Monday, 4 November 2013

'I never liked football. I just liked the fighting'

FOOTBALL is like nostalgia – not what it used to be. With all the wonga swilling about at the top level, all the razzmatazz, and the constant Sky coverage, it’s easy to feel the magic has gone.
Like any fan, I could go on reminiscing about football ad infinitum – or ad nauseam. But not everything was better in the old days.
In an extraordinary new book, ‘NME, From the Bender Squad to the Gremlins’, authors Steve Wraith and Stuart Wheatman uncover a wealth of memories from the squalid underbelly of our national sport.
The pair have interviewed more than 40 self-confessed former football hooligans from that “hotbed of soccer” known as Tyneside. Most chose, perhaps not surprisingly, to remain anonymous. But one unrepentant thug, Mark Mennim, has allowed his name and photo to be used along with his tales of tribal misbehaviour.
It so happens that Mennim and I both started going to watch Newcastle United 42 years ago. In his case, though, the term “supporter” doesn’t quite apply.
“I have never liked football and I never will,” he told Wraith. “I’ve had more fun paying my council tax, but I just loved the fighting.
“I have done two jail sentences, I’ve been to court on numerous occasions, done community work and probation and spent thousands on fines, but it never put me off.
“It was my life. We were all mates together, all comrades fighting together and we have been all over England and Europe.
“I preferred Newcastle to get beat, if I’m honest, because you always seemed to get more fights after a defeat.”
My own recollection of those years is that you were always aware of an aura of violence around football – and I certainly don’t miss that – but that it was generally possible to keep out of the way.
My scariest moments involved games against West Ham.
Walking from Upton Park tube station to the stadium in the mid-1970s was like running a gauntlet of hate. One yob who followed close behind me for part of the way was intercepted by a policeman – who confiscated from him a bike chain laced with razorblades.
He’d been swinging it menacingly, but its real purpose, I was assured by a friendlier fan, was probably for an all-East End bundle later that evening.
On another occasion, during the infamous 1980s era of cages, a West Ham idiot in the next enclosure hurled a Molotov cocktail over the wire into the pen I was in. A milk bottle full of petrol, with a burning rag stuffed in the neck. Miraculously, no one was hurt.
Some years later, I was having a pint in Sunderland before a game I was reporting on when suddenly a dozen or so Middlesbrough fans erupted into the pub. They were gone again, whooping like monkeys, within a minute or less. In that time every window, the mirrors behind the bar, all the optics and most of the glasses in the building had been smashed.
It was over so soon, it was more surreal than frightening. And again, nobody was seriously hurt. Again, one might think, miraculously, considering how much glass had for a few mad moments been flying.
And that’s it. Three incidents and no injuries in four decades of football. Mark Mennim would be sorely disappointed.
At 52, he says he’d still be at it if he hadn’t had two heart attacks. But I doubt it.
Football, at least in this country, really isn’t like that any more. Which is one blessing to count the next time we feel like moaning that things ain’t what they used to be.


WENT over to Cambridge last week to catch a wonderful gig at The Junction by the lovely singer-songwriter Martha Tilston.

One of the most beautiful voices in the business has never sounded fuller or more assured. Her writing, which has become less quirky over the years, has never been better or more direct than on her most recent, and perhaps best, album, ‘Machines of Love and Grace’. Meanwhile she remains the most engagingly direct of performers.

All of which may explain why last year she received not one but three requests to have her music used in TV adverts.

The most persistent of the would-be advertisers was a big American bank, whose cash might have been a life-changer. Not a change, though, that Martha was prepared to make.

As she eloquently puts it in her song about the experience:

“It’s hard these days to keep our tangled hearts clear…

“Harder still to know which happiness is true,

“The advertising slogan or the core of you.”

Almost as much as I enjoy the song, I enjoy imagining the bafflement of the advertising executives as they learned that – despite ever-increasing offers – not quite everyone can be bought.

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