Rediscovering the love of your youth
10 May ~ You want to know how divorced I'd become from Spennymoor Town? It was April when I learnt they had reached the FA Vase final. An entire cup run by the former love of my life had passed me by. All right, with one parent dead and another now living elsewhere, the homeland jungle drums aren't what they were in the years since I moved south but in this Internet age, that was no excuse. I had moved on in more ways than one. So when an uncle's email announced Spennymoor's Wembley date on May 4, rejecting the idea of being there came easily.
Supporting a team might be largely behind me but I haven't forgotten the etiquette. There was something irredeemably desperate about going to see a team I hadn't watched for almost 10 years, just because they were at Wembley. Alas for principle, I had made the mistake of thinking out loud as I learnt the news. "Could we go, Dad?" asked Younger Son. "It'd be great..."Before I could get even the rudiments of bandwagon-jumping across to him, he had mobilised support. His brother was up for it and I was moralising into the wind.
Two things soothed my conscience. This being the room-for-all FA Vase final, no genuine fan would lose out to my opportunism and there was the matter of unfinished business. In 1978, when my sporting life revolved around Spennymoor, they reached the FA Trophy semi-final, losing 2-0 in the away leg to an assured Leatherhead side. "Nil desperandum, Joe," said Fred Lightfoot, our school teacher-cum-coach driver, as he brought the supporters' bus home late that night. "Nil desperandum..." I had to look it up.
Seven days later, Moors produced the best football I ever saw them play to be level by the interval, with Leatherhead suddenly wide-eyed passengers on a runaway train. Sadly, this was one of those games where half-time was the clock striking midnight in Cinderella. Momentum broken, the hosts re-emerged inexplicably listless. Long before Leatherhead's late decider, I sensed the game was up. I walked home through a deserted town and wondered how life could possibly go on. Remembering that feeling rationalised matters somewhat by the time I ordered our tickets for the final. I had no right to be going for me but maybe I was entitled to be going for him: that 17-year-old of three decades ago whose world crumbled for reasons he still couldn't understand.
Still, a certain detachment was called for. I was the causal friend at a wedding, invited as an afterthought with a place going spare. It was incumbent on me to hold back from the buffet. And for 80 minutes, I did just that, the anonymity of the crowd around me keeping me in my place. Spennymoor is a changed town and save for two familiar faces hovering before me like the ghosts of seasons past, I was among strangers.
On the field, too, things had changed. With televised global football now omnipresent, its lessons have rubbed off. Spennymoor play with a patient poise some way removed from their side of 40 years ago, probing confidently against a generally second-best Tunbridge Wells team. Never out of sight, however, Moors' 18th-minute lead is negated with 12 minutes left and the post-Leatherhead Northern Echo headline flashes before my eyes. Disgust, tears and dismay as Moors' run ends. Old scars have been picked raw and when Keith Graydon calmly rams home Spennymoor's winner two minutes later, detachment hasn't a prayer.
When your birthplace turns it on like this at Wembley, when 5,000 people leap up like mad things as half-a-dozen men in the striped shirts with which you grew up come running towards you, arms outstretched, it touches something primal. I'm on my feet now, arms aloft, bellowing uncaringly, because this isn't about glory: I'm not sure it ever was. I work alongside a Manchester United supporter: how much conversational kudos do you suppose an FA Vase win buys me?
No, this is the scratching of a 35-year itch. I look to the sky and think of absent friends who would have loved to be here. Dad, Fred Lightfoot and Spennymoor's über fan, Jimmy Sokell, his terrace tirades against fate the stuff of legend. Not that I've lost it completely. When the players bring the trophy to us, fans gather at the foot of the terraces. "Let's go down," suggests Older Son but I decline.
This is their team now and the dozen rows between us are perfect. We're far enough away not to be trespassing, close enough to share the moment and to imagine that somewhere among them, I see a teenager with a late 1970s haircut, watching his ship come in, a mere 35 years behind schedule. Nil desperandum, indeed. It just takes a while, sometimes, that's all. Joe Shirley