11: Thank Goodness for Harry Hill
SOUTHAMPTON 3 BURNLEY 1
The pound was tumbling. Creepy Clowns were stalking the streets. Putin was recalling people back to the motherland. He was threatening to shoot down any interfering US planes. Petrol prices were on the up. And Marmite had run out on supermarket shelves.
Trump and Clinton were still at it, hammer and tongues, the Trump tongue lashing out at all and sundry. Clinton serenely smiled and said when others aim low then she would aim high. And England were as depressing as ever in Slovenia.
It was the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, BBC news announced that Nicola Sturgeon would be initiating another Scottish Independence referendum and that a large gorilla was on the loose at London Zoo. Unfortunately they got the pictures mixed up and for Nicola Sturgeon showed the gorilla happily munching on a snack.
Against that background it was a relief to get back to Burnley and the Premier League battles. If the world outside was looking decidedly wobbly, then a Times report named Burnley as the friendliest place; an oasis of warmth in a gloomy north. It seemed all to do with neighbourliness, how many people could you count on in times of need. In the olden days the test was could you leave the back door unlocked all day and could you nip next door and borrow a cup of sugar.
Back then it might even have been a footballer who lived next door; they might even have delivered our milk like Jimmy Mac or Arthur Bellamy.
I’d been to see Roy Oldfield again after a summer break. Jim Thomson had come round as well; he was the club commercial manager in the Orient Season when Roy was groundsman. The official attendance that day was given as 15, 686 but anybody who was there has always thought it was more than that.
Jim reckoned it was maybe nearer 22,000 as things approached pandemonium level outside the ground with long queues and milling crowds with serious dangers developing. Jim recognised that things were approaching crisis point and it was decided to open the large gates. Open them too much and there would have been a mass stampede so two policemen opened them just enough for one or two people at a time to get through. A whole lot of people therefore got in for nothing. And meanwhile the decision was made to delay the kick-off. Brian Miller was not best pleased, said Jim.
Roy remembered that after the game Brian Miller hugged and squeezed him so tightly that he feared his ribs would be crushed. Just one corner flag was recovered, the nets were ripped and the police ordered all inside doors to be locked at the tunnel end to keep the fans from getting inside into the corridors in their eagerness to share their celebrations with the players in the dressing room.
“We could hear them all banging on the doors to be let in,” said Roy.
Earlier in the season, with the club penniless, one of the directors saw that there were now five footballs up on the Bob Lord roof and footballs weren’t cheap. It was decided they must be rescued. Jim was commercial manager but that made no difference, he was instructed to erect the scaffolding and get them down. Jim did all kinds of odd jobs as well as avoiding people calling to have their bills settled.
“Tell them I’m not in,” he’d say which was exactly what Bob Lord used to say only a few years earlier.
Anyway: as well we know, it may not be the tallest stand in the world but nevertheless that is one helluva high roof. Scaffolding on wheels was duly trundled out and erected by Jim and a couple of apprentices long before the days of Health and Safety and mandatory tin hats and training days about how to climb up a ladder.
Jim looked up and uttered just two words, “Bloody hell.” Then he added a few more, “No way am I going up there on this rickety contraption.” But he did… just the once and swaying about in the breeze and nearly ill with vertigo retrieved one ball. The apprentices called out, “We’ll move the scaffolding along while you are up there and you can get the next ball.”
“Oh no you won’t,” he called back down and inched his way back down the fragile contraption and said a silent prayer when he reached firm land. It was at this point that Director Bernard Rothwell appeared.
“You got them all then,” he asked whereupon Jim said no he only had the one and there was no way he was going back up again.
“Bernard looked at me and told me I was soft, amongst other things,” said Jim, “and said he’d go up himself. And he did. When he got to the top I couldn’t believe that he actually got off the scaffolding and climbed on the roof and threw the balls down and all the while I’m thinking hell he could go straight through the roof.”
Roy Oldfield too had his own share of adventures with scaffolding on wheels, this structure the one that was used in the gym with its high ceilings and bulbs that needed changing every time players took accidental pot shots at them and scored a direct hit. He hated it but did allow himself to be wheeled about by the apprentices from bulb to bulb when enough of them needed replacing to warrant the ride of death with Roy clinging on for dear life and shouting at the likes of Phil Cavener and his mates to slow down before he fell off.
“It was a long drop,” said Roy, “and those daft lads thought it was a huge joke while I was up there hanging on for dear life.”
“How times have changed as well,” said Jim. “Today you can’t get near the players, there seems no connection, no closeness; no real contact between them and fans apart from the odd exception. Back in the 70s when we played as many as 9 of us used to meet up every Monday for a drink somewhere and we’d always mix happily with the supporters. Most of us lived in or near the town so we were always being invited to open this, or present a prize somewhere or just make an appearance, and we never refused. It was the captain, Martin Dobson, who sorted them out and organised a rota so that we all had to take part. There’d be a list of names and when it was your turn there was no refusing, it was expected of you, you just did it and enjoyed it, unless you had something really important that took priority but that was rare. We went round the supporters clubs and there was never any ‘us’ and ‘them.’ There was something most weeks. But now: when do supporters get the chance to meet, spend an evening and chat informally and really socialise in the week on a regular basis?”
“Meeting them in the pubs and clubs we actually made some decent friendships with supporters and they’d tell us where they stood on a matchday. When we ran out or in the warm-up we’d look for them and give them a wave. Do you see that anymore?”
It was a Sunday game for Burnley and in mid-October against pundits’ predictions they still weren’t in the bottom three. The Division was propped up after 8 games by Sunderland, Stoke City and Swansea. Bookies and hacks had indicated that Dyche was one of the favourites for the vacant Villa job. You wonder where they get this stuff from; they didn’t even approach him.
The last league games between Southampton and Burnley in Southampton had certainly favoured the home side but Sporting Life guru David John was optimistic about Burnley’s chances even though Southampton were unbeaten since the middle of September in all competitions; manager Claude Puel had got them organised and Austin was scoring goals again but nevertheless he saw Burnley creating problems and would certainly be no pushovers. Dyche’s side was evolving all the time he argued, had a fine attitude and a display close to that which they gave against Arsenal would make them a tough assignment. Steven Defour and Jeff Hendrick were steeling up the midfield with drive and energy. Defender Michael Keane was the newest hottest talent and attracting covetous glances from other clubs. Tom Heaton was a class act. Their solidity at the back was a tough nut to crack with one of the best goals-against records in the division, just 9 goals conceded.
The game was on SKY in the afternoon but first there was the small matter of Master Joe playing for Farsley Celtic Colts under 10s in the morning. Farsley have a great set-up having been ‘reborn’ in 2010 after the ‘old’ club went into administration. A tidy little ground covered on two sides, an all-weather pitch and two adjacent training areas, one of them another full-size pitch, plus an indoor playing area. The youth set-up is hugely busy and superbly organised with teams that start at under-10 and go right up through the ages. The social club serves Growlers (Yorkshire pies) and mushy peas. What more could you want on a cold wet Tuesday night when it’s training for the Colts? For Clarets in Leeds, Wilson’s Pie Shops in and around the city are highly recommended having won several prestigious awards. Their Jiffy Pork Pie van is a regular at Leeds Rhino home games. Imagine driving a pie van for a living; some blokes have all the luck. Way back in history, pie shops were the original fast food outlets. And the old nursery rhyme – four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie – they really did used to put live birds inside a pie for a laugh and then when the pie was opened out they flew to amuse the diners.
The Farsley Colts game was in a drenching downpour that lasted all morning, cold rain as well with no shelter other than umbrellas. All of us were soaked and shrammed, none more so than the lads playing their hearts out and getting frozen to the bone and coming off shivering uncontrollably and looking like mudlarks. This was a long, long way from Premier League billions; and while Burnley fans were heading towards Southampton and the glitz of the upper echelon, we were at the very bottom rung of the ladder in the mud, or maybe ever lower, grass roots stuff, where it all starts with volunteer coaches and team managers giving up their nights and weekends to get it all organised, and parents and grandparents devotedly turning up to support the lads. I remembered how I did this for 12 years on a Saturday morning running the school team. They deserve a medal. Then, with that level of cruelty that only comes with the capriciousness of English weather, as soon as we got home and Joe into a warming bath, the rain stopped and there was blue sky.
At Southampton, Dyche like the rest of us was baffled by Dean not awarding the penalty when Gudmondsson was brought down in the box with the score at 0-0. Yes it might well have affected the course of the rest of the game; but it wasn’t given so that after that the result of the game reached its predictable conclusion with a defeat that could well have been an absolute tonking if Heaton had not been in superb form, with one save bringing Gordon Banks in 1970 comparisons from the SKY team.
Where Southampton were slick and dominant, always a man in space for a quick forward pass, Burnley were pedantic and laboured struggling over and again to find anyone forward with an accurate pass. There was just the one forward, Vokes, so that time and again the ball simply went back to Southampton who mounted yet another attack. When a Burnley player did receive a pass it was more often than not played backwards. Incisive movements and quick forward runs were at a premium, pace was non-existent.
With the score at 0-0 at half-time you speculated that Burnley might somehow just scrape a point, it had that feel about it; hey they might just do it we wondered. For all their possession and dominance and despite Burnley’s poverty going forward, Southampton seemed to be having one of those days when chances went begging and Heaton was saving everything. Defour had gone off with what looked like a hamstring injury long before this. On came the young O’Neill.
But come the second half they scored with a scruffy scrambled goal from a corner and all you could do was humph and sit back and groan at the impotence of any Burnley response. And then the second was fired home following a corner and then a third from a penalty decision far less blatant than that which Burnley were denied in the first half. Later on, maybe Dean thought he had to redress his error and did indeed award Burnley a penalty for an obstruction on Mee in the box. Vokes converted. 3-1 and the commentary team optimistically decided it was now “game on.” But it wasn’t.
At St Mary’s 0-0 at halftime and holding on; so it was in Joe’s Farsley colts’ game but they ended up on the end of a 6-1 drubbing. The Harry Hill show consigned the memory of the games to the dustbin. Burnley still not in the bottom three and maybe this was a game that was never going to yield a point. Others games might, we assured ourselves afterwards, especially at home.
Meanwhile Russia was provocatively planning to sail one of its fleets up the English Channel. The USA was raising its defence levels to Defcon 3 with comparisons being made to the Cuban Missile crisis of the Kennedy era. But at Burnley there were bigger problems; away from home again they were not even mildly threatening; just how do they make a better fist of these games was the question.
It was a good job Harry Hill was on for half an hour with his new Teatime programme to lighten the gloom of the performance at Southampton. Hill, daft as a brush, is a bit like Marmite, an acquired taste; boy did we need something to cheer us up.