In WSC 262, December 2008, Matt Nation described an unsentimental return to Ashton Gate, where he discovered everything and nothing had changed
23 October ~ The point behind school reunions, find-your-mates websites and other sewers of nostalgia has always seemed rather moot. There are reasons why people haven’t seen each other for half a lifetime. The hugs maybe cloying, the air-kisses sloppy and the compliments gushing, but they do not alter one crucial fact. If they had wanted to stay in touch, they would have.
With this in mind, your first trip to a Bristol City home game for a decade and a half is undertaken without a wet eye in the house. There are excuses you could use if you want: you live in another country (although you could fly to a game in the same amount of time it takes to play one) or it’s too expensive to get in (despite the fact that you smoke away the price of a match ticket in less than a week). But the truth of the matter is that, in the past 15 years, you couldn’t be arsed to devote an hour and a half of your time to what you claim is your favourite team. You’ve spent more time than that reading the Daily Mail.
Although you’ve issued yourself with a court order barring yourself from going within two hundred months of memory lane, you still take no chances. You go on your own, thus avoiding any risk of a “one-oldmanship” session, where you and your mate pretend to be able to recall vividly things that happened at a time where your only real recollections would be the sloshing of the amniotic fluid in your mother’s womb. You don’t want to go on about John Galley, Bovril and terrace suedeheads (things you never experienced, but wish you had). You don’t want to think about Forbes Phillipson-Masters, pork pies and pensioners calling Asian referee Gurnam Singh “Gunga Din” (things you did experience, but wish you hadn’t). The past is, more or less, a foreign country and you’re determined to let it stay that way.
But things won’t have changed that much anyway, will they? After all, in one of the last games you saw at Ashton Gate, there was a shaggy-haired bloke in goal for Watford who’s still between the sticks for his country even now. The bloke on today’s visitors’ bench was on the same bench 15 years before. Even Alan Walsh, the City winger who invented the stepover in the 1980s, is still at the club and, just like then, he still doesn’t look a day over 42.
But things have changed. For starters, there are the replica shirts. You’re aware that replica shirts are everywhere nowadays, but it’s still unsettling to see them where you’ve never seen them before. Now there are hundreds of them. Chaps who would previously have turned out in nothing less than a V-neck jumper and collared shirt are wearing other people’s work clothes emblazoned with the name of a man younger than their grandchildren.
It’s not just the supporters. The players appear to be putting the wrong bodies into the shirts, too. They all look like, well, sportsmen. There always used to be at least one player who looked like the fans did – Andy Llewellyn, for example, who didn’t just eat all the pies, but also stuck half a dozen down the back of his shorts, or the sack-like Nicky Morgan, who would have lost a sprint against a drunk with no shoelaces. But the ones warming up on the pitch, all raised on a diet of broccoli-pasta salads and apple-juice spritzers, have the waist of an Edwardian woman and a figure-skater’s arse. They play a high-speed game of touch and pirouette their way pointlessly around traffic cones.
And they can play, too. There’s no hoofing, no wellying, no vulgarity at all. It’s all crisp, ground-hugging passes, proper give-and-go stuff, like a 22-man game of air hockey. Even last-ditch clearances, which formed the bedrock of Bristol City centre-halfs’ careers for many years, are tut-tutted at if they find touch rather than a team-mate. You think of the last centre-half you saw, Mark Aizlewood, ponderous, violent and with the first touch of a wrecking ball. They wouldn’t even let him carry the water bottles in this team.
Half time comes and they wheel out former striker Paul Cheesley to do the prize draw. No change there, then, as they’ve been doing that for 30 years, although at least most knew who he was then. Today, not even the man with the mike knows who he is; possibly betraying the belt-tightening strategies of the marketing men at the club, he refers to him as “Paul Cheepley”. No one appears to notice.
In the second half, things get slightly more old-school, attributable mainly to the appearance of Gary Doherty in the visitors’ defence. Then, with a quarter of an hour left, City’s 6ft 5in centre-half scores the game’s only goal, with a delicate flick with the outside of his foot. If a centre-half had scored with his foot, or even dared to use the outside of his foot back in the day, he’d have been substituted immediately, probably fined and possibly instructed to leave the city’s boundaries by sundown. You briefly rue the fact that goals no longer seem to be celebrated by a mass chorus of Drink up thy Zider, but then you realise that, just like with lemon curd, Battenburg cake and piccalilli, it’s a scarcity-value thing. You miss it because, even though it used to make you cringe, it’s impossible to get hold of where you live.
On the way out, you overhear how one single player is being victimised. Just like when they picked on Jimmy Mann in the 1970s, David Rennie in the 1980s and even Brian Tinnion in the early 1990s, it’s a midfielder. Lee Johnson, the son of manager Gary, is simply “not fit to play for Bristol City Football Club”, even though he was more industrious than anybody else on the pitch and as good as the best industrious midfielder you’ve ever seen at the club.
These moaners just don’t know how good they’ve got it. You came armed with the sneering superiority of the long-term expat, fully expecting to see a clodful of hod-carriers hitting and hoping for 90 minutes (an attitude fuelled in no small part by reading countless articles on the subject in English-language newspapers). You go having seen a team featuring no fewer than nine Britons playing football of a standard that would make the second-tier teams you’ve seen in Germany and elsewhere choke on their lactic-acid tests.
There’s one bitter aftertaste to this newly discovered matchday experience, though. German coaching legend Sepp Herberger once famously, and incomprehensibly, said, “After the game is before the game,” and it’s the post-match entertainment where English football fails to hit the spot. In Germany, you’d be getting home just in time to watch the highlights of every Bundesliga game, on state television, for nothing. In England, you’re faced with the prospect of watching the bloke from Rising Damp who’s not dead dancing with someone you’ve never heard of while someone else you’ve never heard of describes it, and everything else, as “awesome”, preceded by up to four adverbs. And any country whose television scheduling is knocked into a cocked hat by Germany’s is clearly doing something very, extremely, absolutely and completely wrong. Matt Nation
Illustration by Tim Bradford