Mention of football yesterday set me wondering why football is the only sport I ever watch on television. The answer is in that old phrase 'Catch 'em young'.
At the age of about 10 or 11 I stood on the terraces of my local football club, decked in team scarf and rosette and clutching one of those large wooden rattles that today would be confiscated as an offensive weapon. The same two records were always played over the tannoy every week before the match: The Night Has A Thousand Eyes and Frank Ifield's I Believe In You.
After the match we kids stood outside the Players' Entrance with our scrapbooks filled with players' photos cut out of the local newspaper. When the players of our lowly Third Division side emerged we got them to sign these photos. We got the same players to sign our scrapbooks week after week.
It so happened that the Captain was a family friend so always greeted me by name. If the term 'street cred' had existed in the early sixties, mine would have shot off the graph every time this happened. Despite the fact that I could have got his autograph whenever he visited my parents, I still made him sign my book at the Players' Entrance every Saturday afternoon. It was as rigid and meaningless a ritual as going to church on Sunday.
One year my parents bought me a season ticket in the stand as a birthday present. The Team Captain, who also helped out in the office, gave me a personal tour of the stands and allowed me to choose my own seat.
Whilst I was there he had a heated conversation with the coach about another player. "Tell him to pull his....." He stopped abruptly and looked at me. "Do you do Latin at school?" he asked. I said I didn't. "Tell him 'extractum digit'" he said to the coach. They both laughed at this and I took to saying it to my mates when we played football although I had no idea what it meant.
The season ticket was a generous and well-intentioned gift by my parents but it removed me from the other kids on the terraces. I had always stood at the front by the corner flag and I missed the strong smell of resin when a player came to take a corner and the mud flying through the air as a player crashed into the fence in front of us. In the stand I was seated with elderly men. I think the presence of a child meant they had to censor their language. In those days, that simply meant not saying 'bloody'.
It's hard to believe now but then people really did shout at the referee: "What a diabolical liberty!" and "Get your eyes tested, Ref!"
I don't know if it was a peculiarity of the team that I followed but the home fans only ever shouted abuse at their own team. If a player who was regarded as rather lazy broke into a sprint, the old man next to me shouted "Steady on, Briggsy, you might have a heart attack!" This old man specialised in heavy sarcasm but it wasn't always appreciated by the players. One of our players regularly raised two fingers in our direction and on one occasion dropped his shorts and mooned at us. He didn't get a yellow card. Referees took a much more relaxed view of such things in those days.
The old men around me were constantly passing me sweets - mints, bullseyes and liquorice allsorts - none of which I liked but felt obliged to accept out of politeness. Sometimes these sweets had gone gooey in their raincoat pockets and had fragments of pipe tobacco adhering to them. Maybe that's where I got my taste for nicotine. In any case, the old wooden stand was a dense smog of cigarette and pipe smoke.
Then, one Saturday afternoon, the cosy innocence of those times cracked and shattered and it was the team Captain who allowed me to glimpse through a keyhole the reality that lay beneath appearances.
He was a player in the Gary Lineker mould who had never been cautioned or booked. But on this ocasion a misunderstanding with another player allowed the other side to score. The saintly Captain, who had translated 'Pull your finger out' into Latin to protect my young ears, stood in the goalmouth and a torrent of 'fucks' and 'fuckings' poured from his mouth. The crowd fell silent. It was like discovering that the Moors Murders had been committed by Val Doonican.
It wasn't the first time I'd heard the word. My best friend had once startled me when we were playing with his Meccano set by suddenly asking "Do you think men and women really fuck or do they just have children naturally?" I thought he had failed to grasp the concept of 'naturally' in the context of human reproduction but diplomatically changed the subject and asked if I could borrow his Beano annual. But the sight of the mild-mannered Captain and family friend shouting 'fuck' in front of 20,000 people was the most unnatural and shocking thing I had ever witnessed.
It wasn't just an aspect of the adult world that was revealed on that Saturday afternoon in the early sixties but also a glimpse of a future where people could say 'fuck' on the BBC and where people could indeed have children without fucking. But would we have been any less surprised to know that people wouldn't be allowed to smoke at football matches? I know what the old men in the stand would have said: "What a diabolical liberty!"