Issue 74 – Baltic Blues

With the start of a new season bringing the usual mixture of eager anticipation laced with fear and foreboding, especially after last season’s Houdini act. So it was a shock to realise I have been supporting The Blues for nearly 60 years. I am now living in Latvia (probably the only Blues supporter in the Baltics and almost certainly the oldest) but thanks to the iFollow service I can now watch nearly every game in the season, except those that Sky grab! 

But where did those years go? In my case it began at the end of 1960 when as a 16 year old schoolboy, I was uprooted from deepest Wiltshire to hitherto unknown Southend-on-Sea at the behest of E. K. Cole Ltd, for whom my father worked. They made televisions – anyone remember the Ekco brand? – and in an early example of cost cutting and rationalisation they had closed their Malmesbury, Wiltshire operation to move to their HQ in Priory Crescent, Southend. At my new school, Southend High School for Boys, I was taken under the wing of a fervent supporter of the Blues who insisted I should pay a visit to Roots Hall as a matter of priority, far exceeding the attractions of the pier or the Kursaal. 

In my previous location, I had been to a few matches at nearby Swindon, (my best mate at my old school lived in the same street as the legendary Ernie Hunt who was a family friend and in Mike Summerbee they had another player who went on to great things, not to mention a very young teenager called Don Rogers of whom much was expected) but I was never really hooked. Anyway, in a spirit of goodwill and curiosity I turned up one day to see what the fuss was all about. Roots Hall was after all, the newest ground in the football league, bright and shiny and only 5 years old, with recently installed floodlights, not a bit like that run down old County Ground that Swindon called home. A shining example of what could be achieved by a combination of a forward looking board of directors and sheer hard graft by volunteers and supporters in the local community, who had created this ‘Seaside Wembley’ as the Daily Mail put it. Three shillings in old money represented a high proportion of my pocket money and if this was to become a habit, sacrifices in other areas would have to be made, like being more choosy about my purchase of pop records (did I really buy ‘Are You Sure’ by The Allisons?). 

The game was a local derby against Colchester United so a good choice for a baptism, although I had little idea of the implacable hostility that existed between the more dedicated sets of supporters, which I was later to witness on my way out of the ground! I went on my own as my school friend and Blues fanatic was inexplicably unavailable that day. I had no idea where to stand so just headed for the nearest entrance which led me into the northeast corner of the ground. From here I could see at the other end the impressively vast expanse of the South Bank and made a mental note to stand there if I went again. However, for now I took up my position on the small open terrace among a group of what turned out to be largely disgruntled, mostly middle aged supporters obviously soured by the indifferent results of a season that carried the threat of relegation up to the last minute. I soon realised what a sheltered life I had lived until now. I had never heard my father use some of the language flying back and forth and thankfully some of the references and suggestions put to the players passed over my innocent head but I remember thinking if this is what the crowd is like when we are winning…. 

Nearly sixty years later I have a much better, indeed personal, understanding of the frustrations and sufferings of the long term supporter but at the time I was deeply shocked at the intensity and depth of emotion a poor pass or a missed goal opportunity could invoke, especially in a fixture like this with so much local prestige at stake, never mind the three points. If I close my eyes, I can see the commanding Peter Watson at centre half battling against the Colchester centre forward, balding Jimmy Fryatt scoring the first goal for Southend. Bustling, confident young Bobby Kellard, not much more than a schoolboy and a local lad too, frail looking but skilful John McKinven, who scored our second goal (how things changed in later years) and the imperious full back, craggy featured Alexander (but always Sandy) Anderson, a real Roots Hall favourite. Talking of Anderson, when I started working in a local bank the following year, he came in to cash a cheque. My manager, always quick to spot a chance to ingratiate himself, but who had never been to Roots Hall in his life and had no interest in football whatsoever, immediately started a conversation with him as though it was the passion of his life while I was cashing the cheque and it was to my great satisfaction that Sandy winked at me on his way out as if to say “Don’t worry son, I’ve got his number”. 

On my way out, I hastily side stepped some minor scuffling, pushing, shoving and chanting between some of my more exuberant contemporaries and made my way home, basking in the glow of a 2-1 win. I managed a couple or so more visits that season but did not see another win, although we did manage to stay up. The summer passed with swotting for my impending ‘A’ levels but something strange was happening. I gradually became aware that as the weeks passed I was starting to anticipate the new season with unexpectedly keen interest. The seeds scattered randomly in the Spring of 1961 were starting to bear fruit, or to put it another way, I was succumbing to an addiction from which I still haven’t found the cure, or indeed wouldn’t ever really want to.

Gerry Stonestreet