Brendan Hobbs recalls the start of his obsession with Swindon Town, looking back at his first match watching the Robins in 1979.
I think a bit of scene setting is needed here first, I work in Bristol, surrounded mainly by Rugby fans but there is the odd clearing of Rovers and City supporters. There is also an outcrop of Argyle fanatics and oddly, a tuft of Sheffield Wednesday loyals. So apart from a thin seeding of ubiquitous ManU plastics, interest in lower league suffering is alive and often discussed.
I was chatting to a colleague in the office kitchen who on spying my Swindon Town mug told me proudly that he had just taken his son to see Bristol City for the first time. I think I uttered something quite banal like ‘Oh, how nice’, and that was all the prompting he needed to start jabbering passionately about his sacred rites of passage moment.
His son is an avid watcher of football on TV apparently, and was almost fouling himself with excitement about the prospect of going to see a real live match. Unfortunately being exposed to Sky’s very glossy and well marketed version of the game first was obviously going to throw up a few issues, especially when being contrasted with the shite that can be served up in a very real and raw live game.
Once the game got started, quite charmingly his son was mystified by the absence of replays during play; he was so used to seeing constant re-runs of near misses, bad tackles and goals on the TV he found their absence here quite unsettling. I take it there is no Jumbotron 3000 or two at Ashton Gate these days.
His son was also disappointed that he didn’t have a perfect view of the game – he was quite unaccustomed and therefore rather disorientated at not being sat perfectly at broadcast camera height and smack on the halfway line.
My colleague then took on a more sombre tone as he talked disappointedly about how often he had to refuel his son with coke, foot long hot dogs and chips, ‘cost me a bloody fortune’ he moaned. On the whole though, it sounded like the lad really enjoyed himself and it seems City have landed themselves a new fan, until of course he starts secondary school and will be pressured into supporting Arsenal or Man City.
Listening to him though made me think back to my first game, it also made me think of my young son and how he soon will be going (or dragged) along to see Swindon for the first time, despite my wife’s wishes.
My first game was on the whole a wildly different affair to that which unfolded at Ashton Gate. It was played in the shadow of embryonic terrace violence, barbed wire, muddy pitches and truly awful facilities – where a foot-long was something only John Holmes could confidently unfurl.
My father had wanted to take me for weeks, I didn’t want to go, I don’t remember why, I probably had a whole host of important and valid excuses like “That tree isn’t going to climb itself” or “My Action Man isn’t going to successfully ambush that Panzer on his own you know Dad.”
I was six years old and the date was 6th October 1979 when I finally capitulated, I was bundled into the back of a misfiring Austin Maxi and whisked off to the County Ground. It was to be against the mighty Hull City, the ‘Tigers’ my enthusiastic father informed me, as if that fact alone would make it seem all the more exciting.
My Dad had a season ticket in the upper tier of the long gone Shrivenham Road stand, a huge rusting behemoth constructed mainly of green corrugated iron and highly flammable wood. At the time I thought it was the biggest building in the world.
I remember being carried up the rickety external staircase which seemed to grip the outer skin of the stand like a clinging parasitic leech; I also remember being unceremoniously hoisted up and over a horrific looking turnstile. Which to me looked more like a crushing torture device than a method of safe crowd control.
What I don’t remember was whether any financial transaction took place to officially grant me access, my entrance seemed to be authorised by a series of nods and winks, a brief mumbled conversation about my age and hey presto, I was in.
We sat in the back row on some very rigid and uncomfortable seats fashioned together by random bits of iron and wood. My Dad placed his flask on a convenient wooden shelf behind, he still takes one to this day for half-time, except there is no shelf anymore – wood has no place in modern football stadia these days it seems.
A teenager sat next to me, well he actually sat on the shelf and put his feet on the seat. I was fascinated by him, he knew all the Town End chants, but he didn’t sing loudly along, he simply mumbled the songs to himself under his breath.
I really don’t remember much more, but I remember vividly dropping a Pacer or Double Agent – or some other defunct confection, which has probably been steamrollered into extinction by the unstoppable, faceless Haribo juggernaut. (My unhealthy beef with that issue is not for now though.)
As alarmed as I was by the prospect of losing my sweet that paled into insignificance compared to the shock I felt when I looked through the cracks in the floorboards at the mass of heads beneath me. Simply a riot of bald patches and wild Bob Willis-esque hairdo’s were everywhere. I had no idea that I was so high up, sat in a second tier or that there were people actually stood below me.
I felt a bit sick and dizzy, then fear gripped me as if my remarkable discovery would itself cause the stand to suddenly collapse, so I gripped my seat with both hands (sweets forgotten) and hoped that by this very act the stand would remain, well, standing I suppose.
The game remains a blur, an unimportant footnote in a record of an otherwise momentous day. Only one match related detail still remains clear, maybe because it involved shocking profanity (for a 6 year old). I remember a pinball kicking match between a Town winger and his opposing fullback which resulted in the ball going out of play.
A corner was awarded, much to the chagrin of the Hull defender who looked to the heavens, closed his eyes and shouted “Bastard!” in exasperation. It was so loud I gripped the seat tighter worried that the sheer force of his exclamation might worry the integrity of the perilously teetering stand further.
The game finished nil-nil. I remember nothing more.
I found the match programme for sale on eBay a few years ago. 99p, no bids, mint condition and a few hours to go.
I steeled myself for a bidding war – I simply had to have it at all costs. Deciding that money was no object I would easily pay double, no, treble figures for such a prize.
My opening gambit was £5 and I started feverishly hitting refresh whilst the clock counted down. I imagined several unseen adversaries casually saddling up to their computers to prepare counter bids, but I was poised and ready to crush them with a series of wild and outlandish counter bids of my own.
Needless to say, the clock eventually ran down and I was the proud owner of the programme from my first ever game. 1 bid, 99p – I think I had slightly over estimated the demand for such an item.
When it arrived it was indeed in mint condition, packed full of black and white adverts for fags, booze and local plant hire firms – a luxurious ‘match magazine’ it was not.
Strangely it also contained lots of text heavy features about other clubs plus a few colour photos – of Coventry City players mainly. For example, a whole page was dedicated to the fact that a player called Loek Ursem was really happy to be playing at Stoke City, all very odd.
Oh and Mrs Pratt of Corsham scooped the £1000 jackpot in the 78th Moonraker Lottery, good times.
I read up about the 1979 Hull City team, and sniggered when I saw a young Steve McClaren in the team photo, little did he know what was in store for him in the future. Unfortunately the pen pictures failed to mention him or the other player of note, Brian Marwood. Also, quite frustratingly, the team details didn’t stretch to cover whether the aptly named Peter Skipper was indeed the captain or not.
Unlike Steve though, I knew what was in store for me in the future, attending lots and lots of games. Thankfully the next game I went to did provide me with my first County Ground goal, a truly fantastic strike (I like to imagine) courtesy of Alan Mayes in a one nil hammering (I like to imagine) of Southend. My memory of that game is equally hazy.
I always think of that first game when I go to football, especially when I see youngsters going to matches with their Dads. I try to imagine how they will look back at their first game in thirty years time; laughing about the basic catering, the out-dated toilets, antiquated concrete stands and plastic seats.
Will they be relaying stories about the ‘good old days’ to their children whilst sat on massage chairs in controllable touchline hover booths? Will they be enjoying Virtua-Coke and foot long soylent green hotdogs served by robot waiters as well? We can hope.
My seat in the DRS is in almost exactly the same position as that seat in the old Shrivenham Road Stand. I don’t fear the stand collapsing now, I sadly don’t eat Double Agents or Pacers anymore, but I still love going to the County Ground with my Dad, always have, always will. (And so will my son goddamit!)