“I have to say I’m involved in a sport that I love and an industry that at times I don’t like.”
That was the honest – and forthright – view of Gareth Southgate as he prepared the England football team for their World Cup qualifying matches against Malta and Slovakia (four points out of six, not a bad start for him).
I’ve always liked Southgate, both as a player and manager, so his comments on the health of the football “industry” were not unexpected. But it’s still refreshing to hear someone high up in the game be candid about the sport from which they make a marvellous living.
Southgate’s views are probably shared by most footie fans up and down the country. We still love the game, despite the bloated state of the Premier League, the grotesque payments made to agents and misbehaving managers (naughty naughty Sam Allardyce).
Earlier this month, I spent 12 hours travelling up to – and back from – Fleetwood to watch the mighty Blades (Sheffield United) attempt to extend their unbeaten run in League One to eight games. It was an experience that made me realise how much I love football and that it’s very much ingrained in my DNA. For the record, I’m not a Blades fan – I’m a Baggies (WBA) follower – but given my eldest son is fitness coach at Bramall Lane, they are my adopted second team (closely followed by The Cobblers – Northampton Town – where my son was working last season).
During the journey from and to London by train, tram and emergency taxi, I met a number of like-minded football nutters; ordinary people who travel the length and breadth of the country to support their team, often stretching their household finances to breaking point. They do it because they love their club. It’s a marriage for life – divorce will never be an issue.
While waiting for a connecting train at Preston, I was overwhelmed by the number of Aston Villa fans swamping the station like claret and blue bees, part of the 5,000-plus arm that had descended upon Lancashire to witness the last rites of Roberto di Matteo (ex-West Brom manager) as the team succumbed to a 2-0 defeat at the hands of Preston North End. I marvelled at their gallows humour and love of a team that should by rights be Birmingham’s flag waver in the Premier League. Die-hard, loyal supporters wishing for nothing but an upturn in their club’s fortunes. Maybe Steve Bruce (a bluenose – former Birmingham City manager) will turn things around (I hope so).
Similarly, when I got off the train at Poulton-le-Fylde to catch a bus to Fleetwood, I smiled at the small knot of Blades fans at the bus stop, patiently waiting to be whisked on their way to Highbury Stadium, home of Fleetwood Town FC.
Of course, the scheduled bus never arrived. With less than 30 minutes to kick off, one of the fans kindly asked me whether I would like to share a taxi to the home of the ‘Cod Army’. As it transpired, we had to order two taxis which meant I got to travel with three Blades fans who, to put it mildly, were a little squiffy, a fact not missed by the taxi driver.
“Have you been drinking?” he politely inquired (I was stone cold sober having confined myself to diet Pepsi on the way up from London).
“Not much,” chirped one of the three from the back seat. “Just one, two, three, four, five, six … maybe seven pints!” Giggles all the way round. Lovely lads.
“Never knew Fisherman’s Friend were made up here,” exclaimed one of them as we passed the factory in Fleetwood where Lofthouse makes them. You learn something new every day on your football travels.
As I said, lovely tipsy lads. So down to earth in fact that I picked up the taxi fare, leaving them with at least £5 each extra in their pockets – enough for another pint or two of Lancashire’s finest ale post-match.
I then proceeded to watch the Blades (backed by 1,300 mad-cap supporters) scramble a draw in the last minute of stoppage time in the second half. Vociferous to the core, wise-cracking most of the time and never once malevolent. Following a team that really should be playing in a league at least one level above League One.
Then, on the way back – this time via tram to Blackpool and then down to Preston – I bumped into a Carlisle United fan who was heading south from Brunton Park after a 2-0 victory against Colchester. Splendid chap. Lives in Ashford, Kent and supports Carlisle home and away through thick and thin. A trip to home matches involves a round-trip of some 700 miles but he wouldn’t have it any other way. Loves the Cumbrians, and will love them until his heart beats no more.
Football fans. Salt of the earth, most of them.
Bill Shankly, the legendary Bill Shankly, once said: “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don’t like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.” I saw that in spades on my Saturday of football delight.
I hope Southgate’s words are heeded by those who make an extremely lucrative living from the industry that us fans will support for ever more. Supporters, until death do us part.
Main image by Chris Payne