Archive | April, 2015

The Road to Springfield Park

29 Apr

The Road to Springfield Park

The Road to Springfield Park: A Neglected Route in Orwell’s Northern Journey

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A good friend of mine, Chris Marsh, sent me a message a few weeks ago telling me that there was a lecture on at the National Football Museum with the aforementioned title. Luckily enough the date of the lecture fell on the same day I had to be in Manchester for an appointment so I duly booked my free ticket over the internet. After an invigorating lunch consisting of a Crunchie and a bottle of Sprite I made my way over to the impressive museum.

The lecture was held on the top floor of the museum and ignoring the lift I puffed and panted my way up the stairs to arrive red faced into a room set out for around 60 people and containing maybe half that amount. George Chilvers well known to many latics fans and a mate of mine was already there and I navigated my way through the chairs to claim a seat next to him.

The lecture was given by Professor John Hughson Director of the International Football Institute at the University of Central Lancashire and is part of a series of lectures to celebrate 150 years of Association Football. I think this was the third lecture of the series. Professor Hughson started the lecture by apologising to any Wigan Athletic fans that were in attendance thinking it was going to be a lecture concerning Wigan Athletic. He explained that it was a play on the title of Orwell’s famous book “The Road to Wigan Pier” A few faces smirked around the room as people thought” who would think that?” I just stared at my shoes for a while…images9QTZROU0

The lecture was not specifically about Wigan Athletic then but it was very interesting nonetheless. Orwell visited the town of Wigan between January and March in 1936 and wasn’t very complementary about the town although he did say it wasn’t as bad as Sheffield. There’s no doubting that a large percentage of our town lived in poor housing conditions at this time and the coal mines and factories made men and women old before their time. My Dad would have been around four years old when Orwell visited and he lived just up the road from the house on Sovereign Road that Orwell lodged in.

The house is no longer there but a small plaque marks the spot where it stood. The inspiration behind the plaque was bookshop owner Stan Smith a popular figure in the town and a proud Wigan man. Professor Hughson explained that although Orwell studied the habits and vagaries of the local population he never mentioned the sporting pastimes that they had. The only vague reference to any sport was when Orwell mentioned the pit men rushing out of work at 2pm on a Saturday afternoon to watch some sporting event.

I’m sure that some of those men would have made their way down to Springfield Park in this particular year. The 1935/36 season was a particular good one for Wigan Athletic especially on home soil. Of the 21 home games Wigan Athletic won 20 and lost just one, scoring 91 goals and conceding 18. They finished the season as Cheshire League Champions, won the Cheshire League Cup and the Lancashire Junior Cup. What a pity then that Orwell did not take the time to watch this magnificent side. His portrayal of the town may have been a little kinder and Wigan Athletic would be immortalised in one of the most important books of our time.

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Professor Hughson explained that Orwell didn’t care much for football and didn’t mention it in any of his books, not many writers did, with J.B. Priestley being the exception. The lecture drew to a close and finished with a question and answer session. The first question asked by a member of the assembled audience was “Did Orwell mention Rugby League?” I looked at the man asking the question, then at the National Football Museum wall, reminded myself that I was at a football lecture and sighed softly…

The lectures are held on the third Wednesday of every month from 1pm till 2pm. Admission is free and tickets are available from the National Football Museum Website and http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/org/3029597766

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The next lecture is entitled “Football in the Second World War” and I’ll try and get to that one as well. If you’re popping along pick me up a Crunchie, oh and by the way Orwell didn’t mention Rugby League in any of his books…

This article was written a while back so the lectures at the National Football Museum will have changed now. The Greater Game: Football & the First World War is on at the moment and you can get more details here http://www.nationalfootballmuseum.com/whats-on/

Tony Topping

 

 

Puskas

26 Apr

 

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It was a clear starlit night on the evening of the 2nd of April 1927 and the newly born Ferenc Puskas lay snug and secure in his small humble cot. One star stood out from the rest with its beautiful brilliance and its silvery rays reached down to the sleeping infant. Legend has it that an Angel travelled down this glittering path and bent before little Ferenc lightly kissing his left foot that protruded from the blanket.

One thing was true though, angel intervention or not, Ferenc Puskas grew to become one of the best players the world had ever seen and that left foot would strike like a cobra and with the same venom.

Puskas was born in Kispest a small community on the outskirts of Budapest. He was a small child but deceptively strong much like a latter day Maradona. His family was very poor and Puskas liked to tell the story of how they could only afford one pair of shoes between him and his brother, so his brother wore the left one and he wore the right. Fearful of damaging the shoe he used his left to kick the ball made of old rags that they played their improvised football with and so he honed that fearsome left foot right from the beginning. In a world far removed from replica shirts, day glow footballs and even brighter football boots, Puskas stood out from an early age and he signed for his local club Kispest when he was 12. His father was a coach there and he made his league debut aged just 16, two years later he was picked for the national team and he scored on his debut in a 5-2 victory over Austria. Always prolific he emerged as Europe’s top marksman in 1948. puskas

In 1949 Kispest was taken over by the Hungarian Ministry of Defence and renamed Honved with Puskas named as captain. They won five Championships on the trot from 1949 to 1955 with Puskas regularly topping the goal scoring charts, on one occasion he scored 50 in a season.

On the international stage Hungary were entering their golden era and between 1950 and 1956 they were beaten only once, that one defeat tragically denying them the greatest prize in the game of football, the World Cup. Under the expert tutelage of Coach Gusztav Sebes they produced a brand of football that mesmerised their opponents. In 1953 they travelled to England to take on a side that had never lost at home to a team from outside the British Isles; they smashed that proud record to pieces with a display that is still talked about to this day. It is well recorded by those lucky enough to attend the game that most people looked at the stocky Puskas and thought he was too overweight to be any good, how wrong they were. When the referee put the ball on the spot waiting for the kick off Puskas flicked it up with his boot and juggled with it before dropping it back like a child bored with a toy. When the game kicked off the English were soon chasing shadows, normally the centre half would be told to follow the centre forward but Hungary’s centre forward the brilliant Hidegkuti played a deep role dropping back into midfield. This confused the English rearguard and they didn’t know whether to follow him or not. They were thrashed 6-3.

Out of all the magnificent football played that day Puskas produced a piece of magic that would rank alongside the great Johan Cruyff’s sublime turn as a moment of genius. The ball was crossed low by Czibor from the right, on the edge of the six yard box Puskas moved to receive it. England captain Billy Wright alert to the danger slid in to knock the ball out, Puskas dragged the ball back with the sole of his boot and as Wright slid by he swivelled and smashed the ball past a despairing Merrick in the nets, magnificent. In a return game six months later they again triumphed 7-1.

The Hungarians were hot favourites to win the 1954 World Cup; in 1952 they had claimed gold in the Olympic Games. They made it through to the final and West Germany stood between them and the golden prize. They had already thrashed the Germans 8-3 in the group stages and despite playing with an injury Puskas opened the scoring in the 6th minute. Two minutes later and the prolific Kocsis put the Hungarians 2-0 up; nobody could have foreseen what would happen next. By the time the 18th minute had passed the Germans had drawn level Morlock (10th) and Rahn (18th) the scorers. Hungary threw everything at the Germans in the second half, Hidegkuti hit the post, Kocsis hit the bar, Kohlmeyer cleared off the line and Turek brought off a series of great saves but the Germans hung on and with typical resilience scored again six minutes from time Rahn again the scorer. With two minutes remaining Puskas had a goal disallowed for offside by the English Referee Bill Ling and the dream was over. It was Hungary’s first defeat in 30 games. Many years later a brilliant film drama was made about the German triumph “The Miracle of Berne” and a miracle it was, West Germany became the first unseeded team to win the World Cup.

In 1956 Puskas was on a European tour with Honved when the October uprising took place in Hungary and Russian tanks moved in to quell the revolt. The Honved team were ordered to return home but several of the players Puskas included decided not to go back and after a handful of games for Espanyol he was eventually hit with an 18 month ban by Uefa.

Unable to play football he piled on the pounds and he was now over 30, his career seemed over but there was yet to be another twist in the life of the galloping major.

Real Madrid the greatest club side in Europe if not the world at this time decided to offer Puskas a lifeline. Real were the European champions and wanted to pair Puskas with the great Alfredo di Stefano. Di Stefano used to being the fulcrum of Madrid’s attack was at first resentful of the Hungarians arrival, in fact many wondered why Real had taken such a risk on a tubby over 30yr old. Puskas though was determined to make up for lost time and in only his second game he scored a hat trick against Sporting Gijon. In the last game of that first season Puskas and Di Stefano were jointly top goal scorers and the Argentinean was still cool towards his strike partner and he desperately wanted to claim the honour of being the top scorer that season. In the closing minutes of that last game Puskas was through with the goal at his mercy and the prize at his feet but he instead teed the ball up to Di Stefano who joyfully despatched it into the empty net. From then on they became great friends and together cut a swathe through Europe’s finest teams.

In 1959 Puskas won his first of three European Cup winners’ medals. The following year Puskas scored four in what is regarded as the best club final ever Real Madrid 7 Eintracht Frankfurt 3 with Di Stefano scoring the other three.

In the following five years Puskas won the Spanish title five times on the trot with him finishing top league scorer in four of those triumphs. In the 1962 European Cup final he scored a hat trick but still finished on the losing side, a 5-3 win for Benfica.

That same year he played international football for his adopted country Spain in the World Cup Finals winning five caps. In 1967 at the age of 40 he retired from playing and moved into coaching. His finest moment coming in 1971 when he led unfancied Greek side Panathanaikos to the European Cup final at Wembley scene of one of his finest playing moments. A Johan Cryuff inspired Ajax team eventually winning the game 2-0.

In 1991 he finally returned home to his birthplace and remained there until his death.

He was admitted to hospital in the year 2000 suffering from Alzheimer’s and life was a struggle for him and his wife from then on. To raise money for the crippling medical expenses a match between a Puskas Hungarian XI and the current Real Madrid team was arranged. The Real team containing Beckham, Zidane, Ronaldo et al won the game 3-1 in front of over 40,000. The benefit game was hailed a success but the following day the full horror of the game was revealed. Elizabeth Puskas the wife of the stricken man was handed £7000 as a result of the game after Real Madrid had claimed expenses of £892,000. This included hotel expenses of £68,500 for a two day stay in a top hotel. Mrs Puskas close to tears refused to blame Real but the world of football was outraged and eventually after much criticism the money was finally handed over in full. Real claimed they were setting up a trust fund for Puskas but we shall never know if that was true or not. It was a shabby way to treat a man who had done so much for the Spanish giants not least scoring 512 goals in 528 games.

In International games for Hungary he scored 83 times in 84 games a quite remarkable feat for a man who was said to only use his left foot. But my what a left foot. On November 17th 2006 Ferenc Puskas one of the greatest ever football players passed away in his home town.

 

Ferenc Puskas 1927-2006

 

Tony Topping

 

 

B*****D Airfix!!!

22 Apr

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Adults of a certain age will remember a more innocent time when kids played with toys and indeed made their own from kits. This era was known as B.C. (Before Computers) the devil makes work for idle hands and Mr Lucifer must have been on the board of one of the kit makers, namely Airfix.

Airfix were one of the leading kit manufacturers in the world and they churned out an amazing amount of products. At their most productive height in the mid to late 1960’s they sold around 350,000 Spitfires, 80,000 Hurricanes and 60,000 Lancaster bombers a year. That’s a lot of kids playing around with glue in their bedrooms though all innocent I’m sure. I know I was busy getting sticky fingers around this time and my bedroom soon began to fill up with all the machinery of war. I even had a Bismark on my wall but it was nothing a good detergent couldn’t remove. Add to this the pocket Commando comics that I got every week and it’s a wonder I didn’t finish up in the Army Careers office as soon as I left school.

Just one drawback to that though and that was my inbuilt ability to run away from danger. Suppose I could have joined the S.A.S., not the elite group of fighting men but the lesser known Swivel and Scarper section.

The smaller kits were not too expensive and many of my friends had the same hobby for a while. In fact it was funny in a childish way to enter the model shop with your gang and say to the bloke behind the counter “I like the look of that Fokker”

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Airfix also produced loads of toy soldiers and you would get around 40 in a box. They ranged from Roman’s with chariots to the modern day soldiers and in no time at all you could assemble quite a large though varied collection. I would set them out in formation on a large piece of cardboard which I had painted green, apart from a section that was covered in Baco Foil to represent the sea and my battleships lay in wait there. It took ages to set up all the armies and my efforts were often in vain as the family cat would take to rampaging through their ranks like a scene from a bad 1950’s Sci Fi film.

My love affair with the world of miniatures came to an untimely end when I fixed my eyes on the crème de la crème of Airfix kits, the model HMS Victory. It was big, it was challenging but most of all it was expensive. I had to have it though and for months I saved all my pocket money and birthday money. I even got a paper round and I hate getting up early but finally I had enough to buy the flagship.

The box was massive and when I opened it I was shocked by the amount of material inside it, the manual did little to put me at ease and it all looked very complicated.

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For days on end I struggled to assemble the “thing” (for this is what it had now become, an object of scorn) and patience is not one of my better virtues. It didn’t help that some of the pieces didn’t seem to fit together very well and I began to lose my temper using words that were quite unseemly for an ex altar boy “Get in the effin slot you effin b*****d!”

Finally one day the dam of anger burst and a pair of size 4 Winfield bumper trainers did to the Victory something the might of the French Armada couldn’t do. I smashed the bugger into a messy pulp in front of hundreds of witnesses, all of them made of plastic.

 

Tony Topping

The Wonderful World of Comics

9 Apr

The Wonderful World of Comics

 

I was chatting to John one of my old friends the other day, and he was reminiscing about the old Woodhouse Stadium and recalled how as a youngster his mam had bought him some new running shoes after weeks of him pestering for them. John was chuffed to bits with his shoes and proudly wore them for the first time at the old track. Unfortunately minutes after putting them on someone stood on his foot, the end result being one shoe with more holes than there are in Blackburn Lancashire (Beatles reference for all you young uns!) Needless to say his mam wasn’t best pleased!

I told John he should have run in his bare feet like Alf Tupper would have done. Alf starred in the old Victor comic for boys and was known as the “Tough of the track” After a bit of research I managed to find out more about Alf Tupper and along the way discovered some more unusual British comic heroes with storylines that were incredulous to say the least! Here’s a few of them starting with probably the most famous cartoon footballer of all time:

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Roy of the Rovers

The Roy of the Rovers cartoon strip has been going strong now for 50 years. Roy Race played for Melchester Rovers and was quite simply the greatest player ever, well on paper at least! Roy started out as a trainee with Melchester in 1954, by 1960 he was doing so well in the Tiger comic that the publishers gave him his own comic “Roy of the Rovers” Roy managed to win nearly every honour in the game including; 9 league titles, 8 F.A. Cup wins, 5 European Cups, 2 Cup Winners Cups, a EUFA Cup, 2 World Club Cups and a 2nd Division title, some of these successes were also won as a player manager. But life wasn’t always a bunch of roses for Roy, eight of his teammates were killed in a terrorist attack, he lost a foot and had to give up playing after 40 years! And his wife was killed in a car crash. His son Rocky Race now ploughs the same golden furrow his dad did.

 

Alf Tupper “Tough of the track”

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Alf  Tupper started out in the “Rover” comic in 1949 and moved to the “Victor” in the early 1960’s. Alf is one of my favourite characters, his famous phrase “I ran em!” still makes me smile today. Alf lived with his Aunt Meg in Anchor Alley, Greystone. The house only had two rooms, one upstairs and one down. Alf used to sleep on a mattress on his Aunts kitchen floor. He worked as a welder for Ike Smith in a welding shop situated under a railway arch. He got paid the massive wage of £1.5s a week and out of this he had to pay his Aunt £1.2s.6d.This left him with 2/6d to spend on himself!  Alf had a fall out with his Aunt Meg and moved into Ike’s welding shop, sleeping on his workbench. Despite all this he was a brilliant track runner winning races despite horrendous odds invariably against upper class snobs who would always try to cheat him. Alf was your real working class hero; his trainers were threadbare, he fought against society and poverty to win the day. All this on a daily diet of his favourite meal…a massive helping of Fish & Chips.

 

Billy’s Boots

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Billy Dane was a 12 year old boy who was rubbish at football, always being picked last at games until one day he found an old pair of football boots in his Gran’s attic and he was transformed into an amazing player! The boots had belonged to an old footballer called Dead Shot Keen a 1920’s striker. When Billy wore the boots he could score with fantastic shots that nearly ripped the net. The adventures of Billy usually revolved around his Gran throwing the boots away and Billy searching through the dustbin or jumble sale to retrieve them just in time to score the winner in the Cup Final.

 

Hotshot Hamish

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Hamish Balfour first appeared in the Tiger comic, he had a fantastic shot on him and not only ripped the net when he scored he also wrecked the goalposts with his power!

Hamish lived on a tiny island and he was a fearsome caber-tosser. Mr Mc Whacker, the manager of Scottish league side Princess Park, spotted his athletic prowess and Hamish enjoyed great success as a footballer. He also had a pet sheep called Mc Mutton.

 

Bernard Briggs

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Bernard appeared in the Wizard, Hotspur and Hornet comics.

Bernard (Bouncing) Briggs worked as a General Dealer and he had a yard in the town of Slagton. His favourite mode of transport was a motorbike with an old bathtub as a sidecar. Bernard tried out different sports every week such as: Baseball, Boxing, Football, Ice Hockey, Rugby League, Tennis & Wrestling. Of course Bernard was brilliant at all of them!

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Limp along Leslie

Now I must admit that Leslie was before my time but he’s an interesting character nonetheless. Leslie Thompson (Limp along Leslie) had a limp caused by a childhood accident but was determined to play football for his beloved Rangers (based in the town of Darbury) and also to train his sheepdog “Pal” into a champion. The story revolved around sheep farmer Leslie being torn between his two dreams.

 

Billy the Fish

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Billy the Fish appears in the Viz comic. Billy plays in goal and is half man half fish complete with a perm! Billy Thompson plays for Fulchester United alongside team-mates such as Johnny X the invisible striker (Haven’t we had some of those in the past?) and Brown Fox the red Indian brave who once committed the unusual foul of “breast ball!” Shakin’ Stevens & Mick Hucknell also played briefly in the Fulchester side.

 

Of course I have missed out many more comic sportsmen and if I have omitted yours then I apologies but here is a list of some of the actual stories that appeared in comics of the 1950’s & 1960’s:

THE CIRCUS OF SECRETS AND SHIVERS: Jack Heaton, a talent scout for the Hackfield Circus, discovers that the circus boss and circus performers of the Astor Two-Ring Circus are aliens from another planet.

GORGEOUS GUS: The Earl of Boote, an excellent footballer, buys a football club with surprising results.

MY NUMBER IS NINE: Centre forward, Stan Stagg, plays for Bradwick City, which is fine except the fans hate the club.

THE BAFFLING BOWLER FROM NOWHERE: Broadshire’s spin bowler, Bob Gregory, has a secret past as a wanted criminal.

THE GOALS THAT NOBODY CHEERED: Professional footballer, Stan Rankin, has caused the death of two players, during matches.

THERE ONCE WAS A GAME CALLED FOOTBALL: The year is 2148 and two schoolboys, Phil Mason and Lawrie Hill re-discover the ancient game of Association Football.

THE UNSOLVED MYSTERY OF THE LOST FOOTBALLERS Football players disappear.

THE MOUNTAIN MOVED A mountain in a Welsh village, turns out to be a monster.

HE’S BLIND – YET HE’S A BOXER

GRAPPLING GRANNIE

THE HALF-BACK NOBODY KNEW Football story of Rory Grant.

GET THE RUNS – GET ‘EM QUICK!

JAKE’S GIANT KILLERS Non-league football club wins the F.A. Cup.

MY BUSINESS IS GOALS Football story with Stan Stagg.

THE MUG AT CENTRE-FORWARD Football story and Dave Lance is the mug.

THE FIERY MAN AT NUMBER 6 Football story with half-back Joe Greer.

SON OF THE LOST CENTRE-FORWARD

THOSE GOALS THAT JACKSON SCORED Football with Johnny Jackson centre-forward.

THE STRANGE STORY OF THE RED HAIRED HALF-BACK

TWO GUN FARRELL – FRIEND OF HORSES

THE BLIND BOWLER

THE BOY WHO BOWLED BENDERS

JOHNNY GETS THE RUNS

THE BIG STIFF

THE CATAWAMPTIOUS KID

THE PLANE WITH THE WAGGLY TAIL

THE FLYING PIEMAN

BERNARD THE BOOT

 

Interested in old comics?

Then try these websites:

www.26pigs.com

www.britishcomics.com

 

Tony Topping

 

A Pilgrims Progress

4 Apr

A Pilgrims Progress

 

In the early seventies me and my Dad like many others living on the Worsley Hall estate, made our weekly pilgrimage to Springfield Park by means of a long and winding path that led through some of the most inhospitable land this side of the Amazon. I’m speaking of course about the “Sewerage Path”. Mention this to anyone who had the misfortune to tread this road and their eyes will glaze over, not with memories of happier times but with nightmarish reminders they thought they had banished in the dark recesses of their mind. For this was a path surely unique in English football.

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The path started at the top of Montrose Avenue, just ten houses away from our humble abode, from here it meandered its way down over the river Douglas, past the sewerage station, crossing the Leeds to Liverpool canal before finally leading to a tunnel passing under railway lines. Not the most romantic of routes I’m sure you will agree, throw in the fact it was also the site of the towns major rubbish dump and you’ll get the impression that it wasn’t the ideal place for a family picnic.

Walking down the path towards Springfield Park, you had the tip on your left and the sewerage tanks on your right. Hopefully the wind was blowing in your favour but nine times out of ten, well you can imagine. The tip was always smoking, the result of hot ashes being dumped there and this gave the impression that a major disaster had taken place, but lets face it, even Armageddon would have improved this god forsaken place. But to a certain group of people this Hell was their Heaven. No matter what the weather was like you would always find people on the tip, many people enjoyed the working class sport of “ratting”. Armed with their trusty airguns and spades they would roam around searching for rats, and believe me they didn’t have to search too hard. The place was alive with them.

Another group of people who got a trip out of the tip were the scavengers known to everyone in the area as the “Gantmen”. The gantmen would roam around looking for anything they could find that was useful or that they could sell. Like mourners in a funeral cortege, they would solemnly follow the council tipper trucks around until it shed its rotting cargo, then like sharks in a feeding frenzy the gantmen would get to work sifting through the rubbish. The quickest way to a bloody nose in Worsley Hall was to hurl the ultimate insult “Yer Dads a gantman!” 11084296_891058477603934_2182512278237854333_nSometimes the amount of rubbish tipped was so great that the path would become littered with debris and on one of these occasions I came across a box of inflatable “Sammy Seals” the latics mascot of that era. Later that evening motorists were puzzled to find Montrose Avenue blocked by a line of blue bobbing figures, you could say the road had been “sealed” off.

The ultimate scavengers though were the rats. They ruled this acrid kingdom and they came into their own in the dark of night, which made all those midweek home games a very frightening experience.

I often made the journey home on my own, my Dad worked shifts at Heinz and depending on his shift either missed the game or went to work just before the end of the game. Those dark night trips over the sewerage path still haunt me yet. The path was unlit and walking home I would stop on the canal bridge and look across to see the bright lights of home, but before I reached them I would first have to traverse the rat run. I would make my way across as briskly as possible without breaking into a run. I believed that if I ran I might rush into a group of rats, so I walked fast, slapping my feet down hard and singing or whistling just to let them rodents know I was coming along. On moonlit nights you could see them running across the path yards in front of you, their reflections caught in the puddles. The place was alive with them and I was an unwelcome guest.

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When I finally arrived safely at the end of the road I would turn and look back triumphantly across the dark expanse safe in the knowledge that I had conquered the rat run, well at least until the next evening game at home.

But my most terrifying encounter took place in broad daylight.

I was ambling down the path for an end of season game, the sun was shining and as I walked I kicked stones along the dusty road. Up ahead of me in the middle of the path I saw what I took to be a bundle of rags blown off the tip.

Taking careful aim I kicked a stone at the rag just missing it, when the rag started to move! The “rag” was in fact a rat! But the biggest rat I have ever seen in my life!

I froze in terror; the rat looked at me for what seemed an eternity and then with a disdainful sniff slowly disappeared into the long grass. I walked the long way home that night!

Today of course it is a different story, I no longer live in Worsley Hall and now travel to home games by car and of course our fine new stadium is built directly over the old sewerage path.

But old fears die hard, and one night last season I was making my way back to my car, crossing the new canal bridge, my mind occupied with our latest failure, when the hairs on the back of my neck began to tingle, turning my head slowly I just caught a glimpse of something moving into the undergrowth. It was only a glimpse you understand but it was enough.

If you ever find yourself walking alone over that very same bridge, walk fast, walk very fast.

 

Tony Topping

 

Cockneylatic issue 25 February 2002