John McCormick writes: there’s no formal division of labour at Salut HQ. It usually works out that M Salut himself does the “Who are you?” and “Guess the score” pieces, along with sundry items that come his way, I do the “First time ever I saw your ground/team” series and also “Sixer’s Sevens” if Malcolm’s at the match, and Malcolm does match reports on Sunday morning, especially if he was there and can provide his well-informed introductions. Other writers chip in from time to time, Jake embellishes all of our efforts and Pete Sixsmith, of course, provides an axle round which our efforts can spin. However, like our players, we can and do swap roles.
And, like the team on the pitch, we don’t all have to be there for it to work.
It’s that time of year again. The darkness has arrived, the local Catholics have been burnt on the bonfire and the Young Master has rewarded our hard work and loyalty in what has been a stressful twelve months by taking some of the staff on their annual trip to a Sunderland away match.
There have been changes since we went to Burton-upon-Trent last year. The American who owned the estate has upped and left, passing the grounds and the shoots on to some rather pleasant English types. One is involved in insurance (the YM thinks he may be able to get a deal on the shooting brake’s policy) while the other worked for The Daily Telegraph after having been at Oxford and Eton. We thought that that was an unusual career path.
They have settled in well and have refurbished the house, although we had to assemble and install the new furniture ourselves. The sight of Gove, the Gentleman’s Gentleman on his knees trying to cobble together pieces of furniture from Norway and Canada, gave most of the staff a chuckle – all that is apart from the new Secretary, Raab, who left his job in a bit of a funk when he realised that the furnishings were not hand made in Surrey by sturdy English yeomen.
There have been other retirements. Coleman, the loquacious and verbose estate manager, who had just taken over when we set out for Burton-upon-Trent, has gone and has been replaced by a ramrod straight Scotsman called Ross. He oversaw the departure of elderly retainers like O’Shea, the Irish groundsman and Jones, the simple village boy who seemed to do very little other than get in the way and he has brought in some new staff.
Chief amongst those is a new keeper called McLaughlin, a Yorkshireman long domiciled north of the border and another hardy Scot in Maguire, a jovial character who enlivens the evenings after we have sampled Mrs Miggins’ glorious roast dinners, with his tales of his time working on estates in Aberdeenshire, South Yorkshire, Oxfordshire (where he was even more popular than Lord Cameron of The Shepherds Hut) and Lancashire, where he soon realised that he had buried his head in the sand and got out as quickly as he could.
Chantelle and Tallulah are still with us. They so wanted to come to Walsall and said that they were quite content to wander around the Leather Museum, maybe trying on some of the more unusual exhibits, but, as last year, they had to stay at home and file the Young Master’s copies of “Big and Bouncy” (he gets it for the cookery tips).
After a splendid breakfast of devilled kidneys and eggs, washed down by strong tea, we set off in the brake with Hamilton, the chauffer, at the wheel and with a hamper of Mrs Miggins finest game pie, a splendid cake from Johnson’s Bakery and lashings and lashings of lemonade in the boot. Stops were made for refreshments at a number of places and we lunched in the delightful cathedral city of Lichfield.
The Young Master enjoys outings like this as it gives him a chance to mingle with the common people and do what the common people do. This we did, although I did feel a little incongruous wandering the streets of Lichfield carrying a stool and a hamper in case the YM wanted to sit down and eat more cake – “after all, if one has cake, one has to eat it” was his view on this.
We were thrilled to be in the city associated with Dr Johnson, the man who created the first dictionary. We wondered what he would make of the current trend of using abbreviations instead of phrases like OMG, WTF, LOL and we decided that he would think that it was ALOOB (expansion available on request).
|Cooke, deputed to carry the Young Master’s change of clothing, was interested to see that Darwin had also lived in Lichfield but he made a bit of a fool of himself when he said that he often walked past his other house in Seaton Carew and why was his statue not wearing a Panama Hat.
I do despair for the younger generation at times
After visiting a rather splendid Gentleman’s Outfitters and purchasing some rather splendid tweed jackets, waistcoats and trousers (we give the old ones to the Newcastle Home for Retired Radio Commentators), it was time for an alcoholic beverage and we stumbled across a tiny Public House called The Whippet Inn.
I found this a fitting drink when I was in such exalted company, although Hamilton showed his ignorance by saying that he thought that the Prince came from Minneapolis.
He further blotted his copybook by taking us on a trip around the trunk roads of Staffordshire and it took nearly an hour to traverse the 13 miles from Lichfield to Walsall, eventually arriving at The Bescot Stadium at 14.20. Hamilton was made to stay in the brake and guard it from the marauding West Midlands hordes who swarmed around the streets between the scrap yard and the brass foundry. Serves him right.
We took our seats (mine was broken) in the part of the ground behind the goal at the quaintly named “University of Wolverhampton Stadium”, an institution that the YM had not come across. He wittily informed us that, no doubt, there would be a department to study the development of pork scratchings, while the Collected Works of Sir Noddy Holder would form the basis of the (almost) English and Philosophy Departments. Oh, how we laughed – we know on which side our bread is buttered.
The team had been selected and there were changes, principally the selection of Oviedo as a wide midfield player. He may be leaving the country in January (along with most of the foreigners who work in the fields, the NHS and care homes), so Ross wanted to utilise him while he was still with us. Cheeky Scouser Power also came in after an enforced rest for treading on a Yorkshireman and was told to be on his best behaviour, while Maja was restored up front.
For twenty-five minutes, the football was reminiscent of Barcelona at their best, France at their finest and Germany at their most gregarious. The ball was pinged about, corners were won and the Saddlers goalie excelled himself. Flanagan, the young central defender, missed a good header and all was looking good as the two full sides of the ground, geared themselves up for a win and a possible top place in the league.
But then, disaster struck. Power, who was running the game, went for a ball with the Walsall midfielder, Liam Kinsella. It was an untidy challenge from both players and it left Kinsella writhing in agony. It also gave referee Craig Hicks a chance to grab the headlines as he immediately produced a red card and sent Power to the dressing rooms.
He left with a shake of the head and an away support that was incensed, half with the player and half with the referee. My view was that it looked as if he had both feet off the ground and that usually led to dismissal, but the Young Master was adamant that if anyone should be punished, it should have been Kinsella.
Subsequent viewings on television showed that Ross is right to challenge it and Dean Keates, the Walsall manager also said that it was emphatically not a red. Be that as it may, it left us a man down while leaving the game in charge of a referee who looked about as competent as some of those who have joined Rees-Mogg and his nanny in the European Research Group.
We had a couple of scares before half time. Cook, the kind of burly centre forward who would have been whistled up from the pit in the past, had a goal chalked off and then Flanagan got his feet all tangled up, allowing Dobson (not to be confused with Sobs of that ilk) an open goal, but he contrived to hit the post when even Rees-Mogg (a noted duffer at footer) would have bagged the opener.
It came straight after half time when Gordon turned in a cross from full back Devlin and it prompted what turned out to be an important change as O’Nien arrived to replace Oviedo. Within two minutes of his arrival, we were two down as Ginnelly scored what the YM described as “an absolute worldy” which sent the Walsall hordes into paroxysms of delight and choruses of the works of Slade.
By this time Mr Hicks was wandering around like a supply teacher who had been given the job of refereeing a grudge match between the most disruptive boys in the school. His body language suggested that he wanted to be in the staff room, drinking tea in an overstuffed armchair and reading “Big and Bouncy” rather than making a complete arse of himself in front of 8,000 people,
He took Honeyman’s name for a legitimate complaint about his failure to give Sunderland a free kick after Gooch was fouled in the build up to the second goal and he continued to baffle and confuse whilst giving the distinct impression that a refereeing career was not for him. It was a performance that made the Young Master pine for the days of Mr Marriner, Mr Friend and even Mr D’Urso.
However, we had to play on and as the minutes ticked away, we pushed Walsall back deeper and deeper. McGeady was running the game now and caused problems whenever he had the ball and the arrival of Maguire for the disappointing Maja gave us valuable experience up front.
Maguire is a typical Scot in that, to quote PG Wodehouse, “it has never been hard to tell the difference between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine.” He berated the hapless Hicks at every opportunity, complained at every decision that went against him and generally put the willies up the Saddlers defenders.
It all paid off in the 89th minute, when O’Nien, a certain starter on Tuesday, slipped the ball to Gooch in the box. The Young American, who had come into the game well in the last half hour, wriggled away from his markers and sent a firm shot into the net.
Cue mayhem in the seats as the YM grabbed me, I grabbed Cooke and Cooke grabbed anything he could. Some ran onto the pitch and O’Nien jumped on top of one supporter in a frenzy of adolescent joy. It took minutes to restore order and Gooch could have caused a collective heart attack had his shot in the 95th minute been a tad lower.
As we returned to the brake, there was much discussion about the determination that our players showed in the face of a refereeing performance that almost defied description. McGeady was praised by all and Matthews came in for his share as well, while O’Nien was also spoken about in exalted terms.
Once again, the substitutions had come at the right time and had the desired effect and it felt like a point gained rather than two lost, which it was. Had we kept a full complement on the pitch, we would have extended our lead over Barnsley and Peterborough United and would have had Portsmouth firmly in our sights.
The journey home was a pleasant one as I regaled the YM and Cooke about the win at Burnley with nine men in 1978 and the YM reminded me that we had come back from 3 down at Bristol City last season only to put in a feeble performance against Brentford in the next home game. I somehow feel that under the current regime this will not happen again.
And if Craig Hicks is reading this, I suggest you take up stamp collecting or knitting or keeping tropical fish. You can do these in the confines of your own home and not bother people who pay a lot of money to watch football and who do not want to see someone like you ruin the spectacle.