Postcard #8: Wembley

The man has a piece of paper. On it is written ‘Black Ford’ and ‘11.30am’. Up and down, up and down he paces along the footpath, glancing at cars and then at the paper. With the non-note hand, he nudges his sinking spectacles hard against the bridge of his nose, sighs and slumps against a wall. Luton Airport’s pick-up area does this to you.

He shows me the piece of paper. “Have you seen a Black Ford, mate?” I have not the heart to tell him that I couldn’t tell a Ford from a motorbike, that cars have long eluded me, but I settle for what I hope is a sympathetic shake of the head. In front of us, a man in shades performs an Irish jig around a ginger-haired bloke who looks like he wants to cry. Drivers toot and gesticulate at one another, their arms like the branches of some demented tree in the wind. My fatherly lift arrives and we leave the man looking for his Black Ford. It is way after 11.30am.


Football brings me to the Deep South. This is not just any football. This is Middlesbrough. For 27 of my 33 years they have tormented and delighted me. They are my curse and my family. If – and millions are like me here – I put the toil into another pursuit that I do following this football club, I would be useful and perhaps even beautiful. We are going to Wembley, rhythmic, magic-fuelled words when you are lost to this game like I am. Me and 40,000 others, all convincing ourselves that getting the upstairs front seat on the bus or finding 20p on the floor are lucky omens. Not only are we going to Wembley: we are going to win.

On the morning of the game, we travel to 1957. A relative has brought mementoes of his footballing career to show us. There are prim matchday programmes and newspaper clippings gone brittle. He played in the Spartan League, a fair level if you happened to be in Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire or beyond in the 1950s. In fonts that take me far away, I read about Boreham Wood and Ruislip FCs, Tring Town and Sandy Albion. ‘Brown’s Brilliant Goalkeeping Prevented an Utter Rout’, a headline shouts at me. Another tells of ‘The Massacre of Stonecross Road’ (Hatfield Town 8 v 3 Baldock Town).

Old adverts take your hand and lead you gently down the high street. J. Hartrop Tobacconist (‘Dutch and English Whiffs’), Days’ Off Licence (‘For all your drink in the home’) and Hollier’s Tuberculin Tested Milk. How about we look in on EC Careless, Ironmonger or Peter Goodfellow with his Distinctive Menswear? And let us not forget that Boreham Wood Cage Bird Society meets on the first Wednesday of every month.

I am still thinking of Bob the Barber and the Hankin Drapery as we jolt and grind through Metroland and into London. The old beast fascinates me. As ever, it is not the parts or buildings I am supposed to be interested in, but the housing estates and scruffy shop parades. All those lives, all those stories, piled together like chaotic toys on a jumble sale table.

This, though, is a football day, and therefore one for the heart rather than the head. My fellow reds swarm around King’s Cross. Half of Middlesbrough is here, the old with steel in their blood and the young who may well have to take their chances elsewhere. Work for the latter has vanished since the days when ‘Made on Teesside’ was chiselled into bridges straddling Sydney Harbour and the Tyne. Here is a town and team whose identities are interspersed. Hope is pinned on shirts with lions on the crest, and hope is important.

The escalators down into the earth are caked red too. I feel wildly, hypnotically optimistic. What is the point of going to football if you don’t? I look across the Tube carriage at my Dad. We were first here to see our team in 1990. I remember flashes of the game, and more about the riot afterwards – Police horses bolting and me picking up a Middlesbrough flag with Doc Marten prints across it, a spoil of war. I still have it. I ask him if he thinks we will win. “Of course we will.” He looks as petrified as I am beginning to feel. Somewhere between Kilburn and Dollis Hill, I am remembering that we actually have to play another team to win, and not a bad one at that. Wembley Way feels like the centre of the world. This is an occasion. We sing our way in. We are going up.

Norwich City score two early goals and the game is over, really, by half-time.

Again and again, I look around our half of the ground, up and down, up and down. We needed this. Our town needed this. All those hopes and stories turned to sadness and thoughts of work tomorrow. The final whistle goes. Other people’s joy is hell. We trudge and dredge away. “I bloody hate Wembley,” says my Dad. … More Postcard #8: Wembley

EXCLUSIVE: Hatters Tour Dates Announced

It’s the one Heat wanted, the one the 3AM Girls stayed up till 3.05am for: exclusive details of my World Tour. In these places at these times, I’ll be telling stories from the book and trying to make two or three people (I can dream can’t I?) laugh. The words are non-football-fan-friendly, too.

October: The ‘Well I’ve Never Bloody `eard of `im’ World Tour.

1pm CHESTER Chester Literature Festival, Chester Town Hall. Tales from Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters.

5.45pm MIDDLESBROUGH Dr Brown’s pub, Middlesbrough. A homecoming gig before the Doncaster match. Tales from Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters.

11am BRADFORD Waterstones, Bradford Wool Exchange. Reading from and signing copies of Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters.

12.30pm BRADFORD One in a Million Cafe, Valley Parade, Bradford. The Bradford launch of Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters. Tales from the book and signing copies.

6.30pm SHEFFIELD Sheffield Library. Tales from Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters. 
More EXCLUSIVE: Hatters Tour Dates Announced

Rooms with a view

Like a million other fathers and sons, football has always been the thing that connects me and my Dad as much as our surname or clickey toes. We’re united by the feeling that life should never get in the way of the game. Still today if there’s an important adult matter or bad news to talk about on the phone, it’s best done after 20 minutes of transfer tittle-tattle.

Dad recently unearthed this photo of his childhood bedroom. Underneath it is one of mine, circa sometime in 1991 at 7.31. Do kids still clad their rooms in this way? I hope so.

Room with a view


Bedroom 1990

  … More Rooms with a view

‘Hello this is John Hendrie, and you’re through to Middlesbrough Clubcall’

Laments about the death of Ceefax are many. Somewhere a man has been awake for three weeks, pressing ‘Hold’ twice to try and shift the goodbye page on to 2/2.

I was schooled on Ceefax and Teletext. The former gave me playground tittle-tattle (p. 312 News in Brief) the latter exam-standard general knowledge (p. 452 Bamboozle). Watching the combination-lock numbers run up to page 140 on ITV bred an anticipation defiantly unmatched by clicking to read someone’s lies on an internet messageboard.

Once or twice my team, Middlesbrough, even filled the prized page 141 headline slot. I’ll never forget reading the leader ‘Boro Snare £1m Star’ and then pressing Red to learn we’d just paid out our record transfer fee for Aston Villa reserve right-back Neil Cox.

At their foot, Teletext pages carried adverts that gleefully flashed messages such as ‘Samba Star Set for North-East Move’ and implored readers to call a premium rate phoneline. Besides glances at the back pages in the village newsagents  (‘This is not a library, son’), such lines became my other portal into Middlesbrough gossip.

Each week, I was allowed to call Middlesbrough Clubcall for two minutes, as a treat. These were the kind of concessions you could win if you claimed upset at your parents’ drawn-out divorce proceedings. I was a bit like the kid in Kramer vs. Kramer, only with a fanatical devotion to Derek Whyte.

Timing my call meant a waiting game that involved judging when the Middlesbrough headlines at the foot of page 140 had reached their juiciest. The scale ran from ‘News From Training’ (an update on Robbie Mustoe’s ankle trouble) to ‘International Maestro Jets In’  (Someone had seen Vladimir Kinder at Teesside Airport). Commit early and I might miss a ‘New Signing Speaks’; leave it late and by Sunday all I’d be left with was ‘Exclusive Ticket News’.

0898 12 11 81. Numbers I’ll never forget. Numbers I should use as an online password when next I’m stumped (no-one’s reading this, are they?) Once the line had connected – and Mum, don’t start that stopwatch till it has – music would fade and a Scottish voice kick in: ‘Hello this is John Hendrie, and you’re through to Middlesbrough Clubcall.’ ‘Hi John, mate’ I’d reply. It was like being on the phone to John Hendrie.

Despite fifteen seconds squandered to a recorded greeting, my hopes remained high for the next minute and three quarters, which went a little something like this:

15 seconds to 30 seconds: further greeting from presenter voice. Reminder of number I had just called.

30 seconds to one minute: ‘coming up today on Middlesbrough Clubcall, 0898 12 11 81…’

One minute to two minutes: ‘…but before we hear that sensational transfer news, here’s an interview with groundsman David Rigg.’

‘Mum? MUM?! Can I use my other minute tomorrow instead?’ … More ‘Hello this is John Hendrie, and you’re through to Middlesbrough Clubcall’