IT WAS the summer of 1968. It had been a dull and somewhat wet season and the school holidays were drawing to a close. The Soviet Union had not yet invaded Czechoslavakia but tension was building in the region. While we played football on the village green, the “Warsaw Five” – USSR, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria and East Germany – were meeting in Bratislava, along with difficult child Czechoslavakia, to sign [surprisingly] the Bratislava Agreement, a paper that reiterated all parties’ commitment to Leninism. It was meant to stave off military intervention, but proved to be unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, while our parents started to angst about the prospect of a third world war – the tanks rolling around the Czech border were slightly unnerving – we were more concerned about the upcoming football season. England had experienced the first in a long line of disappointing tournaments, and had lost to Yugoslavia in the semi-final of the European Nations Cup. Italy had won the 1968 series, although very little was said about it in the British media. “But they were the hosts,” protested one pundit, forgetting that two years earlier, England had won the World Cup on home soil.
The 1968-69 season was really my first full campaign of being a football fan. I had stuck my toe in the water at the end of 1966-67, started to get more interested halfway through 1967-68, but it was the following season that really captured my attention. I was now a Chelsea supporter but greedily gobbling up information about my new fascination.
So, onto that village green. It was a “jumpers for goalposts” time, but the real currency in those days was possession of a football. Not a leather one, for they were too heavy and hard for youngsters, but a nice airy plastic or resin ball, perhaps an orange Frido, maybe a continental-style spheroid with black and white segments. If you had a ball, you had friends. And there was nothing worse than your ball getting punctured, either by a rogue thorn or a piece of glass on a playing field peppered with dog shit and sweet wrappers. As the air siphoned out of your ball, making it unplayable, you trudged sadly home, holding the ball in front of you as if in a funeral procession. No ball meant no football, until you could persuade your parents to part with 2/6 for a replacement.
On this particular afternoon, we were taking a break when two older boys approached us and asked, “can we give you a game?”. There were four of us, two of them, but their physique and experience told us we would be up against it. One was called Steve, the other Pete. “What team do you support?” they asked. “Chelsea, I said. I am a Chelsea fan. These two are Tottenham and West Brom.”
Quite why my brothers chose Spurs and Albion was a bit of a mystery, but neither wedded themselves to these clubs for long. One liked Clive Clark of WBA, who was no more relevant than any other player plucked from a set of ABC Chewing Gum cards.
Steve and Pete gave us a good game, Steve equipped with Peter Bonetti goalkeeping gloves and Gola boots, Pete in a black Litesome tracksuit (doubtless bought via a Freeman’s catalogue) that sparked when you touched it. “Blooming dangerous this track suit,” he would say. “Tackle me and you get an electric shock”.
Playing on the village green wasn’t appreciated by the people living in the houses that fringed it, neither was the local vicar happy when a stray football landed among the Victorian gravestones. Father Brown made no attempt to kick the ball back when it rolled down the path, but would adjust his spectacles, grunt and march into the church. “No football in the churchyard, please!”.
Steve, who also told me he was a Morton fan as his Dad was from Greenock, was an exceptional goalkeeper with a deep knowledge of football for an 11 year-old. As we packed our things away, he flipped out of his bag a small red booklet. “Got one of these?,” he asked, with a bit of a swagger.
It was the Daily Mail Football Guide 1968-69. It had the fixtures for the forthcoming season, facts and figures about the previous campaign, details of the World Cup and other internationals. I had never seen anything like it before.
“Who have Chelsea got this week?” I asked. Steve opened the booklet, read down the page and said. “Must be a mistake, they are not playing anyone.” Pete added, “they must have been kicked out of the league…ha ha.”
Steve studiously investigated. “By my reckoning, they should be playing Coventry. I bet it’s a printing error.” This was a shade troubling, for in 1968 there was no internet, no CEEFAX, very little TV football and some newspapers only carried scant coverage. Steve also brandished a copy of Goal, the new football weekly magazine. It was the first edition, dated August 10, the opening day of the season. “Got it from Hall’s,” he said. “Brand new magazine. Brilliant. Bobby Charlton writes in it.” Chelsea didn’t have a game in their fixtures, either.
“How did you get the money for that?” I asked. “Paper round. I also get Soccer Star…you must get Soccer Star?”, he replied. “Yes, I do, “ I lied. “How much is Goal,” I pleaded. “One and six.” I gasped, in fact all four of us did. “Blimey, THAT much. I’ll never be able to afford that.” When I was told that the Daily Mail book was two and sixpence, I realised I was at least four shillings short of starting my football education.
I rushed home and asked my Mum for 2/6d. “What for,” she responded. “I want to get a football book. It’s really important.” To my surprise, she agreed to my demand. I ran all the way to the village shop where Steve had bought the Daily Mail Guide. When I got there, Derek, the owner, was about to shut, but I dashed in, panting. In one swift sentence, I breathlessly asked for the book. “I want a copy of the Daily Mail Football Guide for the 1968-69 season, please.” Derek looked over to the corner of the counter where the latest edition of the Evening News had just been delivered. “Sold out, young ‘un. Sold the last one earlier today.” I was crestfallen. “We will have some more in next week.”
I trudged out of the shop and as I walked past the window, I caught sight of the maroon cover of the guide, sitting next to plastic skittles, tennis balls and a Tiny Tears doll. “There it is,” I gasped. “Mr Hall….Mr Hall,” I ran back in. “You’ve got one in the window.”
“It ‘s slightly soiled,” he said, fingering the stained back cover. “But I tell you what, you can have it for two shillings.” I held it aloft in triumph, much as Bobby Moore did the Jules Rimet trophy two years earlier.
So, I got my Daily Mail Football Guide 1968-69, edited by Roy Peskett and started wallowing in trivia. Apparently, Peskett was a Fleet Street legend, capable of drinking anyone under the table. He knew a good football guide when he saw it. And so did I and I still have it today, complete with slightly soiled cover that earned me a massive 20% discount. I’m still wallowing in trivia some 48 years later…
Oh yes, Russia invaded Czechoslavakia on August 20, 1968 – but I was more concerned with Chelsea’s upcoming game at Newcastle United the day after. Never mind Alexander Dubček’s Prague Spring liberalisation, I wanted to know if Peter Osgood had struck form yet.