It was the last home game of the season. It had gone past first base with promotion, and was on the verge of sealing the deal on the fabled third date. Nervous excitement personified. By this time, Chris had been been joined by some of his closer mates who had been spellbound and enticed by some of the experiences down St Andrews he’d shared. So me, Chris, yet another Dave, Aggy and Sean caught the train from Wellington.
“A well trodden path”
We docked down, and caught the bus up to the Wrexham. The atmosphere in there that day was to be the best pre match I’ve ever been in. It’s something that doesn’t happen anymore. Certainly not at a home game, and the rare times there’s any singing in a pub is at an away game, it’s a different sort. It’s defiant, there’s a hint of menace behind it. This was purely inhibited, the sheer enjoyment that goes with being where you are in the league. The whole pub was singing and dancing, didn’t matter who you were, or where you were in the pub, you joined in, carried along on a wave of euphoria. If that atmosphere could’ve been bottled up, it would be a priceless vintage that would only be brought out for the most precious of occasions. Like the first toast at a wedding, the announcement of a lengthy planned pregnancy, the graduation of an offspring, an unexpected but fully deserved, striven for award……….the finalising of a decree absolute. Would I have any left now? Nope, I’d have drank it all within a month.
“The polyfilla had set rock solid”
Although Blues had two games left after this, Stoke only had one after their home game with Chester. It boiled down to this, if we won and Stoke lost, we would be promoted, but then, Stoke were only playing Chester. Remember, this was pre tinternet linked mobile phones, you had a small number of fans that would take a small hand held transistor radio with them to a game, the station permanently set to Radio 2 (Never mind Talksport, it was pre Radio 5 too), these odd people proved to be invaluable when results of other games had a direct impact on the game you were at. I fear that for some, it was the only time they felt truly useful and completely in control at any point in their lives. Maybe there’s a compound somewhere full of now redundant ‘bloke with a radio’s’ that antique dealers just can’t get rid of. Bizarrely, these strange little people (Don’t know why exactly, but they were always less than average height) as the season grew to a close, got more and more protection from being trampled on if a goal was scored. Shrewsbury were just as desperate for the points as we were, those boastful words that John Bond had spouted after we’d met them in early October, that there was “Nobody who stood out in the division”, had proved to be hollow, they were languishing at the wrong end of the table and the table didn’t lie. Regardless of John Bond, his outspoken words or tactics, Shrewsbury Town were a bogey team of ours, we had always struggled against them, it wasn’t going to be easy. They also had Robert ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins in their midst. A life long, die hard Bluenose, he couldn’t do the unthinkable and score against us…could he? If I told you, it was a free flowing, end to end game, bursting with near misses, I’d be lying. It was angst ridden, a typical game where the ends justify the means, the result was far more important than the performance. The pressure that thousands of humans can exert on a tiny group of fellow humans, for what is, basically just a game, is truly mind blowing. We put far too much stall on what happens to a football club that we’ve become emotionally attached to. To the point of not being able to truly function properly. Sub consciously, we use them to mask inadequacies in our lives. A great victory or a successful season lifts us out, enables us to ‘brush off’ the things that we dislike, like having to go to work in a job you’ve grown to despise, or dealing with an interfering Mother in law. Life becomes bearable for however long you can get that euphoric feeling to last for. Back to ‘Hoppy’. You could see that his heart wasn’t in it, that he wanted to be anywhere but playing against Blues. At one point, he swivelled on a bouncing ball around forty yards away from the Blues goal, he connected better than he’d hoped and the shot come lob, just missed the goal. You could see the panic in his body language. Had he scored, I think he would’ve walked off there and then. Just after the half hour mark, Blues took the lead through, who else, but Nigel Gleghorn. A majestic header from one of those perfect crosses we’d been accustomed to seeing from Ian Rogerson. It unlocked the door with the sign that said ‘Unbridled Joy and Relief’. Caught up in the pandemonium of scoring, I wasn’t able to have the sense of mind to steal a glance at Hoppy. In truth, I’d have been physically unable to anyway, but I wonder if he quietly celebrated to himself. Might even have been a sly little fist pump. The near miss had definitely got to him though, as didn’t come back out for the second half. I heard a story a couple of years later, that he’d asked Bond to substitute him at halftime. Bond had told him that he’d never play for him again. He never did. On the hour mark, news spread that Stoke were losing at home to Chester. I desperately tried to make eye contact with the nearest ‘bloke with a radio’, was it true about Stoke? He nodded his head for all it was worth, for a split second, I was paralysed in disbelief, before being jumped on by Paul ‘Tin Man’ Edwards. Vague hope had been replaced by something much more real. We were within touching distance of automatic promotion. That all enveloping ecstasy, a natural high that you can never replicate. That state of mind that makes mundane life more than bearable. A permanent grin that can’t be wiped off with a Brillo Pad. When we’re in that state of nirvana, we can be seriously taken advantage of. Things that we’d protest against having to do, are no longer seen as a problem. “Of course I don’t mind having your Mom and Dad round for Sunday lunch. Ask them if they want to stop for tea too”. “Overtime? No problem. All you’ve got to do is ask mate”. The seconds passed by like decades. The final whistle was blown, Blues had won, Stoke were still losing, we’d completed our end of the scenario. Once again, the pitch at St Andrews was invaded, this time, it was all about celebration, this time, I was always going to join in. As we congregated around the dugouts in front of the main stand, the players made their way into the top tier. Tom Ross, addressed us over the PA system with the words “It gives me great pleasure to announce that Birmingham City will be playing in the Second Division next season”, everyone who was still in the ground, went ballistic. He’d been so caught up in the moment that he’d actually gotten his announcement wrong. Due to the formation of the Premier League, we’d technically jumped a league from the Third Division to the First Division. With being caught up in the euphoria, it took me till the following day to realise that the result meant that Shrewsbury had been relegated, though technically, they’d still be playing in the Third Division.
After the game, I went back to Billy’s Bar to join the rest of the usual suspects of Walshy, Pughey, Birdy, Bryn and Craig. As the other four drifted off, me and Walshy ducked into the Old Wharf just up the road from Billy’s Bar. At the start of the season, George Gavin, who now plies his trade on Sky Sports, had poured scorn on Blues chances in the forthcoming season, he’d proclaimed on local radio station BRMB, that if Blues got promoted, he would walk on to the St Andrews pitch……naked It hadn’t gone down well with us Blues fans, and as the season had developed and his prediction had been proven to be terrible, we made it more and more evident what we thought of him. Somehow, someone in the pub had been able to obtain George Gavin’s home phone number. One person was in charge of phoning the number on the pubs public phone, holding the receiver up in the air once it had connected, whilst another lad fed the phone with change. “George Gavin, what a wanker, what a wanker” filled the air from the rest of the inhabitants of the bar. This was repeated several times so that the radio presenter’s answer phone would’ve been full of calls from the pub. All with the same thing. Me and Walshy carried on up to The Fox and Grapes. A pub neither of us had been in, and it was a pub that we both would make a standard ‘go to’ place afterwards. Stepping through the door was like stepping into an adult version of Narnia. Similar to how the atmosphere in the Wrexham should’ve been bottled, that night in the Fox and Grapes should’ve been recorded so you could watch it again and again just to put ‘normal’ life in perspective. I often lament the demise of that pub, like I also do with the Anchor when Gerry was in charge. Both very special places. Although fundamentally a city centre pub, it was very much a ‘drinkers’ pub and it was very much a Blues (Not the music) pub too. Unsurprisingly, everyone was dipping into and adding to the happy mood, it just got better and better. Suddenly one of the regulars burst through the door, he was holding up one of the first copies of that evenings Sports Argus.
“Confirmation, and the Vile lost too!”
It got passed round, the front page was stuck to the wall, the singing started but it wasn’t the ear splitting kind, it was happy, drunken singing. Once again the door was opened, and I have no idea how they got it out of the ground, or had managed to get it from the ground to the pub without detection but a group came in carrying a 6 foot long sign with the words ‘Junior Blues’ on it. Believe me, they weren’t junior Blues. It got propped up in pride of place. If I could go back in life and stop time at a certain point, make it my very own personal ‘Groundhog day’, this was the day. I was enveloped by an overwhelming urge to phone the one person who had been responsible for me being in this position……my Brother. Spotting the pubs public phone, I phoned him. I honestly can’t remember what I said to him, I just know I did and it probably would’ve been drunken and extremely soppy, that’s how high on emotion I was feeling. I made the train home, but I hadn’t wanted to.
FOOTNOTE:- Firstly, we only needed two points from our last two games to win the championship. We lost both games. None of us really cared, even my mate Mickey O’Brien who after laying down the bet before the start of the season, had been due to win £3,000, wasn’t bothered.
“George Gavin went back on his promise”
Secondly, at the time, BBC 2 ran a 10 minute fanzine style programme on football called ‘Standing Room Only’, by chance I’d decided to tape it (It was videos back then). Amazingly they’d not only featured Blues, but they showed footage of the moment Tom Ross had made his “It gives me great pleasure” mistake, and a sea of Blues fans start jumping up and down. I was only ever able to watch that recording once, as my Mother accidentally recorded over it, and not with what she actually wanted to record. Finding out about her mistake, was the closest I ever came to wanting to kill my Mother. The expression of exasperation on my Mom’s face when she explained her attempt at grasping with technology was enough for me to forgive her.
Thirdly, that season, I attended 48 games out of 56 in all competitions. All of them away games and just one of those was a 3 o’clock kick off, Darlington on Boxing day. Since that game at Darlington, I only missed 2 evening away games. By the end of May, I was climbing the walls with boredom, it led to me embarking on another relationship just to fill the void.