If you look up the word ‘home’ in my dictionary it is defined as ‘the place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household’.
That sums up perfectly how I feel about Roots Hall. It has always been my permanent football ‘home’, and I’ve always felt that I belonged… whether I was laughing, screaming or crying on the terraces, or frantically scribbling notes down on a pad covering a Southend United match for the Echo.
And as my own life has turned full circle, it dawned on me just how much I would miss my cherished ‘Theatre of Rust’ if we ever do make it to the fabled Fossetts Farm site. The ongoing saga of moving ground has had more ups and downs than a porn star’s G-string over the last four decades.
When I wrote Roy McDonough’s book, Red Card Roy, he told me Blues boss Bobby Moore tried to woo him with a plastic model of a new super-duper stadium when he rejoined the club in the mid-80s… when all our Maverick No.10 wanted to know was the location of the nearest bar to the players’ tunnel to seal the deal. Wind forward to the start of the Noughties and Uncle Ron rudely interrupted Coronation Street, pleading with me on the phone not to run a story about the latest incarnation of the stadium switch being in chaos. We ended up slapping a big red cross over the artist’s futuristic impression of the proposed football ground/spaceship which landed on the front page of the Echo the following evening. And to this day the first construction shovel has still not broken earth at Fossetts Farm… and I’ll offer no apologies that it gives me intense satisfaction. You can blame that on my six-year-old son and my desire for him to soak up, download and remember every bit of our spiritual ‘home’, before we are one day finally condemned to an eternity of sitting in a soulless, click-and-fix plastic crate, miles out of town.
As I tried to pass on the birth rite of a lifetime of Saturday afternoon misery a few years ago, my lad was oblivious to the 4-0 home mauling handed out by the ravenous Lions of Millwall at his first game. He didn’t even acknowledge the South London branch of the Caravan Club serenading his grizzly-looking father with a rendition of ‘There’s only one Karel Poborsky’ as we took our seats in the Trivial Pursuit cheese section of the West Stand next door. And as he chomped on his Mini Cheddars in a Thomas the Tank Engine fleece, paying little attention to Blues hitting the buffers, I was travelling back down the line to my own Roots Hall debut.
I was a year older than him and being whisked through a Friday night well past my bedtime in the family estate. Black silhouettes of terraced roof tops flashed past the passenger-seat window as my dad navigated the outskirts of Southend. ‘Are we there yet?’ I excitedly asked him. ‘You will know when we are,’ he replied. ‘Keep looking for the floodlights above the ground.’ Floodlights? What was he going on about? But it all clicked into place as a yellowy glow began illuminating the slanted tiles and wonky chimney stacks ahead. Then I saw a massive alien structure stretching its metal head into the night sky. Then there were two of them, no three, then four. I gawped open-mouthed at their square faces crammed full of bright, phosphorus eyeballs beaming down at the grey barrelled roofs of the football ground below and the enormous grandstand which already had a congregation of ant-sized people gathering inside it. Dad pushed some coins through a small crudely-cut opening to an old stubbly-chinned man sitting behind an iron grill. And they both chuckled as my father pushed the heavy arms of the turnstile forward until it clicked, following my futile attempts to struggle through it alone. A dizzying cocktail of loud, but inaudible chatter, and musty cigarette smoke filled the air as my father grabbed my hand tightly and herded me through the crowd ascending steep wooden steps. And as the mass of bodies in front of us conquered the dingy climb and disappeared, I saw an opening bathed in light – a spellbinding portal to another world. Nervously gripping dad’s hand harder to keep a vertigo-like head rush at bay, I took a brave glimpse downwards from the summit and could not believe the view. Row upon row of people were scattered around from top to bottom. They were nattering away, flicking through little booklets and carefully steering frosty lips towards steaming-hot drinks. There must have been hundreds, no thousands, of them. I did not even realise this many people existed!
The pitch looked fluorescent green with dazzling white lines stencilled across it as every blade of grass was coated by the glare of the floodlights. And it was huge… 10 times bigger than my school pitch!
A stranger shouted ‘Give us an S…’, then added, ‘O… U… T… H… E… N… D…’. And he was obviously popular in these parts, as lots of his friends repeated the letters back to him, before the lead singer threw his arms in the air and demanded loudly, ‘What have ya got?’ And everyone replied, ‘SOUTHEND.’ Clap, clap clap. ‘SOUTHEND.’ It carried on for a few minutes before fizzling out and I thought they must have practised hard before the game to all get it right at the same time.
As shivering players in skin-tight shorts waited for a little bloke in a black uniform to blow his whistle and get the game underway, another gentleman wearing a blue and white hat stood up in front of me. He pointed at a small group of men dwarfed by a high bank of open terrace as they huddled together to keep warm behind a goal at the other end of the ground and growled at the top of his voice, ‘Sheep Shaggers’. But he must have been mistaken as dad assured me the other team were from ‘Whales’. All of the excitement was too much for me as I blacked out not long after that, falling fast asleep in my father’s arms. He stayed until the end, allowing me to dribble on his coat more consistently than either of Southend’s wingers, before carrying me back to the car at the final whistle.
With dad driving off to work early the next morning, I spent most of Saturday in a curious daze, unable to demand answers to my numerous questions. The most pressing regarded his pre-match warning that the whole ground would take off like a rocket when Southend scored a goal. Surely such a loud blast would have woken me up? But I had not missed a thing during my Roots Hall slumber as the game had finished nil-nil – which meant no goals… and no fans thrusting into celebratory orbit.
It was not until many years later I discovered dad was telling fibs, bless him. Striker Alan Curtis bagged a double in a 2-0 away victory on that cold December night in 1978, helping the Swans soar out of the old Third Division on their way to playing in the top flight three seasons later. And I never watched a football match with my dad again.
Now, sitting there all those years later, I was struck by a deep-rooted feeling of premature loss. There was no tearful reminiscing about my one and only trip there with my father, it just hit me that time was running out on a place so heavily intertwined with my own development as a human being. I had made the passage from boy to man inside Roots Hall’s crumbling walls, built my future career as a writer there, and lost both of my parents and squeezed in a divorce and a child during that same football journey. And I had taken it for granted that it would always be here for me whenever I needed it… a comfort blanket of warming nostalgia. A stadium where a teenager’s obsession with football was cemented by McDonough tucking a penalty past Derby’s Peter Shilton as England’s No.1 got showered in pink toilet rolls chucked from the North Bank. The place I witnessed the impossible rise into the promised land of the old Second Division for the first time in the 90s, and where an unknown kid called Collymore with deadly rocket power in his boots glided past opposition defenders like an adult beating children for fun over the park. And, sitting in the East Stand press box – close to where I had cuddled up to my father – watching Freddy Eastwood’s free-kick send Rooney, Ronaldo and Co packing, as Manchester United were humiliated in the League Cup 12 years ago.
I’d like to be ultra selfish and hang on to those magical pictures, framed by their goosebump-generating surroundings, for a few more years yet if I can. Not because I want to stand in the way of progress, but because our dirty, unfashionable football heritage is facing extinction as the game rapidly evolves from a working-man’s (and woman’s) sport, into just another whitewashed money-making business. Wooden seats, carpet burgers, higgledy-piggledy stands and over-flowing toilets tailor-made for welly wearers are being traded in across the country as clubs shed their individual eccentricities for sterile stadiums cloned from the same mould and plonked next to a motorway.
A few more seasons of discomfort in our ramshackle old ground is precious to me. Just so my Evan will be old enough to remember watching football in a ‘proper ground’ before they are all consigned to propping up super markets, housing blocks and pay-and-display car parks nationwide. I want him to know what ‘home’ looks, feels, smells, tastes and sounds like before it is mercilessly bulldozed and gone forever. And, hopefully, he will never forget it.
I know I never will.
Bernie Friend – @berniefriend38