How hanging about team buses and car parks can purify the air

Mike Rowbottom on autograph hunters
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The Independent Online
The away team bus is where you will find them after football matches. Out come the players, their hair still damp from the showers, and as they board the bus the eager requests start.

Or you can find them by the gates of the home players' car park, chatting to the commissionaire - "Les been through yet?..yeah?..What about Sol?" - until a BMW or a Saab glides up to the exit with a familiar face behind the wheel. A knot of supplicants slows the saloon's progress; excitement stirs as the driver's window slides - automatically - down.

Autograph hunters. It's a curious name for them, as they are invariably the reverse of hostile. More like potential victims, in fact, putting themselves on the line, half hopeful, half fearful of being shunned or ignored.

As a reporter, you seek different things from sporting protagonists - a comment, a line, a reaction. When deadlines loom, it is tempting to regard those desperately proferring pens and paper to the subject of your enquiries as an irksome intrusion.

Pur-lease! We are pro-fessionals! Can't you see we have a job to do? Kindly stand aside!

Linford Christie, I swear, used to delight in choosing such moments to address every request with the utmost diligence, knowing he was making the Fourth Estate sweat on their edition times. But I digress.

Inconvenient as the seekers after autographs may be to we seekers after truth, they are ignored at the peril of any sport - or, by extension, those who write about it. Like plants, they purify the air.

I have a programme for the 1973 Amateur Athletic Association Championships which were held at Crystal Palace. On it are several names which will always be associated with particular memories of that Saturday.

Andy Carter - caught him on the back straight after he had broken the British 800m record. Big smile. David Jenkins - found him clambering up the steps of the main stand. Brisk, bright, friendly. Alan Pascoe - got him as he was putting on his tracksuit. He nearly fell and did himself an injury as he balanced my programme on one knee. "Olympic star's career ended by the stroke of a pen... tragic accident robs British athletics of top hurdler".

I also carry another memory of that sunny afternoon. Strolling around the outside of the arena, I noticed Geoff Capes, Britain's fearsome shot- putter, talking to someone who I now realise must have been from the Press. I waited at a distance for about five minutes until the giant policeman was alone. "Excuse me, Geoff," I said. "Can I have your autograph please?" I couldn't. "You've got to pay for that now, son," he said, walking away.

In one moment my love for the sport of athletics was destroyed; I walked from that stadium broken and distraught.

All right, it wasn't as bad as that. But it mattered to me at the time, and I felt the humiliation every autograph seeker sometimes finds.

I had made my first sortie into the world of fandom a few years earlier by writing to Martin Peters. To be more specific, I sent him a 16 stanza - well, let's be kind to an 11-year-old and call it verse.

The idea was that Peters was the sole survivor of a West Ham injury crisis, and was thus obliged to take on the champions of the era, Leeds, on his own. "The left foot passes to right foot, he's off and away he goes, the interpassing of his feet bamboozles the others so..."

I think you can guess the rest.

By return, I got the poster torn from Goal magazine which I had sent him to sign.

It said: "Best wishes, Martin Peters." I was thrilled.

Looking at the envelope, I saw it had been posted at 12.30 in Romford. Perhaps he had put it into the pillar box himself? No, probably he'd got someone to do that for him. But the signature - blue ink, down in the left hand corner - that was his. Martin Peters had looked at this poster. Martin Peters had touched this poster. Wait until I tell them at school.

In April of last year, a journalistic assignment took me to Leamington Spa - no, really - and I had the opportunity of meeting the man whose timeless classic of 1969, Goals From Nowhere, was my set text of the time. "Go on, my son," I'm shouting as the boys come running up, all shouting and jumping on me. The crowd's gone potty. Must have looked great.

As Peters - greyer now, but still with that trademark side parting - paused in the lobby of the hall where he had been speaking, I felt myself stepping out and away from my professionally present self like Patrick Swayze in Ghost. From man to fan.

Words came out of my mouth in keeping with the tentative traditions of fandom. "Excuse me, Martin. Would you mind signing this?"

It said "Best wishes, Martin Peters." I was thrilled.

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