In 1967, my father took me and my brothers to our first football matches. We lived in Preston at the time, so we went to the local club, Preston North End. Preston played in the Second Division, though I was unlikely to be aware of that, or, indeed, of very much that went on there. Early memories, opaque and grey-tinted, evoke the sights and sounds of the stadium, Deepdale. Here’s a man in a cloth cap selling pieces of paper with the half-time scores from around he country printed upon it. As he walks around the perimeter of the pitch he calls out, and I can hear him now, “half-time scoring, half-time scoring” over and over again. My brothers and I laugh and laugh, as we dart around the crumbling brick terraces, smelling the hot bovril drinks and listening to the obscure banter of the grumpy middle-aged men around us.

I started to play football as soon as I went to school, and had a talent for it. As I learned to play, I learned, too, to watch. At the end of the 1960s, I began following events on the pitch, too, and can recall certain players, like Archie Gemmill, a midfielder most of our fans hated, though my father admired his skill and patience. Sold on for a pittance, Gemmill went on to win league titles and European Cups for Derby County and Nottingham Forest, and scored the goal of the tournament, for Scotland, at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. At the end of the 1970-1971 season, Preston were promoted from the third division as champions, and a local Asian player, Ricky Heppolette, scored the decisive goal, a diving header away at Fulham. Though the club is based in a city with a massive Asian population, especially in the old cobbled streets around Deepdale, no other Asian player has ever played for the first team.

The past decade has been Preston’s most successful since the 1950s, but we have never again played in English football’s top division, now a bloated monstrosity of money and hype called, without irony, The Premier League. I still attend matches, though rarely these days. The ground has been redeveloped, the crumbling terraces of my youth replaced by blue plastic seats and concrete steps. Boys still go with their fathers, though now most choose the Family Stand, sponsored by McDonalds. The half-time scores are announced on the tannoy, though many fans get them texted to their phones. But the walk to the ground, the streets, the sounds and the moaning middle-aged men – all this feels the same, part of a continuum that – and I find this deeply moving because this is the only place I am able to feel this sameness – connects directly to me aged five, holding my father’s hand, and running with my brothers.

I accept that Preston are unlikely ever to return to the top division, just as I accept that loving this club is a kind of curse, by which I am condemned to disappointment, to defeat. That acceptance, and that love, console.

 

DQ, 2010

Advertisements