As promised, we share with you the following article from WIE 37 published in January 2012…
It Was Better Back Then
“Now is the past that in 20 years time we will be longing for” wrote the man in my newspaper and, yes, I’m pretty certain that it won’t be long before we’ll all be sitting around in our heavily armoured reinforced concrete bunkers thinking back fondly to the times when the worst mischief that kids “in our day” got up to was the occasional burning down of Croydon. It was in that spirit that at the latest WIE editorial meeting (which consisted of the email “We’re doing another. Write something. Anything.”) I threw out the comment “Why was watching Welling in the past so much better?” The swift response from our esteemed editor, fine curmudgeon that he is, was “Because it was”, hence this article was born.
We’ll go back 30 years or so to the days just after Welling took over the derelict PVR. 1977-78 was our first year here, after Bexley United’s demise in the summer of ’76 (a summer strangely better remembered for a scorching summer and drought or, as we would call it today, Autumnal weather). The team that arrived from our former home in Butterfly Lane in Eltham was extremely young and close-knit. The average age was 21, with the veteran Ray Burgess being a couple of years older, but despite their youth many of the players had already chalked up 300 games as Welling players having progressed through the various youth teams.
So why was everything better? Where to start? Possibly the biggest difference was in the atmosphere and the relationship between the club, players and supporters. The death of Bexley United resulted in a missing, lost generation of supporters. The Bexley supporters in their late teens and early twenties didn’t transfer their allegiance to Welling, moving off elsewhere. The result was that, with Welling bringing very few supporters over from Eltham the new Welling fans where a mixture of kids in their early or mid-teens (or younger), pensioners, and the usual smattering of the hideously mad. The lost generation were, however, the cohort that tended to be bitter, cynical and angry, and would spend the game getting on the backs of, or slagging off, their own team’s players. A trip to watch Dartford in a pre-season friendly (I’d had my tetanus) was a real eye-opener – the level of bile spat at some of the unfortunate Dartford players by their own fans in the angry mob behind the Darts’ goal was something to behold. And this at a pre-season game.
And, of course, it was difficult to slag off your own players when you shared the same bus with them to away games. For that’s what we did in those first years of Spartan and Athenian League football. The players would of course take the back seats. The Hobbins would be at the front, and the supporters such as there were would be sandwiched in the middle. From the back of the bus would come the sound of raucous laughter. There would be the occasional player/supporter interaction. One which I really can’t imagine happening nowadays was “the head butt challenge”. I’m not too sure how it began, but one of our larger teenage fans, who had a habit of strolling around Bexleyheath with a radio-cassette player on his shoulder, blasting out “A Stairway to Heaven” (an excellent contrarian display at a time when teenage punks would be at the throats of revivalist teenage Teddy-boys) challenged our rotund left back Peter Cooper (or “Parrot” as he was known, due to a prominent proboscis – “Promiprobo” being a non-starter as a nickname) to prove who had the harder head. A series of hefty clashes of foreheads followed, but it was Muhammad Ali v Joe Bugner and a clear victory for the Parrot. I don’t know, but I can’t picture Lee Clarke, say, exchanging head butts with a supporter on a bus.
Bus trips were fun. Most trips wouldn’t take much longer than a couple of hours as we headed to Surrey, Berkshire or Hertfordshire. In those pre-M25 days we had to spend a lot of time on the South Circular or needed to head straight through London. Straight through London involved the inevitably clapped out bus having to get up and over Shooters Hill. It was touch and go sometimes, and on occasions there was an audible sigh of relief when the bus driver took a left into Welling Way, thus avoiding the hill completely. Other times it was like being aboard a version of an exhausted panting and sweating cartoon “Speed Buggy” (a rubbish cartoon character from the 70’s for those fortunate enough not to know).
The South Circular meant traffic jams, and traffic jams meant delays, and delays meant the occasional instruction from the Hobbins at the front of “OK, lads, get changed”. And nothing probably brought so much pleasure to a group of South East London lads stuck on a bus in Epsom High Street than the opportunity to expose their bare backsides to the posh totty parading around outside. It was always a proud moment when our bus pulled up late outside a ground and the team ran out, fully kitted-up, straight onto the pitch, like the veteran Barnstoneworth team of Michael Palin’s “Ripping Yarns”.
If, by some chance, the bus actually arrived at the ground on time there was a good trick that the older, more athletic looking teenage supporters could do. This was the “Can I carry your bag?” offer to an obliging player, which allowed the volunteer porter to bamboozle the stringent security at those Athenian League grounds (typically old-man-in-cap), by being mistaken for a player and thus getting in for free. Some people used the same technique in different circumstances. Sir John Bartley’s replacement, Derek Somers, was also mistaken for a player, and somehow ended up in our first team.
Bus trips meant that both players and supporters would meet up in the clubroom at about midday on Saturday. The heart of the clubroom was the well used pool table. It sloped in many directions. It belonged to the players before away trips, but for home games it was passed on to the supporters after the team had retreated to the dressing room at 2pm or so. Again, there was a kind of shared experience between the team and the supporters.
The shared bus disappeared as we moved up to the Southern League. Increasing professionalism put paid to that, added to the fact that with an increasing number of travelling supporters it was becoming an utter pain for secretary Barrie Hobbins to organise. When it was just the same dozen people every fortnight it wasn’t such a problem, but that wasn’t to last. Later the pool table disappeared, the players got their own lounge, and the shared experience died away to some extent. But such is the way of progress.
The matchday experience was somewhat different, too. Abuse of your own players off the agenda (and not just because of the team’s evident head-butting skills – it would have been difficult to lay into Martin Curr as he missed his second penalty of the night in a 0-2 home defeat given that the previous Saturday he had bought me and a mate some chips on a long trip back from Hampshire). The obvious targets were thus the opposition players. Naturally focus fell on the fat and the redheaded, the former being particularly well-represented at full-back in the Athenian League.
The younger supporters then, as now, would stand behind the goal we were nominally attacking. The pensioners who, whatever the weather, would all be wearing regulation black raincoats that may or may not have been issued to them at the end of the war, would gather under the cover on the halfway line. Yes, you read that right. In those primitive and far off days there was actually a place to stand when it rained, mad and unnecessary though that may seem. Apparently, there is even photographic evidence knocking around somewhere. Anyway, the pensioners were referred to as “The Gumbies” (our head-butting runner-up’s other cassette was a Monty Python one) and if the ball ever ended up on their bit of terrace, causing Gumby confusion, the event was met by a chorus of people attempting to say the word “Chrysanthemum”, and the suggestion that rather than throwing the ball back they should “arrange it nicely in a vase”. Get thee to a YouTube if that comment has gone sailing over your head like an over hit corner.
Apart from baiting the old, short and fat, most of the time watching Welling was spent chatting amongst ourselves while waiting for someone to get the ball to John Bartley, who would score. With no promotion or relegation from the Athenian League it was all pretty pressure free (I’m struggling not to say “pointless”. Damn. Failed), so we amused ourselves as best we could. One way was the shouting out of random words – “Boing” when a long kick from the keeper eventually bounced off someone’s head; “Frog” when an opposition keeper took a goal kick. This last habit led to an unexpected incident of Gumby Rage at somewhere god-awful (possibly Uxbridge). A home Gumby was incensed by our inflammatory use of the word “Frog”, and charged overlooking to land a bunch of fives, but fortunately public school educated secretary Barrie Hobbins intervened with a well-timed and commanding “Go away, you silly old man”, and order was restored. Public schools – training people to run an Empire. You never lose it.
Another way to pass the time at PVR while waiting for the ball to Bartley was to observe the passing bus people. Indeed, sometimes that provided the only entertainment. One of the older teenagers had an unfortunate habit, or urge, shall we say. You’ll have to imagine the David Attenborough voice – “The sight of the… young females… of breeding age… in the rear of the… transportation device… encourages the young male of the species… to… display”. Still, nothing there that would stop a 30-year career in the Met Police.
So, why was everything better? It just seemed to be more fun, somehow. Less serious. Less professional. We didn’t have to go to Thurrock. Instead we went to strange places that people had never heard of (but not Thurrock). “Where did you go last weekend?” Rather than “Up the Broadway” I could say something like “Chalfont St Peter”. It was at Chalfont St Peter, in fact, that programme editor Paul Carter came back excitedly from the bar bearing the first packet of prawn cocktail crisps that any of us had ever seen. It was my knowledge of the existence of Chalfont St Peter, and from that Chalfont St Giles, that I was well positioned to explain to a bemused Black Country friend a joke in Viz, where a cockney character in evident pain says “Ooooh, me Chalfonts”.
Every trip was an adventure and learning experience. Some of the clubrooms had pool tables with even more complicated slopes than ours (and I credit the passing of my maths A levels to the years of practical experience I gained from experimenting with the “collisions of solid spheres on inclined planes”, which happily made up a significant proportion of the syllabus (but without the practical, and pint, alas). Other clubrooms had the amazing new game, Space Invaders. And then, as I got older, the other major attraction of clubrooms came to the fore – you could get a pint straight after the game, whereas the pubs might not open until 6pm due to the World War One licencing laws that were applied at the time.
So, football then was fun, had beer, and was a bit of a laugh. And football now? Fun, beer, and a bit of a laugh. What’s changed? Damn. It might just be me. At a game not too long ago, a mate pointed to a set of modern day gumbies huddled near the halfway line and said, “That’s us in a few years”. Old men standing around in the cold. Talking about how much better the players were in the old days – John Bartley, Andy Townsend, Neil Clemmence. How the beer had tasted better. How that wouldn’t even have been a foul in our day, let alone a straight red card. How these modern footballs are like balloons. How there used to be buildings in Croydon. Blimey. Nearly there already.