Posts Tagged ‘FA Cup’

Ricky Lambert scores last minute equaliser against Blackpool

Ricky Lambert scores a last minute equaliser against Blackpool in the 2-2 draw on 10 December 2011

I am perpetually bemused and amused by the propensity for otherwise reasonably sane people, oneself included, to become helplessly trapped in a cycle of despair and adoration for a group of sportspeople.

Currently, the football team which has been my deep love for more than thirty years – the “Pride of Hampshire”, Southampton FC, a.k.a the “Saints” – sit proudly atop the English Championship, the second tier of English soccer. If they continue to win more games than their rivals, then the end of the season will see the ultimate dream achieved, returning to the Premiership – the world’s greatest domestic football league – which they once graced for a remarkable 27 continuous years.

St Mary's Stadium

St Mary’s Stadium, home to Southampton FC, nestled in an industrial area near the famous port

Southampton’s story is that of a family club, once based around a Church football team – St Mary’s, now the name of their new stadium,and the origin of their nickname – way back in the 19th century, that has always punched way above its weight. At one point when I started supporting them (whilst at University in the ugly little south coast port city, so scarred by Nazi bombs in the 2nd world war) Manchester United used to make more from programme sales on a Saturday than Southampton made from ticket sales. The club nearly crashed out of existence altogether through financial troubles just a few short years ago, and have languished in the lower reaches of English football while they sort themselves out. These are heady days indeed.

Saints have always, with temporary diversions inflicted by misguided managers who rarely lasted long, been a club that preferred to play “total football”: football with genuine flair, football with what used to be called “Continental panache”, football to make you gasp with pleasure when it went right and cringe with pain when it went wrong. The roll call of great players who slotted comfortably into this unrealistically idealistic atmosphere almost beggars belief for a club of the size of Southampton – Bates, Gilchrist, Davies, Paine, Boyer, MacDougall, Moran, Osgood, Channon, Keegan, Wallace, Shilton.

Matt Le Tissier

Matt Le Tissier, perhaps the most talented footballer of his generation – perhaps any generation – and Southampton legend.

And, of course, the mecurially brilliant and sublime Matt Le Tissier. Or as he became universally known by Southampton supporters, “Le God”. Without question, the most gifted attacking midfielder the English game ever produced, who steadfastly refused multi-million-pound offers to move to the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United with the simple words, “I like it here”.

It was this crazy, knockabout passion that led to Saints once memorably defeating Manchester United in the prestigious FA Cup Final, despite being a division below and a light year apart in terms of raw talent. It remains the only major trophy the club has ever won.

It is Saints’ generation-on-generation preference for bold, flowing courageous football, so often resulting in the team losing games 4-3 at the death knock of the 90 minutes as the defence streamed forward, looking for a winner, that led one supporter to memorably comment, “It’s not the despair that really gets to me, it’s the hope.”

So anyhow, last night, my beloved team were on the TV live, playing a team, Blackpool, that on current form they should beat easily. And true to the deadly obsession that is sports fanaticism, a bunch of us on the other side of the world from the actual match trailed loyally into a pub in Melbourne at 11.30pm in the pouring – torrential – rain, to once again undergo the ritual sacrifice of our sanity.

All ages, shapes, sizes and sexes. Actually, what was really funny was that in the streets and in the pub we were surrounded by cheery Christmas party revellers, many of them late teen, early 20s girls dressed in their best party finery – which means mini skirts that make handkerchiefs look excessively over-manufactured and legs that never seem to stop as they reach for the sky. Yet we only had eyes for the TV and every missed pass, crunching tackle, and woodwork-rattling shot. They must have felt their efforts to impress were entirely wasted. Or perhaps we were all gay? We certainly looked peculiar, decked out in red and white team shirts, and one bizarre fellow sporting a felt jester’s hat in team colours with bells. Yes, dear reader, that was me.

Bartosz Bialkowski

Bart Bialkowski – the stand-in keeper’s mistake gifted Blackpool a vital goal

And once again, Saints put us through the emotional wringer, with a performance that ran the full gamut of the sublimely talented to the horrifyingly inept and back again. They totally dominated the opening period, and scored a good goal from the latest hero to embody Saints’ spirit, Ricky Lambert. Then they let in two goals, one a well taken effort that was probably unpreventable, and one a goalkeeping howler that will haunt the lad concerned for the rest of his career. Stand-in keeper Bart Bialkowski somehow let an otherwise harmless shot squirm under his body and through his legs to give Blackpool the lead.  Perhaps the only consolation for the lad is the mishap occurred too late to be included in the “bloopers of the year”compilation DVDs out for Christmas.

Not until the second minute of five minutes added on to the normal 90 did Saints finally score an equaliser (seen above, again from “Goal Machine” Lambert). The relief in the Sherlock Holmes Tavern was palpable. And Saints’ nearest rivals, West Ham, contrived to lose, to boot. So we were still somewhat fortuitously top of the table, still with an unbeaten home record (although the current record-breaking run of 22 homes games won came to a sticky end) leaving us tragics in the pub buoyed up and near-salivating for next Sunday’s game against arch-rivals Portsm*uth.

(I have to write Portsm*uth and not the whole name of that benighted club, because it is a long-standing tradition amongst Saints fans that we never write their club name in full, which would pay them too much respect. They are more commonly referred to as simply “Skates” or “the fish fiddlers”, in deference to the belief that fishermen in the area used to acheive sexual satisfaction by having intercourse with the wings of the Skate fish, common in the area, (a type of small ray), which was supposed to mimic a human female sex organ. The fact that those fish were then on-sold to the locality, including Southampton, may well have something to do with the persistence of the mythology and the mutual dislike. Since time immemorial, the rivalry engenders more hatred and detestation than possibly any other in English football.)

I was left, driving home in the pouring, leaden, dark night, to reflect on what it is about supporting a sports team that makes it such a consuming and culturally-independent experience. Around the world, sport of all kinds, but especially the various codes of football, captures the hearts and minds of thinking, rational people and turns them into dribbling idiots, crying or laughing into their beer, and happily hugging smelly strangers indiscriminately.

I saw it again last night, when, in response to our manic shouting at the TV, (“Ref! You total bastard! Offside!”), the entire clientele of the pub started to forget what is was they were there for originally, and pay attention to the flickering images of inch high men running backwards and forwards, beamed live through unimaginably brilliant technology from the other side of the planet. By the end of the game, and Lambert’s last-gasp equaliser, they were all on side too, cheering, asking us if they could wear our colours, asking about the team and our star players, and cheerful adopting our lifelong allegiances as their own. As one colleague bemusedly remarked to me, “Not bad, another 30 new supporters who’ve never heard of us before.”

Yes, for a few brief minutes, we were the same tribe. We were the same religion. We believed the same things. We were the same town. The same country. The same world.

We were the same family.

Damn, it felt good.

Post Scriptum

Southampton were promoted back to the Premiership in late April 2012, returning to the top flight of English football – possibly, arguably, the best league in the world – after seven years away. A week before, Portsmouth were relegated to League 1, the old “Division 3”. As one wag remarked: “Normal service has been resumed”.

Fratton Park

The clouds are gathering over Pompey. Well, they've gathered, really.

Those with a passing interest in football – that’s the real football, I mean, where the foot contacts the ball, and the use of hands is restricted to two players out of 22 on the park – will have noticed that Portsmouth FC, traditional rivals of my team – Southampton FC – are broke.

Again.

This time for not paying their taxes. Not paying their taxes because presumably they were too busy paying inflated transfer fees and wages, so they could maintain an artificially exalted position in English football. (By artificially exalted, I mean, of course, anywhere higher than Southampton.) And now, they have to find a buyer, or they risk going really, truly, totally, finally broke, which I mean the club will cease to exist and their ground will be sold off for affordable housing or an ice-skating rink.

Which is where Southampton were a few years ago – within two days of vanishing altogether – until a kindly Swiss billionaire stepped into to save us. At the time, may Portsmouth fans were gleefully awaiting our permanent demise with glee that would make the witches in Macbeth toiling over their hubbling bubbling cauldron seem like cheerful old grannies on a seaside excursion. Ah well. que sera sera. Now it’s a case of biter, bit.

And needless to say, many Saints supporters are now cackling maniacally over the possible vanishing of our South Coast rivals, and the grinding of the faces of their fans into the blasted sands of a building site where Fratton Park, their antiquated home ground, used to be.

And yes. It needs saying. Without a word of a lie, the worst of the Pompey fans are awful. But then again, so are the worst of ours.

I suspect Pompey has more dreadful zombie fans than we do because it has always struck me as a rougher, tougher area generally. In its built form it is uglier than Southampton (and that’s saying something, after the Nazis demolished great swathes of both cities with indiscriminate bombing, and what arose in place of charming medieval homes and churches was mile after mile of disgusting concrete tower blocks and squat, low-rise concrete stores) and as far as I know Portsmouth has worse employment and more crime, and I have always found the residents to have a sizeable chip on their shoulder accordingly.

But no, for all that, I don’t want to see our nearest rivals disappear, for the sake of their real fans.

Sure, I’d be happy if they were in what we used to call Division Four, before Division One was re-named the Premiership and Division Two became the Championship, so good old Division Four was christened something called League Two – and I’d be glad for them to be mid table, too, with crowds of no more than 5,000 for a few seasons, to teach them some manners after their hubris in recent years.

And yes, I have experienced some horrid times with Pompey supporters, but then honestly so I have with so-called supporters from Tottenham, Leeds, Chelsea, Millwall, and others.

In the good old bad old days of the 70s and early 80s, it was quite common to see Bedford Place, a harmless little thoroughfare from Southampton Central Station up to the Saints home ground, which was called the Dell, boarded up from top to bottom on match days, otherwise every window would be smashed in, and the mass of fans would prevent any effective policing of the chaos at all.

When I went to the Dell to see us beat Man City once their fans were lobbing darts at random into the toilet queue I was in. Well, I think it was Man City. But it could have been any one of an enormous variety of clubs that still produced magic on the pitch while their fans behaved like crazed mental institution inmates on the terraces. Ah yes, the stepped concrete terraces with their murderous metal-pipe leaning posts, which could crush the life out of you as ten thousand fellow fans tumbled down the terraces behind you and towards the pitch if you weren’t smart enough to get out of the way, and which would ring with the chant “We’re going to have a riot!” “We’re going to have a riot!” And so we often did, although I never threw any punches myself. I was too busy running away, and I say that with no shame whatsoever. If you have never been in the middle of a pitched battle with thousands of young males armed with boots, knives, lumps of wood, metal bars, broken glasses and God knows what else then you can’t really comment on my instinct for self-preservation. I wouldn’t have enjoyed being at the Battle of Floddon much, either, and that was what it was like.

But despite having often been on the receiving end of abuse from fans of all clubs, and often brutally from those from Pompey, really hating people you don’t even know just for supporting another football club is sociopathic nonsense, and doesn’t make the world a better place.

That does not mean I have to like them, much.

And yes, I do love Southampton, because the most important years of the early part of my life were spent there, and I fell in love with the dirty, concrete clad mess of a place.

I understand its traditions, its history, the shared sufferings and joys of its people, and over much more than just football. For me, Southampton will always be uniquely my home, wherever I live. It was where I learned to love, whoever I chose to, and by my choice, and not because I was told to.

It was where I learned to think, and criticise, and analyse, and make my own mind up on the great issues of our lives. In short, this little red smudge on the map of docks and pubs and parks and semi-detached houses which Hitler tried to erase was where I turned from a child to a man, and then a particular type of man, a big part of which was to walk cheerfully to the Dell and squeeze into that tiny ground, on cold winter nights when the frost still sat on the pitch and the air was white with the breath of my fellow supporters and blue with their chants, and on one glorious day in May of 1976, it was where I wandered the streets of Above Bar with an unknown girl on my arm, celebrating the impossible toppling of Man United in the FA Cup Final.

And I fell in love – not with the girl, who I recall was named Sue, but who wanted nothing to do with me the next day after sticking her tongue down my throat most of that night – ah, the follies of youth – but with an idea of a place, with the very essence of a place, a place of civility, and memories, and a curious accent on the voices of its citizens, which would make anyone laugh, and should.

And the essence of Southampton and its immediate environs runs through my veins as surely as my blood still falteringly manages to do so, and it always will.

It pains me to say it, somewhat, but I am sure that’s just as true of people from Portsmouth too. In 1917, my grandfather received the DSC (one step down from a VC) for using his trawler nets to dredge Portsmouth Harbour of contact mines dropped by Zeppelins … in the second war my father sailed in and out of there regularly on the convoys that kept Britain alive in 1940 and 41, which is simply a reminder that what unites us is always greater than what divides us, even with Portsmouth.

And this is the only time that I ever have, or ever will, spell the name of that benighted place with all the letters typed out correctly. From here on, it will be back to Pomp*y, or Portsmou*h. And I will continue to regale all and sundry with the fact that the name of their hideous ground is a perfect anagram of “Krap, Nottarf”, and sing the songs of yesteryear about flying over said ground with the wings of a sparrow and the arse of a crow, and shitting on the bastards below. And when they lose, and we win, I shall be Happier than a Happy Person in Happy Town on International Lets Be Irrationally Happy Day.

But I don’t really want them to disappear, for the sake of the die-hards, the ironed-ons, the kids with tears in their eyes, and the grandads sitting next to them. Because I know they can’t help it either.

They’re hooked, for life, just like me. And we addicts should always support one another, in extremis, at least.