Friday, 30 August 2013

A life and United

I have been a little quiet on the blog front of late. I had a piece largely written on the Kevin McDonald sale, it had a line in it I was rather pleased with; pondering the negotiating skills of United's hierarchy, Terry Waite and a radiator. I even suggested that Jose Baxter would be my ideal replacement. Then something changed in my life. Last week my Nan passed away. She was 94 and had been diagnosed with a cancerous tumour at Easter.
I could tell you what a wonderful lady she was, hard-working, a caring and loving mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, loved by her family and warmly thought of by anyone she came into contact with; but this is a football blog and, to be fair, I am sure everyone thinks those kind of things about their Gran. As a fellow Blade tweeted at the time, "they are special people" - she was not wrong.
I can write something here though because football was a common denominator in our lives, our chats and was a major part of our time together. Married to my late Grandad, a huge Blades fan, you could say she had little choice in liking football and following  United, but that belies an upbringing steeped in football.
With one sister and five brothers plenty of time was spent on the touchline at Handsworth Rec cheering on siblings, alongside her mother and Aunt Annie - an intimidating matriarchal threat for any opposing player who was too physical in the challenge. She told me how Nagger Jones of Woodhouse, a player with quite a reputation in local football for physical play, was just one to get an ear-bashing and a warning that saw him curb his tackles for the remainder of the game and spend a bit of time on the other wing.
That touchline role was one my Nan took on when I played for the all-conquering Handsworth Boys' Brigade team up on Pipworth School fields. The unerring bias of one opposition manager when running the line was just one of those singled out for "words". When we needed new matchballs, my Nan and her friends at her crochet class made and sold items to fund two new Mitre Deltas which she presented before our cup final triumph at Rowlinson.
Other stories from her youth included how one of her brothers  was threatened with being reported by Father Bernard the teacher at his catholic school for swearing during a match. Unfortunately a speech impediment meant that calling the opponents "dirty cheats" sounded more like "dirty shits", which my Great Grandma forcefully made understood to the priest after the event.
Two brothers, Alf and Les, went on to play in United's 'A' team.  Alf was due to play with the cup final team to Wembley in 1936,  however his employers were not for allowing him the time off. In the end he contracted Scarlet Fever two days before the final and he never regained his place before being called up for the army.
She frequently attended matches with my Grandad, around their busy working lives. Many years later this then included taking me to games in my early years, as my Dad worked Saturdays and could only go midweek. This was an era defined by Third Division mediocrity - The Haslam Years and (briefly) The Peters Period. The last match my Grandad attended was on Saturday 2nd May 1981, United at home to Walsall, fellow relegation candidates. One down in the last minute, a penalty is awarded to the Blades. A simple equation, score and United stay up. Regular penalty taker John Matthews bottles the opportunity to take the penalty; instead Don Givens seals his place in Blades folklore as he fluffs the penalty and with it United’s hopes of staying up.
I was six, watching from the stand with my Nan and Grandad I knew it was bad news but I didn’t really comprehend the severity of it all. My Grandad took it very badly and for the following few days he struggled to conceal his upset and frustration, he never believed he would ever see his beloved Blades in the Fourth Division. He never did, he suffered a heart attack shortly after.
After my Grandad died, Nan found the going tough and later said that it was me and my brother that ensured she had a smile on her face and kept her going. She didn't attend many matches but what happened every Saturday in the early to mid-1980's was set in stone. I would wander the three houses up the road to Nan's house mid-morning. Help her in the garden or potter around the house. Lunch was Fried Egg and Chips with tomato sauce (rarely anything else) with one eye on World of Sport on the TV in the corner of the room.
We would watch On the Ball, me studying carefully the kits of lower league or Scottish clubs rarely seen in Shoot! Or Match so I could recreate them later. (Reams of paper I wasted as a kid trying to draw club kits!) Then we would choose our horses for each race of the Saturday Six (or Seven as it sometimes was); always Sea Pigeon for me if it was racing, or generally those with a jockey in red and white stripes.
Then the radio was put on for the afternoon football and that would provide the background noise as we joined grapple fans for the latest bouts of wrestling from a Civic Hall somewhere in the North of England, the radio volume turned up as they went for an update from Bramall Lane, or whichever ground the Blades were visiting that day. We sat hanging on every word of the reports and, if the Blades were behind, hoping that, Radio Sheffield Sports presenter Robert Jackson's "lucky" brass band music - always played just before twenty to five - would get the goal United might be looking for.
It wasn't just United; Nan would sit and watch any football that was on the television, or other sports that took her fancy. During the Mexico 86 World Cup I was allowed to stay up late to watch the England group games, but with my Dad in work early the next day, I headed up the road and stayed up with my Nan cheering on Bobby Robson's boys.
Together we sat sullen as England lost to Portugal, and then struggled against Morocco. We winced as Bryan Robson (then one of my football heroes, although that was later to change) walked off clutching his shoulder and despaired at the petulance and stupidity of Ray Wilkins. Thank goodness we could enjoy the 3-0 victory over Poland and marvel at Gary Lineker's hat trick.
In the late 80's my dad started to take Saturday afternoon's off and so we started to be regulars at Bramall Lane, getting season tickets for the Kop. Odd times we would take her, if the weather was fine and a spare seat became available around us. Sat between us, with linked arms, my dad and I could lift her to her feet as the Kop rose from their seats expectant at another Blades attack so she didn't miss the action.
If it was at a televised match, you can guarantee my post match dissection would involve a call "home" to my parents' house and an invitation of "your Nan's here, do you want a chat?" Though she didn't attend many games after my Grandad passed away, she kicked every ball every Saturday afternoon and midweek night that the Blades were in action. Speaking to me after she would say she was tire d from the mental and physical exertions of just listening.
Her radio was permanently tuned into Radio Sheffield and in recent years she hung on the opinion of my childhood hero Keith Edwards, the Blades' match summariser. She trusted Keith; he told it how he saw it, warts and all. Many will disagree with his views, but for my Nan that was what she went off, until me or my Dad offered our own thoughts.
Her last visit to Bramall Lane was on Saturday 10th January 2009. Through the Blades Superdraw I had won a "VIP. Day" at an upcoming match. There was only ever one very important person I wanted to take and a few months shy of her ninetieth birthday we persuaded my Nan to make, what we all kind of knew at the time, was her last visit to the Lane.
In the modern world of celebrity the term VIP is used and abused, but that day Mick Rooker and his colleague Pete Stone treated my Nan like the Queen. It was a bitterly cold and icy day, the type of day that would normally see my Nan safely cooped up in front of her gas fire - is there anywhere on earth warmer than being sat next to the hearth in your grandparent's living room? Yet, despite the freezing temperatures outside she loved every moment, from the stadium tour, to a walk on the pitch, the meal, the drinks and then the match.
During the stadium tour and across the dinner table reminiscences were shared and there was plenty of good conversation. Memories of watching great players like Jimmy Hagan, Joe Shaw, Mick Jones, Tony Currie and Alan Woodward. I had been in hospitality and on tours before, my enjoyment that day came from my Nan's enjoyment.
The wonder and smile on her face as she gazed around the ground, much changed over time,  lost in her memories of how it was, will stick with me. That look of enjoyment never left her face all day and although the match wasn't a classic, a 1-0 win for United over Norwich sent us home with an added warm glow, along with the prize we won in the pre-match quiz.
One of the last times we properly spoke to each other, before her medication and sedation left her tired and peaceful, was when I visited her in St Luke's Hospice after watching United's one all draw with Colchester United - four days before she passed away. I walked on to the ward and she was propped up in bed, my Mum and Dad stood either side and her TV was on, which was a rarity in the time she was there. They had been watching Final Score and so knew the result without me saying anything. She asked me how they had played. I said "Pretty rubbish really." "Urgh! Don't tell me anymore…." she replied, shaking her head gently.
Just like that game, for much of her life her team under-performed, but at least they won a major trophy in her lifetime; something I cannot see happening for my generation. She also watched players of the quality I can only dream of seeing in red and white stripes at Bramall Lane. We had a common interest and that was great - "What's going on at Bramall Lane" would often be her opening sentence. She always liked listening when I called Praise or Grumble - "they let you talk, they know you are talking sense" - and encouraged me with my football writing. I will always be grateful for having so much time with her.
I apologise for the self-indulgence of this post. Of course there was so much more to my Nan than just football, but it played such a significant part of our lives and surfaces often in my memories of time spent with her. Maybe a few of you will enjoy some of the nostalgia of this piece, for me it is quite a cathartic experience. In recent years my Mum got many of my Nan's memories and stories on tape and written down. I hadn't done that, yet it is these memories we should cling to when we lose a loved one and I don't want to lose them. This is one way of ensuring I don't.
Thank you for reading.




  1. Matthews never took a penalty in 4years at the lane! Regular penalty taker I think not !get your facts right!!

  2. To Anonymous. My understanding, and a view that has made other publications since, was that Matthews was expected to take the penalty. Okay, regular taker may be incorrect. You have quite a self indignant tone, but I apologise for making a mistake in an article at a time when I was having a tough time personally.