Before the Beautiful Game
Kester Aspden reflects on his football memories growing up supporting York City and Burnley FC
I’m as prone to nostalgia as any middle-aged, football-loving Englishman. But the “coronostalgia” unleashed by the recent suspension of the game was fixed mainly on the Premier League era. It was understandable: matches from the 1990s onwards were less likely to have been marred by violence or racist chants from dangerously-packed terraces. But my own nostalgia, for all its unacceptable features, was for the football culture of my childhood and youth. The game before Gazza’s tears.
My earliest football memories merge with the first pop music I can recall hearing: Kevin Keegan and “Tiger Feet”, Malcolm MacDonald and “I’m the Leader of the Gang (I Am)”. I grew up supporting two clubs, Burnley and York City, and began going to matches in the 1974-5 season when I was 6.
It was the season Brian Clough was sacked after forty-four days as Leeds manager. It was a troubled time on the terraces, too. A young fan died after being stabbed by a rival supporter inside Blackpool’s ground. Manchester United’s “Red Army” was on the rampage down in Division Two and the season ended with Leeds rioting after the European Cup final in Paris. Fences and pens were being erected at grounds all over England to contain the thugs.
Some of my own memories slot into this belligerent backdrop. One of my first games was York v Manchester United in December 1974 and I remember the apprehension as the city braced for the arrival of the “Red Army”. Scratchy footage on YouTube shows a mass of young fans in flares, scarves tied to their wrists, being escorted from the railway station by police on horseback and with dogs.
But despite the times, most of my early recollections of football-going are soft and affectionate: of a passion handed down by my grandfather, the “father figure” of my infant years. It was a passion I came to share with my adoptive father as we crossed from an industrial Lancashire in decline to a new start in a Yorkshire city encircled by medieval walls.
For a long time, I believed that the first game I’d ever attended was Burnley v Derby County. I could picture myself on my grandfather’s shoulders high up on the Bee Hole End behind the goal. To my right, I would have been drawn to the chanting from the covered Longside End; to my left, a view of the moors rising above the factories and mills and endless rows of terraced houses.
If the result did not make for a perfect script – 5-2 to Derby – it had everything else a football romantic could want: a Division One battle between two founding members of the football league at a ground which had hosted matches since the 1880s. In the glory years after the Second World War, over half Burnley’s 75,000 population would fill the stands and terraces of Turf Moor. The town was synonymous with its football club.
For my grandfather, football was his one diversion. He came from Todmorden, nine miles away on the Yorkshire-Lancashire border, and worked in a cotton factory. He was a man of few words but over the years would tell me about his favourite players: Jimmy McIlroy, the star of the league championship winning team of 1959-60, and Peter Kippax, a post-war winger. For many years, then, I had this image of myself at that match, perched on his shoulders. But the romanticised memory came apart when I checked the old fixture lists. By that time, the Easter period of 1975, I’d already attended six games in York with my adoptive father.
He was my mother’s second husband and they married in Todmorden in 1972. A year later, he legally adopted me and my younger sister at Burnley County Court; the next year, a brother completed our family. My new father came from Blackburn and followed Rovers, Burnley’s historic rivals. He didn’t try to convert me, which was as well since Rovers were down in Division Three.
But in those days it seemed every little boy, even a Clarets fan, wanted to be Kevin Keegan. My first kit was a Liverpool one and even though my primary school was within earshot of Turf Moor it was the Liverpool-Newcastle 1974 FA Cup final that we relived at playtime. I remember the blow to my 5-year-old ego when my best friend Trevor was plucked from a useless Newcastle side to join Liverpool, leaving me with the boy with the thick-framed ice-blue NHS specs and the lad with snot streaming from his nose.
I had just one year at St Stephen’s before my mother pushed my father to apply for a job in York. As we prepared for the move, the World Cup opened in West Germany. I was already convinced that England, the birthplace of football, had won the most important World Cup ever held. But when a large chart went up in a school corridor displaying the competing teams for 1974, I remember being fascinated by Haiti and Zaire and baffled by the absence of England.
Unlike Burnley, York’s football club was not high on the list of things you’d associate with the city. Its Bootham Crescent ground was nestled amongst working-class terraced streets away from the chocolate-box tourist trail. But it was here on 28 September 1974 that I got my first taste of live football. York City ran out against Portsmouth in maroon shirts emblazoned with a large white letter “Y”. The “Y-fronts” kit was a talking point in the English game; there was nothing quite like it.
I didn’t hold onto the programme from that first match, but when I picked up a copy on e-Bay recently I saw that York City presented itself then as “THE FRIENDLY CLUB”. The player profiled in its “Football Star Parade” that week was a modest 19-year-old Gordon Hunter who listened to The Carpenters and wasn’t going to get a car until he was established in the first team. Asked what changes he wanted in football, Hunter said that he would like to see grounds completely seated “thereby stopping a lot of hooliganism which is leading the game into disrepute”.
My father and I now had “our team”, something that we could share, and which helped us feel part of our new town. So that last Saturday before Christmas he got us tickets for the Manchester United game. It was proclaimed the biggest invasion since the Vikings and there were 9,000 more fans in the ground than for the Portsmouth game. “Hello! Hello! United aggro, United aggro,” the Red Army bellowed, adapting Gary Glitter, though they left singing “Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way/Oh what fun is to see United win away.” York had lost 1-0 but the city could breathe again. They behaved like “6,000 choirboys”, a police officer was quoted in the press.
The only actual “aggro” I recall that season was Nottingham Forest fans’ invasion of the pitch. I tried to block one as he clambered back onto the terraces pursued by police. A few years later – I think it was after Scotland supporters stormed the pitch at Wembley in 1977 and wrecked the goalposts – I entered a Roy of the Rovers competition looking for solutions to the hooligan problem. I set out the harshest measures.
That first season of football-going I was lucky enough to see the legendary Bobby Moore play. The 1966 World Cup winning captain was playing out his career at Fulham. In the York game, Moore strolled around the pitch, occasionally pointing out where his team mates should go, as they lost 3-2.
So I now had Burnley – the club of my grandfather – and I had York, which I shared with my father. Two scarves, one claret and blue, one maroon and white. My big club, and my small club.
My father’s work often took him to Bootham Crescent. As a building inspector for the council, he was checking crush barriers, exits and new fences after the Safety of Sports Grounds Act 1975. But for York, the days of packed terraces were over. The club fell into Division Three in 1976 and Division Four a year later, with crowds below 3,000. The dazzling “Y-fronts” were dropped for a more modest red-and-blue kit. By now, I couldn’t even rely on my “big club” for glory: in 1976 Burnley were relegated from Division One.
The FA Cup was an opportunity to put such disappointment aside and dream. Growing up, Cup Final day was the biggest excitement after Christmas. Though York didn’t have an illustrious league record, in 1955 they made it to the FA Cup semi-final. In 1976-7 the dreaming began when we beat Dudley Town 4-1 in a first-round replay, but it was the heroic performance of their goalkeeper that stayed with me. Young, possibly still a teenager, he had brown collar-length hair and wholesome pop star good looks like David Cassidy. That’s how I remembered him.
At half-time during one match, a recording of the man claiming to be the Yorkshire Ripper was played over the tannoy
I recently bought a copy of the programme online. It was just one sheet carrying the line-ups, but I learned that the Dudley goalkeeper was one Mike Leyland. I hesitated over pulling up the match report: perhaps he’d committed multiple blunders. If I was wrong on that then maybe other childhood memories were unreliable. But my curiosity got the better of me and at Leeds Central Library one afternoon I scrolled through the Yorkshire Post. “The West Midland League part-timers were only saved by the brilliance of goalkeeper Leyland,” the report of 24 November 1976 reassured me. “Leyland produced breath-taking saves”. Perhaps he was the David Cassidy of the Black Country after all.
The few games that stick in my mind from the late-1970s are mostly the hammerings that City received. My other memories have nothing to do with the football itself, like the monkey noises directed at a black Grimsby player.
At half-time during one match, a recording of the man claiming to be the Yorkshire Ripper was played over the tannoy in the hope that someone might recognise the Geordie voice. Silence fell on the terraces at the words of this killer who’d terrorised the north: “I’m Jack. I see you’re having no luck catching me …” A police phone number was given out before the club announcer returned with his usual patter. “Right, we’ve got some half time scores for you now …”
After I started grammar school in 1979, my friends gradually replaced my father at most matches. With our Junior Reds membership cards, we stood on the Shipton Street End, “the Shippo.” When the wind blew in a certain direction, you could catch the smell of chocolate from the Rowntree’s factory.
Our spot was at the front of the terrace, to the right of the goal, rather than with the lads above who sang: “We are the nutters, the nutters of York.” One afternoon, they chanted “Get your tits out for the lads” as a mousy woman from the Salvation Army band walked in front of the terrace collecting donations. Though the Shippo was an escape from our ever-so-polite Catholic schooling, we were not the kinds of boys to have joined in with that one.
I got used to defeat on those terraces, which was not a bad life lesson. In 1980-1 York finished bottom of Division Four, the lowest position you could occupy in league football, whilst Burnley languished in Division Three for the first time in its history.
For a football-mad child following lower-league teams, there was the compensation of English club success in Europe. With few live matches on television, these were special nights. From 1977 until the 1985 final at Heysel, English sides dominated the European Cup, winning all but one.
Sadly, this did not translate to English success at an international level: the best players at Liverpool, who won four European Cups in this period, were either Scottish (Dalglish and Souness) or Welsh (Rush). In 1981, England hit a new low losing to Norway in a World Cup qualifier. “Maggie Thatcher can you hear me? …Your boys took a hell of a beating,” the delirious commentator cried.
England’s fans also shamed the country. The national team seemed to attract the sociopathic elements of small provincial clubs. Once they’d crossed the Channel and downed a few lagers, lads from Shrewsbury or Lincoln would want to relive the war – or at least urinate in the fountain of some historic square.
In 1982 we scraped into the World Cup and I could finally stick English heads in my Panini book. The jingoistic fervour unleashed by the Falklands War carried over to the stands in Spain. “Argentina, Argentina, what’s it like to lose a war?” was added to the bellicose repertoire. But glory didn’t follow on the football pitch. Four years later, at the World Cup in Mexico, a little Argentinian genius restored his nation’s pride, dumping us out at the quarter-final stage on their way to tournament victory.
I would have happily exchanged the Falkland Islands for a World Cup.
By the time I was 14 or 15, family life was deteriorating. I rarely went to games with my father, and without football we seemed to have little left in common.
But at Easter 1983 we did go to Blackburn Rovers v Burnley. Standing together on the Riverside End, we were rooting for different sides. Some Burnley supporters clambered up the pillars to the roof of the Darwen End and started stripping-off slates, which they then fired onto the pitch. As the players were pulled off the pitch and older Rovers fans muttered about bringing back the birch, I found myself exhilarated by the carnage.
That autumn, a few of us ended up tripping on magic mushrooms at a York match, mesmerised by the floodlights and giggling hysterically through the half-time birthday announcements. It was the only home game that City lost in a championship-winning season.
By 1984-5, York were in Division Three but our Junior Red group had splintered. I started to miss the odd home game, and when I did go it was usually alone. I was on my own when I popped an LSD tab at the FA Cup game against Arsenal. The chanting crowd became a haloed congregation, singing an “Hallelujah Chorus” of “Charlie Nicholas is a wanker”. The match was heading to a replay when York were awarded a last-minute penalty. In the ecstatic celebrations, a boy next to me climbed up onto on a crush barrier using my shoulder as a support. His blonde hair curled at the back and I was awed by this St Michael of the Shippo.
I went to the fifth-round replay at Liverpool with my friends, the apogee and the end of our childhood match-going. Entering the ground and seeing the Kop packed to capacity was magical. Dalglish and Rush both played – clubs treated the FA Cup with the greatest respect – and the only surprise was that neither scored in the 7-0 hammering. On the way back to Lime Street station someone lobbed a brick at our bus window, only slightly denting our good impression of Liverpool.
On 24 March 1985 – the day of the League Cup final – my father suffered a heart attack. He recovered but the family was broken beyond repair.
On the last day of that season, a youngster was killed after rioting at a Birmingham City v Leeds match. The same afternoon, at Bradford’s Valley Parade, fifty-six spectators died when a fire tore through the wooden Main Stand. On this dark day, it didn’t seem important that Burnley had been relegated to Division Four, a league below York now.
A few weeks later, I watched the European Cup final on television with my father laid out on the settee, looking grey. Before the game started, Liverpool fans, perhaps a 100 of them, broke through the inadequate fence and police line separating them from Juventus supporters. As a result of the surge, thirty-nine people were crushed to death when a wall collapsed.
After the bodies were removed from the terraces, the match went ahead. My father and I watched in silence. I could see a flag at the Liverpool end celebrating “MUNICH 58”, the air disaster that had killed twenty-three people, including eight Manchester United players.
In the post-match commentary, Graham Souness described it as a sad night for English football, but it was Terry Venables who had the last word. Liverpool had been unlucky, he said. They should have had a penalty.
My parents spent the year after my father’s heart attack trying to patch up their marriage. My father eventually left and I sided with my mother in the battles that then raged.
Bitterness and anger eventually turned to regretful realisation that it was for the best and my relationship with my father improved. He was living just half a mile away and I would go round for dinner. He was getting adventurous as a single man: Lasagne one week, Beef Wellington the next.
On a bleak January day in 1987, we drove up the A1 to see Burnley play at Hartlepool. We hadn’t been to a football match together for over two years. I must have wondered what I was heading to see: the previous Saturday Burnley had been beaten 6-0 at home by Hereford in front of fewer than 2,000 fans. In 100 years of league football, it had to be the Clarets’ lowest moment.
The Hartlepool ground was exposed to the elements and you could taste the North Sea in the wind. There was a big gap where a wooden stand had once been, demolished for safety reasons after the Bradford fire. On the Town End terrace, a group of Burnley fans, Aquascutum and Burberry scarves covering the lower halves of their faces, ignored the match and eyed rival supporters through a fence. “Back to school on Monday,” they mocked the Hartlepool fans in nursery sing-song style.
It was after that game that I got the taste for following Burnley. At Tranmere that September, someone gave a kick to the large blue exit gates holding us in after the match and Burnley’s hooligan firm, the Suicide Squad, immediately broke into chants of “Su-su-suicide”. Suddenly released, the gates opened onto a line of policemen and two German shepherd dogs and we quickly melted back into the general mass of supporters.
That night I’d planned to kip in the waiting room at Lime Street station, but Tranmere youths were gathering and I didn’t fancy walking strange streets alone. Seeing a supporters’ bus about to leave for Burnley, I jumped on. As it pulled out, Tranmere fans made “wanker” gestures and we signalled “1-0”.
It was close to midnight when we arrived at Burnley bus station. I tried to sleep on its hard benches, at one point huddling in a phone booth it was so cold. I hadn’t had a friend in the town since I was 5 years old. I knew no-one.
In November 1987, Burnley played Bolton Wanderers. After the game, I joined the Suicide Squad in a charge down Blakey Street to confront their hooligans firm the Billy Whizz Fan Club, a tribute to a cartoon character in The Beano and amphetamine sulphate. We’d lost the game, but they scattered and we felt triumphant. After that, I got on a bus to see my grandparents in nearby Todmorden as usual. As usual, my grandmother had made me meat-and-potato pie – “your favourite”. “Wasn’t Peter Kippax any good?” my grandfather commented, when I told him that we’d lost. But my grandfather’s favourite player had kicked his last ball for Burnley in 1948. “Yes, Kippax was good,” I assured him, when I realised that he wasn’t joking.
I’d had a promising middle-class start in life, but I’d crashed it. I was living in Manchester by this time, keen for a new beginning away from York. I had a tiny bedsit and worked as an order picker in a toys and fancy goods warehouse near Strangeways prison. My days were filled with Cabbage Patch dolls, Girls’ World styling heads and thoughts of Burnley football club. I was a 19-year-old virgin in bad clothes and had no more luck with girls in a large city of half a million than I’d had in York.
One night I went to a jazz society meeting only to find a grey-headed, pipe-puffing scene; scholars who could tell you who played cornet on some Bessie Smith record from 1933. I was never going to meet a girl there. At the Laurel and Hardy Society, I found middle-aged men and women dressed-up as Stan and Ollie, ruffling hair and fiddling with their ties. I sloped out after a few minutes.
Football filled the hole in my life. I lived only a five-minute walk from Manchester United’s stadium and I would go to night matches and the occasional weekend game when Burnley were playing somewhere too expensive to get to. It was only a couple of quid to stand on the terraces where I’d sing “United” with the rest of them.
One Sunday after work, I bought a ticket from a tout for the Manchester United v Liverpool match. It was for the away end where the atmosphere was charged with excitement and hate. An inflatable aeroplane bobbed above the heads of Liverpool fans and I heard chants of “Munich 58” and “Who’s that dying on the runway?”
They had never sung those songs in the years just after the air disaster. Manchester United’s great manager Matt Busby, one of the survivors, had played for Liverpool. It was only in the 1970s, when the terrace culture became more aggressive and fans were separated by fences and packed into pens, that the Munich taunts started up. It would take another disaster for them to stop.
After nine months in the warehouse, I realised I needed to do more than live for the weekends, chasing action in the back streets of Burnley. I went back to college in York, moved in with my father, and we started going to games together again. We’d sometimes go to Burnley, occasionally to York, but also to his club Blackburn Rovers as they challenged for promotion to Division One. After the divorce, my father was closer to his family and his Lancashire roots.
He had two cassettes in his car: the greatest hits of Wings and the greatest hits of Elton John. So we’d head for the floodlights of some redundant northern town to the sound of “Silly Love Songs” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”.
After the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, football safety became my father’s main responsibility. He worked with York City to implement the recommendations of the Taylor Report, though as a small club in a lower division, Bootham Crescent retained its standing terraces. I would often slip into matches with him on some safety pretext.
I still went to football after I started at university, following Burnley as they pulled themselves out of Division Four. “Burnley are back, Burnley are back,” we sang, but there was a long way to go.
In 1995 my grandfather died of Alzheimer’s disease.
These days Burnley are a Premier League team, whilst York City play in the National League North, the sixth-tier of English football. I have my big club and my small club again, and though fortunes can change it will be a long haul back for York. Still, on recent return trips to England I’ve preferred Bootham Crescent to Turf Moor. Though I no longer have family connections in York, it feels closer to the game that I grew up with and gives me a sense of home.
But nothing ever stays the same. City will soon be moving on to a new ground a few miles outside the centre. Gordon Hunter, the player profiled in my first ever match programme, will finally get his all-seater stadium. City have even been playing in a “Y-fronts” shirt again in their farewell season at Bootham Crescent.
I’d imagined making one last visit with my father, standing on the Grosvenor Road end as we’d done on a September day in 1974. But it seems the club won’t be holding on at the old ground for nostalgists to say their goodbyes. By the time spectator football returns, it’s possible that the terraces of Bootham Crescent, with all their memories, will have been bulldozed.
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