They used to say that if you sat in St Mark’s Square in Venice sipping a cup of coffee long enough you would get to see everyone you’d ever met in your life. Personally, I think they’re wrong (and I’m certain your cappuccino wouldn’t be worth drinking by the time every last cousin turned up).
More likely, I reckon, is that if you spend long enough supporting a football team you are going to fall out with just about every other club you come into contact with. I’m not talking about the primeval emotion that is reserved for traditional enemies such as Tottenham and Millwall. This isn’t even about that natural human instinct to revel in the failures of the glamorous and successful like Manchester United, Liverpool and Leyton Orient. What interests me is how you can be seriously annoyed by teams who you never thought would give you cause to complain.
Take Southampton. Before last season I had no problem with the Saints whatsoever. The whirling arm of Mick Channon when he celebrated a goal; the one-club loyalty of Le Tiss; the 1976 Cup final underdog-win against Man U – what was there not to like? Then, last season, we had that date with them on Valentine’s Day and they behaved so badly I’m not talking to them again until they call to apologise (with chocs and flowers to follow, I may add).
Yes, Matt Taylor was stupid to get involved after we were awarded the penalty. And he shouldn’t have raised his hands to Billy Sharp. But the Southampton man went down like he’d been lamped by Lennox Lewis in what was clearly a cynical and deliberate attempt to get a fellow professional sent off. The football they played afterwards was no great shakes either, and – like the bottle of alcohol-free lager I had at half time – the whole evening left a very nasty taste in the mouth. So now the south coast side are on a long list of clubs with whom I have issues.
Oh, and while I’m at it, on the way to the game I saw a Saints fan smoking on the platform as he waited for a Tube – which these days is about as socially acceptable as picking clinkers out of your arse at a family funeral. No one, and I mean no one, lights up on the Underground any more. Have some people still not heard of the Kings Cross fire? Southampton are not the only team in red and stripes to have pissed me off over the years. I never forgave Stoke for “stealing” Geoff Hurst and I’ve no intention of ever forgiving Sheffield United for the fuss they kicked up over Carlos Tevez. (Did you know we still owe them £10m over that?) The Argentine will, of course, be forever considered a West Ham legend after he gave us the crossed Irons salute when he returned with the Mancs. But I fell in love with him the day he tackled a Watford player with his head. True, the Watford fella was as surprised as anyone to find the ball on the floor but, even so, that was above and beyond the call of duty.
Incidentally, a few days before the hated United played their Sheffield rivals in the so-called “steel city semifinal” at Wembley, the paper I worked on at the time ran a story previewing the game. My colleague who was given the copy to edit knew even less about football than Neil Warnock. She felt that as we were running the piece on a Thursday and the game was on Saturday it would read better if, rather than mention the days of the week repeatedly, she changed it slightly. Which is how Sheffield Wednesday became “Sheffield yesterday” in a national daily newspaper.
While we’re in Yorkshire, this might be a good time to explain why Leeds are still one of the teams I love to loathe. Don Revie. That’s it – he’s the explanation. The man who set out to win at all costs, convincing talented players they would be better off kicking their opponents instead of kicking the ball in such a way it might actually be considered entertainment. One particular moment still gives me the shudders all these years on. Leeds are pressing in front of the South Bank and a speculative cross comes into our box. It’s only ever going to be the keeper’s ball, but a white shirt goes for it anyway – knowing full well that pain and misery will inevitably follow. Bobby Ferguson is at the top of his leap when the Leeds player clatters into him, causing the Scot to come down like an Olympic diver performing a double twist with pike. Only Ferguson wasn’t throwing himself into a diving pool – he was about to land head-first on the ground. Hard, unyielding, ground. Which he did – put there by the hard, unyielding style that Revie demanded of his teams.
One witness remembers our bonny Bobby lying motionless for 10 minutes. It seemed much longer. I don’t believe there was a single person in the ground who didn’t fear he had broken his neck. Back then, they didn’t quiz managers after a game in quite the same way as they do now, so we never got to hear Revie’s thoughts on the matter. It’s my guess he wouldn’t have batted an eyelid if Ferguson had left Upton Park in a wooden box.
The world record fee we paid for Ferguson certainly didn’t prevent him getting battered from time to time. More famously than the Leeds mugging, he had been carried off the previous season in the League Cup semi final replay against Stoke at Old Trafford … but that’s another story.) I realise it’s a giant leap from attempted murder to artificial pitches, but join me by the long jump pit as I begin my run-up. As I recall, four clubs had the drastic plastic: QPR, Preston, Oldham and Luton. I suppose I should despise them all equally but, hey, no one said life is fair. It’s you, Hatters, that really gave me the ache – somehow the beach ball effect at Kenilworth Road seemed even more laughable than at any of the other grounds. I’m not putting you in the same league as Don Revie’s hitmen, you understand – but I won’t be buying one of your Luton Lotto tickets any time soon.
And where do you think you’re going, Bristol City? You just sit still while I remind everybody of the day you arranged a 10.30am kick-off because you didn’t want to entertain a lot of noisy Cockneys. Nice try. Unfortunately for you, 5,000 of us turned up anyway, and after not watching the newly purchased Tim Breaker not make his West Ham debut one or two of us adjourned to the pub. You won’t make that mistake again in a hurry, will you?
Then there’s Oxford United. How can anyone fall out with them? Well, I managed it after a rather unpleasant disagreement with one of their supporters following a game at their place. I won’t bore you with the details, but I think it’s fair to say the young man with whom I had a free and frank exchange of views was not an undergraduate at the university which provides the dark blue crew in the boat race. I never thought I’d have a problem with Coventry – not after they beat Tottenham in a Wembley final. Then, last season, we had all that nonsense about who broke the minute’s silence for the city’s wartime bombing victims, and now they’re on my list too. I could go on – and will, because I haven’t got to Notts County yet. Remember them in the old second division? The only consolation on missing out on the Cup final, courtesy of our old friend Keith Hackett, would have been to have gone up as champions. Only Notts Co spoiled that particular party with one of the most negative displays seen at Upton Park in years. The fact they later appointed Paul Ince as manager only goes to prove my initial judgment about them was spot on.
There is, I know, a slight chance that I am beginning to sound like a cantankerous old bastard who bears a grudge. As my wife and children will testify, nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, it is that I have a strong sense of justice – which is hugely satisfied by seeing Luton in the Conference, Leeds in the shit and Sheff Utd still in League One after the greatest penalty shoot out of all time. (I will always love you, Huddersfield … until you aggravate me as well, that is.) I only hope this yearning for justice is fulfilled on Saturday, and we give Southampton the sort of spanking that would even make a Pompey fan smile. The Italians may have got it wrong about St Marks Square, but they are right about revenge. Unlike frothy coffee, it is definitely best served cold.