Five years ago, FC United of Manchester, in only their third season in the FA Cup, reached the First Round Proper for the first time. As I have written elsewhere, the Red Rebels were drawn away to Rochdale, a tie that was an eerie echo of my previous FA Cup experiences with Droylsden who, on only their second foray into the Cup proper, had played – and won – at Rochdale in the First Round.
FC United won that tie, but were knocked out in a Second Round replay by Brighton & Hove Albion, the then League One leaders and the highest ranking team in the competition. But they couldn’t beat us at home.
At the weekend, FC played away in the Fourth Qualifying Round to Sporting Khalsa of the West Midland League, three levels down. They win, 3-1, to reach the First Round Proper for the first time since Rochdale.
Once again, the eerie hand of coincidence strikes, for who should they have drawn that once again looms large in Droylsden’s FA Cup history but Chesterfield (read here).
The bastard of it is, from my point of view, that the tie is to be played on Saturday November 7, at home. November 7 is a working weekend for me. I’m not even back in work for another two days to see if there’s a faint chance of there being enough capacity to get that Saturday off.
But, bloody hell, how many times is my personal history going to shadow FC United in the Cup?
I feel sorry for Gateshead fans. Not so much for the injustice their Club received in 1958, voted out of the Football League after appearing in the re-election places for only the second time in their thirty year run. Nor for their having seen their club dissolve and reform four times since. No, what I feel sorry for them about is playing their home games at the International Athletics Stadium.
The first, and fairly obvious point to make about the Stadium is that it isn’t a purpose built football ground. It has a full-scale pitch at its centre, but this is surrounded on all sides by a full, eight-lane running track. This is never a good thing for a football ground as it instantly distances the crowd from the game. As stadia like the old Wembley, this was surmountable by sheer atmosphere, but as a venue for a non-League team whose gate could be numbered in hundreds, it would never work.
But the worst of it is that that typical no-League crowd has nowhere to go except the Main Stand, on one side of the pitch. The Stand is built to suit the larger athletic crowds, and Gateshead’s fans do little to come near filling it, their cries and shouts resounding like echoes of ghosts in the overexpansive surroundings. And as there is no possibility of sitting or standing behind either goal, or on the further side, the game is carried out in a three-sides empty stadium.
The Club did unveil plans in 2009 to build a proper Football Stadium for themselves in Gateshead City Centre, but these don’t seem to have gone anywhere yet.
Of all the non-League grounds I visited in a near ten year spell following Droylsden, the Athletics Stadium is by far and away the most successful atmosphere-killer.
I went to Gateshead with Droylsden in the 1999/2000 season, our first back in the Unibond Premier Division. In view of the distance, I forewent driving, and travelled on the team coach (on which there were usually 20 places for supporters, to help defray the expense). It was actually a fun experience, if you could ignore the usual beery rowdiness, childishness and vulgarity on the way home: not the players, who just congregated at the back of the bus and drank, but you should have seen the Committee Men! It was during this game that I had one of the weirdest experiences I’ve ever had in life, let alone sport.
This came about an hour into the game. We had taken the lead, and Gateshead levelled before half-time. Now they were attacking along their left flank, directly in front of us, playing right to left.
One of their players picked up the ball and moved infield. Our defence didn’t challenge him for the ball, but let him come on until, in front of goal and about twenty-five yards out, he swivelled and let fly with a ground shot. The shot was all along the ground, beat our keeper on his right hand, and rolled about one to two foot inside the post and into the net.
Then it kept on rolling, without the slightest change of pace, away into the distance behind the goal.
By some piece of sloppiness, the net had not been properly fixed to the ground at that point, and the shot had just gone straight through it. Both teams surrounded the officials, none of whom could say, definitively that they had been the ball go in between the posts. So the game restarted with a goal-kick, to our relief and Gateshead’s frustration. There was no more score, so Gateshead were denied a win and we got away with a point we should never have had.
That this happened at all was strange in itself but the truly wierd thing about it was how I reacted. I had an unobstructed view, I’d seen the ball go inside the post, started the indrawn breath of frustration, even seen the ball hit the net. But the moment that ball continued, uninterrupted, my mind kicked in to override what I had actually seen. The ball has not ended up in the net, therefore it had never been in the net, the shot had missed, it had gone outside the post. I’d seen what I’d seen, but the instant that the expected outcome failed to materialise, my brain started to rewrite history, to fit the facts to the outcome.
It was one of the most utterly strange things to ever happen to me, and I was not alone. The same thing had gone to everyone around me. We had all seen Gateshead score, we had collectively begun to groan, and we each of us now doubted the evidence of our eyes. Terry Pratchett makes much use of this phenomenon in the Discworld books, particularly when Death is about, but this was real life.
I struggled with myself but ended up convincing myself that I had seen what I’d seen, that Gateshead had had a legitimate goal unjustly allowed. But without replays of any kind being possible, I had only what I had fleetingly seen to guide me, and I needed an effort of will to believe myself.
The goal that never was, and the instant conviction that overruled the evidence of my eyes. It was a bizarre experience, but I experienced it, because I was there.
Something’s just jogged my memory about an odd little sporting incident for which I was present, in more senses than one.
In the summer of 1995, Manchester United knocked down the old North Stand at Old Trafford, in order to build the capacity extending triple-decker stand of today. This involved temporarily reducing capacity by 10,000, which was more or less equal to the total number of seats available by ballot to supporters without a Season Ticket or a League Match Ticket Book. Like me.
This was when I started following Droylsden again. I couldn’t conceive of following any other team for even a season, and besides, the contrast between where I was and where I wanted to be seemed perfect for a diary book.
If you want details of that season, which didn’t turn out in any way that could have been anticipated in advance, you can buy my Red Exile. For now, I’d like to take you to the early season, still only September 1995.
For reasons that seem inexplicable, given that the Bloods were playing at the then-level 6 of the Football Pyramid, Droylsden were in the draw for the Preliminary Round of the FA Cup, away to Nantwich Town, in mid-Cheshire. The Dabbers were playing in the North-West Counties League Division 1, a level below.
The idea that season was that I would go to as many Droylsden matches as I could, away as well as home. Nantwich was an easy drive, and I offered to give my on-off (currently off, but still friendly) girlfriend a run down to Nantwich for the afternoon, she to shop, me to go to the game.
I don’t remember much about the game, except that, as was my practice, I stood behind the opposition goal for both halves. I remember talking to a home fan who was talking about an ex-player, a fantastic young talent, who had been murdered the previous year, his body set alight. And there was one loudmouth supporter who kept bellowing out, “Unibond? More like Brooke Bond.” Yes, I know, a crap joke to begin with, but it was his own invention and he was determined to drive it into the ground.
For the second half, I wandered up the distant far end, acting on several occasions as an unpaid ball boy. There wasn’t a lot going on, and what was was one hundred yards away, around the Droylsden goal, but we’d got to the 84th minute without a goal, and i was glumly anticipating a midweek replay and the Spennymoor game having to be postponed, when Nantwich scored.
That was that: the start to the season that the Bloods had made was not conducive to coming from behind, even to get equalisers. But once the gate had been breached once, Nantwich went on to score two more goals quite quickly, running out 3-0 winners. I picked up my girlfriend and ran her home, being philosophical about it all.
It was not until Monday that I discovered I’d been a witness to history.
It appeared that, unbeknownst to me down the far end, all three Nantwich goals had been scored by the same man, Andy Locke. And that the three goals had been scored in the space of two minutes and twentyseconds (I knew they’d come quickly but I hadn’t realised it was that short a time). And that therefore Andy Locke had scored the fastest ever hat-trick in FA Cup history.
(This can be confirmed on-line where, for once, it’s Wikipedia that’s accurate whilst every other source has got it badly wrong.)
Funnily enough, the following Saturday, a mate of mine got me into Old Trafford on his Dad’s season ticket. He was full of this news item he’d seen on Grandstand before coming out, about this guy who’d scored a record FA Cup hat trick. Sadly, I confessed that whilst I hadn’t seen the feature, I had been there to see the goals…
That’s not the end of it, though. Droylsden’s FA Cup trail may have been cut ingloriously short, but Manchester United fared rather better. In May 1996, I was up first thing on Saturday morning, on the road south, the travelling Red Army descending upon Wembley for the FA Cup Final against Liverpool. Park round the back near Wealdstone Tube Station about 9.00am, a morning in Central London, hit the stadium for 1.00ish, Wembley Way and the Twin Towers and my unimpressive seat behind the goal in which Eric Cantona would score the glorious winning goal with only four minutes left.
But whilst I sat there, soaking up the atmosphere, there was a presentation on the pitch at 2.00pm, a presentation and a reminder. To Andy Locke, for scoring the fastest ever hat trick in FA Cup history.
I couldn’t help but smile, After all, with the exception of any of the guy’s family and friends who had accompanied him, I was probably the only person in the entire stadium who could stand up and shout, ‘I saw you score those goals, you bastard! I was there!’
Readers of this blog who follow the sports posts may remember the excessively long one I posted here about the crazy events of the 2008/9 FA Cup Second Round tie between Droylsden and Chesterfield, which went to four games, two of them abandoned, before Droylsden beat their League One/Two opponents to qualify for the Third Round proper for the first time ever, only to be expelled from the competition for fielding an ineligible player.
History has now repeated – or rather reversed – itself as Chesterfield, who won this season’s Second Round Proper tie against MK Dons have been proved to have fielded an ineligible player.
Just as with Droylsden, six years ago, there’s no suggestion that the player was played deliberately, and that his inclusion in the team was purely an accident. And, just as with Droylsden, Chesterfield have been expelled from the competition for fielding an ineligible player, and MK Dons have been reinstated, to go into the Third Round tie against Scunthorpe United or Worcester City.
Unfortunately, that’s where the parallels end. Chesterfield have NOT been expelled from the FA Cup. Instead, they have been ordered to replay the tie as soon as possible.
So, let’s just pause to check what that means. It means that a non-League club who field an ineligible player whilst beating a Football League club get expelled, whilst a Football League club who do exactly the same thing get the chance to win the game anyway, this time legally (oh, yes, and to pull in another gate for the replayed home game). Where’s the consistency in that? Where’s the fairness in that?
The circumstances do differ: Sean Newton played for Droylsden due to an oversight about his one-game suspension, whilst George Magreitter, an on-loan player, did not get written permission from Wolves to play in the FA Cup (and therefore become cup-tied). And Sean Newton scored both goals by which Droylsden beat Chesterfield and I have no information as to whether George Magreitter played any decisive role in aiding Chesterfield to their 1-0 victory, other than being a part of their eleven.
But when it comes to ineligible players, it is and always has been an absolute offence. They don’t need to have affected the result, they just need to have stepped out onto the field of play, and the club loses all benefit they take from the game: points, qualification, the lot. Teams have been expelled from Europe for having brought on an ineligible player as a sub with eight minutes to go and a winning margin already.
I imagine there’s some pretty pissed off people around Droylsden right now, and I don’t blame them one little bit. The salt in the wound is that this isn’t just inconsistency, but that it benefits Chesterfield, who benefited from Droylsden’s offence in the most direct way.
Try as we might, short of developing some kind of omni-scanner that can produce an instant, 3D hologram replay on any incident that takes place on a football field, we are never going to eliminate the shit refereeing decision.
I’ve been watching footbal for nearly fifty years, live or on TV. I’ve watched Manchester United in the League, the Cup and in Europe. I’ve watched World cups and European Championships. I’ve watched various levels of non-League football with Droylsden and with FC United. And I have seen right royal clangers galore, and more than a token few – especially at non-League level – where I remain convinced that the wrong decision did not come about due to honest human error.
You may call that last remark a vile calumny on an honourable body of men without whom the game of football could not exist, or dismiss it as the automatic response of every dedicated football fan whose default position is that the referee is biassed against his team, but when you’ve lost 4-0 away and the referee has sent off your makeshift goalkeeper for complaining about having the ball kicked out of his hands for a goal, and the word comes back that said referee was down the pub in Liverpool that Saturday night boasting about how he fucked Droylsden over…
Fans of teams in the Premier League complain about the refereeing at the top level, and a lot of it is chronically awful, even after you make every objective allowance you can make, but you haven’t seen poor refereeing until you’ve dropped down somewhere about level six, seven or eight. That was where I saw the worst refereeing decision I have seen in my life.
This took place in a game between Curzon Ashton and Droylsden, in the Unibond Northern Premier League First Division, in September 1996. I’d started watching Droylsden regularly again the previous season, anticipating (wrongly) that I wouldn’t be able to get into Old Trafford during the redevelopment of the North Stand. The Bloods had been relegated on the last day of the season, on goal difference, but I’d been hooked enough by the non-League experience to extend what had been intended to be only a one season experiment into a longer-term enthusiasm.
During the summer, a new interpretation of the Offside rule had been agreed by the Football Association, which went into operation at the start of the 1996/7 season. The Law itself was not changed: a player in the opposition half was in an offside position if there were fewer than two players between him and the opposition goal-line. But fans and clubs were long past tired of the innumerable interruptions to the game when, with the ball on one side of the pitch, a winger on the opposite side, over fifty yards from the ball, was running back but still flagged offside.
That summer, referees were instructed to focus on the line about ‘interfering with play’. With respect to the speakers of bullshit about ‘if he’s not interfering with play, what’s he doing on the pitch?’ (even Bill Shankley spoke a lot of crap from time to time), henceforth referees were instructed that a player running back from an offside position, who was not attempting to play the ball or interfere with players who were, would not be given offside. It was the beginning of the Offside Law as we know it today.
By the time Droylsden went to Curzon Ashton, that interpretation had been in effect for a month, about six matches. I was interested in the visit to Curzon: it was one of the very few away grounds I’d visited with Droylsden when I’d been a regular in the Seventies. In 1979, it had been little more than a park pitch with railings around it, but in 1996 there were stands, seats and floodlights, a sign that Curzon had climbed the ladder far enough to be expand the traditional ‘Tameside Five’ to Six.
Though Curzon opened the scoring, it was mainly a comfortable night for Droylsden, who took a 3-1 lead just after the hour, though Curzon reduced the deficit to one goal with five minutes left to play. That’s when it all kicked off.
A long back pass was played to the Curzon keeper in his area. Striker Billy O’Callaghan chased it back, not letting the keeper settle on the ball. The keeper kicked it deep into the Droylsden half, at which point O’Callaghan, in the centre of the field, turned and started jogging back towards his own lines.
The ball was met by Droylsden centreback Dave Ashton, who headed it into Curzon’s half, and over to the Droylsden right wing. In the centre, O’Callaghan was about 10 – 15 yards behind the last Curzon defender, still jogging back with his head down. The defence appealed, the linesman (directly in front of me) raised his flag, the referee considered the situation and waved play on.
A year before, he’d have whistled for an infringement. But O’Callaghan’s position was exactly what the new interpretation had been designed to cover. He was in the centre, the ball on the wing. He had neither moved, nor even looked, towards the ball. He was not interfering with play and the referee’s decision not to stop the game was completely correct.
Unfortunately, it didn’t stop there. A Curzon defender dropped back to collect the loose ball, but midfielder Ray Wyse, who’d been in his own half when the ball was headed forward, had gone in pursuit and, before the defender had settled on the ball, tackled him and went away, bearing down on the goal with no-one between him and the keeper.
Instead of dropping back, the Curzon defence kicked off at the referee. In the meantime, Wyse closed in on the keeper, who advanced to the edge of his area to narrow the angle. On the other flank, midfielder Walter Nesbitt had raced forward in support of Wyse, twenty yards or more to his left. Wyse waited for the keeper to commit himself before passing the ball sideways for Nesbitt to plant in an empty net.
4-2, game secured, three points! Not so. The referee disallowed the goal and awarded an indirect free kick to Curzon for offside, against Nesbitt.
The first consideration is whether Nesbitt actually was offside. I’ll be straight with you: I have no idea. It was a Tuesday night, under non-League floodlights, they were roughly level with each other, and I was sat on the sidelines at an angle of roughly forty-five degrees to the play. Wyse and Nesbitt were at least twenty yards apart and it was impossible to tell which of the two was ahead of the other.
But that wasn’t really the issue. I was at forty five degrees to the action: the referee, who was level with me, was directly behind it. Yes: at least twenty yards behind the play, equidistant between two players themselves at least twenty yards apart. It was physically impossible for him to tell if Nesbitt was offside or not. Try it in the Park sometime, with a couple of mates: it’s the equivalent of pronouncing on a Leg Before Wicket appeal from Square Leg: it just can’t be done.
The outcome was inevitable: Curzon scored an equaliser in injury time to secure a 3-3 draw and deprive Droylsden of two points.
What made the decision so appalling was the referee making a deliberately bad call, because he didn’t have the courage to stand behind a correct decision. He was absolutely right not to penalise O’Callaghan for offside, but when Curzon’s own inattention cost them a goal, he lacked the bottle stand behind the right call and made a deliberately wrong one to ‘even things out’.
It didn’t make any long-term difference. Droylsden ended up in mid-table, a long way from anything two points would have affected. Curzon were relegated, and suffered the appalling bad luck of an enforced relegation into the Northern Counties (East) League (all three relegated teams should, geographically, have gone into the North-West Counties League, who would normally have accepted one: they agreed to take two but Curzon, as the most ‘easterly’ of the three teams, had to be shunted into a League where every away game started with crossing the Pennines: unsurprisingly, they fell straight through).
We often see suspicious decisions by referees, particularly with regard to bookings, where a player on one team gets an unjustified yellow or red card because the referee considers that he’s made a mistake in issuing a earlier sanction to the other side. These are still wrong, but are understandable in human terms: a second wrong to balance out the first.
This stands out in my memory for the burning sense of injustice that it created, which is higher than with any other decision I’ve seen, because it did not even have the feeble excuse of redressing some kind of perceived balance: a deliberately wrong decision was taken to ‘rectify’ a 100% correct one. It was disgraceful, and I am well aware of it because I was there.
Mrs Brandon closed her eyes. The shadows from the fire flickered on her cheeks.She sighed. “I feel exactly now as what I felt before we got married all them years ago,” she said. “Christ, you’re not getting another attack of lumbago, are you?” “I’m not talking about bodily functions. I’m talking about emotional functions. I’m talking about emotions,” said Mrs Brandon. “I’m talking about being starry-eyed and all of a flutter. I’m talking about how it was twenty-five years ago with me rushing round making all the arrangements and you sitting on your BTM doing nowt.” “Me? Doing nowt?” said Mr Brandon.”Who was it mended your Dad’s chain-guard? Who was it tarpaulined his bloody rabbit hutch for him?” Mrs Brandon’s eyes sparkled. Her skin glowed in the gentle firelight.The creases in her neck were smoothed away in the mellow orange glow.” “Les?” she said quietly. What?” “Did you ever get second thoughts about getting married? I mean, did you ever get cold feet or owt like that?” “No,” said Mr Brandon after a moment’s thought. “Once we’d bought the stair carpet there was no going back, was there?”
Though it had been implicit in earlier books, it’s in Except You’re a Bird – the third Brandon family novel – that Peter Tinniswood explicitly developed a vision of men and women as creatures alien to each other, with completely different concerns, feelings and wishes. It’s also where the accusations of a misogynist element to his work take serious hold.
The novel begins with thoughts of love and romance from Mrs Brandon. It’s six months until the Brandon’s twenty-fifth Wedding Anniversary, their Silver Anniversary, and Mrs Brandon has her heart set upon a grand celebration of love, which is going to feature a service of re-dedication, and a Second Honeymoon.
Mr Brandon, in contrast, would rather ignore the whole thing. He wasn’t impressed with the first honeymoon (The breakfasts was rubbish), the Re-dedication ceremony is bound to involve him dressing up (Women are buggers for spats), and the thought of resuming sex is an anathema to him (I’d rather bath an Airedale any day).
It’s not that Mr Brandon isn’t romantic in himself, it’s just that his romance is directed towards his job on the bowls greens at the Park (to which he was taken whole-heartedly) and his ever-giddier ideas about transforming a very functional Municipal Park into a riot of colour and scent.
So from the offset, Mr and Mrs Brandon are on two widely separated courses about their impending Anniversary, with one inevitable outcome: Mrs Brandon will get her way andMr Bramdon will put up with it.
Mr Brandon would prefer to concentrate on his remote chance of promotion to head gardener. The current incumbent, George Furnival, is shortly to retire, and he’s a man who knows bugger all about flowers and everything about forms and chitties. Plus he hates Mr Brandon, so the dream is not on.
Which is where Uncle Mort steps in. George Furnival is married to Olive, who is notably ugly, although the apple of George’s eye. Uncle Mort plans to romance Olive, to the point where George will catch the pair in a compromising position. George Furnival will then have to recommend Mr Brandon for his job, if he doesn’t want the news of his humiliation to get out.
It’s not Mr Brandon’s idea of a plan, but it works perfectly, except in two respects. Firstly, it appears that George Furnival is happy to be released from the suffocating prison of Olive Furnivals love, expressed primarily through the dinner table, and secondly Olive Furnival transfers her affections to Uncle Mort and, fattening him up with top notch grub, takes him away on a tour of her relatives.
Still, Mr Brandon gets the head gardener’s job and starts planning, whilst Uncle Mort’s opinions are pithily expressed in the postcard he sands home: “Barrow-in-Furness is worse than Hartlepools. Hartlepools was worse than Mexbourough. Mexborough was worse than Droylsden. There wasn’t much to choose between Droylsden and Birkenhead.”
(In all my years of reading, this is one of only two references I have come across in literature to Droylsden, of whom I was, when Except You’re a Bird came out, an avid fan. The other? A passing reference in I Didn’t Know You Cared. Incidentally, a later postcard from Uncle Mort concluded: “Birkenhead is worse than Droylsden. Infinitely.” I love Peter Tinniswood’s books!)
Now all of this is primarily comic, though that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a quite serious and dark underpinning to it. It’s one thing to laugh at the wildly contrasting emotions of the Brandons, but that doesn’t mean that Mr Brandon’s obstinate refusal to show interest isn’t deeply cruel and hurtful. Tinniswood seems to side with his downtrodden, beaten men, who only want a life of drudgery and dullness, preferring to avoid change, but his portrayal of that state, even of the men’s own innate belief in a certain nobility in their assuming it, is in itself subtley comic and exaggerated.
But this, as in I Didn’t Know You Cared, is only half the story. There is a second, deeper, and very much darker strand to this novel, and it involves Carter Brandon and Pat.
At first, it looks like it’s going to be similarly playful. A few heavy-handed hints are dropped by Pat, about not doing certain things “on account of (her) condition”, making it no surprise to anyone, except Carter, when she announces that she is pregnant.
Everyone’s impressed. Mrs Brandon tries to work out when it must have been conceived, and drives Mr Brandon mad by calling him Bompa, which is apparently her family’s traditional name for Grandads. Mrs Partington is scandalised at Pat wanting to emphasise to the world that she’s pregnant, even before she’s got the slightest bump (the bit about Carter and Pat sharing a bath together is priceless!).
But there’s a fly in Pat’s ointment and that’s her mother’s sudden announcement that she is going to re-marry. Her intended is Mr Shirtcliffe, who works at the snuff warehouse. Mr Shirtcliffe has two children of his own, Artie and Alison.
Pat puts her foot down and refuses her consent to her mother marrying Mr Shirtcliffe before even meeting him. It’s supposed to be all about her and baby, and she is full of fantasies about Baby’s future successful life, living each increasingly ambitious projection as if it were real and already happening. She’s already forbidden the sleep-deprived Carter from playing for the Works Football team, on account on his failure to get a cut looked at developing into gangrene and having his leg amputated, leaving her with no-one to dance with when Baby is Professor of Diffiicult Sums at Sheffield University.
But there’s the Shirtcliffes themselves. Mr Shirtcliffe is a near-midget whose primary concerns are housekeeping: he doesn’t want to marry Mrs Partington at all. Artie is the star forward for the local Rugby League team, praised by all except Mr Brandon, who thinks he’s rubbish. He’s is a fast-talking, high-living young man freeloading through life on the back of the ‘punters’ who hero-worship him and give him things for nothing, and who he openly despises whilst taking advantage. Alison is a mainly silent, anti-social young woman who dresses in mens shirts and pullovers and jeans. She has an offstage baby that she neglects, leaving it to scream endlessly.
She also has pale green eyes with flecks of tawny and long blonde hair, and absolutely fascinates Carter Brandon, who thinks she is the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen.
Again, so far, so comic. Autumn is turning into winter. A cold snap hasseized the city and is slowly getting stronger. Things are freezing, roads are icing. Cars slip and slither. Carter hates driving, hates his car but can’t get rid of it.
Until Pat has a crash, and is rushed into hospital, in a coma, with suspected brain damage. Her baby is well, but Pat is not expected to live.
Everybody reacts. Mrs Brandon is utterly practical, accepting that her daughter-in-law is going to die, and pretty soon at that, and making plans for Carter’s future therafter in ways that echo Pat’s own plans for Baby. Mr Brandon suggests that the Anniversary be cancelled, as a mark of respect. Mrs Partington accepts it as a judgement upon her for defying Pat’s wishes about Mr Shirtcliffe. Artie adopts Carter, giving him lifts to the hospital every night and waiting for him. On a couple of occasions, Alison is with him, but she doesn’t respond to any of Carter’s stilted attempts to start a conversation.
And Carter? Carter who gives the impression that he spends most of his life putting up with Pat? If we doubted him, we cannot any longer. He is desperate with fear, pleading with Pat’s unconscious body to hang on, to stay. Hell, we’ve even heard him tell her that he loves her, though not until she was fast asleep and couldn’t hear it.
Life at home, alone, is unbearable and Carter asks to go live with his parents again. It’s a godsend for his mother, who immediately starts treating him as if he was seven years old again. Mrs Brandon is showering on her son the love she wants to shower on Mr Brandon,and Carter is in no condition to resist.
He’s also experiencing visions. Of pale green eyes with tawny flecks, of flashes of blonde hair. And this despite Artie’s warnings not to start sniffing, not to get interested.
One night, he can’t sleep, gets up and goes down to the parlour. Before long, his Dad, equally wakeful, joins him. Then Uncle Mort, complaining that insomnia’s catching. In the early hours, with the fire lit, Uncle Mort tries to cheer him up, reminiscing about bereavements, including that of Thingie, or as Mr Brandon hurriedly reminds him, his son, Daniel.
Immediately, Carter returns to bed, sleeps and dreams, and hears Daniel in his head, comfortable and chatty. Daniel’s heard about Pat, and unlike everyone at the hospital, he is confident: nothing’s going to happen to her, he’ll see to that.
The next day, which Carter takes off work, he’s urgently summoned to the hospital. The journey has him sick with fear at every second, but the Registrar greets him with words of a miracle. Pat is awake again, and though she’ll have to stay in the hospital until Baby is born, all will be well. She’s had a dream, a party in her womb, with Baby and with Daniel. Daniel who, at the end, gave her a small wrapped-up present: her life.
So all is going to be well again,once time takes its course. Except it isn’t, is it?
It starts with Alison. Carter bumps into her at the bus stop after football training, gets her to go for a drink with him. She’s willing to see him, from time to time, though it’s always instead of Visiting Time with Pat. Carter fobs his absences off as overtime, which Pat happily builds into Baby’s fantasy future. And Daniel’s egging him on with visions of a future of travel, an escape from mundanity, even as Carter clings on to dreariness and drudgery.
Artie doesn’t approve. Linda Preston knows something about Artie that Carter doesn’t, and about his bird that he’s ashamed of, but she’s not telling.
Then Pat drops a bombshell (apart from the one about Alison turning up at one of these increasingly regular parties in her womb): Mrs Partington is to be allowed to marry Mr Shirtcliffe after all, because Baby needs two grandfathers for Who’s Who when he’s a High Court Judge with a kindly twinkle.
(Actually, as Daniel explains later, it’s a demarcation issue, the Amalgamated Society of Unborn Babies and Allied Trades having passed a motion threatening to withdraw Pat’s labour if their member was to be born with less than the nationally agreed number of grandfathers.)
Mr Shirtcliffe doesn’t take to the idea and threatens to expose Carter’s relationship with his daughter – which, as yet, hasn’t even got as far as a kiss – unless Carter does something (an unnatural state that he abhors). Of course, Alison has the answer: her father ‘disappears’ to live with Carter back at his home.
And the icy grip of winter continues, holding the city in its fist (the book is undated beyond ‘the Sixties’, but this is clearly the long winter of 1962-3). Mr Brandon and Carterboth feel increasingly trapped, and both dream of escape asthe pressure mounts and the days of the Silver Wedding and the birth get ever closer.
And then the great chance arises, legitimately. Carter is invited to join a specialist team doing maintenance work internationally (though Pat disapproves). He wavers, plans to decline it, but finds that his intended message has been completely misinterpreted and been put through as acceptance. He wants to tell Artie of his fortune. Instead, he finds out about Artie and his bird… and the whole thing explodes under his feet.
The tragedy that ensues arrives on the eve of a fast spring, a sudden melt. Mr Brandon runs out on his Silver Wedding, leaving Uncle Mort to take his place on both ceremony and honeymoon! Carter confesses his plans to run away after the Works Cup semi-final, only for it to be ended by someone who knows him better than he knows himself. And they’re trapped again.
This time Mr Brandon’s off the bowling greens, replacing Mr Shirtcliffe at the snuff warehouse (aaaaa-chooo!) and Carter’s both a husband and father, though his feelings of guilt begin to alleviate. Order is returned, the world is as it was for both men and women. Except You’re a Bird (whose title comes from a speech by the Eighteen Century Irish politician, Boyle Roche, mis-identified in the book as Boyd Roche, who may have been a model for Mrs Malaprop) was to be the last Brandon family book for over a decade, although Tinniswood continued writing the Brandon’s for TV until 1979. It displays all the characteristics that, in a short space of time, had made him such a highly-valued comic novellist, and it remains gloriously funny now, forty years later.
But, as we’ll begin to see, it and I Didn’t Know You Cared represent something of a peak for Tinniswood’s work. It’s continually funny, hitting little peaks of laughter over and again, and its anchored in a concrete reality based on Tinniswood’s own experience of northern life, and how people talked and thought.
For his next novel, Tinniswood would break away from that setting, seeking to broaden his horizons. It worked well, given that he maintained that down to earth tone, and there were still great things to come. But the early part of his career was to end here, and there is much debate to be had about where his talent would now lead him.
The disastrous season Manchester United have had has left me in the highly unusual situation of having nothing to care about at the end of the season. The last time this happened was the nearly-forgotten season of 1990/91, the penultimate season of the old Football League, when United, despite improving dramatically from the year before’s 13th place and the threat of relegation for most of the season – and you call 7th a disaster? – only finished 6th, a place behind the Bitter Blues for the first time in over a decade, and the last time until their last lick goal-difference miracle in 2012.
Of course, it wasn’t a truly bleak season, since the Reds were heading off to Rotterdam, and a rendezvous with Barcelona in the European Cup-Winners Cup Final, and Sparky’s two goals, and Sunbed’s goal-line clearance in the 89th minute.
This year though, there’s nowt to look forward to except my fervent prayer that anyone – and I even include the Bitters in this – win the Premiership except Liverpool.
But let’s leave that contentious, and potentially highly painful, topic and remind ourselves that football goes on in other realms than the artificial world of the Premiership.
Every now and then I’ve been bringing you bulletins about life at the bottom of the Evo Stik Northern Premier League Premier Division and the embarrassing/horrifying/amusing (delete to taste) experiences of Droylsden FC, long since condemned to relegation to First Division North (level 8 of the Pyramid, and the lowest level at which the club has played in its existence). It’s been car crash fascination with the Bloods, who are firmly in the Bust cycle of the Boom that peaked with their solitary year in the Conference Premier Division.
But most of the time my eyes have been directed much further up the table, of FC United of Manchester, the team formed by and for fans of Manchester United who found the 2005 takeover of the Old Trafford club one piece of commercialisation too far. FC was created as a Friendly Society, a members club that cannot be sold, and which exists to remind us of the old values of football, the joy of backing your own, and the true place of football at the heart of a community.
Needless to say, FC’s existence has always been controversial, but the comparatively massive level of its support enabled the club to get off to a flying start, with three years of unrelieved promotion getting them into the Northern Premier League Premier Division as early as 2008/9. The club has always been competitive at this level, and indeed has been the losing Play-Off Finalist in each of the last three seasons (the cruellest blow coming in 2012, when the Club lost 1-0 to Bradford Park Avenue, the goal coming in the last minute of extra-time).
This year, the club has spent virtually all its ime in the top half of the 24 tean Division, flirting with the fringe of the Play-Off places, until the beginning of February, when FC started a run of 12 consecutive League victories, that took them to the top of the table, in direct competition with Chorley for the League title, and automatic promotion.
Throughout this period, FC had the advantage both of games in hand on Chorley, and a superior goal-difference. And beating Chorley 1-0 away was a massive boost to FC’s ambitions. That is, until Droylsden took an unexpected hand in the destination of the title. Their 13-1 crash at Chorley reversed the goal-difference advantage, giving Chorkey a lead that, in practical terms, was unassailable. It was like their having an extra point: even if FC won their remaining game in hand, and drew level on points, Chorley’s goal difference would keep them ahead.
Unfortunately, FC’s streak ran out. The return game at Gigg Lane was almost a disaster, with Chorley taking a 2-0 lead, until a dramatic two goals in three minutes, very late on, brought FC back to claim a point. Then FC were beaten at home last Saturday by perennial bogies, Buxton, though they bounced back to win their game in hand, trouncing Grantham 3-0.
So: it’s Easter weekend. ThePemiership may have forgotten old traditions that favoured the fans, but they’re alive in the Evo-Stik League: there are full programmes on Easter Saturday and Easter Monday, and the final round of games is six days later, Saturday 16 April. It’ll all be known then: who goes up, who goes into the Play-Offs. It might well be over for FC United by theend of Monday.
Currently, Chorley top the table with 90 points and a G-D of 62. FC are second, on 87 points and a G-D of 51. AFCFylde are also still contenders, also on 87 points with a G-D of 51, but FC are placed above them having scored 9 goals to Fylde’s 90. Technically, the title is not beyond fourth place Witton Albion (84 points, G-D 34, and the League’s highest tally of goals, 116) but realistically, they should be looked on as a threat to second place.
Tomorrow, Chorley are away to 12th place Whitby Town, and on Monday at home to 20th place Marine, still in danger of filling the last relegation place. FC are at 15th place Stamford tomorrow, and entertain 5th place Ashton United on Monday. Fylde host 16th place Grantham Town on Saturday and visit 6th place Skelmersdale United on Monday, whilst Witton go to 14th place Barwell tomorrow and face 7th place Rushall Olympic at home on Monday.
To be honest, short of miracles, I can’t see Chorley dropping points in either of their games, especially not on Easter Monday, which puts the onus on FC to win both games. I mean, they know that anyway, it’s got to be three-out-of-three, whatever Chorley do, but if FC drop a point this weekend – and the Ashton game is going to be tough, since they’ll be desperate to maintain their Play-Off place – then the title is gone.
Fylde also have one ‘easy’ and one ‘hard’ game this weekend, but Skelmersdae are a different propisition to Ashton: they were contesting the title themselves until about six weeks ago, since when a results freefall has left them at risk of missing even the Play-Offs: anything less than matching Fylde’s record sees FC drop to third.
And the consequences of dropping out of second are serious. FC are guaranteed a Play-Off place already, but second is imperative as this will ensure home advantage in both semi-final and final, which FC have never had before, usually creeping in in 5th.
I haven’t minded FC’s years in the Evo-Stik Premier. The club needed to consolidate, to establish itself, rather than skyrocket too far too fast. But three years of PlayOff Final disappointment is at least one too many, and the time is ready to take that next step up in level, especially with FC United on course to start the 2014/15 season in their own grouns, the under-construction Broadhurst Park, in Moston, closer to Manchester United’s roots as Newton Heath.
It’s squeaky bum time, as a former Manchester United manager once put it. This may all seem remote to you, and of no imprtance whatsoever, but having had years of experience in Non-League football, I can assure you that the passions are the same, the stakes as important, and the disappointments as crushing. Manchester United have nothing left to play for, but FC United of Manchester have everything to play for, even if the reward is ‘only’ to move to within two levels of the Football League.
‘I don’t care about Rio/he don’t care about me/all we care about/is watching FC’.