In an extract from the new WSC book, Always Next Year 3, Nick House revisits Torquay's last-day ordeal at Barnet and rediscovers some home truths
On the Northern Line we reflect, yet again, on what’s gone wrong this time. Brian recalls the mood coming back from Kidderminster on day one. You, Brian, Phil, Brian’s mate Tony from Tokyo and, we assume, 700 others had travelled with optimism. We couldn’t quite explain, but we thought it was going to be our season. Best squad for years; good mixture of youth and experience; plenty of flair and enterprise. We’re on our way.
We lose 2-0. Easily and clearly. Gutless, shapeless, just like the poor away performances that undermined the previous season. Habib Sissoko, the close season import the manager says is the target man we’ve been desperately seeking, baffles us. He needs time. But what sort of player is he anyway? We’re deflated. Earlier optimistic forecasts are modified before we reach Michaelwood services. Now, on the way to the last game, we say it’s clear that everyone knew the season was going to stink after that first game. But this much?
Just under five hours to go. You walk down the hill from the tube, not knowing what you’ll find. You’ve heard the talk: we’re bringing 2,000, 3,000, whatever. Some people, they say, already have tickets. Of course you saw this fixture coming ages ago. We were always struggling and they were dropping like a Cottee volley.
There were tales of fans ringing to ask if it’ll be all-ticket. Barnet reply no problem, it won’t be a big game. They don’t see the danger coming. But we’ll bring thousands. We’ve heard it all before, they say. But Halifax and Carlisle are safe. This is the only one that matters. Why the hell didn’t they make it all-ticket? They had time. You’d be happier with that bit of paper. All week you’ve feared the 10.30 queue round the block.
You walk along the lane past Saturday morning motorcycle training. You reach the away turnstiles. There are about a dozen of our fans there. A dozen. You meet someone called Bruce from Northumberland who cheerfully admits to having been there for two hours. He’s with his partner, a set of drums and a pile of leaflets. The leaflets explain what the club means to him and to his father. Bruce’s father is terminally ill. It’s touch and go, but he’ll want to know the result tonight. You remember the day you returned from an away trip, one of your first, to learn your father was about to die. And how your mum died the weekend we were relegated. You decide you can risk a coffee up the hill.
You return in an hour. Now there are 30 of us. You know a fair few of them: Steve, Keith, Keith’s son and a few others you recognise by sight. It’s fun, it’s folksy, it’s mild bedlam. You keep standing aside for the hospitality traffic: another posh car, the caterers going down, the caterers coming back, the florist going down, the florist coming back. A florist at a football match? By noon there are hundreds of us. The gates will open at 1.30. Or it might be one o’clock.
You suddenly become aware of a sense of community. It’s pulling the heartstrings. We’ve had a Football League team since 1927 watched perhaps by three, four, five successive generations. Fathers and sons and all that business. Mothers and daughters too. You tell Steve that today is about the fans, the people and the town. You ramble on about how you now live in a place that doesn’t have a League team. It’s a poorer community as a result. The amateur sociologist who has said it all before: during the dreadful Webb years; in 1987 when the drop was seconds away; in 1993 when the long-ball saviour Neil Warnock arrived on his white charger; in 1996 when we gave thanks to the inadequacies of a stadium in Stevenage; even in 1997 and 1999 when we were crap, but not dangerously so.
You’re in your stride. You mull over yesterday’s website message from DownUnder Gull, a bloke called Glyn from Adelaide, who emigrated in 1966. Hey, weren’t you at primary school with his sister? You’d often wondered what happened to her. You send an email. She’s running a shop in Cairns. Brother will be listening to a webcast of the game thanks to someone with a mike in front of a radio on the edge of Dartmoor or somewhere.
Up the lane you spot Simon, that chap you knew at school. The one you recently met, at a match, for the first time since you did your A-levels together. Last night, when you looked at that Under-15s cup final programme from 30 years back, you saw Simon in the team photo stood just along from Colin Lee. Lee may only be the caretaker manager but you first saw him play in an Under-12s game. You saw his league debut and you followed his career. You need the gates to open so you can step inside away from the 1960s and 1970s.
The gates open at one. You’ve worried all week, but your ticket is for Row A, Seat 10. You’ve joked that now would be the time when the real worry begins. But you are calm. You’re enjoying it. You’re loving it. It may be your age but, since that promotion debacle three years ago, you’ve vowed you’d enjoy the victories and not get angry or disappointed over the defeats. If this is going to be The End, enjoy it. You used to scoff when people told you it was only a game, but now you agree.
Maybe you’re losing interest. You don’t watch football on the TV any longer. You can’t even hold a conversation about the Premier League or the England team. You’ve even started to dislike some things about the game, especially some of those fan things: the one-eyed bias, the vituperative obsession with referees, the whole angry, moaning culture. Some days you feel you’ll walk away never to return. But you’re loving this just as you’ve lapped up the last few weeks with all its twists and turns. You said you wanted drama and excitement. You’ve got it.
Twenty minutes to go. You hear they’ve locked the gates. Looking round it doesn’t seem that packed. In the time of sardines they’d have got eight or nine thousand into this one. You see that woman from Sky, the one you’d be oblivious to if she didn’t support your team. With a wry grin on your face you look for Sissoko.
“Sisko-Sisko-let’s-all-have-a-disco” you sang at Kidderminster. The man responded with a bow. You give him a chance, but you soon have your doubts. He’s had clubs in France, Portugal, Germany, Belgium, Scotland, England. Half a season here, half a season there. All our pre-season targets had gone elsewhere. We were getting desperate. The video arrives. Other clubs are interested. Move quickly and he is ours. He signs. He’s crap. He’s other things as well.
As he gets worse, estimates of his wages increase. How much? You must be joking. The video is updated, ten seconds of extra action at most. It’s dispatched to clubs like ours in other continents. There is interest from China and Australia and you suspect that the manner of his departure may explain the manner of his arrival.
He stays, Lee recalls him to the team. He has a stinker. He’s substituted and pushes Lee out of the way. Sacked on Sunday, on the popular side for Tuesday’s game. Sissoko tells the Herald Express that he wants to see it from the fan’s perspective. He watches the whole game. You almost feel sorry for him when one of the loudmouths collars him. A stylish departure if nothing else.
But you can’t see him here today.
From WSC 175 September 2001. What was happening this month