A Supporter Writes: Iain Macintosh
Sports journalism is clearly a dream job for thousands of budding young writers, but it has always fascinated me that so many football fanatics must surrender seeing their beloved team play each week in pursuit of paid work watching other clubs. Iain Macintosh is the Football Correspondent for The New Paper and supports Southend United.
I was a Liverpool fan when I was young. I think most people my age were. It seems staggering to say it now, but there was a time when football in England wasn’t actually very popular. Violence was rife and conditions inside dilapidated stadiums were, as was so tragically proven at the Valley Parade and Hillsborough, seriously hazardous. My dad, like many dads, wasn’t too keen on taking his young son to a urine-soaked, racist, violent and dangerous terrace and so it was television that introduced me to the game of football.
ITV had the rights to live broadcasts in the mid-to-late 80s, but sometimes they didn’t even bother to use them. If they did, you could count on the fact that Liverpool vs Anyone would be the featured game. Manchester United? A cup team. Arsenal? Barely even a top six outfit. In the heart of Essex, a county with two rubbish and perennially Fourth Division teams to choose from, the Liver bird flourished.
It never felt strange to be a Liverpool fan in Chelmsford because I shared my playground with so many other innocent eight year olds burdened with Ian Rush fixations. In fact, I didn’t actually meet another Southend fan until my dad took me to Roots Hall as a 13th birthday present, a kind of Anglican-Saxon Bar-Mitzvah, if you will. Little did he know that this was the moment, the fork in the road, the crack in the timeline that changed everything.
Most parents fret about the first game their children watch live, hoping that it will be a classic, one of those crazy, emotional afternoons where pride, optimism, hope and anxiety all beat each other over the head with big sticks and claw at each other’s eyes for supremacy. This, however, was Southend against Huddersfield on a bleak mid-January afternoon. There was, to my memory, one clear cut chance in the entire game and Huddersfield scored with it. No-one will ever remember that match. No-one except me. For me, it was the greatest afternoon ever.
For starters, there was the smell. Fried onions mixed with stale urine, burped beer and cabbagey fart. A kind of heady Eau My God rising up through the air. Then there was the noise, a thundering explosion of rage bouncing up into the corrugated iron roof of the North Bank and crashing back down with echoed reinforcement. And the swearing! I was no stranger to it, but this blew my mind. Some of it was poisonous and vengeful, but some was genuinely funny. Some was cruel and merciless and bordered on bullying, but that was genuinely funny too. The football was, for numerous reasons, secondary to the terraces. It was a sideshow. This was a throbbing, sweating, burping, farting and cussing collective of mind and heart. Heaven only knows what it would have felt like if we’d scored. I’d probably have fainted.
That was it. I was hooked faster than the stupidest fish in Jack Charlton’s pond. The only problem was the loyalty angle. I didn’t know much, but I did know that you don’t change teams. Not ever. My tender mind wrestled with the philosophical intricacies of the notions of support. Are you still a supporter if when prompted to locate Liverpool on the map, you accidentally point at Carlisle? I didn’t know and it seemed terribly important to me to find out. But while I prevaricated, Kenny Dalglish left Anfield. The challenge for a 19th title imploded and overall, it seemed like a really bad time to leave. For a while, I ran the two loyalties alongside each other. This didn’t help at all. Southend, now watched by me on an infrequent basis, got better and better. Liverpool just got worse.
For a brief period in the 1991/92 season, it wasn’t entirely implausible that the two would swap places. What I would do then? I’d be the very worst kind of glory hunter. Eventually it ceased to matter. I only ever wanted to be a part of that burping collective again. To recapture that feeling that something was happening exclusively for me and for everyone else who had gathered to see it. I wanted to watch my team, not the team that everyone else had an opinion on. I wanted Southend. My Southend. The crap one. Not that we were always crap. I was there for Stan Collymore and Barry Fry, for Ronnie Whelan and… yeah, then we got crap again.
University and a move to Cornwall truncated the grubby love affair, but when I moved to London three years later, we picked up where we left off. Reliable as ever, Southend were still crap. Then, bafflingly, we got good. Just as I landed a job that would pay for a more substantial number of home games a season, we slipped the surly bonds of the basement and rose up to the Third Division.
Not content with one promotion, manager Steve Tilson then secured another. Suddenly, we were in the Second Division playing big teams and beating them. Premier League regulars Sunderland and Birmingham both fell to us that year, but the real glory was in the League Cup where a stunning Freddy Eastwood free-kick brought Manchester United to their knees. Yep, I tell you, if the season was all about those three games, we’d have done alright. Sadly, it was the other ones that saw us relegated.
That was, in many ways, the end of the affair. Even as Southend responded to the pressure of the relegation dogfight by going on a final run of six defeats in seven, I was in talks for a new role. As The New Paper’s UK football correspondent, I would have a press pass that would grant me access to approximately 75 live matches every season. With notepad and pen, I became a regular at The Emirates and Stamford Bridge, at White Hart Lane and Upton Park.
Now relocated in South Shields, it’s St James Park and the Stadium of Light, with the occasional sortie down to Old Trafford. I keep in touch with my old flame through the excellent Shrimperzone fansite and I’ll always carry them in my heart, but I’ve worked so hard to force myself to be objective every day that it’s hard to summon up any kind of partisan feeling for anything anymore. I want only good things for Southend, though I have to be honest, I’ll settle for any kind of guarantee that they’ll still be in existence next season.
Maybe one day, I’ll get back down there. In my time as a Shrimper, I’ve stood in the North Bank and sat in the East, West and South Stands, both upper and lower. I’ve been a guest in the directors box twice and I’ve even been in with the away fans after not asking the right questions about what kind of ticket I was buying in the pub.
My final trip to Roots Hall was tax deductible. From the confines of a tiny press box, flanked by Henry Winter and David Hytner, I saw Southend take a 1-0 lead over Chelsea before collapsing and losing 1-4. I did my best not to grumble too much. The best job in the world has taken me away from the best club in Essex and, while there are intriguing positives and negatives about that scenario, one thing is clear.
My Dad could have taken me to Upton Park or White Hart Lane or Highbury for my 13th birthday, but I will remain forever glad that he didn’t.