Monday, April 11, 2011

Crowd Scenes

FA Cup Final 1971 ... I was there
I used to love playing football.  I was pretty rubbish at it, but what I lacked in skill I tried to make up for in enthusiasm.  I only hung up my boots for the last time when I was 43 and finally realised I could no longer keep up with my team mates in our Sunday league team (mere boys in their 20s and 30s, not to mention the occasional teenager).  Nothing ever beats actually playing, but watching a good match live in a passionate crowd comes pretty close.
I started going to matches when I was still a small boy. At first my father took me (he’s never been a fan but he realised he’d get no peace if he didn’t), and then later I’d go with my brother.  We didn’t travel far - Bloomfield Road for Blackpool games when we lived there, and after that the Gay Meadow for Shrewsbury Town.  More exciting was the occasional foray to the Victoria Ground, home of Stoke City (the team I still support) to watch the likes of Gordon Banks, who everybody knew was the best goalkeeper in the world.
In 1971 my father got tickets for the FA Cup Final between Arsenal and Liverpool. They were like gold dust, but one of his colleagues just happened to be the Chairman of Shrewsbury Town which entitled him to an allocation. My brother chose to support Liverpool, so for no other reason than to annoy him I opted to cheer on Arsenal, who had just won the league title and were now attempting to win the ‘double’.
Our tickets placed us behind the goal amongst the Liverpool support.  There was still terracing at Wembley Stadium in those days, and my mother had given me an old biscuit tin to stand on so that I would have some chance of catching an occasional glimpse of the match through the forest of adults around me.  The atmosphere was electric, but when Arsenal had won 2-1 we left the stadium in a fairly sombre mood. My heart hadn’t really been in supporting the Gunners, and I felt sorry for these Scousers, some of whom looked like they were on the point of tears.
There was a real crush of bodies as we made our way to the exits. It was a bit frightening to have no control over the speed or direction you were travelling. Once or twice my feet left the floor, and I was literally carried along.  I remember the look of anxiety on my father’s face, and even now I feel uncomfortable whenever crowds of people are impeding me.
While we were making our way around the outside of the ground, there was some sort of commotion, with people looking up, shouting and gesticulating. The cause of this was a lone Arsenal fan; I don’t suppose he was on the actual stadium roof, more likely he was on top of some other structure (it was 40 years ago you know!), but I remember he was very high up.  He was waving an Arsenal flag at the Liverpool supporters and singing in a broad London accent “We won the double, we won the double”.
To my young eyes, this crass gloating, to which he’d gone to so much trouble, seemed a really spiteful way to rub it in.  I regretted more than ever having rooted for the team which won the Cup, and to this day I still harbour a real dislike of Arsenal and a bit of a soft spot for Liverpool.  How strange that such small events can shape our attitudes for years to come.

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