Father Christmas

Christmas On The Way – Kings Road, 10/12/19

October 10, 1953

Headington United 0-1 Chelsea

1953-54 FA Youth Cup (Attendance: 1,200)

Two Wingers – Brian Munday  & Peter Brabrook

“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.” – Robert Frost

‘Remember when we played against Bobby Charlton in the Army?’ My dad’s best friend Bert’s eyes would light up as he repeated this question every so often to him, & the response was usually a tight lipped, barely perceptible nod of the head. My father was too polite to deny Bert his pleasure at recounting the tale, but too honest to wholeheartedly encourage it. Why? Because there was one fatal flaw in this otherwise pleasing anecdote. It wasn’t true.

I was reminded of this in December 2016 while listening  live to the Chelsea Fancast podcast in the Mixlr chatroom. The former Chelsea & England winger Peter Brabrook had just died & Fancast supremo David Chidgey, aka Stamford Chidge, was intrigued by my mentioning in the chatroom that my father had once shared a pitch  with a man who later played in West Ham’s victorious 1964 FA Cup final team. For dad may not ever have played against the great Sir Bobby but he did once line up against a Chelsea team including  Brabrook & John ‘Snoz’ Sillett, whose brother Peter  scored a famous penalty winner against Wolves 18 months later which helped seal the club’s first ever League title. John later went on to co-manage Coventry City to their only major silverware, an FA Cup win in 1987, pleasing all virtuous souls as it was against Spurs. Later on he shared punditry duties at ITV with his ex Chelsea team mate Jimmy Greaves. Brabrook only played 3 games in Chelsea’s 1955 League Championship season but eventually made over 250 appearances for the club before moving on to West Ham, where he was managed by Ron Greenwood, another member of Chelsea’s only pre Premier League title winning team.

My dad, a small but speedy winger, eventually saw his football career ended at 26, around the time I was born, following a dreadful challenge by ‘that bastard of a full back at Wycombe Wanderers’ which caused a knee ligament injury severe enough for him to be advised that he should retire or risk ending up in a wheelchair. Afterwards, he played squash, & his beloved cricket into his early ’50’s, when his hips began to give out, but serious football was given the swerve after that fateful day at Loakes Park, Wycombe’s home in their non-league days. Until I discovered he had played against Chelsea I always assumed his finest hour was in the early 1970’s when he played for a Thame United veterans team against a TV All Stars X1 & a small boy eschewed the chance to chance to claim the autographs of luminaries from the entertainment world like Dennis Waterman (pre-The Sweeney)  Richard O’Sullivan (pre-Man About The House) Robin Asquith (pre-Confessions films) or Radio 1 DJ  ‘Diddy’ David Hamilton (pre toupee)  & preferred instead to get the immaculate signature  of the legend that was Brian Munday in his book. I accept that few of these names will resonate with anyone under the age of 50 but take it from me they were famous enough at the time. Certainly more famous than my dad. Sadly for me Ray Davies of The Kinks, who regularly turned out for the TV All Stars, was a no-show, but I do recall goalkeeper Jess Conrad, clad all in black in the style of the legendary Russian stopper Lev Yashin. Suffice to say the resemblance ended there, Jess’s performance in the Yashin kit being akin to me buying a cheap King Of Vegas outfit on ebay & kidding myself I’m Elvis Presley. Well, it’s a hobby. Conrad later gained fame by having three of his own execrable songs from the early rock’n’ roll era  justly included in an  album of the worst records of all time, compiled by the late Kenny Everett. Suffice to say that one of them was entitled Why Am I Living? & most of us who have had the misfortune to hear it have immediately found ourselves asking the very same question. The only celebrity to linger at the bar after the game was Tony Booth, then famous for playing Alf Garnett’s son-in-law rather brilliantly in Till Death Us Do Part, later perhaps most renowned for being father-in-law to our former Prime Minister & walking, talking, lying disgrace Tony Blair. Dad’s friend Alan also played for Thame that day, & as his daughter left the clubhouse I distinctly recall Mr Booth, known to like a drink & presumably well lubricated by this point, turning to the man next to him as he propped up the bar  & saying ‘come back in a couple of years love’ out of the corner of his mouth. I was 9 or 10 at the time so Kim would have been around 12. Men said weird things like that quite routinely in the 1970’s but even to my young ears the remark seemed beyond the pale. Booth later came close to burning to death when a drunken escapade led to him falling into a drum of paraffin. He may have played Sid Noggett in the appalling Confessions Of A Window Cleaner & got his tackle out on stage in Oh Calcutta but unlike the other Tony in the family at least he never got us involved in a war justified by a whopping untruth, namely insisting on the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Dodgy buggers both in truth.

My dad never took me to a Boxing Day fixture at Chelsea, & my grandfather never went to Stamford Bridge with me, but they will both be in my thoughts when I take my seat for the Southampton game this year. With just the one quoted exception, Boxing Day was the one day I can remember as a child when my dad would dig out his boots & play football in the morning, with his cricket mates at one of Oxford’s many college grounds, usually Brasenose. If Oxford United were at home in the afternoon this would then be the one time in the season my grandfather would foresake Isthmian League Oxford City & join us at The Manor Ground. The Osler Road terrace was always jollier on Boxing Day, as yuletide cigar smoke mingled merrily with my Uncle Tony’s Embassy cigarettes & my grandfather adding to the then omnipresent football ground aroma of piped tobacco. This combined attempt to recreate Didcot Power Station would usually be accompanied by the passing around of a hip flask, us kids having to settle for the normal match day diet of Trebor mints & Wrigley Spearmint gum. In 1974 the opponents were my grandad’s boyhood team Millwall, Oxford winning 3-1 & leaving him, never much of a drinker anyway, slightly less jolly than the rest of the adults. My 12 year old self didn’t need nicotine or hip flasks that day as Chris Garland scored twice to give Chelsea a rare away win at Highbury. On Boxing Day two years earlier Oxford had beaten a pitifully poor Brighton team 3-0 with two goals from a young man called Keith Gough, recently signed on a free transfer from Walsall. Gough never set the Thames on fire after that, although he did once make a decent stab at winning a bravery award by responding to a brutal challenge from Nottingham Forest’s long-legged full back John Winfield, booting his redoubtable opponent back hard enough in the upper thigh  to poleaxe one of the many physically imposing Division 2 defenders of the age. Wingate was a man with what would politely be described as a robust approach to playing the game. The Brighton Boxing Day team included two of Chelsea’s fine crop of 1960’s talent, utility player Bert Murray & former England striker Barry Bridges. Bridges had also appeared in recent years at the Manor for QPR & Millwall but it was fair to say he was past his considerable best by the time he moved to the Goldstone Ground. Lest we seem to romanticize the past a tad too much, on one occasion in his QPR years Barry got caught on the ground with the ball trapped between his legs, & as Oxford defenders prevented him from regaining his feet by hacking away at the ball the home fans responded to this amusing spectacle with the chant ‘Bridges is a spastic.’ Charming. Brian Clough took over at Brighton after their inevitable relegation in the season of the 3-0 loss at Oxford, but things would still get worse before they got better. Shortly after Cloughie’s arrival they played high flying Bristol Rovers, featuring their famous ‘Smash ‘N’ Grab’ strike duo of Alan Warboys & Bruce Bannister, both of whom were to impress against Chelsea with different clubs in future years. Brighton lost that game 8-2. At home! Even Cloughie had his off days.  As did my gran on that Boxing Day of the Brighton match, who stayed in the pub with the rest of the womenfolk after the men had gone to the football. Being nothing if not a polite person, she was famous for waiting to find out what the person sitting next to her was having before deciding she would have the same. Presumably she must have had quite a few people sitting next to her that lunchtime, as a combination of sherry & whisky macs saw her disappearing regularly to the toilet on arriving back at our house, a rueful ‘I shouldn’t have had that last drink’ lament accompanying each journey up the stairs. By the time Keith Gough had enjoyed his finest hour in professional football she had taken to her bed. Never mind Nan, happiness makes up in height for what it lacks in length to quote the estimable Robert Frost a second time.

Although my dad had told me about his game against Chelsea I could not even answer Chidge’s question about who he had been playing for. I was guessing at it being a friendly game & possibly Oxford City or the Army. Wrong on both counts. My mother reminded me that he had in fact been playing as a guest player for Headington United & thechels.info  surprisingly filled in the gaps, listing the day, date, result, attendance, & indeed the Chelsea line up, Sillett & Brabrook’s involvement confirming the match as the one dad played in despite the Headington teamsheet being disappointingly blank. I certainly never knew it was an FA Youth Cup game, or even that the tournament even existed back then, apparently having started in 1952. Only the venue remains in doubt, Oxford for sure & likely either The Manor or Oxford City’s White House Ground, my money being on the latter. Chelsea won 1-0 & Greavsie’s future short-term television sidekick Sillett evidently scored the winning goal. Dad never played for Headington United again but later became a loyal fan after his own career ended & Headington had changed their name to Oxford United in 1960. Two years later they entered the Football League, & twenty four years after that, in April 1986, their victorious open top bus passed me as I walked home from work following their splendid 3-0 Milk Cup Wembley triumph over QPR. Chelsea were 15 years into a trophy drought at that point, a barren spell that still had 11 years to run. QPR had recently beaten them 6-0, & had knocked them out of the Milk Cup earlier in the tournament as well. Oxford also won 4-1 at Stamford Bridge a couple of months before the final. For a so-called gloryseeker I was doing spectacularly badly. I had also attended far more Oxford United matches than had most U’s fan who carped at me about my love of Chelsea. My father went to the final though. I still have his ticket. I didn’t begrudge Oxford United or their followers the  Wembley triumph but had no desire to go to the game at the time, nor regrets about missing it ever since, my colours long since having been nailed to a blue rather than yellow mast. I would much rather be able to time travel back to 1953 & see my dad play against Chelsea, but  in the absence of a suitable tardis remain inordinately chuffed that he did so in any case.

So why bring all this up now? Two reasons really. It is Christmas, & Christmas is a time for family, celebrating with those that are still here & remembering those who are no longer around, but were such significant figures in the yuletides of our youth. As a child I thought my grandparents would live forever, let alone Uncle Tony or my father, all no longer with us, though in fairness my grandparents would be 112 now! My grandfather was the first close relative under 90 to die. I was 23 & the last time I saw him was on Christmas Eve. I visited him in hospital, taking a bunch of flowers ( you could still take flowers into hospitals in 1985) & spent a short time sat by his bed as he lay unconscious, slowly dying from the undiagnosed peritonitis that would kill him. At one point his eyes opened briefly, he recognised me & said ‘Hello Phil’ very quietly before they closed again. I instinctively knew then that the hello doubled up as a goodbye, the final farewell, & I never visited him again over Christmas, aware that others needed to share a similar moment & that it wasn’t going to get better from there.

Most of my earliest ‘Match Of The Day’ memories involved being allowed to stay up way beyond my normal bedtime to watch David Coleman present the then paltry two game edited highlights  on my grandparents sizeable black & white telly. I watched my first ever football match in that room, with my father & grandfather, the 1968 Fairs Cup Final 1st Leg between Leeds United & Ferencvaros. Dirty Leeds. When I stayed there at weekends, the illicit ‘ Match Of The Day’ viewings would  be followed up the following morning with a kick around in nearby Florence Park, comfortably the most beautiful park in Oxford, with its perfectly kept flower beds & Weeping Willows. My grandfather, over 60 then, would don football boots & tracksuit bottoms, though unfortunately the only football he owned  had the valve rattling around inside it & would not stay fully inflated for very long. He loved football, & talking about football, frequently recounting the same anecdotes of matches & characters from the past, a trait I fear has been passed down. The difference was that he always had at least one happy recipient of the umpteenth retelling of the same tale. Me. On Saturday 28th December, 1985, there would normally have been plenty for us to chew over with that day’s results. Chelsea beat Spurs 2-0 & his beloved Millwall put 5 past Hull, where I had only just severed my ties a few months earlier. He died that evening with the most minute of small consolations for me that his last ‘Grandstand’ teleprinter results service, or whatever it had morphed into by then, brought good news for us both, albeit without him being conscious of the fact. I miss him very much.

My father died of cancer in 2011, reduced to mere skin & bone in the three months from diagnosis to death, but still able to raise a quizzical eyebrow the last weekend I saw him at the news that Chelsea had just paid £50 million for Fernando Torres, & a broad smile at finding out that Babestation was on the options menu on the small television next to his hospital bed. Next month marks 50 years since he took me to my first Chelsea game, a 2-2 4th Round FA Cup draw with Burnley. The nearest fixture to this anniversary in January? A Premier League fixture against…….. Burnley. This poignant twist of fate is slightly contrived, as there is a fixture nearest to that date, the Arsenal game, but that is  kicking off at 8.15 & destined to lead me still wending my way home deep into the early hours of the next morning. My £70+ is staying in my pocket, my ageing limbs at home. So Burnley will be the game nearest to the anniversary that I am actually present for at Stamford Bridge, unless there is a home draw in this year’s FA Cup 4th Round. Perhaps that will be Burnley too. As on Boxing Day I will be attending the Burnley game by myself, but there will be a feast of memories, overwhelmingly happy ones, swirling around my head & keeping me company as I take my seat in the West Stand, just as I did with my dad all those years ago in 1970.

I am never truly alone at a football match.

 

 

 

 

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