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19 years old, on the dole and with Christmas around the corner Stephen Tudor had one thing of value to sell: his childhood and his dad’s youth.
During the 60s and 70s my dad followed Manchester United up and down the M1 with a bunch of his mates from the local steelworks. In that time he must have seen hundreds of games – from the halcyon days of Busby and Best to the bleaker times of O’Farrell and Arnie Sidebottom – and on each occasion he would habitually purchase a match programme.
Though some of these programmes were misplaced or stained in stout in a post-game pub he managed to nurse enough of them home to warrant a collection and when I was 8 years old he solemnly bequeathed them to me.
These days, writing this as a grown man, football still retains a significant slice in the pie chart of my life but it has been crowded with other things – women, music, films, and I guess that indefinable seeker of attention and time, life itself.
Back then it was everything and it’s no exaggeration to state that those pile of programmes that came up to my knees, meant the world to me.
Their pages smelt of another age, the price printed in the top right corner was a mystifying denomination (what the hell was ‘6d’), and every other fixture appeared to be against Burnley. Inside the adverts were simply drawn pictures of women lighting fags for smiling men in suits or proclaiming Duckhams to be the best motor oil, and stapled inside each one was the fantastic Football League Review, the free magazine that always seemed to have Ron Yeats in an aerial duel with a bald fella who looked of pensionable age but who, in reality, was probably in his early thirties.
This was far more than a stack of fading paper; it was my dad’s youth, some of which was carbon dated in his own drunken handwriting such as the excitable 6 written next to Best’s name as Georgie went on a personal goal-spree down at Northampton in 1970.
When the pile came up to my shins I began to learn of the stories behind each one. From his early Brylcreemed scooter days to travelling on the coaches, from the heaving crowds to the funny anecdotes usually involving his desperate need to piss somewhere he couldn’t. A deep crease that ran down the centre of one was due to smuggling it into the house after promising he wouldn’t go to the game that day. Leafing through the ’76 cup final programme I’d hear his mournful remonstration that he “couldn’t see a bloody thing. Worst seat in the house”.
Inspired by this hoard of memories I began collecting more programmes, begging anyone I knew going to a match to bring me one back or searching through the classified ads in Shoot magazine for dealers. I became obsessed.
By the time I was ten the hundred or so handed down to me from the old man had burgeoned into just short of 2000. I nerdishly catalogued each and every one. I was photographed lying on top of them all – scattered in clumps and filling every bit of floor space in my small room – giving a Macca-style thumbs up in a sweater I’d really rather forget I ever once wore.
I would spend hour after hour thumbing through these sacred artefacts, studying the archived grainy photographs and absorbing the prose from another era. Sod school and learning about the Victorians or the Cuban Missile Crisis; these were my textbooks. This was my education.
That bald fella challenging with Yeats? That was of course Alan Gilzean. The career path of Bobby McDonald? Villa to Coventry to Man City to Oxford. Ricky Hill’s favourite pre-match meal? Chicken and rice. Probably.
I became fixated on strange names and cool obscure kits and for some reason I had virtually every Watford home from their 1980/81 season and can still recall most of their team even now. I can truthfully say that the knowledge I accrued from poring through them has stood me in better stead than any long division solving or how to request directions to the travel bureau in France. Okay, possibly not in job interviews, but if a potential employer doesn’t want to know that Watney’s Party Seven was a new take on canned beer or that Jimmy Greenhoff’s wife was called Joan then that’s not my problem.
On Christmas Day 1985, at eleven years of age, while my mate Milesy from down the road got a brand new BMX my brother gave to me an assorted box of 200 mint-condition programmes. It remains to this day the greatest present I’ve ever received and whilst Milesy was out in the slush building ramps and my Millennium Falcon lay untouched in the hallway I spent a very contented afternoon meticulously sorting through my new bounty of matchday reviews. Swansea City v Wigan Athletic 1979 – then a fourth division fixture, now Premier League. Colchester v Aldershot 1982. Aberdeen v Falkirk 1973. And no doubt yet another Watford with Nigel Callaghan on the front.
Best of all I had an entire new handwritten catalogue to start all from scratch. I was in football nerd heaven.
Last week my dad called around to mine and, as he does from time to time, brought up the matter of the United programmes. His legacy from father to son.
He mentioned them casually – as if the thought had just occurred to him – but the context was clear: he wants to see them again. To relive his youth through the pages of the past. I replied as I do every time this subject is raised by shuffling awkwardly and claiming they are ‘somewhere’ in the attic. Shamefully there was yet another empty promise to have a root around and bring them down to him sometime.
Except I won’t. Because I can’t.
This is because at some point in my latter teens the football-obsessed nerd mutated – temporarily at least – into a selfish, horrible scrote. I hate him. I’d wish him dead if the irrefutable laws of quantum mechanics didn’t mean that I too would now cease to exist. While drugs, the birth of rave culture and a constant desperation to get laid can be partly blamed for my actions really, in hindsight, there is no defence for what I did.
At 19 I found myself on the dole after recently being kicked out of sixth form college for non-attendance. Christmas was around the corner and with all the parties and nights out that entailed I didn’t have a pot to piss in. In the whole world I had just one thing of value to sell. My collection.
With it gathering dust in the loft I placed an ad in the local Post Office and soon after received a phone call from someone presumably called Derek or Colin. He arrived just as I was lugging the last box downstairs and offered me eighty quid for the job lot.
Why didn’t I take out the United ones from the 60s and 70s and explain they had sentimental value? Because I was a walking cliché drop-out bum Kurt Cobain clone with s*** for brains. And I was probably concerned that he might offer me a fiver less.
Why didn’t I at least secrete the more valuable ones – the last ever Bradford Park Avenue home, the Benfica v United from ’68 in pristine condition? See answer above.
On numerous occasions I have looked back at that sale with no small degree of shame and skin-prickling regret. One minute I had one man’s youth and another’s childhood stored in boxes; the next I had enough for maybe two nights in the pub acting the big man and getting the rounds in.
Will I ever tell my dad? Probably not. Although, having endured that period of having me around back then – hair over the eyes and acting like the world owed him big-time – he probably knows deep down already.