BY TONY TOPPING
Football, eh? You canâ€™t get enough of it can you? Well thatâ€™s what I always thought until one event held over the weekend of the 16th & 17th of April 1988 almost put me off the game for good and even makes me feel ill if I think about it too much today. The worst part is I was chuffed to bits when we qualified for â€œThe Mercantile Credit Football Festivalâ€
The festival was the brainchild of the Football League, the organisation that put the â€œtitâ€ in competition. It was ostensibly to celebrate 100 years of the founding of league football and thatâ€™s all well and good but the format the men in power chose for club qualification makes me wonder if they were inhaling laughing gas long before millionaire footballers thought it was cool.
Qualification for the festival to be held at Wembley was based on the number of points teams gained in 15 league fixtures between the beginning of November 1987 and the end of February 1988. Tables were compiled from those results with the top eight clubs from the 1st Division qualifying, top four from the 2nd Division and top two from Divisions 3 and 4.
Still awake? Perhaps this next paragraph taken from the official programme will put paid to that â€œProvision was made so that in the case of clubs not fulfilling 15 league fixtures during the specified period, points were to be allocated on a pro rata basis for any missing games, if necessary, to establish qualificationâ€. Makes the Rugby League Play Offs format look like childâ€™s play.
I was obsessed with Wigan Athletic and their points total during this qualifying period, desperate for them to take part in this historic event. Oh, how misguided and gullible I was…
At the end of February 1988 our place in the showpiece (sic) was confirmed and we were off to Wembley! What followed was the most boring day of my life and had me questioning my sanity. The teams that made it through to the festival were, from Division 1 Liverpool, Manchester United, Everton, Wimbledon, Luton Town, Sheffield Wednesday, Newcastle United and Nottingham Forest; Division 2 Blackburn Rovers, Aston Villa, Leeds United and Crystal Palace; Division 3 Sunderland and Wigan Athletic; Division 4 Wolverhampton Wanderers and Tranmere Rovers.
Worryingly, a lot of my friends didnâ€™t fancy going and that should have set the alarm bells ringing in my muddled brain but it didnâ€™t and Iâ€™m such an idiot at times (Usually between 12am to 12pm, 7 days a week). Instead my nephew asked me if he could go and was very keen to do so. Unfortunately, he was only about 8 years old and beyond rational thinking so my sister asked me what I thought with me being a fully fledged responsible adult. â€œOh heâ€™ll love it! Non-stop football all day, whatâ€™s not to like!?â€
I booked us on the Luxury Coach; Â£11 per person and Â£4 cheaper than the Executive Coach. My reasoning being that â€˜Luxuryâ€™ conjured up images of plush white carpets, gold handles on the toilet door, buxom maidens in togas eating Cadbury Flakes in slow motion and… errâ€¦no better stop there. Whereas â€˜Executiveâ€™ brought to mind dark wood panelling, ornate desk calendars and pens on chains. In the end the difference was they had a free coffee machine on theirs (while stocks last).
The day arrived and we boarded the coach at 5:30am on a cold and grey morning which set the tone for the day. The first game at Wembley was scheduled for 10am hence our early start – after all who would want to miss Tranmere vs. Wimbledon? Anyway we got to Wembley in time for the kick off and it was cold wet and breezy. All the Wigan fans made for their allocated terraced section at the back of the goals whereas this imbecile made for Entrance 2 and seats at the side of the pitch.
Iâ€™d made another error in an Argos sized catalogue of errors by thinking we would be better off close to the halfway line. We werenâ€™t, we were miles away from our own supporters and the â€œseatsâ€ I had booked were the plastic bottom of a seat with no back, nailed to a plank of wood. My 8-year-old companion looked at his seat, the other Latics fans in the distance and sat down with a sigh that sounded like â€œPillockâ€ as he exhaled.
The games themselves were 40 minutes long (20 minutes each way) and if the scores were level at the end of the game then sudden death penalties decided who got through to the next round. It didnâ€™t take long for the Wembley â€œMagicâ€ to fade faster than my hopes of marrying Marie Helvin. Wigan Athletic vs. Sunderland was the penultimate game of the first round so we only had to sit there for another 7 hours before our lads kicked a ball in anger…
The results from the first round; Tranmere 1 v Wimbledon 0, Leeds 0 v Forest 3, Luton 0 v Man Utd 2, Villa 0 v Blackburn 0 (Villa won on pens) Everton 1 v Wolves 1 (Everton won on pens) Palace 0 v Sheff Wed 0 (Wednesday won on pens) Wigan 0 v Sunderland 0 (Wigan won on pens) Liverpool 0 v Newcastle 0 (Newcastle won on pens) Wembley Seat 1 v My Backside 0.
So we had seen 8 goals in 8 games in over 8 hours. A frigging goal a frigging hour in a frigging damp, dismal, dreary, dump. Festival? I had a bottom like a Baboon and a walk to match it. I donâ€™t know what the Football League expected from the fans but if your team got knocked out the fans of that team just buggered off out the stadium never to return. At one point our seats were surrounded by a mass of Palace fans for 40 minutes then they withdrew like a red and blue tide and we were left alone once again.
The first two Quarter Finals were played after the first four games and the results were; Newcastle 0 v Tranmere 2, Forest 0 v Villa 0 (Forest won on pens) The last two quarter-finals took place at roughly 7pm with Manchester United beating Everton 1-0 and then finally, finally, at around 7:30pm Wigan Athletic came out to play Sheffield Wednesday in a deserted stadium. The game ended 1-1 and Wednesday won the penalty shoot out and you know what I couldnâ€™t have cared less.
We trudged back to the deserted car park and alighted our lacking in luxury coach. My nephew never came to the football with me ever again…
Around 40,000 spectators attended the Festival of Frigging Boredom according to the official figures. I canâ€™t even be arsed to tell you the results from the Sunday games but Nottingham Forest won the final beating Sheffield Wednesday on pens after a fittingly tedious 0-0 draw. A total of 17,000 fans watched the Sunday games.
Brian Clough, the Forest manager, didnâ€™t attend any of the matches. He usually knew what he was doing, did Cloughie.
Dedicated to Kevin Lowe a young lad who never failed to make me smile. God bless x