Every Boxing Day, for seasons, the Welsh League fixture at the Meadow had been a home game with Maerdy. It was the sort of match we liked, since Maerdy always had a fair old crowd of supporters coming down with them on the team bus. They were hard-bitten valleys men, sardonic and passionate by turns, with a edge of fervour to their support which always threatened to outweigh the type of amiable and indolent onlooking you get at the Meadow. Pembrokeshire people leave passion to the valleys boys. We watch our football with a contemplative blend of cynicism and affection. Our shouting at the team is a type of intimate chatting-up, different in kind from the violent emotional exhortation of the Maerdy boys. So every Boxing Day, every home game with Maerdy was a challenge, a battle of a kind, with the real match as much in the stand as on the pitch.
One such Boxing Day, I met Affie in the Grapes about an hour before kick-off and this gave us time to sink a slow and thoughtful pint and to ponder the prospects for the afternoon.
'Have Maerdy still got that centre half?' asked Affie.
'The bald boy? Winters. Very likely. He's a hard man.'
'He'll keep tight on Bomber,' said Affie.
We sipped thoughtfully, for Affie's comment had jabbed at a nagging nerve. This was Bomber's first home game against Maerdy and we felt a lurking dread as to what rich spate of irony and mockery Bomber's presence in the Town team might provoke amongst the Maerdy boys in the stand.
Bomber was one of a distinguished line of ex-internationals who'd trodden the trail Westwards to the Meadow in late career, to wheeze quietly into the semi-pro semi-retirement of the Welsh League. His quite striking eccentricity had established him as a firm favourite with the Meadow crowd but at the same time his air of blundering naivety had always left us with a mild feeling of needing to apologise for him. One day, we felt, he could shame us all.
Bomber combined the roles of court jester and scorer of spectacular goals. Vast, blond and swashbuckling, he would stampede in on the goalmouth at the riverside end, thumping in massive headers to delighted shouts of encouragement and exchanging a few rueful words with the crowd when things were going wrong. But sadly there was a strange sort of dopiness about Bomber. Once he'd left a ball he'd assumed was out of play and had plodded back upfield, leaving a spreadeagled defence and an open goal, while the crowd had shouted at him. One day, we felt ... one day, he'd disgrace us all.
'I'd like to see Bomber come off against Maerdy,' said Affie as we pondered our way to the end of our second pint in the Grapes.
'The Maerdy boys'll have a go at Bomber,' I said. 'That's for sure.'
'Slow on the ground is Bomber - but he can head a ball. By damn, he can head a ball.'
The local Argus had flamboyantly described Bomber, a few weeks earlier, as 'the man who uses his head like most men use a sledgehammer'. And the following week, he'd taken the sledgehammer motif perhaps a little too far. Thumping in a thundering header, down at Pembroke Boro, Bomber had charged straight on and cracked his head against the goalpost, being left to lie, stunned and senseless, at the mercy of the wits in the Boro crowd. Affie and I left the Grapes and headed for the Meadow, wondering uneasily what the Maerdy boys would make of Bomber.
The Maerdy bus had arrived before us and the usual lads were there, packing out the front of the stand.
'Who's this new centre forward you've got?' they called. Gloating, they awaited the teams' appearance. Bomber's name had clearly spread the width of the Welsh League.
The teams had to pass by the front of the stand to get on to the pitch, so this gave the Maerdy boys the chance to have a go at Bomber straight away. Bomber pranced out at the head of the Town team, beaming extravagantly, executing a few side-steps and, for some obscure reason, jabbing out the odd straight left.
'Who's Number 9 then, boys?' called back the Maerdy men. 'Bit punchy, is he?'
Bomber bounced, oblivious, on to the pitch as the Maerdy boys hooted derision.
The first half was a tight one, as the Town and Maerdy wrestled for an opening. Bomber, on the ground, was as ponderous as ever, and the Maerdy centre half, Winters, a hard, bald and toothless villain, snapped crisply into the tackle time and time again, dispossessing Bomber with a cynical and complacent ease.
Bomber made occasional forays as the high crosses came in, and two or three times sent wild headers ballooning foolishly over the bar. The Maerdy boys roared delight.
'Up and under, Bomber boy!'
'Go and fetch it, big head!'
And then, against this backcloth of complacent mockery, Maerdy broke away and slid in an easy, graceful and very professional goal. One-nil to Maerdy at half-time and they were clearly winning this one, on the field and in the stand. Affie and I were subdued as we drank our tea at half-time, away from the Maerdy boys for the moment.
'A couple of goals is a lot to pull back against Maerdy,' I said.
'I'll tell you what though,' said Affie. 'They're taking the piss out of him something cruel, but the one man who could pull those goals back is Bomber ... If Bomber got his head to a couple of high ones ... ' He shrugged. We could only wait and hope.
Then suddenly, early in the second half, came a startling moment, sudden, unexpected and beautiful, a moment of football poetry. A hard ball, driven down the middle, dropped at Bomber's feet. His clumsiness seemed to leave him for just a moment or two. With a deft, almost balletic movement, he seemed to spin on the ball, turning it neatly and delicately along the ground, out of the reach of the onrushing Winters and straight into the path of the Town winger who was coming up in support. The winger was through the gap, put clear by Bomber, and the goal was there. One-all on the field and most certainly in the stand.
'Bomber's goal,' we bellowed. 'Lovely ball, Bomber boy! Come on then, Town, let's have you!'
The Maerdy boys sat glum and silent.
And now the battle between Bomber and Winters really hotted up. The Town knew well enough that, for all his ponderousness, it was Bomber's blond, ball-thumping head which could win this one. They pumped in one high cross after another and Bomber's headers, which had sailed aimlessly over the bar in the first half, were still going over, but just over now by a shade, whistling hard and dangerously towards the goal. The balding Winters, who'd outclassed Bomber on the ground in the first half, was resorting now to shoving, elbowing and bodychecking.
And it was just because of this that we began to score over the Maerdy boys in the stand. For victory to the football supporter depends on a moral sense of injured innocence. For a while, as Winters niggled and jabbed at the innocent Bomber, the Maerdy boys were delighted.
'Go on, Stanley boy,' they roared. 'Take his legs. Bring the big bastard down!'
And then Winters did take Bomber's legs from under him, with a really nasty foul. It was too crude, too obvious. The Maerdy boys sat, silent and uneasy, while we roared with the wrath of offended virtue
'You great bald coot!'
'Hang one on him, Bomber!'
'Come on, the Town.'
We wanted that winning goal very badly and we wanted it to come from one of Bomber's headers. Bomber was straining to one high cross after another, Winters was crowding him and pushing, and we were seething in support.
The denouement was as sudden as it was unexpected. Winters chopped at Bomber's legs just that once too often, hacking him down violently. Bomber rose like an offended elephant and, with one sledgehammer blow of a vast right fist, stretched Winters out in the penalty area. The referee's red card was flashed and Bomber was sent off. We sat for a moment, stunned and dismayed.
The incredible thing thereafter was the reaction of the Maerdy boys. As Bomber trudged towards the stand, on his gloomy way back to the dressing room, one of the Maerdy boys commented, 'Winters asked for that.'
'Hard luck, Bomber,' said another. And suddenly, as Bomber plodded sadly past the stand, the Maerdy boys broke into a ripple of respectful applause.
Suddenly filled with a sense of Bomber's persecuted virtue, we all joined in, and half the stand were on their feet, applauding Bomber off the field. He raised his arms in a sheepish and clumsy boxer's salute, and disappeared into the dressing room.
The game on the field ended in a one-all draw but it was, without any doubt, two-one to us in the stand. Bomber had won the day.