I stayed the night in Bristol before the Blades played their first game after the international break. Preparing for all weather events, I packed sunglasses, a yellow Pac-A-Mac and a bagful of hope.
I left the Bristolian ‘Air Bed and Breakfast’ (which didn’t include any) with thoughts of dry, cloudy cider, hearty British grub and apple-based dessert, but this was not the Thatcher’s Advert-town that I remember.
As I walked through the drizzle, I was approached by a bloke who asked me a question with all the politeness of a man with two shoes. “You got any spice?” he inquired. I tapped at my Pac-a-mac as if he’d asked for change, my hand landing on a tubular packet in my left pocket and without thinking, I handed them to him.
He gave me a quizzical look and went on his way, spelling out the letters on the side of the pack: T-O-F…Coutts almighty! I’d given him a packet of decades old Toffos! As I wandered on in search of a pub, jealousy flowed through me like a Norwood through ball.
I managed to find a decent cider at a nearby gastro eatery and in contrast with the accompanying messy platter (which was, I stress, recommended to me by the waiter) it slipped down easier than Jack Grealish under gravity.
Once I’d overpaid, I walked briskly back to the Air Bed ‘n’ Breakfast with my pac-a-mac hood pulled up, deflecting thick beads of rain. I heard a cafuffle up ahead, bawling. ‘I wanna pop it’, someone cried out. I lifted my hood and there was no balloon to be seen – what else do you pop? – instead, the one shoed fella from earlier was stood in front of me, with a woman of similar circumstances. ‘What are you looking at?’ he said.
They were arguing. One of them wanted to pop the menthol pearl inside the filter of a cigarette, the other steadfastly did not. ‘I don’t like menthol’, the bloke shouted in the face of opposite retorts.
The fracas ended in soap opera style when, stretching to snatch the cig from the others hand, the fag was dropped, landing in a muddy puddle. ‘Shit,’ they chorused. All of that clowning around for a soggy ciggy; a sorry sight but a sterling duel.
With no breakfast to be had and only bare cupboards, I headed to the neaerst shop. It had a hippy vibe, stocking fresh fruit and veg, The Socialist Weekly, seeds of all varities, yoghurt covered raisins, yoghurt covereed nuts, yoghurts. I inquired as to the price of a robust ‘Farmhouse Sourdough loaf’ and was told, ‘five pounds’ without so much as a punchline.
Forgoing the Sourdough, I found a Happy Shopper and mildly enjoyed four boxes from a Kellog’s Varity Pack with semi skimmed milk. This was not a breakfast of Champions.
This was the Championship, the Blades versus Bristol in litmus test game for the Blades.
I decided to head for my seats a little earlier than normal and found myself queuing with twenty minutes to spare. And there, I saw him…
The tormentor of my youth, the bloke I’d spent my entire life avoiding after years of hard knocks and soft tissue injuries; the lamentable Colin Smythe. His son too, Colin Jnr, which I only discerned from the drunken howls of his father.
How did it come to pass that I would be sat directly in front of Smythe? Something more than fate I’m sure. I managed to hide my face by pulling up my hood, like Abbeydale Grange 1994 all over again.
I met him on the first day of secondary school. My parents had left me by the gates hours too early and I tried latching onto Colin who ended up being at best, an imaginary friend, at worst, a vile bully.
As the Blades started strongly and dictated the tempo early on, all I wanted was to enjoy the game, which meant necessarily the disappearance of Colin Smythe quicker than Dean Hammond.
The host of wasted opportunities, mostly courtesy of David McGoldrick, were less vexatious than the lewd, balmy ramblings of Smythe Jnr and Snr. We should’ve scored and I should’ve left for pastures new but paralysis set in when I caught them talking about me, ‘what’s soft lad doing with a hood on?’
I managed to escape at half time, they had left early to get ‘a Coke’ – wink. But I see them through the crowd, in a tight circle with a couple of other mates. I heard a loud crack. Then suddenly, Snr has a ballon In his hand, then at his mouth. The clown.
He set about the balloon with deep exhales, giving to it the kiss of life and seemingly seeding his own coddled ambrosia. Pulling away, his lips were tinged with blue, his eyes vacant like a Blockbusters shopfront, his legs clearly weak underneath him.
As I attempted to hurry past them to find myself a new seat, he listed towards me and clutched at my left hand, which held a sausage roll, and then my right hand, which did not.
He looked into my eyes, failing to recognise me fully, but recognising me enough for the spaced-out cogs to whir. His face contorted, like mine used to before a good honest hiding. He was hunched double, his mates falling around laughing as he pulled himself up by my yellow coat toggles, dribbling and speaking in tongues.
What was this all about? Was he still acting the clown, or was this some contemporary expression of excitement that I am too nerdy to understand? I didn’t hang about to think, I gave Colin a final glance as if to say, ‘I’ve always despised you and I don’t think I can over stop doing that but for now can I just watch the sodding football’, and hotfooted it to the other side of the concourse to find a bit of peace in a new seat.
It was only a peace of sorts. Bristol City looked a much better outfit in the second half. They changed their shape and tweaked their system, unraveling the solid work we’d done in the first half. Where we had looked dangerous, we now looked fragile.
At least I’d kept the sausage rolls in tact.
One bloody goal. One. Bloody. Goal. In fairness, it had been coming. They are a good side these and they looked good leading up to it. I can’t complain, we’ve played well, played solid passing football that could’ve won us the game. We just weren’t clinical enough, but we were never feckless even if we were, categorically, Fleckless.
I saw them again, outside the station entrance. Smythe Snr chucking up into the recycling compartment of a litter bin, Smyhte Jnr lolloping next to him. You can’t recycle bile, I thought to myself.
As I watched on, the homeless bloke from the day before wandered up to him. ‘Your disgusting,’ he tells the Smythes. In response, Snr whirls around, knocks his head on the bin and vomits onto his sons shoes.
The bloke carries on towards my direction. Upon seeing me he said, ‘fucking ‘ell mate, them Toffos were amazing, got any more?’
I explained how they’d been decommissioned in years ago, never to return. He looked sad for a moment and then pottered off, his previously bare foot now covered with a Reebok classic.
The train pulled into Sheffield. I couldn’t help but think of this weekend with a heavy heart: a chastening defeat, a confrontation with an old foe and guilt-inducing interactions with a homeless man.
I know how lucky I am. And I know never to judge a book by its cover, even one with a shoe missing. Well…there are exceptions: the Smythes, if they were a book, would be something recommended by Richard Madely or a Jeremy Clarkson biography. Judge those as you will.
The Blades performance, as a book, would be The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists; definitely points in there but they could be more effectively made. We’ll get there though, with Wilder in charge and Fleck and Coutts up an running we’ll be the veritable Love on the Dole of the Championship in no time.
Man of the Match
The holy book, Paul Coutts.