Football / Fan's Eye View: A taste of vintage Port: No. 33 - Southport

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The Independent Online
IT'S been a long time, 20 years exactly, since things were like this at Haig Avenue. Young mothers, children abed, sit in quiet Southport kitchens perusing the Sandgrounders' remaining fixtures. Tea gone cold, and Biro in hand, Pam Hitchcock has worked out the team will get 94 points. More than enough, she reckons.

Yes, indeed, 20 years since The Port topped any league at the end of the season. Then, in the days of Fryatt, Provan, Sibbald and McPhee, it was the Fourth Division. Red Rum did a lap of honour round the pitch at half-time on the final day of season.

A tenner spent in the club shop will buy you the commemorative 'Vintage Port' T-shirt, squad on the front with mutton-chop sideburns, all grinning, final League table on the back.

These days, it is the HFS Loans League Premier Division. Next up, the Vauxhall Conference. One team go up. Port are top, well clear of second-placed Morecambe, who have a game in hand.

Until recently Haig Avenue was a wide, windswept acre loomed over by a 2,500-seater cantilever stand - the only relic from the days when Elton John would arrive by helicopter to watch Watford. My beloved Brick End. Yards on yards of eroded concrete and army-green, corrugated-iron shedding behind the Scarisbrick New Road End goal. All ripped down, unsafe.

Trauma over, it was all pretty mundane stuff during the 1980s. Seasons, players, Andy Mutch, Shaun Teale, came and went. Then, spiced by the 4-1 HFS league cup final win over Buxton at Maine Road in 1991, things bucked up. The chairman, Charles Clapham, was sound, club in the black. The manager, Brian Kettle, down to earth and piecing together a durable squad.

Last season, sixth place and a 20- match unbeaten run at home. Now, it's almost April and there is a tingle in the gut. The post- match beers, once grim and self- depreciating, are now lashed down between sentences cast into an animated babble. Some 200 crowd the club bar. That number barely passed through the turnstiles four years ago.

Pam Hitchcock, married to the amiable programme editor and telephone 'Portline' compere, Derek, has got her predictions sorted. All things considered, 94 points. I say: 'Teams have had leads like this and still lost it on the last day.' 'Oh no,' Pam says. 'Don't say that. Don't say that.'

On the clubhouse wall are the ground redevelopment plans. A new Brick End. Work has started on new terracing, the grass, sleepers and cinders ploughed flat.

Away from the bulldozed spaces of Haig Avenue, the team's form is unnervingly good. More than 50 goals scored away in the league alone. All this and a run to the second round of the FA Cup.

They have it in their own hands now. Kevin, Spreader, Mooresy, Fuller, Chivers, Leroy and the rest. After the match, necks crane to get the TV teleprinter results. Who did what? And where does that put us?

Gentle self-mockery has turned into hunger for victory. At Accrington Stanley, on a cold mid-January night, Port were 2-1 up deep into injury time. The ball is whacked into the area, where the Stanley striker, Paul Beck, gives it the 'hand of God'. Blatant punch. The referee, ignoring a linesman, gives the goal. Pandemonium. The keeper, Paul Moore, is apoplectic and is sent off. 2-2. Two points gone. Port kick off and time is blown.

The travelling fans are boiling. Later, Beck admits he punched the ball in. Three days later Port descend on second-placed Frickley and win 5-2. 'Fury spurs Sandgrounders to victory' says the Liverpool Echo headline.

Just give us victories, Lord. No Fancy Dan stuff, no four-nillers unless it's appropriate. Just three points and no injuries. We all want our dreams back.

Mark Thomas, Contributor to Southport's match-day programme

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