Richard Moore's Birth of a Claret
In the late 80`s I was on tour with the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle playing "Capulet" in Romeo and Juliet. A part, in football terms, that could best be described as a holding midfielder`s role. The glory and the goals falling to Sean Bean and Michael Kitchen who were both to go on to play for Premiership Clubs by the name of "Sharpe" and "Foyle`s WarPromotion,Promotion,wherefore art thou Promotion
-Sean Bean(above) acting
that he pretends he doesnt care about Wembley!
On a free day I was standing in a town centre pub surrounded by a dozen or more television screens showing a replay of a Newcastle game. Through windows decorated with black and white paper streamers nearly every passer by seemed to be sporting some version of the Newcastle team colours. Just up the road, towering over the shopping malls stood the massive St James` Park stadium, holding 52,387 in its present form but on the same site in 1930, hosting 68,386 Magpie fans in an old First Division match against Chelsea. Anyone passing through Newcastle could never be left in any doubt about the club`s importance to the city.
Standing next to me at the bar was a squat, powerfully built man old enough to have the tell- tale blue scars of a lifetime down the coalmines on his face and hands. One hand was wrapped round a pint of Newcastle Brown Ale with all the gentleness of a gorillas paw. The shyness that stood between two strangers started to melt as we began to talk football.
Over the first pint of "Dog" (local- from, "Going to see a man about", meaning, "I`m off to the pub") my reply to his question, "Who do you support?" had been met with a nod and a twinkle of the eye but left to lie fallow between us. This was a man who was not going to be rushed into expressing an opinion until he was ready. If you are a Burnley fan this can be something of a relief because nailing your Claret and Blue colours to the wall and stating that you are a Burnley supporter, often elicits the smart-arse reply, "Well, somebody`s got to do it."
The smoothness of a pint of "Broon", another euphemism for the local ale, hides an alcoholic content of 4.7% which can incline a man to either fisticuffs or philosophy. In someone still wet behind the ears it is, alas, often the former but over time it can temper the vicissitudes of a hard life and ease a man into a role that would rank him alongside Aristotle or Plato. Such, I`d begun to see, was the demeanour of my grizzled drinking companion. "There`s only one other town in England where football`s as important as it is here," he said, wiping away the golden nectar`s froth away from his mouth with the back of hand freckled with age, "And that`s Burnley."
I was surprised and delighted to hear it from him but I`d learned this by a process as natural as being born in Japan and growing up to speak the language without ever knowing why.
I was born in May 1942 by which time, Turf Moor, the home of Burnley Football Club had already been in existence for 59 years. Second only to Preston North End, it`s the oldest football ground still in use, having just celebrated its 125th birthday. It doesn`t dominate the town in the same way that St James` Park does Newcastle. The Magpie`s ground sits on the top of the town. The Turf lies in a hollow just off the centre of it. Surrounded as it is by hills which can amplify sound, I first became aware of it as a roar. Too young yet to be "taken on", even inside our house, up the hill of Sandygate, I could hear it sigh and groan and roar like a huge caged beast on match days.
Early in the season, when the weather was still warm enough, front doors which opened directly onto the pavement would be left open up and down the street and I`d be allowed to sit on a cushion on the stoop alongside Tommy our fine mouser of a cat while the womenfolk, left at home while the men went to the match, would gossip the afternoon away. This was often accompanied by a bit of pavement cleaning..
"Has he gone on?" a neighbour would ask.
The answer was invariably, "Aye", although a woman couldn`t be too sure. "He" might have gone straight from a Saturday morning shift at the mill to the pub but if your man was a Claret fan, there was only one place he`d be every other Saturday for nine months of the year and that was on the Turf.
Sitting on that immaculately scoured donkey stoned step on August 21st 1948, apart from the muffled groans and strangled roars of a missed goal, the one sound I would have heard for sure was the triumphant bellow from nearly 34,000 supporters that rolled up the hill from Turf Moor as Jack Billingham scored a 60th minute goal against Lancashire rivals, Manchester City to win the season`s first home game..
Two years later I`d graduated from the front step to become a Claret. I wish I could remember my first game but I can`t. What I do remember is a large handmade wooden stool.
For a man who had lost three fingers of his hand at the Battle of the Somme, my granddad, was great at making things. My first scooter, made entirely of wood had nice round wheels which were soon pummelled into the shape of a modern 50p piece as I bounced off curbs and across cobblestones.
Standing on the terraces in those days, when you were eight years old, could mean having no view at all unless someone lifted you up and sat you on top of one of the randomly spaced safety barriers. This was not only precarious but raised you to an unnatural height and incurred the wrath of anybody behind you. Granddad decided to surmount the problem by constructing a foot high, oblong wooden stool which I could carry on to the Turf under one arm. Getting it past the man on the turnstile worried us but granddad solved the problem by letting me go first and pushing it under the turnstile with his foot after me. Once on the terraces, I`d place it by my feet until kick off and then hop up on it to watch the match. This still incurred a certain amount of barracking. Generally from the vertically challenged grown up who, before kick off, thought he`d got a great viewing position behind an eight year old who had not only grown a foot but who produced a giant claret and blue painted wooden rattle to whirl above his head. Bought as war surplus in the late 1940`s they were pressed into service by football fans up and down the land and made the most wonderful noise. Mine felt light one day during a match against Manchester Utd and I realised I was only holding the handle, the head having flown through the air down the packed terraces.
You`d never get one past "Security" these days. An elderly diabetic fan was recently stopped from taking a plastic bottle of water on with him at a pre-season friendly.
History reminds us that 1950-51 wasn`t a great season. In fact, between Christmas and Easter, the team I now called, "We" managed only one victory in 13 League and Cup games, which just goes to show that what seems like Burnley`s annual post Christmas slump is nothing new.
What was new for me was that I now had heroes to emulate, heroes that I began to name. Jimmy Strong. What a name for a goalkeeper. Granddad said Jimmy could pick the ball up with one hand and I became convinced I`d seen him do it. Bill Holden, top scorer in his first Turf Moor season, Tommy Cummings, Jimmy Adamson and Jimmy McIlroy who scored his first Burnley goal that year.
The kick-about on the Delph, an area of waste ground at the end of our backstreet started to have a new meaning, now it wasn`t just you playing, you could actually BE somebody. Richard Moore