TIM BALDWIN is back with a heartfelt collection of memories of his beloved grandfather in the next part of our ‘What football means to me’ series.
I throw a couple of extra toms in the bag and give the old girl a wink. They’re past their best and on the verge of going manky, but she don’t know that. Fry ‘em and they’ll be fine.
“There you go darlin’! One for luck! You take care now. You look after yourself sweetheart. See you soon.”
I’m in my element here; king of the Croydon market cobbles. Started grafting here when I left school, been in the fruit and veg trade ever since; man and boy. Done alright for myself. Could have had an easier life but who wants to be sat about all day?
Patrick “Baw” Burke, my grandad, got me my first job as a barrow boy in the streets of Croydon here way back when. I’d help him all week with his stall on Surrey Street, sweeping up and weighing in, and then when Saturday came it was time for a little release. If he’d done alright he would head to a match. If I’d done alright for him I went too. He always made me pay my way; said it was important I learnt the value of money. “The value is written on the bloody notes and coins” I used to think to myself. If it had been a real touch of a week and Baw was flush, we would stop into the pub beforehand and I’d be allowed a couple of halves. “That’ll put hairs on your chest boy” he used to say. He wasn’t wrong. Gave me hair in other places an’ all.
The turnstile clicking as I enter a ground still makes the hair on the back of my neck prickle. Well I remember being shoved through them with Baw behind me, immaculately dressed, his iron grip on my shoulder, pushing me along faster than the turnstile flow. More often than not I ended up being spat out by the collapse of the iron bar, and stumbling to catch me stride. I’m sure on occasion I heard him stifle his laughter. The rotten bastard. That was how it was with us; always playing tricks on each other, always taking the piss.
Baw (we all called him that; never Grandad) was Irish and the first of the family to leave home in search of work. Before starting on the markets he’d worked as a labourer on the roads of South London, even helping build the Croydon Flyover during the 60s. He never had any loyalty to a particular team, which in a way was spot on; I’d get taken to games all around London and beyond. “Groundhopping” they call it now, but he just liked having a wander and stretching his legs. My old man wasn’t around much when I was a kid: “Your daddy is working away again”, my dear old mum used to say, referring to bird as if it were missionary work. What she meant was he’d been caught on the thieve again. He always did have sticky fingers.
Not wanting to see his daughter struggle alone, I think at first Baw used to take me to the match more out of a sense of duty than anything else; he felt it was important I had a strong role model to look up to. A firm man who didn’t take any prisoners, a man who commanded respect, but he was also a kind, decent man.
“You listen to me you”, he used to say. “You look after your mother when I’m gone. You only get one mother in this life. Don’t you be acting the maggot all over town and upsetting her, d’ya hear me?” How ridiculous it all sounded. Baw wasn’t going anywhere?
The years rolled on, and the same routine stayed in place, although his grip on my shoulder as we entered a ground felt lighter. Older now, I’d smoke and drink with him in the pub before the game. We became equals. At work he was still very much the gaffer, but on Saturday afternoons we were more like mates than relatives. We went all over the county, often visiting my aunts and uncles in Liverpool and Manchester as an excuse to get a game in up there. If Baw did have a soft spot for a particular club then it was Manchester United. His smile always seemed that bit broader, his cheering always that bit louder when we watched the Reds play.
My Uncle Mick, a builder, lived there and right up until his death in Trafford, right under the shadow of the famous stadium. We would stay at his house after the game, drinking and singing and making fools of ourselves. Later in the evening Baw and Mick would tell stories of banshees and ghosts, and times long gone. They weren’t either happy or sad stories; they were both at once. I didn’t understand that back then. I hadn’t experienced the loss they had, but I understand now what they were feeling; I understand real loss and the bittersweet recollections of loved ones.
Fast forward a few years and Baw could no longer manage the demands of the market. It’s a young man’s game If truth be told, and he had come into it late in life. He’d been determined to be his own boss; his own man. No more masters. I took over the daily running of the stall, and as the years rolled on, more and more it felt like we were switching roles. Where I had once stood as a hapless 14-year-old, wet behind the ears and with scabby knees, he now stood looking tired and vulnerable.
I’d long since started to go to games on my own now, usually with the lads; the match becoming more something to base a day on the sauce around, but occasionally we would still go to games together. The same routine as we entered the ground, but by now I could hardly feel his grip on my shoulder. I had to stop and turn as we shuffled through the turnstiles to make sure he was still there, and he always was, and he always flashed that smile of his, until one day he wasn’t there. Suddenly; he weren’t there anymore. My world fell apart.
These days it’s me who sits and tells the stories of home, and ghosts, and times long gone. These days I place my hand on the shoulder of my grandson as we enter the ground; my grip still has plenty of strength left in it yet, you mark my words! I still feel Baw’s grip though after all these years. I always turn and smile to him as I shuffle through the turnstile, and I hear him stifle his laugh.
This piece is dedicated to Patrick “Baw” Burke.