Sunday, 29 April 2012

Post season friendlies

As the curtain falls on this campaign, with the only cries of “More!” coming from opposing strikers who haven’t had it so easy since they were knocking them in for the under 11s, we can put away our Poppy bobble hats for a few months and rediscover how it feels to pass an enjoyable Saturday afternoon. With no further fixtures until the first pre-season run out in July, it’s time to smell the roses, go fishing or just sit in numb silence in a darkened room. All fun by comparison!

In the old days, seasons didn’t end quite so abruptly. Often there would be a low key testimonial of some description – a Poppies Select taking on Boston or Oxford United, watched by a few hundred charitable souls with nothing better to do on a May evening. Or there would be a cup final, usually of the county variety, but sometimes a tiny bit less local. About 20,000 claim to have been there the night we beat Hendon to lift the General Motors Acceptance Corporation Cup! And as for the gala finale of the Midland Floodlit Cup, even Pep’s Barcelona never put 8 past Redditch!

And for a spell in the late 70s and early 80s, Rockingham Road played host to a succession of top drawer, end of season friendlies of the type you never see nowadays, before the Premiership came along and seasons extended forever. These were genuine prestige occasions, in which every kid of a certain age would converge on Rockingham Road for a rare glimpse of a moustache or perm owned by someone famous. Kicking things off in 1979 was a Roy Clayton testimonial against Big Ron’s West Brom. I still have the programme and the first striking thing is the date – the 24th of May. Ron must have recalled his team from their holidays for this one.

It was the full gun too, as he would say – with Regis, Cunningham and Robson not a bunch of 3rd teamers and one bloke you’d ever heard of. A year later Man City were put to the test, a slightly less cosmopolitan City than the current version, but again names we knew off the telly, including future Poppy and first ever million pound misfit, Steve Daley. City blew £1.4m on Daley and never heard the last of it. By the standards of the average recent Liverpool signing, he was excellent value.

However the game that stands out was in 1981 when KTFC entertained the European Champions. (NB for younger readers, Nottingham Forest. Ask your dad.) They even brought the trophy with them. Around 5,000 were there to see a real treat. Forest were at full strength and I can still remember the buzz of excitement at the pace of Trevor Francis. However our own Nicky Evans scored twice past Peter Shilton and seemed destined for big things - ultimately ending up at Barnet.

After the game we swarmed around the back of the stand, clamouring for autographs. It was a dog eat dog, survival of the fittest thing – which is why I only got Ian Wallace. Two years later Forest returned, without the cup and many of that team. Meanwhile our fortunes had slipped to the extent that many of the crowd probably hadn’t bothered watching us since the previous occasion.

We didn’t know it at the time, but that was the end of the big post season friendly. In many ways a shame, but at the end of this particular season probably for the best, on compassionate grounds.

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