The Diary

08 November 2008: 'Merseybeat' Baggies, Tomorrow Evening?

I?m a little later than normal in applying best typing finger to keyboard, tonight ? and it?s the Beeb that?s to blame, or, more accurately, perhaps, their current repeat showing of ?The People?s Century? on BBC4. Well worth watching at any stage in the series, but tonight?s offering about the 1929 Wall Street Crash, and subsequent worldwide depression had rather more resonance ? and, for obvious reasons, far more relevance - than normal.

Watching the accompanying footage of chaos and panic in Wall Street after the stock market bubble finally burst certainly brought out parallels with today?s situation. Back then, governments, the US and UK in particular, tried to ?tough it out? by cutting public spending ? with catastrophic results.

At least there?s the cushion, albeit meagre, of the dole, these days; back in the thirties, in the US, the jobless got sod-all from their government, while here, although there was a dole in place, it was a savagely means-tested one. Families even had to sell much-loved heirlooms to satisfy the means-test man they had no assets. One lesson our government seem to have taken on board since then; from the word ?go? they?ve propped up the banks, thereby keeping most savings intact. Additionally, Gordon Brown seems to want to spend his way out of it, more or less what Roosevelt did once elected in 1932.

But back to the football. On the Albion front, there was only one place to be, last night. At the Hawthorns (well, the East Stand, actually, if you want to get all ?picky? with me), where considerably more than a hundred staunch Baggies, myself and ?Im Indoors included (not to mention a couple of Birmingham-based Albion/Rangers fans!) gathered in the Pennington Suite to hear the holy Baggie gospel ?preached? by their Scottish Prophet of old, aka Willie Johnston.

It?s all part and parcel of the publicity drive for Willie?s biography, just out, ?Sent Off At Gunpoint?, written in collaboration with Tom Bullimore, published by Know The Score Books, cover price 17.99 (sorry about the lack of a pound sign: our naughty PC throws a dicky fit whenever we try the relevant key!), and shortly available in most good bookshops. And the Club Shop, too. Start dropping Santa-type hints in the lugholes of your nearest and dearest right now?

No sooner had we turned off the Brummie Road and onto the East Stand car-park, realization finally hit us as to what a popular event this was: everywhere we looked, cars, cars, cars ? and, the clincher, this, finding a vacant space proved somewhat troublesome, only finding one of the few spaces left after driving right to the rear of the place.

And, when we finally made our way to the venue, the Pennington Suite, yet another surprise. By that I mean the astonishing media presence: BBC Midlands Today (some of you may have seen the ?Willie? feature on tonight?s offering), Beacon Radio (looking to boost their listeners by going large on Albion-type doings, this season), with other tie-ins scheduled with both major Birmingham broadcast outlets, commercial and Beeb. The E and S also got a look in (see tonight?s edition, on their website, for more). Much later, we were given a brief run-down of Willie?s publicity schedule, this weekend ? and believe you me, he?s going to be a busy lad!

It?s always said in the Islamic world that you can?t regard yourself as a ?proper? Muslim until you?ve been to Mecca (those physically unable to do the trip are excused), prayed five times a day without exception, and given a proportion of your earnings to charity; as far as the Baggie-loving creed is concerned, you can?t consider yourself a proper Albion supporter until you?ve ?done? 1000 games (home, away, whatever), and made the long journey to our own particular Mecca-equivalent, Willie?s pub.

It?s The Portbrae Tavern, right on the sea-front at Kirkcaldy (pronounced ?Kir-cuddy?, by the way) a town situated near the mouth of the River Forth, more or less opposite Edinburgh itself. These days, it?s rather more well known for being the constituency of a certain Gordon Brown (who? Never heard of him; who does HE play for, then?): nevertheless, once, or maybe twice a year, the Supporters Club manage to run a trip to Jockland, so as to catch a Scottish League game or two along the way, but more importantly, to enable yet more Baggies achieve their lifetime goal of ?visiting Mecca?.

We managed it around 18 or 19 years ago, whilst spending a week in the area, and taking in some Scottish grounds while we were at it. The ultimate aim of our visit, though, was to grab an interview with Willie for our then-nascent fanzine, Grorty Dick: those terminal saddos who still have every single copy we did in their possession will have no trouble whatsoever locating it, as we made Willie our ?cover feature? for that particular issue.

And I still have a photo taken that day of me proudly posing behind the bar, one of Willie?s Scottish caps placed firmly on my head, left hand on the beer-pump, and right hand entwined around the great man?s body. Wow, what an honour to be in his presence, even - and you can forget any undercurrent of sarcasm from this column. That?s a genuine sentiment.

Fast-forward 18 or so years from that damp, miserable autumn day, straight to the Hawthorns, November 6th, 2008. The very first time I clapped eyes upon Willie last night, signing copies of his book as if his whole life depended upon it, one thing that really struck me was the colour of his hair, now silvery-white, in complete contrast to his playing days, of course. But the thing that really ?made? Willie as a personality, those twinkling eyes of his, always replete with latent mischief ? no, they?d not changed, not one single bit. And neither had his dry sense of humour, either.

Another ?first? for us was actually meeting the guy who?d collaborated with Willie on the book, the aforementioned Tom Bullimore. The reason I use the word ?actually? here is that ?Im Indoors had considerable input into the Albion content, and is credited as such on the inside cover: His Nibs had exchanged emails galore with ?yer man? over the course of the past few months, as the book steadily reached the end of its natural gestation period, so it was gratifying just to put face to name, if you see what I mean.

The background story to the book?s certainly different. Tom?s real ?day job? was working behind Willie?s bar, and as so many visiting Rangers, Baggies etc. supporters had expressed a desire for Willie to do some kind of a biography, one day Tom decided to grasp the literary nettle by the hand, and write one himself. He?d decided that it was a case of ?now or never?, I think, my impression being that Willie didn?t entirely trust any of the established press boys to tell an accurate story concerning the most controversial feature of Willie?s career, the Argentina World Cup drugs kerfuffle. Anyway, Know The Score Books then took a shine to the idea, which is where a certain Mister Wright became involved!

Oh ? another amazing feature of this book ? Sir Alex Ferguson, under normal circumstances not particularly given to rendering favours to even established authors, never mind aspiring ones, actually consented to write the foreword to Willie?s book, the mutual connection being a Rangers one ? Sir Alex was an established Ibrox player when Willie first came to the club - of course.

Tom gave us the background to his ?scoop? last night: more in hope than expectation, he rang Sir Alex?s secretary, and, as expected, received the usual knockback. But Tom was persistent, and asked her to leave his name and telephone number, plus the reason for having tried to contact the great man, on his desk. Thinking he?d bombed out, he then thought no more of it ? until one afternoon, when the phone rang. Picking up the business end, Tom was absolutely flabbergasted to hear a certain gravelly Scots voice on the other end, moreover one claiming to be Sir Alex! To be truthful, at first, Tom thought he?d been set up as the victim of an elaborate practical joke ? yes, my gut reaction would have been to say ?*%&! off!?too! ? but a few pointed words quickly left our chum in absolutely no doubt as to whom he was dealing with!

In order to provide an ample supply of comedic ?ammunition? for our distinguished guest, the Albion Old Players? Association came up trumps, supplying playing contemporaries in the form of Ally Brown. Joe Mayo, Ally Robertson (who had to leave early) and Ray Wilson. They certainly fulfilled expectations; it didn?t take long for the entire room to end up with tears of mirth playing around their collective phizzogs.

Supporters Club Committee member John Homer somehow managed to keep the entire panel under control, but Willie?s sense of humour was totally insuppressible; within minutes of the start, the whole place was rocking with laughter at some of his more outrageous antics (judging by the number of comparatively youthful faces present, they were hearing such stories for the very first time), and there was no alternative; you really had to smile. As for all those sendings-off ? the Brighton one, where Willie actually kicked the ref up the backside, stands out by a country mile ? in this much more sober day and age, the FA (and the media, I fancy, despite privately loving every single bit of it) would have taken a very dim view indeed of his antics, I suspect.

Modern managers (a certain Mr. Megson springs readily to mind, here) would clamp down straight away upon some of the more outrageous showboating e.g. trapping the ball, Willie using his backside to do it. (Is there actually anything in the laws of the game proscribing such irreverent shenanigans, I wonder?) Or making international-quality defenders see red through the simple device of making them look village idiots not once, but twice over, the second occasion being just to prove he could make them look just as stupid again, second time on the bounce! And God knows what today?s media would have made of the time Willie ran stark rollock naked around the Hawthorns for a bet!

Lack of space (and time) prevents me from going into full details; suffice to say that Thursday night?s meeting was one of the best I?ve been to for quite some time. The Fart, unaccountably absent for this one, really missed a treat ? and when I finally catch up with the old reprobate, I?ll jolly well tell him, too.

That?s the ?good? bits finished with, then: now for its ?violent contact with the ground? counterpart. Tomorrow sees the Albion Expeditionary Force (or should that read ?Farce??) make tracks for Scouseland, where lovely Liverpool await our pleasure (no, belay my last: ANY thoughts of a prospective turkey-shoot are going to be pleasurable for them, rather than us, aren?t they?).

To be perfectly honest with you lot out there, I really do fear the worst. Liverpool must have had their pride really stung when Spurs stuck away their last-minute winner on Sunday, and to cap that, they could only pull off a 1-1 Champions League draw versus Atletico Madrid in the week.

Count your blessings, Scousers ? it could have been much worse, had the referee not decided to award your lot a late, late penalty, thereby giving you a possibly-undeserved chance to share the spoils. Result? After that bout of serial underachievement, the Anfield crew are going to be as mad as hell, and wanting the football equivalent of a handy cat to kick by way of compensation ? which is where we come in, of course!

We?ll be without Messrs. Meite and Barnett, both of them still clutching sick notes for Teacher, and neither of the pair heading for a rapid return: as for our other walking wounded, scuttlebutt says James Morrison will be OK, having knackered himself during the Blackburn game, and Tex will be back in the squad, but not quite up to speed with match fitness, as yet. Well, that?s how I see it.

As for the Scousers, striker Fernando Torres is threatening fitness to play ? and the mere thought?s making keeper Scott Carson a tad shivery, apparently. It comes as absolutely no surprise whatsoever to get word that Mogga has been working on the defence (yes, I know, WHAT defence?) over the course of the week just gone, in a desperate effort to shore up the multitude of leaks developing at the back. And Jonathan Greening, who played one game with Stephen Gerrard when in the England Under 21 squad, certainly knows what that Merseyside gentleman?s capable of, none of it of any use whatsoever, as far as our immediate prospects of staying put are concerned.

To be perfectly honest, even the presence of King Canute at the back wouldn?t alter the probable outcome of Saturday?s Anfield soiree. Leak we can ? and leak we will! I fully expect to see us firmly encamped in or around bottom spot sometime over the course of the next 7 days or so: after all, our very next home fixture, versus Chelsea, doesn?t exactly promise to be a barrel of laughs either.

Balking somewhat at the outrageous Anfield ticket prices ? quite a seismic shift, that, from happier days, when they used to be one of the cheapest in the entire division, and deliberately so, given a local unemployment problem the size of the Grand Canyon, back then - we both elected to claim ?refusenik? status instead, so you?ll find us at Hereford?s place, tomorrow afternoon, not the Scousers?.

They?re engaged in First Round FA Cup action versus Dagenham and Redbridge ? and with 20 grand in prize money up for grabs at that stage in the competition, further progress would confer considerable benefits upon either side, but more so Hereford, as they?re just about skint. Such piffling sums as that might appear highly risible to the likes of, say, the Anfield mob, but at basement level, you can do an awful lot with that kind of money in your hot and sticky little mitt.

Given that we?ll be heading out of that cathedral city and on the main drag to Worcester by the time the Liverpool game kicks off, we?ll be listening to the unfolding of events courtesy Radio 5 Live, who are broadcasting the game ?in the flesh? as it were. Then, once we?re back at Chez Wright, we?ll be tuning into what?s rapidly becoming known as ?Sultana? in these here parts. Blimey, I?ve heard of ?multimedia?, but this is ridiculous! The Fart will be there, though, so we?ll just have to depend upon him to get heavy with the old vocals. More about both games tomorrow.


The day? Tuesday last. The time? Around eleven that morning. The place? Boots, chemists, Halesowen Branch. The incident in question? It first came to my notice when I was inspecting the ?vitamins? section: while I was doing so, I happened to notice splashes of what looked suspiciously like pop around my feet, but as the weather was filthy outside, I simply thought someone had entered with really wet and muddy feet, and thought no more of it ? until I got to the till, that is.

Yup ? there it was again, and this time, there could be no possible doubt as to the identity of the culprit. Me. It only needed a quick rootle into the depths of my bag to confirm it: inside, there was a bottle of Coke that was considerably more open than I?d consider desirable, given the circumstances. Worse still, by the time I?d located the source of the trouble, the top had completely parted company with the rest of it, and sensing the imminence of hitherto-unexpected freedom, the contents were now cascading through the bottom with gay abandon.

That?s what happens when you?re at a bus stop, and while awaiting the arrival of said bus, imminent according to the timetable, grabbing a quick swig of the contents of said bottle: the problem must have first arose when the bus came while I was in mid-gulp. Somewhat hastily, it must be said, I then replaced the cap on the bottle ? or so I?d thought. Now I knew better, courtesy the mini-Niagra currently lapping playfully around my feet!

Enter, stage left, a plethora of Boots counter people, all armed with kitchen-type absorbent towel all, and with the avowed intent of shifting the mini-flood I?d just set in motion, to the considerable amusement of other customers present. As for the errant bottle, the Boots people did supply me with a plastic bag in which to incarcerate the offending article before it did any more damage to the fabric of Britain?s retail trade. As for myself, I rapidly found it particularly expedient at that time to simply ? erm ? ?make my excuses/profuse apologies and leave?, if only to cover up my complete and utter embarrassment at the mess I?d caused!

 - Glynis Wright

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