Saturday, 20 December 2014

Side by side - a short story. First published in "The Football Pink"

On April 24th 1915 Sheffield United beat Chelsea by three goals to nil in the FA Cup final at Old Trafford, the only Cup Final to be played in time of war. The Khaki Cup...

Joe stepped off the train. The grease and steam from the engine mixed with that distinct smell of man, beast and machine working flat out to produce shells and armour plate: the smell of home. He stopped and checked the pocket of his great coat: the programme was there, safe.
 ‘What’s up wi’ thi Joe?’
     ‘Nowt, I were just thinking about our Stan – seems funny ’im not bein’ ’ere. ’e never missed a match.’
 ‘I’m sure ’e’d rather be out with the BEF bashin’ the Hun.’
     ‘Come on you two – we’re gaggin’ – let’s go an’ celebrate – shall we get half way back first?’
 ‘Nah, let’s get one at the Queen’s Head, then come back and see the boys home eh? If we’re late we’ll sneak back through the hole.’

Joe sat with his pint, only half listening to his pals recounting the highlights of the game.
 ‘I don’t care what we paid for Utley – he were magnificent – a bloody rock at the heart of the team – him and Beau – if we could put up a battalion of men like them they’d have the Union Jack flying over Berlin by Easter. Two thousand pound! A bloody bargain!’
 He might not have his brother with him but he was in good company here: men he would be proud to stand side by side with. Harry, who grew up in the next street, who he played with on the Rec as a kid and who signed up with him at the Corn Exchange back in September. Big Bob, the teacher from Healey who, at five foot five, had had to gain another inch in height through pride and another two around the chest in order to pass the medical. Chalkie, the Town Hall clerk, and Walter, the professor, who was smarter than the rest of them put together but who was as coarse as a miner after a pint or two.
 They had been together for seven months now. That first day at the Drill Hall they were a shambles: a disparate bunch of individuals in an assortment of Norfolk Jackets, waistcoats, flat caps and Sunday best. They got their orders from the local papers, and it felt right that his first day’s drill – six hours in the sun – was on the pitch at Bramall Lane, overlooked by those building the new Shoreham Street Kop. They practiced rushing at Germans with brooms through the flower beds of Norfolk Park and they dug trenches on the lawns. There was a shortage of uniforms so their first ones, in bluey grey, made them look like convicts – or postmen. They moved from brooms to obsolete rifles. Now they were a proper disciplined unit, sat in proper khaki uniforms, and would soon be getting Lee Enfields – his brother could fire at least sixteen shots a minute with his.
They had headed up to the new barracks up on the moors at Redmires in December. Up there the new regimental Union Jack was torn to shreds by the weather within months, and they would wake up trapped in their huts by the drifting snow – it was then that Big Bob came into his own and was passed out through the window to get the door open.
 Those route marches across Stanage in full battle order didn’t half make men of them – if they didn’t get pneumonia. It had been the best time of his life: having such good comrades, getting up at midnight at New Year to sing Auld Lang Syne outside the huts, the concerts at the YMCA hut, sneaking off to the Three Merry Lads and back through the hole in the wall, and the crowning moment: beating the Sherwood Forresters six goals to nil on Thursday! The colonel was strict but fair, and let them take leave for important things: like cup games at Bramall Lane – and today.
 ‘What about Jimmy Simmons though? The way he crashed in Utley’s centre! I bet his uncle were a proud man today. God bless the big man.’
 ‘Aye, an’ did tha see ol’ Nudge there today an’ all – done up in his best suit? Best captain United’ll ever ’ave.’
 Chalkie raised his glass: ‘To Ernest ‘Nudger’ Needham and William ‘Fatty’ Foulke!’
 ‘First goal I ever saw was scored by Needham,’ Joe said. ‘Replay of the third round of the cup against Newcastle, the last time we won it. I were only six an’ me an’ our Stan got passed over people’s head right to the front.’
 Stan was probably asleep in his bunk somewhere now; God please let that be so; wondering what the score was – unless it got telegraphed to the front. He reached in his pocket and got out the things for sending to Stan – the Cup Final programme and a “Sports Special” Green ’Un, a bit stained from the pie he’d bought before the game. He regularly sent Stan match reports and cuttings from The Independent. Some snobs had wanted football cancelled at the outbreak of the war. But Stan said it gave them heart to read about their teams; and what else were those who were flogging their guts out all week to raise coal or cast steel supposed to do with their leisure time? The one small escape each week from all the worry. Those Oxford and Cambridge men just didn’t like people being paid to play sport – they didn’t get football, the working man’s game – didn’t understand the fight with “sorrow for the young man’s soul.” Those same chinless southerners didn’t bark on about the cancellation of horse racing. Or opera, or golf, or West End theatre! “Business as usual” was a one-sided mantra. No, it was the poor who had to go and fight or sweat in foundries and have no pleasure, never smile, never cheer, until the war was won.
 ‘Tha looks glum again Joe. I’ll get thi another.’
 ‘No, hadn’t we best go back over to the station? Don’t want to miss the boys’ return.’

No one seemed to know what time the train was due in, but a crowd was building at the station, those in khaki, like them, getting pats on the back. There had been a lot of men in khaki at Old Trafford that afternoon, perhaps half the crowd. Some like themselves still in training, some on leave, others with bandages or walking on crutches. How his chest had swelled when fifty thousand voices sang ‘God Save the King’ before the teams walked out. He imagined the Kaiser hearing those voices and quaking. The sky was khaki too, especially in the second half: it was during half-time that the fog fell, yellowish and thick, as the band played ‘Tipperary’ and the crowd sang along. The only way you could tell there were people on the other side of the ground was from matches being struck or the glow of cigarettes or pipes. The light improved a little towards the end – the United with their long passing and rapier-like thrusts pushed aside the Beanstalk Club and their delicate passing play: over-powered them – just what they would do to Kaiser Bill. At the third goal, over-excited kids burst onto the field wanting to shake Joe Kitchen’s hand.

Excitement started to build at Midland Station at around ten o’clock – the rumour was that the train was due in. They would miss the last tram up to Nether Green now, which meant an even longer walk up to Redmires – though a happy one. There must be over a thousand waiting. Then the train is heard pulling in and the cheering starts and chants of  “Hi, Hi for the rowdy dowdy boys.”
     He only saw the heads of some of the players through the crowd – there was to be no triumphalism, no parading of the cup, they were just bundled into taxis and away into the night.
     So that was it then. Another season over. No one believed that football could continue as normal through the next one. No Cup Final next year. Soon their battalion would be leaving the city to go and do their bit. Some had worried that all their training would be for nothing: that the Germans would cave in before last Christmas. No; maybe next – then he and Stan could stand side by side on the terraces once more.

 A version of this story will appear in a collection of Football short stories to be published in the New Year.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Interview with author Brian Sellars

Reviews of Brian's Billy perks novels at:

1)      How much research did you do for the Billy Perks books and how much is done from memory of your time in Sheffield?
Most of what I write springs from my own experience, but the facts must still be checked. I think it’s essential to research even into areas one feels familiar with. One reason for this is that, weirdly, it often seems that my characters are remembering things themselves, and I have to check them out. But it’s no chore. I feel researching is one of the perks of being a writer. I read books about the fifties and post war Britain. Maps, guides, old newspapers and Sheffield reference works are essential and of course Wikipedia., is truly brilliant.
2)      I went to The Rivelin Hotel to ask for a Campari and soda and to look at the Man’s Head Rock. Is it actually called that? You can’t really get to the big rock I presume it to be: it is too overgrown. Were you able to get closer back then?
Regrettably, Man’s Head Rock is now screened by trees. It used to be a striking sight, visible for miles. I think it’s a shame that the landowner has allowed it to become hidden, thereby depriving visitors to Rivelin of a truly dramatic view.  
3)      I couldn’t see any Tudor cottages near Orchard Road (the Star Woman’s cottage). Were they fictional or have they gone: it looks like there have been a lot of changes round there. has a photograph of the real Star Woman’s cottage. It is reference No: t02391 and is called “Old Cottage on Orchard Road”. The row of three cottages overlooked what was locally called the skittle yard. A block of maisonettes covers the site today.
4)      I guess living somewhere posh and sophisticated like Bath must have its plus points, but do you miss Sheffield? Do you still come back?
I miss Sheffield a great deal, and though I would love to move back there I doubt that family commitments will ever allow it. I make research trips and visit family and friends as often as possible.
5)      Does the distance from Sheffield have its have advantages when it comes to writing fiction? Giving you a different perspective?
Definitely it does. The Sheffield I write about is long gone. When I visit the city today I see much that I barely recognise. Perhaps being away from the Sheffield of today is actually essential for my kind of fiction, because what I see in my mind is the city as it was when I was twelve years old; a brave, struggling city, scarred by war and shortages, and untouched by redevelopment and civic improvement.
6)      Does living near Bath mean you are now a Rugby Union fan or do you still follow the trials of the Sheffield football clubs?
No it’s football for me, but there is a major downside to living away from one’s hometown, the severe dilution of parochialism. As a Walkley lad it used to be only the Owls I worried about. Now it’s the Blades too, as well as Hallam, the Tykes, the Millers, the Vikings, the Spireites, and several other clubs, though not Leeds of course. Fretting about all the northern clubs east of the Pennines is a major emotional burden. I combat this by strutting about wearing a bright red Sheffield FC shirt, hoping the locals will ask me about the world’s oldest football club so that I can brag about it. However, I’m beginning to notice this makes people run away.
7)      Pikelet or Bath bun?
Pikelet, of course. What’s to say?
8)      I love the characters, particularly Billy and the brilliant Yvonne. Do they draw on inspiration from anyone you know?
All my characters, even the ones in my 7th century historical fiction are to some extent based on real people. I don’t know any other way to do it. I don’t fear being found out, because I guess few of us would recognise ourselves anyway. In a few cases however, I wish those concerned would see themselves – Yvonne Sparkes for example. I loved her when I was a kiddywink. I often wonder if the real Yvonne has read my book and seen herself.
9)      Do you have a special place where you do your writing or can you write anywhere?
I write in my office. I’ve never felt posh enough to call it my study. I write almost every day and can work for hours on end, missing meals and breaks without a care. I love writing. It really is like time travel for me.

10)  I am excited to hear you have a new book (or is it an old book?) you are working on: Wolves of Woden. Can you tell us a bit about it?
When I learned that the place name Dore in Sheffield comes from door or gate, because of its strategic importance on the border between powerful Anglo Saxon kingdoms, I wanted to write about it. Sheffield doesn’t make much of that part of its history, even though it could be said that the very first king of all England was declared at Egberts Stone in Dore; not in Canterbury or Winchester or Westminster or York, but in Sheffield.  WOLVES OF WODEN will be a fictionalised account of events at Dore during the birth of Anglo Saxon England. It is a sort of prequel to The Whispering Bell.

11)  I likened Tuppenny Hat Detective to Emil and the Detectives. Is that something you read as a child?
No, I didn’t read as a child. I was a very slow reader. My mother struggled to teach me when I started to fall behind at school. I began writing my first book before I had read a book. It was called The Stone Circle, and was inspired by a spooky, solitary trip I made to The Nine Ladies stone circle on Stanton Moor near Matlock. I wrote about twenty pages, straight off, and loved doing it. I don’t remember what happened to them.

12) I find it hard to believe agents rejected Tuppenny Hat Detective. A lot of Amazon reviewers are clearly grateful you went ahead anyway. Is that one of the most satisfying things about writing for you: knowing you’ve cheered so many people up?
Nothing beats knowing that people are reading my stories. Tuppenny Hat Detective has been downloaded in its thousands, something I still can’t believe. I read every review it gets and answer every email I receive from readers. People are often so generous. It just blows me away.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Through rose-tinted spectacles?

I’ve been thinking a lot about football’s soul recently. It’s perhaps an age thing; add to that watching my son battling away in his first season in the junior league, an emotional response to the FA Chairman’s England Commission report, England’s predictable failure in Brazil, and the whole Ched Evans thing.

I sought a better word than ‘soul’ but couldn’t find one. I mean what really makes football important. It is not, as some see it, the winning of the next match that is the only thing that matters. If that was all it was, I’d probably look for something else to provide a buzz. What I mean are all those things that make football hard to live without, all the things that provoke an emotional response. Why when sat even in an empty Bramall Lane in the off-season do the hairs on my neck stand on end? Just looking at just under two acres of grass? Why do I hear faint echoes of crowd noise and thuds of tackles? Football has been played on this space for one hundred and fifty years; every one of those tackles, those goals, those cheers, those groans, those tears, has built what we have now. My granddad stood over there between the wars, he brought his son, his son brought me. I sat up there with my daughter, sit there with my son. This is my heritage.

Our great football clubs are our legacy to future generations, just as they were passed on to us. They are very precious. Life changes, football changes; but we ought to think about how change affects the ‘soul’ of our game, and fight change where it does not preserve what really matters. There are many examples of battles won. But also of battles lost. It is our game; it’s soul belongs to us, but we have let the management of our game fall into the hands of a self-obsessed Premier League, a spineless FA, a corrupt FIFA, and international capital whose sole interest is shareholder return. We need to reflect, not just on whether our team will win that next game at any cost, but, more importantly, what sort of football we will pass on to our children – for them to pass on to theirs. Without fans there is no game: that gives us tremendous power. We need to use it. Do we just want football to be a pre-packaged commodity: just a sub-set of the entertainment business sector? As the @savegrassroots tweet said: “Don’t let your kids grow up thinking football is a TV programme”

To lighten things a little, in my melancholic reflections I came up with a largely ridiculous list of ten things that have probably gone from the game forever; things that I miss, but which made football better than it is now. I have followed my team since the late sixties – perhaps anyone who started following the game in the post-Sky era will groan: not that old jumpers for goalposts, leather case-ball crap. But perhaps in thirty years time they will look back fondly at the use of i-Pads at football grounds.

In no particular order:

1)                  Singing at matches. But surely that still happens? A little, yes, but something has gone. It is less of a shared experience now. Fans have changed as communities collapsed and marketing men took over, and there is no longer a tradition of communal singing in church and school that used to translate to football grounds. It was no coincidence that many of the songs that were staples of the terraces derived from hymns: Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, When the Saints, Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah, or songs based on things like Land of Hope and Glory. Similarly the loss of Top of the Pops and changes in the music industry mean that today’s popular songs are not quite so ubiquitous and rarely mutate into football songs. With one or two exceptions songs have become mindless chants.

2)                  Smoking. Granted, that’s an odd one for a lifetime non-smoker but there is something I miss about seeing smoke illuminated by floodlights rolling up from under the roofs of the terraces. I also miss the smell of cigars on Boxing Day as the dads lit up their Christmas presents. If I whiff cigar smoke now it still takes me back to Boxing Day matches in the seventies.

3)                  Terraces. I can’t not say something about terraces. Of course there were many bad things about standing, but why do some of us go on about it still? When you’re sat in a seat, you can only discuss the game with one or two people around you and if your season ticket puts you next to a ‘moaner’ you’re stuck with them like in a bad marriage. You can’t gently migrate to a more pleasant area. On terraces the banter was with twenty or thirty people. How best to describe it? It was like Twitter with just your team’s hashtag, no typing, no time delay and no stupid profile pics.

4)                  Floodlight towers. These were the beacons that marked out the ground – one in each corner. You could see them rising up above the terraced housing surrounding so many grounds, like lighthouses to guide you. Big, ugly – and climbable. Players running around with four shadows. But like most old football grounds they have gone: replaced by lights shining all around the plastic stadiums full of plastic seats, stadiums that change their name with every new sponsor (it only seems to be grumpy old gits who call them ‘grounds’ these days).

5)                  Bobble hats. Especially the ones knitted by aunts or grannies, hats with a big floppy pom-pom. Officially merchandised beany hats knitted on foreign looms are the best it gets. (And don’t get me started on flat caps and baseball caps.) Likewise scarves – the waving of scarves, the perfect accompaniment to communal singing. And where have all the rosettes gone?

6)                  Reserve team games played in the ground. For those of us too young or who couldn’t afford to follow our team away there was always the reserve match played at the ground on Saturday afternoon. You’d get the results of the first team announced and could watch a game. The ground was relatively quiet and you heard every call, every grunt, every thud of the ball. This constant use of the pitch was one cause of something else I miss:

7)                  Muddy pitches. Come February the pitch was, in some years, more mud than grass. It was rolled to flatten out the furrows. Then when it rained players slid about and got covered in it. Nothing like a well timed slide tackle in the mud. Fantastic! It was also a great leveller – I remember one of our sides seemed to thrive in the mud.

8)                  Idols. I feel sorry for kids these days. They have no idols like I did – no players who stuck around for  season after season: like Len Badger or Alan Woodward. Players who were loyal to the club and often grew up as fans themselves; flair players whose talent was natural and not learned or coached. Now a kid gets a favourite player’s name on their shirt and looks ridiculous six months later come the next transfer window. Or the officially merchandised calendar just mocks you when you get to October. The media, celebrity culture, and pampering of players so that they never become proper grown-ups, also means that idols are invariably revealed publicly as philanderers, cheats, thugs, or brats. Wasn’t it better when their private and football lives were separate?

9)                  Two points for a win. I thought the change to three points for a win was a bad idea when it was introduced in 1981, supposedly, to encourage attacking football: to reward goals. It was in some ways the start of the decline. It made winning all important – more important than the contest. Isn’t a well fought draw worth half a win? In some ways it provided a seed bed for unsustainable business models and wage inflation when television money flooded in. There is evidence that three points for a win decreases competitiveness, leading to the same old winners and losers which is bad for fans but is good for investors seeking security of investment. People only interested in a brand. (That is why they would also like an end to promotion and relegation.) Far from encouraging attacking football it has led to an increase in cynical football: making teams that go one goal up shut up shop and defend rather than risk exposure at the back by going forward. There is also evidence that it encourages cynical fouls. There is an excellent article on this by Nick Cholst on the CafĂ© Futbol blog at:

10)               Tackling as an art. There is every bit as much beauty in a good tackle as in a curling free kick. But it is an art form that is under threat. Under threat from cheating players who fall over at the least contact, from referees who award free kicks because someone falls over (especially if the player falling over is from a fashionable club) and from braying, partisan fans who don’t know, and aren’t interested in knowing, the rules. Of course we don’t want to see career threatening injuries or the old raking of studs down Achilles tendons to put down a marker, but do we really want to see football turning more and more into a non-contact sport?

(What have I missed?)