34 years ago today, something momentous happened. At least for me.
34 years and one day ago, I could have become a Nottingham Forest or Manchester United fan, but 24 hours later, my love affair with Lincoln City FC started. Sure, we all start differently and this who have read my book Suited and Booted: My life as Lincoln City mascot Poacher the Imp, will already know the story of my first game. despite flogging a dead horse, with the anniversary coming around today I thought a timely excerpt from my book, complete with a few additions, might be in order. After all, October 5th is my Imps birthday!
We pick up the story 12,411 days ago, where a seven-year-old me had been badgering my Dad for months about going to watch a proper game of football after falling in love with the game during Mexico ’86.
On Saturday 4th October 1986, Dad had finally had enough of my whining about football. Under the pretence of a family day out, he had decided to take me to a football match. It was possible to just turn up at the ground and pay to get in back then; so myself, Dad, Mum, and my little brother set off for my first ever game. The plan, I believe, was for my brother Paul and Mum to head off into Nottingham where he would likely be bought a Matchbox car, whilst Dad and I went to the City Ground. I couldn’t wait, I knew how much my Dad and Grandad enjoyed watching Lincoln, and I couldn’t wait to be a part of it. I seem to recall it was a bright day too, albeit chilly with the October air, but what one would now consider perfect football conditions.
What I didn’t know was that we weren’t heading to Sincil Bank. Having recently lost 3-1 against Southend, and gain against Charlton, dad had clearly decided he wanted a different path for me. Our destination was to be the City Ground to watch Forest play Man Utd. Forest had won eight in nine, thumping Chelsea 6-2 at Stamford Bridge, whacking Villa 6-0 at the City Ground and came off the back of a 1-0 win against Arsenal. They were top, two points clear of second and already five points clear of Liverpool, double winners in 1986. Dad had high hopes for me, but the RAF derailed all of that.
Once we’d got down the old A46 my brother spotted a plane out of the window at Newark Air Museum. He began to make a bit of a fuss, and with the cold October air not exactly welcoming for an afternoon’s shopping, we were given a choice: planes or the football. Paul’s teary little mind was already made up, and I suspect Mum wasn’t too happy about being abandoned for the football either. I had the deciding vote, and I went with the winged wonders too. Why? I had been told we weren’t going to Sincil Bank. I’d seen it across South Park that day and I knew it was where I wanted to be. I didn’t understand the difference between Forest and Lincoln, not at seven years old, but I knew I didn’t want to go to Forest, top of the league or not. My Dad went to Lincoln City, his Dad did too and no matter how hard he tried I was going to follow in their footsteps, sooner than I realised.
Early the next day Dad had a bonfire behind the house, as he so often did to burn the leaves and maybe the odd stray bit of rubber. It was October 5th, and in the afternoon we were going to Lincoln, to see my Aunty June. Daniel Blackburn, our best friend from around the corner at Chambers Woods, where we lived was there. He joined Paul and Iout enjoying the autumnal weather in our Wellington boots and Parka coats behind the six-foot fence panels erected to block off the scrubland and our garden. We didn’t know Dad was on the other side of those fence panels, and, as we poked a stick into the dying embers of his fire, I remarked how hot it was, only I said it was ‘pissing hot’. I shouldn’t have known that word, though doubtless, my old man taught me it, but even so, it meant trouble. Years later I regret using such a poor combination of profanity and explanation. I’m quite sure an ‘effing’ hot would have carried more of a punch. I don’t suppose it matters, Dad heard it and he grassed on me to Mum. That was unusual. If we did wrong, it would always be ‘you wait until your Dad gets home’, and if I’m honest, dad has never been a grass. I suppose hearing one of us swear for the first time threw him a little. Either way, the shit hit the fan.
Mum didn’t fancy taking a potty mouth with her to see Aunty June, and punishment was formed. She suggested, as punishment, I stayed with Dad for the afternoon. Little did she know, my punishment for my first ever breach of the verbal morality statute was not to be fined one credit but to be condemned to a lifetime of following the Imps. Me being banished with Dad spoiled his plans a little, because his intention was to drive to Sincil Bank to watch our first Sunday match of the season against Hartlepool United.
I can’t remember the game clearly, I was seven, but I do remember elements from the day. I mainly remember it being alright for everyone to swear a lot, which as a young kid is pretty cool, but given the circumstances around me being there seems rather ironic. Oddly, the result didn’t bother me at all, and I imagine it is the only 4-1 defeat that I will ever come away happy from. The ground was cold and sparsely populated (2101), but I was transfixed with it. The big concrete steps leading up into the Clanford End seemed like a stairway to heaven, and then the pitch coming into view was like nothing I had seen before. I shivered away in my smoky-smelling Parka coat, resting my chin on the granite wall just to the right of Lee Butler’s goal, hidden from pitch view by the advertising hoardings in front of me. Dad bought me a programme which was generous of him, considering this was 1986 and I wasn’t really meant to be having a good time. I flicked through it at half time, trying desperately to name the players on display. Gary Lund certainly stuck out, he crashed into the hoarding just in front of me at one point, close enough to touch and certainly close enough to smell the Deep Heat.
All around people swore, people were angry, and everyone wanted the same thing. I had never been a part of a large group before unless you included the free-for-all which was the 100m race at Wragby CP. I’d never got riled up, and I had never heard so many people say rude words in one place. For a young lad, it was heaven, and on our way home Dad even bribed me with sweets to not tell Mum he’d been swearing. It was basically the best day out a young boy could hope for, without meeting Santa Claus and falling into a river made of chocolate. Remember, we lost 4-1 and turned in a performance the manager later apologised for in local media. That’s how good it was.
In another twist of fate, we had a school trip planned a couple of days later. Our primary school was quite progressive with trips, and it had been arranged for us to go to the Lincolnshire Standard Group offices, a newspaper long-since defunct. We got to draft our own stories the day before, and then go and have them printed up in the same way the paper was produced. I wrote about City losing to Hartlepool and (if memory recalls) added a little drawing of what I thought looked like Gary Lund although I am sure it looked more like a sock with a face drawn on it. My work was chosen (doubtless for the expert punditry and not the sock-like form of Gary Lund) and put onto the plate for printing, and in the space of two short days, the direction of my life was assured. When I saw my story nestled away in the corner of our own ‘newspaper’, I knew what I wanted to do.
I was back at Sincil Bank just before Christmas of 1986, and Gary Lund treated me to an early present. He netted a hat trick in only my second game as we thrashed Swansea 4-0. He was awesome that day, and had scored eight in seven games, something I tenaciously recounted to my Dad on the drive home, thanks to my second match day programme. Even the shy ginger-haired kid at the front of the Railway End knew Lund was something special. He was quick, powerful, and it seemed every time he got the ball, Lincoln scored a goal. If memory serves me rightly (and it is 34 years ago) he even won the penalty that Steve Buckley scored. I remember leaving the ground and simulating their keeper’s despairing dive to my Dad, and in doing so landing in a pile of dog faeces left near South Park. I still laugh at that today, although I’m sure my parents don’t.
No doubt I smelled of dog faeces as I told my Dad about Lund’s goals, no doubt he struggled to hear with the windows wound down to let the smell out all the way back to Chambers Farm. I probably wasn’t cleaned up properly until I got home, and I certainly hadn’t stopped telling my Dad how much I loved Gary Lund and Lincoln City. I imagine as he scrubbed that vile canine excrement from my legs, I was telling him that I wanted to be Steve Buckley and score penalties. By the time I was being tucked into bed, with filth-free legs, I was telling Dad how there were 2101 fans at the Hartlepool game, and I must have been the ‘one’ because I hadn’t intended to go.
That was it, I was a Lincoln City fan. I talked non-stop about it, night and day, despite having just two programmes for reference. Everything stemmed from that October day, 34 years ago. The filing cabinets full of programmes, the numerous ruined weekends following a defeat, the change of career, the relationship with my dad, even the words you are reading now. All of those things would be very, very different had I not sworn.
There’s a morality lesson in there, somewhere. I think.