Hopping Mad – A Winters Football Tale

Frosted panes of a red public phone box were further blurred by condensation streaming down the inside as four portly, middle aged men, pressed up close to a cracked grey telephone on top of a wobbly tin money box.

“My sodding thumb is dead, either that or the 10p slot is blocked.” complained Bertie, the so called clever one, and the only one of the four to possess any loose change.”Hang on, it´s moving.” The coin squeezed in but the lack of a tell tale dropping noise suggested further coins would struggle to find a home. “Good morning” shouted Bertie. “Is the game definitely on today?”

A faint female voice snapped back. “I wish you lot wouldn´t pester me. My husband is the Club Secretary and he is at the ground now shovelling up snow. It will be on if he has to crawl over every bloody blade of grass and breathe on them to defrost it.”

“I will take that as a yes then.” was the almost joyous reply from Bertie as he tried to nod frantically at his three well lagged friends before hastily adding. “So sorry to bother you but the ground phone seems to be out of action and we have travelled quite some way to see the game.”

The slamming noise would have told a less insensitive man that Mrs Club Secretary barely caught any of his polite signing off. The red frames of the box almost sighed with relief as the quartet splurged out onto the half thawed grass verge. Neighbours in the sedate village of Middle Brevit would have appreciated the close up parking to avoid filling the concrete base of the phone box with mud. Well they might of if the visitors hadn´t dug plough like furrows in the verge. Albert, the driver and proud owner of their now much browner Mini, plonked himself back at the wheel and unzipped his dark green three quarter length coat. As the others scrambled in, Albert fished out a map from the glove compartment and in a confident voice announced. “About five more miles lads, the beer guide says there´s a satisfactory real ale pub just before the ground, so lets go and make their acquaintance.”

The boys in the back seats, Roy and Pickle (don´t ask) were actually in the mid 50´s range like the front pair, but on football days, they were all boys again. A dense bank of fog rolled across the side track indicated on the map, they weren´t too sure of the name of the village home of Rakers FC , it was inside the Salisbury border but didn´t seem to belong of any of the smaller cluster of villages. Emerging from the fog, they could just make out a dog eared wooden sign saying Tyne Warp, that unusual name alone was worth bragging points when next meeting their fellow ground hoppers. As the warm air from the Rakers Arms pub greeted them, they were met by a dozen sets of curious old eyes. If the reception was a little chilly, the two hand pumps sent a warm glow of anticipation through them. Old Warbler would normally have won their vote but a slightly dusty pump adorned with the hand written clip for 5.6% Olde Rakes Pleasure beckoned them closer. Driver Albert knew at once this would be the source of the only two pints he would allow himself, so he shouted up a round.

“Oh strong ale is it lads?” enquired the crusty landlord as he pulled the first flush of liquid night time. Pickle went to hop up on a bar stool and the low throb of conversation ceased as eyes drilled into him. “Sorry” said the landlord as he poured, that´s old Percy´s seat” It was thick in dust, prompting Roy to pipe up.

“Which one is Percy?” A mild gasp of shock travelled around the room as the landlord leaned slightly across the bar and whispered. “Old Percy has been dead for 20 years, but that´s still his seat.”

A few chuckles and cackles in the background left the boys wondering if they were the butt of a local joke. They just shrugged, and withdrew to a comfy corner with their brooding pints. Albert´s modest drinking was soon eclipsed by his passengers until 20 minutes before kick off when they bade the regulars farewell and left the premises. Staring hopefully up at the bank of dark clouds, they patted down their layers of insulation to check they were fully loaded. Plain bobble hats emerged from outside pockets and were pulled down over their ears.

Squeezing through the turnstiles they joined the sparse crowd. Little notebooks were flipped open and scribbled in under bold headings of Rakers FC v Lower Marsh Casuals. Crackling announcements prompted frantic scribbling on the pads, no desecrating of the programme sheet was allowed. A polite ripple of applause greeted the teams, it was nice to see they all sported neat back and sides haircuts, the worrying trend of bubble perms thankfully hadn´t reached these parts. The kits got approving nods, just like a Subbuteo set, home in plain red tops, away in blue, and both with white shorts. The goalies stuck to tradition as well, green tops and flimsy gardening style gloves. The last regional meeting of their ground hopping circle had been rocked by a tale of a keeper in a yellow and black shirt – these were indeed shocking times.

Even wearing more layers than an arctic explorer, they could feel the cold, toe wiggling in their sturdy shoes kept the little fellas awake. Roy´s memory couldn´t be faulted, he bought the warming round of hot Bovril, without any prompting that it was his turn.

The first half was very pedestrian, the glue pot of a pitch prevented flowing play, it was all good robust efforts to ensure the ball moved at all. Not surprisingly by half time they hadn´t troubled the man with the hook on a pole to hoist any numbers onto the tall scoreboard. Stamping feet and swivelling around during the break, the four chums took in the surroundings beyond the low wooden fences. It was all rolling hills, the road they had come in on was disappearing steadily under a blanket of dense grey mist. It was very clinging and made them shudder a bit, they had picked a central position as they weren´t favouring either team, it really did feel eerie and deathly quiet. At least they could finally hear the stampede of boots coming up the tunnel under the corrugated tin arch. What emerged made their jaws sag in awe.

The players all had a strange, grey, look about them and they had old retro kits, the same colours but in a duller, heavier fabric with string pull V necks and big collars. Even their hair was different, smeared down with grease, and as for their lower halves, baggy long shorts and hob nailed boots with vicious looking studs had appeared. The quartet looked at each other wondering if it was individual madness or a shared delusion. Slow nods confirmed they were on an equal footing, the refs whistle sounded sharper and echoed in the shroud of mist as he blew to resume the game. Forget the rutted mud and slush, the players charged into each other, it was all crunching tackles and powerful runs as they huffed and puffed like steam engines.

The pitch was just about visible through the misty coating but the boys couldn´t make out anything beyond the fence surround. Strangely though, they could hear clapping, cheering and mighty cries of encouragement, it seemed way beyond the ability of the scattering of fans at kick off time. Rakers responded best to the pulsing roar of the crowd. A nippy winger with feet like quicksilver weaved his spell again and again, twice in five minutes he wrapped his boot around the laces of the heavy ball and launched it high for a Goliath of a forward. The thundering giant met the first ball with a huge crack from his left foot, and the second time he intercepted it in mid air and became a human battering ram as he headed it in for the second goal.

It was an exhibition after that, for big men, the Rakers had lovely close skills and teased their valiant Lower Marsh rivals for the final ten minutes of the game. The final whistle lingered in the air before tailing off as the players filed off down the tunnel in a slow, regimented fashion with no exuberance or emotion. Even the clatter of their hob nailed boots faded in their wake as the mesmerised Mini travellers clapped loud and long. Looking around it was like a spell had been broken, the ground was empty, and the wooden doors to the street open.

The village was pretty much deserted, the pub was closed up but at least the car was parked up just beyond, a reassuring link to the reality they thought they had lost. All four slipped into the sagging seats and put some heating on. Their emotions were reeling, how could they explain the afternoon to their friends, the hoppers all tried to out boast each other with tales of games they had been too but this would draw even more scornful, disbelieving responses than normal. There was no point telling their wider circle of non football friends at their local – they all switched off anyway when they talked about stand designs and wonderfully graded pitches. It would just have to stay their own special daydream, mirage, or group illusion, there was nothing to suggest it had even happened. Bertie, who after all was supposed to be the clever one, had a thought and dipped his hand into his pocket to withdraw his programme sheet. The days teams and the date 27th November 1974 couldn´t be argued with, but the sheet itself was dry, faded, and like ancient yellow parchment. He held it up in front of the others, almost trembling, they also retrieved their sheets, and smiles spread across their faces as they saw they all had the same well worn paper. That was enough for them, they knew something had happened, it would be their secret, something special to bind them together for life. They tootled off home filled with a deep happiness – they even missed the fallen down sign in the hedge pointing back to Rakers FC – Founded in 1874, Inaugural Game 27th November.