*Written during lockdown 1, April 2020*
I don’t write very often nowadays. I’ve not penned a story since 2013, and other than pub challenge blogs or occasional Walsall CAMRA magazine articles my favourite pen has been furloughed for a lot longer time than I’ve known what that word actually means. So I thought I’d do a football post. I don’t do football writing other than drunken status updates about missing goals or what a great/shambolic display I’ve just witnessed.
Please forgive me because as I write this line I don’t actually know where this is going or what I really want to convey but as we are all missing our Mighty Saddlers fix, so to fill a bit of the void and maybe pass 5 minutes of your lockdown Sunday I thought I’d scribble some thoughts as my 30th anniversary of seeing Walsall win away for the first time is this year.
I didn’t get the football bug to start with. I wasn’t born into a footballing family. Sure I’d watch the FA Cup final as it would always be on, especially as in those days it was shown on 50% of the available tv channels. At primary school if asked who I supported I’d say Manchester United, but when asked to name any players I’d struggle. Just as I do nowadays at the first couple of games of a new season following yet another Summer rebuild of the Walsall team.
The 1986 World Cup hit me like a train. Suddenly I was football mad. Watching any match going, stopping up for those 11pm kick offs and falling asleep, missing a chunk of the second half. I clearly set out my stall to miss some of the match from very early on. The tournement ended in heartbreak of course but I wanted more and in January 1987 I went to my first Walsall match (I’m forever indebted to Swill for taking me). It was a bit of gloryhunting as I watched us knock Birmingham City out of the FA Cup.
I’m going to fast forward to 1990. A time when I was still a good boy and going to church. I used to love belting out hymns like Away In A Manger and Colours Of Day although I was soon to go full on Michael Stipe and was Losing My Religion as adult life set in. 1990 was another heartbreaking World Cup year but significant in other ways. Music fans will quite rightly point out that 1990’s Time For Guru but other stuff occurred. Walsall left Fellows Park and I left the bastard hole that was Thomas Moore School (named after the saint, not the absolute top bloke who’s doing 100 laps of his garden for the NHS).
I got a job straight away and whilst the money wasn’t great I hadn’t yet discovered alcohol so wages could go on away games. Maidstone (a) was my 3rd away game of the 1990-91 season, and 15th overall with my previous record consisting of 10 defeats and 4 draws. We travelled to Dartford where Maidstone were groundsharing, on Royston’s coach. I’m pretty sure it was Lank and Swill who accompanied me. My Walsall FC family could be counted on the fingers of one hand in those days, unlike the many hundreds that it is today. AND WE WON!! 3-1, and I saw all the goals. The cheese burgers were the best that I’ve had at any football ground, rivalled possibly only by the ones at Aldershot. Had I been a fan of either of these teams they wouldn’t have gone bust. Kiosk takings would have kept them afloat. Well maybe until I turned 18 and got on the booze.
You can imagine the immense joy I felt on the way home. The curse had been lifted and I was now going to see Walsall win away on a regular basis. Reality bit the following Friday when I went to Northampton to see us lose 5-0.
So that first away win was 30 years ago this October. Because I’m sad and have absolutely no life my plan was to descend on Dartford in the Autumn to mark this anniversary by visiting the site of the ground there – now a housing estate (they had to sell the ground after financial difficulties knocked on from Maidstone’s liquidation and they resigned from their own league a year later). I was going to have a pint in a pub near the site, then head to Maidstone, see the new ground and have a pub crawl round town. This is probably not going to happen due to what is currently going on but I would like to do it at some point as Kent is ace and I always enjoy going there (save for the odd visit to Priestfield Stadium).
So the following 30 years have been a cracking time. I don’t get to many away games now due to mortgage costs and other things, but they are always a great day out. Walking into a pub in another town and seeing friends, or strolling into an away end just after kick off and waving at folk who are trying to watch the match. Sometimes the football is shocking but we know that can be the case, and we wouldn’t change it for the world. I saw a dismal match report in an Aldershot fanzine back in 1991 which ended with the line “The only highlight of the day was that it was another tick in my quest to see Aldershot lose at every Football League ground”) It’s the social aspect and all the fun of being a Saddler.
These days of lock down won’t be around forever. Stay safe and hopefully very soon we’ll clambering aboard cars, trains and mini buses cause when the Walsall boys play away, we won’t be far away.
P.s for the record I saw 5 more away wins that season, Aylesbury, Blackpool, Cardiff, Carlisle and Aldershot. Cheers.