A Bridge To Far
Christmas Eve 1966. What better way was there than to start the holiday season with a trip to London to see the 'Mighty' Reds? Liverpool were playing Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Actually I nearly never made it. Alan Murphy and John 'Wilf' Wilson came round in the morning, draped in their red and white scarves, both excited, and I answer the door, sleep still in my eyes, and announce I can't be bothered! Pissing down with rain didn't help either. Their disappointment turned to anger until they managed to cajole me into getting off my arse and getting myself organised. We duly caught the 287 bus to Kettering, walked down to the railway station and to our surprise; we bumped into our pal Alan Clarkson, standing there with that great big grin on his face. Now there were four of us. We had previously met 'Big' Al on Leicester Station in October when we were on our way to Aston Villa. Today’s crew would increase to five when we arrived at St Pancras and found another of our Corby Reds, Stan Watkinson waiting for us. Stan, nicknamed 'Snowball' was a pure albino and there he was standing by the ticket collector at the gate, greeting us with a big drunken yell, "Smit!" Stan was a great character and the only one amongst us who had true Liverpool blood in him with his dad being a scouser. We had only seen him the night before, staggering out of the Rockingham Arms; 'going tomorrow Stan?' I asked. ‘Nah I'll give it a miss' he replied. Yet, there he was. He'd gone on to the clubs in Kettering, slept over somewhere, he couldn't remember, and jumped on the early train to London on a whim. Somewhere along the line he had also obtained a big floppy Reds rosette which was hanging on his lapel limp on the end of a huge safety pin! We all broke out laughing. God he was a case. Before this though, we had been taken aback when the train had slowed right down to a crawl as it approached the area of Kentish Town. We had all seen the news the night before about a train crash in London but we didn't realise it was on our line. A row of carriages were lying on their side, bashed and mangled and the signal box had also been damaged. It was a sobering sight and suddenly, we couldn't wait to get off! Piccadilly and Carnaby Street were our destinations as we plunged into the Underground. London was like a giant circus to us, full of wonder and discovery. The Christmas decorations adorning Oxford Street added to the buzz. After a hot dog and a drink in The White Horse Inn off Piccadilly, which turned out to be a 'Gay' pub, we eventually made our way to Chelsea, our first time to Stamford Bridge. The weather was still grim, damp and grey. Spilling our way out of Fulham Broadway tube station with hundreds of other football supporters, the streets were already packed, everyone it seemed, heading for the ground. Excitement was reaching fever pitch. This was what it was all about. Programme sellers. Where are they? That was always my first thought. Football programmes were magical, collectable. Other street vendors were shouting their wares above the din of rival fans taunting each other, 'lapel badges, rosettes'. All added to the thrill. Outside the turnstiles, queues were lined up, police on horses were nudging people to get in line, scousers were taking the piss, great laugh! Then, totally unexpected, a horse reared its back legs up, missed me by a whisker! The copper perched on its saddle, glared at me, 'didn't do anything mister!' I said panicking! Once inside we made our way to the terracing high on the right of the infamous Shed, Chelsea's end. Looking over, it was already a seething mass. Liverpool supporters were also in the mix, they hadn't heard of segregation in the 1960s. Clarkson, Wilf and Murphy decided to head for the throng. A fight started, the police moved in. Scousers welcomed them in song; 'Who's that twat in the big black hat, Scuffer, Scuffer....' The melee continued, with me thinking, 'bollocks to that'. I stayed put; it was a great view of the ground anyway. Wilf smacked a copper on the head; "Little fat copper with an ugly face, he was shouting abuse and I sneaked up and belted him - then ducked down into the crowd, I caught him a beauty". Big Stan was more than happy to stay with me. We'd all meet up afterwards. Looking over at the frenzy occasionally during the game it amused me to be able to spot Murphy, hands up in the air, clapping along to the chorus of the scouse songs. His 'Olive' hat stuck out like a beacon. A red and white woollen hat his mum had knitted with Liverpool stitched onto it. At the back of his head, the letters joined up to spell out Olive! Always a source of amusement to the rest of us! On the pitch, Liverpool lined up with virtually the same team that had played every game of the season thus far. Lawrence, Lawler, Milne, Smith, Yeats, Stevenson, Callaghan, Hunt, St John, Strong and Thompson. Chelsea included new signing Tony Hateley in their side. Hateley had already scored twice against Liverpool that season in the Aston Villa game we went to. He was a threat but we knew Big Ron (Yeats) would take care of him. The pitch resembled a paddy field, a description given by Kenneth Wolstenholme on that night's Match of the Day. Chelsea did the early pressing but were stunned when their wing half Marvin Hinton dived full length to head in a Peter Thompson corner. Brilliant! It was the cue for more fighting behind the goal. I seemed to remember a crash barrier being handed down over the crowd of heads to the pitch! Where's Wilf and Alan I wondered. Geoff Strong scored a second for Liverpool before half time. The Reds were coasting. Boyle scored for Chelsea in the second half but it wasn't enough. The Reds had triumphed. The referee's whistle went for full time and we gathered together again, made our way out of Stamford Bridge and rushed back to the Tube to get ahead of the Chelsea 'headhunters'. The West End was where we were heading to celebrate. A bite to eat in a Lyons's Corner House and a pint in the Western Bar in Leicester Square before ending up in the Euston Tavern opposite St Pancras for a last pint before catching the train home. Happy Christmas! The following season I was at the Bridge again. It was my 18th birthday. A Monday. I was working on dayshift in the C W Mills, and at one o'clock I walked out with my mate Henry Reid to go the game. Only problem was, we forgot to inform the foreman! Jack Lynch, a dour looking grey haired old geezer gave the two of us a right bollocking the next day. But what the hell! Henry was one of the most laid back fellers I'd ever come across. Docile, nothing fazed him. A gangly bloke with jet black hair in a 50s rock 'n' roll style he once joined our mob for a game of football on Studfall Green and turned up with his trainers in a carrier bag. "Henry's brought his golden boots" Tom McGowan howled. Henry took the jibes all in his stride. Quiet guy, even at work he rarely opened his mouth. Then one day he came and informed us that he was leaving on the Friday. "What?" thinking he was going to say he had another job in a factory or building site or something, I asked him where he was goin'. "To Luton" he said. He'd never gave an inkling before. "Luton!" It just happened that his family were moving to Luton and Henry was going with them. Never once mentioned it. That was Henry. Strange but funny guy. It was a real miserable night. Raining most of the day again. Liverpool support at the Bridge was sparse; Monday night was a bad time to travel for the scousers. There was the usual crowd from the Southampton Branch of Liverpool supporters in attendance though. We used to see them everywhere. One guy stood out every time and it became almost a game to see if we could spot him. Tall bloke in a donkey jacket with a mop of curly hair in an afro style. Big Alan called him Curly and it stuck. Never failed to see him. Liverpool's team showed just one change from the previous season's game. Emlyn Hughes, signed from Blackpool, was now the left half instead of Willie Stevenson. The game was poor, the Reds were poor. About the only thing I remember of the game is hearing Status Quo's Pictures of Matchstick Men, John Fred's Judy in Disguise bursting out of the tannoy above the terrace. The Lemon Pipers' Green Tambourine. The records sounded great. Chelsea gained revenge from the simultaneous game the year before and walked it, 3-1. Peter Thompson scoring a late consolation for Liverpool. I had hoped the game would be a memorable way to celebrate my birthday. But - you can't win them all! A very odd encounter I had was one day in 1970, when travelling on a train to Liverpool to watch the ’pool do battle with Chelsea. The trek to Liverpool those days, if you didn’t own an automobile, meant a four and a half journey via Kettering, Leicester, Nuneaton and Crewe, courtesy of British Railways. (43/-) £2.15p in English! Changing trains at the various crossover points often brought you into contact with other nomadic football supporters criss crossing the country to watch their favourite teams. Or joining up with fellow or opposition fans en route to your game. Changing at Crewe, there was always the chance of an encounter with London fans heading in your direction. This day, just two of us, me and my big pal, Alan Clarkson, all 6’ 6” and 16 stone of him, were forced to stand in the aisle of a packed carriage, amongst a whole mob of Blues supporters. Listening to the patter of the cockneys, discussing the prospects of our teams, I suddenly realised that the gum I had been chewing since Nuneaton, had lost its flavour. Glancing across a table, where six or seven ‘Shed Enders’ were sitting around, I noticed the small window open above their heads. With unerring accuracy, I figured I could dispense with the tasteless bit of chewy by chucking it through the gap. As the train rattled over Runcorn bridge, I took aim, and, ping! The gum missed, and rebounded off the window, straight onto this fellow’s head. Automatically, his hand went to his mane just as I leapt over his pal to try and catch the gum. He beat me to it, and the wet gum entangled itself into his mop. Not knowing whether to laugh or cry, and thankfully his friends saw the funny side of it as well, or maybe they saw the imposing figure of the giggling Big Al, I apologised profusely and promised to sort it out before we got to Lime Street. Off I went, up and down the train, looking for any likely candidates that might have a pair of scissors on their person. Feeling a right divvy, explaining the rather unusual request time and time again, I finally came across an old woman sitting by herself, who had the utensil required, nestling in her handbag. Still looking bemused, I said to her gratefully “Thanks very much, you’ve saved the day.” Back in our carriage, Big Al and the cockneys were getting on great, laughing, all bar the miserable looking one with a blob of chewing gum stuck in his hair! “Right pal, if you can just lean this way a bit”. Snipping away, resisting any more attempts at humour by asking him if he wanted a short, back and sides, or a crew-cut, an audience built up, all looking on in bewilderment. Snip, snip, the errant strands were chopped off, eat your heart out Teasy Weezy! Another satisfied customer! A round of applause for my endeavour was given, “Thank you, thank you” I accepted. The Chelsea fan, an abject picture of misery, a chunk of his hair missing, his pals and fellow travellers all laughing at his predicament, was morose. “Looks good to me” I reassured him!
|Reunited with Big Al in the 2000s|
Just to make his day, Liverpool beat Chelsea 1-0 as well! This was the game that Steve Heighway burst onto the scene. We had noticed his name in the Liverpool Echo a few weeks before in a column concerning the reserves. Heighway, an amateur signed from Skelmersdale, unusual name too. He was getting rave notices. A long striding winger who was a university student to boot! All this just seemed bizarre. Named as substitute for this Chelsea game Steve made his bow right at the start of the second half. Bobby Graham who had made the centre forward position his own since the departure of Roger Hunt, Ian St John and the rest of the great 60's team, had gone down awkwardly on the edge of the area right in front of the Kop just prior to half time. I remember the crack! It sounded awful. Bobby was carried off on a stretcher with a broken leg to a rousing chorus of 'Viva Bobby Graham' sung to the tune of the Equals' Viva Bobby Joe. Little did we know that that was just about the end of his career at Anfield. Shankly went out and signed John Toshack shortly afterwards and when Kevin Keegan signed up a few months later, Bobby left Liverpool to sign for Coventry. There was a buzz around Anfield at the start of the second half; it felt as if everyone was waiting in anticipation to see this new young unknown student called Heighway. The ref blew his whistle; the ball was played immediately to Heighway standing on the half way line in front of the Kemlyn Road stand. He received the ball, came back inside with it, went past one defender, then another, then another! The noise resonating around Anfield reached a crescendo when this new young guy on the wing let fly from outside the box. Bonetti finger tipped it over the bar. What a start! Who was this guy? That memory has never left me. What an introduction. Chelsea's hatchet man Ron Harris had a torrid time trying to mark Steve. He ran like a gazelle. A strike from Alun Evans in the first half before Graham's unfortunate injury was the only goal of the game and was enough to send the Pensioners packing. January 1978, 3rd Round of the F A Cup. Chelsea away. By this time I was living in Steyning Close with my girlfriend Sue. I was driving a battered old Hillman Minx around. Nice looking car I bought cheap but didn't realise what a heap of crap it was until I had to change a headlamp one day. The whole casing surrounding the lamp gave way. It was a rust box! I could have cried! For all that it seemed to go alright, dodgy headlamp or not, until I decided to take it to London for the cup game. Pat Devlin, Jeff Stewart, Wilf and Dennis Taylor was the crew. We set off for the M1, everything going fine and then the oil light came on. "Bollocks" I thought. The engine began to overheat. The general consensus of the Brain's Trust in the car was that we pull into Toddington Service Station near Luton and buy a gallon of oil. This we did and set off again, hoping the heap would get us to the match in time for kick off. A couple of stops to top up the oil and we finally pulled into West London not far from Stamford Bridge and parked up a side street. Relief was tangible. At least it got us here! The woe was forgotten with a couple of pints and the build up to the game. This was going to be easy we figured. Liverpool were European Champions. This was the team of Clemence, Dalglish, Fairclough. Chelsea were in transition, a team of youngsters trying to make it in the big league. Names like Langley, Walker, Sparrow. Couldn't compare could they? A Chelsea website couldn't have put the outcome better; 'Ken Shellito's unremarkable team thrashed the reigning European champions 4-2 at Stamford Bridge, with two from Clive Walker, sending Bob Paisley into an uncharacteristic funk. "Bloody pathetic we were," he hissed. "I'm not taking anything away from Chelsea, mind, but we went out with sawdust in our heads." Complacency or what but Liverpool didn't turn up. They were running as well as my bloody Hillman Minx! Chelsea were 3-0 up before the Reds got going with a David Johnson goal to bring a smidgen of hope to the Liverpool fans. Then the Blues had the temerity to go and score again, unbelievable. 4-1 with time fast running out. This year's F A Cup run was over at the first hurdle. Dalglish restored a semblance of respectability near the end to make it 4-2. It was a shambles! As for the car. We filled it up with oil again, bought another big can at Toddington, limped home to Corby, dumped it outside my house and we went for a pint. The Minx never moved again. I scrapped the heap of shite. Another visit to the Bridge came with my mate from the Post office, Chelsea supporter Stuart Allen in 2003. Before I had time to settle down, Chelsea were two up! I hate this damn place I was thinking to myself. Just to show how pissed off I was, I got a book out of my pocket that I'd bought in Charing Cross Road on the way to the match. Elvis; Last Train To Memphis. Infinitely more exciting than the game!! Course, Stuart loved it! Haven't been back since.