A story of footballing yesteryear
'How many times did you say you've been here before?'
'Six.' The questions were getting trickier, like they were trying to catch me out or something. I wished that they would just watch the game.
'What colour shirts do Arsenal wear?' persisted Mole. That one was definitely trying to catch me out.
'Red shirts, white sleeves, white shorts.' That was an easy question, though. I had seen a picture of them in a magazine.
The noise of the crowd grew from a murmur to a roar, and thankfully the attention of Mole and the other boys passed from me to the pitch. Stanley Matthews, playing what was to be one of his last games for Blackpool, had very nearly scored a goal. But he had been hurt in the last-minute tackle and had to be helped, limping, to the dressing room. His side was down to ten men for a while, in the mid nineteen-fifties substitutes, even injury substitutes, were not allowed. There was polite applause as Matthews picked his way off. I did not know it then but I was seeing not only one of the later matches of the 'Wizard of Dribble', but also one of the last of the 'old style' games.
This was a time when young children could happily stand on the terraces, when professional footballers did not earn obscene multiples of what those who came to see them did, and when the people who watched the non-televised games could even applaud a good move from the other team. But already it was beginning to get a bit harder to do that.
It was the first big match I had attended, and I was very grateful for the company of the boys. Even in 1956 a First Division ground - there was no 'Premiership' then - was a big, frightening place when you were ten years old and on your first visit to London. Indeed, this was my first real trip out of our village. And where was the uncle whom I had only met the day before?
Somewhere else in the vastness of Stamford Bridge Football Stadium; that was all I knew.
The action in the game quietened down. Carpo, the biggest of the boys, turned to me again. Although he was two or three years older than the rest, and despite his big-city brashness, I had already decided that he was not very bright. Perhaps he was even a little backward like Gareth, Mrs. Morgan's lump of a boy, who did not go to the school in the village and instead caught a bus to what the adults in hushed tones called a 'special school' miles away somewhere.
'Which team are you supporting?'
'Chelsea.' I gave my answer without hesitation. I thought that the Royal Blue shirts had a certain something that was lacking in the showy orange worn by their opponents. Some of the names in the neat blue programme had a nice ring to them, too: Shellito, Sillett J, Sillett P. It didn't matter at all that Blackpool were already ahead by two goals to one.
I was surprised when my answer brought a chorus of groans and jeers from my companions. They were after all Londoners. It also brought the renewed interest of Mole, the small dark boy who had first befriended me as I wandered around the ground in search of my uncle. I had lost him almost as soon as we had passed through the turnstile.
Mole wasn't exactly the leader of the gang: he was too small and puny for that. Nor was he really its heart and soul, but he was certainly its brains, and I was eager to impress him. I was crestfallen when he looked at me with contempt for a moment before speaking again.
'You don't know much about football, do you?'
'Yes I do. I've been to every football ground at least twice.' This was an outrageous lie. I had never even been to a football match before. Not a proper match. You couldn't really count those liniment-smelling Sundays when I was compelled to watch my father's pub team from a windswept touch line.
'Oh yeah. Tell me the names of all the First Division football clubs in London then, if you're so smart, little boy.' I couldn't help but notice the little boy. This was a challenge all right.
Mole stood with his arms folded, a miniature of TV's Ann Robinson forty-odd years ahead of time. All his attention was now on me, and the other three - Carpo and the two other boys who said little and might have been twins, or at least brothers - imitated his crossed-arms pose.
'Could if I wanted to.'
I desperately tried to remember all the names of the teams that appeared on the tiny black-and-white screen of our television every Saturday tea-time, one of the few times that I was forbidden to speak, or even to clear my throat. This checking of pools coupons was a very serious business. It was the nearest thing to a religious ritual that I knew. Some reflexive memory brought on by the thought of this ceremony caused my throat to clog up and I cleared it noisily.
'Go on then. I know you can't. You talk funny. Bet you're not even from around here, are you?' Mole was in his element now. The others were listening to this exchange intently. I tried to ignore the suggestion that I was some sort of alien and kept firmly to the subject of football.
'Spurs, Chelsea.' I knew that I was on safe ground there. 'Arsenal, West Ham.' I took a deep breath. 'Crystal Palace-'
'Crystal Palace are in the Third Division!'
That was a tricky one. I had to think of something quickly.
'Well, they were in the First Division the last time that I went to see them. It's been a few years since then. I like to go to the top grounds best.'
The answer seemed to throw Mole off the track. He blinked at me doubtfully. Carpo even looked at me with something on the threshold of respect. I could see it in his eyes: this kid with the funny way of talking has been going to football matches for a few years. I could see that a question of his own was slowly forming in his mind.
'Do - do you go to a lot of football matches on your own? Where do you get the money?' Two questions. Carpo wasn't so dumb as I had thought.
'Of course I go on my own. You have to when you climb over the fence to get in, don't you?'
There it was. I thought of it as a master-stroke. And so it was, in a way. All four of the boys, Mole, Carpo, and the two members of the chorus were looking at me with open admiration now. Before I had been standing on the fringe of their tight little group. Now I was discreetly admitted as a welcome member of their circle.
Soon I was standing in the favoured spot at the front of the crowd. One of the brothers, whose name I now discovered to be Murray, stopped sniffing in the contents of his streaming nose for long enough to offer me a share of his crumpled bag of toffees. Those toffees tasted good. It was a precious moment. When they came, the half-time scores being announced over loudspeaker against the background hum of the crowd were an intoxicating music to me.
Here was I, a boy that hardly before this week knew there was a world outside his father's pub, holding a bunch of tough Londoners in some kind of thrall. And in the second half my team - yes, Chelsea were my team now - would be sure to fight back and win the day handsomely.
The loudspeaker announcements droned on. Stanley Matthews would not be playing in the second half because of the injury to his leg. There was a midweek away match against Preston North End and the coach would be leaving at two o'clock on Wednesday - I wondered briefly but seriously whether I could go. Mrs. O'Rourke of Goldhawk Road, Shepherds Bush was the winner of this week's Supporters' Club raffle.
Then my own name was called out. It must have had the same effect on me that a high-pitched whistle has on a dog, for Mole noticed my reaction immediately.
'That's you, ain't it?' A knowing smile was already forming on his lips.
'No, it's not!' But the announcement was already being repeated:
'Would David Price, aged ten, of the Nantglyn Arms, Trelewis, near Denbigh, North Wales, go at once to the administration offices situated near to the South Entrance, where his uncle is anxiously waiting for him.'
As I picked my way from the front of the crowd I wished that they hadn't said that bit about 'anxiously', or embarrassingly given my age. They could have said 'eleven' at least. My birthday was only a few months away and that extra year would have made a lot of difference.
'Where are you going then, if it's not you they're calling?'
'I'm just going to the bogs, aren't I?' I squeezed through the crowd, a ten-year-old from North Wales again. Already I could hear the laughter behind me. Carpo shouted out something I didn't understand.
It took me a quarter-of-an-hour to find my uncle, but we still managed to see most of the second half from a vantage point behind the Chelsea goal.
Blackpool, without Stanley Matthews, scored another four goals to end the game with a scoreline of six-one.
I never went to a football match again.