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Tuesday, 4 September 2007


Wednesday 17th October, 1973: England 1 (Clarke [pen]), Poland 1 (Domarsky)

Salford: "Them was rotten days". (This wonderful photo by Mark Pilkington used non-commercially under Creative Commons license and with thanks)

The wonders of the age of Google...

I'm trying to research Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads in the hope of validating the claims my memory is making that the famous No Hiding Place episode was shown as part of the build up to this game. It turns out to have been originally broadcast on Tuesday 20th February, 1973, so probably my recollection is at fault; although it's true that the programme may have been repeated in an attempt to steady the nation's nerves. More to the point, the game was shown on ITV (they'd paid £50,000 for the rights - I looked it up). So, unless some sense of impending national humiliation had brought about an unprecedented degree of bipartisan co-operation between the rival broadcasters, I'll just have to assume that my memory is wrong. The matter still unresolved, I'm intrigued by the title of one of the links at the bottom of the screen so I click on it. It turns out that When Things Were Rotten is merely the next title in the BBC database's alphabetically arranged hall of comedy fame. It was a TV comedy; Mel Brooks' first stab at a Sherwood Forest spoof, by all accounts. Unfortunately, it didn't exhaust its subject matter sufficiently so as to have obviated the need for Robin Hood: Men in Tights, but it would be curmudgeonly in the extreme not to accept that it's still a rather brilliant title.

I'm reminded by it of the grafitti that cropped up recently on Andrew Marr's History of Modern Britain; "Them was rotten days", scrawled across a wall. Whether by balaclavaed Provo or patch-pocketed football hooligan, it didn't seem to matter much; it just summed up the time, and all those rotten, rotten days. I'd assumed that there was some folkloric explanation for the phrase - and there is, I suppose if you count modern popular culture as the folklore of tomorrow. To the best of my knowledge, it's a saying that belongs to the fictional Nottingham of Saturday Night & Sunday Morning and the Salford of The Queen is Dead rather than being a commonly used, everyday one. Arthur Seaton's Aunt Ada, played by Hylda Baker, spits it out and her very words are etched into the run-off of the Smiths' 1986 LP. So that is, I'm sure, a relatively recent daubing by a Smiths fan of a line from a screenplay and a song and not some spontaneously sprayed agit. prop., or anti-British curse. But it still rings true; they were. And they weren't. Them days. Rotten, that is.

And one day was perhaps the most rotten of them all; Wednesday 13th October, 1973. The OPEC crisis and England's one-all draw with Poland landed on us with all the force of some karmic, cultural and political double whammy. If the oil embargo that would kill off what was left of the nineteen sixties, came as an unforeseen uppercut that rocked us on our heels, then the stiff Polish resistance to the massed ranks of Sir Alf Ramsay's strikers was the steadily aimed left hook that brutally finished us off. 'Sniffer' Clarke, who had broken my heart the year before at Wembley, scored the penalty that gave us hope. But the Poles held firm. No Banks, no Moore, no Stiles, no Charlton; England had lost its spine.

You need a strong spine. In football, that means an experienced or exceptionally capable player at each of the key positions moving up the vertebrae of the side - goalkeeper, centre half, central midfield and centre forward. Books need a good spine too - and not just the sort that holds the glue that keep the things together physically - I mean in the traditional beginning, middle and ending kind of way. And so, increasingly, does the memory. Fixture lists and discographies have become my spine. So when, for instance, I think of 1973, the obvious point of reference for me is October 17th of that year, because I know that England drew with Poland that day and couldn't score for trying that one solitary extra goal that would take them to the World Cup finals. Just as, when I think of 1986, I go back to that Thursday afternoon when I walked home from Richmond clutching a precious green square of cardboard, inside it a treasured disc of vinyl and the legend "them was rotten days". Or three days later, on that Sunday, the 22nd, when I watched two Maradonna goals, one foul, one the fairest of them all, once again leave England sickened. Another rotten day.

Without those dates, I'm lost. Other times close by to them encroach and blur the image of the precise time that I want to see; the mind's double exposures can confuse. So that Netzer and Domarski, Lato and Muller all combine, play in the same game on the same pitch, in the same strip - red or green - at roughly the same time. It all blurs into one, otherwise. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why "telling stories is telling lies"; we simply can't keep the truth contained, isolate one moment from the tales the other times are telling. But that said, certain things do happen, on certain days and are documented thus and these can help us, when we grope our way, near blind, uncertainly through history, through time. Maradonna's power and grace destroying England won't happen on any other day that June, or in any other year. Some records do prove true, some facts can't be made to lie. We may argue as to the why, but at least not as to when and where things happened or did not. Fixture lists, discographies, charts and league tables. I really would be lost without them, June become September, nineteen-eighty, eighty-three.

Them was rotten days when things were rotten.

In my memory at least, they were. In my mind, watching Steptoe and Son felt more like watching something verite than situations filmed inside a studio. There still were a few totters about, even after that show's run came to an end. I'd hear one from my bedroom, calling out that eerie, bygone cry, and the out of kilter clip-clop of his bedraggled Hercules. And then there was next door. We called it Steptoe's yard; Mr. Martin (Billy Wilder) and his millenarian stockpiling of every last decaying timber, every pot and glass or paint can he could find, racked up in the gaps between the rows of peas and beans. It was more allotment or wrecking yard than garden. He too worked at Hawkers, but on the other side from George. Churchill had him put under surveilance during World War II. A union activist in a sector vital to the military; a stirrer, a trouble maker, a fifth columnist at the heart of the war effort; "a whited sepulchre in our midst". "Red" Roly Martin, they'd called him, but I found this out too late. I'd mistaken his sullenness for sourness, his dejection for distain. Now I see that he wasn't just some hard-bitten old bastard, perhaps; just another beaten man. And that October day would sew the seeds of my rebellion. I would store up this defeat and one day join his disaffected ranks; turn my back on my own country, renounce the sovereignty of my Queen. But that was later, I still had faith in England for now. But how I wish I'd had the chance to ask him more, to learn some more about defeat.

And this is where it all gets hazy, the phases of one's life begin to blur. In my mind I'd lumped in England's Wembley despair with broader national events. True, the OPEC Crisis began the day of, or perhaps the day before the game. But I remember power cuts being quite a regular thing. The three day week was later, early 1974, the normal working week was not restored until 8th March the following year. At least, according to Google, with its reassuring handrail of calenders and facts. But now, with time, it all feels of a piece. In truth, those nights that felt like wartime, with their cricket from down-under on the wireless, the candles shedding their unruly light, a phantasmagoric riot running nimbly around the walls; they could have happened anytime. Or perhaps it's just an appealing mood, the politely grim nostalgia of one who doesn't know they're born. Something I've clung on to to make that time my own. But everything did feel different then; was it me, or was it time?

Them was rotten days when things were rotten.

And yet they weren't. We had the big England games live, could watch at home on TV, no need for pubs with Sky. Two highlights shows each weekend; The Big Match as well as Match of the Day. Brian Clough, Malcolm Allison; pundits who'd actually row. The whole place felt more feisty, more honest in a way. The Likely Lads themselves appeared to be less a sitcom than a dialectic being played out on your TV screen; Bob, upwardly mobile, getting on; the other, Terry, mired in the past. Pig happy there as well. A prime time Mark E. Smith, only well before the Fall. That show seems to catch the moment, the gyres in mid-shift. The transistion of England from forward thrusting industrial dynamo to backward-looking wretch is captured nowhere more eloquently than in the lyrics of Mike Hugg and Ian le Frenais' theme song:

Tomorrow's almost over
Today went by so fast
And the only thing to look forward to;
The past...

Clarke/Collier/E. Smith: the apotheosis of the working man.

It depends what you want, I guess. There was less then, but wasn't what we did have not a little better? I can't recall too many television characters as popular and enduring as the Steptoes and the Likely Lads, few since have seemed as real as them, have seemed so on the money or summed things up so well. And how prescient is No Hiding Place? It must have been filmed a good year or so before the England v. Poland game, but it's as if they had already read the runes. England played just such a tough away game, in Chorzow, Poland, on 6th June that same year. Bobby Moore, the golden haired emblem of English insuperability, had a stinker and was at fault for both their goals. I watched it through the snowstorm of the primitive satelite link. There was no heavy pitch, no deluge, although the players may well have trudged off to drown their sorrows in bottles of communist state-owned brown ale. But if you'd tried like Bob and Terry to evade the score and watch the highlights, you'd have felt precisely the same sense of anxiety as to how the game would end. Just as some still trot out Terry's reflex bigotries as their old certainties recede. Then, in real England, watching as our players failed out there in the real soviet bloc, we could have done with the apocalyptic downpour that eventually postponed that fictitious England game, postponing the probable defeat. Putting it off until October, when the whole damned thing would cave in on our heads for real. It's a canny nerve to hit, is football, if you wish to sum up national decline. England always lets you down, you see. As we found out that night. As I'm sure it will again.

L.U.V. on y'all,


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  1. My dad hated Alan Clarke more than any other player. A "goal hanger" and a "fanny". I wonder if MES has ever been called either of those?

    I remember the night of the clown, isolated like the moon landing, but I only remember the Likely Lads episode from the repeats. And the three day week is there somewhere but I just can't bring it up. Maybe when I'm in my dotage it'll all become clear.

  2. I always liked Clarke a lot, Geoff. Muller and Fowler too, just natural goalscorers.

    I googled England v. Poland 1973 btw and your telly blog review of the game came up about third on the list! It was better than the FAs report too...

    Up the Irons!