Going to football in the 70s was always an event.
My best friend at School was Andy Parkins, the pair of us loved to watch football. He supported Manchester United and I liked Tottenham Hotspurs, but the only ground we could afford to go to was Charlton Athletic.
19th April 1976 Charlton Athletic, v Chelsea league 2 clash. Now this was a game we definitely wouldn't want to miss the atmosphere would be great. It would be the first time that we'd see the ground with more than a few thousand in it.
A young lad, Mark Walker, lived a couple of doors away from me, and knew that I would be going to the game. He followed Chelsea and was desperate to go with us as no one in his family was into sport, and it would be his one and only chance to see his team play.
As is typical for any teenager, it wasn't too cool to be seen with an eleven year old trailing in your wake. Every time he saw me in the street he would be nagging me to take him. So eventually, thinking that he wasn't going to be allowed to go whatever I said, and to get him off my back, I said that he could come with us. But I also said, as long as he got the OK from his mother. You've never seen anyone move so quickly. He shot indoors, and less than a minute later he was back out with his mother closely trailing in his wake.
She started quizzing me about looking after him, and not letting him out of my sight. She also wanted to know how safe it was going to be. Even people who had no interest in football whatsoever were fully aware of the hooligan problem that plagued English football at the time because it was all over the news every Saturday night. But instead of saying that I didn't feel responsible enough to look after him all on my own, I heard myself saying.
" Yes of course he'll be fine, we'll both look after him, there's no need to worry, it's really safe at Charlton.”
I'd used those words on my own mother not so long ago. Anyway she agreed to let him go, and I was left standing there completely stunned by what I had just said.
I'd told him the evening before the game. "Make sure you're ready, cos I'm not hanging around for you."
When I arrived at his house on the day of the match, his front door opened before I could get half way up the drive. I think he'd got ready the night before and spent the rest of the time staring out of the window, waiting for my arrival. He was wearing his Chelsea scarf tied around his wrist as was the way.
So just before she let him out of her sight, we both got our final pep talk. It was something about looking after him blah blah blah. I really wasn't taking a blind bit of notice. As it turned out I was never so glad to be doing someone a favour, when she reached into her purse and produced two nice crisp new pound notes, and handed them to me. At first the significance of this didn't register, I thought she was handing me the money to pay for Mark. But when she turned to him and said.
"You've got your money in your wallet, haven't you? Don't lose it.”
I realised the two quid she'd given me was meant for me, I couldn't believe my luck. So I stood on the doorstep still clutching the money waiting for confirmation. I think she noticed my predicament and said.
"Yes, that's for you, put it in your pocket.”
We met up with Andy at the bus stop, where together we gave Mark our own version of a pep talk. Basically, it was just a threat to keep his mouth shut about anything that he sees or hears today. Not that we were planning to get up to anything, we just always worked on the, better safe than sorry policy. He was no problem, he was too excited about seeing Chelsea play, so we boarded the bus and were on our way.
The match passed without too much trouble, just the usual skirmishes before the start. We had taken up our usual positions at the halfway line, only this time there was no way we would be able to see if we sat on the wall at the back. So we had pushed our way right to the front and watched the whole game from there.
Chelsea won comfortably, Mark was happy, and as we didn't really support Charlton, we couldn't have cared less. We made our way out of the ground, and although we had plenty of money for the bus we made the decision to walk back to Woolwich to see if there was any trouble anywhere.
The Charlton ground is known as "The Valley." That’s because it sits in a valley and all roads out are uphill. So our route back to Woolwich took us through Charlton park. It was the quickest way to get on to the Woolwich road. We had barely got into the park when right at the top of the steep hill, between the two rows of silver birch trees we saw a group of about thirty or so young men heading towards us. As they got closer, it was clear that they were carrying weapons, not knives or guns but big lumps of wood and bricks. They must have torn a wall down and smashed someone's fence up on their way to the park.
It was obvious what their game was. They had left the ground early and gone the long way round so that they could enter the park from the top end. Doing that they would then have the advantage of the upper ground when they met the enemy coming the other way up the hill and by the looks of things they thought that was us.
Now at this point we didn't know if they were Charlton or Chelsea. Football hooligans didn't wear team colours, but we could see that they looked pretty angry. If we turned and ran, we wouldn't have stood a chance. Andy would have got away, he was the school's cross country champion, but Mark and me, we'd both be dead. "Keep walking they won't be bothered with us," I said, not really believing my own words. At about fifty yards away they started chanting.
“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea."
Well at least we knew who we were dealing with now. We suddenly became two of Chelsea's newest supporters. As they met with us head on they stopped and before we had a chance to blink they had us surrounded. It was now that the most surreal, ridiculous and frightening game of "A question of sport" took place. Their leader or "Question master" stepped forward, and so began the bizarre questioning.
"Who you lot with? "
"Chelsea," replied Andy. One out of one.
"We think you're Charlton"
This guy standing in front of us clutching an old reclaimed Victorian red house brick was absolutely enormous. His jeans were held up by a set of blue braces and the bottoms were rolled up to reveal the full extent of his Doc Martens size twelves.
"No, we're Chelsea mate, honest," Andy answered again.
He’s good this boy, he’s holding his own, keep it up Andy, I thought.
"Right then, who's the manager?"
"Dave Sexton," he answered. Two nil.
Now while Andy was busily answering one stupid question after another, I was relieved that his encyclopaedic knowledge of football was at last being put to some good use. I would have been useless. I happened to glance across at Mark, and there it was, salvation. Hanging from his wrist was a blue scarf with the last bit of the word Chelsea, the S. E. A. in white capitals was clearly visible poking out from under his anorak sleeve. I grabbed his wrist and raised his arm like a referee to a champion boxer.
"Look mate, we're Chelsea." I spoke for the first time.
Giant brick man looked at the scarf dangling in front of him, that was enough, we were a waste of their precious fighting time. So without so much as an apology or another word they carried on their journey down the hill.
The three of us just stood, watching them charging towards their next quiz show contestants where the first prize was a mouthful of Victorian house brick. But Andrew Parkins couldn't leave it at that. Oh no! He physically turned Mark round, pointed him up the hill and told him to start running. Mark didn't understand the instruction at first, but I realised what we were about to do. So I encouraged him.
"Go on Mark run, get up the hill”. I said it with a bit of urgency in my voice.
He listened to me and after I shoved him in the right direction off he went. We gave him a slow count of ten, because he was a bit of a chubby kid, then turned back down the hill and started shouting at the tops of our voices.
" Charlton, Charlton, Charlton."
Finally, from the bottom of the hill they heard. They all came to a shuddering halt and turned to see me and Parkins jumping up and down and waving our arms while shouting, swearing, and chanting.
“If you all hate Chelsea, clap your hands,” over and over again.
Now there was no way they were going to take that, they'd been made fools of. They started to charge back up the hill, and this is when I made my exit. I turned and started sprinting, concentrating on catching up Mark. Andy who was more confident in his athletic ability, wanted to give them some hope, stayed until they were just in brick throwing distance, when he turned and left them all for dead. He was so quick up that hill that he arrived before both me and Mark and by the time we got to the gate at the top he was standing facing down the hill laughing his head off. The Chelsea mob had all given up and were sprawled out on the grass trying to catch their breath. So we strolled back into Woolwich and celebrated with "Big Mac and Fries all round.
Mark never came to football with us again, I think he probably revealed too much to his mother. But I for one was certainly glad that he came with us on that day.