pick-up, no one ever really showed much interest for the player’s wives. Fast-forward to the new era and everyone knows who is dating who, couples would often be dubbed ‘the new Posh & Becks’ and the term WAG is commonly known throughout the game. And if you are unsure what it means, I think it is better you remain ignorant to it. Trust me, you are not missing out.
Interest in those lower leagues was just not as common as the interest in the top flight. For one year Saint & Greavsie (for those that can remember) attempted to continue with their Saturday lunch time show on the Football League (but minus all the big teams who were now covered by Sky). They had to talk, discuss and act as though the Premiership did not exist. It was an ignorance that was forced upon them in order to try and see their Football League show survive.
And as the rich got, the poor clubs were forgotten about and the recession hit those who were hard-up the worst. But with the money, the foreign stars, the media coverage and the global focus firmly heading towards the English game, there was no better time to be in on the act.
For Notts it was not to be and relegation in 1992 to what would initially become Division One after the Premiership’s launch meant an immediate return would be vital. However, in the first season in new surroundings it was not to be and the Magpies struggled to adapt to life outside the top flight as the media focus remained on the elite tier. Manager Neil Warnock; a guy who had led the club to two successive Wembley promotions, was sacked in the January after a turn in the clubs fortunes saw results slip and after that, Notts stuttered into a 17th place finish.
The following year, a Mark Draper inspired Notts side would rise to the heights of seventh with the midfielder himself netting fourteen goals in the league alone. But Notts would narrowly miss out on the Play-Off places meaning not only their hopes of promotion were dashed but they were left in the shadow of local rivals from The City Ground as well as Leicester City and Derby County of whom all finished above them.
It would later prove to be Notts County’s last chance and the following year, relegation loomed with Draper sold to Leicester City for a then staggering £1,250,000, and fans favourite Charlie Palmer leaving for Walsall. Notts finished rock bottom and made their way through three managers during the campaign with Mick Walker, Russell Slade and Howard Kendall all being shown the door before Wayne Jones and former Liverpool man Steve Nicol were put in temporary charge for the final few games.
Two years later and with more doom and gloom witnessed by the dwindling support at Meadow Lane, Notts would hit their lowest ebb yet when in 1996/97, the club finished rock bottom once again, this time in Division Two, consigning the side to the lowest of the professional divisions in English football. It was the first time since 1971 that the Magpies would have to turn out week after week, both home and away, against clubs from the lowest echelon of the professional structure. It was agony to watch something go from the dizzy heights of the top flight, drawing at home to clubs such as Manchester United and beating the likes of Chelsea and Sheffield Wednesday to the pain of playing Exeter and Torquay just six years later.
In 1997/98 however, the Notts faithful would get some respite. Under the guidance of Big Sam Allardyce, who’d previously enjoyed success with Blackpool, Notts County went on to win Division Three with what was a hefty 99 points by anyone’s standards. Moving into top spot on December 13th 1997, Notts never looked back, staying top for the rest of the campaign as goals from Sean Farrell and Gary Jones gave optimism to the 6,000 or so regular match-goers and pride was given back to the family club of Nottingham.
Despite two steady eighth place finishes either side of the millennium, Notts County were no longer viewed as one of the bigger clubs in a small pond. Seemingly selling anyone that showed potential, Notts would also lose Manager Allardyce who resigned in October 1999 when the lure of his former club Bolton Wanderers became too strong. From 2001 onwards, Notts would scrape the bottom of the barrel of what was then Division Two before relegation struck again in 2004 and demotion to the newly dubbed League Two meant Notts were back amongst the bottom 24 clubs of the professional league.
Renamed divisions and new sponsors did nothing to hide the fact that Notts were again battling for little more than pride and as the club failed to acclimatise to the lowest division, two seasons running Notts would do what would be regarded as just enough to fight off the threat of a further relegation which would see them fall out of the Football League entirely.
In 2007/08, Notts would finish 21st in League Two (or rather more bluntly third from bottom), confirming the club had major reasons for concern. It would be their lowest ever Football League finish since the league’s formation back in 1888 and with little sign for a bright future, attendances continued to fall with the average for the following season in 2008/09 hitting a near-to-all-time low of 4,445. On the pitch the club was in a poor state of affairs whilst off it, the fans were voicing their disapproval by staying away from Meadow Lane in their numbers.
As 2008/09 drew to a close under manager Ian McParland, no one would argue that the club had changed for the worse. McParland himself described the club as “lacking soul and atmosphere” in comparison to his playing days with Notts.
For me? Well I look at the club in recent years and then think back to what I’d consider the good old days. I’d look back fondly to when goalkeeper Steve Cherry gave me his gloves after an impressive clean sheet. Or the chat I had with Phil Turner on the day I watched Notts County take on Nottinghamshire County Cricket Club in a charity cricket match. Or more surreal was perhaps the night I sat at the top of my stairs when I should have been tucked up in bed, and listened to my auntie being dropped off home by a charming young Geordie lad by the name of Tommy Johnson after a night out.
Notts County was a way of life back then. On a Saturday it would be over to my grandparents for Football Focus. Buy a programme, go to the local pub with my dad and my uncle Danny, sing my heart away to the Wheelbarrow song, leave after 89 minutes to beat the mad rush, go jungle training (more to follow on that much later) and back in time for Final Score with Tony Gubba, Des Lynam, the league table and a packet of Jaffa Cakes.
These are the fond memories I retain from my childhood. On the weeks we were not down at Notts, we’d be in the car travelling to Coventry or Sheffield, or if money was tight, sat in the back yard listening to BBC Radio Nottingham with Colin Slater. It was a simple way of life and it took up the majority, if not all, of our Saturdays. But I was happy with it.
At the age of twelve however, I began to get more serious with my own playing ‘career’. No longer was I playing at Under 10’s or Under 11’s with 10am kick-off’s on a Saturday morning. We now had afternoon games and it became a choice between playing and watching.
For anyone who is passionate about the game, and believe me I always have been, it is easy to understand both sides of the argument. Turning down playing to watch your beloved club is a tough call but no hardship. Likewise, missing your club in the hope you might grab a winner yourself that afternoon is a worthwhile sacrifice. I, with my dad as my manager, made the choice and we embarked on six hugely enjoyable years playing and managing respectively in the local Nottinghamshire leagues for West Bridgford Colts.
Perhaps this was a turning point however as in the years that followed, my relationship with Notts County Football Club suffered and suffered badly. This was a time when there was no internet access in every household. In fact back then, to me the net was the thing Tommy Johnson used to hit with such venom and the electronic version meant nothing to me. There was also minimal coverage of the teams outside of the top flight on the box. The only highlights you saw would be one or two goals on Central News Update from an encounter that maybe involved three or four goals and a sending off. The dedication to deliver any sort of highlights package was lacking.
So for the years that followed, our visits to Meadow Lane became less frequent. Fortunately, playing in Nottingham’s Young Elizabethan League meant that we did not have games every week. On our free Saturdays we’d venture to Notts if the fixtures list had been kind enough to throw up a home game and for the seasons that followed we felt we had the best of both worlds. I played with hunger and ambition, hoping that one day I could wear the black and white of Notts in front of thousands of fans. But it also meant I did not see Notts every week. It was a sacrifice I was willing to make however and in turn, I could carry the hope that one day, I’d be able to join my heroes and have my name sung from the terraces.
But that was the way it was and as I grew up, I had to compromise and realise that I would probably never have that relationship with the club, or any club, ever again. Then again who knows? Life has this way of throwing a surprise or two.