Wednesday, April 15, 2009

St. Mary's Prayer

"It's not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It's the hope I can't stand."
(Brian Stimpson (John Cleese) from the film "Clockwise")

It's forty-three years since my Dad took me to my first game at The Dell (a one-nil win against Crystal Palace). At the time we were living no further than a decent goal-kick from the Milton Road turnstiles and I had spent much of the 1965/66 season watching legions of red & white-clad men strolling past the front of the house every other Saturday - usually looking very happy, as this was the season that Saints would win promotion to the top tier for the first time in their history.

Why it was several years before my father took me to another game is not something I recall now; certainly the fact that we moved six miles up the road to Chandler's Ford would have had something to do with it, but perhaps my apparent lack of enthusiasm at that first game might have been the real reason - I sat on the wall by the players' entrance for the whole game asking when the ice creams were coming round. I was only four years old. Nevertheless, some sort of spell had been cast on me: I was now a Southampton supporter. In hindsight, maybe it was a curse.

It's probably worth taking this opportunity to admit to a period of unfaithfulness. There's a loosely quoted rule that goes something like "You can change your girlfriend or your job, but you can never change your football club". The fact that female liaisons and any semblance of a professional career were not to trouble me for many years might just give me an excuse for not grasping the sentiment of such blind loyalty, for when Martin Chivers, my first football hero, left Saints for Spurs, I went with him.

How long my love of Saints lay suppressed and dormant I don't recall. Certainly for much of my time at junior school, peer pressure meant you had to support a "big" club to earn respect in the playground, or more importantly at the ritual team-picking at the start of games lessons. Support Saints and turn up in Woolworth's own-brand football boots guaranteed you'd be last to be picked and despatched to left-back for the whole game. On the other hand, a Liverpool strip and a pair of George Best endorsed Stylo Matchmakers ensured a coveted place in attack. I elevated myself up the pecking order by getting a pair of "Soccer Tabs" - an essential accessory of the Leeds United kit at the time - these were sock garters with a sizeable, frilly-edged numbered panel suspended from them. Mine were number sevens, and clearly in the minds of the usual team captains would transform me into a talent akin to their real owner, Peter Lorimer, renowned for his pin-point accurate, pile-driver free-kicks. After a few weeks, the realisation that I still couldn't hit a cow's back-side with a banjo, let alone trouble a four-foot goalkeeper from twenty yards, saw me slip back to right-half, but at least the kudos of those soccer tabs ensured I never played at left-back again.

Anyway, I digress. Just as my father had introduced me to Saints in the first place, he was also responsible for bringing me back into the fold. During an Easter trip in 1974 to my grandparents in Eltham, South-East London, he drove myself and my sister up to White Hart Lane to see Spurs play Saints. Standing on the terraces along one side of the ground we had a good view of the Saints fans to our right; they were in good spirits and voice, and I realised in amongst them were faces I recognised: a couple of blokes who worked at Eastleigh railway station; an older brother of a school friend, and others who I had seen out and about. The Spurs fans, on the other hand, were complete strangers and actually were quite intimidating. As the game progressed, and Spurs cruised to a comfortable 3-1 win, I felt no joy at all - I shared the emotions of the Saints fans, as hope and anticipation was washed away to reveal despair and frustration.

It was not so much a life-changing moment, rather a life-affirming one. The roller-coaster ride was just beginning, and within a few weeks "we" were relegated to the old Division Two, but for me the journey was just beginning. Over the next thirty years I went to most home games (as my vast programme collection will testify), with the exception of the early eighties when I was away at university. Ironically this was our most successful period in the top-flight.

Emma was born shortly before we were relegated again in 2005. By then Lin had given up her season ticket, and it gave me a good excuse not to renew mine, and I'm ashamed to admit that I have seen one game in the Championship since then (Barnsley 5-2 - not a bad choice). I always assumed that I'd start going again one day, maybe once Oliver is old enough to appreciate it (and not just pester me for an ice cream), but it seems there is now a very real chance the club will disappear before the end of the season. Despite successfully reducing the debt this season, Barclays pulled the plug on the club's life support machine, the PLC holding company, and it seems that there's every chance a 10-point deduction will be enforced. With that will come certain relegation and surely the end of the 130 year old institution - nobody in the current climate will be able to fund a recovery from there.

But for now, I live in hope. On the eve of a massive, must-win game at Sheffield Wednesday, I still have the belief that a miracle will happen; we will win, there will be no points penalty, and a white knight will appear to carry the club forward. By this time tomorrow, such dreams will be shattered, no doubt.

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