The main street in Smidwick is complete and utter mayhem. It’s already buckling under the strain of the extra footfall because it’s a market day, when many of the farmers from the out-lying villages actually shepherd their animals into the centre of town in order to sell or swap them. But when you throw twenty of the meanest, most controversial soccer hooligans in the land into the mix, it’s a recipe for disaster. It’s like a chemical reaction. No wonder that, to use their terms, they call spectacles like this ‘going off’.
Like an explosion, there’s an obvious point of impact; Ratchet and ‘Cotton Eye’ trading punches, expletives and miscellaneous plants from the garden centre market stall with two likely-looking farmer’s lads. Geraniums are going up everywhere like grenades. I see one man being dragged across the frontage of a fruit and veg stall like it’s a Wild West saloon bar.
On the edge of this, I see Gerald confronting a jewellery stall holder. He seems to be doing more than just talking to the man, and for a moment, I fear that he has his hands in the till. But it’s not a time to think. These tractor-boys are built like combine harvesters and can cause about as much damage if you’re not on your toes. I find a good vantage point from behind the recycling bins over by the chippy.
Which is where Gerald eventually finds me. He hands me a brown paper bag, tips his nose and tells me to look after it. Then he grabs one of the massive metal bins and wheels it into the middle of the mayhem, scattering people everywhere. To be fair to the farmer boys, they know when they are beat, and they soon leg it off up the road, in the opposite direction to the Smidwick Stadium. We’ve won, and in my coat pocket, I have the spoils of war. Six or seven nice rings and watches off the jewellery stall. As we leave, we pass a Smidwick ‘top boy’ who is impaled on the branches of an all-year Christmas tree.
‘We ran ‘em!’ bellows Ratchet. There’s foam at the corners of his mouth like a rabid dog. He loves it. ‘We ran ‘em all over Smidwick. They’ll never live it down.’
And he’s right. We walk down the quiet streets with our heads held high. Knowing that nobody else would dare to bother us that morning. Smidwick had been shown for what they were; idle posturers and the type that make stupid threats on internet message boards. Geeks, I suppose.
Suddenly, as though communicated telepathically between all of these hard men, everyone starts to sing an old Newton Hills song at the same time:
‘Hark now hear the Newton sing, The Smidwick ran away, And we will sing for evermore, Because of derby day!’
I’ll never sing Hark the Herald Angels Sing to my two angelic cherubs again without
thinking of the alternative version of the song. For some reason, I’m suddenly very sad.
And amongst this bloodhound gang, they can sniff out misery and dejection like nobody’s
business. Gerald wallops a meaty arm around my shoulders.
‘I know the feeling son,’ he says to me.
‘I know how the adrenaline gets you. How the fighting’s such a rush. After that, going watching some rubbish football don’t exactly warm the cockles, does it?’
I look him dead between the eyes.
‘But I thought the whole point of following a team – fighting for a team – was that you loved the team,’ I say, slowly.
Gerald shakes his head.
‘Don’t even like football meself,’ he says. ‘Full of ponces and queers. Not like rugby. But you don’t get much of a scrap outside the game in rugger and that’s why I got into this game. Tell you what. I know what’ll cheer you up. How’s about we jib in the ground?’ The Smidwick ground is not like any football stadium I’ve ever seen. One complete side of the pitch is taken up by the miscellaneous piles of junk which make up Smidwick’s more famous landmark; the local tip. The rest of the ground is ringed by this black, corrugated iron fence which clangs aggressively every so often as the players warm up and smash wildly off-target shots waaaaaaay behind the goal.
It’s not like the Premier League matches that I’ve been to, where you’re allocated a seat and sometimes physically removed if you stand up too much or make too much of a racket. Here, in the non-leagues, you can still slip under a gap in the corrugated iron fencing; the famous jibbing in. You can avoid paying the measly £2 entry fee if you so wish. And we all so wish.
Once you’re in the ground, you can choose exactly where you want to stand. Indeed, you can follow the action in the game by wandering up and down the touchline like a second linesman if you’re that way inclined – and some demented souls clearly are. But we aren’t. We take up our station behind the goal and stand there with our arms folded across our thick chests. None shall pass.
Ratchet cracks open the 40 litre rucksack full of carry-outs from the Crown and Garter and dishes out the other pickings of the day; Stella Artois to a man. I’ve always hated that drink, but now it tastes… It tastes kinda like belonging.
The Newton Hills goalkeeper is warming up in front of us, fielding shots from the strikers and practicing his
throw-outs. When he first claps eyes on Gerald, his knees visibly weaken and he allows a daisy-cutter to
trickle through his legs.
‘All right, Baz?’ enquires Gerald.
‘Not you lot again,’ says Baz. He moves about ten yards off his line now as though to get away from us. I can’t believe that he’s not pleased to see us all here, backing him up. I would have thought that the confidence would be pumping through him once he knew we were here.
The game begins. We begin making noise. Smidwick don’t come anywhere near us; most of them are holed up in the clubhouse down the other end of the pitch, or so ‘Cotton Eye’ informs us. And apart from that, the crowd seems to be made up of lonely old men or lonely mad men or lonely kids, kicking their own balls about along the touchline.
It’s one of these kid’s balls that's responsible for the concession of the first Smidwick goal. It rolls onto the pitch at about the midway point between the penalty area and the touchline. Baz, the Newton Hills goalkeeper and gentleman, dashes over to kick the ball back to the poor lad in order to make sure that he doesn’t get hurt. Unfortunately, he’s out of his goal at exactly the moment Smidwick launch an attack down the other flank. And one old man in the crowd shouts to the Smidwick winger that he should try a shot, which he does. The ball sails into the net and we’re all menacingly quiet.
But Gerald gets us going again with a hearty chorus of Hark now hear… And soon we’re all bouncing up and down to another terrace classic: ‘You’re gonna get your f***ing heads kicked-in.'
At half-time, we’re two down – one goal a result of a kid’s ball interrupting play, another an unmitigated disaster when the centre half headed into his own net, claiming to have some crap from the junk-yard lodged in his eye – but we keep singing right the way through. Just so Smidwick know we’re here.
Before the second half kicks off, we spot the Newton Hills manager, Terry ‘Budgie’ Burgess, striding purposefully away from the dressing rooms and in our direction. Probably going to thank us for our marvellous support or something.
‘Budgie, Budgie, give us a wave,’ trills the jolly, dog-faced Ratchet.
Now Budgie is coming closer, I can see that his face is stern. His jaw seems locked
together as though to stop him from saying something he shouldn’t. But he says it
‘What are you idiots still doing here? Can’t you see that you’re putting Baz off his
game? What did I tell you over in Titborough?’
Gerald muscles his way through the ranks and goes to sit on top of a railing, just back
from the goal-line. I can see him cracking his knuckles. Can hear the cracks from
each of his sausage fingers.
‘Titborough wasn’t our fault,’ says Gerald. ‘That referee didn’t know whether he was coming or going; the tit.’
‘But that’s no need to get the match abandoned. Again,’ wails Budgie. He steps forward, starts prodding his finger towards Gerald’s chest.
‘Don’t do that,’ says Gerald, palming off Budgie’s finger in much the same way that a grizzly bear would paw away a buzzing fly.
‘I’ll do what I damn well want,’ says Budgie. ‘I’m the manager of this club.’
He looks small and faintly ridiculous in his no-make football tracksuit and headband, squaring up against this Lacoste-clad behemoth of the non-league football hooligan circuit.
But not as ridiculous as he looks face-down in the muck, chewing a divot from the pitch, after Gerald’s right-hook connected with his locked jaw. When he tries to stand up, we can all see the chalk from the In my book, he’s lucky that it wasn’t a chalk outline around his body.
END OF PART TWO