Mirth and Woe: Leaving James Behind
In my late teens, I discovered football.
In fact, I discovered football in a big way. After a year of standing with my boss and a bunch of old fogies on the South Terrace at Reading, I was persuaded by my brother to experience a REAL football match. He took we to see West Ham entertain Arsenal one Tuesday evening - in the away end - and I was hooked.
It was, indeed, the real thing. Thousands of fans crammed, heaving and swaying on one tiny terrace, the waft of beer, burger and tobacco. The barely suppressed menace and naked aggression of the opposing fans in the aptly named Chicken Run (go near 'em, and the chickens run). The 'don't care if we win or lose (as long as we win) attitude' of the whole affair, that sociologists and politicians alike have failed to understand over the years.
And, of course, the fucking huge fight after the match that had me hiding in a local kebab shop.
The following week, I went to a home match against Newcastle. The Arsenal were shit, and we lost, but by then, it was far, far too late. Reading FC was a fast-fading memory, as I threw in my chips with the Arse, and I never looked back.
Reading would never take more than two or three coaches of away fans to a match. On one particular occasion, I had travelled with my boss to a midweek cup fixture against Shrewsbury. Finding ourselves numbering less than twenty, one of the players - Kevin Bremner, bless him - stood by the turnstiles and paid for the lot of us to get in.
Arsenal, on the other hand, chartered whole trains to get us to away grounds. Stories of Football Specials are legion, with hundreds of supporters turning up in places like Norwich to be met by equal numbers of home fans eager to put us in our place, and twice a many coppers just as eager to help them.
Our little band of layabouts and part-time hoolies soon found it was far more convenient to drive. As a rule, you could leave at a sensible time, park relatively near the ground, get a drink in a friendly pub (and, on the odd occasion, distinctly unfriendly pubs as well), and troll into the ground to see the Football Special mob being herded in by the local law, like sheep to a slaughter house.
After a while, a sort of community developed. Not only of groups of your own independently-travelling supporters, but also of fans of other teams heading up north for ninety minutes of swearing and eventual misery. With there being a good dozen or so teams in London, you'd invariably run into the same old faces at M1 service stations, trade light-hearted abuse in the queue for the Wimpy and go on your way, to do the same again on the way home.
We travelled in a group numbering anything from four to a dozen, sometimes travelling in a convoy of up to four cars, the colours displayed and the red-and-white scarf flapping out of the window.
Watford Gap was the traditional stopping-off point on any northern trip, and the scene of many an epic battle, particularly if West Ham, Chelsea or Millwall were also travelling that day. After a quick re-fuel, a bite to eat and some petty vandalism in the toilets ("Gooners kick 2 kill"), we'd be on our way again.
It was one one of these trips - and running rather late if we were to make it up to Derby (which is rather further north that you think) in time for kick-off, that we made a snap decision.
Ginger James was paying rather too much - and dare I say it - friendly attention to a group of Crystal Palace supporters and there was much road to be travelled if we were to get a pre-match drink in.
So we left him behind.
We felt no guilt about it. We waited for Mark to finish topping up his car's radiator with Evian water, got in, and hit the north.
"Where's James, then?"
We went to Derby.
We got chased out of the pub.
We had to endure the sight of a fat, smug, not-dead-yet Robert Maxwell parading himself around the pitch.
And we lost. To Derby Bastard County.
It was a grim ride back down to the capital, as it always is after an away defeat. You do not stop at motorway services if you can help it at all, for you may face fans of other teams who have had a rather better day of things than you, and you're mind really isn't into half-hearted fisticuffs at a time like that.
Flashing our Students Union passes (we were the oldest students in town thanks to some dodge I still haven't quite worked out) at the Kingston Polytechnic Union bar, we spent the remainder of the evening getting as pissed as little beetles to forget the day's ordeal. Alas, I still had another 50 miles to drive that night, and was cursed with staying sober in a students union.
And then, just as last orders were called, a filthy, foul-smelling, ginger wraith appeared in the doorway, clutching a nearly empty bottle of vodka.
"You bastards, I had to eat at a Little Chef!"
It was James.
"And I had to hitch a ride back."
"An' I met these Leeds fans"
"They threw me inna ditch."
That explained everything.
"You... you... bastards."
He had walked halfway across London, where some bloke had taken pity on him, given him a lift in the back of a van, and dropped him near to a tramp-friendly Off Licence nearby.
"Not to worry, mate. It was a joke. We never meant to..."
All over the lot of us, teaching us a valuable lesson about dumping mates in the middle of nowhere. Or something.
Karma never ceases to amaze me.
That one was ten minutes later, across the bonnet of my car. Thanks James. Thanks.