A snapshot of Summerisle and the Wicker Man

wblog2

IT never ceases to amaze me how events in life intertwine and return when you least expect it.

And more than once a movie has been the catalyst – read my blog post There’s no exit in any direction… except the one that you can’t see with your eyes if there is any doubt!

But this tale is more straightforward…

I worked at the Galloway Gazette in Newton Stewart as deputy editor between 1992 and 1994. I returned to the paper as editor between 1998 and 1999.

During my first stint at the newspaper – a weekly broadsheet which covers the Machars, the Rhins of Galloway, parts of Kirkcudbrightshire and everything between – we would run a weekly 20 Years Ago feature which would feature news snippits from past editions.

While researching for one issue during late 1992, I came across two issues of our paper from 1972 which featured articles on the filming of the classic British horror movie The Wicker Man.

I was rather gobsmacked, as until that time I had always assumed (wrongly) that the movie had been filmed on Skye or Harris, or one of the other Hebridean islands off the west coast of Scotland.

I had watched The Wicker Man on release at the Odeon cinema in Worthing as a teenager, back in 1973 (on a double bill with Don’t Look Now) and it had always stayed with me.

The movie’s story, inspired by David Pinner’s 1967 novel Ritual, centres on the visit of Police Sergeant Neil Howie to the isolated Scottish island of Summerisle, in search of a missing girl.

Howie, a devout Christian, is appalled to find that the inhabitants of the island have abandoned Christianity and now practise a form of Celtic paganism.

The film’s denouement is shocking, as is the manner of Sgt Howie’s death.

Anyway, my discovery of the back issues of the Gazette also stayed with me.

So when I returned as editor in March 1998, I decided to do a bit of digging. I was curious and wanted to find out more about the making of this amazing film.

The darkroom at the paper’s offices in Newton Stewart was antiquated (this is still before digital photography) and had negatives stored in old Kodak boxes in stacks under wooden benches.

Some of the negs went back to the mid-1960s and were kept in decaying parchment envelopes.

Anyway, after one dusty Saturday morning I found a box with about 70 negatives from the filming/making of The Wicker Man movie.

The negatives looked pristine and by holding a few up to a light I could see they were crystal clear. Was that really Britt Ekland – who played the landlord’s daughter Willow in the move – I was looking at in the town’s high street!

All of these pictures had been taken by our old photographer John McEwan, a loyal servant of the paper for more than 30 years, but now retired.

Newspapers didn’t make contact prints, as they were too costly and time consuming for editors, who had to deal with scores of photos each week. Instead we simply viewed negatives on a light box on our desk then instructed the photographer on which prints we needed.

So most of the negatives had never been made into prints before and John was an amazing snapper.

Although retired, John still popped in for the odd freelance job. By the time he next came into the office, my then photographer Peter Foster, had made some brilliant black and white prints of about two dozen of his Wicker Man photos.

John was amazed that the negs still existed and sat down over a coffee and explained where each photo was taken.

He also told me that Britt Ekland caused a bit of a stir in the town when she stayed at one of the local pub/hotels and after two nights moved out, complaining about the standard of the place!

Apparently by contrast her fellow stars Christopher Lee (Lord Summerisle) and Edward Woodward (police Sgt Howie) were absolute charmers!

I then realised that we were sitting on the makings of a brilliant 25th anniversary feature for my newspaper.

A few evenings later I showed the prints to a good friend (whose family had farmed near Whithorn for generations) who regaled me about the making of the movie and his childhood memories of local kids being involved in some of the scenes.

He even took me to the site near the Isle of Whithorn at the southern end of the Machars and showed me the burned out rotten stumps of where the Wicker Man had once stood.

I returned to the office and tasked my young reporter Kat Dearden to put together a special feature for our paper.

I envisaged a double page spread, but by the time Kat had finished (one of her jobs was to return to the location of each scene in the movie with our photographer and do a ‘then and now’ picture) we had enough to run over six pages of broadsheet.

And so that is how we came to run a three week double pages feature on The Wicker Man. The series was published on 4th, 18th and 25th December 1998 in the Galloway Gazette and covered every aspect of the making of the film.

As part of that feature, Kat interviewed the movie’s director Robin Hardy and Britt Ekland’s agent and spoke with many local people who had been extras in the filming.

I put in a request for an interview with Edward Woodward and was gobsmacked when a few days later he suddenly returned my call.

I happened to mention at the start of the interview that he had been evacuated during World War 2 to the same primary school in Lancing in Sussex, as my mother and she remembered him well. He didn’t remember my mum, but remembered the school and his time in Lancing. It broke the ice and we chatted for more than 40 minutes about his time in Galloway, the incessant rain, and the making of the movie.

My full interview featured as part of the series.

I actually had a huge job convincing my managing director (and owner of the paper) Iain Brown to let me run a three week feature, which would take up valuable advertising space.

“No one remembers that small film,” he said. “It would bore readers”. His attitude surprised me as he was also chairman of the local community cinema!

Anyway, eventually Iain relented and let me go-ahead. Back in 1998, The Wicker Man only had a small cult following, so I guess it was a bit of  a gamble as to whether readers would be interested in something which had happened 25 years earlier.

But the reaction to our feature series was immense with scores of readers’ letters and even requests from the USA for copies of our paper. Kat went on to win Scottish Weekly Journalist of the Year, largely on the back of that feature.

There was then a piece of bizarre irony.

Within five years, for no obvious reason, The Wicker Man went from being a small cult movie into a world-wide phenomenon, even spawning the annual Wickerman music festival.

It was as if the movie suddenly gained a new life.

In 2011, a spiritual sequel entitled The Wicker Tree was released. This film was also directed by Hardy, and featured Christopher Lee in a cameo appearance. Hardy was working on his next film, The Wrath of the Gods, which would have completed The Wicker Man Trilogy, at the time of his death in July 2016.

In 2004, Total Film magazine named The Wicker Man the sixth greatest British film of all time; and during the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony the film was included as part of a sequence that celebrated British cinema.

In 2013, a copy of the original US theatrical version was digitally restored and released.

Anyway, I left the Galloway Gazette in mid-1999 with about 16 wonderful prints of the making of The Wicker Man.

I also had copies of each edition of the paper while I was editor.

Sadly, over the years most of the prints and copies of the paper were lost or sold.

Then last year, after moving house I found a few surviving prints. These are the ones I feature here for any reader’s amusement or interest.

  • The two photographs of the Wicker Man under construction, were taken at the filming location near the Isle of Whithorn in the Machars.
  • The two photographs of Edward Woodward (Sgt Howie) and Christopher Lee (Lord Summerisle) were taken in the grounds of Culzean Castle in south Ayrshire and at Logan Botanical Gardens near Stranraer.
  • The photograph of Edward Woodward (Sgt Howie) in a boat was taken in Loch Ryan off the west pier, Stranraer.

One day I will return to the Machars and relive my small journey in the history of The Wicker Man.

 

 

Academies – another brick in the wall of privatisation

In the not-so-sleepy seaside resort of Hastings the parents are angry.

Not just kiss-me-quick hat or candy floss angry… they are absolutely furious.

They are waging a war against education overlords which promises to match a similar battle fought here 950 years ago.

This time the victims won’t be Saxon warriors… but small children.

The board of governors of Castledown Primary School wants their 400 pupil school to become an academy by September 2017.

They claim the school is failing by virtue of its recent SAT results, while failing to recognise its long held excellent reputation for music and the arts.

Now parents have formed a Hands Off Castledown group to fight the plans, which many see as a backdoor to privatisation and cherry picking of elite academic pupils.

In January, Castledown formally announced its intention to join the Ark Academy Trust. But parents, teachers and local residents were only told of the decision via a letter explaining a six week consultation period. And there have been no consultations on any alternatives to Ark or academisation.

The Ark group already runs several other schools in the Hastings area. Nationally it had an income of £21.9 million and assets of £31.3 million in the year ending August 2015 – the last year for which full accounts are available.

Its income and assets are increasing by about £2.5 million a year.

Richard Sage, chairman of governors at Castledown, said the governors decided after meetings with various trusts that Ark was best for the school.

“We felt it was important to move rapidly to ensure the school is delivering the highest possible quality education for Castledown pupils as soon as possible,” he said.

Castledown is in the bottom 10% of schools for 2016 SATS exam results.

But according to Hands Off Castledown, results were poor because the 2014 curriculum was implemented two years too late. Pupils sitting the exams in 2016 had not received up-to-date teaching.

Additionally, the previous Ofsted report in 2013 marked the school as Good.

Hands Off Castledown says it has spoken to parents who removed their children from other Ark academies because of its history of imposing restrictive and regimental behaviour policies, which many believe are not suitable for young children.

On 15 February, Hastings Borough Council gave its full backing to the Hands Off Castledown campaign.

Council leader Peter Chowney put forward a motion to the full council which said: “We believe by taking schools out of local authority control, and reducing the powers and responsibilities of governing boards, educational performances are not necessarily improved and a less rewarding educational experience for students can be created through a narrower curriculum.

“There are now currently only two schools left in Hastings that have not converted to academies, and at one of these, Castledown Primary, there is now a proposal to convert this school to an academy too.

“This council therefore supports parents in their campaign to oppose the academisation of Castledown without any alternatives being presented, and calls for the current plans to be to be halted immediately so that parents, governors, staff, and other stakeholders can explore all possible options to improve standards and effectiveness of teaching at the school.”

The motion was carried unanimously.

Councillor Tania Charman even suggested the school governors should resign.

“They oversaw Castledown’s decline,” she said, “So should not decide its future.”

Campaigner Louise Hersee has delivered a petition of over 1,000 signatures to East Sussex County Council, opposing the academisation.

Hands Off Castledown is simply calling for a halt to this consultation with Ark, in order for every stakeholder group to have a proper discussion about the school’s rapid decline and then to look at all the alternative solutions available,” she said.

“This is extremely reasonable and justified.

“All over the country schools are turning into academies, and all over the country parents are wondering why this is happening.

“Here in Hastings we believe that Ark Schools is a bad fit for Castledown and that there are other options!”

Nationally, the imposition of academy status on many supposedly “failing schools” has been met with similar outrage and opposition as that currently evident in Hastings.

Many believe that academies are part of a Conservative government mantra to introduce privatisation and “grammar school type” selection on state schools.

They point to the profit margins of many academy trusts and the salaries paid to their headteachers.

One head of a primary academy chain took home a salary in excess of £200,000, after being handed a massive pay rise.

Sir Greg Martin, executive head of Durand Academy in Stockwell, south London, saw his salary rise by 56 per cent to a total of £200,822 – due to the fact he runs several schools.

He also received £28,316 in pension contributions, which took his overall remuneration package to £229,138.

Sir Greg – who is planning a boarding school in the Sussex countryside – also earned a further £160,000 from a company set up to run the school’s sports and fitness centre last year.

This is more than the Prime Minister and many city bankers.

Last year delegates at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers conference in Liverpool, heard that growing numbers of heads were now also earning more than the Prime Minister’s salary of £149,440 a year.

“When schools were under local council control, it would have been unthinkable as well as impossible that a headteacher, of even a group of schools, could earn more than a director of education, let alone the Secretary of State for Education, let alone the Prime Minister,” Simon Clarkson from Leicestershire told the conference.

“We need to guard against the rot of greed. Executive headteachers and headteachers have looked at their budgets and I am afraid some have decided to pay themselves excessive salaries.”

Figures showed that in 2015, a total of 41 heads were earning more than £142,000 a year.

Mr Clarkson said: “Our state schools are paid for by the public. They need to be accountable. When I started teaching, especially in the state sector, there was little or no corruption.”

He added: “Let me remind you whose money is being used to do this… ours!”

So what are academies?

  • Academies receive their funding directly from the government, rather than through local authorities like other state funded schools. They also operate independently of local authorities and the National Curriculum.
  • There are two types: converter academies (those previously with ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ Ofsted grades that have converted to academy status) and sponsored academies (mostly underperforming schools converting to academy status and run by sponsors).
  • In 2016 there were around 5,200 academies open across all age groups. About 3,600 are converter academies. A further 700 are in development.
  • Evidence on the performance of academies compared to local authority schools is mixed. One analysis found little difference in GCSE performance between academies and similar local authority schools. There’s little evidence available which looks at primary schools.
  • Academies are directly accountable to the Education Secretary, while all other state-funded schools are accountable to local authorities. Both are inspected by Ofsted.
  • Academies are run by academy trusts and don’t have to follow the national curriculum and have greater freedom to set their own term times and admissions. They also have more freedom over employing unqualified teachers.

A 2014 survey of academies by the DfE found that 87% say they are now buying in services previously provided by the Local Authority from elsewhere, 55% have changed their curriculum, 8% have changed the length of their school day and 4% have changed their school terms.

In 2015, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee criticised the DfE for allowing academy chains to grow in size without independent assessments of their capacity and capability to do so.

And 17 sponsors had been formally paused from being able to expand further because of concerns over the performance of their schools by the DfE.

Ofsted Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw raised concerns with the government in March 2016 regarding the performance of seven multi-academy trusts.

He said that “much more needs to be done to reduce the variation in standards between the best and worst academy trusts”.

Back on the Sussex coast, the Tory MP for Hastings and Rye, Amber Rudd, who is also the Home Secretary, has not become involved in the battle over Castledown School, although she is a known supporter of academies.

But shadow education minister Angela Rayner MP is a vociferous opponent of academies and grammar schools.

Last September, she said: “Tory academy plans are in complete chaos. 

“The impossible job the Department for Education has set itself in trying to directly run thousands of schools from Whitehall is fully exposed as we learn over half of existing academy chains have refused to take on schools and 70% of inadequate academies have been left languishing with poor academy chains.

“Forcing all schools to become academies and introducing even more disruption into the system with new grammar schools will make this situation even worse.

“The Tories need to get a hold on this once and for all or it will be our children who pay the price.”

  • Parents have until the end of February to persuade Castledown School governors to stop the bandwagon towards academisation.

Press: Hands off Castledown! in the news…

Hands Off Castledown

They tell you the school’s not worthy

But sister they don’t care

They’ve got a new covenant

And an ark that’s going spare

 

Cain slayed his brother

Or so the Bible says

And Noah rescued animals

While wearing an Egyptian fez

It’s art for ark sake

Hands off Castledown

We don’t want mini automatons

In a world that’s falling down

 

They’ll be sacrificing the first born

So sister it’s time to care

They’re taking lambs to the slaughter

In the emperor’s new underwear

 

Cain slayed his brother

Or so the Bible says

And Noah rescued animals

While wearing an Egyptian fez

It’s art for ark sake

Hands off Castledown

We don’t want mini automatons

In a world that’s falling down

 

They tell you there’s no option

But sister you still care

They’ll try a cruel diversion

With a SATuration scare

 

Cain slayed his brother

Or so the Bible says

And Noah rescued animals

While wearing an Egyptian fez

It’s art for ark sake

Hands off Castledown

We don’t want mini automatons

In a world that’s falling down

 

The contract is worth millions

But sister you won’t care

They’ll be shooting up on anything

Because tomorrow’s never there

 

Cain slayed his brother

Or so the Bible says

And Noah rescued animals

While wearing an Egyptian fez

It’s art for ark sake

Hands off Castledown

We don’t want mini automatons

In a world that’s falling down

 

 

 

I died in 1988

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 I AM not frightened of death… I have already died.

And it was beautiful.

My death all happened one bright day in May 1988…

“Tell me how it feels?”

It was my mother’s voice; there was no mistaking that. I struggled to say something but a dryness in my throat allowed only a smile.

She clenched my left hand.

Beyond her the ward clock reported 9.30.

I drifted back to sleep.

Sometime later I again opened my eyes.

Mother’s own eyes brightened and, as if from her mouth, I heard my father ask: “How is it son?”

I was surprised. I managed to reply: “Fine, but I can’t move.”

The ward clock betrayed 10.10.

“Is that all it is?” I asked looking up at the wall, knowing that I had been led to the operating table at 8.30am.

“It’s 10pm,” my father replied.

I gagged… why had I been out for more than 13 hours?

Over the next three days my parents, surgeons and nursing staff gradually outlined to me the most telling day of my life: a day when surgeons worked tirelessly to remove two thirds of my right lung and repair a damaged aortic artery.

It was an operation plagued with difficulty and twice they thought they had lost me. But working straight through, they never gave up and used finely honed skills to take away the cancer and repair my body.

So what of my own memories…

I recall being taken down to theatre that morning, laughing and joking with the trolley porter and nurse. Whether the personal euphoria was due to unreleased fear or the pre-med tablet I had been given some hour earlier, I will never know.

I also recall being administered the drugs to send me to sleep for the duration of the operation. Again, my memory is that of lightness and love.

I also have vague recollections of waking from the operation momentarily around 1pm that day, seeing my parents’ faces above me, and then coughing violently.

It was that cough that tore the stitching between my aortic artery and the remaining lobe of my right lung.

And within seconds my chest cavity began filling with blood as my lung collapsed and my heart went into overdrive.

I was enveloped by dazzling white light and warmth. Faces swirled above me and I looked down on my own prostate body on the hospital bed.

I was drifting.

Meanwhile, surgeons, doctors and nurses fought to save my life.

Apparently I died for 16 minutes and there was no pain, no fear, no despair.

Instead, it was a rebirth of life and spirit.

The physical aspects of my rebirth have been a boring gain in weight and seasonal hay fever, which I had never suffered from previously.

But the psychological changes have been manifest: no care for a career or future, dazzling vocal dreams, spiritual awakening, ESP and hours of deep thinking.

My own NDE (Near-Death Experience) changed me forever.

According to experts, such experiences may encompass a variety of sensations including detachment from the body, feelings of levitation, total serenity, security, warmth, the experience of absolute dissolution, and the presence of a light.

Neuroscience research suggests that an NDE is a subjective phenomenon resulting from “disturbed bodily multisensory integration” that occurs during life-threatening events.

NDEs are also a recognized part of some transcendental and religious beliefs in an afterlife, dating back to the ancient Egyptians and Greeks.

Natasha Tassell-Matamua of Massey University, New Zealand, says that 20 percent of cardiac arrest survivors and between four and nine percent of the general public are estimated to have had an NDE.

“Those reporting NDEs often describe a profound psychological event that is mystical, transcendental, or even spiritual in nature; where the boundaries between space, time, and normal perceptual awareness become blurred,” she says.

Some who have survived an NDE describe an “out-of-body” experience and have been able to accurately describe resuscitation efforts.

Others have described seeing a bright light at the end of a tunnel, strange and other-worldly landscapes, or claim to have seen their lives flash before their eyes.

Now it has all been brought amazingly to life by the magic of TV.

Netflix’s drama series The OA, is a dizzying tale of Near-Death Experiences and inter-dimensional travel seen through the eyes of a once blind woman.

The series follows Prairie – a woman who lost her sight as a child, went missing aged 21, and returned seven years later able to see again.

As the series progresses, Prairie tells the story of how she ran away from her adoptive family to find her Russian father, only to be captured and experimented on by a scientist obsessed with Near-Death Experiences.

She explains that along with her fellow captives, she was killed over and again in a drowning machine to induce NDEs.

Brit Marling, who plays Prairie and co-wrote the show, said she first came up with the idea after speaking to a young woman who had experienced an NDE.

“When she described her experience, I was really riveted by the idea,” she says.

“She described leaving her body and the sensation of being above herself. 

“All concerns and preoccupations went away and the only thing that remained in her mind was this question: ‘Did I tell the people I love enough how much I love them?’ 

“It became that simple. Then she rocketed back into her body. 

“When you meet this woman, she has a kind of vividness and self-possession and ferocity that’s uncanny. It seemed like she’s really in control of her life.”

Researchers have identified the common elements that define Near-Death Experiences.

Although the features of NDEs vary from one case to the next, common traits that have been reported by NDErs are:

  • A sense/awareness of being dead.
  • A sense of peace, well-being and painlessness. Positive emotions. A sense of removal from the world.
  • An out-of-body experience. A perception of one’s body from an outside position. Sometimes observing medical professionals performing resuscitation efforts.
  • A “tunnel experience” or entering a darkness. A sense of moving up, or through, a passageway or staircase.
  • A rapid movement toward and/or sudden immersion in a powerful light (or “Being of Light”) which communicates with the person.
  • An intense feeling of unconditional love and acceptance.
  • Encountering “Beings of Light”, “Beings dressed in white”, or similar. Also, the possibility of being reunited with deceased loved ones.
  • Receiving a life review, commonly referred to as “seeing one’s life flash before one’s eyes”.
  • Receiving knowledge about one’s life and the nature of the universe.
  • Approaching a border, or a decision by oneself or others to return to one’s body, often accompanied by a reluctance to return.
  • Suddenly finding oneself back inside one’s body.
  • Connection to the cultural beliefs held by the individual, which seem to dictate some of the phenomena experienced in the NDE and particularly the later interpretation thereof.

The NDE stages have been noted for their similarity to the so-called hero’s journey in literature. Kenneth Ring (1980) subdivided the NDE on a five-stage continuum:

  1. Peace
  2. Body separation
  3. Entering darkness
  4. Seeing the light
  5. Entering the light

He stated that 60 percent experienced stage 1 (feelings of peace and contentment), but only 10 percent experienced stage 5 (“entering the light”).

Instead, they reported dream-like or hallucinatory scenarios.

These mental experiences ranged from terrifying to blissful.

Others, however, experienced the opposite sensation, with 22 percent reporting “a feeling of peace or pleasantness”.

Heightened senses, a distorted perception of the passage of time and a feeling of disconnection from the body were also common sensations that survivors reported.

So are NDEs real and is there an after-life?

The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement which dominated the world of ideas in Europe in the 18th century.

It included a range of ideas centred on reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy, and came to advance ideals like liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state.

The Enlightenment was marked by an emphasis on the scientific method and reductionism along with increased questioning of religious orthodoxy – an attitude captured by the phrase Sapere aude, “Dare to know”.

Yet, despite this mass expansion of education and reasoning, a nine-year-old child in 21st century Britain acquired more knowledge in one term at school than the average person did during an entire lifetime in the 18th century.

My great grandmother was born in 1875 and died in 1970, aged 95.

During her lifetime she saw the first motor car, manned flight, the discovery of penicillin, the development of the Atom bomb, the first satellites, and even man landing on the moon.

But she died before HIV/Aids, microwave ovens, home computers, colour television, the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station, routine heart and lung transplants, cloning, cures for many cancers, CCTV, mobile phones and the internet.

Our knowledge is ever-expanding and whether you are a rationalist or existentialist, there is still so much about life and our universe which we have yet to understand.

But one thing is certain…I died, but now I am alive.

 

Fans United will never be defeated

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ON 8 February, 1997, fans of Arsenal, Liverpool, Spurs, Chelsea, Charlton Athletic, Preston North End, Crystal Palace, and countless other English football clubs, mingled with Real Madrid, Eintracht Frankfurt and Red Star Belgrade supporters – all in their team colours – on the crumbling terraces of the Goldstone Ground.

They had travelled from across the UK, and beyond, to watch visitors Hartlepool United take on Brighton and Hove Albion, then rooted firmly at the very bottom of the Football League.

But, more importantly, they were there to stand side-by-side with beleaguered Albion fans, as our club teetered on the very edge of extinction.

With supporters fighting a bitter war against the club’s despised owners, home games in the 1996/97 season had been played in front of ever-dwindling crowds, and in an increasingly desperate and hostile atmosphere.

But this was different.

Despite the cold and damp of a foggy afternoon, this felt like a carnival.

The Albion players rose to the occasion, thrashing Hartlepool 5–0.

“We’d like to thank you for coming,” sang the Albion faithful to the many guests.

The story of the Brighton and Hove Albion’s fight against their rogue owners has been well documented previously, both by myself and others.

But the Fan’s United Day, was the sole inspiration of one person, a 15 year-old Plymouth Argyle fan, Richard Vaughan.

His simple message on a fledgling Albion message board, was the trigger:

“It makes me sick what is happening to your club, and it’s an insult to your fans. I’m a Plymouth fan and I think that one week when we’re away, I’m going to come up and support your protest. I think it would be a good idea if loads of fans from different clubs turned up at Brighton (with their shirts on) and joined in. It would show that we’re all behind you 100%”

Anyway, that was then, and this is now… well not quite!

This is a transcript of an interview I did with Richard Vaughan for BBC Radio Five Live’s Victoria Derbyshire Show, back in April 2005.

The transcript has remained buried on an old external hard drive, and the 20th anniversary of that Fans United Day, reminded me where I had left it.

This is the first time it has ever been published.

Apologies to Richard – who is now a married father of three – for the 12 year delay!

What are your memories of watching your first ever football match?

Compared to most other people I was quite a late starter getting into the beautiful game. It was Christmas time 1993, I was 12 years-old and the match was Argyle v Fulham at Home Park.

My dad took me, and my cousin came along who was down visiting from north Wales. Walking into the stadium for the first time I was really taken in by the whole occasion and was completely hooked.

What have been the highs and lows of following Plymouth Argyle?

There’s been a lot of highs and lows following Argyle over the last eleven and a half years, but never a dull moment. The first season in 93/94 we played some excellent football and really should have been promoted. It all came down to the last day of the season but unfortunately results didn’t go our way and we missed out on automatic promotion by just three points.

We then suffered the fate of so many other teams that have finished third, losing in the play-offs to a Burnley side who were a staggering 12 points behind us! I remember feeling completely cheated and thinking this complete miscarriage of justice shouldn’t be allowed to happen, it was the first time I cried at football!

The biggest highs of following Argyle would obviously have to be the three promotion seasons.

The first in 95/96 we were promoted via the Third Division Play-Offs. The semi-final second leg against Colchester at Home Park is still the best game I’ve ever been to. We were trailing one nil from the first leg so the pressure was really on. We scored the decisive goal with just five minutes to go which prevented the game from going into extra time and for the first time in their history sent Argyle to Wembley.

The whole place erupted at the end with everyone running on the pitch to celebrate with the players, I’ve still never seen a better atmosphere at Home Park. We took around 36,000 fans to the final at Wembley to see the Greens beat Darlington one nil, a very proud day.

The Paul Sturrock era at Home Park has to be the biggest high the club was ever been through. When he took over in 2000 we had fallen to our lowest league position in the clubs history. The crowds were at an all time low and were heading for the Conference.

Paul worked miracles without spending hardly any money at all he created two championship winning squads over just three and a half years! The first Third Division winning season would have to be my favourite out of the two as it was so unexpected, we actually won something!

At 15 years-old, how did you become aware of the situation at Brighton and Hove Albion?

I remember listening to Radio Five Live one afternoon back in 1996 and hearing about the York game when people ran on the pitch and broke the goal posts. I then started following the club’s fortunes every week and started reading the fans views on the internet.

Where did the idea for Fans United come from?

One evening I was browsing through the Brighton fans’ website which I had been keeping up to date with on a regular basis since the York match.

The whole Archer situation had really come to a head and things really did seem bleak for the club.

There seemed no way out and I just couldn’t quite believe that a club like Albion with so much history and fantastic support could cease to exist. Browsing through the web site there was an overwhelming amount of anger, sadness and support expressed from supporters of clubs all over the world.

It seemed to have touched every real fan in some way and something big really had to be done to make people stand up and notice how money a greed were killing this great club.

What sparked you to write the message?

I was so wound-up with everything that was going on that I stated on the message board that I was going to come along to an Albion match wearing my own colours to show my support for the cause and that others should join in too. As there was so many messages of support from other clubs it seemed the best way we could all show the football world that fans were united in their support for the Albion.    

What are your memories of the Fans United Day?

I was really overwhelmed with the immense support of unity shown on the original day, it was action packed from start to finish. We met up mid-morning with a few of the main organisers on the green opposite the Goldstone Ground.

Crowds were already starting to form everywhere, including people from all walks of the media. AFC Bournemouth were themselves in financial trouble at the time and there was also a group of fans from the club doing a collection of their own.

I thought this was really good as it showed what Fans United was all about, truly a day for all fans of football. It was amazing seeing so many teams colours, I think all of the 92 league clubs were easily represented, quite a few from Europe and a fair few from non-league as well.

The turnstile queues around the ground were huge, it was quite a wait to get into the ground. One of the funniest moments I remember was an Albion fan opening one of the emergency gates in the ground and shouting to people in the queue “Quick come in this way, Archer won’t get any more money of us then!”

A good few hundred fans managed to get in for free, nobody cared as this was all part of what the day stood for. The atmosphere behind the goal was immense before kick-off and didn’t let up at all throughout the game. It was really heart-warming to see so many groups of fans all mixing together and all in good nature, I think I even had a chat with an Exeter fan!

Did you follow Brighton and Hove Albion’s fortunes closely in the immediate months and years following February 1997?

Since Fans United I have always made a point of checking the results to see how Albion are getting on every week. I was really nervous listening to the Brighton v Hereford game on the final day of the Fans United season, I was going through the motions as if it was my own team playing!

The worst Albion moment was seeing you guys get promoted at Home Park it was horrible! Although we made up for it by winning the league the following season so I’ll let you have that one. I’ve also been keeping up to date with the ground situation at Albion. It’s an utter disgrace they still haven’t been given the go head to build a new stadium. The Withdean is no way near good enough for a club like Brighton. They could easily be attracting crowds in the region of 15 to 20 thousand and the current capacity is tiny.

I was annoyed with one of the Talk Sport presenters the other morning as he was trying to put Albion down for getting such low home gates, typical I suppose of the ignorant Premiership worshipers!

Have you followed/been aware of the financial crises facing many other football clubs during the past few years? For example: Bradford City, Notts County, Exeter City, Wrexham and Cambridge United.

It’s really sad there seems to always be a club in the news these days that’s in financial trouble. Something drastic really needs to be done soon or we’ll be facing a situation where the country only has two or three professional leagues.

There’s so much money being thrown around by the bigger clubs it seems crazy, Wayne Rooney’s wages over two weeks would probably be enough money to save one of the struggling clubs. One the best ideas I heard once would be to bring in a transfer tax in the Premiership whereby one or two percent of every transfer fee is kept by the FA and put into a kitty. This money could then be distributed around the lower leagues to keep the smaller clubs going.

What are your views on the financial structuring of professional football in this country?

The television money from Sky was improved recently but I still don’t think we all get a fair share of it. If Sky chose to show so many games in one league per season then I think each club should get their fair share of appearances.

It’s also quite worrying how expensive it is to get into a grounds these days. If prices continue to spiral our of control the way they are now the normal man on the street won’t be able to afford to go anymore which is a tragedy. This is one of the reasons the atmospheres in Premiership grounds with the exception of the newly promoted clubs seem to be non-existent as the real fans just can’t afford to go.

What are your views on the whole Fans United movement and how it has developed?

I have mixed feelings that Fans United is still going strong today. One side of me is very proud that fans are still coming together to try and fix the wrongs of the beautiful game, which is great to see. I still have to pinch myself sometimes that all this came about from one of my teenage rants one night over the internet!

The other side of me is quite sad that we still have to go to these lengths to save the clubs that generations have supported all their lives. It’s now a regular thing in the news to read about a club going into financial crisis. It’s now just a case of which one next. In an ideal world there would be no more need for Fans United but unfortunately with the way things are going this isn’t the case.

Do fans have the power to make real changes in the game?

Yes definitely, without the fans football is nothing. We’re the reason football is here today and the people making money out of it should try and remember that sometimes.

How does it feel eight years later?

It still feels very surreal that all of this came about from one night’s ranting over the internet. As I said before I have mixed feeling that it’s still going but it makes me very proud that fan power is alive and well.

  • Thank you, Richard. Thanks too, to Warren Christmas for the introductory few paragraphs, taken from his wonderful blog: The inside story of Fans United – How Danny Baker helped to save Brighton & Hove Albion FC

 

A Sublime Day in May

My paternal grandfather’s abiding passions were his vegetable garden, barley wine, horse racing and Newcastle United Football Club – not necessarily in that order.

But one thing was certain, enter his living room any time after 4.40 on a Saturday afternoon – once the BBC tele-printer was running – and there was complete silence, as he waited for the Newcastle result to come in.

Grandfather, or Pop as he was known, was born and raised in Throckley, seven miles west of Newcastle upon Tyne, the son and grandson of coal miners at the village’s Maria Pit. He was Geordie to the bones.

He had moved south in 1933, during the Depression, with my gran, my dad and his three siblings, to find work and a better life.

With his health failing, aged 86, he returned north early in 1979, following the death of my gran. He wanted to live out his final years on his beloved Tyneside.

All my life he had regaled me with deep passion about the pre-war Newcastle teams (particularly the 1926-27 First Division champions) and the three times post war FA Cup winners, with the legendary centre forward Jackie Milburn – the uncle of Bobby and Jack Charlton.

So we come to the evening of Friday 4 May, 1979, and I am sipping a large whisky with Pop at his comfortable new home on Tyneside and talking excitedly about the reason I am staying with him for the weekend.

I am enthusing about my beloved Brighton and Hove Albion and their end of season fixture at St James Park against his beloved Magpies.

He smiles, asks me to pour him another whisky – this time with a splash of ginger wine – and whispers: “Don’t get carried away lad, your team haven’t done it yet, they still have to encounter the Mags on God’s own soil.”

I went to bed that night with a huge grin on my face.

Saturday 5th May was our big day.

But strangely, it wasn’t the last day of the 1978/79 season.

A snow laden winter had left many clubs playing catch-up with their remaining fixtures, and we were going into our last game at Newcastle, at the top of a remarkably tight Second Division table, with just one point separating the top four clubs.

A win would secure us promotion to the First Division for the first time in our history against a Newcastle side in ninth place, with little to play for, bar pride.

So that morning, in bright sunshine, but with a chill wind in the air, I hopped the local train into the city.

At the station I met an old friend Pete – a Geordie with whom I had gone to many Newcastle games, while we were at university together in West Yorkshire. He had a black and white scarf wrapped around his neck and was grinning widely.

“Why aye, Nic, let’s do some beer,” he enthused, “There are quite a few pubs that open at 10.30.” And so we began a two man pub crawl for the short distance between the city station and the Newcastle ground.

We eventually reached The Strawberry, an infamous drinking hole outside the Gallowgate End of St James Park. It was (and still is) a pub for home supporters only.

“Keep yer trap shut inside,” Pete winked, “Or I am not responsible for taking you to hospital!”

The Gallowgate End or “Gallows Hole” was an historic place of public execution in Newcastle. In 1650, 22 people – including 15 witches – were hanged in one day.

The last hanging took place in 1844, only three decades before the first ball was kicked inside St James Park!

So I drank my pint quietly, to avoid becoming a 20th century execution!

Then, merry with beer, Pete and I shook hands and wended out respective ways to either end of this legendary football stadium. What followed, was the stuff of real legends.

The weather was sunny and dry as the game kicked off, in front of 28,434 fans.

The first 10 minutes was all Brighton as we attacked the Leazes End, where our 2,000 plus fans were gathered. We were dominating, and suddenly from a left wing Williams’ corner, skipper Brian Horton snuck between the Newcastle defence to bullet a header into the net. (1-0 Albion).

With Rollings and Cattlin immense in defence, Horton running the midfield, and Peter Ward inspiring, Albion began bossing the game. A few minutes later Ward let Maybank in with a clear shot on goal, but Teddy shanked it wide.

That was the key for Newcastle to up their game, and they twice came close to an equaliser.

But they hadn’t counted on Peter Ward, whose sublime mazy run through their defence and a directed shot, which somehow managed to cross the goal line, doubled the lead. (2-0 Albion).

Our football was expansive as the rain started to team down.

It was end to end stuff, before Ward fired at goal and Gerry Ryan poked in the rebound from a Newcastle defender. (3-0 Albion).

But the Magpies were not about to give up and they began to put steady pressure on our goal before the half-time whistle blew.

We were almost there… just 45 minutes to make history.

The second half was rocky in comparison as Brighton nerves made their way around St James Park. But the clock was ticking and when Alan Shoulder pulled one back for Newcastle, it was too late for a comeback.

As the final whistle blew, the moment (and the game) was savoured. We went wild as our heroes in yellow ran towards us, manager Alan Mullery ran onto the pitch, hugged Horton and joined in the celebrations.

Tears flowed, voices shouted, cheers echoed, hugs were exchanged and smiles enveloped every face.

We were promoted to the top flight for the first time in our history!

But it had gone to the wire: with a game in hand, Palace won the title with 57 points, we were second on 56, just ahead of Stoke on goal difference and Sunderland fourth on 55 points.

After the game I tried to find Pete for a celebratory pint, but in the days before mobile phones, and amid thousands of cheering supporters, the task was impossible.

A few days later, he telephoned me at home to say; “Where were you afterwards? We were all waiting for you in The Strawberry!”

But later that sublime Saturday evening I arrived back at Pop’s home, to be greeted with a smile, a handshake, a “well done, lad” and a very large whisky.

Pop sadly passed away, two years later.

I will never forget him, or that day.