The yearnings of an adolescent Ipswich Town fan in early 80s South Africa
Only two things dominated the lives of any schoolboy growing up in Johannesburg in the late 1970s – sport and girls. Girls were a proposition too various and complicated to contemplate, so we sublimated frantically and played more sport than we were already playing. Scratch soccer games at break-time. Cricket, rugby, touch-rugby. We swam, considered water polo. We even tried athletics.
If we discovered that we were ill-suited to rugby and self-loathing to any great degree, we heard the distant call of hockey. Although close by, the hockey fields were, strictly speaking, outside of the school grounds, which should have told us something. Over the merry clash of sticks we slowly realised that it was a sport reserved for the intellectual and the gloriously eccentric. I played it happily for five years.
Sport had its sub-divisions, its hidden kingdoms. Having no English football team to support was considered socially unacceptable. Like girls, the best teams were often taken. Liverpool were glowingly popular. Chelsea had their supporters. Even Manchester United had their fans, although these boys – we all suspected – came to United vicariously, through their fathers, in much the same way, come to think of it, that Gary Bailey arrived at United himself.
Dads throughout suburban Johannesburg remembered the gilded age of George Best, Bobby Charlton and – ahem – Lou Macari. Sons supporting United were really placing a two-way bet. Yes, United were plausible, they were even possible title contenders, but supporting them was also a way of keeping dad sweet. He was paying the pocket money. And it was to him that you went for the car keys when you wanted to take frisky Debbie Kaplan to the Doll’s House for milkshakes on Louis Botha Avenue on Friday nights.
Then there was the Leeds United conundrum. In their pale yellow Umbro kit, Leeds were a happening team in the mid-1970s so their fans at high school were often a year or two older than we were. By the time the decade was coming to a close, supporting Leeds did not provide the giddiness it once did. You were saddled with them, having amassed social capital through their glory years, but supporting them had become vaguely shameful. It was rather like having a brother who listened to the Electric Light Orchestra. Stark fact: being a Leeds United supporter was no longer spicy. At 16, you were yesterday’s hero.
There were outliers, too. For several years a friend laboured under the impression that he was the reincarnation of Gordon Banks. Naturally he was a Stoke City supporter. When we pointed out that – problem – Banks was very much still alive, so, technically, he couldn’t be a reincarnation at all, he swatted us away with a large gloved hand. He dared us beat him in goals. We needed no second invitation. Afternoons were spent blazing away.
Strange as it sounds now, there was even a Southampton supporter or two in our extended clan. Mick Channon’s poster was on many schoolboy walls. Mick looked like a Bay City Roller, which meant that Southampton was the kind of club that younger sisters pretended to like. Younger sisters had friends and friends came to visit. There was at least a palm-sweaty conversation to be had in the passage about Mick’s hair, or tastes in contemporary music, or – big downer for shy boys – whether you knew another, better-looking boy in the grade above you. His name was invariably Shaun or Wayne. He played tennis – one of the few sports we never tried – and was about to become head boy. This was the thing about girls. They were beyond understanding because, there you were, standing right before them, and they looked right through you. You might as well have been a Millwall or Burnley supporter.
I looked at all these Southamptons and Liverpools and Manchester Uniteds and their supporters and realised that I wasn’t in the slightest bit interested in any of them. There was Spurs, of course, but the Spurs fans I knew were reckless over-compensators and often obnoxious. What of Arsenal? Arsenal fans were likeable and frequently quirky but they supported a team who were mystifyingly light. That left only one decent team who wasn’t supported by anyone at Highlands North Boys’ High and that was Ipswich Town. They regularly did well in the league and played attractive football. They were captained by the trustworthy Mick Mills and could spot a Dutch bargain or two. There was a decent youth structure (although I didn’t know that then) and a manager called Bobby Robson who’d been building a team since he arrived from an unhappy spell at Fulham in 1969.
All through the late 1970s and early 1980s I flew the Ipswich flag. I knew how much Robson paid for Paul Mariner and that Bryan Hamilton was spelled with a counter-intuitive ‘y’. I argued for the fortress that was Portman Road. I knew who the school’s Arsenal supporters were and, with knife-twisting intent, blithely reminded them of their 1979 FA Cup final loss. With Ipswich, I came to realise, I couldn’t lose, because the expectations were so liberatingly low they were non-existent.
On the other hand, they couldn’t really win either and this was nibbling away at my resolve. It was strangely complicated. The reason they couldn’t win was not because they were serial losers like my good friend Mick Ellingham’s West Ham but, paradoxically, because they had so many opportunities to win. They stayed in competitions until the very end – without, of course, winning them – and so the chance of winning was multiplying their opportunities for defeat. The very thought of winning was, in effect, making them lose. Supporting Ipswich, I understood, was a tricky proposition.
Perhaps Ipswich were infected with a classic case of provincial angst? Driven by pride borne of insecurity, they over-reached and such hubris led to their downfall. It was rather like a boy in the faraway former colonies supporting Ipswich themselves. It was dangerous stuff, for there was a hard lesson to be learned by flying too close to the sun: the wax attaching your feathered wings to your body might melt. You could plunge through the African sky to your death.
Take the 1980-81 season, for example. As the season moved towards spring they lost an FA Cup semi-final at neutral Villa Park in extra-time to Manchester City, kiboshing the third prong of their trophy hunt which still saw them in contention for the league and the Uefa Cup. Three days later, they were back in Birmingham for a crucial league tussle with Villa, which they won, giving far-flung Johannesburg supporters a qualified hope. But it transpired that it was a pyrrhic victory, because although they grabbed these points, they lost subsequently when Villa won. It was these late victories – combined, of course, with Ipswich’s late losses – that gave Villa the title. They won more than Ipswich, drew and lost less. It did not matter that Arnold Mühren had the foot of an angel and my mother thought the Ipswich colours – with the occasional splash of yellow – fetching. Supporting Ipswich was becoming frustrating. And fast saddling me with a credibility problem.
Their victory in the Uefa Cup final did nothing to alleviate this. The boys of Highlands North Boys High School were as parochial as pencils, staunch literalists who only knew the straightforward currency of Liverpools, Arsenals and Manchester Uniteds. That Robson had spoken about the team’s earlier victory against St Étienne, a side containing Michel Platini and Johnny Rep, in glowing terms was lost on them. I marvelled at how he could refer to his “dishy side” and no-one raised even an eyebrow. Dishy they might be, but trying to sell a two-legged victory over AZ Alkmaar in the final was rather like trying to convince them that the bands we loved – The Jam, Gang of Four, Joy Division – were the real deal when they were all listening to Toto. And Billy Joel.
In 1982, my final year at school, the two of us had one final opportunity to make this right. They could win the league, as they had promised to do so often in the past, and I could leave school with my head held high. Who knew where I’d be in a year’s time? I might be in the South African Defence Force, not an institution that I sensed would be particularly open-minded about hockey-playing Ipswich Town supporters. The Army, we were frequently told, stood between us and the spread of Communism in Africa. Communism’s red tide was filtering insidiously south, like the Liverpool midfield. Sometimes it was the Russians, sometimes it was their proxies, the Cubans and East Germans. Our boys in browns were holding them up in northern South West Africa (soon to be called Namibia) and Southern Angola, where the fighting was ghastly and under-reported. The Russians didn’t know it but in the suburbs some of us were quietly egging them on.
Between the Russians and the liberation movements to the north, Africa’s map was changing. Zimbabwe had already fallen. Indeed, it had fallen so low that for one bizarre month or two it was called ‘Zim-Rhod’. We knew this not because our grasp of Southern African geopolitics was deep. We knew it because boys older than us at school – perhaps they were Leeds United supporters – went to the Independence celebrations in Harare and we were jealous. They smoked ganja all the way to the border post at Beit Bridge, whereupon they smoked a little more on the way to the Rufaro Stadium. The headline act was Bob Marley and the Wailers. We later learned that the choice sparked unhappiness from the newly-installed president, Bob Mugabe. He thought reggae unclean and lower-class. He disapproved of Rastafarianism and crocheted caps. When asked whom he would have preferred, his response was clear and immediate. “Cliff Richard,” he said.
Southern African goalkeepers were all the rage in the early 1980s. In March 1981, Liverpool signed a little-known Zimbabwean called Bruce Grobbelaar from Vancouver Whitecaps. Grobbelaar was an eccentric. He had fought for the Rhodesian Army against the ‘ters’ or terrorists, as members of the liberation armies were called, and seemed to take some of the madness of the bush war into the Liverpool goals with him. It was a salutary lesson for us middle-class boys. This is what happened when you allowed other subjects to deflect you from your studies. Grobbelaar flapped about like a wounded gibbon. He came, he went, he was caught in no-man’s-land. His fortunes in the first half of the 1981-82 season mirrored Liverpool’s own. Even the prudent John Motson chirped, “Grobbelaar is having a dicey period.”
As I entered my final year at school, so Liverpool’s twitchiness evaporated. Graeme Souness was made captain and the club’s fortunes climbed. The leggy Alan Hansen regained his form. Crucially, Grobbelaar began to understand how things worked. At first, this seemed to be of no consequence to a faraway Ipswich Town fan, the club sitting promisingly in third over Christmas behind Swansea and Manchester United (on goal difference). In February, though, Liverpool administered a four-goal drubbing, their ninth win on the reel. Suddenly it dawned on me that we were in for a repeat performance. Dishy Ipswich, the side who tried to win so many competitions that they lost them, had become the theme of a forgotten pop song: they were doing it all over again.
Robson’s unusual adjective had other applications. Her name was Natalie Maloney and I still don’t know how it came about. I think we met at a school concert, brought together by a common friend. Perhaps she grew tired of her previous boyfriend, a Leeds United supporter? Perhaps, though, she saw something different. Some distant promise? An erotic flaw? Natalie was Irish, with long black hair and big brown eyes. She oozed sultry knowing. It extended way beyond the warring tribes and petty fiefdoms of the English league.
Her parents were stoners. I don’t know how I knew this but I did. When I went round to her place in Norwood on Friday nights and they made only one thing clear: they were Rolling Stones diehards and “Satisfaction” would sometimes be turned up loud, could I handle that? I realised instinctively that this was not the time to tell them about my recent acquisition from Street Records in Braamfontein of U2’s “October”, produced, I wisely failed to tell them, by Steve Lillywhite in Ireland and the Bahamas. Instead I smiled and returned to Natalie’s bedroom, where we drank coffee and did what sex-starved teenagers of the age did. Which is to say that we wrote poetry together. Or read it. Or discussed TS Eliot and his worldview. Natalie remained calmly patient. She was prepared to wait for the first kiss, the first breathy fumbling. Even from an Ipswich Town supporter.
My mother, who was the person Natalie really needed to convince, remained frustratingly undecided. One afternoon Natalie came around to say goodbye (the family were off on an overseas holiday), bringing with her a bottle of tequila. Over the course of the afternoon she had more to drink than I did, and I remember kissing and hugging her next to the garden gate, my mother hovering. Mom was a psychiatric nurse. She had strong views on alcohol and drugs, indeed substances of any kind. She subscribed to the ‘slippery slope’ theory, which I thought was bollocks. Tequila, clearly, was somewhere on that slope, sliding ever downward, towards reefer, harder drugs, pre-marital sex and the fires of hell.
Off we went to New York, London, Oxford and Edinburgh. With my pocket money I bought Talking Heads and Fire Engines long players. Donald Woods’s book on Steve Biko was banned in South Africa, so I bought that. I also bought Ann Charters’s biography of Jack Kerouac. I identified with Jack because he was a poet and played sport until a crippling football injury made him the patron saint of wanderlust. And he had a powerful and subtly needy mother. The parallels were impossible to ignore. I wrote postcards home to Natalie and fought with my sister on the Northern Line. At a house in Golders Green I smoked reefer for the first time while listening to Walk on the Wild Side. What could I say? It was the story of my debauched life.
A couple of weeks after my return for the winter term Liverpool took the title. It was a commanding performance post-Christmas. Souness and Sammy Lee hurtled round the midfield like shop stewards. Ian Rush, who was good for absolutely nothing else, burgled goals with dour efficiency. He was humourless, splendid in his limitation and deadly. If only he played for Ipswich, who had to rely on John Wark and his casual moments of brilliance for their goals.
The Liverpool win was, of course, made worse by Villa’s win in the European Cup. Peter Withe scored their goal (bouncing in off the post) against Bayern Munich and they defended the last few minutes like beggars holding on to a pound note. I consoled myself with the idea that exams were around the corner and, whether I found myself in the army or at university in 1983, I could pretend that English football was a passing phase. I was over that now, it was simply passé. It was far more important to lift Natalie’s white Chinese Diamond T-shirt gently over her head and attach my trembling hands to the clips of her bra, while trying not to read too much into the words of “Gimme Shelter” blaring down the corridor. Oh, a storm is threatening/ My very life today/ If I don’t get some shelter/ Oh yeah, I’m going to fade away…